Christopher 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.