Dangerous laughter: the mocking of Gender Studies in academia

Gender Studies is an increasingly established and influential area of study and research, however it continues to be the object of sustained mocking within, and beyond, academia.

Maria do Mar Pereira
8 March 2013

During the last decades and in several countries, there has been significant growth in the number of Women's and Gender Studies (WGS) scholars, departments, programmes, journals, books and conferences. It is now an established and vibrant field of knowledge production, making significant contributions to our understanding of how societies’ norms about gender shape the experiences and identities of women and men, constrain the opportunities and resources that each can access, and continue to produce pervasive and damaging forms of gender inequality on a range of levels.

The field’s contributions to the advancement of knowledge (and to progressive social transformation) are numerous and undeniable; and yet, since its inception it has had to deal with a constant and persistent questioning within (and also outside) academia - is WGS really ‘proper’ knowledge?

In 1973, the influential feminist author Adrienne Rich wrote that in the US ‘women's studies are [considered] a “fad”; (…) feminist teachers are “unscholarly,” “unprofessional,” or “dykes”’. More recent analyses of the status of the field indicate that WGS continues to be seen as less credible or relevant than other academic disciplines. Studies have shown that WGS is perceived by many scholars and students as too ‘trivial’, not very academically demanding and too ‘soft’, or nothing more than consciousness-raising. WGS scholars with dazzling CVs and best-selling books report being dismissed by colleagues as not properly qualified or academically sound, and hence not worth reading or quoting. This dismissal of WGS occurs in different ways and degrees in each country, discipline or institution, but the overall picture is a clear one: WGS is not always taken seriously and this limits the opportunities for the study of gender and has a detrimental impact on WGS scholars’ career progression and access to funding and publishing opportunities.

If one considers only the claims made about WGS in public spaces and official speeches or documents, such an assessment of the situation may seem harsh and disproportionate. Indeed, most contemporary universities describe themselves as spaces of equality and of open and diverse academic inquiry, and in many Western academic communities  explicit and unequivocal public denigration of WGS has become rarer and less acceptable (although it regularly surfaces in the media in the declarations of religious authorities, politicians and other public figures). And yet, this public climate of openness does not always match what happens in university ‘corridor life’, as I discovered in a recent study.

Through ethnographic observation of academic work and interaction in Portugal and the UK, and interviews with 35 scholars working within and outside WGS, I found that claims that WGS is not proper knowledge are frequently made informally and in humorous tone, creating what one of my interviewees called a ‘culture of teasing’ around WGS. A senior WGS scholar explained to me that ‘colleagues will sometimes make teasing remarks and laugh at me and my colleagues. Feminism is seen as something which is ridiculous, something that is laughable, that does not have academic quality.’ Scholars in other institutions reported very similar experiences. One junior scholar in another institution told me: ‘My colleagues make jokes about our Gender Studies degree all the time. Whenever I invite a Gender Studies scholar to speak at a seminar, one of them says “there comes another one of your feminist friends. I wonder if she shaved?”. He’ll describe this as just a joke, nothing to take seriously, just innocent teasing, but this shows that they attribute less importance and value to Gender Studies than to other fields, which are never the butt of these kinds of jokes.’ 

This interviewee notes that the teasing is often described as ‘nothing to take seriously. This is a recurring feature of this culture of teasing across institutions, and one that I and other authors would argue plays an important role. The social psychologist Michael Billig has noted that the disclaimer that one is ‘just joking’ can enable the making of problematic or offensive claims that sidestep criticism and accountability. ‘A “friendly tease” seems to deny hostility. (…) The rhetoric (…) can be used to dissipate the negatives, like an air-spray freshening up a bathroom. (…) [It is a] “Tease-Spray”. Just squirt on your own humorous talk, and (…) nasty, critical names will become undetectable’, he wrote in his book Laughter and Ridicule: Towards a Social Critique of Humour, published in 2005. This culture of (so-called innocent) teasing means that even when it is formally institutionalised as an equal field, WGS can be invested with a halo of unscientificity, lack of credibility and ridiculousness that works to position it as inferior to supposedly more serious fields.

Laughter and humour are also used in public to dismiss feminism. While conducting this research project, I attended a lecture for an undergraduate social science course in a British university and listened to a non-WGS lecturer describe a range of theories put forward to explain a particular social phenomenon. At the very end, he mentioned WGS approaches. These are approaches which have been recognised by many scholars as indispensable for a full understanding of the nature and effects of the phenomenon in question; however, that was not how they were presented. One Powerpoint slide summarised how WGS scholars theorise this phenomenon; the next slide had the title ‘Maybe, but…’ and offered two points that framed those theories as limited and easily dismissible. Each point was introduced with a sexist and heteronormative joke that elicited much laughter from the students.

The lecturer’s jokes work to portray WGS as risible, something that the students should not take too seriously, in contrast to the other approaches mentioned, all of them presented in a balanced, admiring and non-mocking tone. In this and other similar situation humour plays a powerful role. As anthropologists John Carty and Yasmine Musharbash suggest, ‘laughter is dangerous. Laughter is a boundary thrown up around those laughing, those sharing the joke. Its role in demarcating difference, of collectively identifying against an Other, is as bound to processes of social exclusion as to inclusion. Indeed, the two are one’.

Understanding the current status of WGS within the academy therefore requires an examination of humour. It requires analysing how humour makes it possible to maintain old prejudice in apparently modern and progressive institutions. It requires asking how it enables scholars to ridicule WGS in conferences, classrooms and corridors, while at the same time claim that they accept WGS and that the problem is feminists themselves, who ‘just don’t have a sense of humour’. It requires thinking of humour as something with powerful, and extremely problematic, social and political effects. It requires taking these powerful effects of academic humour very seriously indeed.


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