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Do Comedies Have To Be Sexist And Racist To Be Funny? These 7 Say Hell No!

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There are a slew of movies and TV shows out there that rely on harmful negative tropes and stereotypes to elicit ‘humour’. These can be detrimental and hurtful and serve to perpetuate oppression rather than challenge it. While there are such films and shows in abundance, there are also those which actually use the genre of comedy as a subversive medium and challenge such harmful and damaging tropes. These shows prove that you don’t need to “make fun” of a marginalized group for the sake of humour, and instead be empowering and revolutionary. The following is a compilation of comic films and television shows that have been liberal, sensitive and been successful in questioning hegemonic beliefs while simultaneously being funny as hell:

Legally Blonde (2001)

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(Source: Tumblr)

Perhaps one of the most feminist movies of the previous decade, this comedy shatters so many negative stereotypes surrounding women: that blondes are “dumb”, that girls who love fashion and makeup cannot be intelligent and layered, that a woman needs a man to affirm her own identity. The film portrays a blonde, “conventionally” attractive woman (who, in the 90s and 00s were often portrayed as one-dimensional, self-centered and unintelligent) being intelligent, competent as well as emotionally complex, and also celebrates female bonding and positive body image. In one of the most cult moments from the film, Warner, the protagonist Elle’s (douchebag) ex-boyfriend expresses his surprise at the fact that someone like her (who is a fashion-loving blonde, so of course she has to be “dumb”, right?) could get into Harvard; and she fiercely shuts him down by saying—”What, like it’s hard?” The scene is rendered even more powerful in its irony because Warner actually got into Harvard because of his father’s influence, while Elle got in on her own intellectual merit. You go, Elle Woods!

Parks and Recreation (2009-15)

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(Source: Buzzfeed)

Not only did this show give us legendary feminist icon Leslie Knope (played by the outstanding Amy Poehler), it also gave us a lot more to love. While it tackles the struggles of being a woman in politics with great sensitivity and humour and exposes the internalized sexism that is still prevalent in the profession, it also tackles race very subtly. Aziz Ansari’s character comments, early on in the show, how he had to change his name to an anglicized ‘Tom Haverford’ from his birth name because it is impossible to succeed in American politics with a Muslim surname. It even advocates for LGBT rights, and has a whole episode dedicated to battling conservative opposition to same-sex marriage! It mocks Men’s Rights Activists who believe feminism is “oppressing men”, orthodox Christian organizations which condemn all things liberal, old white lecherous sexist politicians, skewed and conservative media reporting and so much more.

Inside Amy Schumer (2013-)

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By now, most of us have embraced the awesomeness that is Amy Schumer, and this show was her original claim to fame. A sketch comedy written, produced and acted by her, this show addresses many feminist concerns such as body image, workplace sexism and other sexist microaggressions, ageism (especially in Hollywood), slutshaming, alternate sexualities, race and so much more. While she can be problematic at times (to be honest, who isn’t?), many of the topics her sketches touch upon are extremely important, sensitive and relevant. She is also utterly, fabulously hilarious. Really, this is how comedy should be done—topical, subversive while simultaneously being extremely funny.

Dear White People (2014)

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Tackling the sensitive issue of racism faced by the black community on US college campuses (rendered even more topical due to the recent #BlackLivesMatter campus protests), this film uses humour to spread an important message. It chronicles experiences of various African American students with racism—film student Sam White who runs a campus radio show where she calls out racist behaviour, gay freshman Lionel Higgins who is in the closet and is conflicted about coming out, Coco Conners who struggles with trying to reconcile her identity within a culture which only sees white as beautiful, and more such emotionally rich characters. It also looks at racial segregation in college residences, and white people donning blackface to appear “cool” among other issues, and is definitely one of the best satirical commentaries on race ever seen in Hollywood.

Spy (2015)

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Melissa McCarthy is the queen of body-positivity, and this movie further solidifies her position as the same. A feminist take on the spy film genre, this sees McCarthy kick major ass, and perform action scenes that perhaps no plus-sized woman has previously been seen performing in a mainstream Hollywood movie. What makes it even better is that the villain (Rose Byrne), the partner (Miranda Hart) and the boss (Alison Janey) are all women, and are all incredibly hilarious and incredibly powerful—and not just physically. Even their goof-ups or missteps have a lot of character and emotional depth, while also being utterly hilarious. It celebrates female empowerment and agency in the best possible way, and is completely devoid of any of the usual clichés that come with physically strong female characters.

Banana, Cucumber, Tofu (2015)

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This three-part TV series articulates multiple facets of the queer experience and represents nearly every identity on the LGBT spectrum; even those that are usually not addressed in mainstream media such as asexuality, pansexuality, and demisexuality. It gets its representation spot on by having racially, economically and age-wise diverse queer characters. While Banana is an anthology series which tells a different story in every episode, satirically dealing with not just queerness but sexual violence, AIDS, mental health, and many other important concerns, Cucumber follows the story of middle-aged homoromantic autochorissexual Henry and his various conflicts about ageing, economic bankruptcy and anxieties surrounding sex. Tofu, however, is a documentary-style anthology where a diverse range of both queer and straight individuals narrate their opinions and experiences about gender, sex, sexuality. This three-instalment series is truly revolutionary in what it seeks to achieve, and its criminal that it is so underrated.

Master of None (2015-)

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Written, produced, directed and acted by the amazing Aziz Ansari, Master of None deals with issues of race—media representation and the immigrant experience especially—in the best way possible. It also delves into sexism, queerness, ageing, parenthood with great insight and sensitivity. The writing is always sharp, real and immensely funny. Each episode deals with a separate issue—there’s one about the immigrant experience, which is remarkable in its realism and sensitivity, one about racial representation in mainstream media with some hilarious insights into the casting decisions of white Hollywood producers, one about sexism, one about ageing, and so on. Without doubt, it is definitely one of the most nuanced and topical comedies in recent times.

These films and TV shows go on to prove that humour can be an important tool of subverting insensitive tropes and stereotypes, giving voice to the otherwise oppressed, and breaking social stigmas. Satire can only be effective when it is a means of reform, and hence, we should embrace those comedies that seek to achieve the same, and bring about social change. Media is a powerful medium and can be a double-edged sword. While it can promote positive emotions, as mentioned earlier, it can also be extremely damaging. So, while watching, and learning from such films and television shows, we should use media for good, rather than the opposite, right?

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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