Two Broke Girls and the Two Sides of Problematic Humour
To me, between intense study sessions, the 25 minute break of an episode of Two Broke Girls, was perfectly suited to my needs. It wasn’t that I thought it was a ground-breaking piece of art, but a form of comforting entertainment, which I consumed for hours on end. At first, two girls struggling to earn their way into a world that seemed determined to break them down, seemed like an oddly relatable struggle. The warm friendship they formed along the way felt like witnessing your own relationships from someone else’s eyes.
It was when some scenes went overboard with regressive jokes that it struck me that the laughs the show granted was at the expense of laughing at someone rather than with them.
It was not even satirical humour, that controversial comedy shows like South Park relied on; but actual entrenched misogyny and racism, that the writers of the show seemed to believe in. That’s where I drew the line . I could laugh with people who made fun of bigots by depicting their world-views, but I could not laugh with bigots. Thus, arose the question; where should we, as a society, delineate bigotry from ‘just jokes’?
To illustrate my point with a few scenes from Two Broke Girls; the chef at the cafeteria where the two protagonists (Max and Caroline) work , is named Oleg, and he does not know sexual boundaries. Oleg flashing his fellow female workers and making lewd remarks is a repeated gag.. Yet, his behaviour is never reprimanded- instead it is rewarded by Sophie, a Russian customer being charmed by his persistent attempts to sleep with her, even after she rejects him. Regardless of the writer’s intentions, it sends a very clear message across; that workplace harassment is acceptable as long as you are not fired and that nagging someone who rejects you repeatedly is a form of displaying affection. Stalking and harassment presented as romance isn’t a new concept though, even Bollywood is guilty of jumping on the bandwagon. “Ladki ki na mein hi haan chupi hoti hai” is a familiar concept to all of us. should this be funny and entertaining to us, or concerning?
It is easy to advocate for the “just a joke” argument. Some people use humour as a coping mechanism, and thus, it should be justified to assign the label of “funny” to what would otherwise be tragic, and tough to emotionally resolve. What is a joke, should be left as what it is: just a joke. Beyond a laugh, few sentences should not hold any social value.
this poses a problem, though. it becomes the receiver’s responsibility to decipher whether a socially-transgressive joke cracked by someone is a satire of tragic situations, or whether the person actually believes the stereotypes the jokes are grounded in. In simple words, if somebody cracks a joke on the holocaust and you hear it, it becomes your responsibility to figure out whether the other person is a Nazi, or someone who is so saddened by the holocaust that they must play it off as a joke lest it leaves mental scars.
It is terrifying to think that blatant bigotry can potentially be played off as ‘jokes’, and people who harass and hurt others can be let off the hook by using humour as an excuse. Perhaps we should not normalise screaming slurs at minority groups, till we have achieved enough social equity that it is not easy and normal to commit crimes against people of certain genders, sexualities, and ethnicities. Maybe stalking shouldn’t be something we make romantic movies about, when it is still prevalent in India. joking about something also means normalising it, and normalising it means enabling it. This is not to say we should not find humour in tough situations. It is necessary to laugh at our own tragedies in order to survive them. The only way this dichotomy can be resolved is to collectively acknowledge our biases. We should, as a society, know what is inherently hurtful, and what is not. For example, we should clearly acknowledge that stalking is not alright, and the consequences of doing the same would result in the perpetrator landing in jail, instead of in bed with the one they’re fawning over. Thus, when the rare exception of an actual stalker crops up, it should be justified to laugh over it, since we know the perpetrator is punished enough.
For obvious reasons, it is not easy or realistic to achieve this feat and perhaps not even the best solution at hand. What would be a decent answer to the persisting question of what we should and should not laugh at can only come from within. It is easy to laugh at people we hold biases against, and easier to justify the same. The only way to figure out what is morally right or wrong is to constantly question our biases and the prejudices we use to navigate society. Making a joke should come with at least some form of responsibility when it is made against other people. Perhaps it is not necessary for others to constantly keep a check on whether someone is foregoing their responsibility, but it should be a measure of introspection. To conclude, humour is always subjective, but we should always question whether our jokes are actually funny or just hurtful.