7.3 Gender And Humour

It will come as no surprise that a survey of gender and humour will also find that issues of dominance and difference come to the fore. We have already seen how women have historically been excluded from large parts of public life, and performing comedy is no exception. Many commentators believe this (as well as other factors) has led to the development by women of a different sense of humour to men. These issues will be discussed below.

The Restoration comedy of manners playwright Congreve, writing in 1695, speaks, somewhat contradictorily, of women’s lack of humour. ‘ I must confess I have never made any Observation of what I Apprehend to be true Humour in Women. Perhaps Passions are too powerful in that sex to let Humour have its Course, or maybe by reason of their Natural Coldness, Humour cannot exert itself to that extravagant Degree, which it does in the Male Sex’ (1964:212-3). Here women are represented as having both passions which are too powerful yet also a natural coldness. If it is thought that such views are centuries out of date, Blyth, in a 1959 work on humour in English literature, is even more damning, seeing women as some kind of animal force of nature which kills humour, fit only as an object of male laughter.

The truth is …that women have not only no humour in themselves but are the cause of the extinction of it in others. This is almost too cruel to be true, but in every way women correspond to and are representative of nature. Is there any humour in nature? A glance at the zoo will answer this question… [w]omen are the undifferentiated mass of nature from which the contradictions of real and ideal arise and they are the unlaughing at which men laugh.

(in Barreca 1988:4)

As for performing, women were forbidden to perform on the stage until the Restoration of 1660, when female characters for the first time in the English theatre were actually played by women rather than boy actors. This does not mean, however, that their progress since then has been untroubled. To take just one example. The Cambridge University Footlights Club, formed in 1883, which became famous for providing many writers and performers for British stage and film, and which particularly played a significant role in British comedy for at least two decades after 1960 (‘Beyond The Fringe’ on stage, ‘That Was The Week That Was’ on television, ‘The Establishment’ club, ‘Private Eye’ magazine, ‘I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again’ on radio, ‘Monty Python’ on television and film, ‘The Goodies’ on television, etc…), is often seen as a source of much intellectual and sophisticated British humour. However, women were not allowed to perform in the club until 1932, but this was considered to be such a disaster that they were again excluded and the following year’s show was called No More Women (Wilmut 1980:1). It was as late as 1960 that women were allowed to perform again when Eleanor Bron was permitted to take part in a production after a campaign by John Bird and Peter Cook (Thompson 1998:67). Even this does not mean they were actually full members of the club. Two years later, for example, the actor Miriam Margolyes, was ‘in the Company but, as a woman, could not be a member of the Club’ (Margolis 1992:61). A further flavour of the gender relations at this time is revealed in an interview Graham Chapman later gave to Rolling Stone magazine in 1979. Chapman was at Cambridge from 1959 to 1963 and later became a member of the Monty Python team. He relates of his time at Cambridge: ‘There were no women actors at Cambridge, and the women we wrote were certainly not meant to be attractive, so there was no reason to actually have real breasts. We might as well do them’ (Margolis p.64).

This marginalisation and exclusion of women naturally has certain consequences for the recording of the history of humour. Banks and Swift point out that ‘because women have for centuries been considered second-class citizens, the public development of their personal humour has been arrested and they have been bypassed by the documentation of comedy history’ (1987:261). A brief chronological review of some of the literature read for this section bears this out.

Nathan (1971). Not one of the fourteen chapters of this survey of ‘laughtermakers’ is about female performers or writers. Of the three hundred and more index entries, only five refer to women artistes.

Fisher (1973). In this history of comedy performers only one of twenty-six chapters deals with women. Of the seven pages of this chapter, almost half actually concerns men in drag, not women. The chapter itself is entitled Are Women Funny?

Priestley (1976) His historical survey of English Humour, largely literary, has sixteen chapters, one of which is on ‘feminine humour’. It is the longest chapter in the book, but he is not greatly impressed with women writers’ humour, referring to Jane Austen’s as ‘feminine small potatoes’ (p.126), and that in Mrs. Gaskell’s ‘Cranford’ as ‘very small beer’ (p.127).

Hind (1991). Only two of the twenty comedians discussed or interviewed in this ‘comic inquisition’ are women – Margaret Rutherford and Victoria Wood.

Cook (1994). Of the thirty biographies given in this survey of contemporary comedians, three are of women – Jo Brand, Jenny Éclair, Donna McPhail.

Driver (1995). Two of the twenty-seven chapters of writings on comedy are by women – Hattie Hayridge and Anita Chaudhuri.

This might indicate that since the advent of alternative comedy in the late 1970s there has been a slight improvement in women’s representation, although earlier (3.2) we noted that Littlewood and Pickering commented that alternative comedy remained elitist (1998:300). Cook comments that his selection ‘reflects the one in ten ratio of women to men on the circuit’ (p.13). However if we recall the point made earlier concerning the constitutive nature of representations, such works will tend to merely reproduce the status quo. No doubt this is why it has been necessary for women to produce their own documentation of women’s humour, for example, Banks and Swift (1987), Barreca (ed.) (1988, 1992, 1997), Morgan (ed.) (1995), Hengen (ed.) (1998). Though women’s presence as writers and performers on, for example, television has increased in the last five or so years – Rhona Cameron, Kathy Burke, Roni Ancona, Meera Syal, the Smack The Pony team, Arabella Weir, among others – are all familiar comedy performers, the ratio to men is still low.

One further point on this matter. The image of women as lacking in humour has, according to Crawford and Gressley, also been ‘scientifically’ constituted by psychological studies of humour. They find that traditional psychological humour experiments use materials that are often hostile in nature, whereas their own qualitative data show that their participants considered caring and creativity were more important aspects of a sense of humour. (1991:228). Further, Crawford finds that many such studies have ‘male oriented stimuli, androcentric biases in research design and sampling, decontextualised settings, and an individualistic focus’ (1992:25). This construction of women as somehow ‘outside’ and not having a sense of humour has two consequences which are worthy of further discussion. These are that women are often positioned as butts of jokes, and individual women, whether in jokes or as performers, are seen to encapsulate all women.

Gray finds that women’s position as ‘other’ means that women are not only the object of the male gaze but also of the male laugh. ‘Hence the relentless stereotyping of women into roles which permit them to be looked at, judged, and laughed at as sexual objects: the dumb blonde [again], the wisecracking tart, the naïve virgin, the dragon who is sexually past it’ (1994:9). Fisher, who doubts that women can be funny in their own right, says that women do not even appreciate that they are being laughed at: ‘great comedians have exploited the funniness of women…[who are] unable…to comprehend the laughter they evoke in the presence of their male colleagues’ (1973:197). Further, the fact that humour is an indirect mode of discourse (Section 6) means that such dominant practices can be masked. As Crawford indicated in 6.2, this means that men can deny sexist intention with an “I was only joking” defence (1995:134-5). (A prime example of this is to come in the final section.) Thus, she continues, men can use humour in conversation ‘to silence women, negate their personhood, and maintain conversational control’ (p.195).

Turning to the second point, that of ‘encapsulation’, where women are not seen as individuals, LeBell observes: ‘Mentioning a woman in a joke is frequently done so as to make some kind of statement about the nature and motivations of women. And the most effective way to make this statement is to have women function as the butts of jokes rather than as the subjects’ (in Crawford 1995:138). Banks and Swift make the point that for women comedians it has been all too common for newcomers to be discussed as ‘“the next” someone or other’, which suggests that ‘there is only room for one at a time, and that once “the next” has arrived, “the original” must bow out gracefully’ (1987:vii). This may not be as valid in 2002 but there is still nowhere near the same scope given to humorous women as that afforded to men. A comedian who is female is still likely to be seen primarily as a ‘woman comedian’ rather than simply as a comedian. And this attitude can also be seen in general documentations of comedy where ‘women’s comedy’ is dealt with as a separate item. We saw how Fisher (1973) dealt with women in one chapter while the other twenty-five chapters dealt with a wide variety of individual males. This was the case with Priestley (1976) also. Similarly, in the more recent Driver (1995) collection, one of the two pieces of writing by women was generic (‘Women In Comedy’), whereas the remaining twenty-five were by men commenting on a wide variety of humorous topics. The issue of under-representation (and attempts to correct it) is indeed a thorny problem and, unquestionably, elements of the attitude described here have been difficult to avoid in this section also.

Again it is to be expected that the kind of comedic separate development outlined above should lead many commentators to focus on the different senses of humour of men and women. Men’s humour, it is commonly argued, is more aggressive than women’s, a point first mooted in Section 1 in the survey of humour theories. For example, an Internet survey finds that, based on a sample of approximately 100,000 people from 70 countries, men prefer aggressive humour more than women (Radford 2001). Further, the responses to a questionnaire by Crawford and Gressley (1991) suggested men also use hostile humour more than women. Moreover, they practised more formulaic joke-telling, whereas women showed a preference for stories and anecdotes (p.228), a view which concurs with that of Littlewood and Pickering’s introduced in 3.2 concerning women excelling in character studies. The comedian Victoria Wood has a similar standpoint. Talking of Joyce Grenfell’s use of language, she said Grenfell used humour ‘to communicate rather then attack – which I think women generally can do better than men’ (in Hind 1991:93). Goodman (1992b) also makes a point about gender forms, seeing ‘jokes with punch lines’ as male, and forms such as ‘narrative comedy, theatrical comedy and cabaret’ as female (p.294-5).

There are also those who see women’s humour as more discerning. Men’s humour is ‘broad and exaggerated’ compared to women’s ‘subtle’ humour, according to Merrill (1988:274). The writer Vicky Pile is quoted in Banks and Swift as saying, ‘I think we [women] are demanding of what we want on television, and of what we laugh at in public’ (1987:51). And Barreca asserts, only half-jokingly, that it is just men who find the 1940s American slapstick troupe The Three Stooges funny. ‘There is a chromosomal link between masculinity and the Stooges; show Larry, Moe, and Curly at the Olympic Games and we can do away with genetic testing: if you laugh, you play on the men’s team’ (1997:7).

Slapstick is comedy of the body and, clearly, the bodily humour of women will differ from that of men, particularly concerning the major differences related to reproductive functions. Marti Caine relates how, when playing the club comedy circuit in the 1970s, she could be sexually explicit (if she did it through the reported speech of someone else) but she was forbidden to ‘mention tampax or anything to do with the menstrual cycle’ (in Banks and Swift, 1987:20). In the different climate of alternative comedy this was not a problem, and, indeed, Jo Brand made a point of making jokes about periods, saying, ‘It’s in my contract’ (in Gray 1994:155). It may seem unlikely that such basic bodily functions would be found objectionable by an adult comedy audience, but they are matters which upset some men, particularly those of an older generation. For example, the comedian Bernard Manning, whose act has always featured much swearing, sexual explicitness, and, notoriously, racist material, draws the line at such things: he says he never makes jokes about such things as ‘shit’ or ‘tampax’ (Bakewell 2001, Duncan 2002). But female comedians have now got to the point where, for example, Jenny Éclair can merrily discuss the effects of age, sex and childbirth on her genitals, informing her audience that she now has ‘labia like a bloodhound’s ears’ (1998). However, it is worth noting that when this concert was broadcast on television (on Channel 5, with its youth-oriented and sexually explicit programming) her use of the word ‘cunt’ was censored.

This is a long way from the days when, it is often proposed, women were expected to be reserved and self-deprecating in order to be accepted as comedians. Fisher thinks the few women who have succeeded have done so ‘by smothering any element of femininity, of sexual attractiveness that might obtrude in their stage characterisations, emphasising their ugliness, their ungainliness’ (1973:197). It is usually Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers who are cited as the prime examples of this, Merrill (1988) being just one who criticises their denigration of women (p.275), advocating instead a self-conscious feminist humour aimed at a female audience.

But this idea that self-deprecation is a component of women’s humour, or at least of ‘old-style’ women’s humour, is easily challenged. Barreca, for example, talks of women creating comedy ‘in order to intrude, disturb and disrupt…comedy constructed by women is linked to aggression and to the need to break free of socially and culturally imposed restraints’ (1988:6). Thus, Jo Brand has never been shy to express her views on men: ‘Never trust a man with testicles’, ‘The quickest way to a man’s heart is through his breast pocket with a bread knife’. Nor have her references to her own fatness been self-deprecating; her love of chocolate and beer are positive assertions of her own desires and disdain for the fashionable norms of bodily shape and diet. Indeed, it can be said that overt criticism of men became a common and almost routine part of female comedians’ repertoire from the late 1970s.

It can, in fact, be equally argued that self-deprecation is a common trait for many male comedians. Fisher considers it ‘a mainstay of the great funny man’. Many openly present themselves as self-confessed fools and idiots, forever getting the wrong end of the stick, seasoned failures. Perhaps none have perfected this so well as Woody Allen. In a study of Allen’s work, Yacowar describes Allen’s comedy persona as ‘inadequate’ and ‘inept’: ‘His remarkable gift to his audience is his candor in shamelessly exposing his dreads and his dreams – even though his weakness and failure are fictitious’ (1979:8-10). And what this leads us to is a realisation that what we have been discussing here is another form of the binary opposition of men and women, this one concerning humour, a binary opposition which once again both lacks sufficient explanatory force and leads to a tunnel vision in which we see what we believe and project pre-conceived, taken-for-granted gender attributes into any manifestation of humour. It is not difficult to take many of the comments made about ‘women’s humour’ and replace the word 'women' with ‘men’ and still make sense of it. For example, Barreca’s following claim would be equally valid if the genders are reversed: ‘The creation of nonsense, puns, and language play associated with eradicating the boundaries between the imaginary and symbolic reaffirms that women’s use of language in comedy is different from men’s’ (1988:19). This dissertation has argued (and maintains) that such forms are the necessary raw material for the creation of verbal humour and are used by whoever wishes to create humorous meanings. It is what people choose to do with these forms that matters.

A different suggestion concerns another feature of interaction – the power of the audience. Goodman (1992b), when discussing sexist humour, proposes that women position themselves outside of the joke by using Rich’s concept of ‘re-vision’. This notion comes from an article originally written in 1971.
Re-vision – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction – is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves.
(Rich 2001:11)
Goodman applies this to the following joke, which she identifies as one usually told to illustrate the supposed humourlessness of feminists.

Q: How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: That’s not funny.

By dint of re-vision, such jokes, says Goodman, can be decontextualised, re-told and re-interpreted as the unimaginative and strereotyped representation of women in the public domain. This light bulb joke, then, could actually be a feminist joke told against patriarchal stupidity. ‘In this way, feminists as the tellers and the audience, can position themselves in the critical domain outside of the joke, rather than within the joke as “the punch line”’ (p.288).

Klages, too, calls for a strategy of re-interpretation, though without reference to re-vision. She focuses on Helen Keller jokes in America, Helen Keller being the woman who overcame the great adversity of being born deaf-blind and who is often cited as a model for children to follow. Klages says it is possible for women to analyse and re-interpret these jokes rather than to ignore or censor them. To take one example.

Q: How did Helen Keller go crazy?
A: Trying to read a stucco wall.
Klages suggests, half-seriously, half-jokingly, that a postmodern re-interpretation of this could discuss the following points:

• Keller’s desire to ‘read’ the material surfaces of the world as texts, or
• her inability to interpret ‘text’-ual surfaces meaningfully as a figure of the alienated human subject moving blindly in a universe of incomplete and fragmentary signification, or
• the significance of ‘wall’ as both text and barrier, the enclosing substance which makes close(d) reading possible.
(1992:14)


Such jokes make us laugh and wince, says Klages. ‘Laugh’ because they criticise the saintly, sanitised and miraculous representation of Keller in dominant cultural values; ‘wince’ because we should not laugh at the disabled, these being seemingly contradictory points which were raised earlier in the treatment of permission (5.2). However, she concludes by recommending that women tell such jokes.

Helen Keller jokes insist that disabled people, even disabled women, even world-famous deaf-blind American Heroines, have bodies that need to be, and have a right to be, publicly visible, publicly represented, in their own terms, and with their own differences.
(p.22)

Both of these suggestions, however, are, like all types of humour, subject to the notions of shared and differential competences discussed in Section 3. Goodman’s idea is only really practicable within a closed circle; everyone involved would need to be in a very similar position and hold very similar views, otherwise telling, for example, ostensibly anti-feminist jokes to a wider audience would run the same risk as that experienced by the Alf Garnett character – some would laugh at the stupidity of the male originators of the joke, but some would laugh with them at the ostensible butt. Klages’ main problem is that she talks in the third person of the disabled being represented in ‘their own terms’. Can able-bodied comedians be sure that the terms of the joke are the terms of the disabled? It seems unlikely the Helen Keller jokes originated from deaf-blind people, but even if they did, is it then the same performance with the same social significance for able-bodied people to tell them to other able-bodied people? This is the ‘team shirt’ problem (5.3.2) where, for example, Shazia Mirza feels justified to tell jokes about Muslim women, being one herself, but she is suspicious of white males doing the same as she is uncertain whether the jokes are made ‘at us or with us’ (Bakewell 2001). There is also the danger of an implicit elitism in the position of Klages, containing as it does the suggestion that a certain self-selected group have a licence to tell any kind of joke about any kind of butt as if they were somehow above or outside of historical contingencies. But certain speech acts can have certain social and legal consequences as we saw in 5.3.3 when a senior barrister was fined and suspended for ‘jesting in a postmodern, ironic’ manner (Metro 13.2.2002).

We have now reached the point where we can go on and carry out the final analysis, but before doing so a brief summary of the foregoing section is in order. It was seen that identities of gender and sexuality are complex combinations involving many social, political, and ideological factors and cannot be viewed as one-dimensional phenomena which fit neatly on either side of a binary opposition. They are not independent objects which are simply reflected in the various media but, in fact, do not exist outside of representations. This is not say that social forces have a straightforward determinist role to play; individuals themselves are active agents and can to some degree shape their own identities. This is also the case with language. While there are styles which are gender preferential, individuals have some leeway in the linguistic choices they make in specific contexts with diverse interlocutors to convey pragmatic meanings, a usage which may not conform to simple gender expectations. And we saw how this diversity and complexity is also to be found in humorous matters, where, whatever gender differences there are, individuals can exercise choice from the entire resources of humour to communicate their comic meanings. What all of this means is, put simply, that should anyone want to create gender-based verbal humour, a wealth of social, political, and linguistic material is there in abundance. We can now go forward and explore in detail how a small group of men and women did just that and what the consequences of their actions were.

7. Some Gender Aspects>

7.1 Gender Identities and Representations>

7.2 Gender and Language>

7.3 Gender and Humour

Contents>