Kim Reynolds unpacks how aspects of US comedy comes at the expense of mocking and using black women as caricatures
The year 2018 marked the first year of the BET Social Media Awards. The awards show was composed of eight categories such as “Best Tea”, “Best Podcast” and “LMAO” . The nominees of this LMAO category ranged across a variety of popular social media personalities and what can be colloquially said as “internet comedians” including @Lalasizahands89 , @jesshilarious_official, with the winner being @blameitonkway. However, what does it mean when the top award to go to a man doing a parodying of black women? What does it mean for black women to be the subject of comedy? In the recent years of Instagram and the contemporary art of stand up, there is a distinct use of black women as the the subject and sometimes foundation of comedy for male comedians. Yet these jokes are not simply jokes, but are loaded with political repercussions and continue to position women as jokes themselves, as less serious, as less of a full human.
@blameitonkway, or Kway, is best known for the online character Titi, a woman with changing wigs and weaves who is always in a mess, whether it’s trying to hold down a man to fighting the girl on the block who has beef. Titi as a character is funny- she is outrageous, extra, hood, messy and petty. But I found myself asking, what is it I am laughing at? What makes this character and her situations so funny? After some thought, I realised I am laughing at a caricature of black women. I am laughing at the way these comedians would talk, smack their lips, use extreme inflection, and throw their hands in coordination with their speech in efforts to joke about the tendencies of black women. However, the jokes are not about the characteristics of black women, black women are the joke.
Kway is a very visible example with over 3 million followers, and this trend of exists in many iterations. Comedians like @kelz or @cameronjhenderson have commonalities amongst them that make their characters viral. The women they play have a rotation of ragged or flamboyant wigs, bright lipstick, and a high pitched and nasal sounding voice. Names like Starrkiesha are used to exaggerate how “hood” the women are. Sketches often involve the women finding creative ways to fight, pester, or check up on their men, with the humor deriving from the outrageousness of their possessiveness. For example, one of Kway’s sketches from late 2017 which has over 2 million views involves Titi hanging with her man, but needing to see who he’s texting. When he gets a text, Titi removes her eye ball and attempts to rest it on his shoulder, but the moment he notices, he screams and the eyeball goes flying.
My laughing ended when I began to think about the ways that these behaviors are laughed at online, yet scorned in real life. These kinds of jokes can function to normalize the sexist myths and images that seek to position women are crazy, possessive, irrational, and emotional. Additionally, the attire used by these comedians scoff at the ways women dress. For example, comedians like @theyungp or @mrphreeze06 use t-shirts as large head wraps simply a single string of purple silk to signify their female characters. The simplicity of this is funny in that the men do very little to take on women characters, yet trivializes the ways in which women dress, specifically in relation to hair. Hair and the maintenance of hair is incredibly political and is bound up in respectability politics as well as creative agency, two things at odds.
However, prior to instagram, the weaponization of the disdain for black women as a comedic tool is and has been used in standup up comedy. Take for example, Kevin Hart’s sketch about women in his very popular Netflix special Seriously Funny. Kevin begins the sketch with the statement, “Let me tell you what pisses me off. I hate the fact that you women can’t control your anger… like women, you need to learn to put a cap on it”. He goes on to talk about how women will let their anger get the best of them by crossing the lines of hurting men’s ego’s or grabbing the steering wheel while a man is driving. He goes on to say that women’s greatest fear is “not being fun” and that is why “you’re always looking for validation, always”. He says that he hates to hear women tell stories and asks why stories from work are always so angry, why nothing good ever happens at work. While the audience laughs at stories about “this bitch Sabrina from work”, I think about the ways men silence and dismiss women with the word “attitude” and how women’s legitimate anger is made out to be irrational or emotionally charged. I also think about the stories of men’s lack of control of anger and the documented stories of men violating, assaulting, and murdering women in reaction to criticism, attempting to leave a domestic partnership, or even saying no to a prom offer. When Kevin trivializes and homogenizes the anger of women, we laugh at women as people who are not taken seriously. This further skirts responsibility or recognition of the ways in which patriarchy and toxic masculinity functions in our lives, harming all of us in different ways.
The all too often used phrase “Bitches be like” also highlights this trivializing of women as well as the double bind women often exist in. When male comedians comment on women’s make up saying something along the lines of “Bitches be like ‘I’m not wearing any makeup’ and take two hours to do their makeup”, they demonstrate the lack of understanding of the pressures many women face. Should women choose not to wear makeup, the same scorn is delivered in the form of saying she is looking dishevelled. The policing and joking of women’s behaviors is a political one, taking a great deal of fun out of comedy. Women, specifically, black women, face entrapping stereotypes which manifest under the pressures of patriarchy and racism, with class being a relevant factor as well.
I am stepping away from comedy and instagram because I can no longer laugh at the ways in which I am both policed and mocked.
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Kim Reynolds is a masters student in Global Media and Communications at the London School Of Economics and Political Science. She is a freelance writer, a community and arts organiser, and a music lover sitting at the intersection of art, politics, community, and justice.
Follow Kim on Twitter @kimreynolds24
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