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Humor and Violence

Nothing seems more impossible than smiling about violence. The two impulses—creating a community of participants through humor, and destroying it through violence—could not be more at odds. Humor can heal and brings us together. Violence wounds and tears us apart. Yet artists and political satirists have long used humor to address painful issues—everything from the absurdity of the human condition to slipping on the banana peel to the grotesque abuse of political power. Humor has helped people create communities of resistance and develop survival strategies. In Mexico, for example, those who feel marginalized can engage in "relajo," what I define elsewhere as "an act of spontaneous disruption."[1] In other parts of the Americas, choteo inverts systems of value that stigmatize marginalized populations. African-Americans engage in the dozens, a form of verbal one-upmanship that turns painful put-downs into what Robin Kelley calls "a kind of game or performance" that serves as group entertainment.[2] Laughing about injury—physical, psychological, or political—has enabled individuals and communities to cope and, at times, turn pain into a source of pleasure and reaffirmation. People smile at cartoons that depict the most unpleasant realities.

Yet none of these examples, painful though they might be, constitute violence understood as the infliction of physical force on a human being. While we can laugh at pain—say, the dramas in the dentist's chair—it's harder to smile or laugh at torture or domestic violence. It seems unethical to even think of mitigating the brutality of acts in which one person violates the rights and personhood of another. Yet there are artists who take this challenge on as well. Astrid Hadad sings the famous bolero, "Me golpeaste tanto anoche" on crutches with her head bandaged.

Diana Raznovich's play, De la cintura para abajo (From the Waist Down, 1999) humorously points to the interconnections between sex, capitalism, and militarism.[3] A sexually dysfunctional couple hires a sexologist (an ex-torturer, unbeknownst to them) who instructs them on the pleasures of whips and chains. While this does not jump-start their sex life, it does precipitate a struggle in which the wife fights off her newly empowered husband and both end up in the hospital with broken limbs. Their torturous experience turns them into international stars, and they find a business (if not happiness) in posing for s/m magazines. While the topics are far from funny, we can argue that both Hadad and Raznovich are not laughing at violence but using humor to expose the unexamined links between brutality, sexual politics, popular entertainment, and commercialism. These representations are critiques of a violent sexual imaginary more than depictions of violated human beings.

In her new Manual para mujeres maltratadas (2006), Diana Raznovich tries something different. The idea for this work stems from an earlier manual (Manual para mujeres golpeadas, 1989) that she and Lucrecia Oller created for battered women in Argentina and Chile, and an unpublished, untitled graphic novel about domestic violence Raznovich and I wrote in 1994. Raznovich explicitly references the past, using similar drawings for the covers of the 1989 and 2006 works.

She underlines that the topic of domestic violence is as urgent today as it was thirty years ago. One out of every three women in the world continues to be "beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused during her lifetime."[4] While the percentages remain basically the same, our strategies for dealing with domestic violence remain basically unchanged. What new advice can anyone give a battered woman now, in the 21st century? Go to the police? Yes, of course! But the police are not always responsive. Get a restraining order? Certainly! Though the number of women killed by estranged husbands and boyfriends indicate that these are not always effective in protecting abused women. While Diana Raznovich advocates that women turn to the law in the two manuals, victims know that obtaining court orders can prove protracted and complicated, and that law enforcement has proved uneven at best. To complicate matters further, domestic violence is a specific kind of violence that often makes the victim psychologically dependent on her attacker. If abused women go back to their attackers, they often drop criminal charges. The Supreme Court of the United States is currently trying to decide whether lawyers representing the victim can go forward with charges even without the victim's current testimony or participation.[5]

So what can a manual for battered women accomplish? Raznovich's cartoons offer advice, but perhaps more importantly, they make visible the issue of domestic violence in a loving yet humorous way. As she makes clear in this manual and other works, abuse in the home motivates deception and self-deception. Women try to hide the shameful reality even from themselves. It's a dangerous response. Concealment kills. Hiding the effects of violence protects the abusers, not the victims. But humor pries open the trap. Who but Raznovich would imagine a comic fashion-spread or "wardrobe" for battered women as a way to illuminate the dangerous mechanism of concealment?[6]

With gentleness and humor, the drawings expose the violence, the pain, and the complicated strategies of denial that women perfect at their peril. The beauty of each page takes the sting out of the shame; these are not shameful images, they are exquisite images of women gaining back control. We can imagine this beautiful manual visible everywhere: on the coffee table in doctors' offices, in reception areas throughout government buildings, in schools. The stunning drawings do not aestheticize violence or normalize it; they invite readers to pick up the manual and read it. The smile that escapes our lips as we look at the cartoons reflects a complicated positioning—simultaneously a empathetic proximity and a distancing. On one hand, it offers viewers a sense of recognition, a sharing of the painful reality rather than a distancing. At the same time, it allows victimized women to look at themselves as others, distanced in these humorous images that are, and are not, themselves. As we turn the pages, we enact the opening up demanded by this hidden violence. The power of these images draws us into a world most people would rather not see. The humor allows us to get closer. Who can resist them? As we engage with the drawings, we engage with the subject matter. The violence concerns everyone in society—not just the victims. Abusers will continue to get away with murder if they hide behind the 'privacy' of their homes. Raznovich puts violence out in the open, encouraging everyone in the community to say 'no'—the victims, family, friends, neighbors, healthcare works, police, and judges. Yet rather than preach or protest against violence, she pulls us in, gently, lovingly, humorously.

End Notes

  [1] See Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. Relajo is "an act that shatters the given configuration of the group or community. As a form of disruptive or transgressive behavior, relajo manifests both the challenge to, and the tacit acknowledgment of, a system's limits [....] Yet, relajo proves non-threatening, because it is humorous and subversive in ways that allow for critical distancing rather than revolutionary challenge" (p. 129).

  [2] See Robin D. G. Kelley, Yo' Mama's Disfunktional! Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997, p. 1.

  [3] Diana Raznovich, Defiant Acts/Actos desafiantes: Four plays by Diana Raznovich. Eds. Diana Taylor and Victoria Martínez. Lewisberg, PA: Bucknell U.P., 2002.

  [4] Heise, L., Ellsberg, M. and Gottemoeller, M. Ending Violence Against Women. Population Reports, Series L, No. 11., December 1999. Get the Facts website,, accessed April 17, 2006.

  [5] "Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a longtime women's rights advocate, noted that 'many women in this [domestic violence] situation are scared to death' and do not testify against their batterers because they fear for their lives. She said a 9-1-1[emergency] call is 'not just a call' but rather 'a cry for help.' She worried that police will not bother pursuing as many domestic violence cases if it becomes much more difficult to later win them in court." , accessed April 17, 2006.

  [1] See Raznovich-Taylor unpublished manuscript, 1994. Archives of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, Tamiment Special Collections, Bobst Library, New York University.



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