- On Second Thought
While reading Benjamin Schwartz’s excellent essay “‘Making Such Spaces . . . Where None Previously Existed’: Interstitial Wit in Fran Ross’s Oreo,” I was struck most by how Schwartz deftly ties the novel’s use of humor to the notion of community building.1 Schwartz argues that the “power that humor affords Oreo is inextricably related, as the acronym ‘WIT’ suggests, to the fact that as a Black girl she occupies an in-between space, what Hortense Spillers refers to as the ‘interstices’ of American culture” (16). It’s in those “interstices,” Schwartz goes on to suggest, that humor can open up space to communicate shared experiences and create a sense of affinity among minoritized groups.
This argument is especially compelling given that such groups are often framed as being mutually exclusive and that humor is often used to target and emphasize difference. Even for members of a minoritized identity, telling jokes about themselves or others is not as straightforward as it might seem. I’m reminded of Hannah Gadsby’s observation that self-deprecation becomes a form of humiliation rather than serving as an expression of humility when it comes from someone who already occupies a marginalized position, precisely because marginalized people are already so often at risk of being the punchline to a joke.2 One thing that stands out about Oreo, a young half Black, half Jewish woman, however, is her absolute refusal to be humiliated. Ross has crafted a protagonist for whom self-deprecation doesn’t even seem possible, a protagonist who, on the contrary, is so brimming with [End Page 205] self-assurance that any attempts to take her down inevitably fail. Oreo’s self-assurance is her greatest weapon of resistance. As Schwartz elucidates, Oreo’s “position amid the interstices of various intersecting identities allows her to catalyze her distinctive style of humor as self-defense” (18).
At the heart of Schwartz’s argument is the idea that humor can be utilized not just for self-defense but also to create new spaces where marginalized identities can recognize “underexplored avenues for connection and solidarity” in the face of a dominant culture that seeks to create and reinforce boundaries between people of different racial and gendered identities (17). The most notable of these unexplored avenues, Schwartz notes, is “a shared recognition of absurdity” that comes from occupying a marginalized position in a white heteropatriarchal society (22).
What’s most interesting to me is that the form of humor central to the sense of solidarity in Oreo is combative in nature. Through WIT, or the Way of the Interstitial Thrust, Oreo blends the verbal with the physical, combining the faculties of mind and body to both defend herself from physical attack and to wittily humiliate her would-be oppressors. This combative form of humor also points to the real violence that’s enacted against Black, queer, and other marginalized bodies. As Schwartz rightfully suggests, humor has real power in the world.
As exemplified by Oreo’s system of WIT, humor can be a way to resist systemic oppression, and, at the same time, it can create a kind of language through which minoritized individuals can build connections with one another. In speaking the “language,” in participating in long-standing cultural traditions that are often outside the mainstream, one gains a sense of belonging. As Schwartz notes, “in-group comic traditions” provide an alternative form of community building and belonging in the face of dominant cultural narratives that leave little space for multifaceted figures like Oreo (21). Oreo must forcefully make space for herself, just as Ross did in her time. Through Oreo, Ross doesn’t just refuse humiliation but also fights back with her own subversive form of humor that draws on multifaceted and overlapping cultural traditions. Schwartz’s article reveals that while Oreo’s positioning at the interstices of these cultural traditions leaves her vulnerable, it’s also her greatest strength.
Independent scholar [End Page 206]
I enjoyed reading Shuhita Bhattacharjee’s “‘A Punch Back, . . . a Contagious Guffaw’: Feminist Humor in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and the Professionalization of the Rebellious Laugh...