Keynote speakers


"Hasa Diga Eebowai: Religious taboos in the media"


I argue that religion is the last and most powerful taboo in the media – manuscript, print, electronic and digital. Clear evidence of religious ideas is found in the earliest forms of literacy. For example, in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity), the word of God as written has very special power. Indeed, the writing and the speaking of God’s name in these faiths is a strong taboo. Religious texts and testaments were carefully preserved, often regarded as holy in themselves. It was taboo to criticize, mock and “disrespect” these holy texts. Throughout western history, cases of heresies, apostasies and blasphemies are reported. Often, these crimes were in written form, thus making it simpler to provide evidence against the perpetrators. Despite cheaper and more efficient distribution of print media, writing about religion was strictly controlled according to the religious orthodoxies of the day: two-way gatekeepers censored, prohibited or punished dissident views; more harshly proscribed were writings that mocked and ridiculed religion, and by extension, the fundamentals of the culture of which it was the heart. The sanction for transgressing the taboo by criticism or satire was extreme.

In the electronic and digital age, media is difficult to police, apart from in regimes where all media that is available is controlled. Elsewhere, there has been an explosion of criticism of religion and faith, unconstrained mockery and distortion of religious iconography, lampooning of religious figures, joking and sneering about deities and their sexual and scatological proclivities, and comparing religious figures to beasts or mythical monsters, inter alia. The combination of obscenity and blasphemy has compounded the violation of the taboo on religion: the divine is subject to all the gross physicality of the natural world.

To demonstrate how different media have dealt with religious taboos, and how the consumers of media have reacted, I’ll consider how Martin Luther laced his account of the Catholic practices he abhorred with scatological and obscene imagery, portraying the Pope as a transvestite, and also an animal. I’ll ishow how certain religious taboos, such as menstruation, masturbation and eating of forbidden foods is managed in the literature and movies of the 1960s. Pasolini’s 1964 movie Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St Matthew) caused an outcry because of his carnalisation of the Jesus story. When Salman Rushdie published Satanic Verses, a fantasy about Mohammed and the most sacred characters in Islam cast as devils and prostitutes, the Ayatollah Khomeni declared a fatwa upon him. More recently, animated TV programs like South Park and Family Guy explicitly roll religious beliefs and practices in the mud. The Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon, scurrilously lampoons the stereotypes of Mormon beliefs and practices, but notwithstanding its scathing critique of all religions and belief systems, manages somehow to humanize these human frailties, gloriously accompanied by the heartfelt song, “Hasa digo Eebowai” (Fuck God).

Finally, I’ll discuss the power of the religious taboo and how because of the massive media juggernaut, the makers of the Mohammed cartoons lived in danger of their lives, and the cartoonists for Charlie Hebdo lost theirs. The ongoing risk associated with the violation of religious taboo in the media shows that this taboo is still alive and powerful, and that taboos remain extremely dangerous ideas.



Debra Aarons is Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Her interests are in the linguistics of humour, the pragmatics of stand-up comedy and the way taboos are exposed in comedy. She is the author of Jokes and the Linguistic Mind (Taylor and Francis, 2012) and has co-authored several articles (with Marc Mierowsky) about comedians’ use of obscenity to criticise issues of race, religion, sexuality and power.


"Only Joking?: Comedy, Disability and Taboo"


Comedy and disability have a complex and long relationship.  On the one hand, cultural norms restrict members of society from laughing at people with disabilities and many non-disabled people fear disability.  Yet on the other hand, across history, disabled people have been the source of comedy.  A large proportion of this history consists of jokes, words, images, comic narratives and humour that denigrate disabled people.  Ridiculing disabled people and their ‘limitations’ is also prevalent in contemporary film and television comedy.  The mainstream comedy landscape has been transformed in recent years with an increased number of disabled comedians performing.  These performances have enabled disabled people to move from being comedy targets to comedy-makers.  Despite this, little research focusses on disabled comedians and their performances.  This presentation rectifies the almost total neglect of this topic by critically analysing the new phenomenon of disabled comedians.  It focusses on the performances by disabled comedians to examine how, and to what extent, taboos and political correctness surrounding disability are comedically constructed and reconstructed. The presentation examines how, although not a simple and straightforward process, comedy enacted by disabled comedians is potentially a powerful tool through which hegemonic norms and taboos around disability can be challenged and renegotiated. 



Sharon Lockyer is the founding director of the Centre for Comedy Studies Research (CCSR) and a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Communications in the Department of Social and Political Sciences at Brunel University London, UK. Her research interests include critical comedy studies, identity politics and comic media representations and the sociology of popular culture.  She is editor of Reading Little Britain: Comedy Matters on Contemporary Television (I.B.Tauris 2010) and co-editor of Beyond a Joke: The Limits of Humour (Palgrave Macmillan 2005, 2009), Controversial Images: Media Representations on the Edge (Palgrave Macmillan 2013) and Screening the Undead: Vampires and Zombies in Film and Television (I.B.Tauris 2014).  She has also published in a range of academic journals and is the founding co-editor of the Palgrave Studies in Comedy book series.


"Shit and Die"


I will be looking at the 35,000-year history of visual satire with particular emphasis on how British visual satire arose and developed in the 18th century, how it operates and what its true purpose is. To counterpoint this, I will also examine the medium’s capacity to offend with reference to my own work over the three decades of my professional working life as a cartoonist.



Martin Rowson is a multi-award winning cartoonist, illustrator and writer. His work has appeared regularly in The Guardian, Daily Mirror, Spectator, New Statesman, The Times and many other publications for over 30 years. His books include a memoir, “Stuff”, which was longlisted for the 2007 Samuel Johnson Prize, and graphic novelisations of The Waste Land, Tristram Shandy & Gulliver’s Travels. He in currently working on a comic book version of The Communist Manifesto. As well as being chair of the British Cartoonists’ Association, he is also currently a vice-president of the Zoological Society of London. He lives with his wife in south-east London.