Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The Lulz of Medusa: On Laughter as Protest

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Shira Chess is Associate Professor of Entertainment and Media Studies at the University of Georgia and author of Ready Player Two and Play Like a Feminist. The following, an extract from the latter, appeared in the MIT Press Reader:

The physical act of laughter is the ultimate tool of playful protest. It does not require props, screens, or any affiliated costs. Laughter has the ability to disrupt the status quo, extricating stifling hypocrisies. It is always available, regardless of your position of power. It works as an antiseptic and is clarifying. It is personal. Laughter has been used and mobilized by those in the past, and needs to reclaim its role in the protestations of the future. Laughter is a striking tool of resistance. If deployed properly, we can giggle, guffaw, chuckle, and snicker toward resistance and advancement.

But how do we laugh in the face of the terrible things that happen — things that strike us so deeply that we are immobilized with fear? In these moments, our first response to protest is often one of anger and deliberate, obstinate resistance. When this anger turns into overwhelming sadness, how do we locate the presence of mind to laugh without diminishing or undercutting our topic?

When I wrote about protest and laughter in my book, “Play Like a Feminist,” I wrote it in the shadow of a shooting in 2018, when 11 people were shot at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Like so many other shootings, this story feels unremarkable, with fresh gun violence occurring as frequently as our hearts beat. Last month, a gunman killed eight people in Atlanta, most of them women of Asian descent. Not a week later another killed 10 shoppers in Boulder. In the face of this, how do I find space for laughter? This year alone, there have already been 104 mass shootings recorded in the United States of America. How do any of us find space for laughter?

I laugh because laughter is power. Rebecca Krefting refers to “charged humor”: a form of disruptive laughter meant to reimagine communities and use comedy to “foment social change.” Krefting observes that in this way, laughter is an inroad toward social justice. Similarly, historian Joseph Boskin writes about the ability of comedy to disrupt the momentary zeitgeist and offset power. But he also suggests that political humor is often deployed ineffectively, and that rather than focusing on institutions, it tends to be directed at individuals. In other words, the target of derisive laughter should not be the politician who makes a public misstep but instead the political system that put that politician in power. This lack of institutional focus makes our laughter less effective as a weapon.

Nevertheless, laughter has been and can be weaponized. Charged humor, in addition to being a kind of communal glue, is personal and intimate. We can laugh in a crowded theater, to great satisfaction, but we can also laugh alone and unheard by others. Laughter can be deployed by the disenfranchised to reclaim their sense of the absurd world we live in while remaining a binding substance that can fortify relationships. We need more laughter.

Famously, in her essay “The Laugh of Medusa,” Hélène Cixous writes about the monstrous feminine as inhabited by the infamous mythological icon. Rather than casting her as a beast, Cixous reinterprets the character, noting, “You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and laughing.”

Medusa’s laughter is rebellious; it fights back against the gods and mortals who have left her in her predicament, and it is our own fear that keeps us from hearing that laughter. It is Medusa’s laugh that we need to . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 May 2021 at 4:53 pm

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