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Issue In Focus: What’s In a Joke?

Picture of British comedian Miranda Hart sitting down

Last January, armed gunmen stormed the Paris office of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 and injuring 11, because the magazine published a satirical cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed. While the world condemned the violence and mourned the death of the artists, we were also forced to ask ourselves if joking sometimes goes too far. When I sat down to write this article, I asked a few friends about what they believed to be the most offensive kind of humour. Most of them felt humour about religion was in bad taste. But if religion and god are off the table, what happens to everything else that we tend to consecrate, like family, marriage, reproduction, gender binaries?

There is a lot of humour about families, marriage, reproduction, bodies, gender, sex and sexuality. And they are usually fine as long as they serve the purpose of patriarchy. You are allowed to take pot-shots at the inequities as long as you don’t disrupt the social order. Weddings for example, are a great occasion to joke about what marriage ‘does to you’. The jokes make light of power relations and inequities in a marriage, and they are welcomed for turning a ‘tense’ transition into a ‘light-hearted’ one. Recently, in at least two dinner parties, I noticed a new trend. Apparently, the ‘modern feminist’ man does not make fun of his wife, because that would be sexist humour. Instead, she makes fun of him, still laying emphasis on their gendered differences. One of the jokes was about how little time men spend on household chores, while women work both inside and outside of their homes. It ended with the husband complimenting not only the wife but also all of womankind for being such capable people.

Joking is sometimes an institutionalised mechanism to sustain kinship within patriarchies. In 1940, British anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown wrote his now famous essay, On Joking Relationships, where he said, “What is meant by the term ‘joking relationship’ is a relation between two persons in which one is by custom permitted, and in some instances required, to tease or make fun of the other, who in turn is required to take no offence” (Radcliffe-Brown 1940:195)[1]. Both men and women were expected to tolerate jokes made at their expense. Grooms joking with their salis (sisters-in-law) is a good example of jokingly hinting at a potential sexual liaison with the wife’s sister. It is fine because it cautions the two of them in a light-hearted manner. In the Maasai tribe in Africa, young boys participate in a ‘joking ritual’ with their mothers, when they go through the rite of passage to manhood. Mothers and sons are expected to make comments that would be inappropriate outside of the ritual space in order to break down the authority that the women had over the boys until then. Their roles reverse after the ceremony and the sons become their mothers’ keepers[2].

Similarly, it is generally okay to laugh about bodies, as long as we are laughing at the bodies that are assumed to exist at the margins: homosexual bodies, queer bodies, fat bodies, skinny bodies, old bodies, disabled bodies, infertile bodies, emasculated bodies, effeminate bodies. The humour is a way of acknowledging the bodies but as ‘abnormalities’ and ‘aberrations’. So while these bodies are not invisible anymore, they are expected to remain ‘other’ bodies, ‘alternatives’ and ‘outcasts.’

But the laughter in the fringes is better than silence and it can be a foot in the door for subversive humour that challenges the mainstream. I recently began watching the British comedy, Miranda. Starring Miranda Hart, the show is about a big-bodied, clumsy, single woman in her mid-thirties, who eats a lot, hates exercise, farts in public, runs a joke shop, depends on her overbearing mother and says embarrassing things to men she likes. Miranda’s life is a little bit like the naked dream we all dread. Except, in her case, she is never dreaming. When you think she cannot embarrass herself any further, she almost always suffers some form of wardrobe malfunction. And suddenly, there she is – naked, full-bodied, with a flabby belly, thin hair and large teeth, and you are forced to confront the material presence of an ‘unconventional’ female body, with its many imperfections.

I love Miranda. It really is a lot of fun to be able to laugh at the peculiarities of the human body. After all, we all have one, and often times it obtrudes uncomfortably on our social lives and our sense of propriety. On a hot date, the hair becomes frizzy. A fart escapes in a crowded room. Our stomachs rumble loudly in a silent library. We pee a little when we laugh too much. Much as we might tame the body, groom it, clothe it, silence it, it makes its imperfections known. It grows fat or thin, wrinkled or flabby and not in ways we imagine, disrupting our sense of refinement. Subverting offensive humour about ‘other’ and ‘alternative’ bodies, as Miranda does, is one way of learning to laugh at the idea of a ‘mainstream’, a ‘norm’.

Unfortunately, humour about sexuality is still embroiled in much controversy in India. Last January, All India Bakchod’s (AIB) Youtube video roasting Bollywood actors Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh ran into trouble when it was criticised for being ‘cheap’, ‘disrespectful’ and ‘vulgar’. There were appeals to ban it for offending religion, women, dark skin, queer sexualities. Whatever you may have thought about the roast, you must agree that the criticism was problematic because very few people were worried about any misogyny or homophobia in the show. What caught attention was the open discussion on ‘the act of sex’ in a language that was believed to be ‘crude’ and in a manner that defied ‘Indian culture.’ Karan Johar, who hosted the show, was criticised for allowing humour about his sexuality when his mother was in the audience. Something about the roast desecrated this thing called ‘Indian culture’, and there was a lot of conversation about the need to police humour and keep it culturally appropriate.

Picture Courtesy: AIB, (L to R) Ranveer Singh, Karan Johar, Arjun Kapoor

Policing humour spells trouble. Where you stand on AIB’s sense of humour does not really matter. If you hate it you should change the channel or write an article on what it gets wrong, or host your own comedy show. But policing humour and making it ‘culturally appropriate’ is to lose the little space there might be to laugh at ‘otherness’ and ‘alternatives’ until they begin to feel like a part of everyday life. Silencing humour about sexuality does not necessarily bring down the misogynist, homophobic humour in a country where humour is largely a tool for patriarchal moral policing. It kills any conversation there might be about bodies like dark bodies, queer bodies and female bodies that are otherwise not visible at all. The body is embroiled in all forms of body politics, and sometimes humour, offensive as it may be, makes known our many discomforts and biases. But while it may not be to our taste, it also allows us to critique it and create a space for feminist humour, where one could challenge the consecrated patriarchal notions of marriage, heterosexuality and reproduction.

Speaking of feminist humour, we need some in our everyday lives. Outside of TV shows and stand-up comedies. What is rebellion if it isn’t peppered with some laughs? I want to be able to laugh at the horrendous comments that politicians make about us, at the laws that are passed and at the discriminatory things that are being said. I want to laugh just as much as I want to feel fury and distress. If jokes can be used within patriarchal culture to cement our social roles and status, then perhaps we must use jokes to knock patriarchal order down. One laugh at a time.

[1] Radcliffe-Brown, Alfred. “On Joking Relationships”. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute. July 1940. Vol 13 .No. 3: 195-210. Online.

[2] Gruenbaum, Ellen. “The Female Circumcision Controversy.” 2001. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.