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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Are Women Funny?

In an interesting article in The Guardian (10.2.13) Bridget Christie, a comedian, comments on the question ‘Are Women Funny?’.  She of course concludes that they are, especially because she makes her living from making people laugh, but cites some contrary references. Perhaps the most interesting was that of Christopher Hitchens who famously said that women didn’t need a sense of humor because they have nice hair to lure men.

A well-known British comedian, Lee Mack, went further.

There are no women standups on panel shows, he said, because women are less competitive in conversation and less likely to want to show off…and added "It's actually a compliment, I think, to women that there aren't as many female standups because they are far more interested in what each other has to say than standing there on their own and showing off."

There may be more than a grain of truth in what Mack and Hitchens said.  It’s not that women can’t be funny; it’s just that they don’t because of vestiges of a traditional female culture of quiet deference which, despite the radical changes of the late 20th Century, still remain.

Freud said that  one can't express aggression and sexual drive directly, as it is prohibited in the society, so these desires get sublimated in telling jokes, many of which are either about somebody getting hurt, or they have sexual connotations.

H.W. Fowler (1937), the academic who developed a typology of humor, suggested that it can range from the gentle to the harshly aggressive; but that much humor revolves around satire, sarcasm, cynicism and invective – all of which have specific targets in mind.  Morals and manners, faults and foibles, and misconduct are the usual targets.

In the not so distant past, it would have been unseemly at best for a woman in polite (influential) society to be so aggressive.  An indirect and muted reference was all that was acceptable.  Although women might have wanted to pillory the obtuseness, pomposity, and arrogance of men, they held their tongues.  Some of the more gentle categories of Fowler’s typology were acceptable.  What he called humor – light references to human nature; or wit – playful ways with words - were permissible; but these often went unnoticed, and men’s braggadocio-fueled broad humor ruled the day. 

Some social scientists have gone further and suggested an evolutionary preference for male humor. Nichole Force, a social psychologist, has written:

Psychologists Eric R. Bressler and Sigal Balshine found that men expressed no preference for funny women, but that women tended to choose funnier men as partners. Rod A. Martin of the University of Western Ontario elaborated on this discrepancy between the preferences of the sexes when he said, “Although both sexes say they want a sense of humor, in our research women interpreted this as ‘someone who makes me laugh,’ and men wanted ‘someone who laughs at my jokes.’”

Evolutionary psychologists have theorized that a sense of humor is a sign of intellect and strong genes and that women, the more selective sex due to the burdens associated with pregnancy, are attracted to funny men because of the genetic benefit that could be bestowed upon potential offspring (Humor’s Hidden Power)

There are many funny female comedians today – Wanda Sykes is absolutely hilarious, and Lily Tomlin was a comic genius.

I have met women with a knee-buckling comic storytelling instinct. Houleymata was a close Malian friend who had been a medical student in Russia in the early 80s, and her stories of being the first black person that anyone in her remote Siberian medical school had ever seen were the funniest I have ever heard.  Without hesitation she elided vignette after vignette, paused with comic timing, made the ridiculous funny, pilloried the Russians while not demeaning them, and went on and on until we could take no more.  She was a natural, a genius; and whether or not this said anything about the African storytelling tradition, the more dominant role of certain socially superior African women; or whether Houley was simply funny down to her bones, I will never know, but I will never forget her.

The point is that women of course can be funny, but that historically they have tended not to be; and although Bridget Christie dismisses the likes of Hitchens and Mack out of hand, they had a point.

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