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When Humour is Misogyny

by Anushka Singh

The recent internet fad being pushed from everywhere is the defamation trial of the actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. This article explores what this case tells us about how the internet culture gets influenced by algorithms. It further explores how feminism evolves, falls behind and reacts to these circumstances.

Call it the gift of technology, or the bane of it, there is no longer any corner of the world which has remained insulated from social media. Information is pushed at us from every direction, irrespective of whether we seek it or not. In these circumstances, being influenced by what we see and hear in this virtual world almost becomes a subconscious habit. The consumption of popular content, willingly or unwillingly, subconsciously influences our opinions of many things. This extends to matters of varied magnitudes, whether it is  Kim Kardashian’s disrespectful dress at the Met Gala or the refugee-friendly narrative around the Ukrainian crisis. The internet and social media, rather than becoming the “fifth pillar of democracy”, as had been hoped and predicted by some, has transformed into something completely opposite. Rather than fostering newer trains of original thought, engaging in healthy communication with the opposing opinions than our own, etc, it has turned more into an echo chamber. In fact, the algorithm ensures that you only find more of the content you seek and not something you would not like or look for, say if apples are what you and most other people like, your feed will be full of them, but oranges would never make an appearance. And soon, apples are what everyone wants.  In such conditions, social media unconsciously decides what you should think and how you should think it. In the political context, if your views align with #alllivesmatter, you would find more content aligning with your views and preferences rather than #blacklivesmatter. The internet does not challenge one’s views, like any consumer-focused industry, it complies and delivers things of one’s choice. 

The recent internet fad being pushed from everywhere is the defamation trial of the actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. Mr Depp and Ms Heard had sued each other with competing defamation claims and the trials took place in Fairfax County Circuit Court, Virginia in the United States of America. The verdict established both parties to be guilty of defamation, awarding Johnny Depp $15 million in damages while Amber Heard was awarded $2 million in damages. This recent trial has been a continuation of an ongoing legal battle between the two. Both Johnny and Amber have accused the other of domestic abuse during their now broken-up marriage. A similar trial had occurred in the UK where the verdict had been in favour of Ms Heard. 

The unique aspect about this particular trial in Virginia, which lasted for a total of six weeks, was its popularity on social media and the news alike. Celebrity entertainment channels were giving updates on the case every few hours. Memes,  posts and videos related to the case took the social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram by storm. What started as an outlet for expression of public opinions regarding the case soon took a turn towards becoming a smear campaign.  An issue as sensitive as sexual and domestic abuse, where graphic details of the same was shared publicly in the courts and telecasted through the media, was now being made fun of. This resulted in the normalisation of something as serious as domestic abuse. Hashtags like #amberheardcancelled, #amberheardistrash and #amberheardsucks have garnered billions of searches on platforms. Distasteful imitations of Heard crying or talking in Court started becoming a trend. In this article, we do not debate the intricacies of the case itself, rather the problematic nature of the impact that it has made in our society.

A very similar case of extreme cyberbullying and vilification of a woman from popular media  took place in our country in recent times. After the tragic death of  actor Sushant Singh Rajput, his girlfriend Ria Chakraborty was blamed for his death and other problems which led to the incident. Here, too, the media immediately came to further expand on such a portrayal of her without any legal claims. Thus, the woman became the face of all things wrong with feminism. Regressive and extremely sexist remarks centring around the selfishness and gold-digging nature of women became a common trope again. What is extremely problematic in both cases is that these women are being used as examples. They are made out to be the representatives of all womenfolk, who innately possess such characteristics. 

Thus, the public opinion has never been centred around the questions of abuse, but the vilification of one gender over the other. Sexist and regressive tropes of the “evil womenfolk”, the one who does not ascribe to the set ideals of a patriarchal society have reemerged. And the irony of such popular media portrayals is that it influences all people, cutting across different intersections of identities such as race, gender or class. So, even women can be seen participating in such regressive exchanges and developing similar opinions, not realising it is not just about that one woman. This lack of female solidarity across different social groups, classes, and localities is not uncommon. But it surely is reflective of the loopholes in the Western Feminist theories which have existed for a while. The Western feminist approach, as with all things from the “civilized West” has been taken to be the ideal and universal form of feminism in history. That gender-related concerns could be different in different regions of the world is something that has not been well accepted and ideated in feminist theories until recent times. Javier Pereira Bruno reasons that “An important difference in Western and Third world feminism is found in their conceptualization of women as the subject of their struggles. Western feminists take equality of men and women as the centre of their struggle while non-western feminists stress satisfaction of basic material needs as a pressing issue in the context of disadvantageous international economic order. Such injustices also overlap with other developmental problems experienced by them in terms of race, class, national asymmetries, citizenship issues, etc” It is not in isolation with the gender-based subordination but functions in conjunction with it. So, there is a clear disparity in the issues and concerns addressed by feminism in different contexts.

Gender-based inequalities look different in different spaces. In such a case, the concerns of a woman from a first-world, highly developed country or a well-to-do urbane woman would be different from someone with lesser of such privileges. But in no way does this negate the inequalities and hardships faced by any of these women. It is this heterogeneity of the feminist ideals that is sometimes used as an easy critique of feminism in itself. The figure of a well-to-do, urban, educated woman does not fulfil the ‘saviour tendencies’ of the patriarchal society. And thus this group is subjected to ridicule and normalisation and discrediting of their struggles and hardships. 

Social media has led to both rapid exposure and exploitation of the loopholes in the Western Feminist approach. It’s portrayal of the feminist woman, one fighting for the rights of all women has historically been quite homogenous. The impact of homogenous western media images of “the woman” as thin and white needs to be examined. Such standardized imagery of a woman is harmful to all identities. And this is the loophole which is being exploited by the conservative sections most fully. The dominant narrative of the “rich, beautiful, and privileged white woman” is what has become a subject of distrust and ridicule.Whether you show characteristics similar to this woman, or one’s completely opposite, there is always a way to discredit the experiences and voices. A critique often given to Third World feminism is that is that it tries to emulate the Western feminist approach. It faces the stigma of feminism as a whole being seen as a Western intrusion into a non-western culture. Hence, women are either too privileged to have any real problems or they are too ambitious and colonized and ascribe to the feminist ideals. Such an all-encompassing attack on experiences of all women thus leads to no real solidarities being forged. 

Thus, in conclusion, in such scenarios, women become an easy target for the media and society to project its innately misogynistic and patriarchal mindset on. Whether wrapped under the pretence of humour or advocacy similar to “#notallmen”, these actions take the narrative away from seeking justice and repairs for any gender in particular. What it becomes is a system which encourages and normalises discrediting women and their stories, and not taking them seriously. The media, being a reflection of our society, further expands this enterprise, to a point where these are the only narratives you see and hear at all times. When capitalist media decides to feed one with a certain dominant narrative, which is the male-dominated, patriarchal discourse in most societies, there is no escaping. The expansive and ginormous levels of consumption, encouraged by free markets, ensure that it infiltrates each one of us. Think of it as peer pressure, when everyone likes apples, they are obviously the better choice. So, when humour becomes the equivalent of misogyny, it is not an isolated incident but a part of our culture which further propagates, normalises and broadens gender inequalities.

Anushka is a 4th year student of History and Sociology at Ashoka University. Her interests include Gender studies, Borders, Early Modern and Modern South Asia and Museum Studies. 

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