humor

I am a huge fan of the television series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but I want to problematize some of the humor we often take for granted in the show. In a recent interview with Conan O’Brien, Charlie Day discusses some of the changes introduced into the upcoming season of the show. Specifically, about 1:30 in, they discuss the weight gain that Rob McElhenney (“Fat Mac”) accomplished in pursuit of a “funnier” character (image via):

Notice how Charlie Day and Conan laugh—freely and unapologetically—at the prospect of Mac contracting diabetes (especially Conan’s mocking “Go America!” response to the image of “Fat Mac”):

Continue watching the interview to the 4:45 mark; Conan broaches the topic of mental retardation contained in an earlier episode (Season 3 Episode 9: “Sweet Dee’s Dating a Retarded Person”). You will notice that Charlie Day seems more hesitant and calculated in discussing the topic of mental disability. For one, he uses the word “mental disability” rather than the more pejorative “retarded.” You will also notice less of an audience response, a less raucous reaction to the prospect of someone being mentally disabled than to them being fat.

Mental disability, as a largely ascribed status, serves as a less-viable source of humor. That is, laughing at someone who is born a particular way, or gains that status for reasons beyond their control, violates our precepts of political correctness. However, being overweight is often interpreted as caused by a personal character flaw (laziness, gluttony, etc.) and therefore an achieved status. Laughing at fat people, then, is not only socially acceptable, but often encouraged in American comedy.

This highlights the centrality of individualism and personal responsibility in American society. We hold the obese and the overweight accountable for their corporeal deviations. We tend to believe that those who are overweight (and those who contract Type 2 Diabetes) are responsible for their conditions. It then becomes socially acceptable to mock them. On the flipside, mental disability, as an ascribed status, is more likely to be defined as “off limits” as a source of humor. When it becomes a source of humor, as in this case, comedians must save face by saying things like “Nothing against the mentally disabled, but…” as Charlie does at the 5:25 mark—a form of hedging he didn’t feel obliged to include when laughing at someone’s weight.

Who we can laugh at, and whether we have to apologize for doing so, reveals larger cultural discourses, and analyzing humor allows us to understand some of the prevailing moral assumptions we take for granted.

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David Paul Strohecker (@dpsFTW) is getting his PhD from the University of Maryland, College Park. He studies issues of intersectionality, consumption, and popular culture. He is currently doing work on the popularization of tattooing, a project on the revolutionary pedagogy of public sociology, and more theoretical work on zombie films as a vehicle for expressing social and cultural anxieties. He previously wrote for the blog Racism Review and currently blogs at Cyborgology.

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A new submission is a nice addition to this old post.  The newest iteration of this gender-bending game — men in pin-up poses — can be found in the middle of this collection.

Dmitriy T.M. sent in this month’s cover of GQ featuring Sasha Baron Cohen, in Bruno character.  Cohen adopts a pose often used to showcase women’s bodies.  The contrast between the meaning of the pose (sexy and feminine) with the fact that he’s male draws attention to how powerfully gendered the pose is.  His facial expression highlights the ridiculousness of such a powerful gender binary (women look sexy when they pose like this, men look stupid when they do).

Consider:

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Commenter MB noted that GQ has some news stands have decided to cover the cover (as if it were porn):

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The interesting question might be: When we pose women like men, does it look ridiculous or badass?  And, if it looks badass, what does that say about the way we expect women to look and move?

For a similar project, see Yolanda Dominquez’s photos of “regular” women in “fashion” poses.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Every once in a while we here at SocImages pick a fight and a couple of years ago we sunk our teeth into satire and didn’t let go. Satirical humor is often used to expose prejudice and bigotry and it can be damn effective, as many viewers of The Colbert Report will testify.  But it’s also a risky strategy.  It makes fun of by doing; so, for example, it exposes racism by being extremely, over-the-top, no-one-will-ever-believe-we’re-serious racist. Except for… someone might think you’re being serious.  In fact, a significant proportion of political conservatives viewing The Colbert Report believe that he is conservative like them. They recognize that he’s trying to be funny, but they don’t think he’s joking.

In our effort to think more critically about satire, we covered Amy Sedaris’ hipster racism, Ellen DeGeneres’ CoverGirl commerciala New Yorker cover depicting Obama as a Muslim, covers of the National Review featuring Bill Clinton and Sonia Sotomayor, and board games.  We also featured Jay Smooth’s commentary on Asher Roth using the phrase “nappy headed hos.”

Now Anita Sarkeesian, of Feminist Frequency, offers another illustration of how satire doesn’t always work the way progressives would like it to.  She takes on TV commercials, arguing that ironic racism and sexism is still racism and sexism. Ironic advertising, she argues, allows marketers to “…use all the racist, sexist, misogynist imagery they want, and simultaneously distance themselves from it with a little wink and a nod.”  You be the judge:

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Tijana Mamula has put together a 50-minute video presenting all of the portrayals of gays and lesbians in ten seasons of the sitcom Friends. Her aim is to illustrate not just the homophobia, but the ease with which gently homophobic humor pervades the series. She writes:

The homophobic jokes, as they appear in the original series, are never violent and most often are not even openly denigratory; rather, they purport to offer an honest and “good-humored” representation of a common, socially sanctioned stance towards homosexuality. Situated within the wide array of jokes in any single episode, this homophobia tends to avoid provoking either aversion or anger, and instead prompts the viewer to be swept away by the hilarity of the situations.

It’s worth watching at least a few minutes:

Via Political Remix Video.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

I recently watched a reading of a play, New Jerusalem, with a cast of five men and two women.  One woman was a love interest, the other was an emotional, screechy brat.  By the end of the play I was so tired of the stereotype, I just wanted the play to end.

Thanks to Kristin, Christine, Amanda, Dolores R., Dmitriy T.M., and Nathan Meltz (whose awesome artwork we’ve previously featured), I am now aware that, coincidentally, this is the week that the California Milk Processor Board decided to roll out its new ad campaign. The campaign suggests that milk can save men from their cyclically bitchy girlfriends and wives.  Milk, the claim is, helps alleviate the symptoms of PMS (but see this take down).  And gawd knows there is nothing more annoying than an emotional, screechy, bitchy brat of a woman.  Their website, Everything I Do is Wrong, asks “Are you a man living with PMS?”   It links likelihood of PMS with the availability of chocolate, silver, and gold:

Tracks the “Global PMS Level”:

It suggests that women irrationally punish men for not knowing answers to trivial questions:

And purports to show men how to enhance their apologies with cheesy imagery and self-flagellation:

It’s overall a nasty soup of derogatory ideas about women and how unbelievably annoying they are to live with.  Though, as Christine wrote, it’s also…

…sexist in the way that they stereotype men as ineffective communicators, who are terrified of emotional women and the “feminine mystique” of menstruation because they (obviously) lack the faculties with which to properly negotiate any disagreements they might have with the women in their lives.

Here are some of the more delightful print ads:

The stereotype is ubiquitous. You can also find it at The Daily Cramp, a website sent in by Janine P. that says it will track your woman’s menstrual cycle and let you know when you can expect her to act crazy:

There’s also an app with the same gimmick.

And it’s been around for a long time.  This vintage ad for Midol, sent in by Jillian Y. and Lexi A.-L., tells women to medicate themselves on behalf of their “guy,” so they can be “good to be around, any day of the month”:

The problem with this stereotype is that it encourages people to see women as periodically irrational and also more generally dismiss-able.  It allows us to conflate screechiness and bitchiness with being female.

The milk board’s commentary on the negative response has been, essentially, “Aw come on, it’s all in good fun! Can’t you take a joke!” I get, milk board, that this is humorous. I totally get that. It’s also an offensive stereotype. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.

See also: menstruation masculinizes women, a princess with pms who threatens to drown the land with her tears, delegitimating Hillary Clinton with pms-jokes, and our previous post on gender and the rest of the California Milk Processing Board’s website.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Comedians exercise a curious privilege, which allows them to peddle controversial conclusions and uncomfortable insights without suffering the usual scorn and admonishment that comes with challenging systems of power or bringing indelicate knowledge about the world to the surface. For instance, the suggestion that Americans are deeply divided by race and class usually causes people to fidget, yet Chris Rock was greeted with laughter and applause when he unabashedly criticized the racialized wealth gap in the United States. Similarly, Louis C.K. received a rousing applause when he discussed his privilege as a white male, and Hari Kondabolu made an entire room burst into laughter by exposing the nonsensical logic underlying stereotypes aimed at Mexican immigrants.

But comedy is just as likely to reinforce stereotypes as it is to criticize them. Consider Jeff Dunham’s act featuring his popular dummy, “Achmed the Dead Terrorist.” In the clip below, from a 2007 performance, Dunham draws upon a number of stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims, many of which have been around since well before the attacks on September 11th, 2001:

Dunham is not deploying social criticism, but is instead uncritically drawing on racist representations for laughs. Arabs and Muslims, like the Achmed character, are typically portrayed as religious fanatics. They are often depicted as irrationally angry, even as self-proclaimed terrorists. But if they are dangerous, they are dangerous buffoons and are often too incompetent to pull off their own deadly plots.

Comedians can be understood as articulators of knowledge about the world. They contribute to the persistence of stereotypes at times, but can also articulate convincing arguments against them. This holds for other types of comedic performance as well. Political cartoons, comedy sketches, and even situation comedies all peddle indelicate knowledge about the racialized Other. For instance, in “Ali-Baba Bound,” a Looney Tunes cartoon from 1940, Porky Pig runs up against Ali-Baba and his “Dirty Sleeves.” The humor is constructed around a basic scaffolding of the Arab as dirty and sneaky. They are too primitive to competently use rockets and must strap explosives to their heads:

The sneak attack on Pearl Harbor the following year ignited a discursive explosion surrounding the Japanese, those living in America and abroad; for a time Arabs and Muslims occupied a relatively small sliver of American concern. It is striking how eerily similar representations of Japanese persons were to those of Arabs and Muslims. However, fed by photographic evidence of the destruction of Pearl Harbor and the tangible realities associated with the American war machine, dominant representations of the treacherous Japanese Other went further and faster. Each representation of the “Jap” became more and more fanciful, each illustration seemingly emboldened by the last to push the caricature even further.

Celebrated children’s author Dr. Seuss published a cartoon only weeks before the United States would forcibly relocate 120,000 ethnic Japanese persons living in the United States to internment camps. The cartoon depicts a buck-toothed, fifth column of Japanese Americans lining up from Washington to California for their very own box of TNT. A man scales the rooftop of the explosives depot “waiting for the signal from home.”

Or consider a Looney Tunes cartoon from the period, “Tokio Jokio,” which similarly presents Japanese people with buck teeth and buffoonish behavior:

Whereas the Seuss cartoon presents extant fears about a treacherous Japanese enemy living among us, the Looney Tunes cartoon lampoons them as bumbling idiots. In the Seuss cartoon, their tribal-like loyalties to the Emperor mean they are capable of doing just about anything, but in the Looney Tunes cartoon they are too incompetent to prevent their own Fire Prevention Headquarters from burning to the ground. Such seemingly contradictory representations permeated the American imagination of the time, alternately stoking anxieties while assuring Americans of their national and even racial superiority.

These racist representations aimed at the Japanese were not buried by the detonation of two atomic bombs over Japanese cities; they have proven to be free-floating and transferable to our emergent enemies. Today, Arabs and Muslims are routinely depicted in comedy as incompetent. They are again the bumbling idiots, simultaneously too stupid to successfully perpetrate an attack and just stupid enough to commit truly heinous crimes. The imagined fifth column has become the terrorist sleeper cell. In 1942 we feared Japanese Americans were blindly loyal to “their” Emperor. Today we are bombarded with ideas about the tribal loyalties of American Muslims. So powerful are these loyalties, it is often suggested, Muslims would happily kill themselves to bring about the demise of Western civilization. The fanatical Middle Eastern suicide bomber is the new banzai charger and Japanese Kamikazi pilot.

A joke making the rounds of the internet goes something like this: “A friend of mine has started a new business. He’s manufacturing land mines that look like prayer mats. It’s doing well. He says prophets are going through the roof.” This joke, Dunham’s comedy sketch, and the Looney Tunes cartoons all mark historical moments when the racialized Other became so thoroughly demonized and devalued in the public consciousness, our undifferentiated “enemies” became so feared for their treachery and immorality, that it became possible to make light of hypothetical and real violence perpetrated against them. One might speculate that it is strangely intoxicating to spot the boogieman tripping on his shoelaces, embarrassing himself, or dying by his own venom. The Achmed character’s tired threat, “I kill you!” is funny, perhaps, because his voice cracks like a thirteen-year-old boy, and we are entertained by the irony that someone so evil could appear so weak.

This comedy, which uncritically trades in the negative stereotypes aimed at Arabs and Muslims and is able to make an audience laugh at references to suicide bombing, is only possible because Arabs and Muslims have been successfully demonized and devalued. Comedians write jokes to get laughs, but they also operate from a space which grants them temporary license to openly discuss controversial ideas. Comedians contribute to the discourse, just as readily they respond to it, and their sets are just as capable of exposing hidden discrimination as reinforcing it.

Lester Andrist is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park, specializing in the role of social capital and personal networks in finding jobs in India and Taiwan and cultural representations of groups in indefinite detention. He is a co-editor of the website The Sociological Cinema, where a longer version of this post first appeared.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.


A couple of weeks ago I posted a vintage ad referring to Bolsheviks and an interesting discussion ensued about the difficulty of knowing how seriously people would have taken ads at the time they were made and whether the ad would have been seen as a parody at the time. We have a tendency to see ourselves as particularly witty, sophisticated consumers of media and to think people in the past were more straight-forward, credulous, and took things at face value (I’ve certainly been guilty of it), as though sarcasm and parody are recent inventions.

I thought of that when I saw the video Michael M. sent in. It was made as an in-house joke by a producer of commercials in the 1960s and makes fun of cliches used in commercials at the time. It’s slightly NSFW–there are exposed breasts at about 4:10 in, as a reader pointed out.

It also, of course, pulls the curtain back on the advertising industry a bit. As Michael says,

We’ve all seen parodies of the old 50s and 60s style commercials, but I thought it very interesting (and telling) to see it parodied at the time of production, in knowing fashion by the very people who make them. These advertisers were well aware they were selling a fantasy.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Angi S. alerted us to a cartoon that ran this month in Eastern Michigan University’s student newspaper, The Echo. It featured two people in white supremacist hoods in front of a noose hanging from a tree. One says to the other: “Honey, this is the tree where we met.”

The ensuing conversation is a good example of how claims that materials are racist are dismissed by their producers.  After receiving criticism, The Echo made the following “response” (here):

We understand the “You Are Here” cartoon may have offended some readers. We apologize for the lack of sensitivity some felt we showed for publishing the piece.  The cartoon points out the hypocrisy of hate-filled people. Its intent was to ask how can someone show affection for one person while at the same time hating someone else enough to commit such a heinous act as hanging. We wish to remind readers that they are free to express their opinion on our discussion boards and we hope to continue to foster free thought and open discussion on campus and in the community.

– The Eastern Echo

First, notice that it is a typical “we are sorry that you were offended” non-apology.  The first sentence acknowledges that some readers “may have [been] offended” and then says that “some felt” that there was an insensitivity.  It does not say that the cartoon was offensive or insensitive.

Second, it also explains that the intention was to point out the “hypocrisy of hate-filled people,” not make light of lynching, without interrogating the relative importance of intent and reception.  One could argue that cultural producers are at least somewhat responsible for the  myriad of ways that an item could be reasonably interpreted.

Third, it backs into the free speech corner by claiming to be open to all opinions (using the word “free” twice in one sentence).

The Detroit News covered The Echo’s response and also added that while one African American student objected to the cartoon, another thought it was funny.  So…

Fourth, the coverage relied on the idea that if just one member of the relevant group is not offended, then maybe the rest are over-reacting.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.