“Freedom, Feminism and Funny Women” Thoughts on the Humorous Disruptions Colloquium

– words by Jordan Adler

Near the end of the two-day Humorous Disruptions colloquium, held at Concordia University Oct. 16 and 17, one of the presenters asked if trying to analyze what makes something funny is a fool’s errand. The previous evening, after four succinct, if serious opening presentations finished, a voice from the crowd – that turned out to be Dr. Ara Osterweil, one of the speakers in the next day’s roundtable – asked why the talks had to be so humourless. There were plenty of times to laugh during the colloquium, but the point was clear. Comedy, especially as it pertains to feminism, is still a place in flux; often, instead of being used as the flipside to tragedy, humour is an extension of social and political struggle. Much of the time, the punchline, especially ones from a female comic, comes from a position of pain.

Still, the colloquium’s subject matter was refreshing. Humour is not something that currently receives much academic contemplation. It is a generally green area of cultural study, which helped make the various presentations fascinating. The talks touched upon how comedy, when offered through a female creative lens, has been used to challenge oppression, is now used to grant autonomy to the female body, and could be used as a tool for continued social change.

As several speakers attested, comedy remains an important tool of political engagement. Through history, a joke’s levity helps comment on power struggles between men and women, the patriarchy and artistic matriarchs. Dr. Elena Gorfinkel’s exploration of the sexploitation film Nymphs Anonymous – where a proto-feminist secret society turns men into docile sexual servants – emphasizes that concept. So does the work of Shelley Niro, the Brantford, Ont. artist whose paintings and films expose the marginalization of the Iroquois people while embracing (and subverting) cultural stereotypes.

Pointed, hilarious shorts by underappreciated filmmakers like Martha Rosler, Susan Mogul, Thirza Cuthand and Marie Menken also used comedy as a conscious tool to liberate the filmmaker. (Those four women’s works were analyzed in depth in a Saturday panel on experimental video.) Rosler’s acclaimed Semiotics of the Kitchen, which appeared in two of the presentations, slams the kitchen as a female space, as the director and star shows how kitchen tools (ice picks, nut crackers) are also forms of weaponry. Cuthand’s short Colonization: The Second Coming, a focus of Lisa Aalders’ presentation, views the legacy of Native sovereignty in Canada through an offbeat story of an alien invasion.

Too often, though, women have been the butt of the joke. That is not just due to how the stand-up stage is still mostly deprived of women – although some would argue it is now less restrictive – but a “superiority theory,” cited by Dr. Maggie Hennefeld in her presentation, which suggests that people tell jokes to feel better than other people. (One common example would be “dumb blonde” jokes.) However, even when women achieve success and status on the screen, there are many identities she has to assume. As Dr. Liz Clarke explained in a talk comparing the memoirs of silent scenarists and those of modern TV showrunners like Tina Fey, powerful women in the arts are expected to be both creative and corporate at once.

Still, it is the prominence of recent bestsellers from Fey and Mindy Kaling, among others, that show comedy’s widespread appeal as an area of study. In the opening roundtable, Dr. Gada Mahrouse from Concordia’s Simone de Beauvoir Institute, spoke about the joys and challenges of teaching social justice through comedy. Focusing on stand-up as an outlet for social and political change, Mahrouse’s class is one instance of looking at funny business in a serious light. “If we can understand humour better,” she said, “we can exact new angles for social change.”

But, is comedy the best forum to explore female identity and anxiety? One of the most intriguing talks looked at a recent study by Caroline Künzle. She interviewed six Montreal-based comedians from different cultural backgrounds, and filmed them telling a signature joke about their ethnic heritage. The least successful bit from the six, arguably, was from a Caucasian woman who made a rude comment about Chinese people. Even if stand-up is increasingly providing a stage for marginalized voices, the root of many jokes still relies on regressive, sometimes racist stereotypes.

It is also telling that television seems to be a more open space for female comedians. Presentations about Amy Schumer, whose Comedy Central series exposes the patriarchal standards of femininity in various sketches, and Broad City, which centers around the leisure time of two Millennial girls in New York, examine how both shows’ success is a direct result of their creators’ reclaiming room for feminine freedom. In comparison, there wasn’t much to say about contemporary cinema. This is alarming, especially given the various startling statements many female actors have given in recent months about the lack of opportunity and high pay wages.

Some of the film-centric woes came through in Kerry McElroy’s presentation about Hollywood’s notorious “casting couch economy,” and the concept that women used sex to rise to positions of power in the film industry. Her research indicates that the predatory hiring practices in Hollywood do not extend to other film industries. Meanwhile, despite the gravity of this exploitation, McElroy admits that several notable women have made salty, shocking quips about this practice. Humorous, lewd comments from stars like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford employed gallows humour in a liberating way.

Several of the speakers during the two-day colloquium pointed out that there are still too few critical feminist works. Regardless, the event was packed with riveting, sometimes raucous collections of work from funny female artists in a variety of media. Still, the lack of contemporary film examples from the event poses a problem that indicates minimal progress with cinematic female representation both onscreen and behind the scenes. In Hollywood, there is much work to be done, and that’s no joke.