Why Laugh: On Humour and Hypermasculinity

I came to the Facebook page ‘Yeah The Boys’ with a mixture of disdain and light humour, after seeing a screenshot in which the persona of the page discusses the value of “using Grindr to find more boys”. A satirical jab at the veiled homoeroticism of hyper masculinity—how droll.

One of the first comments, though, was a complaint about the page going gay, written by someone who apparently overlooked the cover photo featuring the Village People. The page, which seemed to be satirising the male bonding act of shunning women, drew controversy when its ironic hypermasculinity snapped into actual hypermasculinity, resulting in a Facebook page filled with comments about enacting acts of violence against women.

It might be easy to feel sorry for the creators of the page, who had their ‘parody’ (as it was defended) turned so swiftly into actual threats of violence. Only I’m familiar with this kind of humour. The page at once embodied a 2016 sensibility and an ancient one—it was a marriage of modern, hyper-ironic self-awareness, and the tendency of the middle-class male to project the problems of toxic masculinity onto barbarous poor people. I’ve seen this kind of ironic hypermasculinity before, and as an openly queer high-schooler was the target of it.

My male high school friends were certain they were not homophobes. They attained this certainty, not necessarily within themselves but in a performative sense, by veiling their homophobia, and that veil took the form of parodying the homophobia of others: I was to go along with the joke, or else be accused of being a bad sport. Not that I was entirely innocent, either: part of the unspoken contract that allowed me, a known homosexual, to be part of the group, was my willingness to tear down other, more feminine, gay men—always as a joke, of course.

Investigation into the social function of humour is a historic and varied field—Plato had a theory on it, believing humour to be an aggressive acknowledgement of superiority—and in searching for a reason why the apologia of Yeah The Boys felt so familiar, I was tempted to stick with Henri Bergson’s theory.

Bergson proposed in his book On Laughter that humour is entirely cerebral, meaning that to laugh at something, one must be emotionally removed from the subject of the joke. Applied to Yeah The Boys, this would mean that joking about violence against women and bashing queers requires a lack of empathy. Not hard to fathom, judging by the comments that came out. But also, On Laughter was written 116 years ago, and much more pointed observations have been made since.

Consider ‘Benign Violation Theory’: that perceiving something as funny requires there to be a perceived violation, but that the violation has to have a benignity, either created or implicit. In this view, my finding the Grindr joke funny originated in the violation of hypermasculine heterosexuality, the joke being largely harmless within itself. Under the logic of the ‘it was satire’ apologia, the jokes about violence towards women or queer people are made benign by the satirical veil.

What I think is uniquely modern about this kind of thing is that now, young men largely understand hypermasculine values (homophobia, misogyny, sexual aggression) as unacceptable, yet still want to get away with them. So the veil of irony comes out—they want to be too clever to be like one of those actual homophobes, but also retain the privilege a hypermasculine culture rewards to those who act in accordance with its rules. That jokes about violence lead to contempt and aggression towards the subjects of such jokes, however, is not a new concept. Misogynist humour leads to toleration of hostile feelings and discrimination against women—a point people willing to defend Yeah The Boys would do well to contemplate.

Humour, perhaps especially in mainstream Australia, is a powerful tool for the conveyance of hypermasculine ideology, whether it is intended to be or not. What Yeah The Boys demonstrates is how little the line between ‘ironic’ and ‘actual’ misogyny matters. Joy at the denigration of somebody else is, after all, one of the few emotions acceptable within a hypermasculine state of mind.

Humour, then, acts as an indicator, gauging what we do accept and what we do not. Yet it is also open to exploitation, a weapon used to ridicule and make afraid those who stand outside of hypermasculinity, who dare to find something unfunny. It is the boundary-maker that decides who benefits from hypermasculinity, and who suffers its violence. Those who overlook the violence that is so often innate in laughter, or who attempt by virtue of their privilege to profit off exploiting the tension therein, should therefore ask with much greater frequency and seriousness: “Why laugh?”

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One Comments

  • VideoPortal

    March 31, 2017

    In that mindset, weakness and gayness are the same. That s what I was afraid of, that I might be gay because I was weak. It’s very simple sort of calculus in the hypermasculine mindset. It happens in locker-rooms, hyper-religious male orders, the army, and this movie.

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