Academic journal article Western Folklore

Accounting for Jokes: Jocular Performance in a Critical Age

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Accounting for Jokes: Jocular Performance in a Critical Age

Article excerpt

To joke is to embrace the illusion - and the reality - of community. Humor cements the social order as a performance that reveals cohesion through its validation by explosive, uncontrolled laughter. And, yet, jokes with their denigrated targets, their sharp elbows, and their pungent stereotypes can also divide people and groups, potentially creating alienation as well as allegiance. A joking culture (Fine and DeSoucey 2005) can either knit groups in shared understanding, making common cause evident through collective amusement, or can reveal the fissures in group life by exposing grievances through the telling or the response. Yet, for either way, in constructing boundaries of belonging humor becomes central to the creation of a local civics. Moreover, jokes and joking, despite their frequently tendentious nature, are often means of recognizing a group's relationship to civil society: to be joked about is to be cognitively - and potentially politically - relevant.

In moments at which identities are sensitive and status positions unstable, humor can undercut consensus, and can even provoke collective action. Humor, no longer a matter of amusement alone, becomes a topic of shared concern, a social problem. A quarter of a century ago Elizabeth and Jay Mechling (1985) published a brief, compelling essay in the applied anthropology journal Human Organization on the implications of treating humor as sexual harassment. In their analysis, the Mechlings examined what at that historical moment appeared to be a curious, disturbing, and, to some, possibly amusing trend in which women were encouraged to file grievances over the presence of what they considered to be offensive and degrading joking in the workplace. Joking had always been in the penumbra of voluntary actions that leaven the culture of the workplace, giving employees a certain amount of authority and agency over the conditions of labor (Roy 1959-1960). The belief in a consensual basis of a joking culture, the Mechlings argued, had been steadily eroded by obligations that had more to do with the formal rules of the shop floor (Burawoy 1980). In this rendition of sexual harassment policy, the presence of ongoing teasing and joking could readily constitute a "hostile work environment" under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and thus be actionable against management that didn't stamp out this "free" behavior. The rules led to even greater surveillance of workers by management. Under certain circumstances jokes could constitute unwelcome verbal conduct of a sexual nature, condemned by Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines (Mechling and Mechling 1985:339). These rules apply to humor whether it is from a supervisor or from co-workers (and no exception is made for really, really funny jokes!) . As the Mechlings emphasize, in moments in which the propriety of joking is at issue, not to have a policy is implicitly to have a policy of permitting this humor.

In practice, court decisions shed light on the particulars of cases. For example, in the case of Ocheltree v. Scollon Productions, Inc. [(4th Cir. 2003) 335 F. 3rd, 325] the court found in favor of a woman working in a costume production shop who was exposed to on-going sexual joking, finding that the men behaved as they did to make her uncomfortable. In the case of LyIe v. Warner Brothers Television Prod. (042006 CASC S125171, April 2006), which involved a woman hired to transcribe comedy writing sessions for the television show Friends who had been asked when hired whether she would be offended by sexual humor, the court found for the defendants. While exposure to sexual humor can constitute a hostile work environment, it may not always do so. Feminist legal scholars have criticized sexual harassment law for its over-emphasis on sexualized joking and remarks in the workplace. In the legal context, harassment cases that over-emphasize verbal interaction detract attention from and even stand-in for base issues like hiring and wage discrimination. …

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