A few weeks ago I wrote about funny women, and suggested that we feminists could also lighten up a bit from time to time. British feminist Laurie Perry disagrees. Writing about Naomi Wolf’s latest book Perry takes a general swipe at the present generation of what she calls “celebrity faux-feminists” who “provoke without challenging” and whose point is “not to challenge patriarchy, but to distract attention away from it”.
Are funny feminists missing the point? Or worse, more or less willingly perpetuating the problem they are committed to fighting? What is, more generally, the role of humour in political activism?
I’m a fan of stand-up comedy and good stand-up is often political and risqué. For example, Finnish-Iranian comedian Ali Jahangiri makes “pizza jokes”, where a part of his routine revolves around a stereotypical immigrant pizzeria owner that speaks Finnish with a “funny” accent. Or Bülent Ceylan, a hugely popular German comedian, who in shows such as “Döner for one” entertains his crowd with a never ending flow of stereotypes about Turkish immigrants.
First point I need to make is that these are the kinds of jokes that Jahangiri and Ceylan can make. I cannot, and neither can you unless you are a dark-skinned immigrant in Finland or a German of Turkish extraction. I can joke about women as bitches, whereas men cannot. Only a disabled person can make “cripple” jokes, only a gay person can make “fag” jokes and only a holocaust survivor can make holocaust jokes. Nobody except a person who is personally the butt of the joke can make them,* in every other instance the issue is highly likely to be one of prejudice and offense masquerading as humour.
I would have thought that this was pretty self-evident, but it continues to baffle me how common “rape jokes” are. (If you don’t believe me, see here, here and here for just a few recent examples.) So here comes the angry feminist: Stop making them! They’re not funny! In fact they’re incredibly hurtful, offensive and threatening! Only a rape victim can make a rape joke and even that has to be about her (or him, in fairness), NOT about a veiled threat towards the person to whom it is addressed.
Having covered the basics, I get to the second, more important point: Is it funny? The problem with my two examples of Jahangiri and Ceylan is that they are not very funny.** They take a stereotype and pander to it. This is, I think, the problem that Laurie Perry was complaining about in the New Statesman column I linked above. It is also the problem that Ariel Levy discussed in Female Chauvinist Pigs addressing the emergence of a whole cultural phenomenon whereby men did not have to make stereotypical jokes about women, as women were making them. That indeed risks distracting attention from the problem, and even reinforcing it. The thinking goes as follows: Sexual objectification of women’s bodies must be okay, since women are doing it. And in any event, it’s just a bit of fun, a joke, geddit? Don’t be such a tightarse. Chillax, get a sense of humour!
Same with the pizza jokes: Immigrants, their accents and the fact that they end up starting fast food businesses because of employment discrimination in Finland cannot be that serious, if Jahangiri is making a joke of it.
A good political joke does not take a stereotype and reinforce it. It takes a stereotype and turns it on its head, SUBVERTS it. That is funny, smart, fresh, surprising... and therefore effective as a tool in political activism. I could give plenty of examples but my present favourite is the hilarious and fiendishly intelligent Chris Rock with this video, made in the run up to the 2012 US presidential election. He takes the stereotype of white prejudice against a black president and ...
Well, see – and laugh – for yourself.
What's your view? Are rude and offensive jokes ok? Where does the line go? Are there any lines or is everything permitted, as long as it is funny? Do jokes make a good addition to the activist toolbox?
*Yes, I know that Phyllis Diller’s fat jokes that I linked in my 3 March post fail this test. Darn!
**With the exception of the name. "Döner for one" is actually a pretty funny twist on "Dinner for one" -- a weird German New Year's tradition.