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A while back, I wrote about gender and maths and how we must encourage our little girls to dance to the song of Algebra. This was written in response to a largely circulated picture on social media joking about women’s inability to do complicated maths. My story was mostly well received. But, there were a couple of snide remarks that pointed out that, I was simply overthinking. One of them advised, “Please learn to enjoy a joke”.

I have heard this before.

At an event in a leading school in northern India, a couple of 10-yearolds enacted a play. In the play, the “man of the house”, played by my nephew, asked, “What’s for dinner?” A little girl, who wore a beautiful sari and played the part of the “wife”, said something about making an Indian delicacy. My nephew, with a cute cherubic face responded, “You anyway make a mess of every dish.” His remark, had the entire audience in splits. Needless to say, it didn’t go down well with me.

While, this was an innocent play and the kids were playing their part for nothing more than fun, a quiet signal had been sent about probable adult roles they might play. Most of all, kids learnt without being taught that sexist humour is a not a bad thing and it goes on to show how humour is embedded so deeply into gender disparity.

The acceptance of sexist humour leads men to believe that sexist behaviour falls within the bounds of social acceptability.

- Thomas E. Ford, psychology professor

Jokes such as these are something women learn to take in their stride very early on. Jokes at their expense with respect to their size, colour, looks, cooking, intelligence — everything. Women learn to laugh at themselves slowly over a period of time. We laugh so hard that, we no longer understand if it hurts.

We condition ourselves that a bit of humour wouldn’t touch us or is it simply a laughter of resignation or defeat or who knows. What about the long-term effects these seemingly “harmless” comments have on women? Have they been considered? Do these quips make women less confident? Or do these jokes make women put up with certain attitudes or are women sending wrong signals to men?

Sexist joke is a reflection of a broader problem


In a 2007 study by psychology professor Thomas E. Ford, sexist humour was shown to “release” sexist behaviour in men who held hostile sexist views. “The acceptance of sexist humour leads men to believe that sexist behaviour falls within the bounds of social acceptability,” Ford wrote.

In the popular magazine, Psychology Today, Dara Greenwood, a professor of psychology, says that telling or appreciating a sexist joke or a story that is offensive is a reflection of a broader problem. In this era of “MeToo” movement, it is not too trivial to dismiss away. It is never “just a joke”, the professor says, it is an endorsement of the attitude.

Jokes are not always about laughter. People often express any hostility masking it with a great deal of humour. Want to say something bad — say it gently with a chuckle and it still gets conveyed. Such humour is not just toxic, it is also a tough ground to navigate. While men enjoy these jokes, there are a good number of women, who join them too — not wanting to be alienated.

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Greg Murray, professor of political science at Augusta University, Georgia, in an article talks about how humour binds people together. “Laughter is contagious”, he writes, “people who laugh together, bind together,” which is important to note. Naturally, there is a compelling need for women to belong to the “Boys club”, and the humour makes us believe that we are not meant to take these sexist quips seriously. However, research shows that, women who enjoy such attitudes not only endorse certain behaviour but also are less likely to confront the person because, we don’t want to be labelled, ‘over-sensitive’. We would rather play along.

Well, it is about time. We need to reassess the way humour is aimed at women because, let us face it — nobody likes to be laughed at. It is time, we bring certain decency to humour. Let us take a stance and say, “It is not funny to make jokes about women’s body or intelligence”. If we don’t, we only encourage the inherent sexism in humour. Why be afraid in this era of MeToo? Why not stand together? It may be a micro-fixing of a pandemic. Let us stand in this, one joke at a time and fix it, because, if we don’t, we may also quieten those who are nursing a wound.

And, to all those who think how I overthink certain jokes, here’s the thing. I am proud of my gender. I don’t like to be laughed at. Call be sensitive but I am acutely aware that, if I am raising my child for a world of gender parity, I will stand up for myself and also tell my child why one should never laugh at sexist humour.

— Sudha Subramanian is an author and freelance writer based in Dubai. Twitter: @sudhasubraman