EASP Seedcorn Grant Report
08.11.2023, by Media Account in grant report
Joke or threat? Can male-disparaging comedy elicit masculinity threat?
University of Würzburg, Germany
Sexist jokes are a frequent occurrence in today’s comedy shows. This not only applies to devaluing or objectifying women; men have also become the target for gender-based jokes. Both female and male comedians enjoy playing around with gender stereotypes and confronting their audiences with stories and characterizations of, for example, ‘cavemen’, ‘machos’, or ‘softies’. Based on social identity theory, there is empirical evidence that sexist humor may elicit social identity threat among women, leading to feelings of social exclusion and lower cognitive performance (Ford et al., 2020; Weber et al., 2020). Much less attention has been devoted to the effects of male-disparaging jokes. We argue that male-disparaging jokes may elicit another form of identity threat, namely masculinity threat, that is, the fear of men that their masculinity is being questioned or challenged (Vandello et al., 2008). It may occur on the individual level in form of a prototypicality threat (e.g., receiving feedback of being unmanly or effeminate), or on the group level in form of a distinctiveness threat (e.g., men and women are indistinguishable concerning their interest in fashion). Inevitably, masculinity threat is connected with precarious manhood theory, which suggests that manhood is tough to reach, easy to lose, and must be continuously demonstrated (Vandello & Bosson, 2013). Male-disparaging jokes often entail remarks about the ongoing effeminacy of men or the reduced acceptance of stereotypically male behavior such as the avoidance of weakness. This may bear a distinctiveness threat, as it questions men on the group level. In this project, we set out to examine whether male-disparaging jokes may elicit masculinity threat, by connecting different theoretical frameworks.
Who is telling the joke?
The intergroup sensitivity effect (Hornsey, 2002) proposes that negative remarks about an ingroup elicits more defensiveness if it is delivered by an outgroup instead of an ingroup member (i.e., more negativity, less agreement, and more discrediting the messenger). Additionally, men and women have been shown to differ in both the production and the appreciation of certain types of humor (cf. Hofmann et al., 2020). Consequently, based on the gender of the recipient, female- and maledisparaging jokes delivered by female versus male joke tellers may elicit different reactions. Some theorizing and findings support this assumption, yet the role of joke teller gender remains inconclusive (e.g., Abrams et al., 2015; Argüello Gutiérrez et al., 2018; Ford, 2000; Parrott & Hopp, 2020; RomeroSánchez et al., 2017). This may partly be due to difficulties of selecting appropriate stimulus material, which should ensure both internal and external validity. In order to examine the interactions between joke-content, joke teller gender, and recipient gender, the stimulus material needs to be thoroughly controlled. As part of the current project, we created such stimulus material and examined whether female- and male-disparaging jokes performed by women versus men elicit different reactions regarding the appreciation of the jokes and may potentially lead to threat effects among female and male recipients.
Creating the stimulus material: Tell us a joke!
The stimulus material was created in collaboration with Dr. Sven Kachel from the University of Kaiserslautern-Landau (https://www.rlp-forschung.de/public/people/Sven_Kachel) – a new and fruitful collaboration that was initiated because of this project and beneficially combined resources and different areas of expertise. As part of this project, we also involved early-career researchers and undergraduate students, who supported us in creating the stimulus material and conducting the studies, namely Zerevan Bindal and Patricia Görsch. In order to create highly controlled humorous stimulus material, we invited six female and six male (semi-)professional speakers (e.g., actors in training) into the recording studio of the Center for Media Didactics at the University of Würzburg, Germany. The speakers were asked to tell a total of 20 different jokes, which fell into five categories:
1) neutral jokes (e.g., How do you put an elephant into a refrigerator? Your open the fridge door, put the elephant inside, and close the door.)
2) male-disparaging jokes with reference to male stereotypes (e.g., Why do little boys whine? Because they’re practicing to be men.)
3) male-disparaging jokes without reference to male stereotypes (e.g., What do you call a man with half a brain? Gifted.)
4) female-disparaging jokes with reference to female stereotypes (e.g., Why is it a bad idea to ask Siri “What do women want?” She has been talking nonstop for the last two days.)
5) female-disparaging jokes without reference to female stereotypes (e.g., What do you call a woman with an opinion? Wrong.)
Each category comprised four jokes which had been pretested in previous research (Lawless et al., 2020). Categories three and five contained the same jokes, but referred to either men or women, respectively. The speakers were asked to tell the jokes in different ways: 1) as they would naturally tell the joke, 2) as a stereotypical woman or man would tell the joke, and 3) imitating the intonation of a model speaker. The recordings were then professionally edited (standardization of the duration of the clips, removing any sounds or artefacts, etc.), to ensure that the stimulus material differed in one factor only, namely the vocal gender of the speaker.
Empirical studies: Joke or Threat?
Subsequently, we conducted two studies, in which we used the recordings based on the model speaker to ensure a high level of comparability between the experimental conditions. Both studies were preregistered (Study 1: https://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/SK2CA; Study 2: https://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/V72MD). To comply to open science practices, we share our material, data, and code (OSF: https://osf.io/cuhvz/? view_only=a9e5e21b40d14909b0e10df41e122e74). Please note that the reported results are preliminary. We used an online panel to recruit participants, inviting German speakers aged 18 and above to participate. Experiment 1 was conducted in a within-subjects design and included n = 198 participants (n = 74 female), who listened to 20 jokes in a randomized order. Within each category, they heard two jokes told by a female and two jokes told by a male speaker (random selection). Our hypothesis that women would generally rate all jokes less funny than men was confirmed. Further, women rated female-disparaging jokes as less funny compared to maledisparaging or neutral jokes, while there was no such difference among male recipients. Women perceived female-disparaging jokes and men perceived male-disparaging jokes as more discriminatory than those not targeting their own gender group. Most notably, women rated female-disparaging jokes as more discriminatory, if told by a male compared to a female speaker. This was not the case for male recipients. These results support our assumption that gender-disparaging jokes delivered by female versus male joke tellers may elicit different reactions among female and male recipients.
Subsequently, Experiment 2 (n = 226 male participants) examined in a between-subjects design whether male-disparaging jokes may elicit masculinity threat, resulting in men’s need to restore their masculinity. We hypothesized that men who listen to male-disparaging jokes (vs. neutral jokes) report having more agentic and fewer communal traits, show stronger out-group devaluation tendencies, and report more anger, especially if the jokes are told by a female speaker. However, none of our hypotheses were confirmed: neither joke content, nor speaker gender, or their interaction had an influence on any of the dependent variables. While we also consider limitations regarding the stimulus material (the jokes were not rated rather funny, there were bottom effects regarding self-reported anger, etc.), it might as well be the case that men react not the same way as women to genderdisparaging humor. In sum, our results indicate that while female-disparaging jokes may be interpreted as a source of threat for women, especially if told by a male speaker, male-disparaging jokes seem to be no source of threat for men, no matter who tells them. This may be grounded in social role theory (Eagly & Wood, 2012) and men’s assignment to greater status and power in society. The results bear practical relevance regarding the effects of sexist humor. We currently work on a publication and we will present the studies at the 18th Conference of the Social Psychology Section of the German Psychological Society (DGPs) in Graz. In order to examine potential threat effects of genderdisparaging humor among women and men more closely, we plan on conducting further studies using the highly controlled stimulus material that was created as part of this project. We thank the EASP for supporting our research.
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