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Casually Sexist Humour and the Reasonable Limits of Feministing

Abish Matthew in a white shirt and black coat speaking into ear mike on a stage.

In March 2015, a popular Indian comic, Abish Mathew, performed at a college festival at the National Law University (NLU) in Delhi where he made, according to a FirstPost article (more on that soon), a bunch of “average” and “sexist” jokes (as if the first compounds the gravity of the other) on politician Mayawati’s looks, domestic violence, and so on. I am sure there was a lot more to his content that would fail the Bechdel Test on stand-up comedy, but these were the jokes that got female students in the crowd to stand up and walk away, return with placards and eventually “heckle” Mathew enough to stop his show mid-way.

Subsequently, Mathew defended himself in a Tweet stating, “If I made my jokes any cleaner, I’d have to sell it as hand sanitiser!” Cute, right? If you’re thinking that was the end of it, obviously it wasn’t. Let me draw your attention to what made me spit my morning tea the day after. FirstPost, a leading news daily with the opinion-churning pace that can shame McDonald’s burger flippers (see, I used the Indian comic joke format!) carried an article tagged #FoE, #FreedomOfSpeech and #FeminisminIndia. Now, if you still live in a world where hashtags aren’t ironic, you’d go into the article thinking it comments on feminism and freedom of expression. Now, I quote from the article:

“Showing your middle finger or calling someone a pig is not protest, it’s called heckling… While Mathew should be rightly criticised for the nature of his jokes, the method employed by the girl students was outright obnoxious.”

By obnoxious they mean calling him a “sexist pig” publicly and asking him to “get the fuck out”. The article ends by decrying both the “hecklers” and Mathew’s acts as “indefensible” but especially the hecklers as “churlish”. Not debating as yet the specifics of the incident and whether women in 2015 need a manual of appropriate protest behaviour in order to be heard and understood, I sent the article to someone I was dating, obviously an ally (Gamergate hadn’t happened yet). I did get frothing anger in reciprocation, just that it was directed instead towards the girls. They said, “…Why can’t these girls be reasonable? What can you get by heckling an artiste? They should have written him an open letter or Tweeted to him! Plus, obviously he doesn’t tease or harm women in his personal life. It’s a poor joke but… I mean, so many comics make such jokes. You don’t see all women standing up and walking out.”

Again, at this point I didn’t know whether I should be summarising philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler from the first few pages of Gender Trouble and stating that women are not the only subjects of feminism, or that men and women whom history praises have used far more radical methods to call out racism and sexism, or agree in parenthesis that we had indeed let a lot of sexist humour flow under our YouTubing eyes. I weakly protested (not heckled, mind you), “Who gets to decide the reasonable means or volume of their protest?”

The feminist tryst with comedy isn’t a new one, even in concerns. “Hipster racism” was first coined as a term in 2005 by Carmen Van Kerckhove to critique “kill whitey” parties in Brooklyn, a way for white people to congregate and ironically indulge in and celebrate their whiteness because now they were self-aware of their privileges. In 2012, Alissa Quart spun-off the term “hipster sexism” to highlight the culture of “ironic sexism” or spouting sexist speech as a way of stating we are post-feminists. “We know it all too well, so it’s a cute reminder of our older oppressive times or parallel oppressive realities.” Popular feminist media critic and blogger, Anita Sarkeesian (funny how Gamergate finds its way into this conversation too) also takes on “retro sexism” or “ironic sexism” in her video series Feminist Frequency where she defines it as “modern attitudes and behaviours that mimic or glorify sexist aspects of the past in an ironic way”:

Moreover, this isn’t about the lone case of Mr Mathew and him trying to eke a living within the myriad class and gender positions and media cycles that he has to participate in. Recently, in a massively popular web-series by TVF (The Viral Fever) group titled ‘Pitchers’ which loosely follows the plotline of the HBO series Silicon Valley (a monolith to irony), the producers of the Indian series thought it was important to first present two token women entrepreneurs predictably complaining about the lack of women’s toilets at a tech conference. I told myself, they are making it to pander to a dominantly male IIT student audience and want to show that they saw the Apple Developers conference meme too. So be it (although I don’t see what’s funny about caricaturing women demanding toilets at a conference). A few episodes later, the two women suits reappear, and guess what, they are again making exaggerated expressions demanding attention and toilets at the conference while the male protagonist has hijacked the women’s toilet for what will become his space of epiphany. Trust these women not to spare a single space for our hero’s moment of truth, right? Google “TVF Pitchers sexism” and it will take you to the heart of democracy – Quora, where one puts out an opinion, gets schooled by five wittier comments, and based on who gets the most number of “upvotes”, the normalcy standards of Internet behaviour are determined. Comment after comment by both male- and female-looking profiles tell you that using words like “betichod” (daughter fucker) and trite platitudes such as “you can’t convince women who give you sex” are what absolutely normal men say to each other as an expression of brotherhood, and the fact that the series also features strong supporting girlfriends and wives itself means they are not sexist. For a team that has a strong female writer and actor such as Nidhi Bisht, even I want to believe that these men didn’t go out of their way to focus on caricaturing women of all kinds. It just happened because that’s what reality is and they were ironically representing it.

On countless occasions in less popular exchanges, activists and others concerned have pointed out the problem with some template jokes that AIB (All India Bakchod, another comedy group) often cracks: a trans (hijra) joke here and there, a bar dancer joke in there somewhere…

I can feel some of you asking as you read, are they transphobic? Are they being classist douchebags? On the contrary, the normalisation, the open nod to the hijra (through mock begging voice at traffic signals) as a part of the sketch, recasts these subject positions for me, from which some cheap thrill is bound to emanate adding to the entire bigger joke – whatever it is they are getting at. While Mathew’s was deemed a heckling, AIB’s “roast” of Farida Jalal, Reema Lagoo and others (comments on their appearance and film roles) was merely insult comedy or irreverent humour, pushing the envelope on what is acceptable in public speech.

Without belabouring further on the specifics, my malaise isn’t actually with the content of their comedy, and I don’t want to get into the futile semiotics of disassembling every joke to point out how it could be received by the people the joke is being made about. My problem is with the lack of or the limited and marked spaces within which these things are responded to. It is in the unspoken understanding that calling out brown or white or male or straight privilege must be done in particular (and perhaps reverent or respectable) ways. It kind of brings us back to the classic desi (Indian) feminist dilemma of what to do with ‘behnchod’ (sister fucker). While some see it as blatantly gendered, some others claim to subvert it in their usage and further some others wonder if we can find creative ways to abuse without having to rely on the (possibly non-consensual) fucking of a sister or mother. Depending on whom one is speaking to (or abusing), a less gendered abuse might work or not. It is also in this strangely, reasonably and moderately defined milieu of expected desi feminisms that a radical departure is not very hard. Your mere presence as a female or non-straight comedian will earn you accolades and extra harsh scrutiny. Your use of non-conventional language becomes an immediate radical departure. And your choice to bluntly protest is called heckling. The next time you find yourself in the midst of a Women’s Freedom question, (much like those early days of Independence, imagine a Gandhi and Ambedkar in the crowd), try to ‘push the envelope’ till you expose the limits of reasonable behaviour. To be more specific, try and gauge the range of dissenting opinions, the permissible language in the discussion as well as the hierarchies among speakers to understand that even within what might appear to be “free expression”, there is always an echoing caution against becoming a “feminazi” (don’t overdo feminism!). This sentiment also largely informs many public figures’ disavowal of the word ‘feminism’ signalling again the need to maintain the line between heckling and speaking up. Channelling postcolonial scholar Gayatri Spivak, it is not only important to speak but is more important to be heard and to be understood, to get the nuance across. In that sense, a joke that considers the gravity of callous social commentary is an act of care, of establishing solidarity rather than a superficial nod to gender or race or class troubles.

I do think that humour and fiction are both excellent genres to explore common grounds of feeling, to laugh together about the things that are too awkward, too peculiar or too intimate to talk about. In fact, humour is the sharpest tool to generate empathy, to draw someone into universes they don’t inhabit and have always wondered about. However, as I mentioned right at the beginning, a joke cannot be excused if it is made less average at the cost of being less sensitive despite the self-awareness that it is a problematic joke. A torrent of ironic or hipster sexist jokes on the Delhi police or the state of gender inequity in Haryana do their bit to popularise the problem but beyond that they can also become a canon of easy and careless remarks on what is a very frightening reality for the survivors. And, the argument for the ‘politically correct’ ‘social justice warriors’ to ‘calm their tits’ is toothless. The popular is as much your ground as mine; if anything, feminisms need to permeate the popular to make the change that is much needed at an individual level of relating to one another in less hurtful ways. Slight corrections, cautious self-questioning such as, “Does my joke disempower its subject?” will go a very long way in something as nascent and vibrant as India’s stand-up comedy scene. So, for all good measure, let’s stop calling it heckling and pronouncing the reasonable limits of feminist responses to popular culture.