by Lauren Ferguson
I was 13 when Christopher Hitchens’ now infamous article “Why Women Aren’t Funny” was published in Vanity Fair. I remember seeing my mother’s copy of the magazine lying around the house and flipping to Hitchens’ article in confusion. It had never occurred to me that women weren’t funny. At that point I had grown up with my grandmother’s tapes of I Love Lucy, staying up late to watch Fran Drescher on The Nanny, and rushing home from school so I could watch the last half of The Ellen Degeneres Show. How could he do this to Ellen? Why couldn’t they be funny?
Re-reading Hitchens’ article many years later, I still can’t help but roll my eyes. Beyond Hitchen’s use of damning evidence such as “Men will laugh at almost anything because… they are extremely stupid,” or claiming that the only funny women are “hefty or dykey or Jewish,” Hitchens’ strangest argument revolves around the gendered differences between men and women. He suggests men rely on their humor to date women, using it as a way to attract women, whereas women don’t need humor—their bodies make them appealing. Hitchens’ article unfortunately summed up so many negative stereotypes against women: they are sexual objects, their main goal is to acquire a man, and they’re just not funny. Personally, boring white men explaining to me why my entire gender isn’t funny is starting to exhaust me.
Arguably, the hardest career path for women is stand-up comedy, strictly because of the unfunny women trope. The comedy scene is dominated by men—see Patton Oswalt, Jim Gaffigan, Mike Birbiglia, Jerry Seinfeld, George Carlin, and literally hundreds more—but but only a handful of women. Comedian Bonnie McFarlane’s documentary on the issue of women comedians, Women Aren’t Funny, suggests that women comedians are perceived as unfunny because there are less of them. While not a particularly well-made film, it does bring up a good point. Because there are fewer women in comedy, it is easier to categorize women as unfunny when part of that minority fails. If there are 100 men in comedy and 5 women, one man’s failure isn’t noticeable, but if one of those five women fails, it’s a much larger percentage. There are many hilarious women comedians, but because there are fewer of them, their failures are magnified and somehow seem to represent their entire gender. They aren’t unfunny—it’s just easier to categorize women that way when the few comedians left are under more scrutiny to be funny.
One of the particular complaints men have with women comedians is that their jokes are inaccessible to men, with many comedians even suggesting that women only perform period jokes. First of all, even if every single female comedian did a period joke, it would still be accessible to those who have ever had a period, which is roughly all the people with vaginas, or half the population. Additionally, there are a multitude of period jokes already, however they come from male comedians themselves: Dane Cook, Bill Engvall, and Louis CK to name a few (however, it should be noted that CK’s joke involves him urging men to get over their fear of women’s bodies). While many complain about women performing the period joke, there are no negative reactions against men performing the same type of joke, in fact, they’re some of the comedian’s most well-received pieces. Search for a male comedian’s ‘best jokes’ and often their period joke tops the list. So, it seems the period joke is only unfunny when it comes from a woman. Perhaps the issue comes from the audience’s aversion to the reality of women’s bodily functions rather than the joke itself.
Women Aren’t Funny also brought up the often-overlooked point that women comics aren’t seen because the powers in charge don’t want them to be seen. Comedian and star of the movie, McFarlane struggles the entire duration of the film because she can’t seem to get booked. “Full disclosure,” she says in her standup, “I’m a really well credited opener for my husband,” also a comedian. In fact, she needs the connections her husband has to get decent shows because bookers are hesitant to let women perform due to the preconceived notion that they’re not funny. But how can women hope to change the perception of female comedians if said female comedians aren’t permitted to the stage? Women aren’t perceived as funny because they can’t obtain a setting to prove that they’re funny because they’re perceived as unfunny. The cycle simply will not allow a change to the stereotype.
Unfortunately it comes down this: comedy is power, and rather than give up their own power, men are seemingly more likely to use bizarre and illogical explanations to justify their distaste for women comedians. Male comedians, simply put, do not like female comedians. When asked about his favorite female comedians, Jerry Lewis stated “I don’t have any.” And, at a comic-con panel, Joseph Gordon-Levitt said “most pretty girls aren’t funny.”
Whether we realize it or not, the unfunny women trope isn’t a funny observation, it’s a type of anti-feminist oppression. Women are obviously funny! There are hundreds of funny women. For example: Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Kristin Wiig, Chelsea Peretti, Margaret Cho, the list goes on and on (for a more extensive list, check out Maria Bamford’s list of funny women). So, why are women told they aren’t? Perhaps male comedians don’t want women to be able to succeed in their testosterone-filled field. Or, as Women Aren’t Funny, puts it, “if you don’t think women are funny you’re probably just an asshole.”