Medusa’s Lulz: laughter as a protest
Laughter has been used and mobilized by those of the past, and must resume its role in protests of the future.
The physical act of laughing is the ultimate tool of playful protest. It does not require any accessories, screens or associated costs. Laughter has the ability to disrupt the status quo, rooting out stifling hypocrisies. He is always available, regardless of your position of power. It acts as an antiseptic and is clarifying. It’s personal. Laughter has been used and mobilized by those of the past, and must resume its role in protests of the future. Laughter is a powerful tool of resistance. If deployed correctly, we can laugh, laugh, laugh and sneer towards resistance and advancement.
But how do we laugh in the face of the terrible things that are happening – things that strike us so deeply that we are immobilized by fear? At such times, our first response to protest is often a reaction of willful and stubborn anger and resistance. When that anger turns into overwhelming sadness, how do we locate the presence of mind to laugh without diminishing or underestimating our subject?
When I wrote about protest and laughter in my book, “Play like a feministI wrote in the shadow of a shooting in 2018, when 11 people were shot dead in a Pittsburgh synagogue. Like so many other shootings, this story seems mundane, with new gun violence occurring as often as our hearts beat. Last month, an armed man killed eight people in Atlanta, most of them women of Asian descent. Not a week later, another killed 10 buyers in Boulder. Faced with this how can I find room to laugh? This year alone, there has already been 104 mass shootings registered in the United States of America. How does each of us find space to laugh?
I laugh because laughter is power. Rebecca krefting refers to “Charged humor”: a form of disruptive laughter intended to re-imagine communities and use comedy to “promote social change”. Krefting observes that in this way, laughter is a foray into social justice. Likewise, historian Joseph Boskin writing on the capacity of comedy to disrupt the momentary air of time and to compensate for power. But he also has suggest that political humor is often deployed inefficiently, and that rather than focusing on institutions, it tends to be directed at individuals. In other words, the target of the mocking laughter should not be the politician who makes a public misstep but rather the political system that put that politician in power. This lack of institutional orientation makes our laughter less effective as a weapon.
Nevertheless, laughter has been and can be a weapon. The charged humor, in addition to being a kind of common glue, is personal and intimate. We can laugh in a crowded theater, with great satisfaction, but we can also laugh alone and without being heard by others. Laughter can be used by disenfranchised people to regain their sense of the absurd world we live in while remaining a binding substance that can strengthen relationships. We need more laughs.
Famous, in her essay “The laughter of Medusa”, Hélène Cixous writes about the monstrous feminine inhabited by the infamous mythological icon. Rather than portraying her as a beast, Cixous reinterprets the character, noting, “You just have to look at Medusa directly to see her. And it is not fatal. She is beautiful and laughs.
Medusa’s laughter is rebellious; he fights against the gods and mortals who left him in his situation, and it’s our own fear that keeps us from hearing that laughter. It is Medusa’s laughter that we must mold to try to play like feminists. Our laughter must be compelling but personal, light but serious, and it must attack institutional structures that are still and expressionless.
To find Medusa’s laugh again, it might be necessary to reconsider it as a kind of lulz. The term “lulz” was originally adopted by Internet trolls; Whitney Phillips, in his book on trolling online, defines it as “fun in the distress of others”. This view of lulz, in itself, may seem categorically negative and unproductive. Others have described it in less deleterious terms; Jessica Beyer refers to it as “entertainment for the sake of entertainment,” which is a lot less mean than Phillips’ definition suggests. Phillips further suggests that the actual deployment of lulz is necessarily fetishistic (they are decontextualized into actionable details), generative (lulz engender more lulz), and magnetic (they create communities), creating quite an “emotional gap between those who laugh and what we laugh at you. Lulz seems to oscillate between these definitions which place them as petty-minded and chaotically neutral. Yet they also have the ability to build through communities and overthrow patriarchal structures. Amber Davisson, specialist in digital communication, argues that in Internet culture, the lulz have replaced ideology in order to create networks. Internet trolls aren’t the only ones who can use lulz for these purposes.
Lulz has indeed been used by anonymous internet trolls to disrupt the status quo of institutional structures. Famously, the multifaceted attacks on Scientology organized by Anonymous are a good representation of this kind of playful, lewd and protesting behavior. While the reputation of the Internet lulz tends to focus on individual withdrawal, there are many examples of lulzworthy attacks on larger political systems, businesses and organizations (see, for example, Adrienne’s research Massanari on the subreddit r / TrollXChromosomes). The magnetism and generative nature of the lulz means that it becomes easy to transform the laughter of one into the lulz of many. While lulz’s fetishism removes context, this lack of context also allows meme-type manifestations to spread more quickly. Lulzing isn’t always a laugh out loud, but he’s strong and powerful. Laughter is contained, but lulz can resonate.
When I first read Cixous’ writings on Medusa’s laughter, I always had the image of a singular monster, alone in her cave, quietly laughing at herself at the foolish men who came claim his head. Medusa’s laughter in this version seems lonely, lonely, and almost desperate. But if Medusa was having fun rather than laughing, she would gain the power of many. She would be able to watch the internet, wreaking havoc with her laughter across the networks. Medusa is no longer sitting in solitude; she uses her laughter to reclaim community, identity and purpose. In this new version, I imagine Medusa typing angry tweets that mock the gods who abandoned her rather than the humans who attacked her.
How can I find space to laugh? The answer is not laughter but rather Medusa’s lulz.
We are living in dark times. Our natural resources are running out. There are global unrest and abuse of power. Fascists and dictators rule the world. While some have a lot, others do not have the basic needs to survive. There are too many guns owned by people who see hate as part of their identity. We need to protest these things, but we need to do a better job of getting noticed, being heard, and talking about global change. To do this, it is time for feminists to find more room for play and laughter in the fight.