We all have come across one of those “harmless jokes” that aren’t to be taken seriously. But some of these jokes are cringe-worthy – even if there is a collective guffaw. Misogyny, casteism, classism and prejudices of other kinds are not new to what is understood to be “humourous”. But humour of this kind is not only instrumental in the silencing of the marginalized groups, but also in creating an acceptability and normalization of these discriminatory one-liners and prejudicial attitudes.
Sexist humour (whether explicit or casual) not only propagates harmful stereotypes that involve slut-shaming, body shaming, transphobia and misogyny but also normalizes the most common forms of abuse. Laughter has the effect of normalizing certain ideas and modes of behavior. Street harassment, domestic silencing and body-shaming are common tropes that are considered laughable in popular media. One example would be the reprehensible The Kapil Sharma Show. These misogynistic tropes become accepted and internalized by both men and women and are then considered tolerable and acceptable.
Given the present scenario of explicit misogyny and transphobia in mainstream Indian Comedy, some female comedians are challenging these tropes. Comedians like Mallika Dua, Neeti Palta, Sumukhi Suresh, Vasu Primlani, Aditi Mittal, Punya Arora and Radhika Vas are some of India’s best comedians. They usually operate on social media forums like Instagram, Youtube, Facebook and stand-up shows to perform.
The absence of the female voice can be decidedly felt in the acts of ‘lighthearted’ laughter, whether it be popular television comedy or stand-up shows which overwhelmingly feature male comedians. In popular television comedy shows, the woman is either reduced to be an exotic sex object or to a buffoon with a disproportionate body that doesn’t fit male-prescribed beauty standards. In the stand-up shows, which are understood to be a more sophisticated form of comedy, the stereotypes of shopaholic girlfriends, dumb/emotional/angry women, “the friend-zoner”, and the “feminazi” are commonly used by male stand-up comedians. Female comedians stand up to these stereotypes by re-interpreting and re-creating these very images.
Mallika Dua in her famous Make-up Didi series deals with the overused stereotype of a woman who is very conscious of her looks and therefore, by assumption has nothing else in her life. The customers demand ‘themed’ makeups from Make-up Didi and always remain unsatisfied at the end of it. More than anything, this series is a satire on social expectations of being desirable and ‘up-to-date’ with fashion trends. Didi is very politically aware and extends this awareness to her audience with her hilarious parodies presented both by her language and the visuals.
Let’s look at this video where the woman is dissatisfied with her Karva Chauth makeup because she has clearly been thinking about food all day.
In another instance, the customer asks for the “paprika look” for safety on streets so that she can blow fire on harassers.
We are always asking for it. Asking for it in Bangalore, asking for it in Delhi, in Shakti mills in super safe Mumbai. We are asking for it in bikinis and burqas alike. We are asking for it after marriage, before marriage, in buses, at concerts, clubs. I once asked for it at Dargarh Ajmer Sharif, true fucking story. I even asked for it once when I was 7 years old in the back of my own car. But now, with a help of makeupdidi, I have found a solution to all of this. Hopefully I'm not asking for it anymore. Aap bhi try kijiye ye looks zaroor. Gustakhi Maaf, Abu Azmi chacha. FU
The trope of female insecurity about one’s looks and meeting social parameters of being desirable and acceptable is dealt with an insider’s understanding here. These depictions of women always trying to match up to or create new trends in the make-up market is an internal commentary and critique rather than the laughter evoked in mainstream comedy that operates on the ‘effeminacy’ of the men (exaggeratedly) acting out femininity and women.
Neeti Palta also uses stereotypes to overturn sexism on its head. Taking cues from the ‘wife jokes’ in circulation, she says that it would have been more productive to employ women in investigations as they’ve been touted to be so inquisitive. Check out how destroys some more of these stereotypes.
Women in comedy have a task to first overturn the passive tropes thrust upon them.
Desexualizing The Female Body
We have always been trained to view a woman’s body from a sexualized lens. Sumukhi Suresh, in the video below, satirizes the constant sexual overtones that are used while addressing women right from their girlhood.
It is not difficult to see that laughter often comes with the reduction of a woman to a sex object to be ogled at or as the “ugly” figure to be laughed at because she does not conform to standards of male desire. Trivializing accounts of molestation is far too common in the comedy arena from The Kapil Sharma Show to comedians proudly admitting to have molested a woman (even if just for the sake of laughter).
Thus, it becomes important for the women on stage to challenge the omnipresent male gaze and call out the rampant objectification women face. Neeti Palta talks about ‘easy to please’ North Indian men.
Another example is this clip by Vasu Primlani acting as a Delhi man, looking at a woman and singing a birthday song to her genitals.
Not only are the acts of sexualization are brought to the foreground, they also cater to the collective laughter that doesn’t dismiss or accept this behaviour. Molestation is viewed as the primary experience here and laughter is directed at the molesters and not the act. This is an important counter to mainstream comedy where molestation is just a casual sexist add-up to accentuate a punch.
When the stage is male, the experiences are also centred only on the male experience. Aditi Mittal, Punya Arora and Vasu Primlani bring the female experience to light with their comedy.
For example, Aditi Mittal and Punya Arora joke about the everyday experiences of women like how to wear a bra correctly and using sanitary napkins. This cancels out the over-sexualization of woman’s body parts and makes us laugh about the mundane experiences related to our bodies.
These acts not only help normalizing the woman’s body by talking about it in de-sexualized terms but also encourage conversations around the issues.
Other than making people laugh about the other side of common stereotypes, women in comedy industry portray domestic power structures with greater sensitivity. One example is Sumukhi Suresh’s ‘Behti Naak’ series where the comedian comments on everything from the division of labour, failed marriages and united families, body shaming, USA being over-rated, status quo and of course, the audience’s sense of humour too.
Female comedians introduce a perspective that is generally absent from the casually sexist and overwhelmingly male arena of Indian comedy. One needs to have less laughter directed at women and more of it directed by women at many other things including women themselves.
Finally, here’s a short treat to leave you in splits.