If a tree falls in a forest, but no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound? And if a woman makes a joke and a man fails to laugh, is the joke still funny?
I am hesitant even to acknowledge the topic as an issue, as I’m unsure as to whether acknowledging this will perpetuate, or confront a stereotype I’ve come face-to-face with, with increasing frequency. I’m definitely not the first person to have heard the complaint that “women comedians aren’t funny”; or to put it more bluntly, “girls aren’t funny”. If we don’t laugh at a man’s joke, it is because we don’t have a sense of humour; if a man fails to laugh at a woman’s joke, it’s because she’s not as funny as a man.
I’ve heard this from friends both male and female; yet despite a general acceptance (perhaps premature), that men and women now enjoy a largely equal status within society, such a view of women’s wit is still considered to be acceptable. In many cases, women simply aren’t recognised as being funny in the first place. But what makes this the case? What is stopping my jokes from being funny (no jokes please…) when they’re so similar in content and context to the humour of my male peers?
Christopher Hitchens attempted to answer this question in his Vanity Fair piece, ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’, maintaining that although some women are funny (albeit in a “hefty, dykey or Jewish” way), humour, in its aggressive nature, is culturally male, which explains the successful wit of “Jewish” and “dykey” humour. Women however, prefer to view the world through rose-tinted spectacles it seems, and so do not wish to perceive life as the poor-taste sketch show that it is (apparently due to our reproductive capabilities?)
Aside from Christopher Hitchens’ infamous and incendiary piece for Vanity Fair, which has been well-critiqued since its publishing, there is an abundance of articles citing “scientific” studies, such as “Humour’s Sexual Side”, speculating that women aren’t supposedto be funny, as is not part of what makes them attractive to the opposite sex.
Apart from the fact that this article made me roughly 65% more self-conscious about what ‘bone-me’ signals I’m sending out every time I pity-laugh at some guy’s unfunny joke, and that my main mode of communication is based upon brain vomiting any amalgamation of words that might, maybe get a laugh, from someone (anyone!) – this article is worrying and revealing. Although acknowledging the positive benefits involved with a relationship in which both partners enjoy one another’s humour, the academic studies that the piece draws on erroneously express a rigidity in the gender differences in the value of humour as a social interaction:
“Indeed, a German study found that when male and female strangers engaged in natural conversation, the degree to which a woman laughed while talking to a man was indicative of her interest in dating him. How much the woman laughed also predicted the man’s desire to date her. On the flip side, how often a man laughed was unrelated to his interest in a woman.”
Such perceived gender difference can be seen to have been historically expressed in the representation of women in the field of professional comedy, which arguably provides the most concrete example of the comic double standard at play. Women in professional comedy have tended to be the subject of jokes and token funny women in predominantly male pieces. Such an outsider status is not an inherently negative trait in comedy. However most ‘outsider’ wit is assimilated into universal definitions of comedy, yet this is yet to occur for women, as a comic group. Until fairly recently, much comedy created by female comics which has found commercial success has tended to be based around the non-threatening territory of self-deprecation and male subjects.
Zeisler has posited that, since “to tell a joke is to flex power, it is easy to deny the capability of women to be funny; our gender socialisation tells us we are not supposed to be and many women are essentially ‘discouraged’ from an early age, from training their wit on others, instead, aiming it on themselves, focusing on self-perceived inadequacies and inviting others to laugh at them.” So, jokes of this nature become the mainstream; such wit does not tend to register within this masculinised definition of comedy, but in this respect, is unchallenging to dominant conceptions of womanhood and femininity.
Although not an invalid form of wit in itself, humour based on self-deprecation is rarely challenging. However it can be expertly demonstrated by Sarah Millican, who takes pre-conditioned notions of gender and owns them. Millican’s comedy removes the vulnerability from traditional notions of femininity, and self-deprecation is instead a way of reinventing the flaws involved with ‘womanhood’ as such, as defiant and proud; inviting her audience to laugh with, rather than at her. Millican becomes the instigator, rather than the subject of the joke, poking fun at what is expected of a woman (such as an unnecessary fixation with her weight), rather than how her experience differs from these expectations:
It’s clear that once the subject of the joke is shifted from the woman as an individual, to ‘woman, as she is expected’, it is possible to begin to deconstruct expectations both of the female comic and of ‘female humour’ as something distinct from the comic genre as a whole. It is not ‘feminist comedy’, or ‘female comedy’, necessarily, any more than it is simply ‘comedy’. Despite this, female humorists are rarely judged according to standards by which our selves and our bodies are not posited as the punchline. Our outsider status in comedy can be capitalised however, both to unite as an identity and to assert the power that comedy has the potential to – over any worthy subject (i.e. not just cheap shots at men…)
That is not to say that this is uncharted territory. In recent decades, a multitude of comedians have, with increasing frequency, achieved success who are already doing this – and it works. Victoria Wood; Dawn French; Jennifer Saunders; Josie Long; Miranda Hart; Ava Vidal; Sarah Millican – to name a few – have created space in what is traditionally a very masculine arena, for women as comics to transcend their outsider status and become part of an ungendered mainstream.
However the fact remains that the transcendence of this outsider status is stifled by a popular acceptance that women are simply not meant to be funny; it’s just not attractive; our jokes serve an alternative purpose than those of men; our comedy is limited only to the category of “girl humour” (although humour about wives, girlfriends and having a c*ck are apparently universal).
Hopefully the recent proliferation in recent years, of female comics who challenge these popular conceptions – in other words: comedians (who happen to be female) are beginning to make a difference. Perhaps soon when a man fails to laugh at a woman’s joke at his expense, he will be the one who can’t take the joke; perhaps soon it will be okay not to laugh at jokes which are actually offensive; and perhaps soon I won’t just be “funny for a girl”, but just “funny”.
Which I know I already am. I’m funny like a boss.
You can read more from Hannah Parker on her blog.
Feature image via.