Dark Humor: Where Does it Cross the Line?

In an era where political correctness has infiltrated its way into several aspects of life, the gruesome comedy form of ‘dark humor’ has occasionally been used as a mask to hide intentional discrimination, such as misogyny, homophobia, racism, ableism, and more. Rather than being embraced as a style of comedy by certain internet users, the term dark humor is often manipulated, acting as a cover up for offensive content. Due to this, many may be under the false pretense that the mockery of traumatic events and bigotry is okay, as long as it is covered up with the excuse of ‘dark humor.’

The Impacts of Dark Humor 

Dark Humor, also known as black comedy, morbid humor, or gallows humor, is a style of humor that makes light of certain subject matters that are serious, disturbing, and unpleasant to discuss. Many comedians utilize this form of humor for entertainment purposes while simultaneously provoking discomfort. 

“Hopscotch into Oblivion” An Example of Dark Humor

The issue is not with those who simply enjoy indulging in dark humor as a comedy form – as many people use humor as a coping mechanism for their trauma, or rely on it for much-needed laughter. Rather, the problem is those who deliberately have racist, sexist, homophobic, or discriminatory intentions, and create these ‘jokes’ that come at the expense of others. 

An example of this is the mockery of the #MeToo movement, where people would use the hand and paint palette emojis in reference to the victims that would paint the parts of their bodies where they had been sexually abused. People would use this set of emojis at the end of comments or captions normally found on TikTok, making fun of sexual abuse victims who shared their stories on the social media platform. 

As of late, many dark humor enthusiasts have taken to making the Black Lives Matter movement the subject of their jokes. These ‘jokes’ have specifically targeted the death of Breonna Taylor, an EMT who was shot in her home by police officers while she was sleeping, as well as the riots that occasionally took place amongst racial inequality protests. When famous rapper Megan Thee Stallion was shot on her own street, she became the butt of several tweeted jokes. Rather than being sent condolences, her situation was treated as if it were an episode of a sitcom for Twitter’s viewing pleasure – and the lack of concern and harmful teasing reinforced the ‘strong black woman’ stereotype. If the intention of the BLM centered jokes are not for comedic purposes, but to deliberately ‘trigger’ or provoke outrage from advocates and supporters, it crosses the line. 

“When privileged groups in society use comedy to attack marginalized  voices — think Gervais making jokes about trans people — the hurt can have more damaging impacts.”

writes Siobhan Hagarty for ABC Life.

Controversial comedians have built their careers off the usage of shock value, which eventually leads to discomfort, and then amusement. As society progresses and technology advances, the ever-growing world of social media keeps a constant eye on comedians – and so with these ‘messed up’ jokes, they might not just be hurting an audience in a stand-up club, but communities across the globe. When these comics portray oppressed groups as the ‘butt’ of the joke, it perpetuates and normalizes problematic ideals. Especially in the digital age, this type dark humor can potentially have an effect on impressionable young viewers, where these ‘jokes’ may eventually evolve into ableism, fatphobia, transphobia, racism, homophobia, misogyny, and more. 

Punching Up vs Punching Down

“Always punch up, never punch down.” This is a term that is common amongst comedians. It acts as an unwritten rule in which jokes centered around elite social groups (e.g. politicians, CEOs) can be used to cope with the disadvantages that privileged groups don’t ever have to endure (punching up), but attacking marginalized communities can perpetuate damaging stereotypes and contribute to societal issues (punching down). 

Taunting those in a higher position on the social hierarchy allows the majority to relate, as the masses are financially, racially, and sexually diverse and creates a sense of unity against the elite. Reversing this mimics a harmful power dynamic and only adds to previous oppression.

Though the line between dark humor and offensive content is blurred, there is indeed a factor that can distinguish the two: intent. Malicious intent in comedy can be in the form of someone poking fun at a sensitive topic, not necessarily to generate laughter,  but to get a reaction out of those affected. This shows that their intention was to deliberately hurt others  and thus shouldn’t be brushed off as a joke. 

While humor generally has a positive effect on people and can act as a great healing agent, there are boundaries that we should try not to set foot in. The next time you type out a caption for a TikTok or have a twisted idea for a Tweet, take a step back and think: even if this joke causes some people to laugh, will they laugh at the expense of marginalized groups? Does this joke perpetuate damaging stereotypes or contribute to homophobia or rape culture? If so, leave it in the drafts.






Sophia Delrosario

Sophia Delrosario is a 16 year old, first-gen Filipina D|FAB major at High Tech High School that strives to make change in today’s world. She founded Zenerations in April 2020, is a member of the Junior State of America, served as Vice President and Secretary for Student Government, and is a Vine Member at JUV Consulting. She is passionate about writing, politics, film, STEM, and fashion, and is heavily involved in the activist space.

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