Women vs. Humor
I’m tired of the debate about whether women are funny, or if they are as funny as men. This article ran in Slate on Friday and inspired the predictable “women are like this” and “men are like this” comments: men who aren’t attractive rely on humor to get laid; any woman can get laid any time she wants; attractive women have never had to worry about rejection; attractive people have too easy of a life; humor in a woman upsets the power imbalance; self-deprecation in a woman is pathetic rather than funny; look at the difference in numbers between successful female comedians and successful male comedians; not a single female comedian measures up to any of the “greats” of male comedy, blah blah blah.
If we really want to have this conversation in an honest way, we need to recalibrate our criteria for what is funny and face the fact that men have dominated humor and wit for most of Western history (as they have in every other realm: politics, art, writing, business). Naturally, our default idea of what constitutes humor is filtered through the male sensibility. And you can’t make the argument that because men and women both find male humor funny it’s some sort of proof that men win at comedy. Of course women find men funny when men have been the only source of comedy as far back as you go. Comedy as we know it is male.
Women can be funny as long as we aren’t defining humor strictly by the standards that men have set. Wit is the result of social conditioning and cultural context, and if you don’t believe me, try watching comedies from the 1930s or 40s and see how often the jokes hit home for you now. Women are having to define for themselves what “female humor” is, just as they had to do for other art forms when they first started writing novels, or publishing poetry, or acting on the stage. We had to define ourselves within the tropes that men had already established, or by reacting against those tropes, because creating something entirely new and original is difficult to master at first. Don’t declare women comedians a failed experiment just because we got off to a rocky start.
When it comes to the argument that funny women are unnerving to men because it upsets the balance of power, well, don’t make me pull out Bakhtin on your ass. There’s the concept of “laughing up,” that humor and laughter work best when the lower classes or otherwise powerless people mock those in power. Kings making fun of the peasants is mean-spirited, but for the peasants, laughing up at their oppressors relieves the grimness of their condition. In this sense, it seems that humor should absolutely be the realm of women within a patriarchy. That may sound a little more militant that I intended, and I hate implying that women should always be seen as “victims,” but I’m also not the one who brought the whole “imbalance of power” into the comedy debate in the first place. Men and women both have a lot of things on their minds, some of them disturbing, and we all have the right to make jokes about those things. Even if those jokes manifest themselves in different or unrecognizable ways.
The Bakhtinian argument can be made the other way, I suppose, if we are defining “power” as purely erotic as opposed to the broad “battle of the sexes.” When it comes to sexual power dynamics, a man could be seen as “lowering” himself by making jokes, and in this way he endears himself to a woman by making himself appear less aggressive and threatening. This butts up against the cultural myth that women hold all the cards when it comes to sex; men want it and women are the gatekeepers who either give or withhold (apparently lacking any desires of their own). Women can have sex any time they want, the myth goes, even ugly women can find someone desperate enough to fuck them. Men, by contrast, are less physically attractive and have to work harder to get sex, employing jokes as a tool to make up for their shortcomings. I call bullshit on this for a number of reasons. I hate the “evolutionary psychology” arguments that try to explain the differences between the sexes in strict gender roles and boil everything in life down to who gets laid and how. Why does comedy have to be all about sex? Also, it’s just not true that all women could have sex anytime they want it. If we weren’t selective, sure, but that goes for men, too. Most men could get laid if they were willing to be as “desperate” as they expect women to be. If they were willing to settle for a 4 instead of a 7.
On the point of “men picking apart their flaws is funny, women doing the same is sad,” my response is: Dude, that’s your issue, not mine. If your first response to a self-demeaning joke is to say, “Oh, sweetheart, don’t be so down on yourself!” that’s something you need to get over. Much like the military trying to keep women off the front because men might fall over themselves trying to “save” the little ladies, that’s a problem for the men to resolve, not the women who choose to be there. If I invite you to laugh at me (or with me), accept the invitation. The fact that men (and some women) don’t find that kind of humor funny isn’t a defect of the joke itself but rather their (culturally conditioned) response to the joke. You don’t need to protect my vanity because, contrary to popular belief, I don’t have a constant and never-ceasing need to be seen as pretty in every situation. Sometimes I’m just existing as a human. Sometimes I look like shit or I do stupid things and that’s a funny reality that needs to be acknowledged instead of swept aside with a dismissive, “You look fine.” Self-esteem has to come from within, and I accomplish that more efficiently by laughing at myself than by looking for someone else to validate me.
I just want people to be more open-minded when considering whether women are funny or not and accept that what we think is funny is the result of social conditioning or a very limited view of human sexual interaction. I’m not a comedian myself, so I don’t have a dog in this race, but I am a woman who likes to joke around a lot and I bristle at the idea that I’m turning men off and threatening them with my sarcasm or dry observations about the dark, absurd things in life.
One of the best compliments I ever got was from a guy I dated who asked if I would consider going with him to a comedy club open mic night where we would both do stand-up. I never worked up the courage, but I was flattered that he thought I was funny enough to try it. He even seemed to find it attractive. Imagine that.