Academic journal article Women and Language

Is Feminist Humor an Oxymoron?

Academic journal article Women and Language

Is Feminist Humor an Oxymoron?

Article excerpt

Abstract: Is the subject of feminist humor male oppression or a celebration of the female experience? This paper argues for the latter and suggests that inclusive jokes can be more effectively subversive than divisive ones. As long as women's jokes focus on men, male definitions, and male behavior, women are marginalizing females, even if their jokes target males. In addition, divisive jokes can strengthen prevailing beliefs about essential female-male differences. However, when straight feminists make jokes and laugh about the shared experiences of females rather than on oppressive male behavior, then feminist humor, like lesbian humor, becomes an agent for change.


What is "feminist humor" and what is a "feminist joke"? For those unsympathetic to feminism, the term feminist humor suggests male-hashing jokes by angry women, a definition most feminists would reject. Yet even feminists do not always agree. Kaufman and Blakley suggest that feminist humor is the humor of the oppressed:

   Feminist humor is based on the perception
   that societies have generally been organized as
   systems of oppression and exploitation, and that
   the largest (but not the only) oppressed group has
   been the female. It is also based on conviction that
   such oppression is undesirable and unnecessary. It
   is a humor based on visions of change. (13)

Although Lisa Merrill agrees that feminist humor "empowers women to examine how we have been objectified and fetishized and to what extent we have been led to perpetuate this objectification," she defines feminist humor as "rebellious and self-alarming"(279). For Merrill, feminist humor is not the humor of the oppressed, but empowering humor that recognizes the value of female experience.

This paper explores different types of feminist humor, primarily feminist jokes, and tries to identify those that are potentially most effective in bringing about change and subverting systems of oppression and exploitation. Paradoxically, the most empowering feminist jokes are not those that frame males as oppressors and females as victims, but those that celebrate the values and perspectives of feminist women. I will argue that feminist humor that is divisive can be counter-productive for producing change and that inclusive humor is ultimately more effective. I suggest that feminist humor, like lesbian humor, should be self-defining and make women, rather than men, the central focus.

The emerging interdisciplinary field of humor studies provides numerous insights about the potential effects of jokes. After defining some terms, I discuss some of these effects, particularly those of divisive and inclusive jokes, and I conclude that inclusive jokes can be subversive without the negative effects of divisive jokes. I discuss lesbian jokes at some length because many of these jokes successfully challenge and undermine attempts by the straight community to define lesbians. Because many lesbian jokes are "rebellious and self-affirming," they fit Merrill's definition of feminist humor in a way that many feminist jokes do not. I suggest that straight feminists who create and tell jokes can learn from their lesbian sisters to stop focusing on males and start making women and women's concerns central.


Holmes defines humor as "intended by the speaker(s) to be amusing and perceived to be amusing by at least some participants"(67). Thus, the term feminist joke has a different meaning for feminists than for those unsympathetic to feminism. A search for feminist joke under uncovered 14 anti-feminist jokes and 57 anti-male jokes. Apparently, the term feminist joke, like so many other terms referring to women, has become pejorative for many people. (2) Even for some feminists, feminist humor is sometimes defined as humor that insults men rather than humor celebrating the female experience.

As numerous writers have pointed out, neither feminists nor lesbians are easily defined groups, partly because these groups are so diverse (Rudy). …

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