That Wasn’t Funny! Sexist Jokes and Masculinity

Photo: Agencia Uno

There are questions that urgently need asking. What is the role of sexist humor in the construction of masculine codes of conduct? How do men, women and people with gender differences question this humor?

By Nicolas Celis Valderrama* (The Clinic)

HAVANA TIMES – During the first week of May, a cameraman who was arranging the microphones for Santiago’s female mayor minutes before an interview, whispered in her ear: “Don’t worry Mayor, I’m going to put them in slowly, just like last night.” The next day, the worker was fired for sexual harassment.

When interviewed by the press, he accepted that the joke was in bad taste, but stated he’d made it unthinkingly, in the context of humor, and as soon as he’d spoken he understood that he’d committed a serious mistake and immediately asked to be forgiven. “I said: ‘Ooops! Excuse me, Mayor, it slipped out. It’s something we cameramen say when we’re talking to each other. She responded: ‘I beg your pardon?’ ‘No I’m sorry’, I repeated. ‘I said words that weren’t appropriate.’”

It’s clear that a joke isn’t only intended to draw laughter. It’s also a way – be it sophisticated or just crude – to subtly communicate different prejudices, sexual attitudes, and hidden intentions, or to bring up jokes that were originally forged in particular contexts. In some codes of manhood, jokes represent a propitious moment to coordinate certain gestures and words. For example, to whisper sexual jokes in the ear; to make hurtful comments via phrases with double meanings, accompanied by mocking smiles; to utter obscene back-alley remarks which go from undesired to lewd; and to make distasteful jokes by gesturing at the genitals.

All these form part of a set of words and gestures that mark much of the masculine world: where hands are pressed until the bones crack, wrists are twisted, cheeks or thighs are rubbed, all kinds of little blows are given at the moment of greeting, lusting looks or unwelcome hugs are forced. The social world recognizes the meaning of those attitudes, but the type of response such behavior merits is still a matter for argument.

As a result, there are questions that at this stage of the game urgently need asking. What is the role of sexist humor in the construction of masculine codes of behavior? How do men, women and the gender diverse question this type of humor? Such humor not only reveals and reflects existing sex and gender stereotypes, but it also produces them. Sexist humor is usually spoken, but it also uses objects and has a corporal element. For humor to function as a producer of stereotypes there must be a person that acts as the broadcaster, charged with deciding who to exalt and who to disparage with their actions. There must also exist a receiving audience for the humor, who will take some position regarding its interpretation.

The process described above takes place within a particular cultural context and involves people with different social positions within that context. None of these roles and functions belong to a natural order, rather they’re changeable and historically situated.

Hence, humor doesn’t only seek to generate laughter, and in its sexist variant it seeks to generate social relations among people. It’s used for sexual harassment; it exalts and normalizes sexual energy and power; it offends and describes in detail diverse body types; it uses metaphors for the genitals; it celebrates sexual triumphs and denigrates its failures; it names, classifies and conditions the pleasures and desires that each gender “should” engage in; it mitigates or justifies – with or without metaphors – the use of violence as a way of expressing sexuality, among many other things.

There’s no doubt that the patriarchal regime crosses over diverse forms of masculinity: it moves across racial coordinates, as well as those of social class, age, work, sexuality, body type, among others. These coordinates define the forms of masculinity, the tensions, and the reaffirmations. The processes we’re currently experiencing in Chile, on our continent, and in parts of the western world, have opened a broad spectrum of conflictive and even antagonistic relations regarding different gender attitudes and identities, among forms of sexuality and corporality. They’ve also involved intense frictions “inside” the camp of masculinity itself, in its plurality as in its diversity.

All the functions and roles of sexist humor should be questioned: as a producer, or an agent, and for the recipients or audience. It’s urgent that this type of humor be challenged, since it responds to a complex system of subordination and exclusion where some deep dimensions of masculine identities are revealed, along with their symbolic and institutional positioning, and the webs of hierarchies and dominations that have historically justified and sustained these positions.

In this moment of transformation of the sexual and gender apparatus, no masculinity will be left unscathed in sexist humor. However, it’s clear there are multiple ways of confronting these transformation processes, including words of criticism, while others justify or celebrate them. Some seek emancipation, while others will reproduce the old attitudes even more cruelly than before. Today, as in the past, within the forms of masculinity, there are various ways to react to events like the one sparked by the cameraman’s words and actions towards the female mayor: these reactions coexist and confront other subjectivities.

Nonetheless, in contrast to the past, there’s no longer any doubt that many expressions, like those articulated in sexist humor are a way of creating or fortifying a regimen of gender disparagement that implies at least two conditions. On the one hand, it configures social and private spaces where women, the gender diverse, or others who don’t follow the stereotypical canons are belittled and attacked. On the other hand, it also seeks to establish norms of masculine behavior that not everyone is willing anymore to continue reproducing. I’m not saying that these are the only ones, or that one such condition is above another. They both coexist, but in the face of the above reflections, it’s vital that we clarify the positions that each person will take.

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*Nicolas Celis Valderrama (1984) is a professor and historian, who serves as research coordinator at the CEIIES-University of the Americas. He’s currently working towards a doctorate in history at Chile’s Pontificia Universidad. His area of interest is the history of sexuality and masculinity in Chile.

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