Women aren't funny, redux

Germaine Greer regrets saying "women aren't as funny as men" in so few words -- so she says it in many, many more words.

Published March 2, 2009 3:36PM (EST)

"I should probably not have said, in so few words on television recently, that women aren't as funny as men," begins an essay by Germaine Greer in today's Guardian. "I was actually trying to present an aspect of the psychopathology of everyday life that strikes me as interesting and important. Women are at least as intelligent as men, and they have as vivid and ready a perception of the absurd; but they have not developed the arts of fooling, clowning, badinage, repartee, burlesque and innuendo into a semi-continuous performance as so many men have."

OK, I'm thinking, this could be interesting. Men and women are encouraged to develop different relationships to humor -- I'm with her so far. I don't always see eye-to-eye with Germaine Greer, but she's going to have to make a better argument than Christopher Hitchens' claiming women aren't funny because we've got ovaries for brains, right?

Well, sort of.

Greer starts strong, offering up for ridicule a few ludicrous explanations she's heard for the gender gap in professional comedy ("the pleasure generated by a response to a gag is patterned on the male orgasm rather than the female," "men's dominance of standup has even been attributed to the phallic character of the microphone"), but she then offers something nearly as laughable as a serious argument: "Though it might be comforting to believe that simple misogyny prevents women being given a fair go, even this will not wash. The juries who give prizes to comedians are usually composed of both sexes, and audiences certainly are; but still the female performers don't make it, don't get the prizes, don't get the audiences and don't make the money." Oh, well, then. If women are handing out awards and applause to men, that must mean there's no sexism at play, because our vaginas make us immune to the influence of a sexist society. Being raised in a culture that sets up men as the joke-tellers and women as their passive audience couldn't possibly explain why even women would favor male comics. Mentioning that would be like applying a basic feminist analysis or something, and why would we expect that of Germaine Greer?

Further on in the essay, it looks as though maybe she's veering into that territory: "Men who emerge as professional comedians grow up within a dense masculine culture of joke-making and have been honing their skills ever since they started school. Girls have nothing similar of their own and are not invited to horn in on the guys' act." Bingo! For men, "having a good sense of humor" is defined as being funny; for women, "having a good sense of humor" is defined as laughing at men's jokes. Encouragement and support for wisecracking and silliness are very much not distributed equally across gender lines. By Jove, I think she's got it! Except, wait: "The greater visibility of male comedians reflects a greater investment of intellectual energy by men of all walks of life in keeping each other amused." Sorry, just ignore that bit about men getting more positive feedback for joking, which naturally leads them to continue doing it. The important thing is, men work hard at being funny, and women don't. And this happens in a vacuum, apparently.

Oh, also, "Women famously cannot learn jokes. If they try, they invariably bugger up the punch line," and p.s., we suck at improv, too. Now check out how she describes the latter: "Quiz show Mock the Week usually invites one woman every other week or so, and every time I have been watching she has been eclipsed by the furiously competing six males who complete the cast of the show. Before she can get a word out, one or other of them will have snatched the microphone and gone riffing away on something he prepared earlier and has adjusted for the precise occasion." This, of course, has nothing to do with sexism, with how little our culture values women's voices, with men feeling entitled to speak while women have been trained to listen like good girls. It has nothing to do with the women being outnumbered 6 to 1 -- and we won't consider why that is in the first place, either. The problem is, "There is, after all, an element of trainspotting, of one-track-mindism in comedy that is alien to women." Oh yeah, and we're not competitive enough. Which is also totally not learned behavior.

Throughout the essay, Greer keeps offering great setups for an analysis of why women are culturally discouraged from developing and displaying robust senses of humor, then following them up with conclusions that amount to, "We're from Venus -- whaddaya gonna do?" She allows as how "women do droll" -- as though "droll" barely, if at all, falls under the rubric of "funny" -- and that if we practice really hard, we can be funny performing polished routines! But men still have a lock on professional comedy because, well, women aren't as funny as men. She regrets having said that in so few words, so now she's saying it in many, many more words.

On the upside, Greer's screed runs alongside a link to a related article, Jessica Valenti's November 2008 piece on not only female but feminist comedians. There, she quotes Kathy Griffin summing up the problem in a single sentence that goes more to the point than Greer's entire essay: "the level of profound sexism in stand-up is so extreme and so high; not only is [the male to female ratio] not 50/50 in the comedy world ... it's like 90/10." Ding ding ding! Furthermore, Valenti nails exactly why so many politically aware women are indeed funny: "Whatever the stereotype says, most feminists develop a strong sense of humour -- they have to. How else would we survive the daily sexism, a political climate that's hostile to our rights, and the general discrimination that comes with being a woman? If we couldn't laugh until we cried, we would probably spend all of our time sobbing."

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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