Sexual Humor and Male Dominance

Michael Mulkay (1988) has examined the representation of women in men’s sexual humor by analyzing dirty jokes (collected by folklore re­searchers) and comic routines in British pubs (observed by ethnographers). The assumptions underlying men’s sexual humor, and the ways in which it represents male-female relationships, may function both to express male dominance and to support and strengthen it. Mulkay outlined four basic themes in this sexual humor: [14]

4. The subordination of women’s discourse—women must be silenced.

It is easy to find examples of male sexual humor based on these four principles. Currently, a popular format for sexual humor is “beer is better than women” one-liners. To my knowledge, they first appeared on North American college campuses, and spread to T-shirts, bumper stickers, and formal publication. Examples from a book include “beer is better than women because

beer doesn’t expect an hour of foreplay before satisfying you. you can try dark beers and lite (sic) beers without upsetting your par­ents. (This line was illustrated with a caricature of an African Amer­ican and a White woman.)

a beer doesn’t change its mind after you’ve taken off its top. a beer never wants to stay up afterwards talking about respect. (Brooks, Hanbery, Matz, Westover, & Westover, 1988)

In this humor, the male voice always triumphs over the female voice. “In men’s dirty jokes, it is not only women’s bodies and services that are at men’s disposal, but also women’s language” (Mulkay, 1988, p. 137).

The same principles operate in humor use as in representation. The mother whose young son came home from summer camp with the sexist joke described at the beginning of this chapter wrote about the issues it raised for her as a feminist parent.

Fortunately, this happens on a day when I am so exhausted that I haven’t the energy to get hysterical, so I behave calmly while I explain.

This takes a long time, covering—as it must—not only women, sex, fathers and daughters, racism, profane/pomographic language, and the telling and hearing of such jokes by men and boys, but also an expla­nation of why, really, this “joke” isn’t funny, even to him. Which he took in readily, having wondered what was funny about it, all the while laughing with a bunch of other little boys. That may be why he rushed in right off the camp bus and began to tell it to me, almost before saying hello. Maybe he was mystified by the story, by the experience.

Am I always going to be there afterward? Will I continue to be willing to explain? At some point, certainly when he’s older, I’m going to really resent this. I’m going to want him to be able to smell it coming like I do, to sense what’s wrong, and not to laugh—even at cost to himself.

I’m going to want him to do something about it, and maybe crack the glue of his male bond in the process. (Arcana, 1994, pp. 235-236)

This mother recognizes that in the telling and hearing of hostile, racist, and sexist humor, her son is being initiated into a dominant group, a group that has the privilege of using humor to silence women and negate their personhood.

Both the telling of set-piece jokes and the use of informal, sponta­neous remarks can further these ends and maintain control of ongoing interaction. Michael Mulkay analyzes these uses of humor by drawing on James Spradley and Brenda Mann’s classic ethnographic study of cocktail waitresses. In the bar under study, all the cocktail servers were women and all the bartenders were men. The bartenders had legitimate authority over the waitresses, but were also dependent on them. Men initiated and ben­efited from joking in this situation. They used it to reinforce their control over the women and deal with problems in maintaining their authority (for example, when they had made a mistake in an order). They made fun of the women’s bodies with such remarks as, “It’d look better if you had some tits. Who wants to pull down a zipper just to see two fried eggs thrown against a wall?” (Mulkay, 1988, p. 148).

For women, humor was a source of frustration because it was asymmetrical—women had much less latitude in what they could say, and they knew it, as illustrated by the following reconstruction of a conversa­tion among waitresses:

Rob made some reference about my chest.

Same here. But I don’t know what we can do to get him back.

Maybe we could all get together and try grabbing him.

That’s silly. We aren’t strong enough and they would just make a joke about it.

We could all ignore him, but that wouldn’t work because he would just pick at us until we responded. If we ignore him, we’re admitting defeat.

There’s no way we can get them back. We can’t get on their level.

The only way to get them back is to get on their level and you can’t do that. You can’t counter with some remark about the size of his penis or something without making yourself look really cheap. (Mulkay,

1988, p. 145)

Mulkay concludes from his analysis of bar talk that “men’s informal humor constantly denigrates women’s bodies and stresses their inferiority as social beings” (1988, p. 149). Lest we think that only bartenders do this sort of thing, it is worth noting that in a sex discrimination case against the Wall Street investment firm Goldman Sachs, an employee, Kristine Utley, testified that the office humor was a source of sexual harassment. Memos introducing new female employees were illustrated with nude Play – boy magazine pinups, and other company memos contained “beer is better than women” jokes, for example, “because a beer always goes down easy” (Косої, 1989). And the professor whose “humorous” memo about sex with women students opened this chapter provides another example.

In this sort of interaction, “I was only kidding! Can’t you take a joke?” is a common and effective form of denial when the behavior is challenged. There is evidence that the perceived sexism of harassment incidents is related to their perceived humor—that is, sexist incidents that were seen as funny were also seen as more acceptable and less discriminatory (Bill & Naus, 1992). Perceiving and labeling an incident as humor takes it out of the serious realm and diminishes its perceived sexist impact.