Friday, 9 September 2011

Can feminists be funny?

Sally OutenPosted by Sally Outen

OK, OK, here's one:
Q: What do you get if you cross, um, Silvio Berlusconi with... an accusation of sexism?
A: Silenced! Haha?

What? Not laughing? But... it's topical, nearly... and, and it's funny because it's true, right? Oh. Yeah. It's sad that it's true - that's the one. But at least it isn't as bad as all those how-many-women-does-it-take-to-screw-in-a-lightbulb jokes - the ones that, while still being rather sad, also manage to be, well, not actually true. Not really. They're just playing on popular stereotypes and being generally misogynistic*.

Or... oh... maybe I'm just one of those humourless feminists.

That's a stereotype in itself, of course - the humourless feminist. The person who doesn't laugh when someone makes a really sexist joke. The person who really needs to lighten up a bit; or, maybe, just doesn't get it. How distressing it can be to make an effort to tell a joke that, hey, might have certain, well, misogynistic overtones (all perfectly innocent, of course), only for some killjoy feminist to spoil the general mood of hilarity by being offended. How selfish of them.

It's such a pervasive trope that I'd estimate I must have posed the question "Can feminists be funny?" to over twelve hundred people, just over the course of the last few weeks. OK, OK, so it was one of our flyering taglines in Edinburgh... but the point is: people are often all too well aware of the "humourless feminists" trope. For many people, it may be the most prominent association they make with feminism. We're too "politically correct", too serious, too easily offended.

I'm tired of hearing opinions to the effect that political correctness is killing comedy, that it stands in opposition to humour itself, or at least to what gets characterised as "edgy" humour. Because, well, apart from anything else, a sizeable number of comics seem quite capable of being funny while identifying as PC. Stewart Lee is a case in point - and while I personally have issues with some of his material, I'm glad to see him championing the cause of shininess in comedy, and I like his description of political correctness as "an often clumsy negotiation towards a kind of formally inclusive language".

Other comics are less sympathetic. Some attempt to ignore any criticism by suggesting that it represents a threat to their freedom of speech, or by claiming that you can't be funny without offending somebody (I hope you won't mind my decision to use secondary sources here - I dislike the idea of linking directly to The Sun, but it ought to be easy enough to find the original articles on their website, if you really feel you must).

I've talked about the whole freedom of speech thing in an earlier post, but the idea that comedy isn't possible without causing offence - this is a trope I find genuinely fascinating. Because, well, it's so very obviously untrue. Of course comedy doesn't have to be offensive. A very high proportion (some would argue, all) of comedy revolves around incongruity, startling juxtapositions and shifts in perspective. So, there are puns, in which something you thought was going to mean one thing suddenly and simultaneously means another. There's the surrealism of Terry Gilliam's animations for Monty Python's Flying Circus. There's the grace and silliness of Charlie Chaplin's famous bread roll dance. True, you can get a sense of incongruity from the oh-my-gosh-I-can't-believe-they-can-get-away-with-saying-that school of humour - but my point is, that's just one of a number of potential sources of humour. To try to suggest that it is the only way of being funny just betrays a lack of inventiveness and an ignorance of comedic history.

But even knowing that, I'm not calling for comedy to avoid offending anyone, ever. I'm sure that a lot of my comedy is likely to offend quite a few people, just as my continued existence does. In a fantastic article over on her blog, Kinsey Hope explains why "political correctness" isn't really about not causing offence; it's about trying to avoid reinforcing those biases and assumptions that maintain the pattern of privilege and oppression within our society. It's about deconstructing the kyriarchy itself.

Various people have drawn a distinction between punching up and punching down in comedy. This is the idea that, rather than choosing easy targets - people who are less privileged than yourself and, presumably, than most of your audience, you can punch up by finding ways to draw humour from those who you share a high level of privilege with, or who are more privileged than yourself. This is likely to be harder to do, because you're less likely to be able to draw on an established framework of stereotypes than you are when punching down - most of the really juicy stereotypes are about underprivileged people. It's also more difficult because you're at increased risk of upsetting the average audience if you spend your time tearing apart the hierarchies that they're clinging to. Oh well, never mind - we're fine with comedy's potential for causing offence, right?

And, hey, isn't this subversive - to challenge kyriarchy, the most significant, most deeply-entrenched power structure of them all? How much more anti-establishment can you get, as a comic, than to turn on a large percentage of your expected audience demographic and explain to them how excessively privileged they are, how ignorant they show themselves to be, what silly assumptions they seem to be nurturing? Isn't that so much more edgy than simply voicing and validating all their petty little prejudices for them? Sure, I know the theory that comedy works by first confusing and then reassuring people, but you don't need to reassure them that it's OK to be openly and obnoxiously racist, for example. That's a very lazy, regressive way to go about doing things. Why not try to think of something more original? Also, less fail. Yeah?

And, you know what? I've yet to meet a feminist who really is devoid of a sense of humour. In my experience, most feminists seem to respond quite well to jokes whose punchlines aren't entirely reliant on lazy gender stereotypes. Funny, that.

* And when you mention this to people, you get told things like, "Oh, well, everyone knows women can usually replace lightbulbs by themselves; it's just a bit of silliness... it doesn't really mean anything. Now, are you sure you're OK operating that staple-gun? [Back]

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