Should We Laugh At Sexist Jokes?

Ferdiana Hoti 🇧🇪
May 5, 2024

While many Kosovar citizens have declared their solidarity with George Floyd’s family and the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. that call for an end to racial inequality, most are at the same time closing their eyes to — or worse, laughing at — gender inequality and sexism.

A few days ago, some tasteless memes started to be spread on social media with one gender equality activist as the main protagonist. The memes were trying to make fun of the activist by using stereotypical, judgmental and false “jokes” about what a feminist looks like. A typical such caption was: Why is it called a parliaMENt and not a parliaWOMENt?

A lot of people who shared these memes argue that “it’s just a joke” and “it does no harm.” But creating, sharing and finding these “jokes” funny is a serious problem. Here’s why:

Polarizing and reinforcing stereotypes

Many people believe that jokes are harmless and are supposed to entertain us. However, there are a lot of scientific findings that suggest they can have the opposite effect.

Humor is instrumental, which means that it can serve different purposes depending on how we use it. In this case, humor is not used as a way to make us laugh, but rather as a way to marginalize us.

In a theoretical 2010 study published in Europe’s Journal of Psychology, the authors argued that humor can sometimes be used to make fun of outsiders and serve as a boundary function, therefore dividing people in terms of “us” against “them.”

In the Albanian language we have a proverb that says “stone by stone, you build a wall.” Similarly, joke after joke, you can create stereotypes.

If you portray feminists, or people who fight for gender equality in general, as people who are angry at unnecessary things, and if you keep sharing and finding these claims as “funny,” then you help to create a false stereotype related to what a feminist is.

Furthermore, those who already had such pre-existing views on feminism are likely to feel more comfortable when seeing such claims, and are more likely to end up with even more narrow or extreme views on feminism, as argued by studies on opinion polarization.

Normalizing violence and rape

A survey conducted with the Kosovar population in 2015 found that 1 in 5 Kosovars justified a husband’s use of violence against his wife. Earlier studies have shown that when men hear sexist jokes, they believe violence is a normal thing, even if the teller of the “joke” does not really mean what they say.

What the “joke” is doing, in this case, is reinforcing the perception that men have control over women and can use violence against them. If feminists, who stand against such behaviors, are laughed at for their activism, then we stigmatize them for their acts, while normalizing and supporting gender-based violence.

We know that #notallmen are the same. But in the same way, based on scientific findings we now know that such “jokes” can make people think that all men are violent.

Another study has shown that men’s amusement at sexist jokes is positively correlated to self-reported rape proclivity which is a measurement that demonstrates a man’s willingness to rape a women under the circumstance that they would not be discovered.

With the previously mentioned Kosovar survey also finding that almost 50% of respondents believe that women like to be raped, we see that the problem is not the angry feminist, the problem is the people finding these “jokes” and feminists as funny.

Oppressing those who already suffer

Have you ever thought about who the protagonists of most jokes are?

Most of the time it’s those who are already oppressed or marginalized. When people laugh at people who are discriminated against, what they are doing is normalizing their discrimination and oppression.

The problem is not the sexist joke itself, the problem is the sexist society that laughs and shares these memes. The problem is the sexism, violence, rape and harassment against which feminists stand — and for which they are being laughed at.

People do not like to see women raise their voice. People want to see them obey and be quiet. That is why, when feminist activists shout, scream and act against gender inequalities, people are uncomfortable and make fun of them.

Humor, in this case, is a form of oppressing these women by emotionally attacking them as well as a form of preventing other women from raising their voice by threatening that if they do, then they will be an object of ridicule too.

Who tells sexist jokes and why?

One study, which surveyed 387 straight men, found that people used sexist comments as a defense mechanism when they felt that their masculinity was being threatened in some way.

These men believed that by expressing amusement at sexist humor, they would appear more masculine and distance themselves from traits they didn’t want to be known for. By laughing along with this humor, they wanted to show that they are “different” from the group that is being laughed at — in this case, women.

The same applies to women. Those women who want to comply with the social norms of what a woman should be and look like (which, by the way, is again determined by men) find these sexist and anti-feminist jokes more funny, and they are more likely to share them.

Overall, these women tend to side with men because they’re worried about being bashed and made fun of as well.

So, should you laugh along with these jokes?

Every time you create, laugh along with, or share such “jokes” you should know that you are insulting millions of women who have been oppressed, raped, beaten or killed; who have not been given equal opportunities, not been given the right to vote, not had the opportunity to study or to work, not been paid equally to men, not been allowed to be independent; who have been valued based on their (sexual) history, shushed whenever they wanted to share their opinion, judged for the way they look, underrated because “it’s impossible to be pretty, smart and successful at the same time,” or sexualized wherever they are.

While humor is a way to easily get away with things, you should never make fun of someone that is oppressed by society, or someone who is fighting against that oppression. Not even if your masculinity or the feeling of belonging in the “in-group” is threatened.

There are many clean jokes you can make. Instead, try finding ways to use humor as a way of advancing gender, racial and social equality, instead of ignoring or normalizing the existing problems.

Deniza Miftari, Qendresa Gerlica and Diellza Iberhysaj also contributed to this blog.

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