Punches Are Not Punchlines: Violence Against Women is Not a Joke

TW: this piece discusses violence against women, and recounts jokes made surrounding the subject

Sometimes the darkest humour, the stuff that makes you wince or touches a nerve, can be the funniest. Jokes about Donald Trump remind us that while his Presidency is terrifying, it’s also so ridiculous that it’s difficult not to laugh. Seeing the silly side of a serious situation can be an ideal coping mechanism, forcing a smile in the saddest of moments. Pushing the boundaries of what is deemed to be okay has made successful careers for many comedians and is a part of the comedy that allows audiences to cry happy tears about a subject, not sad.

“At this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, I longed for a comedy show that doesn’t rely on violence against women for a punchline.”

But what happens when the boundaries get pushed too far? During this year’s Edinburgh Fringe I have heard several jokes regarding violence against women and, although the comedians who wrote them might disagree, they are not funny. Having moved to the city last September, this is my first summer in the city and before the festival started I couldn’t wait to get stuck in. I planned the shows I wanted to see by flicking through programmes and scrolling through Twitter reviews, whilst swigging an overpriced lager. Now the festival is drawing to a close, I’ve longed for a comedy show that doesn’t rely on violence against women for a punchline.

Nick Cody’s On Fire relied on a joke about his mother lying at the bottom of the stairs for his main punchline. When the postman comes to the door and finds the woman on the floor as her husband opens the door (she slipped down the marble steps in their house), the joke isn’t just about the ridiculous scenario. The Mum – portrayed as a fun woman only because she laughs at Cody’s own dark sense of humour – says, “Oh no! In Domestic Violence Week, as well!”

Hilarious? As a survivor of violence against women, I didn’t think so, but why not? Was it just too specific? An anecdote about the mistaken assumptions the postman made might have been funny, but the mention of a specific event vitally important to me and so many others just felt wrong. Furthermore, a young male comedian telling the joke to a predominantly young male audience might seem like nothing, but it’s dangerous.

“In that moment my PTSD was severely triggered, and I felt unsafe.”

According to Women’s Aid, this year 92.4% of domestic violence defendants were men and 84% of victims were female. We live in a society where women are continually told they are subservient and men are told they must be tough and strong – another unfair stereotype with sometimes equally tragic results. I can only speak for myself but in that moment my PTSD was severely triggered, as it often is by comments made by those who don’t understand the severity of what they are saying, and I felt unsafe. This joke that so many others were laughing at had caused me to have a panic attack.

Sometimes it feels worse when a woman makes the joke. Sindhu Vee’s Iguana Woman show questioned why we assume old couples we see in the street are happy together when for all we know the husband could have spent his whole life beating his wife. It’s easy to assume that women will always be on the side of other women, an assumption I must learn not to keep making, but it’s not just men that are responsible for the patriarchy. It’s small comments like this from both sides that keep the system propped up when it should be dismantled and serve as unconscious reminders that this behaviour is okay, normalising this inappropriate behaviour and desensitising us to what it really means.

Abigoliah Schamaun’s show Namaste Bitches took a different approach to the subject, attempting to make a statement regarding the hideousness of sexual violence against women. Schaumaun moonlights as a Bikram yoga instructor and spoke of the moral dilemma she encountered when the movement’s founder, Bikram Choudhury, was accused of sexual assault by five women and accused of rape by two. The 73 year old has so far been found civilly guilty of one of these incidents, but Schaumaun hasn’t stopped practicing yoga – after all, she needs the money. It’s a questionable reaction – one that either elicited no reaction or disappointed murmurs from the crowd – but then in a small act of redemption she goes on to hit the picture she has of him on stage. It just feels like too little too late. There’s an awareness that what he’s done is wrong, but it’s still made into a joke, the destruction of the photo and the rejection of rape it represents more slapstick than serious.

“Survivors deserve to laugh just as much as everyone else and they deserve to do so in a safe, non-triggering environment.”

These are only three examples of shows that I have seen in a festival with over 2,000 shows on offer. The jokes at the Edinburgh Fringe are the kind that are shared at comedy shows all over and they prove that the safety of women is not taken as seriously as it should be. It’s a microcosm of the wider issue that domestic violence kills two women a week in the UK. It’s not just the tragedy of the events these comedians are joking about that make these jokes unacceptable; it’s the triggering of feelings in survivors that we have spent years learning to repress as we are taught from a young age to keep quiet, to carry on as normal and to not make a fuss.

Being a survivor of violence against women does not mean being void of humour. Despite the darkness we carry, there’s a longing for laughter and regardless of what has happened to us we are still deep down just the same as everyone else. Once you’ve experienced violence against women, it can sometimes feel like you’ll never fit in – like you’ll never be part of the crowd. Comedy shows should be, as they are for everyone else, an accessible way to escape from the memories of trauma and to lose yourself in a moment. Humour may always find some of its funniest stories in the darkest material but we can laugh at jokes too – they just needn’t have to hurt us. Survivors deserve to laugh just as much as everyone else and they deserve to do so in a safe, non-triggering environment. Our experiences are not your punchlines.

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