Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Why Did the Feminist Cross the Road?

I'm sort of left speechless by this Germaine Greer piece about how women aren't as funny as men. Well, she says that's not what she's really saying, but she penned the piece to clarify what she meant when she said exactly that, in those words, on television.

What's interesting about this piece is that, as Kate Harding points out at Salon, "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?'" If this were someone who hadn't made a living via feminist writing, it would be forgivable--I'd think that the author simply hadn't immersed herself enough in basic feminist tenets to recognize how close she was to articulating why women are funny instead of why they aren't. But this is Germaine Greer we're talking here. I'm puzzled. (I'm doubly puzzled by her bizarre claim that female comics marry themselves off, and maybe that's why they don't thrive in the comedy world. When the female Muslim comic she referenced, Shazia Mirza, commented that she'd be able to afford getting off the comedy circuit tomorrow if only she could marry a rich man, Mirza was making a joke -- one Greer clearly missed.)

Specifically, she writes:

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

Let's say for the sake of argument that she's right (which she's not), and that women can't do a good pratfall, because our vaginas get in the way. This allows zero room for a cultural feminist analysis of humor; she just assumes that what's traditionally been seen as funny is what's funny, period. Not only does this imply that "droll"ness, which she readily admits at the end of the piece is where women thrive, is humor, not a sidecar to it, but it's a wholly outdated view of humor on the whole. Alternative comedy has been thriving for more than a decade, and while the male-female ration is still far from 50/50 within it, it's also no accident that female comics like Janeane Garofalo, Beth Lapides, and Margaret Cho sprang from alt-comedy. Are they making Jim Carrey goggly-eyes or Denis Leary-style rants? No. They're still funny as hell.

Funnier, in fact, than jokes. When was the last time you genuinely laughed at a joke with a punchline, the type one learns and repeats? There are some amusing ones out there, but none will inspire the kind of laughter that is bound to happen when I get together with my friends and we riff on each others' words, or simply alight on a moment of lunacy and find ourselves doubled over in laughter. This sort of leaves Greer's claim that women aren't that funny because we "famously cannot learn jokes" flatter than a Polack joke. (Yes, let's not forget that an enormous subset of jokes play on power structures. Women aren't immune from telling racist jokes -- or sexist ones -- but it makes sense that we'd have a natural aversion to jokes in which our disenfranchised group could easily be subbed in. See also: dumb blonde jokes.)

Greer states that men develop humor as a survival tool for acceptance within his peer group: "...the other roles in the group are not accessible to him, perhaps because he is weaker or poorer or less imposing than his peers." That's the closest she has to a solid argument here: Women have a small but clearly defined arsenal we've been told to turn to in discomfiting peer groups, and humor isn't in that toolkit. But more than that, she's illuminating that humor is a weapon of competition for men. Women have largely been removed from competing for role of "funniest" (instead, we're encouraged to race for the booby prize of "prettiest"). But what that means in real life is that instead of one-upping each other with one-liner zingers, my female friends tend to be funny in a more collective way. They bring up an incident from the past and exaggerate its ludicrous details; we get "the giggles" together; we hopscotch from one person's joke to another, building a central "inside joke" that we created together. (Well, "inside jokes" are a well-known tool of competition amongst preteen girls--it's unbearable to a seventh-grader when your two friends have a joke they repeat that excludes you. Luckily it circles around to being a cooperative event in adulthood.)

I might be so defensive of female humor because my best friend is a stand-up comic. The first time I saw her perform, I was struck with awe -- not just at the pride I felt at seeing my best friend handle the crowd with ease, but at hearing what it was like to hear stand-up performed by a feminist: as if women mattered, which is basically all feminism asks of the world. It wasn't exclusive humor -- the men in the crowd were laughing just as hard as I was at the way she lampooned health-care policy that covers Viagra but not the Pill. But it's not just her. I've laughed too hard with so many women -- and inspired the same of them -- to think Greer's view is anything but a joke.

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