Women Aren’t Funny:
Strategic Feminist Humour is Absolutely Necessary
How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
One. And it’s not funny.
In casual conversations, one of the arguments that I have noticed many times is the misguided idea that woman generally aren’t funny and that there are no good female comedians. Recently, I read Christopher Hitchens’ article in Vanity Fair (January 2007) called “Why women aren’t funny”. Hitchens presents the stale argument that men need humour in order to impress and procure a mate to procreate. Women don’t need to be funny because they “already appeal to men” (men want sex with women). Women are naturally not as funny because they have the ability to conceive which is apparently no laughing matter. In an attempt to legitimize his frighteningly boring boorish ideas, Hitchens warps the results of a study on the reaction to black and white cartoons done at Stanford University of Medicine. The article resulted in my realization that this idea, which I have been repeatably put in the position of arguing against, is not only prevalent in the minds of my peers but is culturally accepted as truth.
Clearly Hitchens wrote this article from his role as a comedian in order to create a reaction and to be controversial, but at it’s core it reveals how deeply rooted the concept that woman aren’t or can’t be funny is in western society. Franz Lebowitz’s response to Hitchens’ concept of patriarchal use of cultural value is the most important information in the article: “the cultural values are male… humour is largely aggressive and pre-emptive, and what is more male than that?” The cultural values that comedy and humour have been built upon is largely controlled by a patriarchal system of thought that has yet to be thoroughly subverted. The prevalent idea that ‘women aren’t funny’ and the power associated with making people laugh is why strategic feminist humour is absolutely necessary.
With this in mind, humour has the ability to transform and expand popular ideas of feminism and create accessibility to those not situated in academia. One example of a contemporary thinker using humour and irony as an academic strategy is Donna Haraway. For Haraway humour is integral to her work and feminist analysis. In her work “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” she explains how irony is a central idea in her writing; “Irony is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, even dialectically, about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both are necessary and true. Irony is about humour and serious play.” Not only does the contemporary feminist need to be able to laugh at their self, but also they need to be actively involved in the (de)construction of humour. In order to explore humourist and feminist concepts, in this essay I will experiment with a mixing of voices. I will toy with the academic voice that is expected by combining it with a voice that contains informal humour. In other words, I will try to be funny as a method of subverting ideas academia; academia subverting ideas of humour: unraveling blanket ideologies surrounding the mysterious, seemingly separate, worlds of feminism and comedy in order to weave them back together.
The question “Why are women not funny?” provokes many of the same reactions that Linda Nochlin outlines in her essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists”. One could even restate the title, as “Why Have There Been No Great Female Comedians” and the resulting essay would be eerily similar. When told that “there are no funny female comedians”, a feminist might feel compelled to answer the question by naming off every funny or not funny female comedian that s/he knows. This reaction does not fix the adherent problematic assumptions of the statement or question. To look further, the word ‘great’ can be substituted with the word ‘funny’ because the concepts behind what is considered funny/great are largely directed by patriarchal pro-masculine societal constructions. The concepts of “funny” and “great” are just a couple examples of problems that arise from our floppy subjective lexicon called the English language.
Obstructive language is not the only barrier; the culture that women have lived throughout history has not been optimal for the creation of art or comedy. Comedians and artists are similar and important in that they both exist in a boundary space where they can take on and share ideas that have risk. They are social interpreters and cultural producers. There has not been a sufficient allotment of time or encouragement for women toward these activities in the past. Although, recently in contemporary art females have broken into a previously almost completely male dominated field. In realm the realm of comedy, woman and girls are still constantly discouraged from being involved in the creation of humour and instead are expected to be the passively laughing audience. Christopher Hitchen states rather lecherously: “Making [women] laugh has been one of the crucial preoccupations of my life… I am talking about that real, out-loud, head-back, mouth-open-to-expose-the-full-horseshoe-of-lovely-teeth, involuntary, full, and deep-throated mirth; the kind that is accompanied by a shocked surprise and a slight (no, make that a loud) peal of delight.” Involuntary is a keyword here. Comedy has the powerful ability to provoke an unexpected reaction. While there is power behind the ability to laugh at something, not being able to contribute or not being heard or appreciated is highly detrimental. Woman have not been associated with being creators of humour although are often the objects of humour, or the “butt” of the joke. In western culture there are many jokes about women; bad driver jokes, blonde jokes, dyke jokes etc. Jokes that can be considered misogynistic or anti-feminist are common popular fodder in comedy and casual discourse.
First, second and third wave feminism has pushed for woman to have the same rights that men have been entitled to and to dissect and deconstruct ideas around gender. One can say that feminists have fought for the right to be taken seriously. The feminist has traditionally refused the cultural stereotype that women are ignorant, irrational, and irresponsible. The ideology of feminism has taken fire for going against stereotypes and has created humour around the seriousness of feminists. Feminists are traditionally considered to be women, which place them in a precarious position; as a woman the feminist is subsumed under these stereotypes. If the feminist feels that she has to present herself as an exception to the stereotypes she risks placing her own identity and body under fire. The statement “I’m not like most girls” assumes that the social and cultural stereotypes surrounding being female are true.
If serious and funny are binary concepts than feminists have skewed towards the serious. Fighting for the right to one’s body and for rights for rape victims doesn’t seem like the right environment for humour to flourish. Yet comedy is often on the forefront of new ideas and derails popular concepts. Feminists must fight for the right to be funny but more importantly than that; humour must undergo redefinition, a paradigm shift.
What is humour? John Morreall explains in his book ‘Taking Laughter Seriously’: “the basic idea… is very simple. We live in an orderly world where we come to expect certain patterns among things, properties, events etc… When we experience something that doesn’t fit these patterns, that violates our expectations, we laugh.” These patterns that Morreall identifies can be read as ideologies and grand narratives that ideate themselves repeatably on the collective consciousness. The violation of these ideas can be read as absurd, improbable, implausible, inappropriate, and nonsensical. With this in mind, feminists need to point the metaphorical finger at the ridiculousness of the cultural hierarchy regarding gender norms. The “Cunt Colouring Book” by Tee Corinne is an example of strategic feminist humour in art because of the way Corinne appropriates the language of colouring books and what results is a violation of the viewers expectations. Pictorial images of vaginas are not culturally considered appropriate for colouring books, which are generally created for children and the “Cunt Coloring Book” questions why the form of the vagina is taboo. It examines the connotations and denotations of the word “cunt” and questions why it is considered an offensive word.
In trin-ti-minh-ha’s “grandma’s story” she explains how a story is never “just a story”. Similarly, a joke is never just a joke. On any particular jokes rests a multitude of cultural stereotypes and assumptions. It differs in the fact that it cannot be deconstructed in the same way a story can. No joke can retain it’s humour if it has to be explained and deconstructed. This is acceptable on the pages of academia but in action or spoken the argument loses it’s power and appears humourless. In comedy, the deconstruction must be hidden, and the resulting idea is what must be presented. E.B. White famously wrote, “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind” (1941). This illustrates this break between the comic and the academic. The majority of people can experience and appreciate humour whereas a much smaller percentage gets joy from deconstructing it. “If you treat an indirect structure directly,” Barthes observes, “it escapes, it empties out, or on the contrary, it freezes, essentializes” (1964 156) such is the case in the art of comedy.
Action is as important as academics to transformation and it has more of an impact on our environments. Feminism is at it’s core about deconstruction of social ideologies surrounding gender which can result in a backlash against the power of humour.
Many jokes about woman and feminist do not operate on presenting unexpected ideologies but reestablish common stereotypes. The humour is presented in the idea of having the courage or “balls” to be able to say it. The desire behind these jokes is to cause a reaction whether in agreement or offense. It is easy to fall victim to reacting and getting angry or offended. When someone is offended because of an off-colour joke they are further belittled by being told that they “can’t take a joke” or “don’t have a sense of humour”. By retorting that “it’s only a joke” allows the speaker to assume non-responsibility for the impact of a joke and the offended party appear humourless.
Humour is an alternative to anger. Feminists have been angry for a long time and understandably so. Existing in a culture in which gender can be cause for being negated, ignored, violated and devalued can be frustrating and the ability to get angry is empowering. Anger is beneficial in that it can be the trigger for action and change, but it is problematic as it is explosive. The energy of angry and rage can be channeled and transformed into comedy.
Comedian Jeremy Beth Micheals calls comics “living prophets” she says, “We say things people are too afraid to say or don’t know how to say. That’s why you laugh at our jokes because you can relate to it.” Comedy is risky. It exists to stretch and break boundaries that are based on social constructions. Comedy ridicules homogeneous moral, social, and political narratives. Humour can foster a sense of community or beliefs and values. Therefore humour is an effective weapon for feminists because it’s relatable.
An artist group that use humour in a way that is effective and strategically feminist is the Guerrilla girls. When asked in an interview found in the book “Confessions of the Guerrilla Girls” (1995) why the guerrilla girls use humour, two “girls” using the code names “Paula Modersohn-Becker” and “Eva Hesse” answered respectfully:
“Our situation as women and artists of color in the art world was so pathetic, all we could do was make fun of it. It felt so good to ridicule and belittle a system that excluded us. There was also that stale idea that feminists don’t have a sense of humor.”
“Actually, our first posters weren’t funny at all, just smart-assed. But we found out quickly that humor gets people involved. It’s an effective weapon.”
Humour has been used as a weapon against feminism in that it deflates specific feminist views by placing them in a context that ridicules them and suggests that they don’t merit serious consideration. Misogynist jokes are funny to me not because I am in agreement with the ideas presented but because the idea that someone could hold and promote these beliefs is absurd considering the context of our current place in history. One must not reinforce these beliefs by encouraging or becoming offended by them, but by using the same language to derail them. In other words, feminists need to have comebacks. The word “comeback” is a key to ideas of feminism in contemporary society. It can be defined as a quick witty retort in response, but also of a return to popularity such as feminism has experienced in the past. A comeback rebounds the expectations that are prevalent in the telling of an offensive joke. The expectation is that the audience will be offended or in agreement. Here are a few comebacks I’ve put together to be used against jokes that are offensive due to their misogynistic humour:
Q:What did the attractive, smart woman say to the misogynist after having sex?
A: Nothing, it would never happen.
Q:Why can’t misogynists tell good jokes?
A: Because they don’t have any balls
Q: How can you tell if someone is a misogynist?
A: Stink lines
Q: How do you upset a misogynist?
A: Tell them that you’re a feminist
A: tell them a woman said something
A: don’t make them a sammich
Q: What did the dinosaur say to the misogynist?
A: Aren’t you extinct?
Q: why are misogynists cute?
A: because they’re dumb
Q: Why was the misogynist so pale?
A: He never left his basement
These jokes are also useful in any situation that has become uncomfortable due to an overtly misogynistic utterance. Of course these aren’t the be all and end all where it comes to strategic feminist humour. Creativity is encouraged, I personally like Sarah Silverman’s tweet “Misogynist humour offends me. Some of my best friends are cunts.”
Winston Churchill once said: “ A joke is a very serious thing” and as such, humour must be considered both seriously and playfully through the feminist lens. To iterate the importance of humour to the contemporary practice of feminism, I will leave you with a comeback to Christopher Hitchens’ article:
Darling Chris, please go eat a bag of dicks. Perhaps you already have, and the result is their regurgitation in your misguided conclusions.
@Sarahksilverman. Web log post. Twitter.com. 5 Sep. 2009. Web. 17 Nov. 2011.
Barthes, Roland. Essais Critiques. Seuil, 1964. 156. Print.
Confessions of the Guerrilla Girls. New York: HarperPerennial, 1995. Print.
Haraway, Donna. “Cyborg Manifesto.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149-81. Print.
Hitchens, Christopher. “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” Vanity Fair Jan. 2007. Print.
Micheals, Jeremy Beth. “Press.” Jeremy Beth Micheals. 2011. Web. <http://www.jeremybethmichaels.com/press/>.
Morreall, John. “The Incongruity Theory.” Taking Laughter Seriously. Albany: State University of New York, 1982. 244-45. Print.
Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Women, Power and Other Essays. Westview, 1988. 147-58. Baker University. Web. 06 Dec. 2011. <http://www.bakeru.edu/faculty/adaugherty/wc/module5/artists.html>.
Trinh, T. Minh-Ha. “Grandma’s Story.” Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989. Print.
White, E. B., and Katharine Sergeant Angell White. “Some Remarks on Humor.” Preface. A Subtreasury of American Humor:. New York: Coward-McCann, 1941. Print. “Winston Churchill.” BrainyQuote.com. Xplore Inc, 2011. 7 December. 2011. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/w/winstonchu126000.html