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Funny bones: How comedy is helping me redefine my masculinity

How many grown men still utter jokes at women and gay people’s expense?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: ask any dude who’s been to any Catholic all-boys school over the last few decades, and you may get the same story. Under pressure to conform to what is perceived to be the norm (read: cisgender heterosexual manly manliness) kids are taught casual sexism and homophobia at an early age, and are often in an environment where the old adage boys will be boys is still accepted.

There is an entire culture built around the humor that comes out of this environment. There is the prevalence of bro humor where women are treated as prizes to be won. Or the joke that, upon marriage, women turn into unattractive nags, where marriage revolves around the couples’ lack of sexual desire for each other. Playground homophobia, where kids make fun of other kids who dare to show that they are gay in that environment, isn’t outgrown. How often do you hear your colleagues, who are probably in their 30s, utter jokes at the expense of the LGBTQ?

It’s “Just” A Joke

Mainstream comedy, in the Philippines in particular, hasn’t grown much in the last few decades. Watch any local comedy show, and you see the same aging comedians, paired up with increasingly younger women. You get the same jokes, made at the expense of people who are less attractive than the main cast. There will be at least one joke made about how one of the guys is closeted.

All in all, we see a strong prevalence of disparagement humor, where two messages are communicated. The ones making the joke can communicate a hostile or prejudiced message, at the same time washing their hands of any responsibility because “it was just a joke.”

On the surface, these jokes may seem playful and harmless, but they do have a harmful effect. Humor can be used to push the boundaries of what’s socially acceptable, and disparagement humor does just that. Sexist, homophobic, and racist jokes slowly change public understanding of social norms, and makes these previously unacceptable behaviors a little bit normal.

Punching Up

I was invited to join Deus Sex Machina, a comedy troupe that aims to open conversations around sex, and in the process teach its audience about consent and diversity. We have a strict “no rape jokes” rule: in our workshops, we’ve even had to make sure to explicitly state that animals in our skits are sentient, so even they can give consent to any sex. 

Working with a diverse group of people has also led me to question the things I thought were acceptable before. Working with trans women, some even in the middle of transitioning, opened my eyes to how painful the process is, and I am in no position whatsoever to make light of their situation.

Questioning everything I know in comedy has also led me to become a better person. I have learned to approach everything with empathy, and I have tried to understand why something is offensive instead of dismissing it outright as mere hysterics.

Comedians everywhere have bemoaned that “PC Culture” is killing comedy. The thing is, they’ve been whining about it for decades now. Comedy is still alive and well, and in most cases, they are still subversive and offensive in the right ways. Sure, society has changed the rules of what’s acceptable, but it’s for the better. Do we really want to hear another variation of “women should stay in the kitchen?” If we fall back to the same old patterns, expecting the same audience to eat up the same joke over and over, well, that’s how art dies.