The British Council - British Studies - Morocco

British Studies Newsletter -Morocco
Issue No 1 Autumn 1997


Gender and humour in contemporary British culture
by Lizbeth Goodman

English popular culture is well known for its comedy: everything from the Carry on films to Monty Python's Flying Circus to Mr Bean to the many stand up comedy clubs and variety shows which enliven the London scene. What most 'English' comedy has had in common, though, is its creation primarily by men, for an audience of men, women and children conditioned to find 'male' humour funny. Having produced and directed the Cambridge Footlights and then London's TBA comedy sketch club for several years, I became fascinated by the gender divides and assumptions ingrained in the 'English' comedy dynamic, and began a study of the serious gender and power dynamics inscribed in the seemingly trivial field of English comedy, using theoretical and methodological tools more often applied in the study of another powerful form of cultural representation: feminist theatre.
Gender and humour in stand-up comedy, television sitcoms and feminist theatre are very different topics, but they have a great deal in common. All can be considered in relation to representation and self-representation, male-produced images of women's bodies and women's representations of themselves. These same themes are also common to many other areas of women's personal and political experience, and surface in significant ways in humour and the theatre. There are several interconnected ways in which a feminist perspective has been expressed through images projected of and by women in the public domain, and one of the most subversive of these is through comedy: through women 'taking the microphone' and speaking out, telling jokes or arguing for different kinds of comedy altogether.
Comedy can be utilized by women as a means of saying things and acting in ways which would be difficult to say or do 'straight'. One major achievement of feminism has been an effective infiltration of women into comedy, not only as spectators but also as writers, directors and performers in stand-up, cabaret, theatrical comedy and, more recently, on radio and television as well. In women's stand-up comedy, the comedienne speaks directly to (and sometimes about) the audience. In the theatre, the audience-stage interaction is not so direct, but is just as important. In both cases, women 'break the silence' by speaking for themselves, and often by saying things which may be considered 'taboo' subjects in other contexts.
One factor which complicates the study of women's humour and theatre is the relationship between feminist theory and women's performance. Here as in most discussions of feminist art and performance, there is an operative divide between practise and theory. A great deal has been written about feminist performance theory, for instance. But not all--or even most--of this theory has been utilized by the women who make feminist theatre. Theory informs performance, and performance practise helps to shape theory. But the dynamic relationship between the two is continually shifting. Therefore, a study of gender and humour, or of comedy in feminist theatre, is both enriched and complicated by the application of feminist theory. As in everyday life, the language of theory may be seen to distance some women from others. This distancing can in itself be seen as a form of cultural silencing, and is perhaps the most serious problem facing feminist critics today.
In Looking at the power dynamics in a study of Gender and Humour in contemporary British culture, we can explore the themes of satire and self-representation with reference to women's strategies for imagining and creating multiple images of self. Both also introduce theory to practice in a way which is intended to problematize the study of comedy as a subversive (perhaps specifically feminist) strategy.

Lizbeth Goodman, Open University


The articles that appear in this Newsletter reflect the opinions of their writers.

Table of Contents
Editorial, by Hasna Labbadil
Research projects
Spotlights on some research activities
Being there by David Richards
Philip Larkin's England by Stephen Reagan

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  Produced in the United Kingdom by The British Council © 1999. The British Council is the United Kingdom's international organisation for educational and cultural relations. Registered in England as a Charity.