Is it ever just funny?

I met this guy who I like. And then I saw a cartoon he posted online.

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To be honest, it was a turnoff. But I thought it would be better not to judge him for it and get to know the brotha. So I wasn’t going to bring up the cartoon.

Then one day it came up.

“It’s not funny and it’s actually pretty effed up,” I said. In order to explain myself, I made an analogy. “Would you still find it funny if, say it was a white couple and the man rung the woman’s neck after she  gave birth to a brown skinned baby?”

His answer was no. “It’s animals. I wouldn’t have posted the cartoon if it were actual people,” he said.

But to me, the fact that they were animals was unimportant. It was difficult for me to explain, it was just something I felt. So I tried my best to express this and he listened, asked questions and told me his thoughts. I found it ironic when I learned that he is man who has actively and personally stood against violence against women, but would still find this cartoon funny enough to share with the world.

I think there was some understanding at the end of our conversation/debate. This cartoon, even though it is just animals, reinforces the idea that violence against women in SOME situations is acceptable and even funny.

And this happens all the time in media. And some of us laugh along, because it’s purely “entertainment”, something void of greater meaning or effect.  But we must realize that what we find FUNNY is often political. Subconsciously our sense of humor is shaped by our culture and our expectations. It’s no wonder that in a world where we have been conditioned to be entertained by violence (through television, film, video games), we do not question it.

This is the way hegemony functions. Steiner and Carter (2004) argue that subordination is maintained not through coercion but through compliance of a subjugated class. Media plays an instrumental role in this. We are fed certain ideas and roles that are problematic, but they are presented as natural, unproblematic and unchanging. So we accept the hype, even when it degrades and dehumanizes us and supports groups with privilege and power. Not only do we accept it, but we perpetuate it and reinforce it.

Clearly I’m not saying that people who laugh at this cartoon would necessarily be violent towards women or would condone violence against women. What I am saying is that it is not NATURAL to laugh at it, or even the idea of it. It’s problematic and we should recognize that by laughing at and subconsciously excusing violence in certain situations, we are reinforcing a broader culture of violence.

I find that women are often accused of over-analyzing things. In some cases it may be true. But I think it’s important for women (and people of color and other marginalized groups) to understand that this accusation is often inherently flawed. In many cases, especially when it comes to messages women encounter in a media saturated world, it is necessary for us to ask questions, analyze and challenge what we see and hear. Staying silent is just as good as laughing along at a stupid, loaded cartoon and a greater message that is harmful to us all.

If we want to end a culture of violence, taking guns off the street is not enough. We must be fearless about the way we THINK about violence. We must think critically if we ever want the culture that supports violence to change.

Carter, C., Steiner, L. Ed. (2004) Critical Readings: Media and Gender. (p.2). Maidenhead: Open University Press.

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About Nuala Cabral

Nuala Cabral is an educator, activist, filmmaker and co-founder of FAAN Mail, a media literacy and activist project based in Philadelphia.
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