Sexism is No Joke

A few days before Christmas I noticed an unsettling photo float past as I scrolled through my Facebook feed. I gave it a few seconds thought and then scrolled on past it. Today, I realized I wasn’t the only one disturbed by the image of one family’s Christmas photo.

Since then the image has gone viral, been the subject of some controversy, and has been banned by Facebook.

So here is the gist: the photographer Hannah Hawkes took the photo at the family’s request. The photo portrays a family of five — father, mother, two daughters, and a son, framed between rows of evergreen trees. The father and son are positioned behind the females who are sitting on the floor with knees bent. All three females have green duct tape over their mouths, and their hands and bodies are bound with strings of Christmas lights. One girl is looking off to the side. The mother and the other daughter are looking directly into the camera. They are not smiling. In contrast, the son is a little smiling fellow standing and giving the camera an enthusiastic thumbs-up. The father, also smiling, is down on one knee and holds a small chalkboard that reads “Peace on Earth”.

The joke is clear. It combines the Christmas ideal of “Peace on Earth” with the twist that the father and son finally have peace, not because of the celebration of the incarnation of God, but because their family females are bound and silenced.

Hawkes seems to have been genuinely surprised by the negative, even vitriolic, backlash her photo received when she posted in on her Photography’s Facebook page. At one point she attempted to defend her choices, as well as the family that is the subject of the photo, stating that she “has never promoted violence against women” and that the family “are not abusive to their children in any shape or form.” She argues that the photo was taken with humour in mind.

The photo was not meant to be offensive, it was meant to be amusing; for Hawkes and her supporters those offended are making a big deal out of a joke. Words like “abuse” and “rape” and “sexism” are being thrown around in reference to the photo when the photo is not meant to evoke any other response but amusement.

The problem, of course, is that, regardless of the family and photographer’s intentions, the photo has evoked intense reactions besides just amusement. So, what exactly is going on here?

In order to understand why the photo is the cause of such drama we need to understand a few things about humor and how it works.

Humour is Revelatory

Consider this: in order for jokes to be effective, to amuse, they must play with cultural assumptions. If we don’t have the same underlying beliefs or attitudes as the joker the joke will fall flat and we will miss the humor. Because of this, humour is a powerful tool that both influences and reveals our beliefs and attitudes.

The revelatory nature of humour has been affirmed in numerous research studies. For example, “A Framework for Thinking about the (not-so-funny) ‘Effects of Sexist Humor’” states that there is “considerable empirical support … that the degree of amusement elicited by disparagement humor is related … to the degree … one holds negative attitudes toward the disparaged target”. In other words, when I am amused by sexist humour it is because on some level I hold to sexist beliefs and attitudes.

The more amused I am, the more I reveal my sexist attitudes. And, being female does not inoculate me from sexist beliefs about girls and women. In fact, the same study argues that “both men and women who have sexist attitudes are particularly likely to be amused rather than offended by sexist humour.”

So now let’s apply this to the photo. The controversial photo is amusing because it is a spin on cultural gender beliefs. Beliefs such as: females talk a lot, males are less talkative; females like to discuss their feelings, while males prefer to be strong and silent. Simple enough. And I know many good people who make lighthearted quips based on such assumptions.

So, what is the line between a sexist joke and a gendered joke? Simple. Once the joke elevates one gender at the expense of the other gender it has crossed over into sexism. In other words, if the joke merely compares and contrasts generalized gendered behaviors it is not sexist. However, if a joke disparages, belittles, discredits, demeans, ridicules, or in any way communicates contempt for one gender because of those differences, it is sexist.

This means a joke that illustrates females talk a great deal is not necessarily sexist, while one that says females talk too much is sexist. A joke that pokes fun at males’ preference to be quiet is not sexist, but one that suggests their preference is contemptuous is sexist. In other words, the moment a negative judgment is implied it has crossed the line. This is not rocket science folks.

Is the Photo Sexist?

Yes. This photo illustrates a disparity between the worth and dignity of males and females. It portrays visually that male actions and words are more valuable than female actions and words. It also affirms that female volition is less important than male comfort. In fact, frighteningly, it communicates that male peace results from the subjugation and abuse of females of all ages.

Therefore, the photo, regardless of Hawkes’ intent, is sexist. And, since it highlights the value of male comfort over female freedom to speak and act it is a dangerous message to joke around with.

Humour is Influential

Hawkes’ photo is not the only Christmas family image that has stirred up some Internet squabbling this season. Another family took a picture of their family: a father, a mother and two daughters. The father sits in the midst of the females wearing a shirt that says, “Chillin’ with my Ho’s” while the women each wear a shirt that says, “Ho”. Their joke plays on the viewer’s knowledge of Santa’s iconic “Ho. Ho. Ho.”, and Hip Hop culture’s use of the words “Chillin’” to mean relaxing and “Ho” to mean “female” or “prostitute”.

One of the daughters commented in response to the backlash “Not one person who knows us in real life has ‘hated.’ Everyone who is ‘hating’ is seeking offense in an obvious joke.” Basically, her response is that the photo is not the problem, instead she believes the responses of those offended are the problem.

Now remember that research indicates that humour is not only revelatory but also influential. So, the question that needs to be asked is “Are Hawkes and Natalie correct in their beliefs that their photos are harmless and people need to lighten up?” Unfortunately, the answer is no. Most would not be surprised to learn that sexist messages in general have been proven to be far from innocuous. But now for the surprise twist.

Research indicates that the effects of sexist messages are more insidiously influential and dangerous when perceived as a joke. In 1998 researchers Ryan and Kanjorski discovered, “that men who were exposed to sexist jokes reported greater acceptance …[of] violence against women but only when they found the jokes amusing and inoffensive – that is, when they interpreted the jokes in a nonserious humour mindset.”

Remember that Hawkes’ declared that she would never promote violence against women? Well, the sad truth is that again, regardless of her intentions, decades of research by numerous researchers validates that such photos are objectively harmful to the well being and safety of females.

Sexist humour has negative effects on male acceptance concerning violence against females (including rape), and on male beliefs that females are responsible for their own victimization. And, as if these effects aren’t enough, studies such as “Why Did the Woman Cross the Road? The Effects of Sexist Humor Upon Men’s Rape Proclivity” explain that current research results “indicate that sexist jokes can be situational amplifiers of sexual violence against women.” This means that sexist humour can be the tipping point that provokes sexual assaults.

So let’s review all this.

Such photos and jokes are indeed sexist. Our amusement in response to such humour is directly related to our sexist beliefs whether or not we consciously acknowledge this. Prayerfully reflecting upon what we find funny will help uncover attitudes and beliefs that we hold that are in opposition to God’s truth concerning all humanity’s inherent worth.

Sexist jokes work to imbue and reinforce ungodly beliefs regardless of one’s gender. And this results in real life oppression, violence, and a lack of compassionate responses in the wake of such horrors. Consider again the Hawkes’ photo. The image communicates a message terrifyingly similar to the beliefs that drove the Taliban to shoot Malala Yousafzai in the head: that Malala, simply because she is female, needed to be restricted in her freedoms and silenced —  because her voice and freedom, in spite of the fact that she was a child, were a danger to their male privilege and comforts.

So, Natalie, Hawkes, and their supporters are incorrect. The photos are sexist and dangerous and they are even more so because they are intended to be humorous.

It is worth considering one more thing. The Hawkes’s photo suggests peace on earth is the result of hobbling and muting females of all ages. What if the opposite is true? Think about it. Females, like males, are created in God’s image and likeness, and in addition to this wondrous enigmatic truth, God, in Genesis 4:15, says “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

Often this verse is focused only on the woman’s seed, understood as the future messiah. But embracing that truth does not mean that the rest of the verse is moot. God threatens the serpent with Eve, a woman, and her offspring. And if you read through the Biblical narratives with female characters you will notice this curse in effect. Females are imperative to carrying out God’s will on earth. Their actions, including their rebellion from societal and gendered norms, furthered God’s purposes.

So, what if, unlike the message of the Hawkes’ photo, the key to fulfilling God’s mission of establishing peace on earth is through ensuring all females, like Malala, and like the mother and daughters in the Hawkes’ photo, are free to act and speak in all contexts and in all cultures?

Photo by (flickr CC): Trenten Kelley