By Merrill Lynn Hansen
Like most people, I've socialized less during the pandemic, and have had more time to read. When selecting reading matter, I occasionally like to peruse old articles written by journalists
whom I've admired through the years.
I recently came across a January 2007 essay by Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair. I prepared myself to be intellectually challenged, as I almost always am when reading Hitchens’ writing. Before his death in 2011, Hitchens was a brilliant sociopolitical critic, author, columnist and orator. I often have to read his essays more than once, because they are very thought-provoking.
This time, I was startled by the title, "Why Women Aren't Funny,” and I wondered if it was just a hook to grab readers, rather than a conclusion he'd actually reached. Of course women are funny--or so I thought.
According to Hitchens’ essay, women aren't funny because they don't need to be; they don't need humor in order to be appealing to men, because they already are. Hitchens declares that men are funnier than women, because "they had damn well better be." The chief task in life for a man, writes Hitchens, is to perform and impress the opposite sex; an average man "has just one, outside chance: he had better be able to make the lady laugh."
Hitchens grudgingly acknowledges that there are funny women who performed stand-up comedy. If I weren’t already miffed after reading the first few paragraphs of his essay, I certainly wanted to smack him upside the head, when he added that many of the women in comedy were fat and Jewish.
Hitchens, who always proclaimed himself to be right on every subject, made me wonder if there was any scientific, rather than anecdotal, evidence to support his theory that women aren't funny, or certainly aren't as funny as men.
It also made me wonder whether or not I’m funny, or if my sense of humor is as undeveloped as Hitchens claimed the humor level of all women, because in essence, women are just looking for a man to mate with.
In my pursuit, I read that at Stanford University School of Medicine, teachers showed ten men and ten women a sample of 70 black-and-white cartoons and had them rate them on a “funniness scale.” I tried to read the study, but when I got to the part about the "prefrontal cortex being more activated in women,” I still didn't know whether I was funny or not. I just knew I was bored.
So I skipped to what I call the "P.S." of the study (I occasionally read the end of a book first, to see if I think the beginning or middle would be interesting), and learned that, per the study:
“Women appeared to have less expectation of a reward, which in this case was the punchline of the cartoon."
Not only did women have less expectation of a joke being funny, they were slower to understand the punchline, more pleased than men when they finally did understand the punchline but were quicker to understand if it wasn't funny. Hmmm. I tried to picture all the times a man started to tell me a joke, and I had a feeling it wasn't going to be funny; had difficulty understanding the punchline, got excited when I finally did understand the punchline, and then thought "Nah, this isn't funny.” Often.
I also read about a study conducted by Aberystwyth University and the University of North Carolina that looked at how funny 5,000 people were. "Researchers" wanted to find out if the stereotype that men are funnier than women is true. Men and women were asked to write a funny caption alongside a cartoon, and "independent judges" rated how funny the captions were, without knowing the gender of the caption writers. The results of the study supposedly supported the stereotype, and the lead researcher went so far as to “suggest” that there is evidence that because humor plays a major role in mating, women look for a sense of humor in a man, and men look for a woman who will laugh at their humor.
I have never been able to write an even remotely funny cartoon caption, but it has never crossed my mind that the editor of a magazine cartoon caption contest would think it's because I might want to mate with the male figure in the cartoon.
Women believe a sense of humor strongly correlates with intelligence. I'm one of those women. But I've never told a formal joke to anyone since I was in the third grade, because the punch line to the only prefabricated joke I can remember is "Benny burped".
The more I read about the study findings, the more uncomfortable I started to feel. Hitchens and the authors of the studies gave the impression that men were just poor souls who did everything in their power to impress women, and women were just looking for a mate. I began to personalize what I was reading. I now wondered if men had ever knocked themselves out to impress me with their wit. Did I merely laugh at men because I was trying to flatter them, or make myself more attractive to them? Hmm.
I've definitely not been on the same humor wavelength as all the men I've known, but that's because I'm not stupid. I know some exceptionally intelligent men, but some of them rate a subzero on the "1 to 10” scale when it comes to sophisticated and tasteful humor. I admit that I may have laughed at an occasional clunky or bad-taste joke to impress a man who was trying to be funny, and I may have smiled at some ex-wife jokes that I didn't think were amusing, especially after I became one. But I will never understand the guy who suddenly became the Discovery Station and showed me a video of a python eating a horse, because he thought it would be hilarious to see my reaction. And studies showed men are funnier than women?
In an attempt to reassure myself that I do indeed have a very healthy sense of humor, I sent an email to a gentleman friend with whom I’ve had many conversations about hundreds of subjects. He knows the immediate world. I was certain he'd have a very favorable opinion of women's humor, and certainly mine. I told him about the studies, and without mentioning myself, I asked if he thought men were funnier than women. He wrote back and said that he honestly had never given the matter any thought, but that my email, which was not intended to be humorous, was the funniest thing I'd ever said to him. Argh.
I didn't bother asking for an opinion from some of the fellows I'd briefly gone out with. They might think the reason I didn't say anything funny was because I have no sense of humor. I wouldn't want to tell them that I rarely could get a word in edgewise because they sucked up all the oxygen in the room.
Clearly, Hitchens' perspective about how hard men had to work to compete against other men to attract women had more than a tinge of bitterness. When he defended his article in a subsequent interview, Hitchens admitted that he was bisexual, and because men no longer found him attractive, he had to be even funnier in his attempts to attract women.
But, to add insult to injury, Hitchens wrote that while it is very possible that women get funnier as they get older, it seemed like a rather long time to have to wait.
Clearly, I am not someone whom Hitchens would have wanted to go bowling with.
Merrill Lynn Hansen is a legal assistant, living in West Bloomfield, Michigan. She describes herself as a frustrated writer, who wishes she could be Nora Ephron (when she was alive), if only for a day. She is a news-, political- and FB-junkie, a combination that requires a constant reminder that she needs to take deep cleansing breaths when responding to people who don't agree with her.