First Monday

The clean, the dirty and the ugly: A critical analysis of clean joke Web sites

The paper focuses on the phenomenon of ‘clean joke’ Web sites. Such sites are often described as providing family-friendly humor, which is safe for children. However, our analysis reveals that the term ‘clean joke’ has mainly one operative meaning: a joke which is ‘sex-free’. Whereas sex is excluded from ‘clean joke’ sites, sexist, racist and ageist content does appear in them. Therefore, the problematic message some of these Web sites convey is that: a) sex is ‘dirty’; and b) sexism and other forms of discrimination are ‘clean’. We interpret these findings both at the cultural level as manifestations of negative Western attitudes towards sexuality, and also at the technological level as easy solutions for child protection in the digital era.


The ‘Dirty’: Excluding Sex from ‘Safe Joking Zones’
The ‘Clean’: An In-Depth Analysis of a Clean Joke Web site
The ‘Ugly’: Conclusions




All my humor is based upon destruction and despair. If the whole world was tranquil, without disease and violence, I’d be standing on the breadline right back of J. Edgar Hoover. – Lenny Bruce

This paper focuses on a phenomenon which seems to contradict the hypothesis underlying Lenny Bruce’s description of humor: ‘clean humor’ Web sites. A brief ‘Google’ search reveals that the phrase ‘clean jokes’ appears in more than 766,000 Web sites, mostly American. These Web sites offer a wide range of clean jokes, yet they provide only vague explanations about the meaning of the term ‘clean joke’. The main clue some Web sites provide about their unique nature is that they are ‘family friendly’ – i.e. ‘safe’ for children.

The attempt to create Web sites suitable for children is driven by concerns about the influence of the Internet on young people. This is the latest phase of what Roberts, et al. (2004) call the ‘history of concern’ about the exposure of children to ‘inappropriate’ media content. The roots of this phenomenon can be traced back to Plato’s defence of censorship in ‘The Republic’, yet anxiety mounted with the introduction of electronic media. Television was the medium which evoked the greatest alarm, since it gave children access to a much wider scope of information than they had before, including sexual and violent content (Postman, 1985).

The rapid growth of the World Wide Web and its extensive use by children and teenagers brought about new anxieties (Holloway and Valentine, 2003). On the one hand, the Internet is perceived as opening new opportunities for learning and interacting. However, on the other hand it invokes anxieties about the unsupervised and isolated exposure of children to sexual and violent content (Sefton-Green, 1998; Livingstone, 2003).

These anxieties can be linked to the changing role of gatekeepers in the digital era. In the past, gatekeepers such as editors played a vital role in deciding which types of content were suitable for mass communication. The Internet enabled to bypass traditional gatekeepers, thus enhancing citizens’ direct access to new kinds of information (Dutton, 2005). In this situation new gatekeepers emerged, aiming to protect children and other groups from potentially harmful content (Winseck, 2002). ‘Clean humor’ Web sites can be seen as manifestations of such voluntary gatekeeping.

Our paper attempts a first analysis of the ‘clean humor’ Web sites phenomenon. The rationale for this study derives both from the assumption that it might shed new light on questions of Internet gatekeeping, and from the notion that humor is a key to understanding societies, as it reflects collective fears, ideologies, and social power.

We address three research questions: a) Which parts of the joking world are excluded from clean humor Web sites?; b) Which types of content are included in clean humor Web sites and regarded as ‘safe’ for children?; c) What are the implications of these exclusions and inclusions on broader issues related to children, the Internet, and humor censorship?

The article consists of three major parts, addressing each of the research questions in turn. In the first part we reveal, through comparative analysis of ‘clean’ and ‘general’ joke Web sites, that the term ‘clean joke’ has mainly one operative meaning: a ‘sex-free joke’. Whereas the first part of this article concentrates on what we can’t find in the clean joke Web sites, the second focuses on the disturbing content which can be found in them. In the third part, by way of conclusion, we analyse the implications of these findings on gatekeeping, child protection and humor censorship.



The ‘Dirty’: Excluding Sex from ‘Safe Joking Zones’

I grew up sheltered…my mom saying “sex is a dirty disgusting thing you save for someone you love” (Carol Henrey, in Gilbert 2004).

The first question we addressed is: Which components of the joking world have been excluded from sites defining themselves as ‘clean’? To answer this question, we compared ten clean humor Web sites and ten general humor Web sites (i.e. humor sites which do not declare any content limitations).

Since our aim was to sample popular Web sites of both kinds, we applied the following sampling procedure: a) we browsed three search engines (Google, Yahoo, and MSN) using two sets of search words for the clean and general humor Web sites; b) we examined the first twenty hits in each search engine for each set of search words (n=120) and excluded the Web sites which did not use thematic categories (e.g. ‘computers’, ‘lawyers’ and ‘ethnic’) to classify jokes; and, c) we ranked the remaining hits (n=59) according to the number of their appearances in the different search engines and chose the first ten sites from each ranked list.

We then conducted a comparative examination of the thematic categories presented in the clean and general sites. We found that most of the categories appeared in both types of Web sites. The only category which differed significantly between sites was ‘sexual jokes’: It appeared in eight out of ten general Web sites but not even once in the clean joke sites.

The exclusion of sex from clean joke Web sites can be analysed as stemming from the ambivalent perception of sexuality in Western culture. While individuals desire to fulfill their sexual drives, many forms of sexuality are repressed by society. Monogamous heterosexuality, which was formed as the legitimate manifestation of sex in Western culture, controls sexuality through its limitation to reproduction (Freud, 2002). Other expressions of sexuality have been condemned in Western culture as ‘abnormal’ and dangerous to society, and have thus been delegitimized through discursive mechanisms such as confessions and state laws (Foucault, 1979).

These negative attitudes towards sexuality have been influenced by the Christian separation between flesh and mind, in which the mind has been valued over the physical body. Since the body has been perceived as the ‘site’ in which lust is generated, it has been treated as ‘dirty’ – a threat to be fought against (Shilling, 2003).

According to Douglas (1969), material and conceptual perceptions of dirtiness are intertwined: Ideas about physical cleanliness have a major role in shaping social borders and hierarchies. Building on this idea, Kristeva (1982) claimed that body fluids such as sweat and semen, which are transferred in the course of sexual activities, are regarded as ‘dirty’, and therefore become a social ‘abject’.

The connection between ‘sex’ and ‘dirtiness’ is reflected in the common use of ‘dirt(iness)’ in English to imply sexual content. Thus the Oxford English Dictionary defines a dirty book as ‘a pornographic book’; a dirty weekend as a ‘sexually illicit weekend’ and dirty dancing as ‘a sexually provocative dance’. Following this line, a dirty joke is defined as a ‘smutty’ joke, alluding to sexual content.

‘Dirty jokes’ about sex have taken a dominant role in folk humor all over the world for many decades (Legman, 1969). According to Freud’s (1976) highly influential theory, humor is a socially accepted outlet for repressed violent and sexual urges. Whereas sexuality is suppressed in most social arenas, telling jokes about sex is ‘allowed’. Humor, like dreams, is therefore a means of releasing urges without threatening the social order.

While humor about sex is treated as an unavoidable and even legitimate aspect of adulthood, it is regarded as inappropriate for children. Childhood is perceived as an era of innocence which should not be ‘contaminated’ by sexual content (Young, in Ost 2002; Levine, 2002). The increase of sexual content on the Internet, and the easy access children have to it, therefore led to mounting concerns (Freeman-Longo, 2000), resulting in attempts to create ‘safe’ Internet environments for children.

As mentioned above, the notion of ‘safe’ surfing seems to be one of the primary motives for the creation of the ‘clean humor’ Web sites. So far our analysis revealed that the most prominent measure that these sites take in order to make them ‘safer’ for children is to ‘clean’ the sex from them. In what follows we analyze the social values underlying the jokes that appear in the remaining, allegedly ‘clean’, categories.



The ‘Clean’: An In-Depth Analysis of a Clean Joke Web site

In order to examine the second question we address in this paper – which types of content are included in clean humor Web sites and regarded ‘safe’ for children? –We analysed one major clean joke Web site – ‘Aha! jokes’ (

We decided to focus on ‘Aha! Jokes’ since we estimated that this Web site is among the most popular joke sites on the Internet. It appeared as the first or second hit in all three search engines we used (Google, Yahoo and MSN). In addition, it had the highest Google page ranking among all the ‘clean’ Web sites we checked.

‘Aha! jokes’ was launched in August 2001 at the initiative of a group of people who wished to address a lacuna in ‘family-friendly’ joke Web sites. According to the founders, the main goal of the Web site is ‘to put a smile on the face of every visitor to our site’ ( The ‘clean jokes’ on the Web site are divided into 54 categories, among them: ‘Animal’, ‘Bar’, ‘Blind’, ‘Blonde’, ‘Computers’, ‘Ethnic’, ‘Gender’, ‘Military’, ‘Lawyers’, ‘Marriage’, and ‘Yo Mama’.

Our analysis of the Web site focuses on the ideology encoded in jokes which deal with three social minorities: women, ethnic minorities and the elderly. By ‘minorities’ we refer to groups which are not necessarily numerically disadvantaged but those which possess a relatively low degree of power and status and often suffer discrimination (Layton-Henry, 2002).

Disparaging humor about minorities has generated public and academic criticism during the last decades. Critics have been concerned that humor may reinforce negative stereotypes of minority groups and thus provide a ‘socially acceptable’ mechanism for harassment and oppression (Ford and Ferguson, 2004). In America, criticism has focused mainly on humor about ethnic/racial and gender groups (Apte, 1987; Bergmann, 1986).

Whereas the use of stereotypes in jokes is often conservative, comedy can use stereotypes in a subversive way, which exposes and undermines hegemonic notions (Margolis, 1998). This happens mainly when minorities are the inventors of the humorous texts, using them as ‘weapons of liberation’ (Lowe, 1986).

The tension between hegemonic and subversive readings of humor often derives from the polysemic – or ambiguous – nature of humorous texts. Thus, the very same joke that seems hostile to a member of a dominant group may be a matter of pride within the minority group. This idea that jokes are polysemic texts, allowing more than one meaning, is highlighted in the works of leading researchers of humor such as Davies (1990, 1998), Oring (2003), and Palmer (1994).

However, we suggest that there is a significant variety in the degree of polysemity in different kinds of jokes. Following Eco’s (1979) differentiation between ‘closed’ texts, which direct the reader to one prevailing ideology, and ‘open’ texts, which incorporate a possibility for multiple readings, we suggest a differentiation between ‘closed’ and ‘open’ jokes. Whereas in ‘closed’ jokes one ‘script’ is clearly preferred over another, ‘open’ jokes can be read in different ways by different people.

Applying this distinction to humor about minorities leads us to the following observation: One of the main features of sexist, racist and other forms of discriminating jokes is textual ‘closedness’. There is a clear butt of such jokes and they direct the reader to one preferred meaning. In what follows we use these distinctions to analyze ‘Aha!’ jokes about minorities.

Jokes about women

Women are like guns, keep one around long enough and you’re going to want to shoot it. (‘Aha! jokes’)

Although sexist humor has been studied extensively during the last decade, research tends to focus on the appreciation of sexist humor by different groups (e.g., Ford, et al., 2001; Greenwood and Isbell, 2002) rather than on its definition and classification. We suggest, as a working definition, that sexist humor is humor which presents women as having negative characteristics and portrays them as inferior to men. This is a somewhat traditional definition of sexist humor, which fits our focus on minorities [1].

Our analysis of 176 jokes which deal with women in ‘Aha’ jokes revealed that sexist humor does appear in this Web site, in two forms which we term ‘general sexist jokes’ and ‘specified sexist jokes’.

General sexist jokes disparage women as a unified collective, building on feminine characteristics prevalent in patriarchal thought. Such jokes are usually ‘closed’ texts, since they can be read only as sexist. For instance, one joke which appears in the Web site – Why don’t women mind their own business? a. no business b. no mind – is based on the stereotype of women as unintelligent. This stereotype originates in the patriarchal identification of women with nature (due to their ‘reproductive’ role) – in contrast to the linkage of men with culture and civilization (Ortner, 1974). Another patriarchal construct reflected in this joke identifies men with the public sphere and women with the private domain (Elshtain, 1981). This construct is also reflected in a list entitled New Summer Seminars for Women, in which one of the ‘lessons’ is: ‘Beyond The Front Page: Exploring The Daily Newspaper.’

Whereas ‘general’ sexist jokes are quite rare in the Web site, many jokes in ‘Aha’ can be described as ‘specified sexist jokes’. Such jokes mock certain stereotyped feminine groups such as blondes and mothers-in-law. On the surface, the ‘specified’ jokes do not target women in general and might therefore not be regarded as sexist. Yet our analysis of the prototypes which appear in ‘Aha! jokes’ – the dumb blonde, the irritating wife and the awful mother-in-law – shall demonstrate that each of the ridiculed groups is defined by an exaggeration of a traditional feminine stereotype. The dumb blonde is an exaggerated version of the ‘dumb woman’ and ‘sex object’ stereotypes, whereas the wife and the mother-in-law are prototypes of the stereotype of threatening, castrating, sexless womanhood.

1) The dumb blonde: The ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype, which has been widespread in American humor for many decades, incorporates two main characteristics: stupidity and sexual promiscuity (Davies, 1998; Oring, 2003) [2]. According to Greenwood and Isbell (2002), this stereotype may have evolved as the resolution of a dissonance that sexist men experience in relation to sexually attractive women. Such women are appealing, but simultaneously possess the potential for manipulating their sexuality in order to control men. Since the blonde is portrayed as dumb (thus exaggerating the patriarchal stereotype about women), she is not capable of manipulating men and therefore serves as the perfect sexual object. A typical joke from ‘Aha!’: Q: How does a blonde kill a fish? A: She drowns it.

2) The irritating wife: many jokes in ‘Aha!’ convey the message that marriage imprisons men. Once a man decides to bind his life to that of a woman, he is doomed to misery. This misery stems from the irritating behavior of his stereotypical wife who, according to the jokes, never stops talking and nagging. This leads the husband to treat his wife as an unnecessary burden: On a rural road a state trooper pulled this farmer over and said: “Sir, do you realize your wife fell out of the car several miles back?” To which the farmer replied: “Thank God, I thought I had gone deaf!”

3) The awful mother-in-law: If the wife in the jokes is portrayed as an irritating burden, her mother – the ‘mother in law’ – is portrayed as the husband’s worst enemy who ‘deserves’ to die [3]: A man was traveling down a country road when he saw a large group of people outside a house. He stopped and asked a person why the large crowd was there. A farmer replied, “Joe’s mule kicked his mother-in-law and she died.” “Well,” replied the man, “she must have had a lot of friends.” “Nope,” said the farmer, “we all just want to buy his mule.” The jokes on the site do not deal with what it is about mothers-in-law which justifies these death wishes, yet the jokes convey the message that, for a man, hating one’s mother-in-law is a ‘law of nature’.

Jokes about ethnic minorities

Two cowboys come upon an Indian lying on his stomach with his ear to the ground. One of the cowboys stops and says to the other, "You see that Indian? ... he’s listening to the ground. He can hear things for miles in any direction. “Just then the Indian looks up. “Covered wagon,” he says, "about two miles away. Have two horses, one brown, one white. Man, woman, child, household effects in wagon.” “Incredible!” says the cowboy to his friend. “This Indian knows how far away they are, how many horses, what color they are, who is in the wagon, and what is in the wagon. Amazing!” The Indian looks up and says, “Ran over me about a half hour ago.”

This joke is one of many ethnic jokes which appear in ‘Aha! jokes’ under two categories – ‘ethnic jokes’ and ‘state jokes’. A special note above the jokes in the ‘ethnic jokes’ section contains the following explanation: ‘These ethnic jokes are, if anything, intended to poke fun at all nationalities and races equally. They aren’t meant to hurt or insult anyone, and most jokes can apply to all ethnic backgrounds.’ The moderators are evidently aware of the ‘rules’ of political correctness regarding ethnic jokes (in a way that they are not with respect to gender jokes). This is reflected in the site’s dual approach towards ethnic humor. On the one hand, the site presents ethnic jokes; on the other, most of the jokes are not extremely deprecating.

In terms of ‘openness’ and ‘closedness’, we can define many of the ethnic jokes in the Web site as open texts which can be read differently by different groups. For instance, the joke above can be read as mocking a Western stereotype of Indians – or as scorning the run-over Indian. In addition, this joke, like many other jokes in the ‘Aha!’ site, deals with a minority group which does not stand at the core of current debates about ethnicity in the U.S. This may explain its possible perception as more ‘politically correct’ than other jokes.

This factor may also explain why none of the jokes in the ‘ethnic joke’ section deals with African-Americans. African-Americans are presented only indirectly in this site, in the ‘Yo Mama’ jokes section. This genre originates in the African-American cultural pattern of ‘Playing the dozens’, in which two competitors (usually adolescent males) exchange witty insults about each other’s mother, and sometimes also about other members of the family (Lefever, 1981; Morgan, 2002).

The imagined African-American woman constructed by the ‘Yo Mama’ jokes in ‘Aha’ tends to bear great resemblance to the stereotypical black woman in patriarchal-racist America: she is fat (Yo mama so fat people jog around her for exercise), stupid (Yo mama so stupid it took her two hours to watch 60 Minutes!), ugly (Yo mama so ugly when she walks into a bank, they turn off the surveillance cameras), poor (Yo mama so poor when I ring the doorbell she says, "DING!") and dirty (Yo mama so dirty she makes mud look clean). However, there is another way to read ‘Yo Mama’ jokes. Since the main purpose of the genre is to demonstrate the creativity of the joke tellers, we can read it as a pure ‘game of insults’ – not meant to describe any concrete sociological group. ‘Yo Mama’ jokes are therefore polysemic – they can be interpreted in more than one way.

However, a minority of ethnic jokes in the site seems to contradict the ‘political correctness’ statements made by the moderators. They are closed texts, in which ethnic groups are scorned for ‘stupidity’ (Polish), drinking problems (Irish), or primitiveness (Arabs). Some of these closed jokes seem to be more ‘benign’ and ‘lightly offensive’, whereas others incorporate more deprecating, aggressive and even racist attitudes [4].

An Arab diplomat visiting the U.S. for the first time was being wined and dined by the State Department. The Grand Emir was unused to the salt in American foods (french fries, cheeses, salami, anchovies etc.) and was constantly sending his manservant Abdul to fetch him a glass of water. Time and again, Abdul would scamper off and return with a glass of water, but then came the time when he returned empty-handed. “Abdul, you son of an ugly camel, where is my water?” demanded the Grand Emir. “A thousand pardons…stammered the wretched Abdul, white man sit on well.”

This joke mocks the stereotypical Arab in more than one way: the Emir isn’t capable of enjoying Western food, that is – Western culture. Moreover, the Emir treats Abdul, the servant, in a humiliating way – which points to the lack of humanitarian values ascribed to Arabs. However, Abdul is portrayed as ‘deserving’ this attitude due to his ignorance/primitivism. The message conveyed by the joke is therefore that Arabs are fundamentally inferior to Americans.

Jokes about the elderly

Another category presented in ‘Aha! jokes’ refers to a social minority usually absent from popular cultural products: the elderly. Ageism is defined as ‘discrimination against older people on grounds of age’ (Bytheway, 2005). This discrimination is based on negative stereotypes of old people as unattractive, unintelligent, asexual, unemployable and senile (Atchley, 1997). Expressions of ageism can be found in mass media and public policy, as well as in folk genres such as jokes (Hanlon, et al., 1997).

Expressions of ageism in ‘Aha! jokes’ can be found in several texts which are presented under the category of ‘old age’. In these jokes, old people are mocked for not being able to control their bodies, for being senile and for lacking driving abilities. For instance:

As a senior citizen was driving down the freeway, his car phone rang. Answering, he heard his wife’s voice urgently warning him, “Herman, I just heard on the news that there’s a car going the wrong way on 280. Please be careful!” “Heck," said Herman, “It’s not just one car. It’s hundreds of them!”

This joke might be known to some readers in another version, in which the butt is not an elderly man but a Polish man – a representative of an ethnic group which is portrayed as ‘stupid’. Whereas in the ‘ethnic’ version this joke is merely a stupidity joke, ascribing it to an elderly man adds another dimension, which derives from the stereotype of old people as losing driving and technological capabilities.



The ‘Ugly’: Conclusions

The comparative analysis of ‘clean’ and ‘general’ humor Web sites, as well as the analysis of ‘Aha! jokes’, reveals the following picture about clean humor sites: whereas sex and sexuality jokes are omitted from them, other types of jokes which might be regarded as offensive – such as sexist jokes – do appear in clean joke Web sites.

Our study focused on ‘Aha! jokes’ – the most prominent ‘clean joke’ site we found. In order to verify our findings, we looked at the other nine clean humor sites mentioned in the first, comparative section of this paper. We found that sexist, racist and ageist messages appear in other clean joke sites as well, in varying degrees of directness and offensiveness.

We suggest two complementary explanations for the exclusion of sex from the ‘clean humor’ sites: the first is ideological/cultural, the second is practical.

The ideological explanation was presented in the first part of this paper, which portrayed the negative attitudes towards sexuality in Western culture and the perception of childhood as an era of innocence which should not be ‘contaminated’ by sexual content. Although these perceptions are widespread in many societies, they seem to have particular grounding in American culture. According to Kuipers’ (2006) comparative analysis of attitudes towards online ethnic humor and pornography in the Netherlands and U.S., whereas online pornography is considered manageable by Dutch Internet users, it has become a subject of moral panic in the U.S. In contrast, ethnic humour is considered dangerous by Dutch people but is widely accepted on American Web sites. Our study falls in line with Kuiper’s analysis: sex, rather than other topics, seems to evoke the highest rates of concern and censorship attempts in ‘clean humor’ Web sites.

The practical explanation for the exclusion of sex from ‘clean humor’ Web sites suggests that censoring sex is an easy solution for filtering Internet messages. The annihilation of sexuality (and possibly in other cases, of violence) seems to replace thorough thinking about the values and content that are appropriate for children. In other words, ‘cleaning’ a site of a complete topic is much simpler than trying to prioritize and eliminate only certain aspects within all given topics. Cleaning of a complete topic is also simpler to computerize: filtering technologies can easily recognize broad topics, but often cannot detect nuances within these topics.

Removing sex from clean joke sites and at the same time leaving sexist and other discriminating messages in them conveys the following message: a) Sex is ‘dirty’; and, b) Sexism and ageism are ‘clean’ and thus legitimate. The ‘ugly’, dangerous, component of the clean humor Web sites lies in this implied conservative message.

Clean humor sites may therefore be regarded with greater suspicion than general humor sites. Since they present themselves as safe for children, they encourage parents to let down their guard and be less critical about the values to which they expose their children.

This paper thus demonstrates some of the potential dangers which might be embedded in voluntary forms of gatekeeping. One of the most problematic aspects of this kind of gatekeeping, as analyzed in this paper, is its lack of transparency: the sites do not contain explanations of their filtering criteria, leaving parents to blindly trust the decisions made by the moderators.

Is more thorough censorship the solution? We don’t think so. Firstly, the task of ‘clean(s)ing’ humor seems almost impossible. As we have shown in this article, ‘clean(s)ing’ is an ideological act, which will always be subject to different perceptions of ‘dirt(iness)’. In other words, humor almost always incorporates a certain point of view – which never leaves it totally ‘clean’ of ideological subtext.

Secondly, since many of the jokes are open/polysemic texts, it is likely that they will be read by different individuals in dissimilar ways; the same joke can be read as hostile by one child and benign by another.

And thirdly, to recall Lenny Bruce’s quote, cited at the beginning of this paper, this kind of censorship might ‘kill the humor’ and leave us with sites which are as amusing as J. Edgar Hoover.

Instead of censorship, it might be more useful to shift the focus from the texts to the readers and their interpretative worlds. This idea is incorporated in works about media literacy, and more recently multi-media or digital literacy. One of the meanings assigned to ‘literacy’ in this context is the ability to critically evaluate information gained from media (Bawden, 2001). According to Kellner (2002), critical media literacy is based on the notion of media culture as a product of social construction and struggle, and is aimed at teaching students to “be critical of media representations and discourses” [5]. In our context, critical media literacy may mean the ability to expose the social expectations, norms and hierarchies embedded in comic texts and humorous Web sites. End of article


About the authors

Limor Shifman is a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, U.K. She investigates various aspects of Internet-based humor, as well as the evolution of communication technologies. Her dissertation, in the Department of Communication and Journalism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, focused on the interaction between humor, media, and social processes.

Hamutal Ma’apil Varsano is a PhD. Candidate at the Gender Studies Program, Ben-Gurion University, Israel. Her doctoral dissertation focuses on the representation of sexuality in Israeli cinema.



The authors wish to thank Henrietta Dahan-Kalev, Stephen Coleman, William Dutton, Joe Organ and Rebecca Eynon for useful comments on the manuscript.



1. A different definition of sexist humor is: humor which portrays one of the sexes in a negative way and presents it as inferior in comparison to the other. Using this definition, jokes which deprecate men should be regarded as sexist as well. Such jokes do appear in ‘Aha! jokes’ and in other ‘clean joke’ sites. In fact, some of the sites – and this calls for further research – seem to present more sexist jokes about men than about women. In their effort to be ‘clean’ and ‘politically correct’, these sites have probably found that targeting a dominant group like men would be an easy ‘way out’. However, in many cases the reverse sexism incorporates old stereotypes of women. Thus, for instance, the joke Men are like mascara — They usually run at the first sign of emotion ( is based on the traditional stereotypes of women as emotional versus men as rational.

2. Oring (2003) rejects the claims about the sexism underlying blonde jokes. According to him, the two values which are highlighted and scorned in the jokes — lack of intelligence and indiscriminate sexual activity — are the antitheses of the values of the modern workaday world, which is supposed to be rational, calculated and organized. The jokes re-enforce these latter values, suggesting that every person who embraces them can be part of the modern workplace.

3. All of the mother-in-law jokes on the site refer to husbands who hate their mothers-in-law, rather than to wives who do not approve of their husband’s mother. This seems to follow the masculine point of view incorporated in many of the jokes on this site.

4. This classification of jokes as either benign or hostile is very subjective: for one person a certain joke might seem as light-hearted laughter, whereas to another it might seem very hostile (Davies, 1990). However, we claim that some jokes — for instance the ‘Emir’ joke presented in our article — can only be read as deprecating.

5. Kellner, 2002, p. 93.



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Editorial history

Paper received 10 November 2006; accepted 15 December 2006.

Contents Index

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The clean, the dirty and the ugly: A critical analysis of ‘clean joke’ Web sites by Limor Shifman and Hamutal Ma’apil Varsano
First Monday, volume 12, number 2 (February 2007),