Happiness can be used towards both political and economic ends. I will use the genre of comedy in films to bring this argument to life, suggesting that production companies have used the association of comedic themes and laughter with happiness to achieve these ends. This essay will therefore centre on a hedonic approach to happiness, examining how a subjective feeling comes to characterise the experience of comedic films and their means of achieving both economic and political results. However, before tackling this, I begin with a discussion of happiness itself as a concept to better contextualise my argument.
Anthropology has used philosophical distinctions made in relation to the understanding of happiness to approach the ontological question of the being of happiness. Philosophers have distinguished between hedonic and eudaimonic approaches, where the former is "the core meaning of happiness [as] momentary pleasures" (Thin 25, 2012) and the latter as an emphasis on "the evaluative interpretation through which we appreciate our whole lives" (Ibid). Hedonic and eudaimonic approaches often intertwine as subjective feelings of happiness can become a core part of the experience of eudemonia as a whole and can help contribute towards the achievement of a fulfilled and meaningful life. However, this may not always happen, an example being a heroin addict who experiences subjective feelings of happiness through using the drug but may abuse it for reasons of an unfulfilled life. This is merely one example and may not apply in a different cultural context as the being of happiness is not universal and extremely culturally contingent. This essay narrows the focus of the subjective feeling of happiness by zooming in on a Euro-American context through the primary discussion of Hollywood films.
I now turn to how the hedonic approach to happiness has been used by film productions towards economic ends. Film production companies play on the idea that though happiness itself is an idea, the laughter produced from comedic films is an experience associated with happiness, which has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year. In an article titled, ‘Funny Money’, Jon Gertner interviews film executives from Sony Pictures where Tom Rothman revealed that “comedies have been good to us”, referring to the $125 million dollars ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ yielded in the domestic box office (2006). Matt Tolmach, a president of production at Sony Pictures, further explained that “the world is grim, and comedy always plays as a healthy antidote to what’s going on in the world” (Ibid). Marx and Sienkiewicz build on these comments by suggesting that there are ways we can understand how “producers reap financial rewards from [humour]” (1, 2018). They argue that audiences laugh for two prominent reasons, firstly at the disruption of social order and secondly at the sense of liberation and protest that comedy achieves (Marx and Sienkiewicz, 2018). ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ is a clear example of this where social order is disrupted through the comedic parodying of Ana Wintour and a sense of liberation is won through the underdog, Andrea Sachs, proving her place in the violently competitive world of fashion.
Following the hedonic approach, it becomes clear how this subjective feeling of happiness can be utilised for financial gains as a single comedy film can easily rake in over one hundred million US dollars. This subjective feeling is also utilised by film companies through cinema itself. The collective experience created by going to the cinema is an experience that viewers consistently invest in and is another strategic way to deploy happiness economically. Audiences invest in this experience because laughing collectively subconsciously becomes a space that unites people through the shared experience of values. Hanich explores this idea in his book, Chuckle, Chortle, Cackle: A Phenomenology of Cinematic Laughter using German sociologist, Norbet Elias’ research to explain how “due to the audible component of laughter we don’t have to look at each other to feel as one" (211, 2017). This unity is further established through laughter’s lack of social markers meaning that individuals cannot be mapped onto any specific race, gender, class, age or any other social identifiers. Comedy and these laughing collectives powerfully, but “momentarily dissolve social hierarchies and categories such as man/woman, old/young, or white/non-white" (Ibid).
However, despite laughing collectives temporarily transcending social hierarchies, Hanich is adamant that not all laughter is benign (Ibid). Hanich refers to ethnic, nationalist and misogynist humour as an example of aggressive collective laughter, or – in other words – Hennefeld’s idea of ‘comical tension’ (23, 2018). There is an interesting connection between Hanich’s work and Hennefeld’s 2018 book on slapstick humour, where both discuss the comical tension of an audience being motivated to laugh even in the face of social injustice. Hennefeld argues that this comical tension experienced by the audience is done for political reasons, evidenced in her focus on the ways humour has been used as a strategic tool in feminist protest. Hennefeld’s (2018) prominent argument in her book centres around the tension between laughter and gendered violence discussed through the analysis of early 20th century silent films. Slapstick is a form of comedy based on clumsy actions that result in the comic being either hurt, embarrassed or confused done in a light-hearted and humorous way. In her book, comediennes use the antics of slapstick as a means of feminist protest, demonstrating how hedonism is deployed to achieve the political ends through the generation of aggressive collective laughter and comical tension.
Hennefeld uses many slapstick examples to demonstrate the absurd ways that women respond to their own gender repression on screen. For example, in Mary Jane’s Mishap, 1903, “a deadly paraffin bottle allows a bored housemaid to catapult herself into the public sphere” (Hennefeld 33, 2019) and in Laughing Gas, 1907, “the ingestion of nitrous oxide gives a black woman immunity to police brutality and juridical punishment” (Ibid). The female catastrophe in these films is comedic to watch as it massively disrupts social order, but still deploys a sense of political liberation through the repetitive feminine escape (Marx and Sienkiewicz, 2018). Similarly in slapstick films on sexual/domestic violence, women are seen to dramatically beat “a peeping tom with an umbrella… [or] publicly ‘horsewhip’ [a] cheating husband” (Ibid, 51). Whether women are blowing themselves up or melodramatically attacking men, these films all play on the same idea of female restriction. Ranging from themes of the expected domestication of women to unsolicited sexual advancements, these moments of female restriction are consistently resolved in slapstick films through an absurd, violent or exaggerated escape. Films therefore very cleverly play on the utilisation of the subjective feeling of happiness, as they border very closely with the terror of actually experiencing sexual violence on screen to raise awareness about the prevalence of social subordination (Ibid, 45).
Ahmed’s (2010) work can offer another interesting angle of analysis to explore Hennefeld’s argument. Ahmed discusses the idea of ‘happy objects’ to suggest that in their constitution, an unhappy ‘other’ is simultaneously also established. The ‘unhappy’ object in Ahmed’s work is the ‘feminist kill-joy’ that exists as such “because she refuses to share an orientation towards certain things being good because she does not find the objects that promise happiness to be quite so promising” (39, 2010). Ahmed is arguing that we need to question how and why things become ‘happy’ as they may be entrenching into problematic social values that have become normative over time. However, Hennefeld’s work suggests something counter in that there are actually ways that the ‘feminist kill-joy’ can be transformed into something ‘happy’ – such as a laughing gag – to achieve political ends. This suggests that happiness as a subjective feeling can ironically be used to rewrite what objects are constituted as unhappy. By rewriting the constitution of unhappy objects, happiness can be seen to achieve feminist and political ends through the genre of comedy and the absurd feminist escape.
This essay has argued that happiness can be used towards both economic and political ends. This was argued through the comedic genre in films as a platform to utilise the hedonic approach – or the subjective feeling of happiness – towards these ends. A key distinction in social scientists and philosophers’ approach to the study of happiness was highlighted to contextualise this analysis. This distinction was also used to bring awareness to the idea that the subjective feeling of happiness is only one lens through which the ontological question of the being of happiness can be explored. After this the economic ends of happiness were analysed through Sony Picture executive interviews, box office figures and Hanich’s work on the collective cinema experience. This argument followed with a discussion of the political ends of happiness in films where Hennefeld’s work was central. Hennefeld’s research revealed the ways in which subjective feelings of happiness experienced during films are part of a wider political protest.
Ahmed, Sara. "Happy Objects", in The Affect Theory Reader, edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010, 29-51.
Gertner, J. 2006. Funny Money. Nytimes.com (available on-line: https://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/12/magazine/12economics.html, accessed 22 February 2022).
Hanich, Julian. Audience Effect: On the collective cinema experience. Edinburgh University Press, 2017. "Collectivity in cinematic laughter about the comic", 211-13.
Hennefeld, M. 2018. Specters of slapstick & silent film comediennes. Columbia University Press.
Marx, Nick and Matt Sienkiewicz. [Parts of the] Volume Introduction: Comedy as Theory, Industry, and Academic Discipline. In The Comedy Studies Reader, edited by Nick Marx and Matt Sienkeiwicz, 1-6. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018.
Nair, Kartik. "Genre." BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies 12, no. 1-2 (2021): 95-97.
Thin, N. 2012. Social happiness: Theory into policy and practice. Bristol: Policy Press.