Examining the Stereotype of the Humourless, Man-Hating Feminist
By Jocelyn Chalmers (University of Kent)
Feminists are frequently stereotyped as both humourless and man-hating. How much truth is there to these characterizations, and can we expose feminists to humour that disparages both men and women to find out?
Humour plays an integral role in our everyday lives. It can be an effective way to establish community: laughing with another person shows acceptance and demonstrates a shared perspective. However, since it can be used to indicate who is in our tribe, it can also demonstrate who is not; humour can be used to reinforce the boundaries of a group, and other those who don’t laugh along with us (Kasulis, 1989).
Indeed, accusing someone of being “humourless” is a common denigration tactic during conflict. For example, in the aftermath of 9/11, the “humourous” United States was often pitted against the “humourless” Islamic terrorists. Due to our perception of humour as positive and humanizing, it’s perhaps unsurprising that we would seek to label our adversaries as lacking in it. (Lewis, 2006).
One group that has certainly been accused of humourlessness is feminists. Women in general have long been stereotyped as unfunny; in his famous 2007 article “Why Women Aren’t Funny”, Christopher Hitchens even suggests that women and humour are “antithetical” (para. 20). This stereotype is exaggerated further for feminists, who Ahmed (2010) claims are perceived to exist solely to kill the joy of others. Speaking on the Daily Show in 2012, comedian Louis C. K. claimed that comedians and feminists “are natural enemies, because stereotypically speaking, feminists can’t take a joke” (“Louis CK Addresses Daniel Tosh”, para. 4).
In our research, we sought to investigate the truth behind the stereotype of the humourless feminist, while also using the othering power of humour to investigate a second stereotype: the man-hating feminist. Feminists have always been stereotyped as “man-haters” (Swirsky & Angelone, 2014) — indeed, the term “misandry”, meaning hatred of men, has been used since its inception as a synonym for feminism (Marwick & Caplan, 2018).
This stereotype, however, may not hold up to scrutiny. Rresearch on the actual and perceived views of feminists found that feminist participants held strongly positive attitudes towards men, contrary to the predictions of both feminist and non-feminist participants (Hopkins-Doyle et al., in press).
Why, then, does this stereotype persist? Collective action movements based on identity — i.e., “identity politics” — are often viewed as inherently divisive and competitive. Bernstein (2005) suggests that many activists understand their identity groups (e.g., gender) to be socially constructed and fluid, but are forced to organize around essentialist identities (e.g., men and women) to advocate for the rights of these groups. However, emphasizing the gender binary may lead to perceptions of an us-vs.-them dynamic, even if feminists’ genuine wish is for universal positive change.
We sought to examine the man-hating feminist stereotype through disparagement humour. Humour can function as a subtle way of expressing prejudice: since it is “just a joke”, it can denigrate a target while avoiding criticism (Ford et al., 2015). Despite the perception of disparagement humour as a less severe form of prejudice, it can have real consequences; Ford and colleagues (2008) found that, for men who were high in hostile sexism, exposure to sexist humour made them more comfortable expressing sexist attitudes in their behavior.
Although previous research has found that feminists largely disapprove of female-disparaging humour (Riquelme et al., 2021), limited research has examined feminists’ perceptions of humour that disparages men. Henkin and Fish (1986) found that feminist attitudes were negatively correlated with humour ratings of anti-male jokes, but this study was conducted more than three decades ago in a different feminist climate, so more research is needed.
To investigate the truth behind these stereotypes of feminists, we conducted three studies assessing feminists’ responses to anti-female, anti-male, and non-sexist humour, while also assessing how participants predicted they would respond (a.k.a., “metaperceptions”). In our first study, participants rated male-disparaging and female-disparaging jokes according to humour, acceptability and offensiveness; our second study again asked participants to rate sexist jokes while also asking them to indicate their metaperceptions of how feminists would respond (i.e., “To what extent do you think feminists would feel that this joke is funny?”). Our third study included non-sexist humour, so participants gave their own ratings and their metaperceptions of anti-female, anti-male and non-sexist jokes.
If the stereotype of the man-hating feminist was true, we expected feminists to be intolerant of the anti-female joke while rating the anti-male joke as funny, acceptable and inoffensive. However, if feminists reject sexism regardless of its target, we expected they would also perceive the anti-male joke negatively. If the
stereotype of feminists as humourless was true, we expected that they would find all three jokes less funny than non-feminists did. However, if this stereotype was inaccurate, we expected that feminists would find the non-sexist joke equally as funny as non-feminists.
The results of our studies generally refuted the idea of the humourless, man-hating feminist. In the first two studies, feminist participants rated both female-disparaging and male-disparaging jokes more negatively than non-feminists; it was only in the third study (conducted after the Sarah Everard murder) that feminists rated the anti-male joke similarly to non-feminists. In both studies involving metaperceptions, participants overestimated how negatively feminists would respond to anti-female humour and underestimated how negatively they would respond to anti-male humour, demonstrating that the man-hating stereotype does exist.
When it came to the non-sexist joke, feminists and non-feminists found it equally funny, suggesting that feminists are not more humourless than non-feminists. However, participants correctly predicted how funny feminists would find this joke, indicating that the humourless stereotype may not be strongly held. Looking into interactions did reveal that non-feminist participants underestimated how funny feminists would find the joke, so it could be that this stereotype does exist, but not in the minds of feminists themselves.
These results suggest that the stereotype of the man-hating feminist is still prevalent in the popular imagination — at least when it comes to perceptions of sexist humour — but that it is largely inaccurate. They also suggest that the stereotype of the humourless feminist is inaccurate, and that this stereotype may not be one that feminists hold about their own group — unlike the misandry trope, which is endorsed by both feminists and non-feminists.
Stereotypes of feminists as man-hating and humourless are frequently used to delegitimize their cause, and to paint their expressions of legitimate concern as either tribal or overly sensitive and uptight. Hopefully, interrogating stereotypes such as that of the humourless, man-hating feminist and revealing the lack of evidence for them can help create an environment where women feel more comfortable identifying as feminists and more confident that they will be taken seriously when they speak up about issues that affect them.
About the Author
Jocelyn Chalmers is a PhD student in Social/Political Psychology at the University of Kent in Canterbury, United Kingdom.
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