Subversive or sexist : the effects of perceived gender on interpretations of disparaging and subversive humor




Coolidge, Andrew Arthur

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The goal of subversive humor about sex and gender is to challenge sexist beliefs and to subvert the traditional hierarchy of gender roles. However, because of the sensitive nature of the topic, this type of subversive humor can be misinterpreted as disparaging. This study sought to determine whether the a) perceived gender of the joke teller has an effect on the perception of disparaging and subversive humor and b) participants’ level of hostile sexism and the tendency to perceive gender prejudice would influence these reactions. A matched guise experiment featuring digitally altered recordings of subversive and disparaging jokes about gender was conducted with 238 participants recruited via MTurk. The results suggest that participants high in hostile sexism were more likely to enjoy disparaging humor against women, misinterpret subversive humor as disparaging, and rate male speakers as more likeable and less sexist than female speakers. Participants with higher level of stigma consciousness (SC) were more likely to enjoy both disparaging and subversive humor than those with lower levels of SC. Female participants rated female speakers as more likeable and less sexist, but male participants rated male and female speakers equally. Speakers who targeted their own ingroup were not viewed as more likeable than speakers who targeted the outgroup, but they were viewed as less sexist. There were no significant differences in ratings of joke funniness, joke offensiveness, speaker likeability, or speaker sexism between disparaging and subversive jokes, suggesting that listeners did not draw clear distinctions between the two types of humor. Furthermore, subversive humor was more likely to be misunderstood as disparaging than the other way around. Finally, jokes delivered by a male speaker were more likely to be labeled as disparaging while jokes delivered by a female speaker were more likely to be labeled as subversive. Results were interpreted in light of previous research findings and the study’s contributions, limitations, and possible future directions are discussed.


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