In laughter: Redefining masculinity


Male comedians changing perceptions of gender

The world of stand-up comedy has been often labelled as a boys’ club by women who’ve attempted to approach the threshold. Increasingly, female comics are becoming a more common sighting; we live in a world with refreshing perspectives on motherhood, dating, and social anxiety amongst other experiences, a breath of relief from the undertones of misogyny and toxic masculinity which have defined the comedy stage for decades. Satire has always been a vehicle of subliminal messaging. This November, as we take a special focus on men’s mental health, it becomes imperative to look at the messaging which prompts so many men to squirm in the traditional boundaries of their gender role.

What makes so many men squirm in the traditional boundaries of their gender role?

How are today’s comics changing that messaging and keeping up with an audience which is becoming increasingly resistant to being boxed into regressive ideas? How does comedy – a form of expression that relies heavily on tropes, stereotypes and sweeping generalisations – evolve with a demographic that is becoming increasingly individualistic? Perhaps the answer lies in self-deprecation, especially for the straight white male comedian, an angle successfully implemented in the recent stand-up routines of Seth Meyers and John Mulaney.

By poking fun at their own inadequacy in living up to the societal expectations of men, these comics use their privilege as punchlines and break down the walls of alienation – if you can’t generate laughs by ridiculing other groups, ridiculing your own behaviours and habits makes for an equally, if not more successful, alternative. Meyers does this by making his Netflix special Lobby Baby a love letter to his wife and his marriage, even performing a segment where he speaks from her perspective about her “annoying husband.”

They poke fun at their own inadequacy in living up to the societal expectations of men

This offers a trusty blueprint to the straight white male comic; in a climate where so many of them feel threatened by the onset of “woke culture” (I’m looking at you, Todd Phillips), comedy rooted in the light-hearted challenging and celebration of the world’s differences seem to be the best approach. A side effect of this is occasionally stepping back and letting the historically less-represented flourish, and there’s no shortage of talent from that part of the sphere to choose from.

Take Trevor Noah for instance, another late night host with comic sensibilities. Being a black man of South African origin, he is able to bring a new perspective to the foreground with his individualistic take on politics and social issues. One of these issues is toxic masculinity: in his comedy special Son of Patricia, Noah recounts an incident in Bali where a French man ridiculed him for moving away from the front row of an “authentic” snake show. “It’s a snake!” he shouts, prompting uproars of laughter.

Another voice surfacing in these exciting times is the queer voice. Non-white comedians like Jaboukie Young-White and Joel Kim Booster are of Jamaican and Korean descent respectively, each with experiences of queer identity, which form the subject of a lot of their material. Both comedians broaden the horizons of comedy and refusing to succumb to the toxic constraints of gender expectations.

Another loud voice in the comedic landscape is Jonathan Van Ness; Queer Eye hair expert, activist, bestselling author, and stand-up comedian. His recent tour, following him coming out as non-binary (his preferred pronouns are he/him), is a confident celebration of his flamboyance and disregard for convention. His observations about societal structures are so incredibly clever and nuanced, all without a hint of traditional masculine behaviour.

These comedians are changing the messaging that we send to young boys growing up in today’s dynamic climate, slowly, but surely. Instead of being laughed at for not living up to a historic ideal, as has been the case of comedy for decades, there are people reframing this “inadequacy” as strength and the basis of connection. Laughter is more gratifying when it isn’t malicious, and the defiant self-expression of comedians like Noah, Young-White, Booster and Van Ness is a testament to this fact. In due time, these comics’ efforts may turn masculinity from a stick with which to berate people, into a liberating ground for expression and coexistence.

Laughter is more gratifying when it isn’t malicious

Image credit: fun4all via Pixabay

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