Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Being the Butt of the Joke: Homophobic Humour, Male Identity, and Its Connection to Emotional and Physical Violence for Men

Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Being the Butt of the Joke: Homophobic Humour, Male Identity, and Its Connection to Emotional and Physical Violence for Men

Article excerpt


The modern view of gender and sexuality is that they are not purely essential aspects of the self but rather socially constructed (Connell 1995; Kimmel 1996). Gender is based on a physical body which is sexed, has an evolutionary background, is subject to desires and informed by the historical/political milieu (Weeks 1985). Sexuality is seen as fluid, influenced by culture, temporal and spatial contingencies (Kinsey et al. 1949) and moulded by discourse (Foucault 1990). These positions have come to be understood by comparing understandings of acceptable gender presentation, and same- or opposite-sex behaviour in different historical periods (Boswell 1995; Chauncey 1995; Dover 1987), and other contemporary cultures (Herdt 1984; Totman 2003).

The drive to become successfully male within the context of any given culture's definition of 'successful' is mediated by cultural norms, and learning these norms is accomplished through social interaction, observation and replicating lauded behaviours. Homophobia is central in shaping heterosexual identity in terms of appropriate sexual behaviour, which in turn shapes social ideas of how successful masculine gender is constructed (McCann 2004). This paper is drawn from data collected to investigate the ways in which ideas about sexuality and gender are communicated for Australian males. Central to this process is the use of language, specifically humour, in communicating how boys and men expect each other to behave. When asked whom at school they wanted to avoid being associated with, the answers were overwhelming related to boys who were gay, suspected of being gay, or who partook in activities those were considered the domain of gay boys. Regardless of their actual sexuality, the boys who attracted homophobic epithets generally did so because they failed to conform to gender norms. Homophobia effectively policed which gendered behaviours were acceptable, and which could attract humiliation. The consequences of such classifications had profound influence on the lives of these individuals, often lasting a lifetime.

Language, according to Berger and Luckman (1972), is the most important system of signs that humans utilise. Through language, ideas about acceptable social norms in a given society are transmitted using commonly understood symbols. As such, language is central in teaching individuals about social norms:

The self is constituted within the play of language (and discourse more generally) and the field of practices and power relations that define the social locations in which people live out their daily lives. (Layder 1998:97)

Humour utilises Goffman's (1973) concept of the 'other' to allow people to develop their own gendered identity by creating social, emotional and physical distances between themselves and those who were considered 'failed' males. Humour and its less-joyous doppelgänger - humiliation - create socially performed displays where acceptance into a group or rejection from it is enacted, as groups utilise humour to demarcate their boundaries (Burn 2000). In this research, how homophobic 'humour' was interpreted depended on whether one was an instigator or target: the former considered 'just a joke' to be harmless fun; those who were repeatedly targeted described systematic bullying. For hegemonic males, homophobic humour had a functional capacity to create their sense of heterosexuality and successful masculinity in opposition to other sexualities - the 'failed'.

Far from being only an innocent way to make us laugh, humour is part of 'a theatre of domination in everyday life' (Lyman 1987:150). In terms of creating behavioural norms for men, homophobic humour marks out the boundary between homosocial and homosexual interaction. Thus, homosexuality becomes fodder for derision. Humour in general reaches out beyond its immediate impact, allowing the ideas contained therein to permeate the social environment and influence non-verbal interactions. …

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