Nora Davis used to like adult-humored cartoons.
When she was younger, she thought shows like Family Guy were funny, if a little crude. But as she grew older and learned more about the reality of sexism, the shows no longer appealed to her.
“I started to see the jokes as really demeaning,” Davis, a sophomore studying psychology, said. “I kind of stopped watching them after that.”
Davis is likely not alone. Much of the comedy used in adult-humored cartoons is written by men and for men. Shows like South Park, Family Guy and Rick and Morty are scattered with jokes about sex and penises — but that may not be the only thing that makes them more appealing to men than to women.
Adult animation risks becoming problematic when it uses sexist, homophobic and other prejudiced jokes to insensitively poke fun at those who aren’t straight white men.
Mark Shatz, a professor of psychology at Ohio University's Zanesville campus, literally on humor writing. He teaches a class on how to write comically and said the key to all comedy is the element of surprise. The shock value of adult animation is what sells.
“The expectation is for (cartoons) to be clean,” Shatz said. “It makes it easier for them to shock people because the expectation is for it to be a traditional animation. You can do the same humor live, but it just tends to be more effective when it’s done with animation.”
Shatz said the humor used in adult cartoons is typically “male” humor. The shows appeal to young men who find jokes about sex and penises funny.
“South Park sometimes does really good social issues, but a lot of times their jokes are just a lot of dirty words or fart jokes,” he said. “I think their target audience are, to a certain extent, 20-year-old men. They’re writing jokes for that audience.”
But sometimes the jokes reach beyond body parts and walk the line of becoming offensive. Though shows like South Park market themselves as platforms that poke fun at everyone, their jokes can often be insensitive to people who don’t fall within their primary target audiences.
Loran Marsan, a visiting assistant professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies, said the crass humor used in adult animation isn’t by definition “male humor.” It should be called what it is: sexist, homophobic or transphobic humor, Marsan said.
“That does not equate to male humor, necessarily, other than the fact that the people that appeals to most are straight, white men,” Marsan said. “Because of a lot of social issues that happen, they’re laughing at other people. They’re not laughing at themselves.”
Marsan acknowledged that often the show’s writers employ prejudiced jokes as a form of satire and try to creatively bring attention to social issues through comedy. But while a South Park episode that depicts a “trans” character who identifies as a dolphin might be humorous to some, to many people, including trans individuals, the jokes might be seen as contributing to the problem.
“I think that when it strays into the vein of sexism and homophobia and racism ... it’s a fine line, especially with satire,” Marsan said. “A lot of satire will employ those sorts of things to call them out, in which case, then, I think that’s productive socially. But whether or not satire works is kind of in the eye of the beholder.”