Christopher Hitchens saw WMDs in Iraq but missed the humor in women

Christopher HitchensChristopher Hitchens’s death, much like his life, provoked much discussion and reflection, as well as praise, sorrow, glee, homage-paying, and copious changing of Facebook profile pictures. Since Hitch died last Thursday, several writers have revisited his unwavering support for the Iraq War and his sexism.  Hitchens was as insistent and wrong about the absence of humor in women as he was the presence of WMDs in Iraq. Clearly, perpetuating the second lie has been more harmful, leading to war, deaths, debilitating injuries, trauma, economic and geopolitical disasters. But, since the debate over WMDs is finished, let’s discuss the myth that women aren’t funny, as immortalized in Hitch’s Vanity Fair article,”Why Women Aren’t Funny.”

Like Hitch did, I’ll use a combination of anecdotes and scientific studies to make my point. (Actually, I’ll cite twice as many studies as Hitch did. Before you get too excited about my exhaustive research, you should know that he only cited one.)

A few years ago, I attended a panel featuring late-night female comedy writers. A woman in the audience said “OK, well, you ladies are all very funny. But when I turn on the TV, I see only men on late night.” I thought for sure that her comment would lead to some sort of rhetorical question asking why there weren’t more funny women in front of the camera. Instead, however, she wrapped up her comment with the following rhetorical question: “So, I dunno? Could it be that men are just funnier?” I was shocked and appalled and not so diplomatically returned my own rhetorical question: “And I guess people of color are less represented in academia because they are just less smart?”

My point, of course, was precisely the opposite: that structural and systemic historical, economic and political issues are responsible for the under-representation of people of color. I’m aware of the limits of analogies, and of these in particular, and am in no way comparing under-representation of women in the field of comedy to de facto racism and the legacies of institutionalized racism. But deducing that fewer visible women in comedy means women are not funny (like deducing that the under-representation of people of color means they are not as smart) is ridiculous and shallow, and attributes success and failure, and visibility and representation wholly to innate qualities.

The issue isn’t whether women are funny, but the truth is there are fewer female comedians.  Some of my best friends are funny females, who demonstrate on a daily basis that women are just as hilarious as men. Obviously women haven’t been denied access to comedy clubs, funny movies or courses on writing comedy. So what, besides lack of talent, could possibly account for their under-representation?

Hidden in Hitchens’s article are hints at the truth, which he regrettably never teased out. Had Hitchens not pursued his ridiculous thesis that women are innately less funny than men because they are preoccupied by baby-making, he could have explored in more depth the issue that he hints at briefly in his article: that women are discouraged from seeming too smart or too funny. He may have realized that his article was itself demonstrating that men perceive women as  less funny, regardless of the facts on the ground.

A recent study, based on cartoon captions, shows that while men scored only marginally higher than women, men were much more confident in their own performance than women were. And when asked to match the captions to the gender, the less funny ones were misattributed to women, while the funnier ones were misattributed to men. Men’s humor is overestimated and women’s is underestimated, suggesting a bias that colors perception.

Research also shows that while both men and women say they look for a “sense of humor” in a partner, women want a humor “generator,” while men seek a humor “appreciator.” In plainspeak: for a woman, a good sense of humor means someone who is funny. For a man, it’s someone who gets how funny he is.

Ultimately, Hitchens, like the woman in the audience, missed the point. Women aren’t unfunny by nature. Instead, they aren’t encouraged to display their humor or to pursue careers that require them to do so. We need to work on making sure it’s just as acceptable for a woman to crack a joke as it is for a man. Given how funny women already are with the pressure to avoid that sort of expression, imagine how funny they’d be if they were encouraged. No wonder some men are afraid of the mix of women and humor.


Born and raised on the mean streets of New York City’s Upper West Side, Katie Halper is a comic, writer, blogger, satirist and filmmaker based in New York. Katie graduated from The Dalton School (where she teaches history) and Wesleyan University (where she learned that labels are for jars.) A director of Living Liberally and co-founder/performer in Laughing Liberally, Katie has performed at Town Hall, Symphony Space, The Culture Project, D.C. Comedy Festival, all five Netroots Nations, and The Nation Magazine Cruise, where she made Howard Dean laugh! and has appeared with Lizz Winstead, Markos Moulitsas, The Yes Men, Cynthia Nixon and Jim Hightower. Her writing and videos have appeared in The New York Times, Comedy Central, The Nation Magazine, Gawker, Nerve, Jezebel, the Huffington Post, Alternet and Katie has been featured in/on NY Magazine, LA Times, In These Times, Gawker,Jezebel, MSNBC, Air America, GritTV, the Alan Colmes Show, Sirius radio (which hung up on her once) and the National Review, which called Katie “cute and some what brainy.” Katie co-produced Tim Robbins’s film Embedded, (Venice Film Festival, Sundance Channel); Estela Bravo’s Free to Fly (Havana Film Festival, LA Latino Film Festival); was outreach director for The Take, Naomi Klein/Avi Lewis documentary about Argentine workers (Toronto & Venice Film Festivals, Film Forum); co-directed New Yorkers Remember the Spanish Civil War, a video for Museum of the City of NY exhibit, and wrote/directed viral satiric videos including Jews/ Women/ Gays for McCain.

Katie is a writer, comedian, filmmaker, and New Yorker.

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  • dylan

    Awesome article! I wish somebody had introduced Hitch to Estelle Getty.

  • billy williams

    I don’t see how you can call him a sexist.I’ve noticed through my life that the majority of those who are funny are men.Sure,There are some funny women but the majority of people i’ve noticed are male,Not because of something in women that makes them less funny,It’s just i guess a coincidence & i don’t think you’re a sexist for pointing that out.

    R.I.P. Christopher!

    • ksim43

      Actually, you are, because bigotry is based on the observations in a sampling of a population and then applying it to the entire group. In the case, Hitchens, and you, are using your anecdotal observations, ie, the funniness observed in men and women, to come to a conclusion you express as fact. It’s lazy thinking to assume that your personal experiences extrapolate to entire populations; and often satisfaction with that kind of lazy thinking then becomes the foundation for bigoted stereotypes that people express and defend; some even blame and complain about “political correctness” as the problem, as if reconsidering a stereotype is like losing a prized possession (and for many, it may very well be).

      As for the article, great work again from this writer.

      • Sam Lindsay-Levine

        Great explanation! I need to work the phrase “satisfaction with lazy thinking” into more of my conversations.

      • billy williams

        I never applied it to all women,Neither did Christopher i said the majority of those i have come across,-How is that bigoted?

  • James

    Hitchens kind of lost me halfway through there. I got that same feeling that he was on to something. It didn’t sound like he was asserting that women aren’t funny, but that they’re just not driven and motivated to be funny as much.
    Here are my own thoughts, and please excuse me if they’re offensive. They’re just my own observations and thoughts, and I completely welcome your contradicting them.
    When anyone brings up the idea of women being less funny, I can’t help but think of my hero, Helen Killer. Clearly women can be as funny or funnier than men. Done.
    When the issue is brought up in a Feminist space though, I think of dickwolves. The feminist world rises up against humor every now and then; kind of like the Muslim world now that I think about it. The Feminist world has open letters to Pixar asking them to censor their content for offensiveness. I’m not saying that Feminists kill humor, but that I think that there’s a cultural divide between how men and women get to practice humor. I mean practice in the very real sense of practicing.
    I feel that someone’s more likely to be reprimanded for being offensive, inappropriate, or hurtful with a female audience. I think that women are likely to get condemned harder; whereas guys get more of a pass from women. Think about it. If someone relays something funny in a group, and someone calls it out as being hurtful, who does the group side with? My natural inclination is to believe that a female audience with a female joke teller is going to be more likely side with the offended party, whereas a group with a larger male composition is likely going to make the offended party the subject of ridicule. I’d love to hear if your experience is different. My whole point is that I think that you’re more free to be funny in a male dominated space, and even in a female dominated space your more free to be funny without worrying about offending people if you are a male. I feel that as a guy you can be reprimanded and rewarded at the same time for saying things that you’re not supposed to say.
    Hence, women aren’t less funny. They’re just less free to be funny. I know women who are funny. I just think that a female audience has a higher proportion of individuals who will shut down humor for offensiveness, and they’re more likely to win support.
    Your thoughts?

  • Rae

    Often little girls are discouraged from being funny when adults tell them that their jokes are silly or innapropriate, while many boys are encouraged to try out jokes and pranks that allow them to develop a personal sense of humor. Gender typing affects children long into their adulthood.

  • Katie

    Ummm, did you click on the article I linked to the word “sexism”
    That’s how I can call him sexist. And did you read the actual post?

  • Katie

    To clarify, my question is directed to Billy. Ummm, did you click on the article I linked to the word “sexism”
    That’s how I can call him sexist. And did you read the actual post?

  • emmie

    Katie, great article! It is a shame that women are not encouraged to display their humor the same way men are. It really upsets me. I have two questions that for some reason I’ve never been able to understand. As Rae had touched upon, why is it exactly that girls are discouraged from displaying humor whereas boys are, and why is it that more men then women want a woman who can “appreciate” their humor, rather then a woman who is also just as funny? I have heard all about those studies and know about the culture over the years but for the life of me I’ve never been able to understand WHY it’s like that.

  • nora eisenberg

    I can’t help but wonder if systemic patriarchal discouragement of humor in girls and women doesn’t derive from male fear. Could it be that little girls are made of…not envy of penis, but amusement? Could it be that an early impulse of little girls is to laugh at the funny dangling thing that encumbers the space between male legs? So from the fundamental patriarchal fear of the penis being a laughing matter cometh the prohibition against female humor? Just joking!

    • Tiffany

      My kind of humor! Brilliant and probably true. Lmao.
      Ahh yes, the fantastic double standards we live by. I think Jessica forgot the “He’s a joker, She’s a wanna be” double standard in her book. Oh well there’s plenty more to choose from…

  • Malaise

    Even the smartest people can make some dumb mistakes. I think Hitchens was a brilliant man in many respects — and I hope he is remembered for his many worthwhile contributions — but his article on women and humor was dead wrong. (I think my favorite response was this Washington Post column featuring rebuttal quips from many hilarious women.)

    In plainspeak: for a woman, a good sense of humor means someone who is funny. For a man, it’s someone who gets how funny he is.

    Is that really the case? I believe and hope that’s a gross overgeneralization from one study. Certainly when I look for a “sense of humor” in a woman I want someone who can actually make me laugh. And most of my female friends (who are, I should point out, very funny) are also quite interested in finding people with a “sense of humor” who appreciate their wit. I guess the part about more frequently using humor to bond versus tear down isn’t all wrong, but I tend to despair at these studies that claim “men do/want this, women do/want that”, when it does not at all represent the circles in which I travel. Is my social group really so abnormal?