The Politics of Self-Deprecation

James Argent is a writer based in Brooklyn. He won this award, that award, and that award – among others – and his debut novel Pea Soup and Philosophy will be released in August. He struggles to pull his pants on in the morning.

Delia Kantdeel lives as far away from other humans as she possibly can. Cats are her family, tea is her lifeblood, and sleeping is her passion.

Guy Flibbertigibbet is a recipient of the Guggelhuggel fellowship for the obscenely talented. Despite a lifetime spent accruing gold stars, he has difficulties writing author biographies due to regrettably possessing the life skills of a guppy.

It took me a while to realise why so many author biographies simultaneously make me smile and wish to throttle my desk lamp. The generic wink-wink-nudge-nudge, overly chummy humour gets my goat, even if I’m the one guilty of writing it. But then again, humblebragging has never sat well with me and frankly gets all my farmyard animals.

Yet self-deprecation is a broader and more complex issue than that of the simple humblebrag. We already know Cordelia falls over just so she can show off her Boat Pose: the humblebrag is obvious, demoded and derided. Self-deprecation remains widely socially acceptable, however, and can be found in a far broader range of communication forms and cultural spheres.

The underlying frameworks and politics of self-deprecation are troubling. For example, why is the classic young author bio structure: ‘info, info, gosh-darn-I’m-a-wit, website’? What makes us so quick to infantilise ourselves through comics, memes and gifs which would have our cognitive skills equated to those of a canary? Who gets to joke about how they’re not coping?

The problems with such humour may not be immediately obvious, but they exist nonetheless. Self-deprecation is inherently tied to power dynamics; moreover, it works best when the person employing it is privileged and in a position of power. For this reason, it is paramount we recognise how the use and understanding of humour relate to both social capital and social inequalities. After all, you may say you’re self-deprecating, but that doesn’t necessarily make you the butt of the joke.

Before I continue, it’s worth pointing out that self-deprecation is often used in a genuine manner. People who employ it are typically self-aware, or at least aim to foster warmth during their interactions with others. It’s your friend bringing a flicker of comedy to your Facebook newsfeed; the student commiserating over having “literally not started anything”; and the Canberran making wry asides about their home for the sake of a collective laugh.

This conversational tendency – our wish to put others at ease and build connection through laughter – reminds me of an ongoing theme in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day. The protagonist, Mr Stevens, is fascinated by the mechanics of conversation: he mulls over people’s “skill of bantering” (page 245) and how the way we talk is so often composed of frivolous words spoken solely to entertain others. Inhibited to the extreme and rendered an outsider through his own making, Mr Stevens is primarily an observer of others throughout his own story; he also repeatedly judges the interactions of others as shallow and pointless. Yet, by the end of the tale, even he concludes banter “is not such a foolish thing to indulge in – particularly if it is the case that in bantering lies the key to human warmth” (page 245).

Banter and self-deprecation are closely related, and I don’t deny their ability to help conversations run smoothly and enjoyably. Self-deprecation can be one of the most tasteful forms of both banter and humour in general, for it provides the opportunity for laughter without someone being made the butt of a joke without their consent, which could risk being cruel. Indeed, to self-deprecate literally means to belittle or undervalue oneself; the self-deprecator is not making others smaller, rather, only themselves.

Or are they?

One could argue self-deprecation is the new humblebrag. It’s the “I woke up like this” of personality; too cool to care, too basic to get anything right; too ‘relatable’ to hate. Indeed, the contemporary emphasis on authenticity, particularly within hipster culture, demands an open embracing of one’s flaws. Arguably, the greater the extent to which one embraces one’s shortcomings, the greater the social cachet, at least within groups which speak the language of irony. In this sense, humour expressed supposedly to put oneself down for the amusement of others is still ultimately self-serving. The fact you may not necessarily be conscious of this dynamic when comparing your food baby with the stomach of a beached walrus does not negate the fact self-deprecation is often the humble without the brag, but with a similar effect.

Yet for all my grousing, self-deprecation still doesn’t look too bad. Granted, people who put themselves down can’t be wholly altruistic if they’re aware on some level they’ll be well-regarded for their conversational slickness – but is anyone truly altruistic? Am I simply a killjoy who expects too much from humour?

Well yes, I am a killjoy. But I also expect humour to rise to the challenge.

Self-deprecation is easy to perceive as charming. Peel back a layer, however, and it can rapidly appear smug and potentially even intolerable, though the person behind it would likely abhor conveying such an impression.

The problem with self-deprecation is that it’s only funny if the stated reality and actual reality are incongruous. You can only joke about failing if you’re succeeding, or complain of being rubbish if you’re not. And I deliberately use the word ‘can’ here to mean ‘permitted’ – while it is an unwritten rule, it’s socially taboo to discuss one’s problems, whether in the real world, through Facebook’s little ‘What’s on your mind?’ box, or via a 140-character tweet. ‘Discussing problems’ can swiftly be deemed ‘complaining’ – and showing anything other than a chirpy exterior can be constituted as a faux pas, especially via the glossy hyperreality of social media.

This means in order to garner the social approval and cachet of the cool and fun self-deprecator, one must self-deprecate, not complain. In order to self-deprecate rather than complain, however, one must be in the privileged and powerful position of, for example, being able to discuss poverty in jest as opposed to in seriousness. #poor is very different to Poor.

The people who voice how behind they are on everything, and laugh about it, are typically those who are furthest ahead. The friends who share a video of a puppy struggling to eat a stick of celery, captioned “Me When I’m Trying To Eat Healthy Food”, are often conventionally attractive and only go on Maccas runs on nostalgia trips. Meanwhile, the ones who claim to have no social skills are probably doing just fine; it’s easy to joke about your awkwardness if you’ve got plenty of friends.

This phenomenon is exemplified by the exaggeration present in comic books like Sarah Andersen’s Adulthood is a Myth, or even the charming Hyperbole and a Half (book and blog) by Allie Brosh. Both publications are composed of largely autobiographical stories about the authors’ various oddities and deficiencies, accompanied by crude comic drawings in which both authors appear distinctly childlike. Both are also bestsellers. I don’t pretend to know the authors’ lives or deem them stress-free – for example, Brosh has written openly about her depression – however, these two adults are objectively highly successful at a young age. They’re also talented and funny. Yet their success is built precisely off emphasising how very ordinary, and even lacking, they are.

Similar self-deprecation is evident in the way both ordinary people and celebrities – and among these, generally women – talk about their weight, eating habits and appearance. Actresses such as Tina Fey (30 Rock) and Zooey Deschanel (New Girl) can slap on black-rimmed glasses and ‘adorkable’ mannerisms and successfully build careers off jokes about how awkward and sexually undesirable they are (pfft – I have eyes). Taylor Swift pulls similar tricks with both her cat-referencing online persona, and in her music video for You Belong With Me, where glasses on-screen are obviously shorthand for ‘I’m not a pretty cheerleader: I’m Relatable!’ Jennifer Lawrence, meanwhile, enjoyed a few years as an internet darling, praised for her candour, genuineness, and supposedly relatable qualities … yet it’s a lot easier to paint yourself as a charming, chip-guzzling sloth whose body is not your temple when there are people who would literally build temples to your body.

It’s unsettling to laugh along at double-standards which laud people for speaking in a ‘real’ way, when the reason them discussing their flaws is deemed acceptable and fun is primarily because those particular flaws do not exist. If an actual plus-sized actress like Melissa McCarthy joked about sitting around eating junk food in the style of Jennifer Lawrence, she’d likely be criticised. At the very least, we wouldn’t be laughing along with her, or certainly not without a twinge of unease.

Of course, in McCarthy’s case, she was the star of a relatively popular TV series named Mike & Molly which derived much of its humour from the title characters being plus-sized. In this sense, one can see how it is possible to self-deprecate for traits which are often perceived as negative, and laughed at rather than with. Such humour could be seen as positive, and a move towards greater normalisation and acceptance of a range of body types.

Nevertheless, the power dynamics of self-deprecation shift when a person generally perceived as ‘losing’ in some sense deprecates that very trait of theirs which is typically viewed as undesirable. For example, as with McCarthy or anyone deviating from a socially-constructed norm or value, this person runs the risk of their self-deprecation being seen by others as a chance to laugh at them, not with them.

Furthermore – jerks aside – this power imbalance remains in play even when others react in a more positive manner. For example, a person might joke about their stresses and shortcomings as a form of self-defence, and do so convincingly enough that others laugh along with them, believing their problems to be as ephemeral as the time it takes to read a tweet. Yet self-deprecating defensively can imply both a desire to lighten a genuine problem through laughter; or that a person protects themselves from judgement by either attacking themselves before anyone else can, or by presenting a problem as more palatable than it truly is.

Such possibilities bear a muffled sadness. Either this sadness is detectable, rendering the humour less funny and more uncomfortable; or it goes undetected, which can lead to the self-deprecator feeling even more alone and distant from their projected reality. The bottom line is that the self-deprecator with genuine problems has none of the unconscious ease or privilege of the more advantaged self-deprecator, who benefits from a lack of problems or things to hide.


Highlighting the problems inherent to self-deprecation could seem overly sensitive or pedantic, at least to people who also employ terms like “PC police” and “bleeding-heart millennial”. Nevertheless, even if self-deprecation’s relationship with others’ welfare leaves some shrugging, we could still do well to assess our own self-deprecating tendencies. Self-deprecation doesn’t only harm others by belittling genuine problems: it also works against self-deprecators themselves.

We’ve already established how self-deprecation can generate social approval and is not so distant from the inglorious humblebrag. Yet this is not this brand of humour’s only personal pitfall. Indeed, self-deprecation is above all about belittling oneself, which raises the question: why are we so eager to put ourselves down? And who does this hurt the most?

The second question could well answer the first. In 2010, sociolinguist Judith Baxter published a monograph titled The Language of Female Leadership, which examines the way women talk – and are talked about – and how language impacts the perception of women in leadership roles. Performing an 18-month study on men and women’s speech patterns in meetings at seven major companies, Baxter discovered that men and women use very different kinds of humour in the boardroom. The majority of male humour – 80 per cent – is made up of flippant witticisms and banter, while 70 per cent of female humour is self-deprecatory. Jokes by men are also far better received – a phenomenon no doubt helping perpetuate the stereotype that women aren’t funny.

Baxter concluded that women undermine themselves through the use of self-deprecatory humour.

While I find this disheartening, I’m not surprised. Nor am I shocked to hear that women self-deprecate more than men. After all, we’re also known for saying sorry too much, sitting with our knees together, and folding ourselves away in accordance with social conditioning which would have us be ever smaller.

Consequently, self-deprecation employed by women can take on a bitter taste, and not just for misogynists who think women can’t be funny. Woman self-deprecate because they’ve learnt they’re most socially acceptable when they’re small and sweet; when they’re comparing themselves to cute animals like a celery-eating puppy, for instance. Indeed, social conditioning rewards women who belittle themselves, infantilising themselves into cuteness and thus rendering themselves more approachable through a patriarchal lens.

We do this to ourselves. What’s more, we can’t even stop without appearing uncool, ‘without chill’, and liable to being shut out of the very patriarchal systems we need to navigate in order to subvert.

What a bind.

I don’t wish to suggest women should never self-deprecate again; aside from anything else, the primary reason self-deprecation by women is poorly received appears to be related to a gendered reception of humour. Women shouldn’t have to adapt the way they joke simply because self-deprecation works best for people with two testicles and a side serving of privilege. Besides, self-deprecation can also be a coping mechanism for dealing with discomfort rather than being forced to confront it head-on. The fact women self-deprecate more than men is telling, however, and implies we should at least be conscious that we risk unintentionally making manic pixie dream girls of ourselves; the act of infantilisation is gendered, an influence extending to self-deprecatory humour. Moreover, there are so many women who consciously combat sexism with panache: it would be a shame if they then belittled themselves into the very social constructs they’re trying to deconstruct.

More broadly: like many forms of humour, self-deprecation can serve as a distancing technique which allows people to avoid talking about topics which actually matter. Granted, if someone is suffering, how they engage with the issue is their prerogative. It becomes problematic, however, if the more privileged among us applaud, say, #poor as opposed to Poor. Not allowing the second to be discussed – or normalised in conversation – by members of our chirpy society is another way of denying vulnerable people help and dismissing genuine attempts to talk about serious issues. Not everything is or can be a joke. Nor does it need to be.

Having privileged people consistently making jokes out of issues problematic for many, such as poverty, poor health and mental disorders, can also dull the impact when such issues are discussed in seriousness. Making humour or art out of suffering co-opts the truth of a problem – truth which could incite anger and change – and can do a disservice to those who are struggling. Empathy is diverted into complacent chuckling, and norms of communication which uphold prejudices and stereotypes are perpetuated.

 And as for the author bio … everyone loves cats and drinking tea. Seriously, there are so many of you with tea ‘literally’ running through your veins that you could start a flavoured water blood bank. But you don’t have to pretend you’re flaky or floundering through life if your reality involves hard work and challenges greater than walking to brunch without falling over. Playing that ‘cool girl’ role is how women in particular are trained to operate, but it can also convey a false impression of how much effort and skill people actually employ; this in turn distances our words from reality. So why not own your accomplishments and stop putting yourself down?

Believe it or not, I don’t seek to police your humour. Interpretation of humour will always be subjective, and a joke which works in one circle may fall dead flat in another. There can be no blanket rules. Nevertheless, I do wonder whether we adequately think through what our self-deprecation means or implies, and who might be put at a disadvantage while our friends laugh along with us. Basically, would you be so quick to advertise how incompetent or badly off you were if that truly were your situation?

At the end of the day, self-deprecation works in accordance with one’s privilege. And funnily enough, I’m not sure I can make a joke out of that.