Sexist humour fosters the expression of sexist behaviour in the form of sexual violence against women
VS Saravanan | January 2, 2017
Humour is a form of communication. There are several healthy forms of humours which can be critical, reflective and constructive for the society. Unfortunately there is one form of humour that does not serve this purpose and has often been overlooked or trivialised. That is sexist humour. This form of humour in public domain is increasingly becoming widespread and controversial. Comedian Seth MacFarlane, host of the 2013 Academy Awards ceremony, made a sexist remark through a sexist song-and-dance number. Similarly, in 2013, Vice Ganda, a Filipino comedian, apologised for making weight jokes and rape jokes about a lady newscaster. Recently, the US President Elect, Donald Trump trivialised such humours as a ‘locker room’ talks. Sexist humour involves degrading, denigrating, demeaning, stereotyping, oppressing or objectification of a person based on his or her gender (Ford et al., 2015). Prejudiced humour is spreading and being shared in various platforms. On surface, these statements offer humour, but it reflects the existing prejudice and has detrimental effects on the society.
Different forms of sexist humour (sexist, racist, weight-based, misogynist, homosexual, wife condemning humour) is circulated and published in different forums of media and specially on social media platforms. These are disparagement humour at the expense of certain groups of people in the society who are historically discriminated against. Research has demonstrated that exposure to sexist humour can promote the behavioural release of prejudice against women (Ford et al., 2008). Their psychological experiment revealed that, for sexist men, exposure to sexist humour promotes greater willingness to commit crime against women. Sexist humour fosters the expression of sexist behaviour in the form of sexual violence against women. Ryan and Kanjorski (1998) found a positive correlation between men’s enjoyment of sexist jokes and rape supportive beliefs and self-reported willingness to rape women. Similarly, Romero-Sanchez et al (2010) found that participants exposed to sexist jokes reported greater rape proclivity (self-reported likelihood to perpetrate a sexual assault) than those exposed to neutral jokes. Psychological studies have shown that sexist humour in men’s popular magazines also influence sexist behaviour and sexual assault (Hegarty et al., 2016). There are no studies assessing women’s normalisation of sexist jokes and their acceptance to patriarchal hegemony.
If we think these humours are far away from home, we are wrong as this phenomenon is widely prevalent and deeply embedded in the social-cultural fabric in India. Recently a Bengali actor walked out angry of the ‘Comedy Nights Bachao’, a TV show because she was at the receiving end of the racist slurs. In a strongly-worded Facebook post, the actress gave vent to her feelings. "To my utmost horror, I soon realised that the only quality they (the host) found worth roasting about in me was my skin tone. It began with "aap ko jamun bahut pasand hoga zaroor, kitna jamun khaya aapne bachpan se? And went on in that direction. I could not believe I was sitting in a nationally televised comedy show in 2016 in Mumbai amid such regressive (I can't call it humour), and blatantly racist content," she writes in a post that has seen over 300 shares. Similarly, the Kapil Sharma Show, makes business out of mocking gender, body-weight, misogyny and homosexuality in the name of family entertainment. The show has faced controversy with poking jokes at gender based professions such as; nursing with sexist jokes. There are similar so called ‘comedy’ TV shows in other languages too (such as in Tamil; Siruppuda and Kalakal Comedy), which should make us rethink what we are laughing at and at what cost? A wide range of such prejudiced humour is also being shared and published in regional languages in India.
The social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and blogs have become powerful sources for political and cultural discourse and group formation as it can expand from zero to several million viewers overnight. In one of the Facebook page, someone uploaded a cartoon saying “every Chinese girl has to (it’s a rule) kiss her boss everyday (the cartoon is of a man). An immediate reaction from a man was ‘hahaha, we should employ Chinese girls in our office too’. Seemingly ‘for fun’ prejudiced comments or jokes are becoming the norm in such platforms, which is having an impact on creation and sharing of common beliefs, desires and interest or groups of defenders and supporters. Women are more often targeted in such humour and named as ‘spoilt sport’ and being ‘over-sensitive’ on opposing to such humour. Unfortunately, many go with the flow in enjoying such jokes probably unaware of or being indifferent to its detrimental effects on the society as a whole. WhatsApp functions at a different level and enables or disables in-group behaviour and acceptance. Many keep silent just to be included within a group and over a fear of exclusion and rebuke.
Women are trolled on their outfits, colour, weight and glamour. Recently, a woman from Lucknow, who objected to molestation, was beaten in public by unruly men in India. Crime against women in India is on the rise from 9.4% in the year 2011 to 11.1% during the year 2015 (NCRB, 2016). The distribution of the crime against women cuts across different geographical (urban/rural) and economic (developed/developing) characteristics of the states. The top 10 states/union territories reporting highest crime rates against women in decreasing order were Delhi, Assam, Telangana, Orissa, Rajasthan, Haryana, West Bengal, Chandigarh, Tripura and Madhya Pradesh.
While the top 6 cities in decreasing order were Jodhpur, Delhi, Gwalior, Durg-Bhilai, Bhopal and Nagpur. Under-reporting is widely expected, especially in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where there is widespread violence against women. India is a country with increasing rates of crime against women which includes sex selective abortions, female infanticide, domestic violence, workplace harassment and rape. It is very important that we should be more sensitive and should educate each other so that we are able to reduce this sort of humour and increase social awareness and sensitivity. When a crime like rape happens, it is followed by high level of sympathy. People are out on the streets with candles, however, attention is required to prevent and reduce such prejudices that cause violence against women in the first place.
Can't there be a humour without hinting at vulgarity or poking fun at homosexuality, overweight and women? Sexist humour leads men to believe that sexist behaviour falls within the bounds of social acceptance. Social media has become increasingly powerful tool as it reaches out to ones personalised space. Though this medium empowers an individual to express their opinion, feeling and to follow people who echo their grievances, they can become shattering forces if used in a sinister way. It is important that people should be aware of the prevalence of disparaging humour in popular culture and that the guise of benign amusement or it just a joke gives it the potential to be powerful and widespread force that can legitimise prejudice in our society. It is time to understand the price we pay for such a raucous laughter and the serious social structure that the sexist humour is fictionalised around. It is important for every individual to take a social responsibility and reflect on which jokes we are reading, sharing and enjoying.
Ford T.E., Woodzicka, J A., Petit, W.E., Richardson, K & Lappi, S.K. 2015. Sexist humor as a trigger of state self-objectification in women. Humor, 28(2): 253-269.
Ford, T.E., Boxer, C.F., Armstrong, J & Edel, J. R. 2008. More than “Just a joke”: The prejudice-releasing function of sexist humor. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34 (2), 159-170.
Hegarty, P., Stewart, A.L., Blockmans, G.E & Horvath, A.H. The influence of magazines on men: Normalizing and challenging young men’s prejudice with “’Lads’ mags”. Psychology of Men & Masculinity. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/men0000075 (accessed 10 Dec 16)
National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). 2016. Crime in India -2015.Ministry of Home Affairs, New Delhi. Government of India. http://ncrb.gov.in/StatPublications/CII/CII2015/cii2015.asp Accessed 14 November 2016.
Ryan, K.M & Jorski, J K. 2008. The enjoyment of sexist humor, rape attitudes, and relationship aggression in college students. Sex Roles. 38(9/10): 743-756.
Sanchez, M.R., Carretero-Dios. D, Megias, J.L., Moya, M & Ford T.E. 2016. Violence Against Women. DOI: 10.1177/1077801216654017 (accessed 2nd Dec 16).
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