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The radical politics of laughter: Militant femininity, comic misdirection, and reader seduction in Edwardian suffrage narratives

Heilmann, Ann ORCID: 2024. The radical politics of laughter: Militant femininity, comic misdirection, and reader seduction in Edwardian suffrage narratives. Women's Writing 31 (2) , pp. 172-191. 10.1080/09699082.2024.2325814
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The ploy of dissimulation that the suffragette movement harnessed to great effect in their political practice also played an important role in suffrage literature and stage drama. Here, the trope of comic misdirection, which involved the spectacular misrecognition of suffrage identities, served to expose the foolishness of anti-feminist characters, thereby encouraging readers and spectators into laughing about the upholders of the law while applauding suffrage activists. In the process, femininity was reconceptualised in two ways. The essentialist model mandated by patriarchal society was depicted as misrepresenting the multiplex experience of women and therefore as lending itself to comic caricature. ‘Authentic’ femininity, on the other hand, manifested in the bravery and daring of militancy. Consequently, the range of femininities to which audiences might feel attracted was extended to incorporate experimental and subversive behaviours. To engage in militant acts did not strip a woman of her femininity; it amplified it. Drawing on a range of fiction and stage drama, this essay explores the textual strategy of laughter with which feminist activist writers of the early twentieth century sought to galvanise audience and reader sympathies. Informed by Freudian laughter theory, the article argues that in the triangulation of narrative actors, the agent of comic subversion (the suffragette) was calculated to sway the amused reader/observer towards sharing her laugh at the expense of the representatives of the old order.

Item Type: Article
Date Type: Publication
Status: Published
Schools: English, Communication and Philosophy
Publisher: Taylor and Francis Group
ISSN: 0969-9082
Date of First Compliant Deposit: 21 December 2023
Date of Acceptance: 28 February 2024
Last Modified: 29 Apr 2024 17:05

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