Sexist jokes are not funny, therefore we must say #TimesUp

Everybody loves a bit of humour…

In 2014, Basketmouth drew the ire of Nigerians on social media when he cracked a joke about rape while highlighting the differences between ‘White girls’ and ‘African girls’. Many found the joke distasteful because it trivialized rape especially in a county that has a high incidence of gender-based sexual violence.

But he is not the only comedian guilty of using sexist jokes as a subject for cheap laughs, a large bulk of Nigerian comedy is remodifying and sometimes utter repetition. New talents grow up in the trade on such pejorative examples espoused by their senior colleagues.

Essentially, comedy is a multidimensional tool which functions as a channel of catharsis which gives people the opportunity to let steam out, a release of emotional tension that leaves you feeling lighter and even liberated.

“… considering the circumstances Nigeria is facing now, the only thing that can help anybody who is a Nigerian and not just only Nigerians is comedy. When you think of all the bad things, just go and laugh. Laugh it out,” said ace Nigerian comedian Julius Agwu.

The comedy scene in Nigeria is no doubt burgeoning, from the millions of Naira comedians, rake in within a few minutes of stand-up routine on stage, to the rising number of comedy concerts which dot calendars all year round. The economic viability of the sub-sector of Nigeria’s entertainment industry has led to the proliferation of new comic talents.

In spite of this, however, stand-up comedy has become another cultural trope through which the Nigerian woman is demeaned and unflattering stereotypes about her perpetuated. Most often than not, because there is a perceived noble intention behind these jokes, their negative impacts are lost on the audience.

Anthropologist Mary Douglas noted that “the joke form rarely lies in the utterance alone, but can be identified in the total social situation.”  In essence, jokes find their roots in their social contexts and since comedians are products of their own societies, they invariably borrow from the pool of their experiences.

She further noted that jokes are meant to represent, distort and reorder communal perception. Hence, individual comedians while an experiential product, has the capacity to make and remake tropes that form parts of their stand up routines.

A society is a reflection of its socio-cultural belief system, Nigeria is a patriarchal society which hails men for their misogynistic attitudes towards women, while women are conditioned and expected to be subservient and embrace it as the norm. But these attitudes are communicated subtly through sites such as songs and comedy skits, and it further strengthens patriarchal stereotypes, presented in a way that’s socially acceptable.

“Sexist jokes are more often than not, informed by the knowledge and exposure of the person telling the jokes,” said Alibaba, (real name Atunyota Alleluya Akporobomerere) who is regarded as the ‘Father of Nigeria’s modern-day stand up comedy.

Although he acknowledged, like Alibaba, that jokes are somewhat experiential, comedian Bovi tacitly acknowledged that some jokes are deemed safe by comedians insofar it does not “hit below the belt”.

I am of the opinion that a joke is a joke as long it doesn’t hit below the belt on a wider scale,” he said.

But who determines “below the belt” in an industry that reeks of male dominance and lacks no codes for where and why to draw the line between what can be sacrificed for entertainment or not.

During a stand-up routine, a popular comedian, Ayo ‘AY’ Makun trivialised the inappropriate sexual conduct of a “Big Brother” housemates towards a female contestant, saying that the man could not control himself, rather than the applauds he anticipated, people clapped back at him.  But the comedian’s coerced apologies further revealed a poor understanding of why the joke was offensive, defending the act as “pure comedy.”

But Lawerence E. Mintz said the comedian crossing the line by making apparent sexist jokes that affront the woman can be excused on the grounds that they have “traditional license for deviant behaviour and expression.” According to him, comedians’ practice originated from the ‘cruel but natural act of ridiculing physical and mental defectives.”

However, Bovi argues that some sexist jokes are like a diamond in the rough: while they appear crude on the surface, their intents are corrective.

“I have seen comedians get away with murder simply because their delivery was artistic and extremely funny and also corrective,” he said.  

“You can highlight a problem, enhance it and make a jest of it before addressing the ills and condemning it.”

Actress and comedian Chioma ‘Chigurl’ Omeruah said her male counterparts need to repurpose their jokes. She said jokes can be corrective without them caricaturing the woman with stereotypes that do her image no good. In fact, she said sexist jokes that ridicule any gender should not be tolerated.

I don’t think we have to offend just to get laughs,” she said. “I strongly believe that all of us should speak up against sexism of any and every kind whether it be targeted at the male or female gender.
“If it is wrong, it is wrong!”

This report is undertaken with support from Code For Africa to amplify the Gender Gap conversation 

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