Selected Article: “Lads and Laughter: Humor and the Production of Heterosexual Hierarchies” by Mary Jane Kehily and Anoop Nayak (Chapter 10 of The RoutledgeFalmer Reader)
Mary Jane Kehily and Anoop Nayak wrote (1997) about how humor constitutes and consolidates heterosexual masculine identities for males in school settings. Their article is quite interesting and makes many connections to psychoanalysis and Freudian ideas. Kehily and Nayak conducted their ethnographic research in the UK interviewing and observing high school males, females, and teachers about the use of humor in their interactions at school. Their findings made much sense out of many interactions I have witnessed between teenage males regarding the use of humor. Kehily and Nayak’s basic argument (1997) is that males use humor and other forms of game-play to perform hegemonic heterosexual masculinities at school. They contend (1997) that males use both language and physical or embodied aggressions to organize, regulate, and discipline the Other and the splitting within their own male psyche (p. 143). Kehily and Nayak found (1997) that males often avoided outright physical fights because of the harsh consequences so they instead subliminated the desire to dominate through the use of humor, “verbal sparring”, “physical play-fighting”, cussing, and other insults (p. 132). “Symbolic exchanges fusing violence with play” occurred outside the purview of the teachers and administrators and humor was “invoked to avoid the charge of outright violence” (Kehily and Nayak, p. 133). Kehily and Nayak described (1997) the way that humor appeared to be highly ritualized and that this ritual of abuse and verbal sparring was used as a defense against anxiety and as a way to perform traditional hegemonic masculinities. Insults that denigrated other male classmates’ mothers (such as “You mom is a prostitute.”) were used to try and expose male vulnerabilities or weaknesses. Kehily and Nayak also discuss the findings of other researchers including Labov’s findings (1972) that black vernacular was used by adolescents in “sounding” or verbal dueling that used insults to maintain hierarchy and status in male peer groups (p. 134).
An interesting finding from this article is that the insults and uses of humor by males were intensified in the classroom or school setting. In other words, the humor and insults projected outside of school had much less meaning associated with them. Kehily and Nayak argued (1997) that this may be because the audience is different. They use the metaphor of a play being enacted on a stage in front of an audience as a way to describe males’ uses of humor to create and maintain dominant masculinities. Kehily and Nayak argued (1197) that “verbal performances structured through the social interplay of audience and situation” were like “staging a show for us and one another and watching our reactions” (p. 139). Kehily and Nayak also theorized (1997) that the language and insults used by males in jockeying for dominance is often vulgar and “aims to violate social norms” and is often offensive for “shock value” (p. 136). In the process of trying to assert dominance within a peer group, males are also challenging or subverting traditional values or codes of language. Another hypothesis Kehily and Nayak propose (1997) is that dueling, trading insults, or cussing each other out is a way to test the boundaries in an interpersonal relationship (p. 137). They seem to be suggesting that boys will see how far they can push or where the boundaries exist in their peer groups and friendships. Kehily and Nayak offer other examples of male dominant behavior in the form of telling and (re)telling mythic stories and by humiliating teachers. They claim (1997) that they heard “several stories involving teachers having nervous breakdowns, falling through trapdoors, having their flasks of coffee spat in, being chased by pupils and chasing pupils” (p. 138). In this way Kehily and Nayak argued (1997) that humor was also used to celebrate male resistance to schooling and authority. Through the othering of teachers and women by using jokes and insults, group solidarity and shared identity among men was created and maintained (p. 141). Kehily and Nayak (1997) utilize Freud’s work (1905) to suggest that humor is a type of “joke-work which displaces sexual anxieties on to others through laughter, while relieving the self of embarrassment” (p. 141). In this way, Kehily and Nayak are arguing that the male use of humor is a defense mechanism against anxiety concerning dominant masculinities. In this way, men are constructing themselves through the displacement or subversion of anxieties or aggression in the form of humor. In performing masculinities through the use of humor and insults, males are publically disguising their own anxieties about their own heterosexuality. By using homophobic insults and marginalizing or bullying those perceived as Other, heterosexual males form solidarity in their way of creating an us vs. them mentality. In this play of domination, males that appear sensitive to feminine concerns are “disciplined” into shape by being picked on. Women, teachers, and subordinated males are the victims of these hegemonic male performances. Women and subordinated men must be subverted and oppressed to maintain the dominance of the oppressors. Kehily and Nayak found (1997) that “humorous interactions amongst young men were continually concerned with bodily practices” and that the “disciplining process of heterosexuality occurs across the bodies of self and others” (p. 144).
I found this article extremely interesting because I have witnessed so many of the things Kehily and Nayak talked about in their research. I have seen boys play-fighting almost daily at lunch or in the halls, touching, hitting, and punching each other. I have heard jokes being told and mythic stories being told and re-told among groups of guys. I’ve even heard the “your mama” jokes in my high school classes. I agree with the authors that multiple defenses are being used in the constituting and consolidating of dominant masculinities. I think that men do tell offensive jokes and bestow insults in order to boost their own sense of identity. I’ve even witnessed my husband do this around his friends. It is almost as if these men are using Freud’s defense mechanism of reaction formation as a defense against their true feelings of wanting to fit in and be accepted for who they are. In reaction formation, our anxieties are expressed in the form of the opposite. So if men are insulting each other, in reality they really care about the other male, their friend and really want their approval despite the fact that they are insulting them. But since they have too much anxiety about exposing their true identities, they decide to play these dominance games and use humor to deflect their own insecurities.
For my pedagogical enactment this week I decided to confront a student in my class that had been using insults and cussing to put down other class members. Before I explain the enactment, I want to give some background. I have about 20 students in my Civics class. There are two students that are constantly mean to others in the class for what appears to be no apparent reason. They act out and yell cuss words and insults to others completely unprovoked. These outbursts are usually shocking and uncomfortable for the rest of us in the classroom. One student, Tom refuses to participate in much class discussion but will interrupt class with mean insults when another female student talks. This one female student often says things that are odd or annoying and I usually try to model the ways of dealing with irritating situations in a kind way, but Tom always interrupts me and yells at this girl. Besides always insulting this girl in the class for being stupid, Tom makes anti-gay comments anytime we are discussing political parties or policies of discrimination. He once made an anti-gay comment and two other girls in the class who are gay got into a heated discussion with him. It ended with him yelling and leaving the class. This article made me think of Tom and his masculine performances of dominating the female students in the room and putting down homosexuals. I think that his displays definitely suggest that he is struggling with his own gender identity. So I have this one student Tom who is performing hegemonic masculinity on a daily basis in my classroom. But I also have a student named Bill in the same class. Bill is an openly homosexual African American student that wears very feminine accessories such as jewelry and he has very long nails. He wears masculine clothes but rarely talks to the other men in the class. His behavior is perplexing because he constantly puts down the girls in the class and uses insults, jokes, and cussing to perform his masculinity. He also openly challenges me on a daily basis in a rude and dominating way in front of the class. I wondered when I was reading this article why Kehily and Nayak didn’t address non-heterosexuals’ use of humor and insults to perform gender as well. Their focus was on the production of heterosexual hierarchies, but what about the homosexual student that uses hegemonic heterosexual masculine performances to maintain dominance over women? I really like Bill, but I can’t seem to figure out his behavior. All semester he has cussed loudly in class when talking to his neighbors and tried to text during class, openly trying to break the rules. He is mean to all the girls except one and rarely talks to the boys. I have had numerous talks with him about why he is so mean to others in the class including me and he says things like, “that is just the way I am”. After reading this article I started to really think about Bill’s behavior and performances in class. I started to wonder if perhaps Bill is comfortable with being open about his sexuality since he openly tells people he is gay and wears jewelry, but is extremely afraid of the disciplining performances of other dominant males in the classroom such as Tom. So as a defense against any insults or negativity against his own sexuality, he uses the tools of heterosexual males such as humor and insults to dominate the women in the class as a way to perform multiple masculinities and deflect potential anti-homosexual behavior.
After thinking about his behavior and this article, I decided to confront Bill. In class this week we were reviewing for the EOC and Bill was openly defying participating in any of the activities. I told him on several occasions to put his phone away and pay attention. He responded rudely as usual and I continued teaching. At the end of the class he was talking to the one girl he gets along with and I was going over the homework assignment. He was talking loudly so I asked him nicely to be quiet for one second while I finished giving the assignment. He turned to his friend and loudly said, “SHUT UP” referring to me. Bill was blatantly challenging me in front of his audience, the class. I decided this was my chance to call him out on his rude behavior and sexist. For my enactment, I asked Bill to go out in the hall with me and we talked for about five minutes. I asked him why he thought it was okay to treat me that way and talk down to me and the other classmates. He replied with his usual excuse of “that is just the way I am” and I told him I didn’t believe his reasoning. I told him that he was a very nice person (because he is without an audience) and that he was insulting and cussing at everyone to make himself feel better and look superior. I made no reference to his sexuality or masculinity or anything like that, but I did tell him that his beratement of others in the class was an attempt to somehow create an image as the trouble causer. I told him I thought he was bullying everyone to make himself feel superior to others and that I was sick of it. Bill really didn’t say much other than to argue with me and make excuses for his behavior by claiming that he is mean because that is his personality. Then the bell rang and he was off to class. For the rest of the week he has not engaged in that sort of behavior in my classroom.
In reflecting on this enactment, I think that it was good that I confronted Bill about his sexist and dominating behavior. While I had confronted him before, I had never attempted to verbalize why I thought he behaved that way. Now whether my analysis is correct or not, I think I did the right thing. Although Bill was uncomfortable being analyzed for why he was behaving the way he was, I think that he was then forced to actually consciously think and reflect on why he does act that way. Bill will probably not let his defenses go down permanently but I believe that I used my knowledge of how humor and insults are used to create masculinities to dislodge his attempts to consolidate this hegemonic identity. I think I acted as foil in Bill’s attempts to occupy a dominant masculinity in the way that he desires and in doing so I was asserting my own identity (p. 137). I am glad I talked to Bill about his behavior even if he doesn’t change because it was important for me to call him out on what he was doing and for me to assert my location as a female teacher who does not deserve to be the victim of his displacement. I think it is extremely sad that males feel the need to defend against anxiety and treat others this way. I had always seen the joking and insulting and I had never really thought deeply about what was going on in the performance. This article and this enactment were enlightening for me on a professional and personal level. Using psychoanalytic theories and terminology can be useful in understanding the power dynamics and the identities that are performed in the classroom.
Kehily, M. and Nayak, A. (1997). Lads and laughter: humour and the production of heterosexual hierarchies. In Arnot, M. and Mac an Ghaill, M. (Ed.). The routledge falmer reader in gender & education. NY: Routeledge Press.