Women aren’t funny.
That’s what Christopher Hitchens argued in his controversial 2007 Vanity Fair piece, and what my husband has said on numerous occasions.
Recently, probably in response to my indignance, Husband has backpedaled a bit, saying that what he meant was, “I personally don’t find women funny.”
I don’t think that’s much better.
He has since backpedaled even more to exempt me, Amy Schumer’s sketch comedy (but not her standup), and Ellen DeGeneres “back in the day.”
A disclaimer: My husband isn’t an asshole. He’s actually very supportive of my writing and I wouldn’t have started this blog without his encouragement. But on this issue, we’re at a deadlock.
I’ve read the Hitchens article, and I get the arguments. Women aren’t funny because they don’t have to be. As the pursuers, men had to develop humor to attract women. And this one: On a subconscious level, men recognize that women, as child-bearers, are the superior gender. In turn, women agree (also subconsciously, I suppose?) to let men have the upper hand in every other domain, including humor. In short, a funny woman is threatening.
These are provocative arguments, but neither of them justifies the assertion that women aren’t funny. Apparently, this stereotype has been around longer than I have. (The men reading this post, if there are any, probably won’t click here once they hover over the link and realize it’s an article from “Bitch Media.” Oh, those feminists!!)
How can it be acceptable to dismiss 52% of the population as “not funny”?
In discussing the direction of our writing pursuits, my husband said that I should cool off on the posts about my former boyfriends and post more about teaching, since my most popular post was about teaching. Rationally, this makes sense, but instinctually, it feels wrong to me. My blog isn’t a teaching blog. Teaching is part of who I am, and naturally I write about it from time to time, but I don’t want to be the “funny teaching” blogger. I don’t want to be the “funny mommy” blogger. I understand that I run a risk when I refuse to step into a niche and stay there. If I don’t become SOME kind of blogger, how will a publisher be able to market my stuff? Still, I think I have the right to write about my experience—all facets of my experience—without feeling like I have to choose one. And especially without having to apologize for writing about relationships.
My husband has assured me that his friend reads my blog from time to time. He doesn’t read everything. When he gets to a post that begins something like, “My former boyfriend with the nose ring,” he skips it. “I’m not the audience for that,” he says.
Why not? When did relationships become “female humor”? When did the self-doubt, the anxiety, the need for connection inherent in all relationship histories become essentially female? It makes sense that some of my posts—about the societal pressure on unmarried women, for example, or about a thirty-something’s desire for children—would be more relatable to women. Part of humor, after all, is the surprising recognition of one’s own experience. But I think there are plenty of women who would be interested in reading about these phenomena from a male perspective—and who may even find what that writer has to say “funny.”
If we’re categorizing anything as “female humor,” I’m willing to accept menstruation jokes and mammogram jokes, but I still don’t think even such quintessentially “female” humor excludes a male audience. I don’t have a dick, but I enjoy a good dick joke now and then. And you know what? I call that “humor.” Referring to it as “male humor” seems reductive and condescending.
Perhaps people could do women the same courtesy.
Even as I write that humor is humor, I’m not so sure. After our “women aren’t funny” debate, G. and I asked some friends for their opinions. Most of them said that without a doubt, men and women have different senses of humor.
G. also pointed out that humor is an essential part of the male experience because boys learn to relate to one another by making each other laugh. From what I’ve observed, this appears to be achieved by hurling ruthless insults, with the best “insulter” securing the highest social status. (This shit-throwing game is totally ruining my third-period class, by the way). For women, it’s different. G. says that whenever he sees a group of women together, they usually bond with each other by complaining about something—often another female who’s not present. I cringed when he said this, but I had to admit he was absolutely right. I’ve never seen a group of women who relate to each other by being funny. For women, status is based on fulfilling traditionally female roles—be attractive, get men to like you and marry you, and then have babies with them. It’s important for those men to be attractive, and preferably, rich. Be a good cook, make crafty shit for your kids’ school parties… and then have more kids.
There are women who disagree with me. A few years ago I posted this status update on Facebook: “Engagement, marriage, and pregnancy: the Triple Crown of womanhood.” A friend balked at that, commenting, “Back in the 1800s, maybe.” I think she’s off base. I think it’s naïve to pretend that status for a woman isn’t still determined largely by her relationship to men. So we’re back to the Hitchens argument again—women haven’t evolved to be funny, because they haven’t needed to be. They’ve evolved to be pleasers, mediators, encouragers, and nurturers, because their social capital depends on it. Accordingly, some have pointed out that female humorists tend to have a self-deprecating style. Columnist Margo Jefferson says that humorists need not only “strategic vulnerability” but also “strategic aggression”—aggression, of course, being something women are socialized to suppress.
Whatever the reasons, female humorists are underrepresented, to be sure. Women are particularly underrepresented in satire. Only ten women appear in Wikipedia’s very long list of famous satirists. Of the approximately sixty people on the editorial staff of The Onion, nine are women (and one is the graphics editor). One of my favorite satirical shows, American Dad, has had about fifty writers during its run on TV. Out of those fifty, four have been women.
So what is it? Women aren’t funny? Women, in general, aren’t as funny as men? Or is it that women aren’t funny to men, and are therefore at a disadvantage in a male-dominated field?