Phillip Glenn's On Sexism in Conversational Joking

On Sexism in Conversational Joking

  • Volume 6 
  • Issue 5 
  • November 2003
bit 1Sometimes people engage in joking talk that might be characterized as blatantly sexist.1A judgmental label such as "sexist" does not mean the same thing to different people. I've picked instances of joking that I think most readers would judge as sexist. That is not a claim that the participants themselves orient to the talk as sexist; or if they did, that they would agree that such joking is problematic. Indeed, one purpose of undertaking such analysis is to attempt to characterize what the talk is and what it is doing for its producers in the first place. What do people accomplish in and through joking based on negative sexual stereotypes?
bit 2Three examples are presented below. One involves demeaning joking about categories of women; the other two involve demeaning joking about particular individuals. 2 In all three cases, this talk provides a resource for participants to mark aspects of identity and relationship while furthering joking and laughter. The laughables and laughter provide sequential warrants for extending such talk. Furthermore, analysis will show how participants may implicate themselves more or less in offensive talk; there are minimal ways to play along just as there are ways to mark one's full cooperation in what is getting said. These issues will be taken up in the discussion of each instance and in the closing remarks.

Example 1: Stan and Dave

bit 3Two university students are talking on the phone. At the moment of interest, Stan is telling of his recent whereabouts. Dave takes this mention of a wedding to make a comment (line 39) that opens up a sequence of demeaning talk about women:
bit 4transcript
bit 5Dave's initial assessment of the "wool" at weddings is gratuitous in that it takes one element from Stan's prior telling and uses it to sexualize the talk. Weddings are now occasions for noticing good-looking women. Stan immediately agrees with Dave's assessment3 and provides an alternative term, "coot" (line 40), thereby implicating himself fully in the demeaning talk. Their use of metaphorical language helps key a shift into a play frame (Goffman, 1974), and they sustain it with additional metaphors ("shit," "dog meat"). Stan compares girls "down here" (in the college town) to the city girls "up there" (in the big city in that state) in terms of their desirability, sexual availability, and demeanor (lines 44-54). They compare overweight girls to livestock and laugh (lines 58-66). Following Dave's laughter, Stan poses a question that takes them to another topic (lines 67-68).
bit 6The sexist nature of this talk lies both in the activities done and in the terms used in doing those actions. They refer to women in colloquial, sexual, reductionistic terms, based on the objectifying male gaze. They assess women as either good-looking and a "challenge" or overweight but "easy to grease," both sets of comparisons playing on derogatory stereotypes (cold/standoffish v. easy/sluttish; thin/desirable v. overweight/undesirable). They compare women to wool, coot, shit, dog meat, and livestock.
bit 7We can see these young men doing identity and relationship work through this talk. By making the blanket assertion about "wool" at weddings, Dave positions himself as worldly and knowledgeable enough to make this assessment. Stan's agreement asserts his membership in the club of discerning, heterosexual male. They claim knowledge of whether women are "easy to grease" or not. Dave positions himself as picking and choosing women for sexual partners, provided they keep themselves thin enough. They are also accomplishing relationship work. Dave is the leader who initiates the assessments. Stan is the follower who reinforces Dave's claims and laughs at Dave's jokes. "Women" serve as topical resources for these endeavors.

Example 2: Dan and Jeff

bit 8Two men talk on the phone, interspersing playful joking with family news and business (Apparently, Dan manages an apartment complex and Jeff does work for him). After a couple of minutes of conversation, Jeff asks Dan's Thanksgiving holiday plans and Dan replies that he and his wife will leave town and leave another person in charge of the apartments. Reference to this person moves them into blatantly sexist talk:
bit 9transcript
bit 10Dan's initial reference to Dana as "one a the girls" (line 79) genders the scene4 , but he does not refer to the specific woman until following Jeff's show of interest (line 82). He identifies the "girl" by first name only in a question that calls on Jeff to confirm recognition of her. Jeff does so by providing an additional descriptor of her as having "big- wangers" (line 84)--hearable as a colloquialism for breasts. Jeff's questioning intonation invites Dan to confirm that they are talking about the same person. In this way it slips sexism in as part of the ongoing talk activity5 . It also serves to shift the talk from the topic of holiday plans to Donna and her appearance. Dan produces an unenthusiastic confirmation (line 86) and a nonsexual reference to her by a room location (lines 88-89). Jeff again assesses while shifting the referent from breasts to the whole person ("Big girl, bi:g.="). Dan seconds this assessment and links back to the previous "wangers" reference by adding that "everything's" big on her. Jeff's expressed appreciation (line 94) of Donna draws laughter from Dan but no reciprocal appreciation. Jeff again appreciates (line 98) and Dan agrees but does not share the assessment, implicitly marking it as Jeff's alone (lines 100-101). Dan then asks Jeff's holiday plans, and this moves them away from the playful talk about Donna.
bit 11Like in the preceding instance, here both playfulness and sexism get keyed by an assessment employing metaphoric language that reduces a woman to a (presumably sexually attractive) body part and instantiates the objectifying male gaze. By this assessment, Jeff identifies himself as heterosexual male who notices women's possible sexual attractiveness. Unlike the previous instance, however, here a co-participant displays some resistance (Glenn, 2003, p. 150). "Wangers" poses a test of sorts for Dan: to "get it" he must recognize the colloquialism, know what constitutes "big," and show whether or not he has noticed this part of Donna's anatomy. To do so is to participate in sexist talk. Dan shows that he understands the talk and has noticed Dana's appearance; he also shows resistance to participating in the sexualized assessments of her. Nevertheless, the "wangers" talk provides a resource for pulling them into joking interaction. While joking they can display identities as heterosexual males who recognize and can talk about sexual, visual features of women.

Example 3: W and T

bit 12Two university students talk in a dormitory room6 . W is telling a story about Monica, who is his "little sister" via his fraternity. Such a relationship implies in part that they spend time together in non-dating, non-sexual relationship. As we pick up on the story in progress, he is telling about her coming out of her room and asking him how she looks. His reference to not starting with her "on the wrong foot" suggests that she was treating him (inappropriately) like a date. In overlap with his talk that would return to events in the story (line 34), T offers a negative assessment of Monica's looks. From there they move into joking talk about Melissa as a possible sexual partner:
bit 13transcript
bit 14T packages his assessment of Monica's looks (lines 35-36) with a tag question that explicitly seeks W's agreement. W's ambiguous response marks his unwillingness to agree with the assessment. Orienting to this, T produces a subsequent version (Davidson, 1984) that begins with a more positive but also more explicitly sexual description (lines 39-40). W affiliates by assessing Monica's breasts (line 42). This line also helps key a shift into playfulness by its repetition of the three part assessment: "XXX little XXX" ("nice litt:le-bo:dy" and "cute little breasts"). 7 In a mock-Southern dialect (associated with a stereotypical "redneck" identity), T invokes and then declines the possibility of doing her violence (line 44). W affiliates in expressing sexual desire "in character" also using a mock-Southern dialect (lines 46, 48-49). He makes a sexual pun on the word "rise" (51) which T reworks (52). After lengthy shared laughter, W resumes his story (line 58).
bit 15These two young men talk about Monica, not as a "little sister" (her role in W's story) but as a sexual object. They describe her body parts in demeaning terms. They invoke joking identities as sexually violent characters who might consider killing a girl if she isn't attractive enough. They get to this talk by T derailing W's story in progress and W going along with the derailment. Derailing the story also means unmasking W's character in the story as someone who is concerned that his "little sister" might be treating him as a date. Dislodging W's big brother identity brings him to acknowledge that he, like T, has turned the male gaze on Monica and can provide assessments of her body and attractiveness. It allows space for them affiliate as heterosexual males who view women and women's bodies. More specifically, they align in their (mildly) positive assessment of Melissa. Talking about Monica as a sexual object provides them a basis for joking, doing character voices, punning, and sharing laughter.


bit 16These three instances share several common features. In each, Speaker A is engaged in an extended talk activity (listing events, recounting holiday plans, telling a story). Speaker B plays off of some aspect of Speaker A's talk to introduce a sexually-based assessment of a woman or women. Speaker A responds and the participants move into joking and laughter. All three instances involve "dissector" talk (Hopper, 2003, p. 149) that reduces women to supposedly desirable body parts (wool, wangers, and breasts). The sexual items B Speakers introduce are gratuitous in that they do not pursue the topic of talk on the floor but rather seize an opportunity to sexualize the talk. In the course of doing so they accomplish moving the talk away from what it was in the preceding turn. They initiate a new sequence in which response to the sexual item is relevant. At the same time, in two of the three instances the A speakers explicitly provide a basis for gendering the talk in their previous turns ("one of the girls" and "let's not start this off on the wrong foot").
bit 17Joking and laughter occur within sequential environments conducive to producing sexually demeaning talk that forwards an ecology of prejudice. Such talk provides materials for participants to display interactional intimacy. A speaker may introduce sexual references in order to move towards displays of like-mindedness. In each of the three instances, the B speaker produces an impropriety-a potentially offensive comment or term. Jefferson, Sacks, & Schegloff (1987) show the range of responses relevant to an impropriety, ranging from disaffiliation to appreciating with laughter and/or talk to escalating with a new impropriety. To disaffiliate from such an impropriety is to reject the proposed intimate relationship and impose distance. An escalation following an impropriety ratifies a mutual display of interactional intimacy.
bit 18A first joke or humorous remark prompting laughter provides a sequential warrant for any speaker producing another such to extend the laughter (Glenn, 2003, Ch. 4). Laughter becomes a goal for its own sake. Thus it is no accident that such intimacy sequences routinely accompany (and get accomplished through) joking talk. A second speaker producing a next humorous or playful impropriety both forwards the laughing environment and ratifies like-mindedness.
bit 19The introduction of sexual joking, whether it involves assessments, metaphorical language, or stereotyping, presents a potent interactional crossroads. By acknowledging the sexualized items the A speakers implicate themselves in this kind of talk. However, if the A Speakers disattend the sexual talk they risk being treated as naive, hypocritical, puritanical, unfriendly, or (perhaps worst of all for these individuals) not a "real" man8. For all these reasons, it is not surprising to find sexually demeaning talk occurring in environments characterized by joking, humor, and laughter.
bit 20Affirming identity and pursuing relational intimacy are not in and of themselves problematic actions. Neither, of course, is joking. We can ask ourselves what alternatives exist for these men to joke, affirm masculinity, and affiliate, without demeaning women. Yet asking such questions and labeling this talk "sexist" are part of our interaction as writer and reader, not theirs. They produced their talk for and with each other, 9 and substantive critique of such talk will benefit from coming to grips with how it unfolds in situ and what it is about for the people producing it. Otherwise we risk reifying a divide between participants' and analysts' worlds that trivializes both.


bit 211. For a discussion of sexism see Hopper, 2003, 27-30.
bit 222. That these all involve (presumably heterosexual) males talking about females is a matter of convenience sampling. It does not mean that only males engage in such talk, although it is possible that certain groups do so with greater regularity.
bit 233. Interestingly, Stan locates his assessment in a single wedding; Dave's assessment is of weddings, generalized.
bit 244. See analysis of this in Hopper, 2003, pp. 122-123; also see Hopper and LeBaron, 1998 characterizing how participants bring gender into talk
bit 255. See Sacks and Schegloff (1979) regarding rules for person reference in conversation.
bit 266. See insightful analyses of this conversation in Beach, 2000, and Hopper, 2003, p. 162.
bit 277. For a discussion of repetition's role in triggering play, see Hopper and Glenn, 1994.
bit 288. Sacks (1974) shows how in a teenage group therapy session dirty jokes may pose "understanding tests" for which those caught not "getting" the joke may be teased or regarded as naïve. Glenn (2003) shows how a hearer failing to get a sexual joke leads him to be a victim of laughing at.
bit 299. Their talk may also orient to other present and future listeners; we can only speculate how knowledge of being recorded might have figured in their interactions.
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