Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Defining Humor, Excluding Women: The Media Debate

By Anna Piontek

Why aren’t women funny?

This question ricochets off the walls of the media echo chamber every few years or so, prompting public intellectuals to come up with some ridiculous theories and also generally reinforcing the idea that women are a bunch of humorless sods.

To fully respond to all the hullabaloo, it would take chapters, maybe volumes.

So let us focus on the most notable responses to this vexed question.

In 2007, Christopher Hitchens famously responded with a pseudo-anthropological theory. Humor is derived from knowing that life is absurd, he says, and women cannot find life absurd because women bring life into the world. That’s right. We’re not funny because we have babies.

To be fair, I’ll let Hitchens use his own words. He wrote:

“Humor, if we are to be serious about it, arises from the ineluctable fact that we are all born into a losing struggle. Those who risk agony and death to bring children into this fiasco simply can’t afford to be too frivolous.”

Hitchens is an opportunist who defends any and all controversial opinions; we needn’t mistake his willingness to defend unpopular agendas for intellectual courage, as he certainly does. Furthermore, like so many others, Hitchens espouses pseudo-science and invokes half-hearted biological theories to explain what he sees as inequities in women.

The article was published in Vanity Fair in January of ‘07. About a year later, Alessandra Stanley wrote a rebuttal piece for the same magazine, showcasing the talents of successful female comedians such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and others. The article basically waves a taunting finger under Hitchens’ splotchy, bloated nose and says, “Nah-nuh-nah-nuh-boo-boo, look at all these wonderful women who are funny.”

The obvious response to Hitchens and anyone of a similar opinion is the very college-y sounding idea that, whoa, what is considered funny is socially constructed.

As feminist theorists have observed, masculine creation is generally considered “the norm,” while feminine creation is “marked,” and different. The social construction of humor, as we know it, is male. The definition of humor, then, is a biased one, based on the social standards created in a male-dominated art form.

Geez, I feel like we’re in Gender Studies 101 here. Hitchens apparently hasn’t yet cracked open that volume of Judith Butler his wife bought him last Christmas. (Oh, that’s right, he probably hates Christmas.) Hell, he hasn’t even looked at Foucault yet, too busy was he gazing at himself in a reflective pool to read the words of another.

More recently, Germaine Greer, a feminist and scholar, said on television that women are not as funny as men. She later revised the statement in a column that appeared earlier this March in the Guardian, saying that though women are “at least as intelligent as men,” we have not “developed the arts of fooling, clowning, badinage, repartee, burlesque and innuendo into a semi-continuous performance as so many men have.”

Greer’s idea is trickier, as it doesn’t point to an inherent lack in women, like Hitchens’ theory does. Her theory is sociological. But instead of wondering aloud if women are less willing to make a fool of ourselves in front on an audience (she did this), she should have seen the glaring institutional inequities that still prevent women from dominating, or even rivaling, the presence of men in comedy.

Discovering why women are not as prominent as men in comedy requires examining the intersections of sociological, psychological and institutional phenomena. But try to untangle the web of causes for why people think women aren’t funny, and why women sometimes don’t find themselves funny, and what you’ve got is a big headache.

The easiest solution to allow for more women into the realm of comedy is to explode both Hitchens and Greer’s idea that humor is somehow objective and definable. There is no hard and fast rule for what is funny; there is no universal comedic code. Women have our own language for humor, but it has rarely seen the light of day. The world has been so long exposed to men’s witty one-liners and penis jokes that it’s now time for some good old-fashioned long-winded story telling, à la women in my life.

But luckily there’s hope: loads of it. Our humor landscape is dotted with talented women who have made it in a male-dominated genre. With more women in the biz, brands of previously “marked” humor are getting more exposure. Furthermore, young women are growing up with female comedian icons in high profile positions (some even have their own shows!), such as the afore mentioned Fey, but also Sarah Silverman, Amy Sedaris, Ellen, Sarah Haskins, Samantha Bee and Chealsea Handler, for starters.

One day, there will be room for men’s humor, women’s humor, and, I can only hope, crossbreeds of the two.

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