This is tragic. This is not comic.
According to Communication Sciences, every sentence, every image, carries one specific meaning, or several meanings.
Daily, we are exposed to a large number of different messages on the television, radio, internet, billboard advertisements on the street, and conversations we partake in, among others.
Generally, we are most exposed and prone to being affected by and processing messages, whether consciously or subconsciously, when our minds are in states of relaxation or euphoria, as is the case during hypnosis, sleep, or laughter. This is where our problem with the different comedy shows broadcasted daily or weekly on Lebanese and Arab screens comes in: they use laughter, a very effective tool – even if unintentionally – to send out messages of racism, violence, or humiliation towards women.
And these programmes are characterised by a very high viewer rating with a vast age range, from children to teenagers, to adults, to the elderly. This is exactly where the importance and the dangers lie.
Every single time we critique any of these shows, we are faced with attacks that are completely out of context of our critique, or with attempts to trivialise our critiques with statements like: “But it’s just a joke,” or “We’re kidding!” The problem is that the supervisors, writers, and presenters of these shows, both men and women, are not paying attention to the fact that it is precisely because it’s a joke, and it is precisely because it elicits laughter and fondness, that it has double the effect, or even quintuple the effect, as compared to regular sentences that are devoid of humour on the news or on other non-comedic shows.
The adjoining video shows a sample of just a few jokes that are told by the dozen throughout each and every episode of the show “LOL,” and other such shows. Lebanon has at least four of these comedy shows that are broadcast weekly. Some are “open jokes” like “LOL,” and others are in the form of skits, like those featured in “Ma Fi Metlo,” and “Kteer Salbi .” Through some simple calculations, you can imagine the amount of negative, violent messages that we are exposed to weekly, monthly, yearly… And this is just from comedy shows alone!
The jokes employed send a myriad of messages:
– Joking about rape and sexual harassment, and dealing with these two topics lightly at a time where there is a clear increase of sexual violence towards women in Lebanon, and at a time where a significant percentage of girls and women have to fight hard and endure living through the horrible psychological scars of being exposed to rape or harassment, which, by the way, are serious, harsh experiences that turn life upside down; they are not a joke.
– Dealing with marital violence as material for joking and humour; we still cannot understand why “Abou el Abed beat up Em el Abed,” or “A man is bashing down his wife’s head,” are something funny! This is something tear-inducing, unfortunate, and offensive, and it should be changed as quickly as possible in a country where a simple law to protect women from family violence is still a draft law in parliament, stuck between either complete rejection, or twisting and distortion, and being effectively emptied of its contents.
– Promoting stereotypical images of a woman:
– Her only function is cooking and ironing
– A fat or chubby woman is ugly, and an extremely skinny one is beautiful
– The only thing that makes a woman “worthy” is her looks, charm, and her ability to please
– Women have low IQ, or they are obsessed with blowing their husbands’ money on clothes, make up, etc…
– This is also met with promoting the male stereotypes, where a man is considered a creature who thinks of nothing but sex, and sees every woman as an opportunity for harassing or cat-calling.
– Promoting stereotypical images of different segments of society, for example:
– Any person who has darker skin is strictly supposed to be someone who serves and cleans after the Lebanese, they generally speak with high-pitched voices and unintelligible letters or words, the “Mister” is generally sleeping with the female domestic worker he employs, etc…
– Any homosexual man (usually referred to as “mgaygan,” an offensive Arabicised version of “gay”) is always “effeminate,” whose intelligence and thoughts are limited, and thinks of nothing besides having every man in the universe. Of course, his name is usually Foufou or Nounou. Here for example, we cannot understand why sexual orientation is a matter to be joked about… Why does the audience double over laughing hysterically because Foufou is running after Nounou? Or because Toutou was beaten up by “real men?”
These jokes promote a system of thought that is already present among a large segment of the Lebanese, be it about foreign communities (especially migrant workers), women, elderly women, homosexual men, or natives of Homs, Syria.
It goes without saying that people always act according to their way of thought, and these actions range from contempt to thinking of specific groups as inferior, to intended harassment or causing annoyance, to bodily and emotional violence towards these groups, given that they are of inferior standing, and don’t deserve the status of “adult respectable human” to begin with.
If we are laughing at Abou el Abed beating up Em el Abed, this means it’s an entertaining and simple subject, so it’s really not a big deal, after all, if our neighbour Em Badih was beaten up by her husband Abou Badih! And if Mrs. Em Ata is praying for someone, anyone, to come by and rape her, then seriously, rape is nice and pleasant, even invited! So why are these women making a big deal out of the matter?! And if “Madam” is harshly criticising Sinkara, it means “Madam” is strong, cute, and likeable… And if fat people are ugly, let us make fun of our fat friend in class… Let us also crack jokes at our friend who looks like Foufou…
And so, this traditional, racist, and discriminative-to-women way of thought is strengthened and promoted, and passed on in all its festering rot to the new generation, our children, by way of these shows and others… Through just one episode of these shows, all of the efforts put in to bring about change, reform, progress, and development – which most of these channels and public figures claim they are advocates of, and which young activists are investing their efforts and lives to achieve, are going down the drain. This is aside from the imprint this type of “joking” leaves on society’s dynamics, and the outlooks it gives people on each other. This is also aside from the negative psychological effects it has on the target groups of these jokes, from abused women, to those who have survived rape, to homosexuals, to the elderly, and to all such “joked upon” categories, as well as foreign communities in Lebanon, who, by the way, are not all “glass cleaners.”
We cannot but wonder and marvel at the complete silence of the Ministry of Information and the National Media Council and other responsible bodies – both in the state and within society, when met with these daily transgressions which we are all exposed to, which our children are exposed to, while our censorship boards cut scenes and statements that are much, much more trivial and petty.
We need to clarify that when we critique programmes like “LOL,” and through it all other similar comedy shows, we are not telling them to stop broadcasting, we don’t want them to lose their viewers, and we don’t want to get in the way of their moneymaking. We are only demanding that they understand the sizeable responsibility that accompanies their stardom and fame. This is a responsibility that they carry through each and every episode they film, and they should pay attention to the type of messages they are putting out there to the diverse age ranges, and to men and women alike.
Just as “LOL” is now paying attention to jokes about religious figures and is cautious not to offend them, we hope that the show will also pay attention to jokes that target other groups in society, who have the full right to be respected and not subject to insults, contempt, disregard, and even the violence that may result from the accumulation of the violent messages conveyed.
 Abou el Abed and Em el Abed are a married couple that are the butt of many Lebanese jokes, conveying a stereotypical image of an often dysfunctional and not particularly educated, somewhat lower class family, where the man is the head of the house and his wife is his completely subservient property. The “givens,” however, are variable. “Abou” (father of) and “Em” (mother of) followed by the name of the eldest male son in the family are what parents are referred to. If the eldest male has older sisters, they are disregarded.
 “Ma Fi Metlo”: “There is Nothing Like It.’
 “Kteer Salbi”: “Salbi” may be used to refer to something cool or entertaining in Lebanese dialect, while in neighbouring Arab countries and in formal Arabic means “negative,” so the name can be translated as “Very Entertaining” or “Very Negative.”
 The Lebanese often used to make fun of natives of Homs as very simple and stupid people, telling jokes similar to blonde jokes about them. This was more common some time back, and the newer trend has shifted to making the main character of the same jokes “a high junkie”. However, one still comes across a Homsi joke every once in a while.
 Foufou, Nounou, Toutou, or other similar sounding names are usually used to refer to a gay man. They are often pronounced in an exaggeratedly feminine and singsong manner to refer to the man’s “lack of masculinity.”
 Migrant domestic workers usually call their female employers “Madam” and their male employers “Mister.” In popular culture and jokes in comedy shows, the names Sinkara and the like are usually an obvious reference to the aforementioned workers. Employers often treat domestic workers badly, and speak to them in a very diminishing manner.