The endless supply of mother-in-law jokes

Susan Brownmiller wrote a memoir of the women’s movement that was published in 1999.

At the beginning of the prologue…

Imagine a world – or summon it back into memory – in which the Help Wanted columns were divided into Male for the jobs with a future, and Female for the dead-end positions; …; when psychiatrists routinely located the cause of an unsatisfactory sex life in the frigid, castrating, ballbreaking female partner, when abortion was an illegal, back-alley procedure, when rape was the woman’s fault, when no one dared talk about the battery that went on behind closed doors, or could file a complaint about sexual harassment. And remember the hostile humor that reinforced the times: the endless supply of mother-in-law jokes, the farmer’s daughter, the little old lady in tennis shoes, the bored receptionist filing her nails, the dumb blond stenographer perched on her boss’s lap, the lecherous tycoon chasing his buxom secretary around the desk.

1999; long before Mad Men.

But my point is – sexist jokes are not not-sexist because they’re jokes. On the contrary. There’s always been hostile sexist humor. Jokes can be sexist. Jokes about distracting, emotional women addressed by an important man to a group of women colleagues are, indeed, sexist. Hostile humor is hostile humor.


  1. iknklast says

    I had a job about 15 years ago where sexist jokes were routinely e-mailed around the office, an office divided into (male) engineers and (female) clerical, with a handful of us (mostly female) in hard-to-define positions at the bottom of the echelon of professional positions, doing work that was essentially clerical, but with a “specialist” title that made it look like their highly educated, well skilled people were actually being utilized properly. The first day I was there, my e-mail was graced with a visual joke about a woman-only parking lot. It was a junkyard.

    I had just come there from a job where I was an intern who could expect nothing more because they didn’t offer full time jobs to women (they always did it in a way that made it hard to prove – no jobs available today, sweeties. As soon as the woman eligible for the full time position had moved on, they emptied her desk for the male they had just hired for the non-existent position). At that job, I was called a feminazi by my boss. I challenged him, and he “acknowledged” that I wasn’t really a feminazi, it was just a “joke”.

    I have been subjected to sexist “jokes” my entire life, and yes, they did affect me. They created an environment that left me depressed and half-alive. They slowed me down in my path, because I internalized a lot of this hateful humor, and couldn’t find my path until I was already in my 30s and was able to clear the cobwebs out of my head enough (from the youthful conditioning) to realize that, hey, I was GOOD at science! I could actually be a scientist! When I think of how much time I wasted, and how much more I could have contributed, it makes me burn.

    Then, I became a scientist and faced the situation mentioned above. Since moving on into academia, the sexism has been more subtle (at times), but is still very present in the dean who refers to female teachers as “Sunshine” (teachers with a doctorate degree in their field, highly competent professionals) and talks down to females, often without even realizing hit. If told, he would deny that he is sexist or has ever done anything sexist. As would the people passing on these jokes, or denying jobs to women in subtle ways.

  2. iknklast says

    Sorry about the long post. I guess I didn’t realize how much anger I was still holding in!

  3. says

    I’ve been in a debate for over 20 years now with my father regarding humor. I happen to believe that humor is always hostile. There is always a butt of every joke. Otherwise, all you are just down to cleverness or surrealism – in which case I’d argue that the butt of the joke is the listener since they are either laughing at their own response to cognitive dissonance or at how long it took for them to figure out the cleverness in a pun or play on words.

    So, yeah. Humor always has a target – the question is who and whether it’s intending to merely tickle or deeply wound.

  4. quixote says

    “Hostile humor is hostile humor.”

    And saying, “Oh, but I didn’t intend to be hostile! I thought it was funny!” does not, at all, in any way, make it all better.

  5. quixote says

    Marcus, as you know plenty of (unfunny) books have been written about being funny. I haven’t read any of them since I’d rather spend my time on something funny. Anyway, there’s a difference between hostility and having a target. (E.g. scientific research has a target. That doesn’t mean it’s hostile to the research subject.) The difference, I’d say, is that hostility hurts, whereas targets can be illuminated.

    There are some very simple ground rules about how to make sure you aren’t hurting your target. One: laugh at yourself. Two: laugh at those with more power than you (along whatever parameter matters to the joke), never those with less.

    Hunt failed badly on both counts, which made his humor hurtful and hostile. And he’s not stupid enough to plead ignorance. All he can really say is, “I’ve never cared enough to see who I’m stepping on.”

  6. says

    quixote@#5: Well said. I guess when I said some humor is intended to tickle and other humor to wound, I left off the category Hunt’s “joke” was in: blithering privilege. And, as we know “not funny at all.”

  7. Blanche Quizno says

    a visual joke about a woman-only parking lot. It was a junkyard.

    Yeah, my late father (who had dementia) sent me that one. He thought it was *hilarious*.

  8. Gen, Uppity Ingrate and Ilk says

    Sexist jokes have a very important function: They serve to establish and maintain the status quo. Ophelia linked to the post by Hilda Bastian a while ago about the just “joking” defense of Tim Hunt, right? Well in it, I’m sure you’ll remember, but just to share with those who didn’t actually read the post/link, she quoted studies done on the topic:

    Ford and Ferguson concluded that jokes don’t create hostility to the outgroup where it doesn’t already exist. But the evidence, they said, showed that joking reinforces existing prejudice. If you joke about women and get away with it, those who are hostile to women will see this as social sanction for their views and behavior. The joke tellers don’t themselves have to be actively misogynist to end up encouraging others to be.

    Sexist humor’s impact may also reduce people’s willingness to take action against discrimination. Take for example this randomized controlled trial of men recruited via Mechanical Turk, published by Ford and colleagues in 2013 [PDF]. Men who were already high in hostile sexism were less likely to express support for actions that would improve gender equality after hearing sexist rather than neutral jokes. Even if that only meant they were more willing “to show their hand”, it’s not reassuring.

    The links to the studies themselves are on the post, at

    So yes. This “humour” is hostile and sexist, and it serves a very important function to those in the in-group (men): “In the presence of token women, Indsco men engaged in “boundary heightening,” that is, they exaggerated their common qualities as men (the in-group) as well as the ways in which women (the out-group) deviated from them. For example, men told sexist jokes as a way of excluding and isolating women. Through sexist humor, men simultaneously degraded women and created a broader social (organizational) structure that asserted their dominance and power over women”
    (From the study Bastian quotes, pdf *1). That wasn’t even the conclusion, just one of the other studies done in the field cited. The conclusion is stronger.

    The other study she quotes is also by Ford, further back in time, and co-authored with Ferguson, and does a review of the research done on the topic and proposes a new theory to explain this phenomenon. It also touches upon pornography, which I’ve linked in the appropriate thread. It’s very well worth the read if you want to understand the effect of prejudicial humour, though it does get pretty technical. *2

    *1PDF of Ford study, 2013:
    *2 PDF Ferguson and Ford, 2004:

  9. guest says

    Thank you–‘boundary heightening’ is a great addition to my vocabulary. I notice this a lot, even when the intent isn’t overtly hostile or demeaning. For example, I remember years ago being asked to present some work at a client workshop, at which I was the only woman. The man doing the ‘housekeeping’ before we started made a huge big deal of telling the group where the ladies’ room was–which was weird in itself, but particularly weird in that the workshop was being held in our office, and I obviously knew where it was.

  10. guest says

    So it was pretty clear to me that the point was to announce, very obviously, THERE’S A GIRL HERE.

  11. says

    A long time ago, I once heard a joke that left me unsettled:

    Q: Why are dumb blonde jokes always one liners?
    A: So men can remember the punchline.

    At the time, I thought the joke was funny for its slap at men. Nevertheless, something about the joke bothered me; it maybe wasn’t the anti-misogynist joke it appeared to me at first blush. I later concluded (I’m not the sharpest pencil in the box) that while the joke did take a good swipe at men, it left untouched the fraud that a class of women are dumb simply due to hair color. That explanation, however, has never satisfied me. So, while further proving my unsuitability for polite company, what’s wrong with this joke. Obviously, the dumb blonde meme is vile, but what else is wrong?

    Really want to know.

  12. iknklast says

    I’ve probably mentioned this before, but this obviously made a big impression on me – I had the dubious pleasure of being present at an actual pissing contest. My first day on the lake, the two men who were doing the orientation each made a point of peeing off the end of the boat. When they had completed marking their territory, they looked back at me, the lone woman in the boat, and some sort of comment to the affect of “your turn”.

    This was definitely intended not only to mark the lake as their territory, where I was only going to be the supervisor on the project, but also to remind me that I was not able to pee standing up. Such an important skill for every job! (Except house cleaning. Being able to pee standing up actually renders you totally unable to wash dishes and sweep floors, at least in the mindset of people who think like this).

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