“I like to make you laugh, because then you are helpless and in my power.” Eccentric epigrammatist Ashleigh Brilliant’s quote—which I may be paraphrasing, since I read it years ago and can’t seem to track it down—used to strike me as witty and charming. I do like to make people laugh. I used to do a little improv and comedy sports, even. More recently, though, I’m seeing a sinister aspect to the saying. To cause someone to laugh is to control them, for however short a time. Typically this control isn’t malevolent, but it is control.
About a year ago, the loathsome Christopher Hitchens decided to splurt forth his theories on Why Women Aren’t Funny. (Want the link? Too bad. The guy’s a douche and the article is one giant eye-roll of self-justifying WASP wankery.) He attempted to limn the difference between “funny” and “clever” (women can be the latter, thankseversomuch), and noted that those women who are funny are typically “hefty or dykey or Jewish.” That is: not proper women. He goes on to false-flatter women’s magical ability to bear children as the reason for their lack of humor: they are biologically disposed to emotional maturity, which is the antithesis of humor. Women are, in short, too evolved for comedy! This is also known as “Putting You On a Pedestal So They Can Look Up Your Skirt (and also Deny You the Pleasure of a Good Poop Joke).”
I’ve already mentioned Hitch enough to nauseate myself, but his leavings are illustrative. Any time anyone tells you that behavior X, which is perfectly acceptable for dudes, is “beneath” women, they are very likely lying to you to keep you from accessing some kind of power that behavior X brings.
Comedy can be a woman’s best friend (after cats, amirite, ladies? Hee hee hee!), because it is usually about breaking the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Aristotle noted, lo these many years ago, that comedy is about people acting “worse than they are” (tragedy is about acting “better.”) And since women’s social behavior is more strictly policed than men’s, women’s boundary breaking is frequently read as their stepping into men’s territory—acting “better than they are,” which is not only “not funny,” but also mutinous. “Hefty or dykey or Jewish,” in other words.
Sure, Aristotle, an old white dude himself, came up with that stuff eleventy billion years ago, but just as one example, think about how many times you’ve seen a dude drag up for a lark. A man dressed as a woman = huge laffs, right? OMG FAKE BEWBZ! Flip it around, and you’re more likely to invite unease and dismissal: “ewww, is she packing?” or “she doesn’t look like a real man.” Sigh.
It’s an uphill battle. The relative lack of women in comedy—and the relative lack of respect for those who are—is no accident. To be a story teller, a framer of human experience, which is what most comics are, you have to be listened to and granted authority. And since contemporary comedy is often about frankness, and giving voice to the absurdities and hypocrisies of everyday life, the road for women who can illuminate the ridiculous double standards that color so much of female experience is that much rockier. No wonder Hitchens and his ilk want to discredit women as funny. It threatens their power.
You’ve probably heard that apocryphal anecdote about two single-sex focus groups asked what they most feared from the opposite sex. Women, quite chillingly, said “That they’ll kill us.” Men said “That they’ll laugh at us.” There is plenty of patriarchal crap in this world that deserves to be killed off. If we can help do it with laughter, so much the better. It’s legal, it’s cheap, and it’s hella fun. Who’s your favorite funny broad?