Why So Self-Deprecating? A Look at Belgian Humor

Manneken Pis | © Jose Antonio Navas / Flickr
Manneken Pis | © Jose Antonio Navas / Flickr
Photo of Nana Van De Poel
27 May 2017

The foremost symbol of their capital is a small boy statue with cherub curls who stands while rebelliously peeing into a water basin, and when the police ask residents to refrain from mentioning home searches on social media during a terrorist hunt, they tweet out kittens instead. What in the world is up with Belgian humor?

Kittens photoshopped to look like Darth Vader, tabbies dressed up like Carrie from Homeland, and cats with fake explosives strapped to their bellies, referred to as “main suspects”—when the Brussels police department asked its inhabitants not to post any details on social media about their operations hunting down the Paris killers in 2015, that was what they got. Under the hashtag #BrusselsLockdown, originally suggested by the police to show “support,” Belgians started tweeting out pictures of their cute or cosplaying cats en masse in a hilarious effort to confuse media-savvy ISIS. The “cats against terror” tweet wave made global headlines as a standout example of idiosyncratic Belgian humor.

Belgians certainly had a lot of practice running up to that moment, though, and usually, their natural humanistic inclination is to take aim at themselves. When faced with an abundance of stereotypes for such a small nation, it’s not a bad tack to take. Belgians are boring; their diet consists solely out of fries, chocolate, and beer; the Flemish and the Walloons hate each other; their government is a flaming mess. You name it, and they’ve heard it. While some are patently untrue—that Belgium is just a part of the Netherlands hasn’t even been partly factual since 1830—others contain a grain of truth that Belgians love to run with. It’s true that with well over 1,000 original beers (a lot of which regularly pop up in Ratebeer’s top 50), Belgians take pride in their frothy concoctions. But the notion that they all guzzle beer like they do water is a bridge too far. So to make that point, why not turn it up a notch? The 2006 French-Belgian comedy Dikkenek has reached cult status through elevating Brussels’s many oddities and showcasing les Bruxellois as violent douchebags who drink beer by the bucketload.

Dikkenek poster | © EuropaCorp

There’s a certain defiant streak to these self-deprecating satires, a touch of joy into tricking the unknowing bystander into thinking things are actually as bad as they’d heard, possibly even worse. You don’t have to go back decades to see the “defiance through quirkiness” strand in Belgian DNA either. Here, dairy farmers blast the European Parliament with milk when they feel the prices for their products aren’t being protected (2012), and museum expansions in the form of giant toilet paper rolls pop up when promised budgets are withheld (2004).

Gante Street art #streetart #gent #nodesigntowaste

A post shared by Rudik (@rudikvaldes) on

In recent years, that edgy sense of humor has also proven an effective weapon against fear. It seems that Darth Vader kittens were only the beginning. When terrorists bombed Brussels in 2016, it didn’t take long for Manneken Pis-based cartoons and sketches to go viral. Multiple artists, including Belgian cartoonist Charel Chambré and Parisian neighbor and illustrator Nawak, came up with drawings where the Manneken is seen peeing on ISIS fighters and their explosives. Speech balloons over his head read “Je suis Manneken Pis!”, in reference to “Je suis Charlie,” or “Here, a gift from Belgium.” Packets of fries popped up that gave attackers the finger.

It’s a unique, surreal and beautiful thing when you think about it, Belgian humor. It almost seems to say: “Go ahead. Mock, insult or attack us. We’ll end up peeing on you anyway.”

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