Comedic Critique or a Crass Comment?

CW: Racism, sexual assault

Comedy. As a form of art, it aims to critique society by pointing out the absurd and humorous aspects of a situation, social norm or societal standard. Yet at what point does making fun of something cross the line of comedy, and merely become unpleasant denigration and discrimination?

“Humorous” comments made by Trevor Noah in 2013 have recently resurfaced. Those offended by his derogatory remarks that Aboriginal women are not ‘yet’ beautiful are lobbying for a boycott of his August Australian tour. This has created another controversy, as Noah refuses to apologise for his comments.  He defends them as being made with good intention – that is, comedic, not spiteful. I question whether making so-called jokes about the appearance of women, and then suggesting their absence of beauty is counteracted by their sexual performance, can ever be consider humorous, let alone art. These comments reinforce gender stereotypes; they emphasise that women are meant to be beautiful and, if not, suggest they must be, at least, sexually pleasing. Such comments further sexualise women, undermining their intrinsic value as human beings and playing into the power of the patriarchy. Given that comedy, and satire in particular, has a power to deconstruct social barriers and force listeners to reconsider the status quo, Noah’s comments reinforcing patriarchal standards are concerning. And even beyond strengthening social norms, such derogatory language is simply hurtful and not in the least witty.

Certainly, sensitive topics should not be completely avoided. Satire, as a form of comedy, can be an excellent means of deconstructing controversial issues. Aldous Huxley, for example, uses satire within Brave New World to question society’s obsession with fidelity and the ideal that women must be chaste. When such sensitive topics are touched on, it must be done with caution. If so done, it has the potential to effectively critique society in a manner political activists can only aspire too. This is because art possesses an emotional power that probes into the human condition, questioning the status quo and breaking down structural barriers. Art is thus inherently political, wielding a power that can explore contentious issues with more ease than politicians. But such power can be used to simply reinforce the status-quo – to fuel patriarchal, racist, homophobic and trans-phobic ideologies that divide our society. To ensure this does not happen, poking fun at sensitive issues is a delicate operation.

We must remember, however, that humans make mistakes; sometimes a joke will be made in the midst of a skit that on later reflection probably crossed a line. Such incidents occur, and to shun the comedian for the rest of their career for one mistake is probably overreacting. But, on the other hand, it must be acknowledged as unacceptable; acting defensively and claiming that comedy inevitably polarises individuals is not good enough when it was evident to the general public that a comment was discriminatory. Nor can I accept Noah’s claim that the joke was made in a different cultural context as justification that his conduct was comedic and therefore, justifiable. Jokes that base their punchline on reinforcing gendered stereotypes – in this instance, that women must be attractive, and if not, sexually precocious – without actually critiquing the stereotype are crass at best, and downright discriminatory at worst.

Kitty Flanagan, for instance, touches on sensitive gender issues but does so with tact. While some may not find her skits amusing, I highly doubt they could be considered derogatory or discriminatory. I attribute this to the style of Flanagan’s joke. Despite touching on issues of women and children, (specifically the assumption that it is out-of-the-ordinary for women not to desire children) these jokes are not told in a manner that reinforces the stereotype. On the contrary, Flanagan constructs her jokes to highlight the ridiculous expectation that all women want children and a partner. Yet again I am reminded of the distinguishing feature that identifies comedy touching on sensitive issues as either artistic or derogatory: whether such art breaks down the barriers surrounding the issue or simply supports the structure.

Comedy is a performance art, and how it is delivered will impact upon its reception. Delivery itself is an art, and extends beyond the tone of voice used. Body language and the context, including the gender, ethnicity and history of the person making the joke, influence how people react to the comments made. It is conceivable that if Flanagan were not a female, her jokes about being a middle-aged woman, single and childless may be considered mansplaining, or unacceptable. And this certainly isn’t the most contentious topic in the current comedy landscape.

Rape jokes, for instance, are incredibly contentious, and rightfully so. Whether sexual assault can ever be joked about is a debate within itself, but continuing my line of argument, comedy that skirts around or touches on this issue is far more likely to be received positively if the teller is female. This gendered reception of jokes is itself contentious. However, given the majority of sexual assault survivors are female, it is also logical – and even if a female comedian makes a rape joke, protest often ensues. Such an occurrence aptly illustrates that there are some topics that artists must approach with fine-tuned sensitivity. Jokes concerning sexual assault are perhaps best structured in the form of satire, where it is more evident that the artist is making an attempt to deconstruct the stigma around them and undermine the status quo.

Ultimately, while comedy can explore, deconstruct and satirize most topics within society, there are some that are incredibly difficult to joke about without appearing discriminatory. Even for less contentious topics, the comedian must always ask themselves whether they are simply reinforcing a social norm or standard, or questioning it.