Funny Women

A few years ago, Christopher Hitchens wroteTina Fey a ridiculous, misinformed article for Vanity Fair magazine entitled ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’. He explains to his readers that men only need to be funny to impress women, whereas all women are attractive enough to not have to be able to make people laugh. He also says that humour is a sign of intelligence but that, in order to attract a man, women have been taught by their mothers to not appear too clever.

Hitchens isn’t the only man to make the sweeping declaration that no women are funny. Jerry Lewis has also spoken about this apparent major weakness of an entire gender, and online blog AskMen wrote a similar article more recently claiming that humour is “just another area where men win”. The article cited a study by the University of Mexico, which concluded that “humour ability” is higher in men than it is women. The test separated 200 men from 200 women, and gave them a cartoon-caption task to complete. The participants had to write as many funny captions as they could for 10 minutes, and were then graded anonymously by the judges.

Why do so many men seem to think that it’s impossible for women to be funny? Why, with women like Tina Fey, Miranda Hart, Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, Lena Dunham, Sarah Millican, Kelly Oxford and Julia Luis-Dreyfus out there, is a stereotype like this even being discussed?

Maybe certain women, such as Tina Fey, are seen as representing all female comedians. If someone doesn’t like these supposedly representative women, they will conclude that by association, no women can be funny. Every time the ‘can women be funny?’ issue is debated, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Rachel Dratch are used as examples. You would be forgiven for thinking that all funny women work on Saturday Night Live. Admittedly, I personally love Fey, Poehler and Dratch and find them all hilarious, but so many of my friends simply don’t find them funny, no matter how many episodes of 30 Rock I show them. Most of my friends prefer Miranda, who, despite the success of her television show, has never been one of the women constantly held out to us as an example of a talented female comedian when this debate arises.

Or perhaps women have only recently begun to be perceived as funny. Hitchens’s article was written in 2007, before the release of Bridesmaids, a film praised for the hilarity of it’s mostly female cast, and before Miranda started airing. However, Lucille Ball was around long before Christopher Hitchens even started writing, and there’s no doubt that she managed to make people laugh. Speaking to Vogue, Lena Dunham says that “I feel like every few years there’s some big announcement that women are funny. I don’t feel like it’s a news item! And I’m always like, ‘this is not shocking to me!’” Funny women have been in the media spotlight for years. Why is this issue still being discussed?

Maybe it’s simply the fact that men and women just find different things funny. In her book Humour’s Hidden Power: Weapon, Shield and Psychological Salve, Nichole Force wrote that “while women tend to share humorous stories and take a narrative approach, men more commonly use one-liners and engage in slapstick.” In her book, Bossypants, Tina Fey writes in response to men who claim that women can’t be funny that “it is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don’t like something, it is empirically not good. I don’t like Chinese food, but I don’t write articles trying to prove it doesn’t exist.” So perhaps the men writing the articles dismissing female humour, are simply expressing an opinion which only applies to one gender.

But, to claim that men and women have completely different senses of humour would be to stereotype. There are plenty of men who women find funny, like Russell Howard, and there are plenty of men who other men don’t find funny- most people who have tried to sit through an episode of Two and a Half Men will be able to tell you that. Similarly, there are plenty of ‘girly’ things which men laugh at, such as Mean Girls, a film starring and written by mostly women which was incredibly well-received by critics, many of whom were male.

Sweeping generalisations cannot be made about either gender’s sense of humour, there are plenty of things which people of both genders find funny. Humour is subjective and, while your gender is likely to influence what you laugh at, it is not the only factor which determines a sense of humour. It depends entirely upon the person.