Why Are We Still Forwarding Sexist Spouse Jokes?
A few weeks ago, a tense number of days passed as a cyclone of severe magnitude threatened many regions of Gujarat. WhatsApp went on an overdrive, with friends and family sharing helpline numbers and guidelines on how to stay safe during the catastrophe. After a few of these helpful forwards though, the usual barrage of jokes began.
What is common to wife and cyclone? Both wipe everything in their path when angry.
Angry wife and cyclones are always bad news.
How to tackle cyclone Vayu? Are you married? If yes, don’t worry. You will survive any cyclone.
Even as I stared at these messages in disbelief (as much at the timing, as at such blatant sexism), the WhatsApp groups on which they were being sent crackled with laugh emojis.
These jokes that I call ‘husband-wife jokes’ are, however, forwarded to our mobile phones daily. They come as caricatures, as memes, or as pure text, but in each form, they convey one thing: ridicule for a spouse on some stereotypical personality trait. To most people I know, they seem hilarious. As for me, to put it mildly, I feel enraged.
The men (mostly) and women who enjoy these jokes are educated, happy couples mostly in long-term marriages with a healthy child or two. Some of them stay in joint families and regularly attend functions together. In-person and at dinner and cricket-watching parties that make up our social circle, one wouldn’t be able to tell these people have a sexist sense of humor.
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Most of the time, prejudiced people conceal their true beliefs because they fear criticism from others. They express it the moment it feels acceptable to do so, in a way that is easily disguised – for example, by joking about it freely. On a social media platform, my friends are very different people, collectively laughing at, for instance, how upset the wife gets when the husband comes home late, or how the belan (rolling pin) is the preferred weapon of choice for the woman if the man returns drunk. Interestingly, when women share these jokes, they are mostly about how the husbands are lazy or useless – but only because the mothers-in-law didn’t pay attention while raising their sons. Ultimately, in any of these jokes, the targeted group tends to be women.
Dr. Falguni Vasavada, a professor of marketing at Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad (MICA) tweeted her disgust on this subject at the time. “I feel sick on how gendered and rooted in stereotypes these jokes on women, especially on wives are,” she told me. “They are rooted in classical conditioning that society has towards gender and gender roles. Most jokes laugh at women; demean the role of wives; firmly establish the wife as the homemaker; strongly advocate the wife as the kitchen manager. There are many jokes that laugh at women going to their parents’ home and ‘giving freedom’ to their husbands. Jokes like these further endorse the fact that a woman has no value-added role to play in a marriage or family. It’s also disturbing to see jokes about women spending their husband’s or partner’s money to buy stuff. This questions women’s ability to earn and self-sustain. Laughing and forwarding such jokes is an insult,” she explains.
“One may not overtly react to derogatory humor, but it does [get] pent up within, which bursts out as aggression or rebelliousness in the relationship.”Dr. Hansal Bhachech, psychiatrist and author
According to a study, these jokes represent disparagement humor, i.e. “any attempt to amuse through the denigration of a social group or its representatives.” Most of us know it as sexist or racist comedy – just about anything that makes a punchline out of a marginalized group. Disparagement humor is paradoxical in nature; it conveys two conflicting messages simultaneously. Firstly, it gives out a prejudiced, explicit message targeting a group, and secondly, it implicitly conveys that “it doesn’t count as hostility or prejudice because it was told as a joke.”
But it is no laughing matter, really. Disparagement humor, when partaken in consistently, leads to grim consequences — mostly discrimination against the group that is ridiculed, although another study has found that among men with pre-existing sexist attitudes, hearing sexist jokes increased their self-reported inclination to rape a woman, as compared to when they heard non-sexist jokes; the finding led researchers to conclude “sexist humor, particularly when initiated by women, fosters a social context of tolerance of sexism among men high in hostile sexism.” (Not so harmless a humor, is it now?) Dr. Hansal Bhachech, psychiatrist and author, says, “There are three types of people who circulate such jokes in social media circuits; the first forwards everything he receives, the second is someone who is frustrated in his or her own relationship and this is a way they have adopted to ventilate inner aggression. The third type of people are really sexist; they get sadistic pleasure in such activities, particularly ridiculing women. Although we find such jokes routine, it’s actually an act of covert aggression or ridiculing. More males are involved in such activities as compared to females. In fact, in most of the cases, females neither enjoy nor forward such things.”
In a domestic environment, sharing such jokes makes it easier for husbands to mock or dismiss their wives in real life. These same husbands are often heard telling their friends, “jaane de yaar, uska gussa toh roz ki baat hai, kya fark padta hai” (let it be, she gets angry all the time, what difference does it make?). In the long term, these jokes downgrade the respect and quality of a relationship to the point of abuse. One therapist I interviewed recounted the instance of a client who had always joked about how ambitious his wife was and how he actually resented her for that personality trait for years. He and his wife eventually separated, after the woman rebelled and gave up on the relationship. Says Dr. Bhachech, “One may not overtly react to derogatory humor, but it does [get] pent up within, which bursts out as aggression or rebelliousness in the relationship. It adds to the frustration, with healthy emotional ties getting weakened over time. Most importantly, when [a] relationship between parents gets strained because of such sexist jokes, family dynamics don’t stay untouched.” Along with hostility, anger, and rebelliousness, children also learn it’s okay to behave as insensitively as their fathers or mothers.
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Instead of bettering bonds, sexist spouse jokes allow people to express contempt for one of the most pivotal relationships in their lives. Contempt that is caused by long-term resentment about one’s partner arises in the form of an attack on someone’s sense of self, leading to more conflict, rather than reconciliation. Jokes insidiously disguise this damage by turning it into something ‘harmless.’ But, “in the long run, there is no respect and warmth left in [the] relationship, as such covert aggression takes a toll on intimacy,” explains Dr. Bhachech.
When we compare our spouses’ anger to a cyclone or describe their absence as our freedom, we degrade the sum total of our respective personalities. If that doesn’t feel wrong, the least it can do is make us question our own decision of choosing them in the first place. Otherwise, disparagement humor will be having the last laugh on our relationships.