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  • Tom

Why People Say "Women Aren't Funny"

Updated: Nov 15, 2022

It seems a strange notion to me to assign any set of criteria to what makes something funny. Looking back as far as we can through our brief and transitory place in history, the place of comedy has been ever-present and ever-changing. We can observe this over the course of a few hundred years. I defy anyone between the ages of 18-30 (I suggest these parameters as they are the most inclined to be influenced by the most current forms of comedy) to read any of the frequent literary wit in Shakespeare’s portfolio and genuinely cackle.

SAMPSON

Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads.

-Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene I


Has anyone past the 17th Century really read/seen that and lost their minds laughing – ‘ha! Maidenheads! Like virginity! Oh, God that’s good…’ I doubt it.

This is not an assault on the wit of Shakespeare – unquestionably, it goes without saying that he was a genius of comedy among many other things (I’m sure his spirit would much be soothed knowing that an undergraduate English student had said that). But the point is, comedy is ever-changing, and perhaps more elusive than ever. The birth of the meme, for example - ironically a term invented by a man who has himself been a rampant victim (or champion?) of meme culture, Richard Dawkins – has changed comedy into a different kind of nano-form, bursts of humour. The genesis might have originated in traditional set-up/punchline jokes such as:

Yet now we see memes have become something far more complex and intangible, a form which revels in irony. Some dub this ‘Gen Z humour’, and it looks something like this:
Some readers among you over the age of 25 might have looked at this last photo with a quizzical frown – ‘how is this funny?’ To those, I admit, as a member of Gen Z, I chuckled. There is nothing drabber than explaining a joke – it is the undoing of itself. It’s like a medical professor teaching human anatomy by dissecting themself before the class. But I’ll give it a go…

The simplest way of explaining it is its absurdity; the lack of context, the low quality, the misspelling – none of it adds up. Bear in mind, as a teenager, I and all of my peers are over-saturated in the meme format – we know what to expect. Therefore, for a meme to subvert that expectation, to abandon trying to make us laugh with effort, and to embrace a lack of effort, is unique enough to spark a breath of air through the nose. It might be the meta, parodical elements of the meme form that make it so amusing, but who’s to really say?

This demonstrates comedy's intangible nature. It is fluent and metamorphic – one can’t quite quantify it or limit it. Yes, one can say that some things are reliably funny most of the time, but it is impossible to suggest what can never be funny, because I defy anyone ten – even five – years ago to have been able to predict that, if shown the latter meme, it would have been considered humorous to an entire generation.

Therefore, when noting this anamorphous quality to comedy, it is absolutes and aphorisms such as ‘women aren’t funny’ which offend me – no, not as a woman (I am in fact a straight-white-male, Lord save me) but as a lover of comedy.
Scrolling through the comments of my stand up account on Instagram, I will invariably find strewn among the posts of female comedians, ‘women aren’t funny’. At first, like many would, I took this as mere, surface-level misogyny. The bread and butter of discrimination – trusty, but simple. It gets the job done without much effort. But then I came across another comment: ‘look up Matt Walsh tries to laugh at female comedians.’ Intrigued, I went online, and found a bearded, deep-voiced, stern man with a sorrowful temperament as he introduced his series wherein he watches female comics with the (feigned) hope of laughing. However, it becomes quite clear from the get-go, before he even presses play, that this is a losing battle. Various sort-of-sarcastic-but-not-really ironic comments about how the unfunny women are in general, how the previous comedienne had failed, and how all he wants, oh God, oh please, is just to find but one funny comedian of the fairer sex – no, not even that, just to laugh once at a woman’s joke. This quickly becomes less of an experiment and more of a dry sketch.
He acts out, as he pauses intermittently, a quasi-analysis of their jokes, claiming to be on the edge of laughter and just needing the final push before – oh, Jesus – she blew it. Well, I guess it must be true – women just aren’t funny. Matt Walsh couldn’t laugh so go home, women, it’s just not for you. Maybe try something more feminine instead like nursing or motherhood…

While Walsh may just seem a microcosm of misogyny, all it takes is a simple YouTube search to find that this is not at all anomalous – countless YouTubers getting hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of views with titles usually along the lines of ‘Trying to Laugh at Female Comedians – 99.99% WILL FAIL!’. But while many might be soothed by deeming this an off-brand minority of niche internet trolls unable to touch the mainstream media, think again. One of the most famed academic celebrities (a strange trope which seemed to rise following the televised William F. Buckley, Gore Vidal debates) who rose to notoriety first as a journalist though subsequently a TV personality published an essay entitled: ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’ on January First, 2007 - in Vanity Fair, no less! His name was Christopher Hitchens, and he comes from the same generation of famed polemic intellectuals as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Fry, Sam Harris and many more. A modern equivalent for reference might be Jordan Peterson.

So here we have it: this defacing of female comics exists not only in bigoted social media comments, but mainstream intellectual journalism. The bigots, then, not only get to spew their abuse, but get to flaunt Hitchens' pretty words to back it up. So, what are the driving factors that they claim to justify such beliefs, if not just simply a hatred for women?

As far as my research extends, I have come across three main schools of thought in the ‘Women Aren’t Funny’ movement, as I shall call it. First of all, and most simply: misogyny. I won’t dwell on this as it’s pretty self-explanatory, though it’s necessary to note that most famed members of this movement that have any sort of mainstream following do not (or claim not to) belong to this party – they will make sure to remind you of how much they love women – often putting men down in comparison to them, though this seems more of an exaggerated attempt to reinforce how ‘anti-misogynistic’ they are. In other words, they try to have their cake and eat it too.

The second main school of thought, and one which Matt Walsh among other more bigots with some degree of notoriety are most concerned, is that women’s comedy is all too commonly involved topics of vulgarity. According to Walsh: ‘So many female comedians are frankly really really terrible. It’s because they’re so impressed with their own vulgarity […] and so they think that the audience is just going to laugh at the vulgarity itself just for its own sake.’ I find this to be a curious argument, especially considering the many iconic male comedians who have made a living from detailing their masturbation habits, sexual lifestyles, or the intricacies of their bowel movements. Louis CK – one of my personal favourite comedians – comes to mind. The main fault in this argument is a similar one Achebe made about Heart of Darkness in An Image of Africa (a strange tangent, I know, but stick with me here). Achebe writes: ‘And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.’

Of course, the glaring fault in Achebe’s argument is that, if we say that Heart of Darkness is indeed a racist work (which it isn’t) that means that it is no longer a medium of expression, imagination and argumentation. Unfortunately for Achebe, the two are not mutually exclusive – Dave Chappelle once said on racist comics, ‘sometimes, I even appreciate the artistry which they paint their racist opinions with.’ Art is about expression, not theme, though indeed art can, and often does, express extremely heinous themes. The same can be said for comedy. It too is not limited to theme, nor is it limited to sex/gender. We have seen that male comics have reached unfathomable heights discussing the most vulgar topics known to man – it still gets laughs. Female comics have every right to do the same. If something abides by the rules of comedy (which I hesitate to write as rules seem the antithesis to comedy) then regardless of the theme, it’s comedy! Besides, this whole counter-argument accepts the outrageous claim that all female comedy is vulgar – it isn’t. Walsh’s viewers seem all too keen to forget that he has the privilege of cherry-picking and splicing together clips which tend to contain vulgarity.
This school of thought feels less like a devised argument, and more an excuse to exercise the suppression of female comics. Vulgarity exists within us all, but it’s something that most of us are too embarrassed to talk about. Therefore, if a comedian strays there, it’s easy for a critic to substitute good points for the moral high ground. It makes the critic seem like an unchallengeable and altruistic figure – in reality, it’s a sheath to hide behind when one doesn’t have any points, or in this case, when one is disinclined to just admit ‘I dislike women’. There is a common expression: truth in comedy. Well vulgarity is truth, and sometimes it can be cathartic to laugh at what makes us feel most disgusting, revolting, immoral. This is what makes vulgarity in comedy so common. That being said, there is no evidence that women favour this style of comedy any more than men do.

The third, and within the movement the most adored school of thought, mainly because of the guise of Hitchens’ rhetoric as well as the quasi-scientific evidence he provides, is that women simply don’t need to be funny. In Hitchens’ aforementioned essay, Why Women Aren’t Funny, Hitchens first describes how most men ‘had better be able to make the lady laugh’ in order to procreate, while women ‘have no corresponding need to appeal to men in this way. They already appeal to men.’ What seems so bizarre to me is how vehemently this is believed among various groups when there is a complete lack of relaible data to back it up - Hitchens' hypothesis is based on evidence which is merely anecdotal. Yet YouTubers paraphrase it, herald it, quote from it like some great scripture. This is by no means a scientific thesis. Yes, there is data within it; Hitchens cites a study at the Stanford University of Medicine, where ten men and ten women were shown identical black and white cartoons, and their reactions were measured. Hitchens sums up the results by saying that women were ‘slower to get it, more pleased when they do, and swift to locate the unfunny.’
But this study measures reactions to comedy between the sexes, not the quality of being funny. It proves nothing on the efficacy of male/female humour. What's more, it’s hardly a comprehensive study – twenty participants to define the entire human race? Where are the repetitions? Were they the same races? Backgrounds? Economic brackets? Did they all own cars? What are the hidden variables? This is not evidence, it is a rhetorical tool to enforce a subtle and nuanced sophistry which, admittedly, is expertly utilised – perhaps this is what makes the essay so popular among younger neoconservatives. Then again, maybe it’s just because they want an excuse to put down female comics.

Hitchens goes on to describe how comedy arises from the fact that ‘we are all born into a losing struggle’ – again, an absolute which I struggle with for its totality; yes, pessimistic comedy is funny, but not all comedy is pessimistic. He goes on by saying that, because women have far too much on their plate with the burden of childbearing, they cannot possibly have a sense of humour about such bleak concepts, and therefore are less funny than their male counterparts. He writes: ‘Those who bring agony and death into this fiasco simply can’t afford to be too frivolous’. Again, Hitchens is attempting to make some wild anthropological claims which he just cannot back up. What about women before they have children? What about women who never have children? What about women who are menopausal? Is it simply the prospect of child-bearing or the owning of children? He does not (because he cannot) specify. Hitchens writes with the confidence of an academic journalist in a piece of scientific research – in reality, he’s writing an Op-Ed in Vanity Fair. This is not absolute, this is not evidence, it’s an opinion, much to the chagrin of those who seem to flaunt this essay as if it were some holy scripture.

All in all, though, what offends me most about Hitchens’ essay is not its contents – he is quite willing to admit that, unlike Walsh who is more of an internet troll than an opinionated thinker, there are indeed many funny women out there. He cites Fran Lebowitz, Dorothy Parker and Nora Ephron as some of his favourites. (Though don’t get too excited – he only permits these comediennes the title of ‘funny’ due to their ‘hefty or dykey or Jewish’ nature.) Therefore, his title, Why Women Aren’t Funny, is misleading, and an early form of click-bait to seek angry readers. Hitchens knows he is provoking, lazily encouraging readers to indulge his writing in outrage. My aforementioned issue (a word which Hitchens ironically complains in his essay that ‘we pathetically misuse’) with his absolutes are disproved by himself in his very essay. Women are funny, and he states it! He seems more obsessed with popular journalism and provocation than he does genuine discussion. Dishonest titles, misleading data, anecdotal evidence – these things are the antithesis to truth, which is curious considering Hitchens was otherwise mostly a valiant fighter for it.

Ultimately, if Hitchens’ goal is to analyse comedy, his desire to do this though the lens of sex/gender is a losing battle, as it is totally irrelevant. It’s like analysing culinary excellence in chefs by way of hair-colour – it is a variable, yes, but relevant? Comedy is something which, as we have observed, is so limitless that it cannot be predicted or defined. There are things which we know are funny – often it’s laughing at someone else’s expense; often it’s subverting expectations (AKA a punchline). But there is no way of knowing what is always not funny, and even if there were, to limit this to the sex of the mouth from whom it is delivered is just plain stupid. Even if we were to indulge Hitchens’ hypothesis that women cannot be as funny as men as ‘they simply cannot afford to be so frivolous,’ there are still plenty of other forms of comedy that are not just bleak. Michael McIntyre, for example. I defy anyone to find a McIntyre bit with any mention of child mortality.

This same counter-argument can be applied to Hitchens’ claim that funny women are only funny when imitating men. Comedy is not a male concept; it is secularised from any limits of origin. For Hitchens, what makes a man funnier than a woman is that he is aware of the total absurdity and futility of his existence, while a woman is far too preoccupied with childbearing to bear to think about it. A man is aware that he is ‘born into a losing struggle’. But Hitchens fails to realise that what makes us laugh at a man who grapples with his failed existence is the same thing that makes us laugh at a cat who chases their own tail – we indulge in their struggle to grapple with the impossible. It’s just a matter of scale. For a cat, being unable to catch its tale is on par with a man realising that he will never achieve his dreams. Notice how a cat does not need to be male to do this. Neither does a woman.
Contrary to what many might think, I’m really not trying to be the man in shining armour here, the straight-white-male pandering to the far left to accrue a favourable audience – I really could not care less. In fact, I have a deep vitriol to much of the entitlement that pervades the far left. And while I usually think it a weakness to include personal and anecdotal writing in essays such as this, I feel it becomes important to understand where I am coming from as a writer so as to eliminate in the reader any suspicion of bias. My passion is comedy, not politics. I am offended by the notion of a limitation on what makes something funny, not the contents of the limitation. I would have been just as offended if people were clamoured contemptuously that all people on the Southern Hemisphere aren't funny. My hypothesis of misogyny being the driving force of this common aphorism ‘women aren’t funny’ is just that – merely a hypothesis. It is not because I have an agenda I’m trying to push; to me it seems the most logical explanation. It’s obvious women can be funny – whether they are just as funny as men seems a futile question. How can you quantify humour? Jokes per minute? Intensity of laughter? Time spent laughing? You’re assigning quantifying measures to a qualitative question. ‘Comedy is subjective’ – remember? You can’t measure something which is subjective. For me, it’s not a question of ‘are women funny?’, but rather, ‘why do you feel the need to ask?’





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