Is ‘Dad Joke” Sexist?

Written by Neil Levy

A dad joke is a short joke, often turning on a pun or a play on words. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Did you hear about the restaurant on the moon? It’s got great food, but no atmosphere.
  • A sandwich walks into a bar and orders a beer. “Sorry,” says the bartender, “we don’t serve food here”.

They are called ‘dad jokes’ because they are stereotypically told by fathers. The term is a somewhat backhanded compliment. Like the words “daggy” (in Australian and New Zealand English) and “naff” (in British English) – all of which are words that could appropriately be used to describe jokes in the genre – calling something a dad joke at once conveys that is extremely uncool, but also indicates grudging affection for the target. Dad jokes are bad, in many people’s eyes (not mine, as it happens), but they’re so bad that they’re a kind of artform all of their own, and we convey an affection and grudging respect for those who tell them.

I like dad jokes. Some of them are inventive and I find them amusing. But I worry about the name. Calling them “dad jokes” seems to me to be sexist.

Roughly, to call behavior sexist is to say that it expresses attitudes that classify people on the basis of sex, when sex is irrelevant. It’s not sexist to offer maternity leave to women only, because sex is relevant to pregnancy. It is sexist to offer advanced mathematics to men only, because sex is not relevant to mathematics. Sexist behavior is not always directlywrong. It is directly wrong to offer advanced mathematics to men only, because it closes down possibilities that would otherwise have been open to women. But it may nevertheless be indirectly wrong, even when it is not directly wrong.

Calling this genre of jokes ‘dad jokes’ doesn’t strike me as directly wrong. It may nevertheless be indirectly wrong. I think it expresses – and perhaps plays a small role in reinforcing – attitudes that are bad for men and for women.

First, for men. The idea that dads are daggy (to use the Australian word) associates fatherhood with a loss of masculinity. Before children, men are real men; after children, not so much. Both stereotypes are constraining. The first may play a role in the epidemic of male suicide, with men implicitly thinking that real men face their problems alone, and real men bear prime responsibility for the wellbeing of their families. The second stereotype, insofar as it is emasculating, may play a role in men attempting to avoid parental responsibilities. Better stereotypes would avoid the suggestion that masculinity is compromised by childrearing or by emotional dependence on others.

But the idea that dads are daggy may be bad for women too. While the “dad” stereotype is mixed, it contains positive elements. It associates dads with intellectual capacities worth having. With their plays on words, and often their display of knowledge, dad jokes associates men with intelligence. This association reflects, and may reinforce, our implicit biases; our implicit assumption that a male candidate is likely to better at certain tasks than a female who possesses equal qualifications. So the association is likely bad for women too.

I don’t think the sexism of “dad joke” is a burning issue. I doubt the harms arising from this linguistic quirk are major. Nevertheless, as part of a pattern of gendering language and thought, this kind of sexism is best avoided. At worst, we lose nothing by referring to them as corny jokes, or daggy jokes, or what have you. At best, we may thereby play a small role in improving the future for both men and women.

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6 Responses to Is ‘Dad Joke” Sexist?

  • John Wilkins says:

    Dad jokes are a proper subset of Dag jokes. I’m a dad. I know whereof I speak. If a non-dad utters a joke that if uttered by a dad would be a dad joke, then it is a dag joke.

  • Richard Hain says:

    Whether or not the ‘dad joke’ is the most obvious example, there is no doubt that in Western society the ideas suggested by fatherhood are much more ambivalent and mixed than those associated with motherhood. Nor should there be any doubt that those mixed messages are important in ethics.

    I’d love, for example, to redeem the word ‘paternalistic’ from its current pejorative sense. An ideal father is certainly authoritative, but that authority is exercised in the name of compassion and wisdom, not simply in the name of arbitrary power. We recognise compassion and wisdom in the word ‘maternal’; why have we excluded them so ruthlessly from its male counterpart ? Even the gentler word ‘paternal’ carries overtones of being patronised that are conspicuously absent from the female equivalent.

    Which brings us to another example, of course. While we’re looking for equity between concepts of mother- and fatherhood in language, why is there no term ‘matronising’ ? The concept it represents certainly exists; just listen to a group of girls explaining how they have trained their men to dress or fold the towels properly.

    Don’t get me wrong, I value the differences between men and women and that kind of gentle teasing, done with love and humour, can be a valuable asset in a relationship. What’s more, the scales of power in society are turned so heavily against women that justice surely demands that an individual woman should be able to re-set something of that imbalance in her own individual relationship. The world probably works better because of it.

    But it is dangerously untrue to suggest that the concepts underlying fatherhood stand in contrast with those of motherhood; to imagine that fatherhood represents what is authoritarian and arrogant. Why dangerous ? Well, firstly because it perpetuates the myth that all women, simply by being female, are more caring than all men. Secondly, because it perpetuates the myth that authority and compassion are somehow at odds; that it is impossible to care for someone without setting aside one’s authority in the name of autonomy.

    That’s an idea that has undermined effective bioethics for decades.

  • David Edmonds says:

    Interesting post Neil. “Roughly, to call behavior sexist is to say that it expresses attitudes that classify people on the basis of sex, when sex is irrelevant.” Not sure I agree with this – or at least, it only gets us half way. It misses out contingent features of the world…a gentlemen’s club may be sexist in a way in which a female-only club is not

  • TrinityCollegeFellow says:

    “But I worry about the name.”

    Indeed, I can hardly sleep from all the worry about it. O tempora! O mores! If the world only knew the worries we have to deal with here!

  • Géraud Lernais says:

    Sexism — or that matter, any instance of X-ism, where ‘X’ holds place for a trait indicative of sex, gender, race, etc, goes like this — and stereotypes are mutually independent things. I feel that this piece conflates the two.

    You define sexism as:

    “To call behavior sexist is to say that it expresses attitudes that classify people on the basis of sex, when sex is irrelevant.”

    but you go on to write:

    “I think it [calling a joke a dad joke] expresses –- and perhaps plays a small role in reinforcing –- attitudes that are bad for men and for women.

    But there is no logical relation between (i) an attitude that is bad for a certain sex because it reinforces a stereotype associated with that sex and (ii) sexism. The logical connection you need to make your point is between (ii) and:

    (i*) an attitude that is bad for a certain sex because it reinforces a *sexist* stereotype associated with that sex.

    (i) is useless because a stereotype can be positive, prescribing a positive response, in which case the harm done to the sex associated with the positive stereotype will fall out of scope of the agent’s behaviour.

    Now even though (i*->ii) does provide you with the logical relation you need, I think (i*) is highly questionable:

    * the notion of classification is not relevant — because the sexist does not need to be committed to a perceived trait correlating with a category, and because what matters instead are the negative attitudes in the gamut of responses characterized above;

    * the notion of “on the basis of” could mean almost anything ranging from the epistemological to the metaphysical;

    * the notion of “… when sex is irrelevant” obscures the fact that the “classification on the basis of sex” can be both relevant and sexist, for example in every case where sex is relevant to the sexist’s classification but still does not support his or her sexist attitude. Example: “Elizabeth should not compete in this open to both sexes chess competition — she is just women after all!” implying that, because the very best male chess players regularly beat the very best female chess players (which they do), Elizabeth is unlikely to win. This would be sexist even if it was true that, as a woman, Elizabeth was less likely to win than her male competitors, for the simple fact that it belittles and demeans Elizabeth’s chess efforts.)

    I would suggest you ditch the definition of sexism above in favour of:

    (X-ism) An agent A is being X-ist just in case A’s perception of an X-indicative trait in people motivates (and from his or her point of view, makes appropriate) a response that treats and prescribes treating their interests as less important that A’s.

    Responses that typically treat and prescribe treating people’s interests as less important range from the hostile to the aversive, derogatory, demeaning and belittling.

    Under this definition, a stereotype is sexist only if treats and prescribes treating the interests of someone of a certain sex as less important than one’s own because of (a response motivated and internally justified by one’s perception of) his or her sex.

    As far as I can see, calling a joke a dad joke does not meet this requirement.

    • Géraud Lernais says:

      Sorry an annoying typing occurs in the first sentence above. Please read:

      Sexism — or for that matter, any instance of X-ism, where ‘X’ holds place for a trait indicative of sex, gender, race, etc, goes like this — and stereotypes are mutually independent things. I feel that this piece conflates the two.

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