And Then There’s The One by Dr. Karen Love

Free on iBooks. Click on the picture to go there.

Free on iBooks. Click on the picture to go there.

This free eBook explores how humour gets used as a tool for subjugating women. Love begins by outlining how humour is used as a survival mechanism among the disempowered. Laughter can not only be used by oppressed groups to relieve tensions but also to sometimes challenge power. But, she warns, humour in-person gives anyone present the opportunity to object, whereas mediated humour doesn’t. This, she says, is because the use of mediated communications in humour bypasses the feedback loop that physical presence offers: that opportunity to negotiate the terms of the ‘humour’. Mediated humour is therefore implied as a tool for ‘masculinist cultural agenda’.

Love’s first example of this is a cartoon that has been widely circulated by email. The image is of a cockerel throttling a hen for her infidelity. A chick hatching in the foreground turns out to be a baby elephant. Behind them is a fence. The scene, according to Love, relates to an assumption of male power:

The Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian foundations of Western European have as a cornerstone the belief the male has the right of ownership over the bodies and fertility of the female. Our past reveals numerous objective representations of this belief: chaperones, chastity belts, bridal veils, and wedding rings (until the 20th century, worn only by the woman). Even our Western practice of gendered toilet facilities probably has less to do with personal privacy than it does with protecting undressed and therefore accessible females from being in close proximity to other males.

The politics to this cartoon thus asserts justifications of female ownership, male violence towards women, and the abandonment of children. Love then relates these points to growing concerns over honour killings, and also some research that cites relationships between sexist imagery and rape.

And The There’s The One touches a lot of bases in its argument. My disappointment with it is that it’s too short. The short length (9 pages) limits significant claims to a paragraph, leaving you with the feeling that more justification is due, and that alternative arguments should have been explored to explain why they were rejected.

For example, how does the Western European cornerstone quoted above relate to honour killings, a phenomenon hailing predominantly from Asia and some Middle-Eastern countries? Just when further explanation would seem appropriate, the analysis of the cartoon moves quickly on to how the “pointed phallic imagery of the fence” denotes the territorial segregation of women. It would have been nice to have had some examples of penises that are shaped like triangular fence supports. And assuming we unquestioningly accept the visual metaphor, then no explanation is given for why we shouldn’t also see the horizontal fence supports as labial imagery that denote the female violence of female segregation?

There’s also an overlooked point that’s central to Love’s contention that unmediated communications give a space for negotiating terms of humour, and that’s bullying. Bullies use unmediated ‘humour’ to excuse their intimidation and diffuse criticism of their bullying – victims are ‘hyper-sensitive’, anyone could see they were ‘joking’.

Oversights like these are a pity because the general direction of the argument is one I’m sympathetic to. Love’s book picks up on an emerging wave of rape and violence infecting ‘humour’, especially on social media. It would therefore be great to see this book expanded from essay to book length to more thoroughly explore the themes under discussion. Maybe then the press and ensuing debate from a larger publication could help combat the recently emerged idea that rape and violence against women can be funny.

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9 Responses to And Then There’s The One by Dr. Karen Love

  1. Ste J says:

    Humour is a challenge and a half to quantify, especially sometimes with the ‘edgy’ comedy as some it is justified. The internet ‘humour’ is becoming increasingly juvenile or just sick and all the more unavoidable, like real wit has left the world or just in the realm of older generations.

    It is a shame that there wasn’t further expounding on the honour killings wasn’t expanded on, sadly freedom of speech is such areas seems to be curtailed because of the despicable happenings in other parts of the world and the implied threat of it all.

    It’s certainly an interesting topic and one that merits plenty of further discussion, there is one aspect of the book I am uneasy with though, the whole triangle penis fence thing seems like a bit of a stretch, almost as if anything vaguely phallic can be used as evidence to back up the points made. Almost like it dilutes the original intention.


    • Jeff says:

      >the whole triangle penis fence thing seems like a bit of a stretch, almost as if anything vaguely phallic can be used as evidence to back up the points made. Almost like it dilutes the original intention.

      I laughed! There is something slightly silly about it, even if it’s intended as a serious point.

      The thing I notice about honour killings is that women’s rights in developing countries is an expanding area in feminism. What’s not explained in the book is how ‘Western’ ideas relate to non-Western cultures. Also, I don’t get how the ‘joke’ email connects with deep-set and historic traditions like honour killings. An interesting set of dots that need joining up.


      • Ste J says:

        The very problem that the West faces is that we just don’t understand, we judge non Western cultures with our values and that is the fundamental miscommunication that sparks off all of this unpalatable violence and anger. I wonder if a full book weret o be published if everything would be nicely tied up.


        • Jeff says:

          I’m sure the developed world is just as judged by the developing world. The question we have to answer to is whether to and how to try and intervene. There’s some interesting work going on in this respect:

          Quite what analyses of emailed cartoons can contribute, I can’t really say. Different area to development work I suppose. Is that digital censorship or some other international policy area? I wonder how such things might be implemented on the Internet?


          • Ste J says:

            A universal approach to such things is always going to be flawed in some aspects but I think intervening in the least invasive way as possible, like throwing money at the situation is doomed to failure as has been seen so many times in Africa.

            That is an interesting link, especially the women and cultural universals bit. I don’t think the internet is fully understood yet, the implications of what we decide to do about things connected to it, is an infant science. I do like that it was created, loosed and then people thought about how to control an unruly rabble of people shouting for attention.


  2. Eric Wayne says:

    I had to look up the cartoon to see what I’d make out of it. I’m with the author in condemning rape and the subjugation of women. There’s plenty of concrete evidence that these problems are very real and extant today. It’s also worthy to try to discover and dissect ideologies, beliefs and paradigms that foster treating women as inferiors. However, I’m not so cool with over interpretations of art, and even cartoons, to the point of projecting onto them trivial viewpoints which are alien to them. Freud ruined Sophocles, and the feminists destroyed Hitchcock. I remember reading a psychological biography of Van Gogh in my late teens, and the author asserting that Van Gogh’s painting of Gauguin’s chair with a candle on it was actually about homosexual desire, nad the candle was Gauguin’s tumescent member. Even in my youth I could see these sorts of overarching and belittling interpretations as missing the point by football fields.

    One could say that the silly cartoon is about affirming male dominance over women, and also referring to a lot of racial jokes in which a white woman has a brown child. But the most ridiculous thing has to be that there’s a baby elephant, and it’s hatching out of an egg. The humor lie in two impossibilities: the elephant inseminating a chicken, and a tiny elephant hatching out of an egg (with no chicken characteristics).

    The idea that the “pointed phallic imagery of the fence denotes the territorial segregation of women” doesn’t make sense when both the rooster and the chicken are on the same side of the fence. And everything that is oblong in not a penis. A fence doesn’t have to be a row of penises.

    I suppose the attempt to find hidden misogynist meanings in art, film, literature, and architecture is a project of uncovering the psycho-social depth of sexism, but it often just seems like projecting a load of presumptions onto something that has nothing really to do with them. There’s plenty of real evidence to support her arguments, and over-interpreting silly cartoons might undermine her mission.

    There are better ways, IMO, to examine the plight of women. I thought “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini did an outstanding job of portraying the suffering of women in Afghanistan, as did the novels of Toni Morrison, especially “Beloved”, about black women in America. Those are extreme portrayals, but moving and convincing. They stay with me. But the kind of feminism that finds a dick in every tall building and submarine sandwich proves nothing other than a modestly vivid and strongly biased imagination.

    I’ll pass.


    • Jeff says:

      I can see how such a cartoon can reinforce attitudes, however illogical the imagery – imagine reacting to jokes with analyses of their logical inconsistencies! If we hold that images communicate ideas, and that this process is at some level ideological, then we have to also hold that some intended recipients will agree with the position put forward (even if that means being stupid enough to mistake picket fences for penises). But a paper that argues against said cartoon on a counter-ideological basis will have its impact limited by such factors as the reach of that paper. I mean, apart from us, do many people read things like this? I wonder if it would have been better to use the same delivery mechanism – i.e. a forwarded email – and thereby get a larger audience?
      Whatever that mechanism, if the argument were sharpened up, and as you say, appeal to real and extant evidence, then maybe it could be used to change policy somewhere or do something similarly more concrete than pictorial analysis.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Letizia says:

    This sounds like an interesting read. The idea of exploring humour as a vehicle for power relations has been a good subject since, and indeed before, the days of Freud. I’ll have to give this little book a read just to see what I make of it.

    Sorry I haven’t visited in a while. I was overwhelmed with work and am just now making my way back to reading my favorite blogs.


    • Jeff says:

      It won’t take you long to read it. Our comments here have probably already exceeded the book’s word count! Tell me what you think. The radio exchange is unsurprisingly airheaded. What does it say about the radio audience I wonder?

      Liked by 1 person

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