Gender and humor

I don’t think Christopher Hitchens is a misogynist. I think that he, like many men, believes strongly in women’s rights, women’s freedom, and women’s equality. I also think that he, like many men, falls into the habit of viewing women through a skewed lens, a lens that sees their sexual and reproductive roles as primary and essential, while all the other aspects of their personhood are secondary. Or perhaps he doesn’t see things this way all the time, but it was certainly the dominant perspective in his 2007 article Why Women Aren’t Funny, which for some reason has been re-circulating the blogrounds recently.

I found the article mildly amusing and quite a bit annoying, and unfortunately reminiscent of a more recent Jesse Bering article that I won’t bother to link to. I like Hitchens much more than I like Bering, so it’s through Hitchens’ article that I’m going to attack this general notion that women aren’t as funny as men, and that this is probably mainly due to sexual selection pressures in the environment humans evolved in.

First of all, the instinct that “men are funnier than women” comes — can only come — from observations of our contemporary culture. It’s true that most professional comedians are men; it’s true that, at a party, the person likely to be talking loudly and making everybody else laugh is more likely to be a man. But it’s my opinion that we can find sufficient cause for this trend in our culture by looking at current male and female cultural dynamics, without resorting to how-things-were-on-the-savannah.

It’s a truism that professional comedians aren’t usually conventionally attractive, whether male or female. A comic can be old, fat, big-nosed, wild-haired… in fact, if there’s something odd about their looks, they seem to do better. Even attractive comedians (Jon Stewart, Tina Fey) are attractive in a cute-person-next-door kind of way, not a smokin-hottie kind of way.

My guess is that there’s a two-way cause-and-effect dynamic here. Many people who feel awkward and ugly in youth use humor as a way of gaining social success, whereas the Beautiful People have no need for it; so being less-than-stunning might make one more likely to exercise a gift for humor. On the flip side, I suspect that being stunningly gorgeous actually hampers your ability to make people laugh (genuinely, as opposed to sycophantically.) Beauty is intimidating, and we can’t laugh genuinely at someone we feel intimidated by. Humor can exist when we’re feeling a sense of cameraderie or derision, but not of awe and anxiety.

Note that this attractiveness standard applies equally to males and female. I can’t think of any comics, male or female, who rise above the cute-neighbor level of physical attractiveness. How does this apply to the gender disparity in comic ability? In our culture, women are far more rewarded than men are for achieving high levels of physical beauty. Men, in many cases, are even punished for it. So in the public eye, stunningly beautiful women are overrepresented, while men get a much more even distribution of talents and qualities.

Then there’s the question of humor’s impact on sexual success. A large part of Hitchens’ article is dedicated to the point that a funny man has a better chance of getting laid, so men are both biologically and culturally encouraged to develop their sense of humor. I don’t dispute the premise (funny men are more likely to get laid), but I think the reasons for this lie mostly in our current cultural reference frame, and that we can’t conclude anything about whether funny men at the dawn of humanity were likelier to get laid, and therefore can’t conclude that men have been under biological pressure to be funny.

In our culture, it’s another truism that a man has to work hard to get laid, while a woman pretty much just has to consent. I’ve written about this before, and if you recall, one of my contentions is that a woman’s relative reluctance to engage in casual sex with someone she’s just met has to do with trust and safety issues — issues that were probably not relevant in our evolutionary environment of small tribes. One thing humor does is create a heightened sense of trust. Laughter is relaxing to the body, and the ability to share a moment of humor demonstrates that we share a cultural reference frame; in a sense, it marks someone as being “of our tribe.” If someone can make us laugh, we have already let our guard down and been rewarded for it. This alone, in my opinion, is enough to account for the way humor increases a man’s sexual success. All the other things humor does — demonstrates intelligence, gives pleasure, draws attention to to comic — work equally well for men and women, and I see no reason why they shouldn’t have done so in our prehistoric days as well.

Along with this, there is one reason why being funny might actually decrease a woman’s sexual success: the same reason being smart, or rich, or skillful might decrease a woman’s sexual success. Men are conditioned to believe that they have to earn a woman’s interest by being better in some way: not just likeable and sexy, but also richer or smarter or more talented — or funnier. A woman who outdoes a man in these areas is often demoted from attractive to intimidating. (Check out Figleaf’s post here for more on how social hierarchy affects gender and humor.)

Which brings me to the biggest problem in Hitchens’ article about why women aren’t funny. Women actually are funny — and they’re funny about a lot of the things that Hitchens assumes women don’t see the humor in, like bodily functions and fluids. Half an hour spent in the company of female nurses will quickly disabuse anyone of the notion that women can’t be funny about the lewd and low and messy aspects of life: that is, it will quickly disabuse any woman of that notion. The nurses usually won’t make those jokes if there’s a man present, and why? Because men find it unsexy. Women are trained to carefully hide from men any hint that they fart and poop and menstruate, because men find it gross and offputting. Hitchens writes several eloquent and rather sweetly naïve paragraphs about how women are engaged in the serious business of bearing and raising the next generation, and can’t afford to be light about bodies, and he seems to completely miss the fact that all he really knows is that women aren’t telling these jokes around him.

Of course, women usually find body-humor jokes unsexy too, and men trying to get laid don’t usually indulge in this particular brand of humor. But Hitchens, because he is a man, has lots of experience with the way men talk when there are no women around. He has, I can safely assume, practically no experience with the way women talk when there are no men around, and he makes the mistake of assuming that there isn’t a difference.

I had an extremely hard time communicating to my boyfriend why this article and its assumptions irritated me so much. When men try to write about essential differences between men and women, they seem to forget how skewed their perspective necessarily is. Men see, to a disproportionate degree, the way women behave when they are trying to appeal to men. This functions both on an individual level (a man will rarely if ever see women joking the way women do when it’s just women) and on a cultural level (because men have held the economic and political power for so long, a lot of not-appealing-to-men behaviors in women have been suppressed outright.) So you have a man, being ever-so-clever about how men’s and women’s disparate displays of humor tell us something essential about men and women, completely missing the possibility that it’s articles and ideas like his that continue to uphold a cultural environment where men and women display disparate levels of humor.

When you think about it like that, it’s almost funny.

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10 thoughts on “Gender and humor

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