A Catharsis of Shame
The Belly Laugh and SlutWalk
I always celebrate my body, sometimes twice a day.
—Amber Rose, Walk of No Shame
In 2017, the Onion, a parody news site, unleashed a video clip that mocks the academic left’s inability to communicate with ordinary people. The clip features a former Trump supporter from a small steel town in Pennsylvania who keeps a straight face as he explains his path to enlightenment: “I voted for Trump because I thought he’d create a better America for everyone. But after I read eight hundred or so pages on queer feminist theory, I realize now just how much I’ve been duped.” Is it really a surprise that a volume-length manifesto is not a call to action? It might be for some. After all, intellectuals have often assumed that revealing life’s incongruities through rational thought is all one needs to unlock the masses’ false consciousness. At the same time, across the political spectrum, any play on emotions has been deemed not just superficial but also dangerous tools of manipulation. Yet what if belly laughs expose the gut emotions that can act as a powerful impetus for radical awakenings and progressive social movements that challenge gripping forces such as shame? Theorists and organizers caught in a blind “faith in rationality” miss, academic and activist Deborah Gould explains, how “social movements engage in a great deal of what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls emotion work, which she defines as an attempt to alter one’s emotions, to evoke or heighten or suppress a feeling.” In Gould’s experience—with the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP, for example—she finds queer camp to be crucial for elevating the mood of the movement and overcoming the turnoff of self-righteousness. Similarly, we turn to emotion work as a means to reveal humor’s cathartic power to challenge the stifling patriarchal politics of shame. With acknowledgment to feminist materialism’s interest in the gut, not the phallus, as the “second brain,” our holistic approach turns to the deep-down relief of the belly laugh, and its fun and festive affects to spark social change.
First-Brain Approaches to Humor
Before we get to the gut and all that it has to offer, let’s look at the prevailing approaches to humor in philosophy and in cognitive psychology, which appreciate wit as a cerebral game but not as a game changer. There are two strands in this cerebral approach. First, incongruity theory focuses on the perception of puzzles occurring when mental patterns and expectations are violated. Second, a new take on an ancient Stoicism views humor as a means to rise above and thus transcend the absurdities of life. We do not deny brainy humor—after all, it takes guts to get to the brain. But we do need to dissect these two prominent first-brain approaches in order to reveal both their strengths and political shortcomings.
Incongruity theory turns on trying to make some sense out of nonsense, as in puzzling over the “the oxymoron ‘if pigs could fly.’” This example is central in Noel Carroll’s influential philosophical study Humour, where it is followed with one of those all-too-infrequent references in philosophies of humor to a female comedian, in this case Sarah Silverman. Carroll’s cognitive approach reveals how she “is comically effective because it is so incongruous that such a sweet-looking young woman spouts such obscenities and vitriol.” But we find much more is at stake. As Rebecca Krefting explains, the real punch in this shock jock’s slutty humor turns on the “nihilistic” thrill of “antipolitical correctness.” Here a female comic gets to act like the pig. To be sure, there is an element of incongruity all over in humor, and sometimes a joke is just a joke, but that is not always where the humor does or should stop. Logic-oriented philosophers and cognitive psychologists reduce too much of life to a mental puzzle for the sheer intellectual satisfaction of solving it.
We argue that incongruities in feminist humor abound, but they do not simply pose a sweet-looking yet raunchy young woman for mental delight. These reversals, such as when Silverman puts on a male chauvinist pig face, instead use the roar of laughter to destabilize gender hierarchies and rituals of slut and body shaming. It is this roar from the gut that exposes laughter’s high stakes and potential, typically invoking the pivotal social emotions of shame and a sense of who belongs and who doesn’t. Belly laughs transform our physical and emotional state, together with our sense of self and social position, via a social atmosphere dense with images and values. These atmospheric changes can in turn precipitate the collective social storms that alter history.
A second cerebral approach is also incapable of accounting for the politics of emotions. Like the cognitive, this second prominent approach emphasizes a mental distance from turmoil and is not a challenge to it. We can characterize the second perspective as fatalistic because laughter draws attention to the absurdities of life while offering only a moment of reprieve before life’s inevitabilities. Its cerebral pleasure stems not from pondering cognitive puzzles but from experiencing humor’s momentary uplift in the face of the irresolvable absurd. While straight-up incongruity theory draws its support from cognitive psychology, this fatalistic alternative offers an existential twist on the ancient fate-driven philosophies of the Stoics. Simon Critchley cites an example of such an approach in On Humor, where he updates the Stoic philosophies of life via a late 1920s essay of Freud’s. In this essay, Freud moves away from his earlier and now all too readily dismissed relief-based theory of the joke. Freud’s early theory features an interpretation of catharsis as a venting and release of pent-up affects through verbal acts of transgression against social taboos. Freud’s updated theory turns to a detached and controlled mode of humor where a visceral relief might be felt but is largely left unexamined. Critchley cites a passage from the essay where “Freud speaks of a criminal who, on the morning of his execution, is being led out to a gallows to be hanged, and who remarks, looking up at the sky . . . ‘Well, the week’s beginning nicely.’” As the British might say, with a stiff upper lip, this kind of humor invites us to do little more than “keep calm and carry on.” For such a head–brain approach, humor emanates from the mind, where it produces, as Critchley explains, the “modesty of the chuckle or the humble smirk,” or even just the simple “smile.”
Fumerists, however, never just lie back and take it. Wanda Sykes and her audience understand the laughter over a detachable pussy often conjures more than modest chuckles and humble smirks. The feeling of relief is real. Turning cerebral humor on its head, the raucous roar of the belly laugh can offer something other than a Stoic reprieve. Laughter that comes from deep down can threaten the normal rules of social control with verve but also with aim and social purpose. Above all else, laughter’s physiology prepares us to understand how belly laughs catalyze anger and transform negative affects and emotions toward liberation. As a punch back from the fomenting nether regions of society, a contagious guffaw from the bottom up exerts undeniable biosocial force. Humor can offer a cathartic conversion of a harmful shame to a promiscuous pride—the kind of pride that is central to norm-changing social movements like SlutWalk, a now global movement that first began as a 2001 protest after a Toronto police officer chastised women by suggesting that they should “avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” Resisting derogatory identities and social positions that colonize the self, risqué humor promulgates practices of self-care while altering the norms of belonging. These cathartic practices do not occur in the cerebral exclusivity of mental space alone but also transform emotional processes and a volatile social climate by throwing a wrench in “the old slut-shaming machine.”
Comic Relief and the Affects and Physiology of the Belly Laugh
While the affective and physiological benefits of a good belly laugh have been downplayed in cerebral approaches to humor, common folklore that laughter is the best medicine suggests that we might revisit older theories of comic relief. John Morreall explains that humor has been thought to function on our nerves like a pressure relief valve in a hydraulic system such as a steam boiler. We are also reminded of the laughing barrel designed to capture the threat of the out-of-control laughter of enslaved people in the American South, thereby maintaining the status quo. Clearly there’s something more to relief theories than first meets the eye. But if relief theories have until quite recently been largely neglected and even mocked (as are Freud’s early writings on humor), aspects of them are strikingly salvageable for a feminist perspective on gut-based humor.
Morreall begins by looking at Lord Shaftsbury’s Sensus Communis, which in 1709 first proposed a version of comic relief theory that could be experienced as mentally liberating for those suffering from oppression or tyranny. This freethinker, who was tutored when he was young by John Locke, believed that the pressure transmitted by the nerves from the muscles and sense organs to the brain carried a fluid and gaseous substance called animal spirits, which naturally sought release: “The natural free spirits of ingenious men, if imprisoned or controlled, will find out other ways of motion to relieve themselves in their constraint; and whether it be in burlesque, mimicry, or buffoonery, they will be glad at any rate to vent themselves, and be revenged upon their constrainers.” Such humor offers an important expression of frustration, a source of resilience, and the experience that in one’s own mind one is free, even if it is not, as this disciple of the Stoics observes, socially or politically transformative.
Lord Shaftsbury’s theory was picked up by social Darwinist Herbert Spencer in his 1875 essay “On the Physiology of Laughter,” in which humor does nothing more than deflate emotions and rid the body of excess energy. Spencer translates emotions into levels of nervous energy that are released when transmitted to the muscles and then, ordinarily, expressed as action. The discharge of nervous energy, however, can also happen through laughter, where it offers relief but does not prompt action. For example, rather than expressing any direct anger at an unfair boss, one simply laughs it off. In humor, the basis for an emotion such as anger disappears; having lost its purpose, the energy dissipates through the shallow throat muscles in a chuckle. If still more energy needs to be relieved, it spills over to the muscles connected with diaphragmatic breathing, and if the movements of those muscles do not release all the energy, the remainder moves the arms, legs, and other muscle groups.
Freud’s scandalous take on comic relief is much better known. In his 1905 Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Spencer’s animal spirits become Freud’s repressed sexual and aggressive urges—for example, the kind we might find in the taboo rape joke. Freud argues that laughter comes not directly from the expression of the prohibited emotions but rather from the energy used to repress those emotions—admittedly a byzantine move. Yet if “today almost no scholar in philosophy or psychology explains laughter or humor as a process of releasing pent-up nervous energy,” this wholesale dismissal of relief theory stems from data demonstrating that those who let off steam become angrier, not calmer.
Despite these negative results regarding simple venting, well-known social psychologist James Pennebaker finds a significant correlation between writing about an upsetting or traumatic experience and lasting health benefits. After curiously failing to find the same correlation with music or dance, he argues that the benefits of writing must stem from two factors: the expression of pent-up emotions, which offers temporary benefits, and which might occur even in nonverbal arts; and the use of words to create meaning and understanding out of our raw experiences, which would generate longer-term effects. He concludes that solitary journal writing exemplifies true benefits of cathartic healing.
This psychologist’s research, however, is compatible with a larger story of multiple dimensions of relief and catharsis, some of which are exemplified in laughter and humor. As social animals, our affective entwinement with others and our felt status are key to our health, suggesting greater benefits when cathartic processes go beyond solitary sense making. Drawing on recent research on comic relief as well as ancient communal rituals, we examine how a collective catharsis might heal as it empowers by transforming the very field of value that we inhabit.
We begin to explore this transformative process through comic relief’s impact on what psychologist Daniel Stern describes as the feel of being alive, and terms vitality affect. Vitality along with other affects are typically considered felt aspects of emotion, while full-fledged emotions also contain prominent belief components and can be more easily verbalized. The feel of being alive, more than just sensations of pleasure or pain, appears through tonal qualities, timbres, and a sheer force expressed through intensities and rhythms of movement. Stern traces his understanding of vitality affect to Freud’s theory of psychic energy, which is also significant to our own foray into the comic. An expression of psychic energy plays a pivotal role in Freud’s interpretation of comic relief as release, which in turn recalls Lord Shaftsbury’s explanation of laughter as the release of animal spirits.
Other philosophers and theorists have suggested the further relevance of vitality affect for aspects of humor. Around the time of Freud, philosopher Henri Bergson explained laughter as a reawakening of an élan vital deadened in man becoming machine, seemingly predicting Chaplin’s Modern Times. This association of laughter with revitalizing affects appears again in American philosopher Susanne Langer’s 1953 Feeling and Form. Most importantly, Audre Lorde invokes a life force, which she terms eros, and traces the joy expressed through creative activities such as poetry and dance as well as laughter. Although Lorde doesn’t explore humor, just a generation earlier, literary scholar Northrop Frye had declared the mythic Greek figure of Eros to be the presiding spirit and driving force of theatric and film comedy. In contrast to the Stoic use of humor for a turtle-like defense and turn of the self inward, the laughter of a Lordian eros presses animal spirits outward, but now less as release than a force for connecting mind to body and self to other.
If for Lorde this élan vital can be fostered and communicated in dance, nonverbal arts too might have some dimension of cathartic power that begins in the physiology of the healthy belly laugh. Infectious laughter can spread its revitalizing force across audiences, offering some semblance of relief even when those laughing don’t get the verbal content of the joke. That feeling of being alive was something glimpsed but not grasped by Kant, who observed that the physical cause of laughter is found in the relaxation of the gut through the expulsion of air, which may be in part true; but he misses the significance of this gut reaction when he then dismisses humor as about “nothing” at all. This nothing seems to have been the only way that a top-heavy theorist could locate laughter’s visceral force. Feelings of aliveness travel through our bodies and even from body to body through rhythms of movement. When we experience tension, breathing shifts to the upper chest and becomes shallow and rapid. When we are relaxed, breathing occurs more fully and deeply from the abdomen. Deeper breathing carries more oxygen to the organs, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. While tension and anxiety keep you up in your head, the parasympathetic system promotes a state of calmness together with enhanced feelings of connectedness of mind and body.
This physiology challenges the Stoic’s mental amusement, which is supposed to distance the mind from the body. Even the Stoic’s controlled chuckle and smile might lend themselves to a greater degree of connection with the body than has been thought. Accounts of chakra in laugh-based yoga underscore such connectivity. First, there is the chortle laugh, which is centered in the head and throat; second is the chuckle, which is situated in the heart; and third the guffaw, or belly laugh. Each is said to benefit a distinct energy center, with the throat-based chortle improving capacities for communication, the chuckle lending itself to feelings of inner calm, and the belly laugh releasing one from fear and generating a sense of empowerment. Laughter does not just release tension as predicted by the standard model of relief. It is not just venting. It gathers and circulates positive energy, what the Chinese term qi, for a model of relief as flow and regeneration.
The physiological benefits of laughter take us to one meaning of what Aristotle called catharsis. In ancient Greek, this term refers both to religious rituals of purification and to medicinal purges of bodily toxins. We return to this complex notion in our discussion of emotions later in this chapter, but here we note that simple purging or perhaps even purification can be experienced in the raw physicality of comic relief. Deeper and more powerful breaths may lead to the “more efficient excretion of bodily toxins” through the lungs. The belly laugh may also enhance a near-spiritual sense of well-being through the release of endorphins, which act like opiates by reducing emotional and physical pain and inducing a sense of calm or even euphoria.
Whereas comic relief is typically thought to offer a momentary reprieve from pain and sorrow, in fact laughter bolsters the long-term functioning of the cardiovascular and immune systems. It affects regions of the brain that regulate emotion (by suppressing stress hormones), and it activates the brain’s memory center, the hippocampus, thus explaining why memorable moments may involve laughter. The memory of past events reconstructed through humor or ridicule may function to drive out noxious forces that colonize our psyches, further enhancing basic feelings of vitality. Moreover, such moments of laughter may strengthen our sense of connection with others. Recall that when rats are tickled by lab researchers, they emit a chirping sound that is believed to correspond to the human laugh. Tickling these rats increased their oxytocin levels, leading to enhanced bonding between the rats and their lab partners—a new kind of rat pack.
Other things can also increase oxytocin levels. Critchley, while dismissing it as vulgar, notes that as “a bodily phenomenon, laughter invites comparison with similar convulsive phenomena like orgasm.” This comparison raises the question, to what degree is the science of laughter all that different from the science of the orgasm? Psychologist Julie Holland suggests that very little is different. Much like the conclusions we have drawn about the belly laugh, she observes that “orgasms are good for you.” That’s another no-brainer; for example, they too help you live longer by improving your cardiovascular system. But it is the mental benefits that most intrigue Holland. Even in the early stages of sexual pleasure, neurotransmitters turn on the brain’s pleasure center. Endorphins that reduce pain are coupled with the release of the love hormone oxytocin. As Holland puts it, “Climax itself owes its mind-bending effects to the triple threat of oxy, endorphins, and PEA, the hallucinogen-like brain chemical, which just might make you feel like you are really ‘way out there’ when climaxed.” This “trippy, out-of-body experience” may include a combination of crying and laughing; it may also “engender tremendous feelings of openness, trust, and bonding.”
But feminists have long known that orgasms are good for you, in much the same way our research reveals the importance of comic relief. Scientific discourse, in contrast, has not always been so willing to embrace the benefits, especially of the female orgasm. Instead, much like laughter, it was supposed to have its place. In the late nineteenth century, even male adolescents troubled with acne were admonished for what was then seen as the cause—“‘sexual derangement’ such as masturbation or promiscuity” as well as simply “impure or lascivious thoughts.” As Joan Jacobs Brumberg suggests, “Each agonizing new blemish was read as a sign of moral failure, a situation that created deep anxiety in respectable middle-class homes with adolescent sons and daughters.” Thus, “many people in this era believed that marriage—the only acceptable outlet for sexual expression—cured acne.” Even worse, for women, the problem was linked with hysteria. As in the case of those unruly outbursts constricted to the laughing barrel, dirty thoughts, like the dirty body, were not welcome in plain sight and instead were muffled in favor of the “modesty of the chuckle or the humble smirk” that cerebral humorists are willing to recognize.
What do you do with the cynic who doesn’t get it? Perhaps you show them how it’s done. In Rob Reiner’s 1989 romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally, Meg Ryan plays the optimistic Sally Albright, who for most of the film appears as the sunny girl next door. This is why her over-the-top and very public rendition of a fake orgasm comes as such a surprise to movie audiences. Yet a comic reversal becomes the most effective way to teach her protagonist a thing or two about female capabilities and give moviegoers some belly laughs of their own. Billy Crystal plays the carefree cynic Harry Burns, who reads the last page of every book first just in case he dies so at least he knows how it ends. His postdivorce self has led him into a downward spiral and a habit of love ’em and leave ’em one-night stands. Eventually Sally confronts what she considers to be Harry’s annoying sexual nonchalance: “So what do you do with these women? Just get out of bed and leave?” she complains. A confused Harry can’t figure out why she is getting so upset. “This is not about you.” Yet Sally snaps back: “You are a human affront to all women and I am a woman.” With confidence, he boasts, “I don’t hear anyone complaining.” And that’s when Sally realizes Harry’s inability to tell real female sexual pleasure from surface theatrics. Sitting in a crowded Lower East Side delicatessen, Sally precedes to prove her point with deeper and deeper erotic breaths, and rhythmic moaning. Tossing her hair back and forth, she acts out her pretend moment of ecstasy, banging on the table, screaming in orgasmic joy, “Yes, yes, yes.” The climax and real comic relief does not stop with Sally’s performance but when a nearby middle-aged woman turns her gaze to the waiter and says, “I’ll have what she’s having.” Humor may on occasion be just a cerebral moment, but the belly laugh, like a table-pounding orgasm, offers relief that’s hard to ignore.
Two Prominent Conceptions of Catharsis: Allopathic and Homeopathic
Humor may not only enhance our immediate feelings of being alive and of connection with others; it can also strengthen our sense of agency and enable us to challenge abusive forms of social power. To be sure, we have seen humor used as a weapon against the vulnerable, giving rise to a pyramid of oppression. Insensitive jokes prepare the ground for further forms of degradation and cruelty. But that kind of power flows in more than one direction. As a means for shaming or humiliating others, ridicule raises questions with regard to the distribution of shame in society. The emotional work of humor can also be used to counter the impact of wrongful shaming. Indeed, a full cathartic processing of emotions through humor might heal us together with the body politic.
Aristotle offers the classic defense of the serious arts through their general function as cathartic. Plato’s Republic had argued that tragic and comic arts are a danger to society and should be banned. Comic techniques of malicious ridicule as well as simple clowning are said to harm citizens by lowering their status and value. Against political threats of censorship, Aristotle argues that some kinds of comic and tragic are valuable. Good art, he notes, empties the rational mind of inappropriate and/or irrational emotions while stabilizing society, and in this sense, it is cathartic. As suggestive as Aristotle’s account of art is, there are problems with his version of catharsis. If we are visceral and indeed social creatures down to our ethical core, as many psychologists currently argue, catharsis would seem to require more than the purging of problematic emotions if it is to counter toxic environments.
Feminist humor invites a reexamination of the politics of catharsis. Raucous laughs can stir up the social atmosphere, altering the very air we breathe. In contrast to a mental catharsis, subversive humor may reorient an affective and emotional comportment with others and instigate real change in the biosocial climate. Such a transformation demands a seismic conversion of the kind that comes when women called sluts take on the heavy weight of shame. When we feel shame, we often feel dirty, but feminist humor is not about just escaping such toxins or simply cleaning them up. Rather, it is about transforming, deep down, negative energy into a political tour de force. The #MeToo campaign stirs up collective feelings of disgust and outrage. Feminist comedians demonstrate that they know how to add fire to the fury, not denying or moderating anger but instead steering it away from toxic self-righteousness and toward a powerful social movement. Consider how a British group of Muslim comedians and actors use the alchemy of humor mixed with a fumerism detox to address period shaming. In a video clip, women are relentlessly confronted with the question “why aren’t you fasting?” during Ramadan, when those menstruating are excluded. After having enough, a woman unleashes her frustration—and a rush of primal forces—by daring to utter the forbidden “p” word, then throwing an Always pad at an accuser, who collapses against a background of booming Germanic music, Karl Orff’s “O Fortuna.” The Orff cantata is known for its fierce conjuring of primal forces, along with its aim for sexual and holistic balance—forces we appropriate for our own analysis of catharsis.
Let’s take a look in more detail at the belly laugh’s visceral force in action as we uncover more layers of catharsis. In 2008, Saturday Night Live’s comedic duo, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, along with Casey Wilson and Kristen Wiig, took aim at drug companies with their own satirical advertisement for the made-up Annuale, a miracle pill for the girl on the go who simply doesn’t have time for her period every month. By consuming a mere “forty-four weeks of active pills [that] keep you on a constant stream of hormones” and reduce periods to a once-a-year event, you too will get a grip on your body and emotions. Smirks turn into belly laughs as Fey, in a mockingly rational tone, announces the Frankensteinian list of side effects that will “make you want to hold onto your fucking hat.” The skit erupts with images of out-of-control menstruating women as the once natural cycles of the female body unleash a monstrous purge of toxins thanks to big pharma’s attempt to subject them to rational control. Like big philosophy’s emphasis on regaining control of the rational self, big pharma makes the emotional messiness and the dirty taboos of the female menstrual cycle a subversive vehicle for feminist humor.
As feminist humor breaks up taboos that have shamed and silenced women for centuries, it raises a challenge for the intellectual take on catharsis. Recall that for the misogynist ancient Greeks, what is really dirty are women’s bodies and their emotions, which are what are presumably in need of purging or purification as well as cerebral control. In fact, as it turns out, the ancient Greek term catharsis hints at a central role for women’s cycles in its root meaning, suggesting yet another meaning for our model of relief as flow. Even Aristotle’s brief mention of catharsis in the Poetics’s discussion of tragedy (his work on comedy has been lost) refers back to his earlier uses of the term for menstruation. This connection was uncovered in 1988 by philosopher John McCumber, who suggests that in ancient piggish drama, the tragic fear is about becoming miaros, “literally covered with blood,” as were women during their monthly cycles. McCumber speculates on the meaning of this so-called state of disgrace for that culture. He argues that in ancient male-dominated culture, to be disgraced “is to be ‘defined’ by something ignoble, and unworthy of a life of the city and its higher arts, and the political freeborn men of rank, to be worthy only of a life in the villages, where comedy, in contrast to great tragic drama, is said to have developed and belong.” McCumber then states his key claim: “The psychological catharsis effected by tragedy thus mirrors, in the male, the biological process undergone monthly by the female.” Tragic drama, he suggests, is a process of “social menstruation or catharsis. In it, something in itself good but present to excess is driven out of the social organism.” For the ancient cultural elites, this excess is readily associated with the second sex and comic buffoons. When it comes to women and laughs, a little goes a long way.
McCumber’s attention to women and buffoons offers an important corrective to the traditional oversight of the root meaning of the word catharsis, as glimpsed in Martha Nussbaum’s neo-Aristotelian account of the emotions. Nussbaum, following other scholars, traces the etymology of catharsis to a Greek word for cleaning up what is dirty or muddy, and remarks that by the time of Aristotle’s Poetics, the word’s meaning extended to a clarifying mental process. She argues that Aristotle brings in the notion of catharsis to understand how emotions might be useful for rational cognition and perception if properly trained. In this tradition, only well-behaved emotions are intrinsic elements of well-being and happiness. As Nussbaum explains, “We know . . . that for Aristotle appropriate responses are intrinsically valuable parts of good character and can, like good intellectual response, help to constitute the refined ‘perception’ which is the best sort of human judgement.” Even seemingly irrational emotions like fear, if properly trained, can be significant constituents of how we perceive and judge the world. Nussbaum’s commentary on Aristotle shares a widespread feminist interest in the role of emotions for human life. However, her emphasis on the achievement of clear perception favors cerebral processes in this account of catharsis at the expense of its biosocial force. To be sure, cathartic practices can offer a clear perception, even a moral vision. But from the perspective of the unwashed, much more is at stake.
The inferior female body remains as a constant theme in the ancient tradition. While overlooking McCumber’s original research, Elizabeth Belfiore’s 1992 study of catharsis in classical tragedy reinforces the same central tenet: “Aristotle most frequently uses ‘katharsis’ for the ejaculation of the menstrual fluid . . . , which is also a removal of a harmful material.” She notes that for Aristotle “the female is a deformed male, and that her reproductive discharge has closer connections with disease than does the male’s” too often revered ejaculation. One has to wonder what the cathartic process might look like without the misogynist distortion.
Belfiore pursues the analogy between the use of catharsis in medicine and in the dramatic arts. She introduces two notions of the cathartic process, homeopathic and allopathic, both of which are distinct from the hydraulic model of release found in later theories of comic relief. Before investigating the two kinds of medicine, she explains that for the Greeks, the body’s cathartic riddance of menstrual fluid accompanies a sense of shame that is necessary for the stability of the prevailing social order. By analogy, she suggests, ancient drama would cultivate that proper degree of shame by ridding the social body of toxic excesses. But for Aristotle, she adds, the therapeutic process of drama does not function homeopathically, as mistakenly assumed; it functions allopathically.
In homeopathic medicine, inoculation reduces the risk of pathology by injecting a small amount of a disease in order to build up immunity. We can find an example of homeopathic catharsis in Ralph Ellison’s 1985 essay, “An Extravagance of Laughter.” Ellison illustrates how the targets of Jim Crow racism would use homeopathic humor to produce a tougher skin. Slinging ridiculing racial epithets at each other served as a means of surviving antiblack rituals of racialized humiliation. This humor takes that self-irony—typically understood as a form of humility or as rolling with the punches—in another direction: toward self-strengthening. This self-strengthening also may explain the reappropriation of insults, as in the use of the N-word in hip-hop culture and among black stand-ups. Analogously, the prominent use of the word “slut,” together with the flagrant display of “tits and ass” accompanying protest in the SlutWalk movement, seems to function to inoculate against misogynist objectification and humiliation. This is humor as homeopathic medicine.
Allopathic catharsis functions differently. A vice—out-of-control arrogance, unchecked privilege—is not likely to be cured by small doses of the same sense of entitlement. In contrast to homeopathy, an allopathic catharsis would directly oppose the vice of hubris with fear or shame. Comic ridicule might call the target back to common social ideals.
The problem for feminists is that this all assumes that there are such common ideals—a problematic assumption in a misogynistic culture. To be sure, both these medicinal notions of catharsis are useful for understanding salutary aspects of the tragic or comic arts. Both offer practices for self-care and social stability. Anyone who has experienced a flash of shame or embarrassment through ridicule knows that the threat of laughter can curb an overblown sense of entitlement, potentially warding off hubristic acts. Similarly, homeopathic humor, as in the trading of insults in a subculture, may shield one against the blows of oppression from dominant cultures. But our question has been how to bring down warped social ideals, not live with them. Let us step outside the legacy of a misogynist culture and the two prominent definitions of catharsis to consider a third—one that lends nasty women the power to tap into their flow and overturn oppressive norms. We call this third type collective catharsis, and we understand it to contain both homeopathic elements (reclaiming the word “slut”) and allopathic elements (ridicule), but also something more.
“Dirty Woman” and a Collective Catharsis
Some decades ago, anthropologist Mary Douglas ago defined dirt as that which is out of place. What if the dirt that was out of place did not turn into shame, something that should be cleaned up or hidden from view, but rather was celebrated with a female body and attitude that didn’t know when to quit when it came to raucous comic reversals. Neofeminist mixed-race social media sensation Amber Rose takes on the double standard that has long celebrated men’s sexual conquests but blamed and shamed women for rape while condemning any female embrace of sexual expression and pleasure as dirty. Rose’s Walk of No Shame video features the model/actress walking home the morning after a one-night stand “in a little black dress and stilettos with her head held high,” greeted with surprising shouts of approval against the backdrop of a pristine suburban neighborhood, complete with white picket fence and nosy neighbors. As she steps out of the house and tugs on her short skirt, she first encounters the milkman, who snappily observes, “Say, it looks to me like you had sex last night!” After hearing her equally proud affirmation, he adds, “Sounds like you are living your best life.” Various neighbors who look as though they’d be the judgmental type tell her “congratulations,” and an elderly lady suggests that sex with no strings attached ain’t “nothing I haven’t done before.” A father shouts out his car window, “You’re an inspiration to my daughter.” Even a construction worker applauds her behavior, telling her, “I respect that you enjoyed yourself last night. I think we can all agree—having sex is fun.” Finally, in this topsy-turvy world, the mayor gives this morning-after girl the key to the city while exclaiming that they celebrate “your confidence and the choices you make and your ability to celebrate your body.” Not missing a beat, Rose accepts the mayor’s accolades and reassures her audience that “I always celebrate my body, sometimes twice a day.”
In the fall of 2015, as her comedy sketch went viral, Amber Rose became the face of the feminist SlutWalk movement. The initial demonstration encouraged women to dress however they wanted. “Soon the walks spread across the globe, as women in Colombia, India, and South Korea staged their own protests” to create a better world, or a feminist revision of what Mikhail Bakhtin’s describes as “a second world and a second life outside officialdom.” Recently at what is now an annual SlutWalk festival in Los Angeles, Rose donned a pink “Captain Save a Hoe” superhero cape in a movement that takes on a range of issues, including sexual violence and victim blaming. Heather Jarvis, who helped originate SlutWalk, has embraced Rose’s celebrity status and carnival humor—comic strategies featured also in the gay pride movement—as a means to “create some amazing conversations.” Jarvis notes that this radical flip in how a woman should behave in public is often criticized. More provocatively, the movement also brings in sex workers, who as a class are often dismissed for their presumably dirty deeds. The movement’s original intent “‘was about recognizing sex workers as part our community.’ At the same time, it ‘was very trans-inclusive,’” continues Jarvis. “It was about being gender-inclusive and feminist and intersectional,” something often lost in the media, yet “Rose is making sure those complexities are front and center.” Looking forward to the second annual SlutWalk in Los Angeles in fall 2016, Rose imagined it to “be a safe place for women to come twerk, go topless or wear pasties, get to know each other as women and understand we’re sexual beings.” Acknowledging hers is not by any means a movement of perfect angels, she adds: “We all have skeletons in our closets, and we’re all allowed to do whatever a man does because he doesn’t get judged for it.” In 2015, the walk “spread to 250 cities across the globe,” altering social space so that “now when you google the word ‘slut,’ SlutWalk comes up!’” revealing the comic makeover of a word that has haunted women for centuries.
When Amber Rose’s Walk of No Shame went viral, it not only brought about a cosmetic makeover for a word but also released a social movement that allows women to feel good about their bodies while taking back control of their sexuality. The SlutWalk movement uses humor for more than homeopathic self-strengthening. It does something different from an allopathic shaming that appeals to dominant ideals. SlutWalk humor challenges the powers that be by marking as contemptible the social norms themselves. This challenge begins with dissolving the shame targeted at victims in a process that is, in yet a third way, cathartic.
Silvan Tomkins poignantly describes “shame as an inner torment, a sickness of the soul. It does not matter whether the humiliated is shamed by derisive laughter or whether he mocks himself. In any event he feels himself naked, defeated, alienated, lacking in dignity or worth.” Ridicule and other forms of shaming wound the self where it is most vulnerable and exposed to others, constituting the most invasive aspect of physical acts of violation, such as rape and sexual abuse. Comic catharsis as found in SlutWalk humor deflects derisive shame away from the self and back toward patriarchal norms and values and acts of misogynistic hubris. Against prevailing social norms, a belly-deep laugh shared with others regenerates pride in the self and the body. It channels via movement politics a sense of communion analogous in some ways to that found in ancient communal rituals of catharsis. A collective catharsis is not just a psychological process but also a biosocial one. SlutWalk’s catharsis converts the sickly feeling of isolation and shame into head-held-high pride and a fervent sense of belonging on altered terms. Its humor transforms negative attitudes by recharging the social atmosphere. Here too laughter is medicine.
As medicine, SlutWalk’s humor draws from alternative cathartic traditions—not merely classical allopathic or homeopathic but also holistic traditions that reconnect the medicinal with the collective spirit. SlutWalk humor offers a radical version when it destabilizes an intrinsically flawed social order that fosters cultures of rape and slut and body shaming. Understanding this process requires a feminist revamping of the root meaning of catharsis in menstruation. Shaking off taboos that associate the menstrual cycle with bouts of female irrationality, menstruation can be viewed alternatively as a productive process that does not require management by an all too often oppressive social order and capital-R Reason. From the perspective of the women whose social shaming has all too often been sanctioned, cathartic processes would bring not purges or purification of the diseased female but a communal sloughing off of old norms for a renewal and revitalization of the mind, body, and collective animal spirits.
Consider the situation in which women who express themselves as freely as men are often condemned as out-of-control sluts while society turns a blind eye toward male sexual license, boys-will-be-boys antics, and humor as a release for the rational man. This has fostered a rape culture embedded in the foundations of civilization, where men are given permission to violate and ridicule the vulnerable while condemnation turns on the victim, who is blamed and shamed by society. Deeply felt shame in the victim—understood as “debilitating shame” or “contempt”—drains her of energy and verve, diminishes self-esteem along with social position, and paralyzes her as a social agent while leaving her isolated. The “self lives where it exposes itself and where it receives similar exposures from others,” as Silvan Tomkins writes. Alone, these shamed victims can have difficulty countering the physical and mental struggle that they must endure. Shame can leave them feeling as though, ever out of place, they should be hidden from view. Even the fact that one experiences shame can itself feel shameful, inducing a downward spiral of negative emotion. Moreover, there are physical repercussions. One study found that female undergraduate students who reported feelings of body shame also reported more infections and worse health. Other studies link the experience of shame with increased proinflammatory cytokine activity and cortisol. Even the mere intellectual discussion of rape can trigger shame and anxiety, contributing to gastrointestinal illness, and thus disturbances to the gut and in turn the second brain.
As college campuses, social media, and global society engage in serious discourse to dismantle a weighty history of misogyny, we, with due caution, suggest that a new wave of feminist humor that takes aim at rape culture may shake off shame’s entrenched mental and physical embodiment. This is not by any means to say that the victims of rape culture just need to simply lighten up and laugh it off. Just laughing it off as though it doesn’t matter can lead to an unhealthy dissociation and disconnect. The kind of belly laugh we investigate connects the body and mind, working through biosocial desires and energy levels as even a therapist like Freud might recommend. This laughter, however, is more than a simple relaxing of psychic tension. Cathartic processes’ impact on gut-wrenching emotions like shame requires a more holistic approach; it requires an exchange of the “rational” for the “relational” self. As it reconnects us with ourselves, it reconnects us with others. No connection, no catharsis. As a loosely holistic phenomenon, humor realigns the forces in the social field, creating new agents and sites of energy and power. It does not release tension without regenerating life force. Augmented through social media propagation, these changes loop back around to renew, recharge, and revitalize social emotions and thus networked relational lives.
When it comes to new agents and power, there is a plethora of stand-up comedians across social media who are far from perfect, yet whose network of energy has challenged rape culture with those belly laughs that can clear an atmosphere of cruel shaming. Samantha Bee, Wanda Sykes, Adrienne Truscott, Amy Schumer, and Sana Khan, for example, have all turned the old misogynist formula on its head. Performing at New York City Comedy Strip Club in 2017 as part of the Muslim Funny Fest, Khan challenges the idea that Muslim women can’t be funny, let alone mock their own culture along with misogyny: “I found out the holy month of Ramadan was happening, for example, because it was trending on Twitter. I did wait until sunset to go down on my boyfriend. You guys, I felt really bad that he was fasting and I wasn’t—you know, but not bad enough to swallow.”
Schumer’s widely viewed Football Nights (2015) reveals how a rape joke can be reappropriated to take on a hegemonic culture. It is set in a small Texas town where football is everything; Schumer plays the wife of the high school’s new coach, who plans on doing things differently. When he insists his players commit to a strategy that includes “No Raping!!!” a confused high schooler reminds the coach, “We play football?” Other disillusioned high school boys ask if they could at least “rape at away games? What if it’s Halloween and she’s dressed like a sexy cat? . . . What if she thinks it’s rape but I don’t. What if my Mom is the DA and won’t prosecute, can I rape? What if she is drunk and has a slight reputation and no one will believe her?” Or what if “the girl said yes to me the other day about something else?” It is not just the boys but the entire town that is outraged. Even two elderly women march by the coach’s house and spit on his lawn. “How are our boys supposed to celebrate a win? Or blow off steam if they lose?” After all, it is not just men who think that boys need hydraulic relief. As the coach’s jaded wife, Schumer offers her husband nonsensical advice: “You can’t take a wet mule to a hot corn oven.” With each folksy lie she pretends to believe, her wineglass, like Pinocchio’s nose, grows to a ridiculous size. The last ironic slap comes as the frustrated coach tries to figure out why his team isn’t getting the message about rape as he motivates them for the big game: “Football is about violently dominating anyone that stands between you and what you want.” Above all else, “you gotta get yourself into the mind-set that you are gods, and that you are entitled to this. The other team isn’t going to just lay down and give it to you. You’ve got to go out there and take it!”
The brilliance of this sketch is that it does not just turn the tables to laugh at the naivete of a handful of high school boys who have never been taught any different and who lack even a trace of shame. Such humor exposes the deeper hypocrisy and points out where the real shame should reside when the well-intentioned coach simultaneously chastises his players on rape while defining football in its terms. It targets an atmosphere deeply saturated in toxic misogyny, with everyone in the community complicit for the sake of a winning team (and the rational man). In making rape culture—not its victim—as the butt of the joke, belly laughs can rock the foundations of a misogynistic civilization while liberating women from slut shame.
Humor offers not a cure-all but a chance for a change. Amber Rose’s viral video for the SlutWalk movement propagates waves of humor targeting rape culture and a toxic climate of shame. Its discordant humor promotes a catharsis of negative emotions like despair, fear, and shame, to draw on an ancient Stoic motif, but it does so in very different terms. The Stoic seeks to rise above these emotions and cultivate an elevated sense of tranquility. Stoicism has developed genuinely useful therapeutic techniques of positive mental visualization and interior dialogue with the aim of achieving that tranquility. But such therapy has no use for pride or even hope. Their fatalistic wit detaches the rational mind from the murky politics of biosocial life, leaving everything pretty much as it is. Rather than retreat to a solitary realm of tranquility and control, feminist belly laughs risk it all to unsettle a biosocial field loaded with distorted values and perceptions, generating not just private images and interior dialogue but media-propelled images and amazing conversations. In the end, these raucous laughs perform a sense of renewal, as does a good social orgasm, so that we might “have what she’s having” and, like Amber Rose, celebrate our bodies “sometimes twice a day.”