Research Blog: Sexist jokes are for sad little blokes

by Hunter Kincaid

Many of the celebrities I follow on social media use their platform to raise awareness about important social issues. When the celebrities I follow are women, like Lynda Carter and Gillian Anderson, I fear reading the comments section. Each time I do, there seem to be small-minded men who feel the need to reword the phrase “bitch, shut up,” in as many forms as possible. Sometimes these comments are violently sexist in their attempt to harass women, but most often the men try and pass off their insults as humor. While male celebs I follow do face some nonsense in the comment section, few can compare to the sexism I see towards women. Why in the face of powerful women speaking their minds are some men so easily reduced to being sexist trash monsters? #MasculinitySoFragile

In modern times where few people want to be labeled as sexist, disparaging humor offers someone the chance to more subtly express prejudice without feeling that they are doing something socially unacceptable. Often the term “it’s just a joke” is used as a cover: whatever offensive thing has been said shouldn’t be taken seriously. But really we know that these “jokes” can do a lot of harm, and it turns out that they also hold the power to make the joker feel better about himself on a deeper psychological level.

Researchers, Emma O’Connor and Noely Banos,[1] wondered whether men might use sexist humor or harassment as a way to restore feelings about their own masculinity when they are insecure. They thought that men with more rigid beliefs about masculinity (like believing, “it is fairly easy for a man to lose his status as a man”) would be more likely to use this strategy than men with more progressive masculinity beliefs (ideas like, “women don’t seek to gain power by controlling men”). In other words, they thought that seeing powerful women taking charge and leading others might make sexist men feel insignificant and weak. On social media this could mean their masculinity becomes threatened since the celebrity they disagree with ultimately has more power to influence the world…even though they are a woman *gasp*

The researchers conducted a really cool experiment where men’s masculinity was threatened in order to see how that affected their response to sexist jokes. They found 166 straight men (aged 18-67) online who filled out a series of questionnaires. First, the men filled out various measures on their beliefs about masculinity, how important masculinity was to them personally, and if they had any anti-gay attitudes.

Then, in order to trigger the threat to masculinity, participants answered a series of questions about their own personality. After answering, the researchers randomly selected half the participants and told them that the questions measured femininity and masculinity, but they were not told how they scored on the measure (control condition). The other participants were told that their responses to the questions were classified as feminine (this was the threatened masculinity condition). All participants were then asked to rate how funny a series of jokes were. Some of the jokes were sexist, anti-gay, or racist. Afterwards, the participants were asked how much their joke ratings would help give someone an accurate impression of who they were.

It turns out, the men who had more rigid beliefs about masculinity found the sexist and anti-gay jokes to be funnier in the threatened masculinity condition than the men in the control condition. Men with rigid beliefs were also more likely to believe that their ratings of sexist and anti-gay jokes would help someone form an accurate impression of them. So, it seems like men with more rigid beliefs about masculinity specifically found the sexist/anti-gay humor to be funnier after receiving a threat to their masculinity because of a belief that it would restore an accurate impression of themselves. In other words, when they felt they weren’t living up to the traditional ideals of masculinity, sexist jokes helped them feel better about who they are as a man in the eyes of themselves and others. Men with progressive views about masculinity were far less likely to feel benefits from sexist humor, in addition to being less likely to use sexist humor overall.

So now when I check the comment section of my idols on social media I have a better idea of what is going on behind the sexist comments from wounded men and pay less attention to what they actually say. As Rupaul would say, “what other people think about me is none of my business.” Their sexist jokes likely just tell us that they feel they can’t live up to society’s strict social mandates for masculinity and what it means to be a man. But masculinity is more than dominance and superiority. Combatting sexist and anti-gay humor requires addressing these issues directly and opening up acceptable pathways for boys and men (and all people) to engage with masculinity in positive ways. Society teaches us that masculinity equals strength, but this research suggests masculinity is quite fragile. So let’s break it down and rebuild it for us all.

[1] O’Connor, E. C., Ford, T. E., & Banos, N. C. (2017). Restoring Threatened Masculinity: The Appeal of Sexist and Anti-Gay Humor. Sex Roles, 77, 567-580, doi: 10.1007/s11199-017-0761-z.

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