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.