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Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 14131430

Gender and humor in social context

Mary Crawford
Department of Psychology, University of Connecticut, 406 Babbidge Road,U-20,
Storrs, CT 06269, USA

Received 1 June 2001; received in revised form 16 November 2002

This critical review of research on gender and humor describes a theoretically and prag-
matically fruitful framework for studying the intersection of these topics. Gender is conceived
as a system of meanings that inuences access to power, status, and material resources.
Humor is conceived as a mode of discourse and a strategy for social interaction. Within this
theoretical framework, it is argued that women and men use humor in same-gender and
mixed-gender settings as one of the tools of gender construction. Through it and other means,
they constitute themselves as masculine men and feminine women. At the same time, the
unique properties of humor make it a valuable tool of gender deconstruction. In the political
humor of the womens movement, and in the conversational humor of women friends, resis-
tance to dominant social constructions of gender can be voiced.
# 2002 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Humor; Social context; Gender construction; Malefemale dierences; Community of practice;

1. Gender and humor in social context

What is the relationship between gender and humor? Asking this question pre-
supposes unambiguous understandings of both concepts. However, 30 years of
research and theory, originating in the resurgent feminist movement of the 1970s,
have thoroughly revised social scientists understanding of gender. As the meaning
of gender has changed, its relationship to language and communicationincluding
humorhas also changed. Thus, gender studies have contributed to an expansion of
the concept of humor. With both humor and gender as contested categories, to

E-mail address: (M. Crawford).

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1414 M. Crawford / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 14131430

undertake a review of the literature is to dance in a mine eld. I initiate this dance,
because I believe that the intersections of gender and humor are theoretically and
pragmatically vital.
In this article, I begin with a brief history of gender and language research,
focusing on the search for sex dierences in language use. Next, I describe approa-
ches to conceptualizing gender and humor that are theoretically and pragmatically
fruitful. Gender is conceived as a system of meanings that inuences access to
power, status, and material resources. Humor is conceived as a mode of discourse
and a strategy for social interaction. With this theoretical framework in place, I
discuss how individuals use humor in gendered ways, thereby performing gender
and reproducing the gender system. Finally, I discuss the deconstruction of gender
through humor in the conversational humor of women friends and the political
humor of the womens movement.

2. Gender and language research: a brief history

The study of gender and language has always been an interdisciplinary eld, with
theory and research coming from communication, linguistics, anthropology, socio-
linguistics, history, literary studies, psychology, and philosophy. The feminist
movement that developed in the late 1960s in the US and Europe gave rise to a new
interest in the area within all these disciplines. By the mid-1970s, the already-large
research literature had been catalogued in a hundred-page bibliography Henley and
Thorne, 1975). The rate of increase in new books and articles was rapid (Thorne and
Henley, 1975; Thorne et al., 1983; Stannard, 1977; Spender, 1980; Lako, 1975) and has
scarcely abated since (for recent review essays, see Cameron, 1998, and Crawford, 2001).

2.1. The question of gender dierences

One of the rst questions that prompted research on gender and languageDo
women and men use language dierently?would seem to be the simplest, and the
easiest to answer. Researchers could simply compare men and womens talk to nd
out how they dier (and how they are similar) (Canary and Dindia, 1998). People
certainly believe that women and men talk (and think) dierentlyconsider the
immense popularity of advice books that tell women how to interpret the talk and
behavior of men (e.g. Why cant men open up; Naifeh and Smith, 1984), how to
improve their own ways of talking (The new assertive woman; Bloom et al., 1975),
and how to communicate across the gender gap (You just dont understand; Tan-
nen, 1990). The apotheosis of this genre arguably is Men are from Mars, women are
from Venus (Gray, 1992), which has been characterized as a tower of psycho-
babble (Gleick, 1997). However, despite continued popular interest and a very
large number of research studies, there have been few denitive answers on gender
dierences in speech style (Thorne et al., 1983).
Many inuential feminist scholars have suggested that this area of research should
no longer be given priority (cf. Thorne and Henley, 1975; Thorne et al., 1983). Their
M. Crawford / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 14131430 1415

doubts are related to the broader question of whether social scientists should study
gender-related dierences at all (Kitzinger, 1994). Some researchers maintain that
scientic data on gender-related dierences and similarities can dispel myths and
stereotypes about women (Halpern, 1994; Hyde, 1994; Canary and Dindia, 1998)
and oer corrections to both feminist and antifeminist dogma (Eagly, 1994). Others
maintain that focusing on dierences is a mistake (Hare-Mustin and Marecek, 1994;
Crawford, 1989a; Crawford and Marecek, 1989; Unger, 1989, 1992).
The vexing issue of sex dierences has been and remains theoretically important.
In earlier work, I discussed some limitations of a focus on dierence including the
following (Crawford, 1995):

1. It encourages us to think of women and men as opposites, when there is much

more gender similarity than dierence. When researchers choose to focus on
the dierences, they are making a value judgment about what is important.
Even when a reliable dierence is found, we know little about its causes.
Despite the most careful matching of samples, women and men who are in
identical situations may be functioning in dierent social worlds because of
others social reactions to them as women or men. In some senses,
researchers, through their epistemological assumptions and methodological
choices, create the very dierences they seek (Crawford, 1989a; Lampert and
Ervin-Tripp, 1998).
2. It distracts attention from issues of power and dominance in language. What
appears to be a sex dierence may instead reect linkages among gender,
status, and power. For example, the hesitant, weak and humorless speech
style originally called womens language (Lako, 1975) was later shown to
be used by both males and females when they are lower in power or status
than their conversational partners (OBarr and Atkins, 1980). In order to
understand power and dominance in language and naming, critics argue that
researchers should focus less on static gender dierences in speech patterns
and more on the functions of language in discourse (Kitzinger, 1991).
3. The dierence approach treats women as a unitary category. Women (and
men) dier from each other in race, (dis)ability, sexuality, class, and age.
Foregrounding gender as the only or most important dierence moves these
other dimensions to the background. Researchers on dierences often have
not considered these aspects of diversity as they chose samples for study or
oered interpretations of their ndings (Fine, 1985). For example, Lakos
claim that there is a distinctive womans style inuenced research for decades
(Crawford, 1995; Hall and Bucholtz, 1995). However, it was based entirely on
Lakos observations of educated, white, middle-class speakers, not a more
representative or diverse group of women (Henley, 1995). Because speech
communities are local cultural constructions, factors such as race/ethnicity,
social class, and gender may aect communication dierently in each (Coates
and Cameron, 1988; Nichols, 1980, 1983).
4. The dierence approach treats gender as a xed, static attribute of indivi-
duals, and minimizes or overlooks the importance of situation and context on
1416 M. Crawford / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 14131430

communication strategies. It is an essentialist approach. That is, it views

gender as a fundamental, essential part of the individual. Some examples of
essentialist claims are the belief that women as a group lack a sense of humor
or value cooperative, intimacy-enhancing speech styles. These essentialist
views portray womens speech as relatively uniform across situations. They
imply that women speak in particular ways because they are women. The
supposedly fundamental attributes of women and men (which dene mas-
culinity and femininity) are believed to determine gendered roles and actions.
This approach begs the questions of how and why gender is continually
negotiated and re-enacted in discourse and other aspects of social interaction.

These theoretical limitations have inuenced researchers to take a broader, more

comprehensive view of gender. Within the same time period as this reconceptuali-
zation was taking place, there has been an increasing interest in spoken language
and discourse as a focus of social science research. Thus, both gender and language
(including humor) are in the process of being redened.

3. Redening gender and humor

3.1. Gender as a social construction

Partly because of problems in establishing valid and reliable gender dierences in

language and speech style, and partly inuenced by the growing interest in discourse
within the social sciences generally, research on gender and language has expanded
its early focus on cataloguing dierences. Increasingly, researchers are asking ques-
tions grounded in social interactionist and social constructionist stances. In contrast
to an essentialist stance, which views gender as a fundamental attribute of individuals,
both social interactionists (e.g. Deaux and LaFrance, 1998) and social construc-
tionists (e.g. Kessler and McKenna, 1978) view gender as a social constructa system
of meaning that organizes interactions and governs access to power and resources.
Social interactionists maintain that research should focus on the individual in the
context of her or his social roles, status, and culture. The social interactionist per-
spective views gender as a system of meanings that operates at individual, inter-
actional, and social structural levels (Crawford, 1995; Crawford and Unger, 2000;
Deaux and LaFrance, 1998). At the social structural level, all known human societies
make distinctions based on gender. Like race, class, and sexual orientation, gender
inuences access to power, status, and material resources. At the interactional level,
people use gender cues in deciding how to behave toward others in social interac-
tions. Moreover, such gender categorization is not simply a way of reacting to dif-
ferences, but a way of creating them. When people are treated as gendered beings in
ordinary daily interaction, they may come to behave dierently in return. When they
do, their behavior re-creates the expectation that women and men are naturally
divergent, and ought to be so, reinforcing continued gender inequality at the social
structural level. At the individual level, gender becomes part of the self-concept;
M. Crawford / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 14131430 1417

when a cognitive schema for gender has been internalized, enacting masculinity or
femininity seems natural.
The level at which one chooses to study gender inuences what phenomena will be
conceived as interesting and important; indeed, it determines what constitutes data.
For those concerned with language and discourse, the interactional level is the most
interesting. However, because the three levels form a coherent system of meaning, it
is well to keep sight of all even while focusing on one.
The social constructionist position moves even further away from the essentialistic
sex dierences approach, which conceptualizes gender as something women and
men have or are, as a property or as an attribute (Bohan, 1993). For social con-
structionists, gender is not an attribute of individuals at all, but a way of making
sense of transactions. Gender is conceptualized as a verb, not a noun. The term
doing gender (West and Zimmerman, 1987) reects the social constructionist view
that gender is a salient social and cognitive category through which information is
ltered, selectively processed, and dierentially acted upon to produce self-fullling
prophecies about women and men.
How do these approaches apply to language? Both view talk as a set of strategies
for negotiating the social landscape; social constructionists in particular study talk
as an action-oriented medium in its own right, arguing that the reality constructed
through language forms the basis of social organization (Crawford, 1995; Potter and
Wetherell, 1987). According to West et al. (1997),

. . .that which we think of as womanly or manly behavior is not dictated by

biology, but rather is socially constructed. And a fundamental domain in which
gender is constructed is language use. . .Language does not merely reect a pre-
existing sexist world; instead, it actively constructs gender asymmetries within
specic sociohistorical contexts (119120).

Indeed, language and speech style are important components of doing gender.
For example, Kessler and McKennas (1978) interviews of transsexuals1 showed the
importance of speech stylevocabulary, intonation, and other pragmatic aspects
in passing as a gender inconsistent with ones biological sex. And Hall and
Bucholtz (1995) note that transgendered people now consult the ubiquitous self-help
and popular psychology books that describe dierences in mens and womens talk
in order to perfect their passing.
For another case of linguistic gender performativity, consider a site where
womens language is overtly manipulated: the 900-number fantasy lines (Hall, 1995).

In 1978, when Kessler and McKenna wrote, the term transsexual was standard usage to refer to
people whose psychological gender identity was incongruent with their biological sex assignment, and who
attempted to change the latter through hormonal treatment, surgery, or behavioral passing. A roughly
equivalent term in contemporary usage is transgendered person. However, because the category has
assumed theoretical importance in gender studies, and because transgender and intersex movements are
becoming more visible politically, terminology has become more contested. For a discussion of the impact
of Kessler and McKennas work, and the theoretical implications of transgender phenomena, see Craw-
ford (2000a).
1418 M. Crawford / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 14131430

These services allow telephone callers (usually male) to engage in a verbal sexual
encounter with a woman who is paid to do so. The sex worker never meets her cli-
ent, and they know nothing about each other.
Since the telephone as a medium does not allow for visual stimulation, the fantasy
must be created in words alone. To create the illusion of intimacy, the women draw
upon the discourse of male pornography. Their training manuals for the job tell
them to create stereotypical characters such as bimbo, nymphomaniac, mistress,
slave, lesbian, and virgin. They are also instructed to be bubbly, sexy, interesting,
and interested (Hall, 1995, pp. 190191).
In interviews with phone sex workers, Hall (1995) found that they were very aware
of what kind of womens language is marketable. They consciously created sexy
talk by using feminine or owery words, inviting and supportive comments, and
a dynamic intonation pattern (breathy, excited, varied in pitch, lilting). These are
features often characterized as submissive or powerless (Lako, 1975). However, the
women on the fantasy lines did not feel powerless; they generally felt quite superior
to their male callers, whom they characterized as unintelligent and socially inept.
And one of the most eective of the phone sex workers was a biological male who
impersonated a femaleclearly, an expert in performing linguistic femininity.
This study illustrates the social constructionist position that meaning is co-con-
structed and contextual. Within the context of the fantasy lines, sex workers
manipulate feminine talk in a way that brings them some power as individuals
(though it does not enhance the status or power of women collectively). They engage
in a limited sort of creativity as they generate characters and scripts, they earn a
great deal of money and they can play at sex anonymously with no fear of violence,
sexually transmitted diseases, or social sanction. To the male callers, the fantasy
woman constructed entirely through language is presumably satisfying.
The construction of the feminine woman on the fantasy lines is an unusual case,
because it is overt, a form of game-playing. Usually, femininity is constructed out-
side of conscious awareness, as a natural part of social interaction. Consider the
talk of adolescent girls. Girls do many dierent things in talk. One of their most
important accomplishments is to create and sustain friendships by sharing experi-
ences and feelings in supportive ways. They also co-construct their femininity: they
enact and perform what it is to be a real girl in their particular community and cul-
ture. For example, Coates (1996) recorded a conversation among four 16-year-old
British girls who were talking about one of their group as she tried on another girls
makeup. In complimenting her (Doesnt she look really nice?, She does look
nice, You should wear make-up more often), they are being supportive friends.
At the same time, however, they are co-constructing a social reality where looking
good is very important and working on ones appearance is expected. Cameron has
nicely summarized the constructionist view of gender performativity:

If I talk like a woman this is not just the inevitable outcome of the fact that I
am a woman; it is one way I have of becoming a woman, producing myself as
one. There is no such thing as being a woman outside the various practices
that dene womanhood for my culturepractices ranging from the sort of
M. Crawford / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 14131430 1419

work I do to my sexual preferences to the clothes I wear to the way I use lan-
guage (1996, p. 46).

Other research on the talk of young women shows discursive practices that con-
struct femininity in less predictable ways. A study of the conversation of several
overlapping groups of Australian university students, some heterosexual and some
lesbian, showed that their talk was often subversive. These women thought of
themselves as feminists and antipatriarchal women, and their friendships crossed
gay/straight boundaries. Their conversation showed that their social construction of
themselves as feminists subverted the larger societal discourse about gender and
sexuality. For example, the following talk took place among three friends upon
hearing that the mother of another friend was planning to marry a man she had
been having an aair with for only a month:

oh my god what?
oh my god that is sick
that is awful
that is terrible
that is horrible
that is foul
that is really foul
I just thought oh god how shit
its awful horrible horrible
oh yuk thats gross

They go on to talk about marriage in negative terms (the M-word) and question
why any woman in her right mind would do such a thing:

I thought at least she could have come to her senses after a few weeks. Fling,
aair, relationship, these things I can deal with, marriage I cant.

Their talk is more than just a comment on one particular situation; what it
accomplishes is an overturning of the hegemonic discourse that represents marriage
as the be-all-and-end-all of womens lives (Coates and Jordan, 1997, pp. 217218).
In the social construction of gender, resistance as well as acquiescence to gender
asymmetries can be examined through research on language.

3.2. Humor as a mode of discourse

Humor has been conceptualized as a distinct discursive mode by many theorists,

most notably Mulkay (1988). Mulkay set out to specify the characteristics that dis-
tinguish ordinary non-humorous speech from joke-telling and spontaneous witti-
cisms. First, he examined the assumptions about reality that underlie non-humorous
talk, which he labeled the serious mode of discourse. Within the serious mode,
speakers assume that there is a single, objective reality that in principle could be
1420 M. Crawford / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 14131430

socially agreed upon. In speaking within this mode of discourse, people try to avoid
self-contradiction, to resolve disagreements of interpretation, and to eliminate
ambiguity and paradoxes of meaning. Of course, dierences in the interpretation of
reality are common, but a goal of talk in the serious mode is to minimize them in the
service of comprehension and smooth social functioning.
In contrast, Mulkay argues, the humor mode has dierent interpretive procedures.
Humor is not mere nonsense. Rather, it is a particular form of controlled, rule-bound
nonsense. Many theories of humor have incorporated the notion that humorous
eects depend on the juxtaposition of two or more incongruous ways of viewing an
aspect of reality. Mulkay draws on these theories to develop his own arguments that
humor is a distinct discursive mode dened by its acceptance of ambiguity, paradox,
multiple interpretations of reality, and partially resolved incongruity. Mulkay but-
tresses his contention that the humor and serious modes are linguistically distin-
guishable by showing that changes from one to the other mode are marked. Entry
into and linguistic performance in the humor mode are co-constructed by con-
versational participants. Speakers signal their intent as they attempt a shift to the
humor mode, and hearers may either cooperate or deny recognition of the attemp-
ted shift in discourse mode with a variety of linguistic and paralinguistic strategies
(Hay, 1999; Mulkay, 1988).
Once speakers agree that they are engaging in humorous interaction, conver-
sational postulates can be violated without interfering with communication
(Attardo, 1993). Socially unspeakable topics can more readily enter the discourse,
because the ambiguity of the humor mode allows them to be talked about in dis-
guised and deniable form. Hospital humor, for example, is a site for venting fears of
death and disease. For similar reasons, power relations can be inverted in the humor
mode without lasting consequences. Joking about those in power, whether politi-
cians, religious leaders, or the rich and famous, vents feelings, questions the justice
of the hierarchy, and temporarily appropriates the power of ridicule, but usually
does not change the power hierarchy.
How do the reconceptualizations of gender and humor outlined here point to new
research strategies? Social constructionist and social interactionist perspectives on
gender encourage us not to focus on decontextualized sex dierences, but instead to
ask how masculinity and femininity are constructedand resistedthrough talk.
Conceptualizing humor as a mode of discourse encourages research on interactional
humor. The earlier emphases on individual dierences in humor appreciation and
on sense of humor as a personality trait are giving way to a focus on humor that
occurs spontaneously in social interaction (Crawford, 1989b). The humorous dis-
course itself, rather than the individuals who produce it, becomes the object of
Conceiving humor as a discourse mode leads to the recognition that one can do
virtually anything with itand also that some functions are more likely than others.
What can be accomplished with humor depends greatly on its immediate social
context (Lampert and Ervin-Tripp, 1998). Indeed, the full meaning of any text can only
be derived contextually (Attardo, 1993). Therefore, no functional taxonomy of humor
can be complete. For purposes of discursive analysis, the most useful taxonomies are
M. Crawford / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 14131430 1421

those that are based on naturalistic interactions in particularized social settings;

they are grounded in historically and locally situated speech communities (cf. Hay,
Because social constructionists conceptualize language as dynamically uctuating
in response to speakers goals and intentions in particular social circumstances and
speech communities, they endorse the use of interpretive and context-sensitive
research strategies such as ethnomethodology (Garnkel, 1967), analyses of speakers
own accounts (Crawford and Gressley, 1991; Van Gien and Meyer, 1995), diary
studies (Kambouropoulou, 1930; White, 1988), speech act analysis (Gervasio, 1987;
Gervasio and Crawford, 1989), and discourse analysis (Crawford, 1995; Potter and
Wetherell, 1987; Todd and Fisher, 1988; Wilkinson and Kitzinger, 1995). This
methodological plurality and innovation is characteristic of feminist research in the
social sciences (Kimmel and Crawford, 2000; Reinharz, 1992), and increasingly
characteristic of research on gender and humor (Crawford, 1995; Lampert and
Ervin-Tripp, 1998). Drawing on work in these modalities, I turn now to a discussion
of doing gender through humor.

4. Gender and humor: discursive interpretations

4.1. Doing gender through humor

Gender is performed through a variety of self-presentational strategies including

attire, nonverbal behavior, and role enactment, all of which succeed because they t
others pre-existing expectations (Kessler and McKenna, 1978). Humor is certainly
not the most important way people do gender, but neither is it insignicant. The
power of conversational humor in constructing and presenting a self is related to its
exibility, indirectness, and ambiguity (Mulkay, 1988).

4.1.2. Girl talk: discourses of femininity

Inuenced by the two-culture model of gender and communication (Maltz and
Borker, 1982; see also Crawford, 1995), some theorists have proposed that the
humor of women functions to create solidarity and build intimacy, while the humor
of men functions as a form of status competition. When women give accounts of
their own humor preferences and practices, they report that they like to tell and hear
anecdotes about mundane happenings (Crawford and Gressley, 1991). Often, these
accounts construct the teller as helpless or overwhelmed by events (Coates, 1996).
However, their function seems to be not self-deprecation, but the construction of a
community of shared understandings about lifes absurdities. One woman respon-
ded to an interviewers question about talk with friends as follows:

We probably laugh a lot and nd things that are in common. . .so that you
wouldyou would pick up on one thing and then the person reinforced that by
saying well the same thing happened to them, or it happened in a dierent way,
then youd have a laugh because its a shared thing (Coates, 1996, p. 56).
1422 M. Crawford / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 14131430

Studies of womens humor in single-gender friendship groups are congruent with

self-reports. Hay (2001) analyzed conversational humor in same- and mixed-gender
groups of friends in New Zealand. A major nding was that women used the sharing
of funny personal stories to create solidarity. In earlier research in the U.S., Jenkins
(1985) studied womens humor through participant observation. In a group of
mothers of young children who met weekly at a neighborhood church, she found
examples of humor that gently mocked unrealistic expectations of mothers (one
mother to another: I dont know about you, but my children are perfect. . .). She
also noted a collaborative storytelling style. Instead of a single speaker holding the
oor and leading up to the climax or punch line of a story in linear fashion, speakers
told stories of their own experiences by rst presenting the main point and then
recounting the tale with the encouragement and participation of the other group
members. Kalcik (1975) observed a similar dynamic in womens rap groups, in
which the kernel of a story would be told rst so that hearers, knowing the direc-
tion and point of the story all along, could participate in the telling.
Having conducted a unique and important long-term study of the talk of women
friends, Coates (1996) argues that their talk is constitutive of friendship. In their
conversation, they do being friends. The linguistic forms favored by groups of
women friends are highly functional. They include telling stories, using questions to
draw others into the conversation, and maintaining a collaborative oor that prior-
itizes the group and symbolizes connections between speakers. The collaborative oor
is both qualitatively and quantitatively dierent from one-at-a-time turn taking;
within it, laughter, joking, and teasing are important ways of doing friendship.
While these studies form a coherent picture of the humor of women friends as
intimacy-oriented, collaborative, and anecdotal, it is important to remember that
these functions are neither unique to women, nor are they the only functions of
womens humor. Both quantitative and interpretive research suggests that char-
acterizing men as interested only in status, and women only in solidarity, is simplis-
tic and misleading, reminiscent of the much-criticized sex dierences approach. For
example, Hays research with friendship groups in New Zealand showed that men,
like women, used humor to build solidarity in same-gender groups, through remi-
niscing about shared experiences and highlighting similarities among the partici-
pants. Crawford and Gressley (1991) found women and men more alike than
dierent in their self-reported humor use. Both valued wit, creativity, and the caring
functions of humor: expressing positive regard, sharing, and creating community.
And in an interesting series of studies (summarized in Lampert and Ervin-Tripp,
1998), Lampert and Ervin-Tripp examined both gender and ethnicity eects on
humor in naturally occurring conversations. Overall, women and men used much
the same kinds of humor. However, the form of humor expressed was context-
dependent. For example, women used humor directed at the self among their women
friends, but rarely in mixed-gender groups; men, on the other hand, rarely used self-
directed humor among their male friends, but did make self-deprecating wisecracks
in mixed-gender groups.
Thus, humor directed at the self, whether the personal anecdote in which the
narrator is the helpless victim of fate, or the self-deprecating wisecrack seems to
M. Crawford / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 14131430 1423

serve somewhat dierent functions for women and men. While the collaborative,
self-revealing style of storytelling is not unique to women, it may serve their inter-
ests better than more individualistic styles used when they are in all-woman groups.
(For a dierent view on women and humor directed at the self, see also Kottho,

4.1.3. Guy talk: discourses of masculinity

Feminist researchers have tended to pay more attention to womens talk than to
mens for several reasons. It is easier for female researchers to get access to the talk
of all-female groups, and impossible for them to participate in and observe all-male
groups. Moreover, feminist research on men may be criticized as treating men as
(still) more important than women (Cameron, 1998). Nevertheless, research on
mens talk is increasing, based on the understanding that masculinity does not exist
in isolation from femininity. Rather, their meanings depend on each other. Mens
behavior is just as gendered as womens.
Based on their interview data from a diverse sample of British men, Wetherell and
Edley (1999) investigated how men create and take on the social identity of being a
man in their talk. Using critical discourse analysis, the researchers identied three
patterns that men used to describe their masculinity and position themselves socially
as men. In the rst pattern, dubbed Heroic positions, men aligned themselves with
standard masculine ideals: being in charge at work or in competitive athletics, out-
doing other men, being courageous, physically tough and able to stay cool. In the
second pattern, Ordinary positions, men described themselves as just normal,
average guys, not macho men. In the third pattern, Rebellious positions, they
described themselves as outing social expectations of masculinity. These gender
rebels reported that they could (and did) cry, cook, knit, wear jewelry, and so on.
Constructing masculinity as ordinariness or rebellion may be forms of resistance
against the heroic ideal. However, Wetherell and Edley argue, these constructions
may still function to reproduce male power. Even when the men saw themselves as
ordinary or rebellious, they explained and justied their dierence from other men
in terms of their personal strength, independence and autonomyall aspects of
heroic masculinity.
Because masculinity is so largely dened as having power, many studies of mens
talk have focused on how men position themselves with respect to less powerful
groups. Mulkay (1988) examined how women are represented in mens sexual
humor, based on comic routines in British pub acts. Mulkay found that the themes
of this humor objectied women, emphasized their sexual availability (all women
always want sex even if they deny it), and silenced womens voices.
In a study of male US college students conversation while watching a basketball
game on television, Cameron (1997) noted that in addition to sports talk, the young
men talked about daily eventstheir classes, doing the food shoppingand their
sexual exploits with women. (The male student who collected the data summarized
their talk as wine, women, and sports). However, another important topic was
joking and gossip about other (despised) men, whom they called gay. Rather than
accurately reecting sexual orientation, their characterizations of other men as gay
1424 M. Crawford / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 14131430

seemed to be a way of displaying their own heterosexual masculinity. Like the men
in Mulkays study, who distinguished themselves from mere women by objectifying
and sexualizing them, these men distinguished themselves from unmasculine men
by denigrating them as artsy fartsy fags and homos. Cameron notes that this
kind of discursive strategy is not only about masculinity, it is a sustained perfor-
mance of masculinity (1997, p. 590, emphasis in original).
The studies reviewed in this section illustrate the creation and maintenance of
gender distinctions within local communities of practice (Eckert and McConnell-
Ginet, 1992). The meaning of gender within communities as diverse as British or North
American college students, British pub regulars, and American mothers support
groups certainly diers. Although the authors of the studies may not have employed
the concept of community of practice, their work shows discursive constructions of
masculinity and femininity within particular sets of social arrangements, and should
not be employed as evidence of universal or even broadly cultural dierences.

4.2. Deconstructing gender through humor

An important function of womens humor, implicit in some of the examples given

earlier, is resistance to dominant constructions of femininity (Crawford, 1995). For
any socially subordinated group, developing a sense of group identity and solidarity
is the rst step toward political and social change. Coates (1996) argues that the talk
women do with their friends encourages such identication. In the playful use of
humor, women try out dierent social constructions of what it means to be a woman
at this moment in history. Because the humor of women friends is highly colla-
borative and inclusive of all those present, it helps women jointly move to a new
awareness of how things might be, a new understanding of the patterns we observe.
In the talk of women friends, new selves are forged and new knowledges are devel-
oped. . .It is the radical potential of womens friendships that makes them worthy of
close investigation (Coates, 1996, p. 286).
Scattered research hints at the emancipatory potential of womens humor, often in
studies where humor was not the primary focus. In a study of Latina girls in a resi-
dential therapeutic institution, interaction in group therapy sessions was analyzed
(Houghton, 1995). Much of the talk in these sessions is about female identity, rela-
tionships, contraception, and sexuality. Clients do most of the talking, but the
therapist actively controls the talk. Therapists may interrupt clients and challenge
their ways of speaking, but clients may not reciprocate. For example, during a dis-
cussion of teen pregnancy, a client said, You know how it is when you just want to
have a baby, just something that is yours and belongs to you. The therapist inter-
rupted and directed her to use I instead of you. From the therapists perspec-
tive, this would encourage the client to own the views she expresseda technique
often directed at women in therapy and assertiveness training (Gervasio and Craw-
ford, 1989; Crawford, 1995). However, the clients use of you expressed a com-
monality of experience with the other girls who were present. The therapists act of
controlling language by prescribing the correct way to talk about feelings allowed
her, as a member of a more powerful social group, to privilege one (culturally
M. Crawford / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 14131430 1425

legitimated) system of meanings and social reality over another; the girls meaning is
positioned as less valid. The structures of dominance involve not only the power to
put girls in institutions for their own good, but to control the form, content, and
meaning of their talk.
Nevertheless, the girls in this study were resistant to control. A common form of
linguistic resistance was to mimic the therapists professional language. For example,
after one girl told a personal story in group therapy, another might say, How does
that make you feel? Ironic (non-serious mode) appropriation of therapeutic dis-
course is an eective strategy in this case. The comment permits at least two inter-
pretations: either the girl is really concerned or she is reminding the other girls of the
therapists insincere and formulaic questions. In this case, the ambiguity (hence
deniability) of the humor mode protects the speaker from negative consequences.
Womens resistance to social control is also expressed in talk about sexuality, a
frequent source of humor (Crawford, 1995, 2000b.) Green (1977) described the
humor of a speech community of US southern white women. Most of her examples
were collected at family gatherings, where men congregated outdoors while women
and children were in the kitchen. Many of the most outspoken of the bawdy
humorists were old women. Like many traditional cultures, the US South allows
increasing license to old women, and Green notes that the women she observed took
full advantage in presenting themselves as wicked:

Once, when my grandmother stepped out of the bathtub, and my sister com-
mented that the hair on her privates was getting rather sparse, Granny
retorted that grass dont grow on a racetrack (p. 31).

The womens humor served at least three functions. First, it provided respect and
status for the storyteller. Second, it was educational. Green suggests that the sexual
information children gleaned from stories of lustful young married couples, cynical
prostitutes, rowdy preachers, impotent drunks, and wicked old ladies was at least as
accurate as a parental sex ed lecture, and much more fun. Perhaps most important,
womens bawdy humor was subversive of the cultural rules controlling womens sexu-
ality. The very telling dees the rules. . .Women are not supposed to know or repeat
such stu. But they do and when they do, they speak ill of all that is sacredmen, the
church, marriage, home, family, parents (p. 33). Green speculates that the women in
this speech community used humor to vent their anger at men, oer alternative realities
to their female audience, and, by including children in the circle of listeners, perform
tiny act[s] of revenge on the men who had power over their lives (p. 33).
If, as I have argued, womens humor both conrms conventional femininity and
serves as a site of resistance to it, one might expect that the social and political
changes wrought by the feminist movement would be reected in humor practices.
In the past, before feminism provided a context for a collective identity as women,
research showed that both men and women reported enjoying humor directed at
women. Lampert and Ervin-Tripp (1998) reviewed over 40 studies conducted
between 1970 and 1996 seeking evidence for a decline in the acceptance of anti-
female humor and a rise of pro-feminist or resistant humor. They concluded that
1426 M. Crawford / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 14131430

there are trends toward diminished acceptance of anti-female humor and an

increased acceptance of humor that challenges traditional views of gender by tar-
geting men. These trends are most pronounced among people who espouse pro-
feminist or liberal attitudes.
These results demonstrate the importance of social context in understanding
humor, and suggest another question: given the inuence of the feminist movement
on western society in the past decades, has it given rise to a distinctive feminist
humor? I have argued (Crawford, 1995) that, as women began to challenge received
wisdom about gender roles and relations in the consciousness-raising groups and
political organizations of the 1970s, they evolved a distinctive humor that can be a
powerful tool of political activism. Here, the solidarity-building function of humor
goes beyond the immediate context of cohesiveness among small groups of friends,
and is used to create a collective group identity, without which a group cannot
mobilize for social change (Liss et al., 2000).
The collective identity of feminists often has been expressed in public forms of
humor. For example, feminist humor may subvert the premise that women are less
competent than men. T-shirts and lapel buttons in the 1970s proclaimed, A
Womans Place is in the Houseand the Senate. It also mocks the idea that
women need men to fulll their sexual and emotional needs and cannot survive without
them. Another 1970s feminist aphorism is A woman without a man is like a sh with-
out a bicycle. A more recent example of feminist humor that pokes fun at womens
presumed obsession with men is Nicole Hollanders two-panel cartoon seen on T-shirts
and calendars. The rst panel, titled What men hope women are saying when they go to
the washroom together, depicts two women bragging about the skill of their lovers. The
second, What theyre really saying, shows the womens actual conversation: Do you
think cake is better than sex? What kind of cake? (Hollander, 1994).
In an interview, Hollander noted that Men are frightened by womens humor
because they think that when women are alone theyre making fun of men. This is
perfectly true, but they think were making fun of their equipment when in fact there
are so many more interesting things to make fun ofsuch as their value systems
(Barreca, 1991, p. 198).
Feminist humor frequently acknowledges mens ability to dene reality in ways
that meet their needs. Yet, in making that acknowledgement public, it subverts
mens reality by exposing its social construction. As Florynce Kennedy said, If men
could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament. Gloria Steinems essay, If
Men Could Menstruate (Steinem, 1983) describes how menstruation would
become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event and sanitary supplies would
be federally funded and free.
How do feminists dierentiate themselves as feminists in and through their
humor? How do they use humor in groups of like-minded women? There are only a
few studies of discursive practices. White (1988) asked self-identied feminists to
keep humor diaries over an eight-week period. From an analysis of three diaries,
White concluded that the values expressed were generalized positive evaluation of
women, celebration of womens experiences, armation of womens strengths and
capabilities, and autonomy and self-denition for women.
M. Crawford / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 14131430 1427

Just as feminist humor subverts the inexible gender roles of the dominant cul-
ture, it mocks inexibility among feminists. In this example from a diary entry about
lesbian sexuality, a feminist jokes about how the notion of political correctness can
be coercive for women, and asserts her own autonomy, placing limits on the inu-
ence she will allow to feminist doctrine in her own life:

Politically correct sex lasts at least three hours, since everyone knows were
process-oriented and not goal-oriented. If we do have orgasms, those orgasms
must be simultaneous. And we must lie side by side. Now I know that some
people think that orgasms are patriarchal. But Ive given up many things for
feminism, and this isnt going to be one of them (White, 1988, p. 83).

The most important role for humor in the creation of a feminist culture may be
the articulation of common meanings (White, 1988). By creating and arming their
own meanings, feminists create a sense of community, allowing themselves to self-
identify as feminists and enact their feminism in everyday interaction. Today, with
many young women and some young men identifying as third-wave feminists
(Liss et al., 2000), there are opportunities for more research on the co-construction
of feminist identity through language in pro-feminist communities of practice.

5. Conclusions

Women and men use humor in same-gender and mixed-gender settings as one of
the tools of gender construction. Through it and other means, they constitute them-
selves as masculine men and feminine women. At the same time, the unique properties
of humor make it a valuable tool of gender deconstruction. As women have developed
a group identity around feminist issues, a distinctive form of humor has emerged. In
the public political humor of the womens movement, and in the conversational
humor of women friends, resistance to hegemonic views of gender can be voiced.


Portions of this chapter were adapted from Crawford (1995, 2000b) and Crawford
and Unger (2000). Thanks are due to two anonymous reviewers whose suggestions
for revision were very helpful.


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Mary Crawford is Professor of Psychology at the University of Connecticut. She is a consulting editor for
Psychology of Women Quarterly, Feminism and Psychology, and Sex Roles, and a Fellow of both the
American Psychological Association and the American Psychological Society. Mary Crawford has spoken
and written about womens issues for audiences as diverse as the British Psychological Society, the
Swedish Research Council, Ms. Magazine and the Oprah Winfrey Show. Books she has authored or edi-
ted include Gender and Thought: Psychological Perspectives (1989); Talking Dierence: On Gender and
Language (1995); Gender Dierences in Human Cognition (1997); Coming Into Her Own: Educational
Success in Girls and Women (1999); Innovative Methods for Feminist Psychological Research (1999); and a
widely used text and reader, Women and Gender: A Feminist Psychology (third ed., 2000) and In Our Own
Words (second ed., 2001).