Humour has helped me navigate some of the most difficult conversations and situations in my many years of working on sexuality, gender and SRHR.
Needless to say, there is a very fine difference between humour and frivolity, and it is the skill of a trainer to distinguish between the two because issues of sexuality and gender are not frivolous, in fact, quite the opposite. However, humour may be a useful tool to keep things honest while also providing for some release from present issues.
I must, however, admit that while humour has usually worked for me, there have been times when I wanted to press Control, Alt and Delete!
The heavy weight of shame and seriousness that sexuality and gender are wrapped in and buried under often overrides any control that people may have over their lives, restricting them from exercising agency and/or making sound decisions and choices.
In these circumstances, sometimes using the power of humour serves to instantly lighten the weight of these issues and allows for some levity, a laugh, a giggle or two. Humour suddenly lifts the albatross of shame and prejudice that topics relating to sex, pleasure, and gender have been forced to become and makes the situation ‘handle-able’. The joke is not on the issue and never on the individual, but rather on the situation and on society’s silly acceptance of existing expectations and stereotypes.
Regardless of age or experience, when the curtain on sex, sexuality, and gender issues is raised, using humour almost also gives a particular acceptance to talk further, to push the envelope a little more, to explore saying what one could never have otherwise – only because, we are just having a ‘little fun’, after all. Everyone is in a good mood, slightly tipsy with mirth, and overwhelmed with relief that discussing these topics without fear or prejudice is acceptable. Finally, it’s Ok to laugh, to say ‘dirty things’, to question more, to engage more, to express opinions, and reveal experiences and feelings.
The mood may well be light and relaxed; the issues we deal with are certainly not. Often, during workshops and training programmes, subjects of loss, harm, violence, inequity, and personal hurts arise, and melancholy and tears emerge. A touch of humour quietly removes the heaviness these matters carry and allows for deeper and easier discussions, and maybe even a laugh at oneself
Humour not so funny
However, it’s not easy being funny these days.
On one such occasion, the matter being discussed was motherhood and, needless to add, how great it is. And the other thing that is great is God. You know where this is going: “My mother is God, and she is great, and she is always there, just like her counterpart, God.”
To diffuse this sentiment and encourage the participants to see mothers as real women, I said, “Moms may need a break from all this greatness also, sometimes. Let them just be regular women. Sometimes, they also want to get you out and away, and take a holiday from you and your daily demands. Your mother may want to have the house to herself, take a long bath, make herself a drink, and throw her stuff about, for a change…”
An icy silence went about the room.
“No Ma’am, my mother is not like that.”
“No Ma’am, my mother loves me very much – she never wants me to go anywhere.”
“What sort of ‘drink’? We are not ‘that’ type of people!”
“Can’t waste water having long baths!”
And, finally, “My mother is very clean. Why would she throw her things about? She’s the one always cleaning up.”
Quickly had to wind up the #MothersCanBeCrazyToo Campaign! Tea and biscuit bribe break ASAP! To be sure, some matters are better not joked about – religion, politics, and our North Indian favourite Karva Chauth festival, being a few. And mothers, of course!
Don’t be a Meena Kumari
At one workshop, young women were lamenting about how difficult their lives were – as indeed they are.
One lament led to another, and so on and so forth, and much weeping and crying ensued. A wave of sympathy and efforts to double their own tragedy went across the room. Some crying along, some rushing about for water to stop the crying, some making the one beside her cry a bit more. Alright. No problem with tears, feel free, let the tears flow.
After a while, I brought the discussion back to agency, to being able to regain a measure of control, making informed and thought-through choices, no matter how small. To how feelings of helplessness, victimhood and being totally at the mercy of someone else do not better our circumstances. In keeping with which, I added, “Now let’s not be a Meena Kumari forever”.
Usually, those who know our Lady of Laments, laugh and giggle, and this becomes a jingle of sorts. “Look, you are becoming a Meena Kumari” and “No way! I am not going to be a Meena Kumari!”
But this time, one piped up, “Who is this lady, Meena Kumari?” later adding, “I thought she was another trainee.”
Someone else clarified, “Oh, she was an old-time actress, always crying, her boyfriend always left her and ran away …”
A sympathizer added, “Listen, if your boyfriend was to run away, you would cry too.”
“Yes, but for the whole film? That is her whole life in real!”
Job done, Meenaji, enough fodder to discuss tears and rejection, and how much is too much, and let’s not forget, agency and control.
What sort of ‘funny’?
I am told many times that I am ‘so funny’. Quite true in many ways, works at many levels, but terrifying on some others. However, I wouldn’t trade the gravity for the levity; in keeping the situation and atmosphere light, let the core of the matter not get blown away into the (not so) clear blue skies.
Actually, it is a deep and close understanding of people’s lives and issues, and a level of skill and experience with both the subject and the use of humour which may allow a trainer or facilitator to take some liberties.
Let me share some ‘tips’ which I am asked about often.
The joke is never at anyone, and if it is, you are the only person it ought to be directed at. So be ready to be at the receiving end of your own humour, and there you can go no holds barred.
The joke or jibe is about society’s attitudes towards gender and sexuality. It is a calling out of the countless tasteless jokes and images of the ‘nagging’ wife, the ‘dishonest’ husband, the ‘confused’ transperson, the ‘compulsive shopaholic’ ladies, the ‘slack TV-watching’ guys, the laughs about size, that are constantly posted on social media to trivialise issues of gender sex and sexuality. It is important to offer a different narrative, to create a critique of these existing and freely perpetuated stereotypes by using the same tool – but this time, with genuine humour.
Run with it
Young people, and actually any people, are very quick to want to be ‘close’ to the trainer. “Ma’am, you are married, no?” is a question that I get asked in this endeavour.
“And how did you reach that conclusion? Is it my bum size that gave it away?” is enough to crack up the group. At once much is said about bums as well as why this is a myth and whether other such myths are true. Job done!
Wrapped up under scarves or shawls, girls and women giggle and nudge each other as soon as these matters begin to emerge. I tell them to laugh freely but question as much too. This gives them a sense of sheer relief to be able to ask, talk, question, because, even if it is ‘really bad’, after all, it’s being said in ‘lightness, is it not? It helps them drop the façade of shame and guilt about issues of sexuality and their experiences of it. Hail Humour!
To keep a boundary between participants and myself, I try and keep the personal out as much as I can. But of course because we have common experiences of difficult times and life learning, sometimes this can be challenging. On one occasion, I was left stumped. A few years ago, I lost visible amounts of weight, and, of course, young people notice at once. Questions began, how and what?
So I had to say, “Well, I diet – too much”. That did what any conversation on dieting does. Details on every bite were to be revealed, forget about the topic of the session! Suddenly, they all wanted to be slim, slimmer, sticks. All these years, I have been talking about loving your shape and form, allowing your body to find its good place, and here I was pushed to talk about some pretty senseless diet. Finally and thankfully, menopause and the increased number of lines and wrinkles have come to my rescue.
Just the perfect salve
Unseen yet substantial, trainers and counsellors bear a load. Call it a responsibility.
People’s lives, children’s sexual experiences, the injustices gay and trans people have endured, the loneliness of some, their hurt, their humiliation, as well as their joys, and desires — we are the repository of these and more.
Not only are we listeners, we also are in many ways looked upon for validation, even solutions.
The ointment of humour, I believe, has long-lasting effects – not just for the participant – but for us the practitioner. It keeps us grounded and yet allows a certain safety from getting too immersed in what we hear. It keeps us relevant and refreshed. It also allows us to talk to each other about what we are experiencing. A bit of co-care, community care, you may call it.
“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” So said Charles M. Schulz.
Humour is my chocolate.
To find the earlier version of this article that was originally written in Hindi, please click here.