Battling Sexism with Humor?

In class on Monday evening, the discussion of discrimination and harassment focused primarily on race. One colleague did briefly bring up sexism, speaking about how she is often complimented on her appearance and dress, while males in her lab are complimented on their performance. While I have no answer for overcoming racism, sexism, ageism, etc. after Tim Wise’s presentation on 11/2/15 I’ve been thinking about the role of humor in bringing attention – and possibly change – to these issues.

The first example I have seen recently is a movement called #CoverTheAthlete. It’s purpose is to get media outlets to treat female athletes in a manner similar to their male counterparts, rather than focusing on their looks and love life. To get their point across, the group asked male athletes questions which are commonly posed to female athletes. Watch for yourself!

The second example is a parody account on Twitter called @manwhohasitall: “Top tips for men juggling a successful career and fatherhood.” This account turns advice given to women (sometimes exaggerated) around to be directed at men in order to make the point for how ridiculous it seems. It also re-frames common quotes about women in the workplace to be about men.

For instance:



What do you think – Will humor help, hurt, or do nothing to help decrease various -isms?



About tanyamh

A PhD Student at Virginia Tech. This blog was created as a class requirement for Contemporary Pedagogy - Spring 2013.


  1. Thanks for this, Tanya. I also thought about this after Tim Wise’s talk, as part of me thought it felt a but like a comedy show. I think there’s a very fine line between offensive humor and constructive humor, and it’s extremely context-dependent. It can be very powerful when done right, but we need to know those boundary conditions. I recently read an article on the role of humor in exacerbating “-isms.” Here’s a quote from the article that summarizes the interesting research:
    “In other words, when we consider groups that most people discriminate against, and feel they are justified in doing so, disparaging humor towards that group does not foster discriminatory acts against them. On the other hand, for groups for whom the prejudice norm is shifting, and there is still no consensus not to discriminated against (women, gays, Muslims and so on), if you hold negative views against one of these groups, hearing disparaging jokes about them “releases” inhibitions you might have, and you feel it’s ok to discriminate against them.”

    Super interesting. I’m wondering if there are some similar interactions when it comes to using humor to combat -isms. There’s a whole organization devoted to the empirical study of humor. I wonder if it’s something they’d know about.

    Here’s the article:

  2. Hi Maureen,

    Thanks for sharing this article and the site for the International Society of Humor Studies (laughing a bit at learning that is a real thing!) with me. I agree there is likely a fine line between offensive humor and constructive humor. I think that Tim Wise, and the two examples I shared in my post are more on the constructive side. Each example is trying to get the “in” group to laugh at how ridiculous they sound when they do/say certain things against the “out” group. I was unsure at first how to handle Tim Wise’s presentation. At first I was hesitant to laugh because it didn’t seem like racism was something we should be joking about. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I think he was trying to use humor to get white people to laugh at themselves in order to break down any defense mechanisms that may arise (consciously or not) when the subject of race relations is brought up. Hopefully his part presentation, part comedy show, part serious call to action raised enough awareness, while not making anyone feel defensive, that deeper conversations can be had. I guess we’ll see in the next few months what has developed on campus in response to his visit.


  3. Interesting Tanya! Thanks for this! I think that humor, if used appropriately can actually be very constructive and get the point through. With that being said, I agree with the #CoverTheAthlete movement. Regarding Time Wise’s talk, I think that some of his humor was not much constructive… We also discussed this very briefly in class and I think that he needed to tone down the humor since some of the examples were not very insightful. Overall his speech gave me a lot to think about, but I would’ve liked it to be a little more serious with a lot more insights rather than just points to think about…



    1. Hi Yasaman – I certainly agree with you that more serious conversations need to be had. Fortunately, it seems like that was the case with the 2nd day of Tim Wise’s visit where he say on a faculty panel. It can be viewed here: [Jump ahead to about 1 hr in though…they started recording very early while people were arriving and eating!]

  4. Thanks for sharing, Tanya. I am a great believer in the power of humor. A lot of the topics discussed in racism, sexism or any kind of discriminatory behavior is not a comfortable subject, especially for the section that enjoys the advantages when things go ‘normally’. Humor is a great way to break down a lot of these ‘norms’ because it shows how ridiculous they are without necessarily offending the practices of one particular person. If laughter triggers the thought process instead of an accusation (or some other hostile action) it does away with a large chunk of the associated discomfort.

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