Most of social protest and activism seems to be fueled by anger and fear. Thus, the messages that social movement groups present are packed full of anger and resentments. But this method of anger, does not always work very well when it comes to attracting people, or being heard. Sometimes a better approach is a nonviolent, humorous one, which can engage people in new ways. Humor has always been used in forms of protest and in social movements in a lot of different ways.
From the use of humorous signs at protests, making jokes about the issues online, funny slogans, pranking and parodies, and more. In this essay, I will analyze humors use in activism and dissent, and how it can be effective and possibly non-effective in a few different forms: culture jamming as a form of humorous way of exposing, humor and creative uses in protest, as well as the role that Late Night Show Hosts and comedians themselves play in activism and protest by using humor and satire.
I will do this by summarizing the key takeaways from academic essays that have analyzed these topics, I will also draw connections to our course learnings as well to further our understanding, and examine how this will assist contemporary social movements in learning how to utilize humor in their dissent. Humor makes the world a little better to live in, perhaps it can help social movements as well.
Humor is often used in activism as a nonviolent method of resistance, and has a way of appealing to emotions and imagination, which can set it apart from other forms of nonviolent action. Humor can address important and sometimes ‘uncomfortable’ topics in a powerful but nonthreatening way.
In his article, Petronzio (2014) explains that jokes can help people confront the world’s issues, by inspiring people to laugh, inspires them to change. Approaching a sensitive topic with humor can help break down barriers, which can prove that people are not alone in their fight, while also stressing that everyone else in the world needs to pay attention. Comedy and humor helps people speak out, but also helps people heal.
As stated previously, to better understand how humor plays a role in activism and protest, it is important to analyze what other scholars have found in their studies as well. Consequently, as said above, humor can often benefit people in ways of helping them cope and heal.
In her study, Hart (2007) examines the relationships between humor and social protest in the past. Hart found, “Because of their ambiguity, jokes can often act as a relief from open or covert social pressures” (p. 6). Humor and jokes can also be used as an escape from the unalterable, making situations at least somewhat more bearable.
Hart also found that collective identity and emotions are often tied very closely to social movements and humor. Often, humor furthered the development of these collective identities in these social movements, in which humor acted as a powerful communication tool, serving as a ‘weapon of the weak’ (Hart, 2007 p. 1).
At times, comedy can also be used outside of the movements and activism itself, but still be just as powerful and comforting. In her study, Holmes (2017) examines the influence of stand-up comedy as a form of protest in resistance movements. She looks as the experiences of several marginalized comedians who confront the oppression they face through humor based protest.
She examined the revolutionary power of stand-up comedy, the ways in which dissenting comedy is subject to silencing and the extent to which standup has been weaponized, the relationships between tragedy and comedy within marginalized communities, as well as the role of resistance comedy in reconsidering identity politics. Holmes (2017) argues that comedy can and is often used as a ‘survival mechanism’ and again a source of community that brings people together (p. 1).
Shifting to examples of effective uses of humor in activism, rather than community building, we will examine the Queer Nation movement of the 90s. In his article, Walker (2009) examines how the Queer Nation movement in the 90s, studied how power functioned within American society to their advantage, and utilized that in addition of humorous, sarcastic and lighthearted disruptions to their advantage.
They utilized these interventions to effectively disrupt prejudices of the absurd heterosexist beliefs. Their tactics varied from the use of slogans, such as, “Don’t revolutionize, accessorize” (Walker 2009, p. 15), to what they would all Queer Ins, which were large sit-ins where they would be out together. Many of the Queer Nations tactics were meant to get them to be seen and heard, with a flamboyant humor added.
Going into a more specific idea of utilizing humor in and as rhetorical protest, Harold (2004) examines the idea of ‘pranking rhetoric’, or culture jamming. The idea of culture jamming is to undermine corporations, through practices of media hoaxing, sabotage, as well as trademark infringement and ad parodies.
Essentially, it is the interruption, parody, or intervention through the use of sometimes humor or satire, to bring attention to power structures, and their faults. The goal of these parodies and pranks are to unsettle the viewer, and make them think, “Things are not as they should be” (Harold 2004, p. 192). Culture jamming and pranking rhetoric use humor, irony and sarcasm to ‘reveal the truth’ to their audience, even if it is harmful to the corporation they are after.
The use of satire in entertainment is a large part of our culture it seems. From late night ‘news’ shows such as The Daily Show, to Saturday Night Live. Political televised satire is always around us, and prevalent. In her thesis, Burton (2010) examines the idea of “infotainment”, and how satirical news has emerged as an important force in revealing truth and engaging an indifferent public into politics and debate.
So, not only does it entertain people, but also makes people more engaged and willing to pay attention. Burton argues that comedians have the benefit of their professions, because they have the stance to be fearless when it comes to calling out political elites, and filling the roles traditionally held by journalists (p. 10).
When using comedy and humor with activism, people are more likely to listen to you, rather than just plain shouting at people. But as most forms of protest do, there can be some downsides. The attempt to be humorous can often fail, you can end up alienating the person you are trying to amuse.
As an example, a writer for Saturday Night Live was suspended months ago after tweeting a joke about the young Barron Trump, which some people thought crossed a line (Vick 2017). Another issue with the use of humor in protest, is that it can cause people to begin taking the topic less seriously. By taking away the seriousness of the causes, it may lead to less of a difference being made.
A contemporary example of an activist group that makes humor work for their cause is the Guerrilla Girls. This group of women artists formed in 1985, and assumed the names of dead women artists and wore gorilla mask in public, concealing their identities and focusing on issues rather than their personalities. These women work to produce posters, billboards, public actions, books and other projects to make feminism funny and fashionable. They wear the mask in public and use facts, humor and outrageous visuals to expose gender and ethnic bias as well as corruption in politics, art, film, and pop culture.
Throughout my research and study of this topic, I have learned that there are so many ways to protest, and get a point across. Something that I found interesting is the community building aspect of it all, which appears to be important across all social movements and forms of protest, as we have seen it happen in almost all of our case studies (Reed 2018). I believe this research can expand our course learning because it takes a different perspective of social movement, dissent, activism, and protest.
Few people think of humor and satire when thinking about activism. Most people think of activism as a serious and angry act, but it doesn’t have to be all the time. Throughout my research I continued to think about the ACT UP movement and how they had used humor in their rhetoric to both strengthen and draw attention to their actions, as well as essentially culture jam and show how ridiculous society was acting, and how they used it as coping mechanisms as well (Reed 2018, p. 179-217). Showing that the use of humor and satire in activism is not a new phenomenon, but can be learned from.
Social movement moving forward can learn a lot from the use of humor in activism. It is a valuable and powerful tool. It is a great way of consciousness raising, it gets people’s attention usually without alienating them, it can be used as a community building technique, it is more inviting than more aggressive tactics, and it can be used as a way of exposing without causing harm. However, as with all forms of protest, there needs to be a line. If that line is crossed, and the humor is not used correctly, people will become alienated or no one will take the issue as hand seriously.
The use of humor in dissent and activism is much more common than we may think, and is continuing to grow. Humor plays a vital role in activism and movements as well. Humor and comedy can assist in identity and community building, it can also be used as a coping mechanism, as well as consciousness raising technique.
Humor can also be used as a way of intervention and disruption to bring attention to an issue. We also see it every day as televised political satire, which has proven to encourage people to pay attention to world issues more. The use of humor in activism may seem to be out of place, but it also is necessary to build a community, and have a way to cope with the struggles we face. What is a better way to cope than to laugh?
- Burton, S. J. (2010). ‘More Than Entertainment’: The Role of Satirical News in Dissent, Deliberation, and Democracy(Unpublished master’s thesis). The Pennsylvania State University.
- Guerrilla Girls. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.guerrillagirls.com/#open
- Harold, C. (2004). Pranking rhetoric: “culture jamming” as media activism. Critical Studies in Media Communication,21(3), 189-211. doi:10.1080/0739318042000212693
- Hart, M. T. (2007). Humour and Social Protest: An Introduction. International Review of Social History,52(S15). doi:10.1017/s0020859007003094
- Holmes, C. (2017). Laughing Against White Supremacy: Marginalized Performance of Resistance Comedy. Senior Independent Study Thesis. Retrieved from https://openworks.wooster.edu/independentstudy/7770/.
- Petronzio, M. (2014, December 19). Comedy as activism: Why laughing together beats mourning alone. Retrieved from https://mashable.com/2014/12/19/comedy-social-justice/#JjytE1IWriqD
- REED, T. V. (2019). ART OF PROTEST: Culture and activism from the civil rights movement to the present. S.l.: UNIV OF MINNESOTA PRESS.
- Vick, J. (2017, May 17). ‘We Shall Overcomb’ and Other Ways to Topple a Dictator. Retrieved from https://brightthemag.com/we-shall-overcomb-and-other-ways-to-topple-a-dictator-5a21542cfe5
- Walker, W. (2009). Adult Learning in the Queer Nation: A Foucauldian Analysis of Educational Strategies for Social Change. New Horizons in Adult Education and Human Resource Development,23(3), 10-17. doi:10.1002/nha3.10346