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The Complexities and Necessities of Queer Humour

A red heart-shaped smiley ball kept on a pile of yellow smiley balls.

A few months ago, I attended a public screening of Joyland, a Pakistani movie exploring the intricate variability of queer loves residing in between the seams of traditional relationships. The tenderly written story evoked a range of emotions from grief to joy including moments of humour that made the audience break into laughter. It was a good experience except for these two people sitting near me, whose laughter would grate on my nerves and make my skin crawl. It wasn’t the sound or tenor of their laughter per se, but rather the moment and context in the film that would elicit it. At first, I questioned whether I was overreacting, but then I met the eyes of the stranger sitting next to me and found the same discomfort reflected back; the discomfort brought on by the laughter of derision and ridicule about something queer in what otherwise seemed a queer-positive space.

There’s a difference between ‘laughing with’ and ‘laughing at’. The above instance was obviously of the latter kind. Humour has a complex but integral relationship with queer genders and sexualities, and it has been evolving over time. From being the ‘punchline’ of the jokes, may it be in films, literature, or any other spaces, including real life, to queer peoples’ use of humour and comedy as a tool to punch up at the heteronormative power structure through forms such as memes, stand-up comedy, etc., humour has been, in one way or another, embodied in queer representations as well as in queer experiences.

In terms of representation, we see historically, the only space where queer bodies and non-heteronormative desires were allowed to exist without immediate violent backlash was in cracks of comic relief and as a subject of ridicule. The use of comedy by those in power to maintain and reiterate existing power relations while further deriding and subjugating the marginalised ‘other’ is nothing new.[1] It’s the kind of humour that works on the principle of ‘laughing at’, making a clear distinction between the subject and object. The spectator becomes the subject here, laughing at the object who is someone ‘other’ and separate from them.

‘Marginal humour’, on the other hand, pokes fun at existing norms and society and invites the audiences to join in ridiculing the system as well as themselves for assimilating into that system. It invites the audiences to identify themselves in that story and provides for a space to foster wider connection and transformation.[2] The latter remains particularly vital for queer humour as it brings people together to laugh about the many ways they differ and it doesn’t fit into any one ‘categorisation’.

In his book On Humour, Simon Critchley writes that humour is the exploration of the break between nature and culture, and true humour is about laughing at ourselves, especially at the contradictions we embody, than at someone else. The conversation on queer humour continues to evolve with recent comedians questioning its self-deprecating nature. Comedian Hannah Gatsby in her famous show Nanette points out that when self-deprecation comes from someone who “already exists in the margins, it’s not humility – it’s humiliation.” Drawing from Critchley’s work, Jennifer Reed highlights the potential of queer humour in denaturalising and de-establishing sexual structures and identities. Queer humour then becomes about recognising the ridicule of the stable veneer of gender and sexuality in society and in ourselves.[3]

So, we see queer humour not only as a social tool to deconstruct gender and sexuality but also as a political tool for dissent, critique, and mobilisation. But more than that, it can and does serve as a means to build connections and solidarity within the community, which makes it integral to many queer experiences.

There have been many studies done on the role of humour as a coping mechanism, especially in dealing with grief and trauma. Unfortunately, grief forms such an intrinsic part of most queer experiences that very often, humour becomes a tool for survival, to get people to keep on going. It can bring moments of joy to an otherwise bleak situation. If one doesn’t laugh, they’ll start crying. But as mentioned earlier, it’s complicated. While humour can help people cope or live with their grief, it can also be a trigger for grief, highlighting its subjective aspect.[4]

The same joke which, masquerading as ‘dark humour’, makes some people guffaw, can elicit visceral negative reactions from others. It could be healing for some to laugh at their traumas but for some, it can be extremely disturbing. This brings us to the question of roles and responsibilities. To what level does responsibility lie with the performer and the spectator? Is it a question of compassion and ethically conscious consumption on the part of the spectators, or does the responsibility lie with performers to make a compassionate and politically correct production?

The fallacy of this question lies in the false dichotomy between the ‘performer’ and the ‘performed for’, at least in the context of queer humour. Humour is not always a formal or staged production; it’s a feeling, an instinct on which we can build communication and further connection. We are both the producer and consumer as some incidents or insights tickle our funny bones; we find humour in different aspects of different situations.

There is not going to be one-size-fits-all humour and queer humour is about appreciating that diversity. It’s not to say there can’t be or shouldn’t be questions of accountability and consequences for someone’s arguably ‘bad’ and ‘harmful’ taste in humour but rather that ‘political correctness’ is a temporally dynamic subject. Obviously, just because something is ever-changing doesn’t mean what it is today, matters any less but rather that there are always going to be gaps and potentially grey areas that it will struggle to contain and explain. Queer humour thrives in this liminality, which is the space between established categories of gender and sexuality as well as social rights and wrongs.

Attention to queer humour highlights its potential and ability to facilitate a space that can invite honest exploration of assumptions about gender and sexuality, while simultaneously providing a means of empowerment for queer individuals.[5] Humour has the ability to highlight different ways of existing and interacting with the world and queer humour embodies this by not only validating people’s differences of being but also in how it invites people to celebrate those differences. It could provide an escape from the ubiquity of queer grief and can facilitate the processing of this grief. It is the constructive capability of queer humour which makes it essential to the politics and experiences of queerness.

Seeing people laugh at and not with something queer at the Joyland screening did hurt me but it was the experience of finding someone who shared in that hurt and then in our ability to laugh together at the absurdity of those people’s laughter that stayed with me. As ‘queer’ objects of humour we can be hurt, but as queer subjects we can use humour for our survival and for building spontaneous solidarity. Thankfully, it’s the latter that’s been occupying the stage lately.

Cover Image: Photo by Count Chris on Unsplash

[1] Mauldin, R. K. (2002). The Role of Humor in the Social Construction of Gendered and Ethnic Stereotypes. Race, Gender & Class, 9(3), 76–95.

[2] Reed, Jennifer. (2011). Sexual Outlaws: Queer in a Funny Way. Women’s Studies, 40(6), 762-777.

[3] Ibid. 767.

[4] Wilson, D. M., Knox, M., Banamwana, G., Brown, C. A., & Errasti-Ibarrondo, B. (2022). Humor: A Grief Trigger and Also a Way to Manage or Live With Your Grief. OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying, I-16.

[5] Seán Henry, Audrey Bryan & Aoife Neary (2023) ‘Laughing ourselves out of the closet’: comedy as a queer pedagogical form, Ethics and Education, 18:1, 151-166.