Humour in Times of Crisis: How Satire Can Lead to Self-Reflection and Social Action

Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal was introduced to me in March of 2020 by a highly valued friend and mentor, just as the world was locking down for the first time. It has become my comfort read throughout this wild journey we have been on in the past year as the post-apocalyptic collection of skit-esque scenes and quips. Through satire, Woman World creates space for self-reflection and confronts the reader repeatedly with the question, “Are you okay with the way the world is and where it’s going?” According to satire scholar Raj Kishor Singh, Satire “intends to improve… humanity by criticizing its follies and foibles.” In cultivating this space for self-reflection through fourth wall breaks, posing questions to the reader and in satirical humour, Woman World encourages the reader to take the space the gutter provides to reflect on the panel and come to choices around grassroots action within their own life in order to cultivate a better future for all.

Starting as a biweekly webcomic before being brought together as a graphic novel in 2018, Dhaliwal’s Woman World tells the story of a planet on which men have ceased to exist. It’s a post-apocalyptic story that is just out there enough to provide distance but is relatable to the present moment enough due to familiar relationship dynamics and contemporary culture references to provide resonance. It is grounded in the reality that life-changing moments happen every day, some more impactful than others. Woman World pushes the reader to consider how the frame of reference through which they view these moments makes all the difference in how one rebuilds the world going forward.

Social media has allowed for a unique opportunity in the world of self-publication. Ira David Sternburg, writing about social media and democratization, writes that it, “could be considered democratic itself, allowing individuals, with limited means or rights, an equal access to connect and communicate with fellow citizens and governmental bodies, as well as a larger global audience.” Dhaliwal took advantage of this medium when first publishing Woman World which caught fire shortly after its publication on Instagram and “garnered nearly 150,000 followers.” In an interview for the Hindustan Times, Dhaliwal stated that this was inspired by Dhaliwal’s realization “that feminism isn’t a very approachable topic” and set out to create a work that changed that, posting to Instagram, mostly for her friends and family, not expecting it to go viral. Pairing comics with what Sternberg characterizes as social media’s unique ability to “communicate to the outside world through voices, images, and messages and to organize and mobilize demonstrations” creates the potential for a powerful call to grass-roots action, which still exists when the work is transferred to paper.

These feminist undertones, paired with Dhaliwal’s intent to comment on feminism, and original choice of publication medium, put Woman World into the category of “comics activism.” Comics scholar Martin Lund defines comics activism as “the practice of creating comics in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue, and the term ‘activist comics’ to comics that are created specifically and explicitly to present the creator(s)’s given politics on a specific issue”. Had I read Woman World in 2018, this would be an article on female empowerment and climate change. The commentary on things that were happening in the last decade was palpable, from Paul Blart: Mall Cop references to “ducking” text jokes. But the beautiful thing about activism is that it can often be transferred to other issues with similar impacts.

Woman World is framed as an answer to the cry that many het-cis women I know have thrown into the universe after a breakup: “I just wish men didn’t exist, life would be easier without them.” The graphic novel opens with the words, “Once upon a time there were men,” framing the work the fantasy some create in their times of frustration with sex and sexism. It calls attention to how ridiculous this wish is, while also allowing space to question the reasons one might think that a world without men would be easier. One of the first problems addressed in Woman World is the question of sexual orientation when a villager asking Gaia “What will the straight women do?” to which Gaia responds, “How many of you skewed bi anyway?” The entire village raises their hands, which is not so much a punchline as it is an acknowledgment of bisexuality. Woman World does a large amount of normalization for the various branches of the LGBTQ+ community, from a transgender matriarch to a doctor who’s had top surgery, and showcasing a variety of levels of genderqueer fashion and androgyny. At the same time, the problems of the world we now live in don’t just disappear. Love lives are still complicated, unrequited love still exists and many of the characters still lack confidence. This balance between utopian fiction and relatable characterization creates an echo chamber in which the reader can see one’s self and question why their shortcomings exist as well as their own place in the world.

If the reader is coming to Woman World for the first time in the pandemic, as I was, or if they are re-reading the work since the pandemic hit in 2020, they will find it even more heart-hitting as the work’s premise of a world in which a mutation or virus takes out an entire segment of the population now seems like a much more real possibility. When I picked it up, more men than women were dying from COVID, and the virus is still hitting minority communities harder than any other. This lens of experience brought the work closer to home. Reading it again, in light of the current conversations around reopening and returning to normal, or finding a new normal, I found another gold mind of lessons on how to engage with change and create forward momentum.

Tony Husband, a chronicler of 20th-century cartoons and comics, writes that “the cartoonist’s gift is to simplify. Their job is to take the most complicated and sometimes controversial subjects and, with a few well-chosen strokes of the pen, plus a short caption, give you the full story.” The way in which Dhaliawl presents the arguments in the science vs. the masses debate does exactly this. We see the passage of time as scientists and politicians yell back and forth at each other–or as the left and the right yell back and forth at each other. Science, and facts on the literal and figurative left calling out for research, and funds, and problem-solving to stop a future problem that’s starting now. While the politicians and populace on the literal and figurative right shout back about short-term problems that “need” attention now. While giving the history of how a world without men could have ever come to be, Dhaliwal lists the arguments that keep forward-progress on major issues down. Be the issue woman’s rights, climate change, abortion or immigration rights, the calls from the left and right sound very familiar.

This use of satire creates the push to question and improve in the reader. According to Singh, “Satire is the mind/wits; irony is the reasoning/rhetorical tool; humour is the substance. Satire is a genre of literature, and sometimes graphic and performing arts, in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement.” Though Dhaliwal’s approach encourages more self-reflection and critical thinking than shame, it still spurs the reader to challenge and change their thinking. Throughout the comic are many examples of satire being used to create this space for critical thinking. Though originally intended to discuss women’s rights, in the current social context the conversation can be overlaid on calls to vaccinate, and the ways in which science is being treated as less than fact in our communities.

The above panel easily shifted in the reader’s mind to “Do you think vaccines are really the answer?” with a reply of “Pfft… it’s all anecdotal evidence… a friend of my friend died after getting theirs.” Only in the separation from the present provided by satire can the reader see how truly wild these conversations are. Especially when seeing them happen at the same time rather than slowly over the course of months or years.

In addition to the problem of men going extinct, the world of Woman World is dealing with multiple problems at a time. Natural disasters, market crashes, and riots are hitting their world. Even as the world settles down after this apocalyptic event, life continues to be complicated and at times overwhelming for the characters of Woman World. Sometimes in big ways, such as the last of the sperm running out at the sperm banks or small ways such as the loneliness Ulaana feels being one of the last women to remember the before times, or Ina’s love life (or lack thereof) or Gaia having the body confidence to live publicly as a nudist but lacking confidence in her skills as a leader and struggling to ask for votes even when running for mayor unopposed. Much like the characters portrayed in Woman World, our society is living in a general state of being overwhelmed. Multiple crises happening at once; COVID-19, climate change, racism, even late-stage capitalism. All of which battle for space in our social and political discourse. None of which can be solved if all we do is yell back and forth about them. But what do we do about it?

Part of the answer to this question is in the framing of Woman World itself. We meet tragedy with humour and we take it in stride. Humanity sings on balconies. We find creative ways to date. We have songs like “Zen” by the x ambassadors commenting on the struggles of social distancing and mental health in the pandemic. We meet challenges with creativity and reframe the worst moment in life as only humans can. But at some point, the problem still needs to be faced and handled, which, in many ways, is what humanity struggles with more. When humour isn’t enough, as the problem is lasting, that’s when it’s time for us to change. To push past the discomfort of change and make forward strides to a better world.

Ina’s storyline teaches the reader this. Ina starts helplessly in love with her best friend Layla who is in a committed relationship with Lara. Layla and Lara’s relationship regularly has bumps but is overall not something Layla is going to leave. Layla is committed and very much in love with Lara while being completely oblivious to Ina’s affections. Ina goes on a journey from longing quietly, lamenting more aloud, to being told she needs to spend time on herself but rejecting the idea as change is uncomfortable, to finally committing to change.

Change isn’t easy, and it’s often a thing that we fight against when it’s first called for. Feminism isn’t “approachable” in the way Dhaliwal wanted it to be, in part, because of the change it’s calling for. Likewise, the changes which the world has been going through for the last year and a half have challenged social norms. Change is uncomfortable. But in the end, we have to love ourselves and those around us enough to see the value in moving forward rather than focusing on the past and what could be. As with Ina, who has to take on the discomfort of change herself before she can support others in a real way, the best place to start with social change in the pandemic and beyond is by applying these grassroots frameworks where we focus on the things in our control and what we can change about ourselves first before moving outwards to change the society as a whole. This is the lesson to be taking away from Woman World.

This idea of imperfect actions having impact is one that the world has seen play out in the management of the pandemic. Ina makes steps to self-change and eventually befriends Yumi and together they help each other better themselves and move beyond their personal insecurities, despite many setbacks along the way. Gaia continues to put herself out there, literally and figuratively, in her leadership role as mayor despite insecurities, setbacks, and public mistakes in speeches and announcements. In the real world lockdown measures, though applied imperfectly, have led to valleys in the waves. Masking protocols, though not followed by everyone, have kept many safe. No country or person has handled the pandemic perfectly, but we’ve taken steps and seen an impact in the numbers.

Like Ina, there have also been moments where we’ve been jealous of the ease with which another person or county has taken this experience, that’s new to all of us, with a level of grace we were not capable of. But at the end of the day we only have control over the actions we take as individuals. Grassroots actions can often be the most powerful, be that a decision to focus on your own well-being, or the decision to wear a mask in public. In the end, like the characters in Woman World, when we all come together in individual actions we create a new world in which all can prosper. Humanity has a remarkable way of overcoming any problem when we collectively put our minds to it and remember to take it all in stride with a little bit of humour. Comics create a distance from reality that allows us to see the political climate for what it is, invites us to question our place in it, and ask ourselves what actions we could take to overcome our troubles…even in the weirdest of years.

Works Cited

  • Bhattacharyya, Anirudh. “IndoCanadian turns Instagram fame to graphic novel success.” Hindustan Times, October 8, 2018.
  • Dhaliwal, Aminder. Woman World. First ed., Drawn & Quarterly, 2018.
  • Husband, Tony. The 20th Century in Cartoons: A history in pictures. Arcturus Publishing Limited, UK, London 2014.
  • Lund, Martin. “Comics Activism, a (Partial) Introduction.” Scandinavian Journal of Comic Art (SJOCA) VOL. 3: 2, Spring 2018.
  • Singh, Raj Kishor. “Humour, Irony and Satire in Literature.” International Journal of English and Literature (IJEL) Vol. 3, Issue 4, October 2012.
  • Sternburg, Ira David. “Influence of Social Media in the Stages of Democratization.” Dissertation. University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 2014.
  • “X Ambassadors Share Timely New Track ‘Zen’ FEAT. K. Fly & Grandson” UMusic, May 15 2020.

Laura Grafton is an independent scholar and freelance writer who studied comics at the University of Waterloo. Laura has written as a guest blogger for The Birthing Space parenting blog, co-wrote Harley Quinn’s Sexuality: A Tale of Three Lusts with Andrew Deman for The Middle Spaces, and maintains creative writing, parenting and popular culture critique blogs on WordPress. Laura has also guest hosted on The Oh Gosh, Oh Golly, Oh Wow! Podcast. When Laura isn’t writing she works in the charitable sector support fundraising for both local and international causes. You can find her on Twitter.

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