Gender and Laughter: Comic Affirmation and Subversion in Traditional and Modern Media (review)
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Gender and Laughter: Comic Affirmation and Subversion in Traditional and Modern Media. Edited by Gaby Pailer, Andreas Böhn, Stefan Horlacher, and Ulrich Scheck. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2009. 386 pages. $106.00.

According to Gaby Pailer’s cogent introduction to the anthology Gender and Laughter: Comic Affirmation and Subversion in Traditional and Modern Media, the twenty-three contributors seek to address the following overarching questions in their essays: “How can gender identities, their performance and perception, be influenced and shaped by comic genres and strategies? What impact does the communicative function of laughter have on the traditional binary view of gender roles in textual and visual media? Which possibilities and limitations in changing heterosexual norms does one encounter in various comic paradigms?” (6). Because the volume focuses on the intersection between gender constructions and laughter and/or the comic as they appear in texts and performances, the genres, countries of origin, and dates of these primary subjects have not been restricted and thus vary widely. The only topical parameters are that the objects of study were produced in the last 250 years and that they derive from European (German, Swiss, French, British, Romanian) and North American (US and Canadian) sources, although interactions between colonizers and colonized in the Polynesian Islands and early-twentieth-century French Africa are also thematized in individual articles. I assume that in order to be able to publish all twenty-three essays in one volume, the editors limited their length, so that most articles range from eleven to fourteen pages—about half the length of a typical academic essay. This condensed format required each contribution to be tightly written and argued and to contain fewer details and footnotes than those published in other academic forums.

Following Pailer’s introduction, essays by Stefan Horlacher and Andreas Böhn summarize canonical and more recent humor theories and thus serve as two additional introductions to this volume. Both authors are to be commended for assessing a large number of theories from the now-immense collection beginning with Aristotle and continued by Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Baudelaire, Henri Bergson, Sigmund Freud, Mikhail Bakhtin, Anton Zijderveld, and countless others. Some humor theories presented in their essays are referenced in many of the volume’s other contributions, creating a thread of coherence among the interdisciplinary topics. These are the theories of the comic as affirmation and subversion (termed by Jauss “laughing with” versus “laughing at”) and Böhn’s argument, derived from Bergson, that humor today is no longer subversive because “there are no more traditional boundaries to transgress” (54). Using three of Austrian director Billy Wilder’s films as test cases, Böhn contends that humorous jabs are often so ambiguous as to confound attempts to find ethical values at their core and that they also do not “necessarily tend to overcome traditional oppositions and ideological boundaries” (62)—in other words, the comic is not truly subversive, in contrast to what Butler and Bakhtin maintain in their seminal works. It [End Page 452] instead affirms the “norm of flexibility,” attacking only the inflexibility of those who adhere to norms rigidly (58).

Other researchers from diverse fields have connected gender and humor in the past to produce empirical, theoretical, or hermeneutic conclusions. One oft-cited example is the philosopher/ cultural critic Judith Butler (Gender Trouble, 1989; Bodies that Matter, 1993), whose approach Volker Helbig critiques in his essay “Judith Butler and the Problem of Adequacy, or: The Epistemological Dimension of Laughter” (347–53). Helbig argues that Butler’s poststructuralist, philosophical theory of laughter, based on Derrida’s theory of deconstruction and Foucault’s discourse theory, is detached from “real world,” sociological, or empirical approaches to laughter. Her theories furthermore reduce laughter either to an intentional act directed toward fossilized (definitions of) gender roles in an effort to subvert them, or to a “laughter of relief” that can be experienced only after we realize that “the normal” is an artificial construct to which no one can or need adhere (352). Helbig argues that Butler’s definition of laughter runs contrary to the incongruity theory of humor, because for incongruities to appear funny, there must be a norm which...