When men find out I’m a feminist, many of them share the same reaction. They stare at me for a minute, then they start laughing. “Get into the kitchen,” they say, they are so overcome by their own wit that they can barely splutter out the rest of the joke: “And make me a sandwich!”
It is very difficult to criticise jokes, because so many joke-tellers defend themselves. They say, “It’s just a joke!” or, “Lighten up!” So why do I see them as so important?
Firstly, the “It’s just a joke” crowd fail to understand why people tell jokes. (Note: I’m also including one-liners, sarcasm and any other action based to elicit laughter as a response, as they operate in a similar or the same way.) People use humour to fit in with other people. How many comedians have described their humour as originating from trying to avoid bullies at school? Humour is an important bonding tool. However, in telling sexist jokes, the joke-teller (and the listeners, in laughing) is singling out women as different and not part of the group. This is more obvious when the teller and listeners are male, but some women tell sexist jokes in an attempt to differentiate themselves from other women, so they may be accepted in sexist groups. It is extremely disconcerting (not to mention depressing) to spend time with a group of people, having fun, until someone tells a sexist joke and you realise that they don’t see you as just another member of the group, but a woman before anything else.
There is also the fact that sexist jokes don’t exist in a cultural vacuum. Sexist jokes – and racist jokes, gay jokes and jokes about disabled people – are based on stereotypes people have about those groups. A joke about the shallowness of women wouldn’t be seen as funny if the teller and listeners didn’t already have a shared view of women as shallower than men. Furthermore, sexist jokes reinforce sexist ideas. Studies have shown that jokes aimed negatively at a specific group result in more negative attitudes towards that group. Furthermore, sex discrimination that is presented as humorous is seen as more acceptable by men. While telling sexist jokes doesn’t necessarily mean that those people will discriminate against women, it may result in less sympathetic attitudes to women who are discriminated against. This has implications not only in the workplace, but among friends and partners, when they experience sexism.
A further point is what I refer to as “sexism fatigue”. Basically, women are often discriminated against, with people judging them for their jobs, their relationships (or lack of them), their children, their clothing. Dealing with this can be extremely frustrating, knowing that you’re constantly fighting to be taken seriously as a person. When seeing friends, it is normal to want to forget about sexism and just relax. When people make sexist jokes, it’s a reminder that they don’t understand my life, and that my beliefs about my rights are seen as fair game for mocking.
I don’t believe sexist jokes should be banned – the right of free speech is necessary for a fair society – but people ought to think before making them. Some people feel that as long as they believe women shouldn’t be discriminated against they can make sexist jokes as much as they want, but this is a false dichotomy. It isn’t enough to say women should be treated equally in society; you have to actually do so, and in telling sexist jokes people reinforce the sexism in society and emphasise the hostile environment that women deal with, where their rights are seen as less important and more negotiable than men’s.