'Hey, You're Dead!': The Multiple Uses of Humour in Representations of British National Defence in the Second World War

By Peniston-Bird, Corinna; Summerfield, Penny | Journal of European Studies, September 2001 | Go to article overview

'Hey, You're Dead!': The Multiple Uses of Humour in Representations of British National Defence in the Second World War


Peniston-Bird, Corinna, Summerfield, Penny, Journal of European Studies


Corinna Peniston-Bird (*)

Penny Summerfield (+)

Humour, especially the sort that is a medium for social and political commentary, plays an important role in the imagined community of a wartime nation. Such humour, like the concept of 'the nation' itself, is dependent on the recognition of common cultural references such as national symbols, texts and images. It is widely recognised that in Britain in the Second World War humour contributed in numerous contexts to the construction of British national character at war. (1) However, national identity is always fractured in various ways, for instance by class, gender and, in wartime, by the civilian--military divide, creating the potential for incoherence in the expression of national identity, or for 'ambivalent narration', to quote Homi Bhabha. (2) This paper explores the ways in which political and social cartoons engaged with the fissures in national identity, particularly those created by gender, focusing on cartoons concerned with national defence. And -- in response to the theme of this special issue -- it asks questions about the functionality of this kind of humour.

The meaning of humour and the sense in which it could be considered part of a strategy are complex issues. One of the dangers of deconstructing humour is that the fun is lost in the analysis. Furthermore, understanding the intention behind a text, whatever its genre, is always problematic, as is discovering its impact on contemporary audiences. Our intention is to offer interpretations of the meanings of a selection of war-time cartoons by different artists, using an analysis informed by significant aspects of the context in which the cartoons were produced. As we go on to discuss, practical issues concerning government control of the press were important while rarely constraining war-time cartoonists. In addition, cartoonists were working within the pervasive culture of 'people's war', constructed within rhetoric which suggested that the entire British population was 'all in it together'. The first cartoon that we analyse below, 'Englysh Pastorale' expresses the interlocking of such ideas of nation with gen der in war-time humour. Those that follow unpack this involvement in relation to a key military defence organisation, the Home Guard, exploring also the disruptive impact of class on these ways of expressing the meanings of the Second World War. We then analyse representations of the unstable identity of the Home Guard in relation to the regular forces as a way of investigating cartoon engagement with the fracturing of the war-time community along civilian and military lines. These representations had implications for war-time constructions of masculinity, as did those of the Home Guard's relationship to the home. The Home Guard was set up as a counter-invasion force organised by locality, and its ascribed role was to protect women and children. We discuss cartoon explorations of this central domestic relationship and investigate the extent to which women were used as mouthpieces for criticism of the force and the policies directing it. Finally we explore the extent to which any possible roles for women withi n the Home Guard were denied in cartoon representations. Our conclusions suggest that war-time humour was multivalent, and yet that the cultural products explored here were not just a collection of disparate representations. There was a coherence to these complex expressions of the humorous side of British national defence, informed by the war-time imperative for stability and collective endeavour at a time of national upheaval.

Coherence was not, however, achieved by government censorship. Cultural production in Britain in the Second World War was monitored and influenced but not directly controlled by the Ministry of Information. (3) It is unlikely that every cartoon was either commissioned (in the way that public information announcements as well as some films and magazine fiction were) or passed by a censor. …

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