Laughter can be exhilarating, stress relieving, and even healing. A terrifying experience or sad memory can be turned into a humorous one if viewed in a new context. From an anthropological perspective, humor acts to remove social pressures and reinforce bonds between individuals and social groups. It is used everyday, to build relationships, remark on problematic social issues, or simply to get a laugh. In its most basic sense comedy is a force for good. But what exactly makes comedy comedic? Certainly comedy is a subjective concept and everyone has a different sense of humor. The instigators of laughter are innumerable and can be caused by physical mishaps, cleverly crafted wordplay, or absurd situations. While one person might enjoy situational comedies on cable TV, another person might only laugh at a well placed line in a novel. Sometimes comedy is painted in broad strokes with slapstick physical comedy, and other times it can be conceived at a higher level in the form of a satirical newspaper article that addresses political issues with a shrewd tongue. Notice that none of the examples of comedic devices listed above rely inherently on masculinity. So, why then, do a host of people claim that “women can’t be funny”?
Historically, the world of entertainment and performance art has long been dominated by men. As far back as the Shakespearean era women weren’t allowed to act or perform. Through the centuries women have been told to be quiet and to not draw attention to themselves, and entertainment is thoroughly about attracting attention for the enjoyment of the audience. Because of this, men have had greater social freedoms to act in theatrical and comedic spheres. In Audrey Bilger’s book, Laughing Feminism: Subversive Comedy in Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen, she addresses the controversy of female comediennes in eighteenth-century England, stating how many believed that the freedom that comedy allowed would “lead to promiscuous behavior” and that women were “seen as potentially disruptive to the social order” (15). Comedy itself as an art form encourages jokes and routines that “break down barriers” and “turn the tables” against oppressors (Bilger, 15); in short, it is a very powerful tool that men were uncomfortable with women wielding, and a discomfort they still harbor today.
It wasn’t until the twentieth century that women have started to truly break out and steal the spotlight in mediums like television, film, literature, and stand up. Any sort of radical change like this – audience exposure to more female comedians and performers – was likely to have disruptive effects on a social system, even if the system was admittedly unbalanced by a dominion of men. Unfortunately, like any other time the human race has progressed as a society, those who once enjoyed a position of privilege have bemoaned their loss of power, even when the transference of that power from one group to another benefited society as a whole. As more notably funny women have gained popularity and recognition, many men have felt threatened because they believe that they’re perceived superiority is being undermined. This fear has led to their attempts to discredit these successful women by declaring them incapable of being funny. This sentiment alone is ill founded because, like most creative pursuits, comedy is something that can be practiced and refined. Though some people are surely born with a natural wit, many can be humorous in a professional sense if they actively observe the world through a whimsical lens, study the works and influences of comedic figures, and understand the logistics of the craft such as timing, structure, and audience expectation. And none of these things have anything to do with skin color, religious creed, or gender. Or at least, they shouldn’t.
Still, women are told time and again that they can’t be funny, as if it is a concept that they genetically are unable to possess. Vanity Fair writer Christopher Hitchens even wrote an article titled, “Why Women Aren’t Funny” which smacks of misogyny as he crudely declares that men “as a whole” are “funnier than women” and that the few handful he does find humorous are either “hefty or dykey or Jewish” or “some combo of the three.” Hitchens’ gross over generalization and inflammatory language seeks not only to pat himself on the back for validating his sexist beliefs and the beliefs of other men, but also to insult women who exceed his expectations.
Even when women rise to the top and prove themselves as comediennes, critics like Hitchens stand ready in the shadows to degrade them for their appearance, sexuality, or ethnicity. It seems that women can’t win the total respect of men who are determined to find them unfunny. It’s disturbing that sentiments like these can be found too often in credible magazine articles, stand up routines of countless comedians, and the comments section of nearly any video featuring a female talent. Our society still has a long way to go before men like these openly admit that women are funny. Fortunately, it is doubtful that prosperous comedic figures like Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, or Tina Fey dwell long on the criticisms they receive, as intelligent people don’t seek the respect of idiots.
Bilger, Audrey. Laughing Feminism: Subversive Comedy in Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998. Print.
Hitchens, Christopher. “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” Vanity Fair Jan. 2007: n. pag. Web.