Comedy and “punching”

So, Siobhan at “Against the Grain” is commenting on the new Ghostbusters movie. She likes it, but I find one of the reasons she likes it worthy of comment:

Humour: Anyone who thinks women can’t be funny clearly needs to see this. More importantly, the humour usually doesn’t need any minority to be the butt of its jokes–just cishet white men, the most privileged demographic in the West. It’s a “punching up” film through and through.

So, let me just ask this one simple question: why in the world is our comedy relying on “punching”?

In general, comedy is going to rely on stereotypes. This is because it generally isn’t going to be funny to build up a complicated character that you can then rely on to drive the humour. So comedy is going to rely on very simple character concepts and, yes, archetypes and stereotypes a lot to drive its humour. And, potentially, those stereotypes are going to be based on nationality, race or gender. In theory, Social Justice theory ought to insist that basing humour on those last stereotypes is risky at best, and should not be done at worst, and theory — but definitely not in practice — that would be true even if it is the most privileged demographic in the West, because the problem with this sort of stereotyping is that it promotes prejudicial thinking, the sort of thinking that insists that all members of a group really do think or act that way, which is just as wrong whether that category is a minority or privileged.

However, if we put aside the fostering of stereotypes — which, in my opinion, is best combated not by removing the stereotypes entirely, but by not simply taking the easy way out and putting all characters of that racial group or gender into those stereotypical roles — it seems to me that simply doing that ought not count as “punching” in any way. “Punching” requires more than simply presenting the stereotype, but must instead present the stereotype as the punch line. Bad as presenting all members of a certain group as being alike may be, that pales in comparison to taking that stereotype and using that, in and of itself, as the source of humour. For example, while many people tell me that I ought to watch “The Big Bang Theory” — since I probably count as being a nerd — I have seen criticisms that say that all that show does is bring in stereotypical nerds for the audience to point and laugh at, and so makes the fact that they are stereotypical nerds the source of the humour. This is in contrast to a show like, say, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” where Will Smith was definitely playing to the inner-city black stereotype but the humour was at least mostly not just the stereotype, but instead on how someone with that stereotype would be in the completely different environment and situation of Beverly Hills. For the most part, it wasn’t just that they pointed at him and laughed, and in fact much of the time his views were presented as something that the Banks’ needed, and what was missing from their life. From this, we get an understanding that being different isn’t bad, just different, and that everyone needed to accomodate each other to make this work.

Because the stereotype isn’t presented as being bad, just different, and you’re not supposed to laugh just at the fact that the stereotype “isn’t normal”, we don’t have punching. But if you’re just supposed to laugh at the stereotype, then that’s punching at the stereotype. And it sounds like the Ghostbusters movie punches — quite deliberately — at the stereotypical nerd who reacted with disdain to the movie:

Allegory: The villain is a white nerd boy who feels disenfranchised because he has been bullied. This is demonstrated on screen briefly, in a cartoonish and almost exaggerated fashion. When he delivers his villainous diatribe to the protagonists, he sounds like he’s reading off a Reddit forum, claiming the protagonists must have been treated with dignity if they don’t want to burn society to the ground. They promptly point out that no, people have been and continue to be assholes to them, but they don’t see that as a reason for mass murder.

The problem with punching is that you can definitely hit people who aren’t aiming at (the concept of “splash damage”). Here, for example, you can run into the problem of presenting the villain as being someone who was bullied and, depending on how exaggerated the bullying was, then have people who were objectively treated better insist that they know what it’s like to be bullied that way based only on their skin colour and/or gender. But punching against stereotypes also fails unless you are clear what the stereotype you are aiming at is, because taking this one and the first quote together it may look like they’re aiming for a stereotype of “white cis-het male” instead of the minority of them that reacted that way to the movie. And, taken all together, if you punch at a stereotype you either are trying to cause hurt to someone, or else don’t care if you hurt someone, and I can’t see how this is good for everyone. It’s important to note that the “villain who feels unfairly shunned but really wasn’t” is, in fact, a standard trope as well; it’s not like this is anything special, except that casting it as a commentary on gender and race pits people who got academic degrees and succeeded there against someone who is purportedly more “privileged”, despite the fact that even getting those degrees reflects privilege in and of itself.

The thing is … to present this situation and get humour out of it, they didn’t need to take shots at the stereotype at all. They could have, for example, used a black person or a woman here, and the overall story would have worked just as well. The only thing that would have been more difficult is to pull off the “we’re discriminated against!” angle … but even then it could have worked and been even stronger if the villain was presented as personally self-centered. For example, if the villain here was a black woman, then her claim that if they weren’t trying to destroy the world then things couldn’t be that bad for them would be countered by her thinking that only she was impacted by this, but this is really a global issue, which gets the point across, it seems to me, more effectively while not having to punch any group.

But that, I think, explains why it was done this way: people like that annoyed and annoy them, so they wanted to “punch” them, to annoy them and to hurt them as they’ve been hurt. But just as an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves everyone blind and toothless, punching groups in retaliation for some people in those groups punching your group only leads to fistfights. And you can do perfectly good comedy and even make perfectly good points without having to punch anyone. If you resort to punching anyway, that says something about you.


One Response to “Comedy and “punching””

  1. Ghostbusters 2016: Only now at the end do we understand … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] a COMEDY of all things that was going to preach at them. That might not have been fair, but again, given what the defenders praised about it it doesn’t seem like it’s that unfair […]

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