Ms. magazine  -- more than a magazine a movement


| summer 2004

What's Sounny?
Real stories, real laughter, real women
Land & Weston

Women are funny. We are certainly funnier than men. Which is why you always hear laughter coming from the women’s room — we’re having a riot in there.

You rarely hear laughter coming from the men’s room. And the fact that they don’t have separate stalls is only part of the reason.

Put three women together for more than three minutes and — whether or not they have ever met before — they will have exchanged vital details of their inner lives and started to laugh.

Guys aren’t like this. Their conversations consist of asking each other questions that can be answered numerically. Men can play poker together for 22 years and know precisely two things about their comrades: their first names and what kinds of cars they drive. Humorous interaction between men instantly becomes a joke-off.

Women don’t joke-off that way.

You’ll notice, in fact, that we rarely tell jokes; instead, we tell stories.

We move from gritty details of intimate life to the generalities of politics and culture within a single sentence. We use humor to name things in our lives the world wants to keep mysterious. Comic Pam Stone has a great story about this: “I had a girlfriend who told me she was in the hospital for female problems. I said, ‘Get real! What does that mean?’ She says, ‘You know, female problems.’ I said, ‘What? You can’t parallel park? You can’t get credit?’”

Using humor to bridge gaps in conversation and in our lives was illustrated for me most poignantly as I waited in line at the local all-night Stop&Shop. It was nearly midnight and the place looked like a cross between a hospital and an airport in an Eastern bloc country: huge, clean, and empty.

I stood behind a woman whom I’d never met but who was, from all appearances, my match. She was around my age. In my cart were milk, juice, cereal, peaches and kitty litter. Basics. In contrast, hers had filet mignon, baking potatoes, sour cream, fresh parsley—the works. As she started placing these on the belt at the register, I leaned over and said with half a laugh,“Excuse me, but can I go home with you? This looks like one great meal.”

Looking me straight in the eye as she counted out some tangerines, she said without missing a beat, “It’s for tomorrow night’s dinner. If we don’t decide to move in together tomorrow night, it’s over.”

Now, I’d never met her before, but of course I knew exactly what she meant and could supply, in the shorthand of all female existence everywhere, all the necessary information.

“How long has it been?” I asked.

“Five years,” she replied, arching an eyebrow for effect as I nodded. “I’m 44 years old,” she continued. “If I’m going to learn to live with another adult it had better be now.”

Meanwhile, the woman working the register started ringing up the steak and said, “Honey, sounds like a bad deal to me. You’ve been on your own and you’ve liked it because otherwise you would have hooked up with somebody. Trust me. This way you can have a relationship without all the attendant garbage of cohabitation. You have any coupons?” She said this as she expertly scanned the produce under the magic green eye that records the price. She knew what everything cost, including, it seemed, the relationship under discussion. By now we were all double-bagging the groceries and talking at the same time. We were laughing, but the laughter underscored — yet in no way undermined — the gravity of the story.

Even though there is no follow-up memo, even though we do not know each others’ names, we know this is real work, the telling of our tales; the turning of anxiety into humor is the equivalent of spinning straw into gold. We take it seriously.

Our humor is both public and private. We exchange information for the purpose of helping one another — wherever we happen to be. Consider this story about Tallulah Bankhead: In a public restroom during an intermission, Tallulah discovered that there was no toilet paper. “I beg your pardon, but do you have any toilet tissue in your cubicle?” she asked her neighbor. Receiving a negative reply Tallulah, tried again, “Do you have any Kleenex perhaps?” Again, the reply was negative. “Not even some cotton wool? A piece of wrapping paper?” A long pause followed the third negative, after which could be heard the sound of a purse opening. A resigned drawl finally came through the partition: “Darling, do you have two fives for a ten?”

Humor works by bending or breaking the rules; it always has. But at this moment in our culture we are uncertain which rules apply. This is one reason why the relationship of women to humor is at an important point of what can be best called “conflagration,” of destruction and, literally, re-creation. It does not come down to whether women telling small-dick jokes or men telling beating-up-women jokes is politically correct; it comes down to whether we laugh at them because of rage and fear, using our humor foremost as a way to bludgeon or gag the opponent. The “gags” directed at women in masculinist humor have for too long served exactly that purpose: to shut women up.

"Humor distorts nothing, and only false gods
are laughed off their earthly pedestals"

Writer Kate Clinton has come up with a compact word for feminist humorists — “fumerists” — because it captures the idea of being funny and wanting to burn the house down all at once. Feminist humor, according to Clinton, “is about making light in this land of reversals, where we are told as we are laughing, tears streaming down our faces, that we have no sense of humor.” She goes on to say that “Men have used humor against women for so long — we know implicitly whose butt is the butt of their jokes — that we do not trust humor. Masculine humor is deflective. It allows denial of responsibility, the oh-I-was-just-kidding disclaimer. It is escapist, something to gloss over and get through the hard times, without ever having to do any of the hard work of change. Masculine humor is essentially not about change.”

The difference, in fact, between men’s humor and women’s humor seems to be the difference between revolt and revolution. Masculine humor has of course included digs at the conventions of the world, poked fun at the institutions and establishments, but without the truly anarchic edge that characterizes feminine humor. Women’s humor calls into question the largest issues, questions the way the world is put together.

Agnes Repplier, an American essayist born in 1855, argues that “Humor distorts nothing, and only false gods are laughed off their earthly pedestals.” In other words, an essentially sound target will not be damaged by humor; humor, as we’ve seen, depends on the perceived righting of an injustice. This is one reason women’s humor does deal with the most fundamental concepts in our culture. Women’s humor has a particular interest in challenging the most formidable structures because they keep women from positions of power. Women’s humor is about women speaking up: “a few soft words have sent many a woman to her back with thighs flung open & eager/a few more/will find us standin up & speakin in our own tongue to whomever we goddam please,” writes Ntozake Shange in Nappy Edges. Dorothy Parker remarked that “wit has truth in it” and argued that real humor will outlast the special interests of the day. Poet Marianne Moore, born in 1887, wrote that “Humor saves a few steps, it saves years,” and fiction writer Katherine Mansfield, born in 1888, suggested in her journal that “to be wildly enthusiastic, or deadly serious — both are wrong. Both pass. One must keep ever present a sense of humor.”

Why has the feminine tradition of humor, ubiquitous as it is, remained essentially hidden from the mainstream? In part it is due to the Tupperware mentality that sought to preserve humor by keeping away from the potentially hazardous male gaze. If men didn’t find funny what we found funny, then they would think we were foolish. If they thought our joking was foolish, we might learn to like it less ourselves. It wasn’t worth the risk. One of the other answers is a paradox: When women joke — as we all know women do, and do well — we are exploring a particularly feminine tradition of humor. The laughter in the kitchen, dorm room and locker room is evidence of women’s ability to joke and appreciate joking in an all-female group. We are exploring, in our laughter, female territory. The idea that women have our own humor, that a feminine tradition of humor could exist apart from the traditional masculine version, is not considered a viable possibility, and so women who initiate humor are seen as acting like men.

In a classic 1976 study done on joke-telling in mixed-sex groups, a team of psychologists from the University of Maryland found that “it seems reasonable to propose that attempting a witty remark is often an intrusive, disturbing and aggressive act, and within this culture, probably unacceptable for a female.” No wonder the only acceptable answer to “What’s so funny?” was always “Nothing.” No other explanation would have allowed the women to remain “feminine.” To deny the entire experience in front of men was the only way these women thought they could protect the experience.

How do we learn what’s “appropriate” behavior? For one thing, we learn it by watching the older people in our families. But there are other pervasive and broader influences, many of which are trickier to locate. Studies by sociologists and psychologists go far in proving what we’ve all suspected as amateurs, namely “that society may hold different expectations regarding boys’ and girls’ humor.” These social norms, argues psychologist Paul McGhee, dictate that “males should be the initiators of humor, while females should be responders.” McGhee outlines the ways in which early childhood experiences form the expectations we have concerning how men and women use humor. Theorizing that “humor in interpersonal interaction serves as a means of gaining or maintaining dominance or control over the social situation,” McGhee argues that “Because of the power associated with the successful use of [humor]…the initiation of humor has become associated with other traditionally masculine characteristics, such as aggressiveness, dominance, and assertiveness.”

Self-deprecating humor is acceptable as feminine, of course, as we’ve already seen. That making fun of yourself — or, by extension, other women — is okay comes across clearly to young women. Penny Marshall claims that she would “make fun of myself before anybody else could. I had braces and my hair in a ponytail — real attractive…So I would always hit before anyone could hit me. Self-defacing humor is my forte.” The very word-choice of “self-defacing” is interesting here, since by using a comic mask, Marshall seems to have found a way early in life to put on a new face. Many funny women found out in childhood or early adolescence that self-deprecating humor can draw fire. Phyllis Diller said that becoming funny was her way of “adjusting to puberty. When I reached that self-conscious age where I looked like Olive Oyl and wanted to look like Jean Harlow, I knew something had to be done. From 12 on, the only way to handle the terror of social situations was comedy — break the ice, make everybody laugh. I did it to make people feel more relaxed, including myself.”

So we grow up learning that we can defuse a situation by turning ourselves into self-effacing diversions, taking a little bit out of ourselves in order to make others happy. Wendy Wasserstein makes a distinction between being funny and being pleasing. “There’s a line about Janie in ‘Isn’t It Romantic?’ that says, ‘That’s the thing about Janie, she’s not threatening to anybody. That’s her gift.’” Wasserstein sees herself as basically shy although “sometimes I can be funny.” She explains that “I can be funny with a girlfriend. I can be very sarcastic…I know how to make friends, get on with people, because I could be funny…in a non-threatening, likable way.”

If these studies are right, and the “witty person in a natural group is among the most powerful members of the group,” then it is not in society’s interest to allow girls to learn to use humor unless it is willing to accept that by doing so, girls will be learning to use power. Many stand-up performers have learned to command authority in other settings before facing an audience. Joy Behar, whose insights into relationships are profound, brings the authority she once used in an inner-city classroom to the stage. Having taught in a school where “they sent kids who would otherwise be behind bars” to her classroom, Behar translates her self-assurance to other areas of life. There is no hesitation in her remarks, no self-effacement. Behar’s comedy proceeds from her personal authority and power. This is, once again, the equation that makes women’s humor subversive — the equation between women using humor and women using power.

Our humor, finally, is really about it being okay to answer back. When Lizz Winstead replies to the question “Why aren’t you married?” with the retort “I think, therefore I’m single,” we want to applaud. In response to Pat Buchanan’s speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention, in which women’s reproductive rights were considered the handmaidens of witchcraft, Molly Ivins suggested that we could not condemn Buchanan’s speech because, after all, “it probably sounded better in the original German.”

Women’s humor is not for the faint-hearted or the easily shocked. But then again, neither is waking up in the morning. Nobody said life would be easy. By seeing the ironies and absurdities of the world around us, we can lighten up and be less weighed down—humor permits perspective, and perspective is essential for change.

There is something clarifying, redemptive and vital about using humor. So make some trouble and laugh out loud. And always have two fives for a ten.

Gina Barreca is co-author of I’m with Stupid: One Man, One Woman (Simon & Schuster, 2004). Visit her website.