Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

No Laughing Matter: Boundaries of Gender-Based Humour in the Classroom

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

No Laughing Matter: Boundaries of Gender-Based Humour in the Classroom

Article excerpt

As personified in jokers, fools, and clowns, humour is an integral part of human history [44]. Humour can lighten what might otherwise be dull, tense, or tedious situations. Common definitions of humour emphasize "amusement" and "laughter," implying some form of benign diversion. But recent research suggests that jokes are not "events" that are funny - or harmful - as such. Rather, joking entails a dynamic process where the characteristics of the joke teller and the audience interact with the embedded meaning of the joke. It is the interactions among these factors that determine whether efforts to be funny are acceptable or not [26, 40, 42]. The present study employs a power-based approach to examine how situational factors affect the degree of acceptability of gender-based humour in classroom settings.

Theories about the Role of Humor

Probably the best-known proponent of the psychoanalytic views about humour is Freud [14]. In Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud argues for the cathartic effect of joking, especially in areas of unconscious turmoil about human sexuality and aggression. Humour is seen as a safe outlet that prevents the teller from expressing his hostilities in more destructive ways. Such a release of unconscious steam is also expected to vicariously cleanse the audience [9, 10, 32]. In other words, humour is seen as a mechanism to distance oneself from the potential disorganizations of the social world and their incumbent anxieties.

More recently, Dundes [10] applied the psychoanalytic assertions to "sick joke cycles." He claims that sick jokes ranging from "dead babies," to "Auschwitz jokes," serve as coping mechanisms to deal with bothersome issues such as sexuality, racial tensions, violence, and guilt. More relevant to the current study, Dundes [10] claims that "sheep and blond joke cycles" (which center on degradation of women), reflect men's struggle to deal with their anxiety about the changing role of women. Wilson [44] also recognizes the anxiety reduction aspect of jokes through displacement, projection, and rationalization of taboo impulses. The common denominator in all these assertions is the psychological (and indirectly, social cleansing) function of humour.

The conventional sociological approach to humour builds on the concept of role distance [8]. In this perspective, humour is a transposition of frameworks, a brief switching from the serious to the unserious or playful realm [1, 13, 18]. Such switchings are meant to provide license, so that humour does not officially "count" [11]. As jocular departures from the official line of interactions, puns, witticisms, jokes, sarcasm, and mimicry produce amusement in an audience while allowing speakers to address topics that are taboo. In this latter sense, the conventional sociological perspective overlaps with the psychoanalytic orientation in finding humour functional. Thus it can reduce stress (as in the morbid humour of police and surgeons) and lubricate social interaction through self-mockery and the development of "joking relationships" [41].

Whereas the conventional sociological perspective recognizes that certain switchings in the name of humour can be inappropriate, power-based approaches reject unqualified functionality arguments [31, 38, 46]. Power imbalances under the auspices of humour are seen as reinforcing old belief systems, blocking social change, and preserving inequality. In the past decade or so, minorities and feminists have pointedly challenged the prevailing views about humour. Increasingly, gender-based humour is seen as a manifestation of power imbalances between men and women, which in turn helps to solidify and perpetuate that power disparity. Feminists argue that men define reality for both men and women in work and in leisure. Men also take measures to legitimize the reality they themselves have constructed and demand conformity from those who are disadvantaged by male standards [12, 24, 36]. …

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