While working on my theories of the pathetic, sympathetic Michael Scott of The Office, I've been a little confounded. In analyzing comedy shows, how do I differentiate between actions that reinforce the ism at hand, and actions that superficially reinforce but actually subvert or critique the cultural assumptions the characters live with? When is a show making fun of oppression, and when is it making fun of oppressed bodies? Is there a difference? How do you tell?
Comedy is a prime weapon for devaluing and belittling marginalized bodies. Laughter aimed at an oppressed person because of their oppression intensifies and isolates the victim, and emphasizes their status as an outsider. I don't have to tell you this – if you're interested in feminism, you've probably had these jokes aimed at you and your body. Oppression is a serious topic, and jokes about it must be carefully thought out.
To guide my analysis of the comedies I'll critique for TelevIsm, I've come up with a few conditional rules to help us tell the difference between critique and reinforcement in depicting a patriarchal or kyriarchal act for humor:
Conditions for a Anti-Oppression Joke
IF a character on a television reflects or reinforces the kyriarchy through problematic/loaded language or actions.
AND the action/language is critiqued or rebutted by another character
AND said rebuttal/critique is framed as reasonable and valid
THEN the joke constitutes critique of kyriarchy in society.
These are, of course, not the only kind of jokes that can be critical of the kyriarchy. This applies to jokes on shows like The Office that are not rhetorically anti-oppression the way that shows like, say, Treme or The Boondocks are.
So, what, exactly, do these jokes look like? How do they exist and function in a mainstream, hit television show?
The Office episode "Diversity Day" is about a diversity trainer, Mr. Brown, coming into the office basically to combat Michael's racist behavior. Throughout the training, Michael behaves poorly, lighting up racism bingo cards with his attempts to prove how non-racist and in control he is.
In the scene above, Michael tells a Chris Rock joke that uses the n-word. His actions are met with vocal disapproval, and a previous similar instance is referenced as the cause of the diversity seminar that is the ongoing plot of the episode. Characters visibly wince, and a person of color who is in authority (Mr. Brown, the diversity facilitator) vocally rebukes him and is visibly angry. Michael stands at the end of the scene as an uncomfortable, ridiculous, pathetic person with the knowledge that everyone sees him as wrong, though with no understanding of why.
There is no tone argument nonsense; Mr. Brown is framed in the incident and the episode as competent and sensitive to Michael, and his anger is framed as valid. The joke critiques how the kyriarchy buffers white people and hurts all people, and the people who make these comments, and sends the message that this behavior is harmful, socially unacceptable, and ridiculous. Michael's denial that he has done anything wrong, his refusal to be educated even when education is spoon-fed to him, is reflective of the behavior of ignorant white people. The show portrays what everyday office racism looks like, and sending the clear message that it is socially unacceptable.
This episode, I should note, is written by Mindy Kaling – a woman of color and a performer on the show (though it is loosely based on an episode of the British Office). The joke, reinforced by the overall message of the scene, the show, and the POC authorship, is critical of the racism.
However, jokes do not need to be quite so explicitly critical to constitute critique rather than reinforcement. In my opinion, it can be as small as a pointed look at the camera/viewer.
In this scene from season two's "The Secret", Michael is speaking to Oscar, who is faking sick to avoid office cleaning. Michael tells Oscar that they could "use some of that famous Hispanic cleaning ethic". The camera immediately pans to Ryan, who is at this point Michael's assistant. Ryan gives the camera an uncomfortable look, and the scene proceeds.
This is a very small instance of critique: it is not making a big point. The Office is primarily a romantic comedy about the workplace, and it's extremely centered around white, straight, male characters. But this small look sends the message to viewers that people do not think it is cool or funny or admirable to contributes to the show's characterization of Michael's kyriarchy-reinforcing behavior as socially unacceptable and harmful.
Unlike the last example, this method doesn't really work independently of the context. The joke works because it contributes to the show's characterization of Michael's behavior as uncool, awkward, and unacceptable. In this season, the character rebutting his action is at this point a "cool" character that Michael admires. A small action like this directed at the viewer, especially in the context of many other disapproving, disappointed, or offended reaction shots, helps to show the view that this is not okay or a harmless joke: it's one in a series of jokes that contribute to an unhealthy, uncomfortable environment.
Jokes that can be interpreted as critical under this condition are not, generally, the strongest critiques of the kyriarchy, no. Because it's not fiercely anti-kyriarchy , some folks are going to laugh at these jokes for the wrong reasons, and possibly appropriate it in the service of whatever ism the joke is critiquing.
But racism and other isms should not be erased in popular culture, and there's a way to responsibly portray oppression without an oppressed person as the butt of the joke. Mainstream culture – widely popular television that does not use social justice as a guiding point of the show – can communicate to the audience that active oppression is harmful and unacceptable.
Tune in on Saturday, I'll introduce two more conditions that define what, exactly, a kyriarchy-reinforcing joke looks like, with examples from South Park and Family Guy.