Just kidding?

A qualitative research into the sociocultural role and meanings of mediated humour controversies in Flanders (01/10/2018 - 01/04/2023)


Anke Lion


Frederik Dhaenens


Daniël Biltereyst

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To this day, identity-based humour may create conflict and polarize public debate, as proven by the increasing media presence of humour controversies and the moral/media panic that is often present in such debates (i.e. the fear of a growing ‘politically correct’ or ‘woke’ culture). This research project, funded by the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), explores the discussion of mediatized ‘humour controversies’ within the Flemish context. Humour controversies can be best described as national and international public rows about transgressive humour aimed at minoritized groups (Koivukoski 2022). The project examines the politics of offense surrounding controversial humorous texts (e.g. when, why and how audiences decide to take offense and the power dynamics inherent to this process), whilst also taking into account the role media play in the discussion of offended feelings. By studying these humour controversies, we wish to explore how discussions on shifting morality and boundaries may highlight power relations between social groups.

To do this, the project departs from an audience perspective and hopes to remedy in part the lack of audience research that currently exists in humour studies. Concretely, the research holistically integrates the insights of three equally valuable players in the debate on humour controversies: 1) Targeted humour audiences, who often face stereotypical or hurtful humour in their daily lives and are generally dismissed as 'easily offended' in debates on humour limits. However, it does not solely consider them as ‘targets’ but also as 'producers' of (subversive) humour and recognizes how humour can be a key strategy for minoritized people to deal with offensive humour. 2) Experts and journalists in the Flemish media, whose voices are included in a rich database of articles on humour controversies in Flanders from 2005 to 2021 that aims to offer a longitudinal systematic analysis of how these controversies are discussed in the public domain. 3) Flemish comedians, who are 'producers' of humour, but who may also be affected by how debates on humour limits unfold in the Flemish media.