This is the latest in a series of chapters and articles about solidarity between insiders and outsiders – or constituents and adherents, as I term them – in social movements. It concerns the possibilities and limits of shared emotions, and especially shared humour, in a social movement. The case study is the movement for women’s liberation in Britain in the 1970s. Ridicule, I argue, was often a trigger for political mobilisation, and both laughter and ‘unlaughter’ became weapons for feminists. Once politicised, humour became a source of political disagreement and unhappiness between activists.
Elsewhere, in writing about the women’s suffrage movement, I have argued that Edwardian men’s laughter, along with their imperturbability, were the two male emotional responses that the women wanted to break, by producing spectacle that men could not laugh at. In this paper I return to the question of laughter, but from an unstudied angle.
Laughter is one way in which the personal – bodies and emotions – betray us. Even when we hold political beliefs sincerely (or believe we do), we can reveal our ambivalence through involuntary and inappropriate laughter. For these reasons – the new sensitivity to laughter that arises from new perspectives, and the ambiguity of the relationship between what we believe and what we laugh at – humour almost always becomes a battleground in a new social movement. In this paper, I look at women’s campaigns against sexist humour, at counter-attacks on feminism as ‘humourless’, and at the part-guilty, part-defensive responses among the male allies of feminism concerning what they laughed at, and at what it meant to do so. I use a psychoanalytically-informed perspective on humour to explain, among other things, why men and women, even when they shared feminist commitments, did not always laugh at the same things, the persistence of hostility to women as joke-tellers; old and new defences offered for sexist humour; and the emergence of the ‘ironic’ and the ‘self-deprecatory’ tendentious joke.