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Hypatia, Inc.

How Many Feminists Does It Take to Make A Joke? Sexist Humor and What's Wrong with It
Author(s): Merrie Bergmann
Source: Hypatia, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring, 1986), pp. 63-82
Published by: Wiley on behalf of Hypatia, Inc.
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merrie bergnann
How Many Feminists Does It Take
To Make A Joke? Sexist Humor and
What's Wrong With It

In this paper I am concernedwith two questions:What is sexist

humor?andwhatis wrongwithit? To answerthe firstquestion,I brief-
ly developa theoryof humorand then characterize sexist humoras
humorin whichsexistbeliefs(attitudes/norms) arepresupposed andare
necessaryto the fun.
Concerningthe secondquestion,I criticizea commonsort of argu-
mentthatis supposedto explainwhysexisthumoris offensive:although
theargumentexplainswhysexisthumorfeelsoffensive,it doesnot place
responsibilityfor the offense in the humoristor audiencethat enjoys
sexisthumor. I developan alternateaccountof the offense in sexist
humorthatplacesresponsibility for offensein preciselythose quarters.

For anyonewho refersto feministsas "women'slibbers"or,
betteryet, as "ladies' libbers," it typicallytakes only one feministto
make a joke. In fact, she is the joke.' The joke is complex, for she is
both a woman and a personcommittedto a particularpoint of view.
Women are traditional objects of humor in our culture (and in
numerous other cultures). We have countless jokes about dumb
blondes, scatter-brainedredheads,myopic wives, mothers, mothers-
in-law, lady drivers,and college co-eds. Becauseshe is a woman, a
feministis an amusingcreatureindeed.
The complexity of the joke enters precisely where the feminist
distinguishesherself from nonfeministwomen. For while she is un-
willingto acceptthe stereotypesof women's ignorance,irrationality,
irresponsibility,and so on, or to accept the fate ordainedby such
stereotypes,she is still a woman and hence subsumedunder those
stereotypes in the eyes of many beholders. Her challenge to the
stereotypes then merits serious consideration only if she can
demonstrate that she is an exception to the stereotypes, that is, only if
she can demonstratethat the challengedoes not come from ignorant,
irrational, and irresponsiblequarters. There are rich sources for
1. Althoughcurrentusuageallowsthat males,as well as females,may be referred
to as "feminists,"I shall use the termto referonly to femalefeministsin this paper.

Hypatiavol. 1, no. 1 (Spring1986). © by Hypatia,Inc.


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humorhere. I shall describethree.
First, if the feminist does establishherself as an exceptionto the
stereotypes,she may be laughable(funny, ridiculous)for just that
reason. Kantsaid that
[a] woman who has a head full of Greek, like Mme.
Dacier, or carrierson fundamentalcontroversiesabout
mechanics,like the Marquisede Chatelet,mightas well
even havea beard-for perhapsthat wouldexpressmore
obviouslythe mien of profundityfor which she strives
(ImmanuelKant 1960, 78).
It is a small step from Kant'sastutepremiseto Nietzsche'sconclusion
[i]t betrays a corruptionof the instincts-quite apart
from the fact that it displaysbad taste-when a woman
adducesMadameRolandor Madamede Stael or Mon-
sieur George Sand, of all people, as if they proved
anythingin favor of "woman as such." Among men
these three are the three comical women as
such-nothing more!-and preciselythe bestinvoluntary
counterargumentagainst emancipation and feminine
vainglory.(Beyond Good and Evil, quoted in Carolyn
Korsmeyer1977, 141).
Here, a womanis laughablefor not livingup to the stereotypes.
Second, the stereotypesmay be confused for fact ratherthan the
normsthat they are, and the feministnow becomeslaughableby virtue
of havingthe ironicallystupidnotion that she is knowledgeable,the ir-
rationalnotion that she is rational,and so on, whenthesebeliefsare so
obviously false. At the beginningof my first term of residenceas a
graduatestudent,a fellowstudent(male,I willadd)laughedat me when
I told himthat I intendedto specializein logic. We do laughat stupidity
thatmanifestsitself in the face of the obvious,andthe womanwho sup-
poses herselfto havecertainvirtueswhenin fact she has the correspon-
ding defectsis a case in point.
Third, there is the syllogism: everythingthat a feminist does is
somethingthat a womandoes; everythingthat womandoes is trivialor
ridiculous; therefore, everythingthat a feminist does is trivial or
ridiculous.Thus, consciousness-raising turnsout to be a fancynamefor
women's gossip and babble; a feminist is a frustratedwoman who
couldn't catch her fellow; and we are assuredthat there is indeed a
genericuse of the word "man" that appliesto females, as well as to
males, on the strengthof the formula"Man embraceswoman." Here


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memie bergmann

the fun is in deflatingspecific feministviews and practices,as if they

did not merit seriousconsiderationin their own right.2
The feministwho does not smile when faced with this plethoraof
humor may be dubbeda "killjoy" or worse. And what reply is ade-
quateto attemptsat appeasementlike: "What'sthe matter?Can'tyou
take a joke?" or: "It's all in fun. Where'syour sense of humor?"It
used to be said that women have no sense of humor. More recently,
the targethas been refined:feminists have no sense of humor. But in-
genious empiricalresearchhas disprovedboth claims.3Nevertheless,
despite her excellentsense of humor, the feminst still isn't laughing.
She, along with many people who do not identify themselves as
feminists, thinks that all this humor is a serious matter. It is that
thought that motivates the questions I am concerned with in this
paper, namely:What is sexist humor, the humor about women that
the feministobjectsto? and Whatis the natureof the offense in sexist
Becausethere can be no adequateaccount of sexist humor, nor a
fair estimationof its offense, without a prior account of humor, the
projectof this section is to providesuch an account. I use 'humor'to
denote episodes-situations, objects, words, statements and
stories-that are funny and that are producedwith the intentionthat
they be funny.
What makes for funniness?Thereis a family of theoriesof humor
that state that the sourceof funninessin a humorousepisodeis the in-
congruous, and I believe that this claim is correct. Although in-
congruity is explicated differently from theory to theory, John
Morreallhas neatly summedup incongruitytheoriesas follows:
The basic idea . . . is very simple. We live in an orderly
world where we have come to expect certain patterns
among things, properties, events, etc. When we ex-
periencesomethingthat doesn't fit these patterns, that
violatesour expectations,we laugh. (John Morreall1982,

2. The last example is from Casey Miller and Kate Swift (1977, 19). Roberta Salper
noted in 1973 that "the woman's movement has the distinction of being the only major
social movement in the history of the United States that is regarded by its opponents as
a joke" (Introduction to Female Liberation, quoted in Korsmeyer 1977, 152).
3. See the chapter on "Joking Matters" in Cheris Kramarae 1981.
4. Proponents of incongruity theories include Kant, Schopenhauer, Bergson, and
possibly Aristotle.


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On my account,an episodeor elementof an episodeis incongruousif it
is contraindicated by our beliefs,attitudes,and/or norms.(I'll referto
this clusteras "our beliefs.") Contraindicationby our beliefs is not
simplya matterof somethingthatourbeliefshavenot preparedus for. It
is a matterof somethingthat our beliefs prohibit:somethingthat we
believeis absurd,improbableor implausible,somethingthatjust doesn't
makesenseto us, or somethingthat we believeis clearlyinappropriate.
Whetherthereis incongruityin an episodedependsupon the perceiver.
Some incongruitieswill be incongruitiesfor a whole community,while
otherswill be found only by a subgroupof that communityor by an
The seventh page of a book that is called A Book is headed
"Contents,"andit containsa list thatbegins:"Words,numerals,punc-
tuation, diacriticalmarks, art-work(a trace), paper, glue, ink .. ."
(CromwellKent1970).Thatis an incongruouslist-it is inappropriate to
list those contentson the contentspage of a book. It is also funny. In
general,an episodeis funnyto us if it presentsus with an incongruity
that we attendto in fun. We are interested,but we are amusedrather
than puzzledor concerned,entertainedratherthan insulted.Manyin-
congruitytheoriesdemandmorethanincongruityin funnyepisodes,but
I believethat this is due to a confusion. Advocatesof these theories
mistakethe variousmethodsby whichhumoristsget us to attendto in-
congruities,and methodsthat are conduciveto our havingfun in doing
so, for necessaryingredientsin funnyepisodes.5I shallillustrateby way
of example.
Considersimplenonsensehumor:"No gnusis good gnus"or "Is this
Picadillyor is it Thursday?"(both from Max Eastman1937, 134 and
223). What makes these bits of nonsensefunny, while other bits of
nonsense-like "No lambchopseat good apples"-are not? According
to "hiddensense"theories,the firsttwo sentenceshavethe appearance
of sensewhilethe thirddoesnot, andit is thisappearancethatmakesfor
funninessin the formercases.6The firstowesthe appearanceof senseto
the phoneticsimilarityof "gnus" and "news," the secondto the fact
that the sentencewouldbe one of a sort that we runacrosseveryday if
anothernamesuch as "Kensington"weresubstitutedfor "Thursday"

5. Morreall (1977) and Max Eastman (1937) have been instrumentalin convincing me
of this point.
In this paragraph I have identified an incongruity without stating for whom it is an
incongruity. Here and throughout the paper I omit the qualification for whom when the in-
congruity is one that I expect the reader to perceive along with me by virtue of
shared community-wide beliefs.
6. "Hidden sense" incongruity theorists include D.H. Monro (1951) and Arthur
Koestler (1975).


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at the end of the sentence. Hidden sense incongruitytheories claim

that in all humorwe will find eithersome apparentsensein or behind
the incongruity,or some elementthat makesthe incongruityplausible.
Thus, the apparentsense behind the incongruityin A Book is that
words, diacriticalmarks, etc., are, in some sense of the expression,
"contents" of the book. Or considerDick Gregory'sstory: "On the
first day of integrationa black gets on a bus and sits on a front seat.
The driveris so angryhe drivesaroundtown backwards"(quotedin
CharlesR. Gruner1978, 13). Drivingaroundtown backwardsout of
angeris the incongruityhere. The apparentsense comes as we realize
that the driverhas ensuredthat, as in the old days, the black will still
be the last passengerto arrive.
However,thereare cases of incongruousepisodesthat we find fun-
ny but that do not have the appearanceof "sense." We laugh when,
after searchingfor a hat for a few minutes, we discoverthat it is on
our head, or when someone who has just completedcareful install-
ation of a burglaralarm turns and accidentallysets off the alarm.
Overlookingthe obvious is a type of incongruity-since anythingthat
is obvious is somethingno one could miss. Hence thereis incongruity
in such cases to account for the funniness.But whereis the apparent
In attemptingto answer this question, hidden sense incongruity
theoristsgradeoff into "hiddenmoral" theorists.7Hiddenmoral in-
congruitytheories maintainthat behind the incongruityin a funny
episode, there is always a moral-a point to the joke. The moral in
cases of overlookingthe obvious-or when anyone does something
that is ineptor stupid-is that the personin questionis ineptor stupid.
When we laugh at ourselvesin cases where we have done something
that is inept or stupid, we are taking the stance of an observerwho
concludesthat, after all, we are what we appearto be. In Gregory's
story, the moralconcernsthe stupidityof rednecks.Muchhumordoes
seemto have a point or hiddenmoral. Considerthe followingstory:a
little boy was
... left in the playroom of a department store while his
parentsshopped.Whenthey werereadyto go, he refus-
ed to get off the rocking-horse on which he was
mounted. It was time for the store to close, but he still
would not leave. His parents, the floor-walkers, the
managingdirector,cajoledand bribedhim, but in vain.
Finally a young man in the crowd said to the child's
7. The arguments of Monro (1951) vacillate between these two kinds of
incongruity theory.


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father "May I try? I have made a special study of child

psychology." "Please do," said the father. Whereupon
the young man stepped forward and whispered in the
child's ear. The boy immediately slid off the horse and
said, quite quietly: "Take me home, please, Daddy."
Afterwards the young man was asked if he would mind
revealing the magic formula. "Not at all," he said, "I
just said: "Get off that horse, you little or I'll
knock your head off!" (Monro 1951, 250).
The young man's method was certainly incongruous, given his self-
description. But this story also leaves us with a moral about the
various schools of psychology.
With a little work, we can attribute the fun even in nonsense humor
to hidden morals. Perhaps we have just shown our stupidity or
gullibility by consuming the nonsense. Or we may attribute stupidity
to the implied author of the nonsense. There are incongruity theories
of humor that maintain that disparagement is necessary to humor.8
However, neither a hidden moral theory nor a disparagement theory
can account for the funniness in the following story:
Jones, seated in a movie house, could not help being
aware that the man immediately in front of him had his
arm around the neck of a large dog which occupied the
seat next to him. The dog was clearly observing the pic-
ture with understanding, for he snarled softly when the
villain spoke, yelped joyously at the funny remarks, and
so on. Jones leaned forward and tapped the man in
front of him on the shoulder. He said, "Pardon me, sir,
but I can't get over your dog's behavior." The man
turned around and said, "Frankly, it surprises me too.
He hated the book." (Isaac Asimov, A Treasury of
Humor, quoted in George M. Robinson 1979, 6)
There is no hidden moral to this story, nor is either man-nor the im-
plied author nor the audience-belittled.
Neither the appearance of sense, nor a hidden moral nor disparage-
ment, is necessary to our finding funniness, but each of these may help
us to do so, by enhancing the fun in attending to an incongruity; and
so humorists, in their attempts to amuse us, may rely on one or more
of these devices. The appearance of sense in nonsense may interest us

8. These include the "superiority theories," of which Thomas Hobbes is the

best-known proponent. Monro (1951) contains several excellent chapters on these


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in the nonsense-catch our fancy-long enough for us to be amused.

Discoveringan apparentsense in an incongruity,as in the case of
Gregory'sstory, may add to the amusementor fun. It is like puzzle-
solving. Discoveringa hidden moral may similarlybe fun, if we like
the moral. And all of us enjoy harmlessdisparagement-even if we
are the target.Thereare othermethodsthat humoristsmay use to add
to our fun in contemplatingincongruities,e.g., tellingus jokes about
one of our favorite "naughty"topics like sex or sacrilege.Although
allowing us one or more of these satisfactions adds to the fun in
humor, however,none is necessaryto humor. All that is necessaryis
that we contemplate,or attend to, an incongruityin fun.
Wherethe humorsucceeds,we do attendto the incongruityin fun.
Of course, this does not always happen. For example, many humor
theorists have noted that our moods may affect our receptivityto
humor. If we are melancholy, say, we may be unable to accept
anythingin fun. (Althoughwe may still be able to say sincerely:"I see
that the story was funny; I'm just not in the mood for jokes.") But
regardlessof our mood as the humor begins, even the methods of
humoristsmay fail to achieve the goal of our attendingto the in-
congruousin fun if our engagementwiththe incongruityis not detach-
ed, in the following ways.
The incongruitymust not be a sourceof pain to us. We do not find
it funny when a man who slips on a banana peel is obviously
hurt-unless we desirehim to be hurt, or are indifferentto his suffer-
ing, or believe that he deservedit. We may also laugh afterwardsin
recollectingthe bananapeel episode, evenif the man was hurtand this
concernedus at the time. But when we laugh in this case, we recollect
the episodein isolation from his pain, as if therewereno painfulout-
come. We can do so, say, if the man is fully recovered,no longerhas
vivid recollectionsof his pain, and hence can laugh along with us.
Nor do we find it funny when we see the incongruousas a serious
challenge to our beliefs or norms. Philosophersmay find it funny
when they are told that "philosophy is systematicabuse of a ter-
minologyspeciallyinventedfor that purpose"(ArthurKoestler1975,
89), but not if they discernbehindthose wordsa gravequestionabout
their discipline.On the home front, our own stupid or inept actions
are funnyto us only if we are not puzzledby our havingso acted, that
is, only if we do not seriouslywonderhow or why we could everhave
done such a thing. In short, our confrontationwith the incongruous,
if we are to find it funny, must not simultaneouslybe the cause of
seriousor painful concerns.9

9. Bergson said that "to produce the whole of its effect ... the comic demands


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With that accountin hand, it is a simplematterto characterizesex-
ist humor. Sexist humor is humor in which sexist beliefs, attitudes,
and/or normseithermust be held in orderto perceivean incongruity
or are used to add to the fun effect of the incongruity.In the latter
case, sexist beliefs may allow someone to uncoveran apparentsense
behindan incongruity,to discoverhiddenmorals, to enjoy disparage-
ment, or to treatcertaintopicsas "naughty."(I am not going to give a
criterionthat tells us whichbeliefsare sexist. The examplesthat follow
are, I believe, straightforward.)I shall illustratethese differentways
in which sexist beliefs can play a role in generatinghumor.
1. Incongruitiesgeneratedby sexist beliefs. The funninessmy fellow
student found when I told him that I intendedto specializein logic
came from his perceptionof an incongruitybased on a sexist belief:
women do not think logically. Humoristscan rely on shared sexist
beliefsto generateperceptionsof incongruity.Hereis a descriptionof
a comic postcard: "Hyper-attractivefemale sunbathing with a
newspaperacrossher midriff. Headlinereads, 'Today'sSport' " (An-
thony J. Chapmanand Nicholas J. Gadfield 1976, 144).
Perceivingan incongruityhere depends upon having a sexist at-
titudetowardwomen.'0In our culture,thereis nothingincongruousin
a newspaperrestingon the body of a sunbather.Nor is thereanything
incongruousin a newspaper'shavinga pageheaded"Today'sSport."
Whatis incongruousis that the newspaperheadlineshouldreferto, or
label, the body that is shaded by the paper, that is that "Today's
Sport"is the femalebody in question.And perceivingthis incongruity
depends on seeing the female's body as a sex object. I use 'body'
deliberately,for it is clearlynot the personwho is labelledin this case,
and that is what is sexist in seeing women as sex objects. (In this

something like a momentary anesthesia of the heart" (Henri Bergson 1956, 64). The
point that detachment is necessary to finding something funny has been made, in dif-
ferent ways, by many humor theorists.
Morreall sums up situations in which we laugh (including those in which the
stimulus is not funny) with the formula: "Laughter results from a pleasant
psychological shift" (Morreall 1977, 249). It follows that in situations in which we are
pained, or puzzled, we will not laugh at an incongruity. Conversely, positive affective
involvement with an incongruous episode, as in the case where we desire that someone
be hurt, will enhance our laughter.
10. I distinguish between perceiving an incongruity and seeing an incongruity.
When from our point of view an episode is incongruous, we perceive the incongruity.
When we discern a point of view from which an episode would be incongruous, we see
the incongruity. I can see the incongruity in this cartoon; but I do not perceive the in-


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merrie bergmann

example,as well as in the examplesthat follow, the fun effect may be

heightenedby virtue of certain sexist beliefs beyond the ones that I
point out. For example,it may add to the fun if it is thoughtthat the
woman is a typicaldumb blond who didn't notice that she was label-
ing herself.)
2. Apparentsense or plausibilitygeneratedby sexist beliefs. Most
examplesof sexist humorthat I have seen or heardare sexist in their
relianceon sexistbeliefsto generatethe appearanceof sensebehindan
incongruity.This is not surprising.Typicallyfemininefoibles are well
known:women are spendthrifts,can't see the forest for the trees, are
sentimental,are illogical. The chucklesattending"You thinkjust like
a woman" depend on drawing our attention to something in-
congruousthat a woman has just said, in a way that simultaneously
"explains"why she has said it. Hencethe heightenedfun in a cartoon
showinga middle-agedwoman standingbefore a group of the same,
with the caption "I just wanted to say that I'm perfectlywilling to
serveas treasurer,providedeverypennydoesn't have to come out ex-
actly even" (Helen Hopkinson, The New Yorker,1942, reprintedin
Naomi Weisstein1973, 50). That is an incongruousthing to come out
of the mouth of a candidatefor treasurer,but it "makes sense" (is
plausibleor quite understandable),given commonsexistbeliefs about
women and money.
Much of the fun in the followinglines from a studentnewspaperis
also due to the "sense" that can be made of an incongruityon the
basis of a sexist belief:
MargaretTrudeaugoes to visit the hockey team. When
she emerges she complains that she has been gang-
raped. Wishful thinking.
The last commentis certainlyincongruous,sinceit is inappropriateto
the experienceallegedlyreportedby Trudeauin this story. But in this
case, the incongruityshouldbe a sourceof concernto anyone who is
sensitiveto the seriousnessof rape. The hiddensense comes from the
belief that Trudeauwantedto be raped.And this makessenseagainst
the backgroundbeliefs that Trudeauis sexuallypromiscuous(not in
itself a sexist belief) and that "rape is just a variant form of sexual
intercourse.""The last belief is clearlysexist.
11. The turn of phrase is from de Sousa (1981, 19). De Sousa's paper is my source
for the story about Trudeau (he found it in the University of Toronto's Engineering
School newspaper). De Sousa also claims that the joke is funny only if certain sexist
beliefs are held. It is one of a class of jokes that require that we share certain beliefs, if
we are to find them funny; we cannot "hypothetically assume" those beliefs expect to
find the fun.


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3. Hiddenmoralsgeneratedby sexist beliefs. Hiddensense, whenit

hinges on sexist beliefs, may often be turned into a hidden moral.
Whatgoes into "makingsense" of the episodeis at once confirmedby
the episode. The laughs provokedby "Women will be women" and
the eye-rollsaccompanying"Ah, the ladies" typicallydependon the
belief that somethinga woman has just said or done is incongruous
combinedwith the view that the episode is anotherconfirmationof
women's ignorance,irrationality,and irresponsibility.
This meansthat humorin whichsexist beliefs are not necessaryfor
perceivingan incongruity,or for findingapparentsense behindan in-
congruity, may nevertheless be sexist because it confirms sexist
stereotypesor beliefs. A joke about a particularwoman's stupidity
can at once be takenas a joke with a point about womenin general.A
woman says:
"Gee, did I fool that fellow. Imaginetryingto make
me pay him $5000.00 for a fur coat."
"But I saw you sign the check."
"I know, but he'll neverbe able to cash it."
"Why not?"
"I didn't fill in the amount!"
(David Freeman,quoted in Eastman1937, 308).
There are jokes about stupid men, but for effect they typically
characterizethe men as morons,as car mechanics,as politicians,or as
membersof an ethnic group of which stupidityis part of the current
stereotype.The fur coat joke-by virtue of the incongruityand the
apparent sense in the check-writer'sreasoning-may be funny no

I am pleasedto reportthatmanypeoplewithwhomI havediscussedthis particular

joke havebeenunableto see whatis supposedto be funnyaboutit. I offer the following
sitcom-typestory, wherethe incongruityis parallelin structure,to show why adoption
of the beliefs noted in the text mightmake the Trudeaujoke funny:
John's wealthyspinsteraunt gave him an extraordinarily ugly paint-
ing, sayingthat it was one of her favorites,and that she knewthat he
wouldappreciateit and that it wouldlook marvellousin her favorite
nephew'sden. Not wishingto lose his future inheritance,John re-
luctantlyhung the paintingin his den.
The day before the aunt comes to visit, John enters his den and
discoversthat the paintinghas disappeared.He runs to his wife, ex-
claimingin a painedvoice: "Thepainting-the one that my auntgave
me-it's been stolen!" Whereuponthe butler appears and calmly
says, "Wishfulthinking.The maid has removedit for a cleaning."
Thebutler'scomment,"Wishfulthinking,"is an incongruousreplyto a reportof theft,
but it makessenseon the assumptionthat it wouldbe a good thingif the paintingwere


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merrie bergmann

matter who is writing the check, but the fun is heightenedif the
episodeconfirmsa popularstereotype.In this case, the dumbwoman
is everywoman-and the moral is not to trust her with a checkbook.
4. Disparagementenjoyedbecauseof sexist beliefs. The statement,
"A feministis a woman who couldn't catch a man, " is incongruous,
given the real motivations for feminism. The statementis, for that
veryreason, also disparagingto feminists.Manyquipsabout feminist
goals or activitiesare similarlydisparaging.But it is not only feminists
who suffer disparagementbecauseof sexist beliefs.
For example, some people believe that the typical woman who
reportsa rape has not been forced to have sexualintercourseagainst
her will. If she reports rape, then, she does so in order to retaliate
againsta man with whom she has just quarrelledor, say, to relieveher
own guilt after sexualintercourse.Accordingto this view, the alleged
rapist is the real victim. Anyone who holds such a belief may find
satisfactionin an episode that makes a fool of a woman who reports
Lawyer inquires of a hefty woman how she could
possibly be raped by the diminutiveaccused. "Well,
your Honor," she answers, "I stooped a bit." (Chap-
man and Garfield 1976, 144)
5. Senseof "naughtiness"generatedby sexist beliefs. Somethingis
"naughty"for adultswhenthey believeit to be forbidden,prohibited,
or not spokenof and they also thinkthat indulgingin it or alludingto
it is harmful fun. For many people, premaritalheterosexualsexual
relationsare naughtybut extramaritalor homosexualsexualrelations
are simplywrong. Jokes about the formerare then fun becausethey
are naughty, while jokes about the latter are fun because they are
disparagingor conveya hiddenmoral. The prevalenceof rapejokes in
our culture may be due, in part, to the aura of naughtinesssur-
roundingrape for many people: it is prohibited,but harmlessfun.
I believe that a sense of naughtinessis needed to explain the fun
reportedin the following story:
... a Tri Kap brother decided to tell me the nickname of
the female mannequinthat hung by a noose from a
moose..... "Her nickname,"he said with a twinklein
his eye, "is 'The BitchSaid No.' " My silenceand glare
stilled the laughterthat threatenedto bubble up from
his belly. "Aww Maria," his frustrationwas not mask-
ed, "the trouble with you being a feminist is you have
no sense of humor!" (Maria 1981, 8)


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There are two incongruitiesin this episode: nicknamesare typically

names,not declarativesentences,andthe fate of the woman-mannequin
is inappropriateto the "offense" of saying"no."
We haveto fill in a littlehere:the occasionfor saying"no" wassome
sexual advancefrom a young man. Unfortunately,some young men
seem to believethat a womanis not entitledto say "no" undercertain
circumstances,for example,if she has gone to a man'sdormitoryroom
or if she and a manhavebeennecking.She is responsiblefor havingled
him on and turnedhim on, and she is consequentlyobligatedto satisfy
his sexual demands. If he forces himself on her he is being
"naughty"-he has done somethingthat is prohibited(she has said
"no"), but nonethelessharmlessfun (as in "Sheknewwhatshe wasget-
ting into," "She probablyenjoyed it," "Chickslike to be fucked").
Thissameattitudeof harmlessfun is neededto deflectanyserious,pain-
ful concernin contemplatingthe idea of hanginga woman who says
"no." The air of proprietyin the mannequin'snicknameis thenjust an
exaggerationor parodyof the naughtinessof youngmenin lessdramatic
episodes.Andthatsenseof "naughtiness,"whichmakestheincongruity
fun, dependson ignoringor denyingthe integrityof the woman.
Sexistbeliefs,then,can playdifferentrolesin humor.Whentheyplay
therolesdescribedabove,thehumorthatresultsis sexist.I wantto stress
thatnot all humorthatincorporatessexistbeliefsis sexist-in fact, much
feministhumorusessexistbeliefs.A feministcartooncontainsframesof
a womanin reflectiverepose,with the runningcaption:
If all womensecretlywant to be raped,you'renot a real
woman if you don't want to be raped. But since you
alwaysget whatyou reallywant, if I haven'tbeenraped,
maybeI secretlydon't want to be a woman [Thewoman
sits up.] I've got to find a shrink to help me get
raped.(Cartoonby EllenLevine,in GloriaKaufmanand
Kay Blakely,eds., 1982, 105)
That final statementis funny-it is incongruous,and the reasoning
that "leads"to the conclusionaddsto the fun. The sexistbeliefthat all
womensecretelywantto be rapedplaysa role in generatingthe humor,
but not by beingone of thebackgroundbeliefsassumedby thehumorist.
In fact, the moralto be drawnis thatthisparticularbeliefis stupid.The
humorhereis abouta sexistbelief,whilesexisthumorpresupposessexist
beliefson the part of the audience.
Beingawareof a sexistbeliefis not the sameas holdingit. Becausea

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merrie bergmann

feministis awareof sexistbeliefs,shemayseewhyparticularepisodesare

thoughtto be funnyyet neverthelessnot find them funny herself.But
whenwe do not find a particularbit of humorfunny,our stanceis often
one of indifference.Feministsand sympathizersalikebelievethat sexist
humoris offensive. In this sectionI examinethe natureof the offense.
Here is the sort of discussionthat often follows laughterat a sexist
joke. A feministwho is presentobjectsto the joke. Thejoke-telleror a
laughingmemberof the group (I'll use 'he' to refer to either)says,
"What'sthe matter?Where'syour senseof humor?"She says, "That
wasn't funny. It's offensive to women." He says, "But it was only a
joke. No offense intended."She says, "It's not only a joke-you are
havingfun at a woman'sexpense."He says, "Comeon, therearejokes
aboutmentoo." Shesays, "Yes, but theydon't belittlemen." He says,
"Of coursetheydo. Haven'tyou heardthe one aboutthebigshotlawyer
who putshis foot in his mouth?!I'm a lawyertoo, and I'm a man, but I
can still laughat thatjoke."
Thisdiscussionhasnot gottento theheartof thematter,namely:What
is it aboutsexisthumorthatis offensive?And it won'tget to the heartof
thematterif themangoeson to makethepointthatwe're allthebuttof a
joke at some time or otherand asks why it is that only feministsdon't
laughwhenthey'rethe butt of a joke. The questionis rhetorical,for he
has an answer: Feminists are too sensitive. They take offense at
everything,evenwhenno offenseis intended.Thisbringsthe discussion
full circle.She is offended;he maintainsthat no offense is intended.
Yetit appearsthatalongthe way, themanhasraiseda legitimateques-
tion. Anyoneof us canbe the buttof a friendlyjoke, andwe areexpected
to acceptthe fun in the joke in good nature.We do not havemuchpa-
tienceor sympathyforthepersonwhotakesoffensewheneversheor heis
teasedor is the buttof a friendlyjoke. Whyarefeministsso different?12I
stressthe word "friendly"here, for it seemsthat whethersexisthumor
can be friendlymay be the point at issuebetweenthe feministand that
In an article entitled "Why We Aren't Laughing . . . Anymore,"
Naomi Weissteinexplainsthe feminist'spositionas follows.
It is . . . extraordinarily difficult to understand what it
meansto be out of powerwhenyouraren'tthere.... It is
very difficult for someone not under personal or
12. There is a special sting in the claim that feminists have no sense of
humor;it is notmerelya descriptive
statementbuta criticalone. I havelongthoughtthatthe
accusationis not simplyone of oversensitivity,
butthatit is also one of dogmatism.Peter
Jones (1982)pointsout that fanaticsare characteristicallyhumorlessand explainswhy.
Thanksto Jones'discussion,I nowrealizethatthespecialstingin theclaimis thatit is anac-
cusationof fanaticism.


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physical threat to understandwhy someone else is so

nervous, so jumpy, so dumb, so slow moving, so "diz-
zy." . .. It is a commonplace in the Women's Move-
ment to tell men that if they really want to understand
what we mean by our total oppression, they should
"pass" for women for a day and see what happens.Ig-
noredin conversation,patronizedat work, hello-babied
by strangers,ogled in the street,followedinto buildings,
fondledin crowdedbuses, attackedin elevators;objects
of ridiculeand contempt, even the most neutraltrans-
action is usually accompaniedby abuse: "Hey, Dutch,
she says do we have any pork chops. Did you hear her?
Do we have any pork chops? Lady, what's your pro-
blem? Can't you see that we don't have any pork
As women, we live in a coercive,threatening,unplea-
sant world;a worldwhichtoleratesus only whenwe are
very young or very beautiful. If we become stupid or
slow, jumpy or fast, dizzy or high-pitched,we are simp-
ly expressingthe pathology of our social position. So
when we hear jokes against women, and we are asked
why we don't laugh at them, the answeris easy, simple,
and short. Of course, we're not laughing .... Nobody
laughs at the sight of their own blood. (Weisstein1973,
51 and 58)
To the feminist who constantly and continuously encounters situ-
ations in which she feels oppressed,belittled,and harmedbecauseof
social attitudestowardsher as a woman, sexist humordoes not seem
that friendly at all. A man who is not a memberof a target ethnic
group can typicallyaccept friendlyteasingor ridiculeas just that, for
he knows that it will end momentarily.On the other hand, a sexist
joke is not an isolatedevent in whicha womanis harmlesslyteasedor
ridiculed;it is ratherone instanceamong many in which women are
belittledor disparaged.13
However,this only explainswhy the feministfeels offended by sex-
ist humor. What if a person who finds fun in sexist humor makes it

13. A variation of this explanationof the feminist's position maintainsthat

women have been the butt of jokes for so long that it is impossiblefor them to take
these jokes as "friendlyteasing." Too many jokes add up to the messagethat the
jokes are quite seriousin theirridicule,or disparagement,of women. The conclusions
I draw about this variationare the same as the conclusion I shall draw about the
position presentedin the text.


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-~ii bwvgmwmn

absolutely clear that when she or he enjoys it, no offense is intended?

What if that person argues that the humor is merely intended as
friendly teasing or ridicule, that there is no hidden message of belittle-
ment or disparagement? It seems that the ends do not quite meet here,
if the feminist's position is that sexist humor is offensive and not
merely that it is felt to be offensive. That is, in any situation in which
sexist humor is shared, it can be made clear by parties to the humor
that it is only a matter of a joke. And if this is so, there should be no
offense felt in such cases. If a feminist does feel offended, it is not the
humor that is responsible for the offense. Rather, she is offended
because she is psychologically unable to separate what goes on in the
parlor room from what she experiences outside of the parlor room.
I shall argue for a stronger conclusion. The offense felt in sexist
humor is not simply a by-product of the feminist's psychological in-
ability to compartmentalize different segments of her social life or to
distinguish between friends and enemies. The offense is a real offense
committed by the person who finds fun in sexist humor.
Consider the claim that a particular bit of humor is only a joke, that
no offense is intended. Saying "it's only a joke" is a common way of
begging off responsibility for something that we have said or done,
even if it was not originally intended as a joke. In the case where we
say "it's only a joke" of a joke, what we mean is something like: "I
don't really believe that so-and-so is as dumb as she or he is made out
to be in the joke." We are begging off responsibility for any hidden
morals or disparagement that others may find in the joke. We are not,
however, denying that there is fun in the joke; we are merely trying to
confine the fun within respectable limits.
This maneuver of begging off responsibility for offense still leaves
the offense in sexist humor, precisely because sexist humor is offensive
in what it takes to be fair grounds for fun. Sexist humor does not just
incidentally incorporate sexist beliefs-it depends upon those beliefs
for the fun. The "Today's Sport" cartoon is funny only if women's
bodies count as sport; the story about Trudeau is funny only if rape is
desirable to women; etc.'4
Is the offense of sexist humor, then, merely the offense of sexism?
Certainly, having sexist beliefs is requisite to finding the fun in sexist
humor. But put this way, it looks as if sexist humor is merely a

14. Actually, this is not true of some of the humor I have labelled "sexist." For ex-
ample, I pointed out that the fur coat joke could still be funny if the check-writer were a
man. If a hidden moral about woman is not drawn from the joke, it no longer counts as
sexist. In the argument that immediately follows, I concentrate on humor that will not
be found funny at all in the absence of the requisite sexist beliefs. I shall return to "am-
biguously" sexist humor, like the fur coat joke, in note 15.


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symptomof whichsexismis the cause, and as if sexisthumoris offen-

sive only becauseit evincessexist beliefs. I do not believethat this is
the whole story. The offense of sexist humoris not just the offense of
sexism. Sexisthumoradds an offense that is additionalto the offense
of sexist beliefs, attitudes,and norms.
As Weisstein'sillustrationsshow, sexistbeliefs hurt. They are pain-
ful to feministsand like-mindedpeople. They are also the motivating
factor behind many painful and harmful situationsthat women en-
countereveryday in the social and political sphere.Sexist humor, in
takingsexist beliefs as fair groundsfor generatingfun, adds insult to
the injuryof sexism.To understandthe natureof the insultclearly,let
us returnto the bananapeel.
Recallthat if a man slippingon a bananapeel wereobviouslyhurt,
there were still several alternativeconditions under which we could
find fun in the episode. Eachconditionrequiredour detachmentfrom
seriousconcern, or if we were, we could still later appreciatethe fun
by recallingthe episode in isolation from his pain. But now suppose
that we had contributedto the episode, say, by intentionallydropping
that bananapeel on the sidewalk,and that the man wereseriouslyin-
jured. The episode is no longer funny to us unless we just are not
seriously concerned about his injury. We can no longer view the
episodein isolation from his pain and our responsibilityfor that pain.
(Here I am makingan empiricalclaim about psychologicallyhealthy
humanbeings.) If we try to find the fun in that episode, it is an insult
to the man we have injured.
The insult of finding fun in sexist humoris very much like this in-
sult, although it is not quite the same. First, let me draw out the
parallel.The person who finds fun in sexist humor is like the person
who deliberatelyplaces the bananapeel on the walk; both contribute
to the stage-settingfor the fun. In the latter case, the person con-
tributesthe bananapeel that is a necessarycondition for the fun. In
the case of sexist humor, the contributionis simply having the re-
quisite sexist beliefs. Short of those beliefs, there is no fun in sexist
humor. Moreover, the item contributedin each case is a source of
pain. But when we ask "Whose pain?" a disanalogyemerges. The
pain in the banana peel episode is the pain of a participantin that
episode. But the pain causedby sexist beliefs need not be the pain of
any character in the episodes portrayed by sexist humor. Those
charactersare by and large fictional, while the pains causedby sexist
beliefs are the pains of real people outside of those episodes.
Consider,then, the case of creatinga funny episode that ends up
causinginjuryto someone other than the participantsin the episode.
A professorcommentsthat he would like to live the life of Socrates;


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merrie bergmann

the next day a studentpresentsthe professorwith a bottle of hemlock.

The professor finds this funny, as the student had intended, and,
chuckling, carries the hemlock home. The following morning he
discoversthat his young daughterhas crept into his study and drunk
the hemlock. In this case, it would be an insult to the child (to put it
mildly),if the student,after hearingthe news and offering sympathy,
were to slap a classmate on the back and say, with a belly laugh,
"Still, it was funnythat I thoughtof givinghim that hemlock,wasn't
it?" It would also be an insult if the classmatelaughedalong.
The insult of findingfun in sexist humoris formallythe same. It is
the insult of finding fun in an episode when part of the stage-setting
that we have contributedto the episode, and that is necessaryto the
fun, hurts someone. I offer the hemlock example as a magnifying
glass throughwhichthe insultin sexisthumorcomesout in relief. Sex-
ist beliefs are not just harmlessprops for jokes. Wheneversomebody
tells or laughsat a sexistjoke it is an insult to those people who have
been hurt and who will be hurt by sexist beliefs, whetherthe insult is
intendedor not.'5 This insult is the specialoffense of sexism.

15. There is also the fact that laughing at sexist humor may suggest to
others that it is acceptable to hold the beliefs that are presupposed by the humor, that
those beliefs are just harmless stage-props for the fun of the moment.
Hence a person who indulges in "ambiguously" sexist humor (see the previous note)
can commit an offense even if that person does not her- or himself draw any hidden
morals concerning women, as long as she or he is aware that others might draw such
conclusions to enhance the fun.
The social functions of humor have been widely studied, particularly insofar as
humor can foster a sense of community of belief and values. Humor that communicates
certain values, in the sense that holding those values enhances or is itself responsible for
the fun in the humor, can serve the function of reinforcing those values. This has often
been pointed out in connection with sexist, racist, and ethnic humor: such humor rein-
forces sexist beliefs, racist beliefs, or unfair stereotyping of ethnic groups and is on that
count objectionable. Thus Korsmeyer states in connection with ridicule of women and
of feminism:
Laughter, [Bergson] claims, occurs in situations where the spectators
are relatively uninvolved, at least temporarily, with the subject of their
mirth. ... Whether or not all instances of laughter follow this design,
certainly this is a component of the ridicule that serves a political pur-
pose in the chivalrous resistance to "women's lib." It keeps sympathy
at a distance and allows one to dismiss the subject of laughter as not
deserving consideration. (Korsmeyer 1977, 148)
Korsmeyer's claim applies directly to the examples of humor in Secton I of this paper.
For further discussion of the fostering of community through shared humor, see
de Sousa (1981) Ted Cohen (1978) and Morreall (1983, 9). Wayne Booth's discussion of
the achievement of community through the use of irony is also applicable
to humor (Wayne Booth 1974, 27-31 and 39-44).


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Herethe argumentof this paperdrawsto an end. But it is clearthat
the argumentdependsupon another.AlthoughI haveclaimedthat the
offense of sexisthumoris not just the offense of sexism,it is clearthat
the offense of sexist humor is parasiticupon the offense of sexism.
Any personwho still does not believethat sexistbeliefshurtwill not be
convincedby my argumentthat there is an offense in finding fun in
humorthat reliesupon those beliefs. In full appreciationof this point,
I concludewith the epilogue:How Many FeministsDoes It Take?'6

16. I am grateful to Peter Jones for discussing various theories of

humor with me as I was developing the account in Section II.


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merrie bergmann


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