Women laughing: transgression and collective power

There was always one school friend who, with a perfectly timed gesture or eye roll, could induce the kind of laughter that couldn’t be stopped. I don’t mean ‘giggling like a school girl,’ or the embarrassing snort that makes you quickly cover your mouth. I mean the belly-ache inducing, uncontainable kind of laughter, where your eyes water and you laugh with your entire body. How often do any of us laugh like that?

Laughter itself is a useful tool in the same way that humour is a desirable quality; make someone laugh and they’ll like you more. But shared laughter between women is even better. It has a rebellious spirit and the ability to connect women and draw us closer together. In a culture that, traditionally, works to separate and pit women against one another, shared laughter can be a source of strength.

In Rabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin traces the history of the carnival in folk culture during the middle ages. Carnival was a ‘temporary liberation’ from the established order. It flipped the hierarchy by creating a public space where religious morality became the subject of mockery. During carnival, laughter was a source of social transgression and renewal. Gradually these three-month-long festivities were eroded by Church and State, becoming progressively more restricted during the seventeenth century until they were banned from public life altogether. But the revolutionary power of laughter still continues as a vestige of the rebellious spirit of this former age.

There is an underlying herstory of laughter that continues on after this period. Jo Anna Isaak writes that, following the erosion of carnival, ancient communal laughter was ‘maintained in all-women gatherings such as the celebrations at the bedsides of women recovering from childbirth.’ Carnival laughter survived in communities of women, where laughter maintained its cultural importance as a celebration of the body and a temporary release from cultural misogyny which inscribed religious values on women’s bodies, such as woman as the embodiment of sin. Bakhtin also writes on the continued tradition of laughter in women’s circles: ‘The tradition of such gatherings is very old. They were marked by abundant food and frank conversation, at which social conventions were dropped. The acts of procreation and eating predetermined the role of the material bodily lower stratum and the theme of these conversations’. Women have a political stake in the transgressive power of communal laughter. We should laugh more, and loudly.

In the nineties, critical theory in film studies started to explore the transgressive potential of women’s laughter in more detail. Instead of becoming the object of ridicule or humour, the laughing woman was an example of a new perspective in film that complicated the dominance of the male gaze. This happened when women laughed together. ‘Women’s laughter counteracts dominance when it constructs a counterknowledge, a counterknowledge that is collectively produced through female bonding across barriers of class and race. The threat to male dominance isn’t women laughing at men; the threat is women laughing with women,’ writes Nancy Reincke.

But the potential for collective power through laughter isn’t always clear. The appropriation of women’s bodies in patriarchal society degrades the image of laughing women in particular ways. Now it often comes with dismissal, the ‘giggling school girl’ trope, and potential shame and embarrassment. It’s when Elizabeth Bennett turns to Mr. Darcy and says, ‘What a shame, for I dearly love to laugh.’ And Caroline Bingley ridicules, ‘A family trait, I think.’ Imagine if, instead of being in competition with one another, they had found a way to laugh together.

As the object of the male gaze, laughing loudly or hysterically crosses over into the disagreeable notion of making a spectacle. ‘Making a spectacle out of oneself seemed a specifically feminine danger,’ writes Mary Russo:

The danger was of an exposure. Men, I learned somewhat later in life, ‘exposed themselves,’ but that operation was quite deliberate and circumscribed. For a woman, making a spectacle out of herself had more to do with a kind of inadvertency and loss of boundaries: the possessors of large, aging, and dimpled thighs displayed at the public beach, of overly rouged cheeks, of a voice shrill in laughter, or of a sliding bra strap – a loose dingy bra strap especially – were at once caught out by fate and blameworthy.

This is the cultural politics of feminine behaviour and is why, historically, the laughing woman often culminates in the image of the grotesque or the hag. A more familiar part of this conversation is the slogan ‘Stop asking women to smile’. But while we have been quick to adopt this maxim, we are, perhaps, less inclined to collectively take up the spectacle of laughter as a form of embodied political transgression. Where’s your sense of humour?


Image: Two women laughing outside / flickr

Brooke Boland

Brooke Boland recently completed her PhD at The University of NSW and works as a freelance writer. Her first monograph, Transnational Women’s Writing and Embodiment, will be published late 2018.

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  1. Thank you for this article. It came at a timely moment … the day before reading some friends and I were all out in a mixed group. Whenever the four women at the end of the table (myself included) erupted in laughter, the men present looked openly affronted. They would ask in a guarded tone, ‘what are you laughing at?’ or ‘what’s so funny?’ I had often noticed this aversion to women laughing together but had never been able to articulate it. Great read!

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