Why women aren't funny

In the forthcoming issue of Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens explores one of life's great questions.

Published December 6, 2006 6:06PM (EST)

Thanks to Echidne, Feministing and several snappy Broadsheet readers for sounding the alarm on Christopher Hitchens' essay in the January issue of Vanity Fair, in which he ponderously explores why women aren't funny. Not why many of history's best comedians have been male, or why humor is subjective, but really why women aren't laugh-makers. We don't generally see eye to eye with Hitchens -- I mean, when he was saying that the Bush administration could turn Iraq into a vibrant democracy we all thought it was a joke -- so we expected to greet this piece with a shrug and a yawn. But such is the cunning of Hitchens that he managed to get under our skin a little.

His big offenses here are misconstruing a Stanford Medical School study to infer that women don't understand humor (the study results, at least as he presents them, do seem to suggest that women and men have different expectations when it comes to humor, but not that women don't understand or enjoy it); asserting based on anecdotal evidence that women aren't funny ("there is something that you absolutely never hear from a male friend who is hymning his latest (female) love interest: 'She's a real honey, has a life of her own ... [interlude for attributes that are none of your business] ... and, man, does she ever make 'em laugh'"); and claiming, mostly on the strength of a Rudyard Kipling poem, that women lack the funny bone because they're too focused on making babies. Oh, and suggesting that humor and mainstream femininity don't go together. Glossing over the documented lack of opportunities for professional funnywomen, he notes that successful female comics tend to be "hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three."

Maybe the guy actually believes this stuff, or maybe he's setting out to push some buttons. For his sake, I'd like to believe it's the latter, because except for the Stanford study, some H.L. Mencken references and a couple of quotes from Fran Lebowitz, the piece largely relies on sourceless speechifying. (At one point he actually writes, "If I am correct about this, which I am.") Too bad, because Lebowitz's explanation for why men like Hitchens don't find women funny -- "The cultural values are male; for a woman to say a man is funny is the equivalent of a man saying that a woman is pretty," she postulates -- and even Hitchens' own suggestion that men are threatened by women's humor might be the basis for an interesting essay. It would be great to read a piece that seriously explored the subject, assessing whether the absence of a female Mel Brooks is best explained by nature, nurture or some combination of the two. Instead, from Hitchens we get observations like, "For women, reproduction is, if not the only thing, certainly the main thing" and "Women, bless their tender hearts, would prefer that life be fair, and even sweet, rather than the sordid mess it actually is." Too true, Hitch -- if life were fair, and even sweet, we'd be spared reading retro chestnuts like these.

The real downer here, as Ann at Feministing points out, is that Vanity Fair opted to run the piece -- and to feature a stock photo of a large, dour-looking older woman to accompany it. (Ann wittily points out that the poster woman for female humorlessness actually looks a lot like Hitchens himself.) Still, it's tough to stay downcast for long. The V.F. piece may not be funny, but it reminded us of a great Hitchens joke we loved a few years back, and we've been chuckling all morning.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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