Monday, July 10, 2017
Maggie Hennefeld, On the Criminalization of Female Laughter
On January 10 2017, Desiree Fairooz, a 61-year-old Code Pink protester, was forcibly removed and arrested for laughing at Jeff Sessions during his Attorney General confirmation hearings. Fairooz’s eruption was provoked by an extremely laughable punch line, when Republican Senator Richard Shelby stated that Sessions has an “extensive record of treating all Americans fairly under the law,” adding that this claim “is clear and well-documented.”
As a description of a man who was once denied a federal judgeship due to concerns about his racism, who openly advocates anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ policies, and who casually jokes about the Ku Klux Klan, Shelby’s utterance was patently absurd and very deserving of public mockery and voluble laughter. For her protest, Fairooz now faces up to a year in jail and $2,000 in fines.
Her conviction in early May elicited a viral storm of outraged responses, including headlines such as “A Woman Is on Trial for Laughing During a Congressional Hearing,” “Activist’s Giggle Leads to Conviction,” and a piece authored by the Medusan disruptor herself, “I’m Facing Jail Time After Laughing at Jeff Sessions. I Regret Nothing.
How unprecedented is Fairooz’s indictment? Women are held in contempt of court all the time for laughing out loud at devastatingly inappropriate moments. In February 2017, a woman was sentenced to 93 days in jail for her voluble mirth at the gruesome details of a man’s death in a DUI accident, while the family members of the deceased were present in the courtroom. Laughing in disrespect of the dead has a legacy of retributive punishment: in 1862, a Confederate woman named Eugenia was arrested for laughing at the funeral procession of a Union soldier (she had also encouraged her children to spit on the uniforms of Union officers).
However, it was not the fact of Fairooz’s laughter that caused her arrest, so much as what it signified: to “impede and disrupt then Senator Sessions’ confirmation hearing by drawing attention away from the hearing itself and directing it instead toward the Defendants’ perception of the nominee’s racist views, policies, and voting record” (from a government motion filed against her). Her laughter evokes the anti-patriarchal outbursts in the classic feminist film, A Question of Silence (Marleen Gorris, 1982), in which three unruly women laugh exuberantly at their own murder trial, in response to the prosecution’s outlandish pretense that they live in a post-sexist society. (The women are on trial for killing a male boutique owner, whom they beat to death in an unpremeditated outburst of joyful fury due to his harassment of a female shoplifter.) In the film’s courtroom, this “question of silence” refers to the tyranny of lacking a voice against routine injustice, which then can only be articulated through defiant and disruptive laughter. ***
If we’ve come a long way with our laughter since the English Civil Wars of the 1640s—learning to laugh in empathy, in playful recognition of absurdity, or out of sheer muscular relief—this message has since been lost on Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions. Catharine A. MacKinnon, Professor of Law at the University of Michigan and long-term visitor at Harvard Law School, has offered comment:
Criminally charging and potentially sentencing Ms. Fairooz for a brief spontaneous injection of political laughter as ‘disruptive’ when it, at least, so clearly was not looks like an overly thin-skinned reflex reaction to a woman appropriating what is usually a masculine form of power: ridicule, public humiliation by humor, in this case political speech against racism.
Tracy Thomas, Seiberling Chair of Constitutional Law at the University of Akron, suggests that being laughed at by a woman is perhaps “one of [men’s] greatest fears.” In a correspondence with her, Thomas referenced a survey from Nancy Dowd’s The Man in Question, “where women report their greatest fear is rape and murder, while men’s greatest fear is being laughed at.” Or, as the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood has put it, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” To this point, the journalist and American humorist, Helen Rowland, wrote in 1922 that “a man will forgive his wife for committing robbery, or murder, or breaking the Ten Commandments, yet threaten to leave her for laughing at the wrong moment”—should she be so fortunate that he doesn’t beat or kill her. In 1893, a New Haven court heard the divorce petition of Emma B. Phelps, who described the time “she laughed at her husband…and he ‘knocked her senseless’” (another time he threatened to kill her with a carving knife because she would not give him her watch).