From slapstick to satire, comedy comes in various forms and mediums. It can be silly, it can be hurtful, and it can be change making. Novelist George Meredith once said that the true test of a civilization is how comedic ideas and comedy thrive, and that the true test of comedy is if it “awakens thoughtful laughter.”
In the face of complex and entrenched social issues, such as gender roles and stereotypes, comedy is more than expression; it is dissent. At its best comedy forces us to challenge what is, encourages us to laugh freely, and makes us more ‘thoughtful.’
There are few social constructs as engrained in society and our psyches as gender. Outdated gender roles, expectations, and norms continue to affect both men and women. It’s not that all gender related traits are bad, or even wrong. The problem arises when society is rigid and dictates individual behavior based on ideas of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine.’ It’s this stereotyping that denies women opportunities and devalues them. The same defines manhood, and limits how young boys feel and express themselves. It makes anyone not straight cis-gender feel wholly other. For some examining gender can be very polarizing, so it’s important to engage all perspectives in non-threatening conversations. Comedy is an excellent way to open hearts and minds to perspectives.
Vasu Primlani, the ‘Deadpan Activist’ and India’s first openly gay comic explains “A comedian’s currency isn’t jokes. Our currency is love. First and foremost is our ability to touch the audience’s heart. No matter how brilliant you are, if you are not able to touch the audience’s heart, it is not going to work. So I am in the business of love.” She doesn’t just want to spread love however, she wants to create change.
Without pretense and without agenda, comedy simply presents ideas rooted in truth. As an audience, we either identify with that reality or we don’t; something is either funny or it isn’t. In this way, comedy is an amazing way to reframe what we believe and as accept as fact.
Primlani continues, “my goal is to promote positive change, bring people closer together, and work for the betterment of the society. At the end of my show people often have a change of heart. I give my audiences hope.” Primlani touches on several social issues within her act including the environment, gender, sexuality, and society. She recounts one particularly moving moment for her. “There was a Muslim man who came up to me once in Delhi and he said, ‘What you are saying about the way men look at women, I admit that that is how I look at women. I am a grandfather. I have a daughter of my own. My daughter has a daughter of her own, and I admit I look at women exactly like this. Khuda Kasam, I won’t from tomorrow’… I provide a message that is so acute that not only will it be a topic that will be discussed but it’s remembered and will be executed.
That is how important the tool of comedy is in messaging.”
Vasu Primlani isn’t alone amongst comedians who break gender stereotypes and question society. Suman Kumar, Stay-at-Home Dad, simply speaks about his real life struggles as the primary care giver during his sets.
“When I go to a school to drop my daughter off all the ladies give me that look, ‘who is this guy?’ I make it a point to tell everyone that I’m a Stay-at-Home Dad, though technically I’m a writer; I have a book coming out in April and I’ve written movies and TV programs. But I never say that first, because I know that being a father is more important. When I tell people I’m a Stay–at-Home Dad people often ask me if I mean I don’t have a job. I’m like ‘brother you have no idea.’ For the first time in my life I have a job, a full job. I’ve never worked so hard in my life.” In Kumar’s set he speaks about the challenges of being the primary care giver as well as all the stereotypes he has to face because of it. He not only normalizes men staying at home, but he helps bring a wider understanding and acceptance to the full workload that being a primary care giver entails.
For Punya Arora, the ‘South Indian Punjabi,’ gender has a very central role in her life and set. “Me and my mother had a tough life while I was growing up. The man I was born to wanted a son. After I was born he refused to accept me, so my mom decided to divorce him.” Arora’s mother refused alimony and only asked Arora’s biological father give her full custody and not interfere with Arora’s upbringing. “When I tell people I was raised by a single mom the reaction isn’t great; it’s either very sad or shocked.”
Arora centers much of her act on the circumstances around her upbringing, her womanhood, and her family’s resilience.
“It’s not always something people will find funny. It’s actually a very unfunny topic that I’m talking about in stand up comedy and making people laugh at. But the truth of the matter is, there is a little funny in everything, and there is some funny in this situation as well.” Her motivations aren’t just to make people laugh however.
“We still have a girl child problem in India. It’s nowhere close to gone. It’s something I talk about in terms of changing mindsets in society, as I know it’s a mindset that persists. There is nothing that girls can’t do. I genuinely feel if you give girls equal opportunity they can do anything.
I was totally rejected because I wasn’t born a son, but look at me now- I’m killing it. It’s 100% his loss. I feel if you give your daughter the opportunity to succeed, she will. You don’t have to get them married right away or cry about having a girl, just give her the same opportunities as a guy, and see what she can do. I’m not saying men are better than women or women are better than men, I’m saying give everyone equal opportunity.
My mom and I had a great time making our lives again. So I talk about it that way, and hope I can leave it in people’s head: single parents aren’t bad, it’s okay if they choose not to get married again; and girls can do anything. In my own way, through comedy, I want to open minds.”
In terms of breaking away from gender stereotypes, these comedians don’t compromise their work or their values. By speaking their truth, each comedian is contributing to a larger conversation and broadening mindsets across India. In this way Primlani says, we can all be change makers. “Everyone has a passion and a talent of their own. Whoever you are speak your truth. However you speak it, speak your truth.”
Gender norms and stereotypes persist and exist around us. We are inundated with expectations and rules from the moment we are born. It’s a complex and at times divisive social issue; it’s one that deserves thought. Using laughter as a tool to better understand the ways we limit others and ourselves is an excellent starting point. See our change making comedians Vasu Primlani, Suman Kumar, and Punya Arora along with Sri Gaddam and Kelsey William this Sunday May 22nd at UnGendered: comedy night in Bangalore. It’s a night sure to be a ‘thoughtful’ laugh riot.
See the FB Event Page.
This article was originally written for and published on Shenomics.com.
About the Author
Misha Rahman recently uprooted her life in Boston to move to Bangalore, India and work with Shenomics. She is completing a professional certification in social enterprise through IDEX Accelerator’s Global Fellowship Program. She spends her days on facebook, twitter, and linkedin- also known as marketing and strategy. In addition to empowering women she is interested in conflict resolution and human rights work. Misha enjoys traveling, reading, and binge watching Netflix.