Towards a contextual approach: Audiences, television, and ‘offensive’ humour
The fine line between humour and offence has long been of interest for scholars and media outlets alike. While some argue for an avoidance of offence at all costs, others defend the ‘right to offend’ as an essential part of humour. By bringing critical sociological studies in humour into dialog with feminist writings on affect and the politics of emotion, this article argues for a more nuanced and contextualised understanding of offensive humour. Based on empirical data from an audience study about offensive television content in Britain and Germany, we consider what exactly people do with humorous content they find offensive, not what it does ‘in general’. Such a contextualised approach illustrates the ethical and transformative potential of so-called negative affect. Thus, rather than perceiving offence as an ‘ugly’ feeling with merely negative consequences for society, this article contents that the avoidance of offence can also operate as a strategy for evading responsibility and action and thereby hindering social change.
In 2017 BBC2 aired a sketch called The Real Housewives of Isis as part of the comedy show Revolting, upsetting many people. The satirical clip shows four Western women, Afsana, Mel, Zaynab and Hadiya, who have travelled to Syria to join so-called Islamic State and become ‘jihadi brides’. They chat about their lives, husbands and fashion in the style of the popular Real Housewives of… series, which included New York, Orange County and Beverly Hills. In one scene, one of the wives appears wearing a new suicide jacket, as others record her ‘outfit’ for Instagram. ‘Oh babe, you look gorgeous!’ her friend tells her, before telling the camera in an aside ‘She looked MASSIVE. You’re gonna need a lot of Semtex to kill that one.’ Programmes like these are contentious: ‘it is normalising Islamophobia’, argues one side; ‘it is part of a liberal society to make fun of religion’, says the other side.
In Germany, satirist Jan Böhmermann was prosecuted in 2016 for insulting President Erdogan in a poem aired on Germany’s public broadcasting service, ZDF, which described him as ‘stupid, cowardly and uptight’, before descending into sexual references and language later described by judges in Hamburg as ‘abusive and libellous content’. The poem that was intended to be humorous sparked a diplomatic row between Ankara and Berlin and the ensuing political furore became known as the ‘Böhmermann Affair’, with human rights groups voicing their indignation and Chancellor Angela Merkel heavily criticized for allowing a criminal case to be opened.
This tension between appropriate and inappropriate humour has long been of interest for scholars and media outlets alike. Because humour/comedy often deals with sensitive topics, touching on or transgressing social norms and moral boundaries around sexuality, religion or death, it is not only pleasurable and community-forming, but also rife with the potential to hurt, exclude and offend. Academic literature and even journalistic discourse on controversial humour/comedy often mention the ‘fine line’ between humour and offence, and have sometimes veered towards a call for a more responsible and ethical use of ‘taboo’ humour . These writers recognize the dangerous potential of humour to reinforce social inequalities and mechanisms of exclusion (Billig 2005; Lockyer & Pickering 2008; Lockyer & Pickering 2009; Weaver 2011). Also outside of academia, people question who is chosen as the comic target of ridicule and what lies behind these choices. For instance, stand-up comedian Dave Chappelle’s most recent routine has been critiqued by the media for containing transphobic jokes and online many agree (Juzwiak 2017). What remains crucial is whether the humour kicks socially upwards or downwards, whether comic aggression is directed ‘at those who are in positions of power and authority, or at those who are relatively powerless and subordinated’ (Pickering & Littlewood 1998: 295). On the other side of the discussion we have stand-up comedians and others who see offence as a vital part of humour/comedy. In the view of the British comedian Rowan Atkinson, ‘the right to offend is far more important than any right not to be offended’ (The Guardian, 7 December 2004). Such an understanding implies that offence is not in and of itself wrong and that, depending on the context, it can have a positive impact. Moreover, many argue that if offence needs to be avoided at all costs that places severe limitations on comedy and humour. Drawing in ideas of creative freedom, Top Gear’s executive producer has argued, for instance, that if guidelines and punishments were too strict, ‘humour or banter would inevitably become strangled’ (Mills 2016). Limiting humour in order to avoid offence is understood as an assault not only on creative freedom and free speech, but also on the potential for humour to provide spaces for rebellion against normative hierarchies by binding people together against formal power structures of authority (Bakhtin 1984; Stallybrass & White 1986) or by providing new, irreverent and unusual perspectives on a subject (Kotthoff 2006; Gray 2006; Graefer 2014). Despite their differences, both sides take humour seriously and argue that humour/comedy has an effect on society.
Based on empirical data from an audience study about offensive television content in Britain and Germany this article argues for a more nuanced and contextualised understanding of offensive humour. Rather than aiming to pin down what ‘offensive’ humour is or what the cultural differences in humour between the UK and Germany are, we consider in this article what exactly people do with humorous content they find offensive. We demonstrate how important ‘humour regimes’ are when it comes to the question if offence is taken or not and how audiences use ‘offensive’ humour as a boundary forming device that separates different social groups. This contextualised reading of our audience responses will further illustrate the ethical and transformative potential of so-called negative affect. Thus, rather than perceiving offence as an ‘ugly’ feeling with merely negative consequences for society, this article contents that the avoidance of offence can also operate as a strategy for evading responsibility and action and thereby hindering social change.
This study is part of a larger empirical research project that examines the role of offence in audience engagement with TV. Our participants were recruited through snowballing and consisted of a wide age and demographic range, including middle-class professionals, religious people, elderly and young people, sexual and racial minorities and working-class audiences. It is important to note here that the UK definition of ‘working-class’ does not translate directly into the German context. Some professions that qualify as working-class in the UK are considered middle-class in Germany as these jobs require vocational training and qualification (Niehues 2017). Thus, in this article working-class is used in an elastic sense encompassing also Germans from the ‘einkommensschwache Mittelschicht’ (low-earning middle-classes). We carried out 10 focus groups (ranging from three to five people) and 45 individual, in-depth interviews. For each interview and focus group, we all sat together and watched an ‘ice-breaker’ video clip that contained snippets of television programmes that were reported by audiences to the media regulators as being offensive. In the UK our video contained clips from Little Britain, Snog Marry Avoid, The Inbetweeners , the news (including reports of terrorist incidents), stand-up comedy (for example, Ricky Gervais), Embarrassing Bodies and cartoon-based programmes like Family Guy and South Park. In Germany, the video included clips from reality TV programmes like The World’s Strictest Parents (Die strengsten Eltern der Welt), Pop Idol (Deutschland sucht den Superstar), Wife Swap (Frauentausch), Deeply in Love (Schwer verliebt), political talk shows (Der Polit-talk, presented by Maybrit Illner), News reports (Spiegel TV), scenes from stand-up comedian Mario Barth and the late-night talk show Neo Magazin with Jan Böhmermann and guest Carolin Kebekus. After watching the video we then had a 60 or 90-minute long discussion about themes emerging around not only these but also similar programmes that participants referred to. All interviews were anonymized, audio recorded, transcribed, and both sets of data were analysed on NVIVO. When looking at our audience responses, we found that humour featured strongly in their talk about the limits and roles of offensive material, at individual and societal levels. Our participants detected ill-fitting humour not only in comedy programmes, but also in advertising, reality television or even factual television programmes such as news reports and spend often much time reasoning about its impact.
A key question in this context was how ‘offence’, or ‘offensive humour’ is defined. Although offensive material is, in principle, distinguished from that which is illegal (obscenity, child abuse images, incitement to racial hatred, etc.), it remains difficult to define the boundaries in a robust and consensual fashion. Generally, media content is judged to be offensive when it is too graphic or explicit in style and content (Attwood et al. 2012). Intrusive images of suffering, or racist, classist, or sexist depictions that contribute to stereotyping, or bias and inaccuracy in news reports and documentaries is often reported as offending audiences (Livingstone & Millwood Hargrave 2009). In public discussions, ‘offensive’ media content is often equated with ‘harmful’ content. This equation is based on simplistic, often psychological, theories of media effects that conceive offence as a monolithic ‘bad’ thing that can be pinned to certain media representations and eliminated through censorship. Such understandings fail to see the contextual, relational nature of offence (offensive to whom? in what situation?) as well as the emotional messiness of offence. Offence is far from a monolith, clear cut emotion but it contains a wide range of different, even contradictory feelings and emotions such as pain, anger, frustration but also joy and titillation. Furthermore, these approaches overlook the potential of so-called negative emotions to push us into new critical directions as it has been theorised by feminist scholars such as Audre Lord (1984), Sarah Ahmed (2007) and Sianne Ngai (2005). Thus, we aim for a more nuanced understanding of offence by exploring how it is experienced and dealt with in specific contexts.
Results and discussion
The link between ‘humour regimes’ and offence
Most of our participants challenged the belief that humour is inherently ‘good’, or that creative licence means permission to say just about anything. Humour’s potential to offend, hurt or exclude people was clearly recognized, at least on an abstract level, with many arguing that televised humour has its limits, which are mostly drawn around ‘dark humour’, that is humour about death, sickness and disability; racial, ethnic, and minority humour, including sexist, homophobic humour and sacrilegious/blasphemous humour. Yet when we probed further many participants stressed that it matters who is telling the joke, as Tina, a young woman from Berlin, explained:
I really do not like jokes about disabled people… to be honest. Because it is not their fault. They are born this way, at least some of them. I always put myself in their shoes, I wouldn’t like to be ridiculed. It’s because of this empathy that I would say ‘no’, jokes about disabled people that is an absolute no-go… But if a disabled person makes fun of his or her disability then this is gallows humour and that is funny, I think. I think that would be okay because this person then choses to make fun about it and make us laugh.
Tina’s comment shows that it matters who the sender of a joke is and interviews in both countries showed that the real-life identity of on-screen actors and presenters becomes a major factor in whether or not a particular text offends. The most striking example of this, which came up in all UK focus groups, was Matt Lucas and his portrayal of Daffyd, the ‘only gay in the village’ in Little Britain. Gay and straight participants unanimously felt that Lucas ‘got’ the experience of being gay, because of his own publicly acknowledged sexuality as a gay man. This, by extension, gives him an implicit authority to create and portray Daffyd as a visibly ridiculous, attention-craving, overly flamboyant, and perhaps in the end not gay, character in Little Britain, who repeatedly insists that he is the ‘only gay in the village’. As Felix, who is straight, pointed out,
I've seen, sort of, Frankie Boyle live, and he, sort of, pushes it a bit too far as well, and it's almost, kind of, whoa. But with anything that's, kind of, real, I mean, things… some of the other clips there, I mean, it's almost like they're mocking themselves. I mean, things like the Daffyd on Little Britain stuff, they’re, kind of, mocking themselves, or people that they know in society.
This authority to construct and enact the character of Daffyd rests only with Matt Lucas. As many respondents told us, if a straight man was in the role, or even behind the role, that would seriously offend. Joe, a young gay man, pointed out:
It also depends on who it’s coming from. For example, um, in the Little Britain stuff they take the piss out of gays… like, because it comes from Matt Lucas, an openly gay guy, for him to take the piss out of gays… it’s acceptable. It’s kind of embracing who he is. But say he wasn’t doing it, someone else was doing it – like a straight black guy – say he was doing what Lucas was doing, I would find that offensive – he’s not laughing at himself, he’s laughing at someone else.
This perceived rapport between the real-life identities of actors and the leeway or licence they enjoy in mocking on screen someone they share a key aspect of their identity with, came up time and again, unprompted, in conversation with audiences. This resonates with the idea that humour and satire are governed by ‘humour regimes’, unwritten rules stipulating who can joke about what (Kuipers 2011). By determining this, humour regimes endow some with more right to speak in jest than others. Our interviews showed time and again that it is crucial to take into consideration the directionality of humour, that is who the sender and the recipient of the humorous message are. This directionality significantly contributed to determining the underlying reasons why particular humour/comedy was perceived as offensive. Most participants agreed that a joke is offensive when delivered by a member of a majority group addressing a minority group, whereas the opposite was generally considered less problematic. This rule, however, was somewhat discarded in regards to jokes about religious minorities such as Muslims in both countries. Jokes about religious minorities were perceived as offensive and discriminatory mostly by participants who were religious themselves or who experienced through their own lives the severe consequences of such humour, as Resa from Munich explained:
I think jokes about your religious belief can go too far. And I came to this conclusion because my father is Moroccan, and I know what religion means to him. I have the feeling that this topic needs to be protected and treated with respect and it angers me when others don’t respect this border.
And yet in our study many participants claimed not be offended by jokes about religion. Eager to portray themselves in the interview situation as very liberal, they often argued that for the freedom of speech and the ‘special freedom’ (Mills 2016) of comedy and humour to transgress borders and taboos. Inger, a mid-thirties IT specialist from a small town in Germany explained to us:
Yes I find jokes about religion funny. Because I think everyone has to right to say and believe what they want. And my good God, it is comedy. That is the reason why it exists, to make fun of things that seem sacred and untouchable. And people have to see this just a bit more relaxed. It’s just a bit of fun, it’s not serious. Well it is somehow also serious, of course, but one has to take it with a pinch of salt.
Patricia, in the UK, echoed these sentiments that it is all just a bit of fun. She said: ‘I don’t really care if someone makes fun of God, so I am not sure I see why particular care should be extended to other religions.’ Implicit in this comparison is the assumption that all religions have equal footing in social and public life; that they have equal power, access to the public sphere, and confidence to joke and mock. Such an understanding overlooks the unequal power positions from which Christian and Muslim groups speak in countries such as Germany or the UK. As Khyati Joshi points out: ‘the normative power of whiteness and Christianity in the West, separately and in tandem, results in the racialisation of religion. For non-white non-Christian groups who have settled in western nations, their racial and religious minority status, along with encountering their religions being racialised, is an essential challenge in becoming part of the social fabric of the receiving nation (Joshi 2016: 128). This unequal power position between religious groups shapes the ‘humour regime’ through which religious jokes operate. Dominant groups, which Patricia is part of, have the power to determine what is off-limits and what not, thereby silencing people, too, by dictating that one ‘should be able to take a joke’ (Kuipers 2011: 69).
The importance of free expression and the value ascribed to having a sense of humour was also echoed by Ed a teacher from London, who said: ‘if you are a bit of a spoilsport and can’t take a joke without getting your knickers in a knot, then you may as well surround yourself with bricks and build a hole in the wall for yourself.’ Giselinde Kuipers explores in her work how having a sense of humour, especially about sensitive topics such as religion, is often used and mobilized to draw a line between the liberal, secular West and the rest who are humourless. She writes:
[N]ot having a sense of humour is associated with (strict) religiosity. There is a long tradition of animosity between fundamentalist religion and frivolous pastimes: Puritans closed down theatres, Calvinists forbade dancing, the Taliban banned music. In secular Europe, Muslims stand out for their overt religiosity and especially since 9/11, Islam is often conflated with fundamentalism. Hence, the Muslim lack of humour has come to be seen as a symptom of a more general opposition to fun associated with (fundamentalist) religion. (...) [H]aving a sense of humour is associated with modern personhood and (…) central to western notions of personhood since the 19th century. It is now a desirable social attribute for everyone from potential spouses to political leaders. (…) In today’s western societies, not having a sense of humour is not a trivial reproach, but a fundamental personal shortcoming. (Kuipers 2011: 75-6)
This power of humour to draw symbolic boundaries between religious minorities such as Muslims and the so-called modern, liberal self of the West is drastically expressed by Tina, a young hairdresser from Berlin:
Yes, humour… that is always a bit of a difficult subject with Turks. They do not have self-irony and cannot laugh about themselves. They are very touchy-feely with their religion and so on. Us Germans, we have to develop a sense of self-irony because there are so many Hitler jokes around, and we tell Hitler jokes ourselves. But when we say something about the Turks and their Allah, then they lose their shit and bombard France. Do you know what I mean?
The comparison between Hitler and Allah in Tina’s comment is striking and produces Allah as a dangerous and damaging figure of the past. As becomes evident from her statement, humour, in form of ‘telling jokes’ and developing a ‘sense of self-irony’ about these figures, signals progress. In contrast, those who stay ‘very touchy-feely with their religion’ and cannot laugh about it, are stuck in the past, overtly emotionally attached and potentially dangerous. While explicit islamophobic comments like the one above were rare, many of our participants in both countries followed a culturally specific ‘humour regime’ that silences religious minorities by arguing that cynicism, irony and indeed blasphemy are part of the European culture and need to be accepted by those offended.
Offensive humour as a tool for social distinction
Many people we spoke to argued that they do not feel offend by an arguably ‘insulting’ joke or humorous comment, if this joke is in ‘good taste’. Nino, young graphic designer who identifies as gay, provides a good example of this:
I can say that I think one can make fun about everything, in my opinion, as long as it's good. If it is in good taste, somehow. For example, I watch this series about gays, and they make a lot of jokes about gays … and that is sometimes very personal to me, but I find it incredibly funny because it was done in a nice way.
Nino’s comment brings to the fore a well-known fact about the contradictory nature of humour – that ‘humour that has potential to ‘hit home’ and hurt us the most may also be the kind that makes us laugh the hardest’ (Kyrölä 2010: 76). His comment shows further, that it is not necessarily the content but the delivery that influences if something is perceived as funny or offensive (or both). And yet, if something is in good taste or ‘done in a nice way’ is not simply a matter of (individual) taste, but is also connected to class and particularly to cultural capital (Bourdieu 2010 ). The middle-classes with high cultural capital (education, competencies, skills) define the contours of ‘good’ taste. Therefore cultural products that are enjoyed by people with low cultural capital are often associated with ‘bad’ taste, whereas the preferences of people with high cultural capital are often seen as in ‘good taste’. Based on these considerations, scholars explored the links between taste cultures in television comedy/humour and levels of cultural capital, and argue cogently that ‘that comedy/humour is a field for the culturally privileged to activate their cultural capital resources’ (Friedman 2011). In other words, how we experience humour – as pleasurable or offensive – is shaped by our class background and educational level. Even though humour is culturally specific and can therefore not simply be applied in different national contexts, most studies have found that people with a low educational level and from a lower-class background claim to enjoy over-the-top humour, whereas those with a higher educational level and class background seemingly appreciate complexity, ambiguity and even dark humour (Claessens & Dhoest 2010; Kuipers 2002). These earlier findings in British, Flemish and Dutch contexts also mapped on to our German data. Our middle-class participants often argued that they cannot enjoy humour which too shallow and too obvious. Iris, a young social manager from Munich, for instance, could barely contain her anger when asked about popular stand-up comedian Mario Barth:
Mario Barth? I think he is mega shit. That’s why I had to laugh when he came on. He is just feeding into this man/woman cliché and that kind of humour is simply too shallow for me. It angers and annoys me because it is too simple.
When probed about what exactly she means with ‘too simple’ and why this is reason for anger and annoyance, Iris explains that she is ‘just different from most people when it comes to humour’. She claims to really enjoy ‘clever situational humour’ yet when confronted with calculated, formulaic humour (i.e. humour that plays too obviously with transgression) she feels underestimated by the sender of the joke and gets annoyed. According to the humour regime of the middle-classes, overtly sexist jokes are taboo and experienced as offensive. Iris’ interview also makes clear that she positions herself as ‘different’ from the rest of the audience. Torsten, a German policeman, reacted similar when watching Barth’s routine on television:
I don’t get these jokes because I am much more a fan of Austrian cabaret because that is better, cleverer…. a bit political. But this guy [Mario Barth] annoys me! And he is even super popular and fills the Olympia Stadium! That angers me. Especially when I have to learn that friends of mine go there. I… then I wonder, do I actually know these people?
Like Iris, Torsten understands himself as different from the masses because he has different taste and enjoys a different (arguably more intelligent) kind of humour. This expression of preference and taste, is boundary-forming, distinguishing those with ‘good’ taste from those with ‘bad’ taste. To be affected by Barth’s humour in the ‘right’ way i.e. to be offended by it, is indeed so important, that those who enjoy it cannot be within the boundaries of his circle of friends – people who arguable should feel like him. When he finds out that people close to him, in his social group, appreciate this kind of humour he takes a step back and re-evaluates them: are they similar to him, or has he misjudged them? As Henry Jenkins notes,
the boundaries of “good taste” […] must constantly be policed; proper tastes must be separated from improper tastes; those who possess the wrong tastes must be distinguished from those whose tastes conform more closely to our own expectations. (Jenkins 1992: 16)
In both examples, Iris’ and Thorsten’s talk, overtly simple humour was perceived as annoying and operated as a boundary making exercise, aligning those with ‘good’ taste against those with ‘bad’ taste who, in turn, have to be different from the self. However, the social stratificatory power of humour was most drastically expressed in Sarah’s judgment of Mario Barth’s comedy act: ‘Well this kind of humour is, I don’t know… kind of Unterschichtenhumor [underclass humour]. I simply do not find it funny‘. Unterschichtenhumor is a derogatory expression that was sometimes used by German participants when judging humour as too simple and too shallow. Even though the expression ‘Unterschicht’ is no longer used in official discussions about social class, it still appears in everyday talk. It is an affectively charged term because it implies not only a social hierarchy, but also a hierarchy of value and taste: whereas some of the working classes are seen as respectable, hard-working and deserving, people of the Unterschicht are constructed as a ‘workless and workshy underclass which lacks taste, is politically retrogressive’ (Lawler 2005: 434). ‘Unterschichtenhumor’ is a powerful label in audience talk which drastically illustrates the associations between humour, taste and class and the boundary-making mechanisms that come with these. Offence in the form of contempt for or outright hatred of Barth was not necessarily based on the sexist content, but rather on the fact that this kind of humour offended their intelligence, which can be read as a marker for their social grouping. Through expressing offence audiences make sure that the border between themselves and the masses stays intact, cognitively as well as affectively.
No Offence Taken: How Audiences Work to Avoid Offence
In this section we investigate moments in which audiences did not take offence even though they were confronted with televised humour that others might perceive as offensive. More specifically, we attend here to the rhetorical and emotional strategies that audiences developed in order to cope with and justify humorous content that can be labelled as sexist. Paraphrasing Michel Foucault (2002), who famously argued that what is not said is just as important as what is said, we suggest that what is not felt is sometimes just as important as what is felt. By exploring why certain audience members avoid to be offended by humour that ridicules disempowered groups such as women, we aim to tease out how audiences ‘work’ to keep current ideas, values and norms, as well as the structures of feelings that surround and animate them, alive and unchallenged. This is not to say that all audience members should react to humour in the same way or that felt offence directly results in social transformation. Rather, what we explore the strategies that some audience members developed in order to avoid the ‘ugly’ feeling of offence, and how we can think about this counter-intuitively. Counter-intuitively means here conceiving the avoidance of feeling offended as not necessarily good, and also as damaging and ‘cruel’ (Berlant 2011) because it can operate as a strategy to help keep unequal power relations in place. This is based on our understanding of offence as an affective reaction that is not only negative, but can also serve to point out moments of inequalities and injustice in the current system.
Certainly a lot of our participants expressed to us their discomfort when watching television content that contained humour that invoked stereotypes or ‘went too far’- for which ever reasons. Others, however, claimed that they can take humour which contains provocative references even when delivered in a crude way. Supply teacher Kerry, in the UK, is an excellent instance of where audiences presented themselves as very bold and outgoing in terms of their sense of humour:
But I am quite strong really, I have a real dark humour, so that for me, you know, that’s like a humour, rape, paedophilia humour I actually… I hate the fact that it’s in my head, but my natural reaction to it is to laugh. I don’t know if it’s one of the things… because it’s such a horrific thing to happen, humour makes it more palatable.
Kerry admits here that she finds sensitive subjects such as rape or paedophilia funny and justifies her enjoyment of ‘dark’ humour as a coping strategy, making ‘horrific things (…) more palatable’. Her comment speaks to the ambiguous nature of humour in that we might be able to find something offensive and funny at the same time. It is noteworthy that Kerry presents her ability to enjoy the joke rather than feeling offended by it, as a sign of strength (‘but I am quite strong really’). In Lads and Laughter: Humour and the production of heterosexual hierarchies, Mary Jane Kehily and Anook Nayak (1997) explore how working class school boys produce themselves as ‘tough’ by telling and ‘taking’ offensive jokes. Humour, mainly at the expense of young women and men who do not subscribed to dominant heterosexual codes of masculinity, operated here as a style for the perpetual display of `hard’ masculinity drawing lines between `real’ lads (who tell them and take them) and those susceptible to `feminine’ sensibilities and capable of feeling offended and hurt. For Kerry then, not feeling offended by humour about rape and paedophilia, is empowering: rather than feeling with and/or like the victim/ the butt of the joke, she is now ‘in on the joke’ and part of the dominant group. From such a perspective it is easy to understand how the avoidance of feeling offended can reinforce dominant structures of power. Being in on the joke is then not such a bold, transgressive act but more a buying into unequal hierarchies. And yet, it is important to put audience talk like this into context. At the time of the interview, Kerry is a single mother, living in social housing and depended on social benefits all of which makes her a potential easy target for violent humour. Talking back to provocative humour and admitting to feelings of offence, even if only in an interview situation, requires confidence. This is not to say that Kerry’s feelings are inauthentic yet when we think about what avoiding offence can do, then we also have to consider who can afford to claim to be offended and admit vulnerability.
While Kerry claimed to feel amused by jokes that ‘go too far’, other people felt seemingly indifferent about it. Matthias, social worker from Munich, is one such example. After watching a clip of stand-up comedian Mario Barth who is (in)famous for his sexist routine, he concluded:.
Hm, okay. Well no, this doesn’t cause any extreme feeling in me now because this is how relationships between men and women are, there are always conflicts and there will always be compromises. I see this in my own social environment often. That is simply a relationship thing. I mean, this could also be a woman talking about a man. I do not see this in any way as a negative reflection on women.
Matthias’s reaction to the stand-up routine of Barth was to feel quite indifferent. For him, the routine represented simply how relationships between men and women were. As a white man, he did not pick up on the unequal power positions from which men and women speak, or how this would influence the quality of the joke: kicking upwards or downwards ‘This could also be a woman talking about a man’: Matthias did not take offence because, maybe due to his own embodied and social position, he could not see or feel any injury or injustice. The humorous content can simply pass here and does not evoke any ‘unpleasant’ affective reactions that have to be brought under control with emotional work. Other participants recognized that certain forms of humour could be seen as problematic, but still did not have to work hard to get over any hurt feelings. For instance, Lena, a young shop assistant from Munich, expressed her pleasure when watching Mario Barth: ‘Yes, (laughs when he appears on the screen) well I don’t know… He always makes fun of his girlfriend and that’s quite crass… if I was his girlfriend, I would ask him if he’s quite right in the head… but it’s also very funny because he has such a funny way of doing it, and then I always have to laugh out loud.’ Lena’s statement resonates with what we have pointed out above, that no topic is off limits as long as the delivery is done well. Lena is amused. She can enjoy the joke because she can feel that there is a transgression, but it is not her place to police Barth’s routine, but his girlfriend’s (‘if I was his girlfriend, I would ask him if he’s quite right in the head’). For her, Barth surely only causes negative feelings in his girlfriend (often the butt of his jokes), but he is not offending other members of the audience. Likewise, Katie in the UK went so far as to say:
When I plonk down in front of the telly, do I give a shit about sexism and feminism in comedy? I don’t. I quite like watching the royal baby’s birth announced without feeling, like I need to get all ruffled about monarchy in the middle of poverty ladida. I enjoy stuff without thinking about all sorts of deeper things if I am in the mood to enjoy something funny or happy.
Katie’s answer reflects what was often expressed in terms of an ‘escape’, where the pleasurable expectation of humour/comedy was used as a way of ‘relaxing after a stressful day at work’. But both Lena’s and Katie’s comments above represent also an attitude that many of our non-offended participants shared: they conceived humour as only a bit of fun, as trivial and inconsequential, and so they argued, humour has to transgress and go a bit ‘too far’ in order to be funny.
Another group of people we interviewed felt some form of discomfort with the humorous content they saw on television, but still did not want to get upset about it. When watching Mario Barth with housewife Silke, she noted: ‘Sometimes it [humour] really goes too far. But then I think, well, people will get over it. They are used to much worse stuff. And I forget it immediately, and I DON’T WANT to remember it. I do not need this.’ Silke advises everyone to get over it, not to be hung up on something when there is stuff that is much worse. It could be argued that Silke implicitly admits that there is indeed something there that we need to get over. Something that – if we look at it closely – might hurt, anger or cause pain. Silke’s justification for such offensive content being shown on television was that there is much worse stuff, but her own emotional strategy to protect herself form feeling hurt and offended is to forget, not to remember and to get on with things. She encourages herself to forgot about it because thinking about it and taking it seriously might cause negative feelings, bring her down and get in her way, and she does not need this.
Again, others avoided taking offence by displacing the responsibility for offensive behaviour on television. When discussing Dieter Bohlen, an (in)famous judge on Germany’s talent show Deutschland sucht den Superstar (equivalent to the UK’s Pop Idol), housewife Ankatrin remarked:
Yes, Dieter Bohlen is mean to women in his comments. But, God, that’s just how he is. You cannot change him (laughs). And this is also part of the show and everyone knows that he is like this… so you do not need to go there if you cannot sing.
Ankatrin experiences Bohlen’s language as inappropriate when judging young women who participate in the show. Yet, for her, offence can be avoided if talentless people simply do not show up for the show. This not only misinterprets the calculated role that these seemingly talentless people play in the making of the show, but more importantly dis-locates responsibility for sexist behaviour from the perpetrator to the victim. This is also a common practice in wider discussions about rape and sexual violence. Through victim blaming the wider structures of power which produce and mobilize misogyny, sexism and rape culture remain unchallenged and therefore intact. This is one of many examples that illustrate quite drastically how the avoidance of taking offence can feed into dominant discourses and muffle affective reactions that point out moments of injustice.
We further observed that people sometimes worked hard to avoid ‘strong’ term such as sexism to describe the content they were watching. Even if a sexist joke or humorous representation upset them, these participants preferred to circumscribe scenes or sentences that irritated them and to find alternative explanations rather than calling it out as sexist. This point can be illustrated through our interview with Heidi, a social worker from Berlin. In the beginning of the interview she said:
I think a lot of people take themselves too seriously…. In all sorts of contexts. I think, I do not take myself so seriously, that’s why I do not get easily offended by a bad joke.
Yet, while we were watching a sequence of stand-up comedian Mario Barth, Heidi showed, in her body language and her laughter, clear signs of disapproval and discomfort. When asked about her reactions she explained:
‘Yes, I really don’t know what angers me when I watch him… I think he’s disgusting… somehow… he’s so aggressive. I think that’s what annoys me about him… he has something of an aggressive man in him and you can see this in his performance style. I can totally see how he would be that kind of man who loses his control when his wife cooks something bad for dinner or so. I think that’s what it is…’
It can be argued that Heidi’s comment resonates with much humour research that argues that it is not necessarily the content but the delivery which matters and which causes or does not cause offence. Yet what is noteworthy is that Heidi does not use words as such sexism or misogyny. In the first moment she produces herself as a woman who can take a joke, who doesn’t take herself too seriously and is therefore not a killjoy who spoils the mood for others or herself. Even later in the interview when she circumscribes the aggressive and threatening aspects of patriarchy and sexism in Barth’s routine (that kind of man who loses his control) she refrains from explaining her discomfort and disgust towards Barth as a result of his sexism – in words and performance.
This draws attention to an often discussed issue within media and cultural studies: the gap between affect and discourse (Koivunen 2010). This usually means the inability to put unease into words. People might say, for instance, ‘I don’t know how to describe this feeling’. But in Heidi’s case, as in that of many others we interviewed, it was the other way around: Heidi experienced Barth as somehow disgusting. ‘Somehow’ is important here because it signals her struggle to connect this feeling with her description of him and his comedy. It somehow seems implausible to her that she should associate disgust with male aggression, but this is exactly what sexism is about: the concept of sexism was created by feminists to give expression to the myriad of feelings, such as anger, disgust and horror, that women experience in the face of patriarchy. Sara Ahmed explains why women might refrain from pointing out sexism when confronted with it: ‘The violence of what was said or the violence of provocation goes unnoticed. However she speaks, the feminist is usually the one who is viewed as “causing the argument”, who is disturbing the fragility of peace.’ (Ahmed 2010: 65). Put differently, by pointing out the problem, you become the problem. The problem wasn’t here, it wasn’t seen before you pointed it out and disturbed the peace.
We are not arguing that the avoidance of using loaded words such as ‘sexism’ or strategies that allow us not to take humour seriously and feel offended are conscious decisions. Yet we suggest that they can become habits, everyday micro-strategies that help us to get through the day, through our social environments without causing too much trouble. It could be argued that female audiences of comedy and humour have historically been trained to overlook moments of offence because much mainstream comedy comes from men, and so for women to enjoy it, they have to ignore sexism. To hide when feeling offended or not to allow oneself to feel offended by something that was said in jest, means to go along with it. It means to not to cause any trouble and not to be seen as a killjoy. This, so we argue can be an exhausting yet understandable strategy for marginalised groups but it is also problematic because it leaves oppressive power relations within society unchallenged. ‘Maintaining public comfort requires that certain bodies “go along with it”. To refuse to go along with it, to refuse the place in which you are placed, is to be seen as trouble, as causing discomfort for others.’ (Ahmed 2010: 68-9) Some women and men in our study sought to avoid feeling uncomfortable or, in particular, making others feel their discomfort. But, as many feminists have argued, sometimes one just needs to feel really, really uncomfortable first before changes – great and small, personal and collective – start happening (Kyrölä 2015).
This article aimed for a nuanced and contextualised understanding of offensive humour by exploring the relationship between televised humour and audience reactions in specific moments. We found that our participants considered no topic off limits per se. Whether or not offence was taken depended strongly on the specific humour regime (who is the sender, who the receiver) in which a joke was embedded and on the delivery style. Humour regimes that determine who can joke about what, change depending on the social and cultural context, and they can, as we have shown on the example of religious jokes, reinforce social inequalities and discrimination. Further, we found that audiences used offensive humour as a tool for making social distinctions: by claiming that certain humour was in poor taste and therefore experienced as offensive, drew a symbolic line between themselves as subjects of value and the rest of the audience. The final section of this article has set out to explore how hard audiences sometimes work at not feeling offended and why this is problematic. By reading offence counter-intuitively, we considered how the avoidance of this ‘ugly’ feeling can operate as a strategy for evading responsibility and action and thereby hindering social change. If our current systems of inequality and injustice require us to get along and show compliance through laughing at the right points, then we can understand how important it is to take offence and feel offended. As ‘being jolted out of one’s comfort zone can open up new worlds’ (Kyrölä 2015: 142).
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