Vanity Fair’s flame war between journalists Christopher Hitchens and Alessandra Stanley centered on the supposed gender gap in humor—their articles titled, respectively: “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” and “Who Says Women Aren’t Funny?”
The irreverent Hitchens, a proud member of the New Atheism “Unholy Trinity” (along with fellow horsemen of the apocalypse Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennet), makes the expected argument that humor has its roots in natural selection. Human males, lacking gaudy tail feathers and large antlers with which to battle other human males, rely on a sense of humor to attract a mate. On the other hand, a human woman’s reproductive struggle is rather different—the dangers of childbirth requiring that, as Rudyard Kipling wrote, “the female of the species must be deadlier than the male.” Of course, Hitchens doesn’t miss the opportunity to use this as a launching point into a couple one-liners about religion—women being, in their biological solemnity, “the rank-and-file mainstay of religion… the official enemy of all humor.”
Stanley rebuts with a litany of contemporary female comedians (comediennes, to use the gender-specific nounage): Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Ellen DeGeneres, Rosanne Barr, Whoopi Goldberg, and so on—many of whom, she notes, do not fit the “hefty, dykey, or Jewish” boxes Hitchens attempts to place women humorists into. Only briefly, however, does Stanley touch on Hitchens’ central, evolution-centric argument. Addressing the nature versus nurture issue, she writes: “It’s a shame that Margaret Mead never made it to that tribe in Papua New Guinea where women tell the jokes, and men pretend to find them funny.”
And yet—that line may be the most compelling point in her entire article. While Hitchens makes the assumption that men are compelled by nature to make women laugh for reproductive purposes, the truth may be that women are compelled to laugh by culture for their own survival (ask any women who’s felt a duty to giggle for a boorish date). A follow-up article could easily read: Who says men are funny?
Even Hitchens notes that women aren’t funny because wit, as a sign of intelligence, threatens men attempting to assert their own comic dominance. But this isn’t a reason for women not evolving humor in the first place—it’s a matter of gender and culture, not sex and nature.
It’s not socially acceptable for women to be funny—sarcasm’s fairly aggressive, and gibes can cut away at a man’s fragile ego (not having, as it is, plumes or horns). If humor often reveals a subversive perspective, chipping away at established authority, funny women represent a threat. As an example, Stanley cites the biblical case of Sarah, Abraham’s wife, eavesdropping on her husband and a visiting angel: when the angel tells Abe that his wife (age ninety-plus) will soon conceive a child, Sarah snickers at the tent flap; later, when she does give birth, she names her son the Hebrew word for laughter, Isaac. That’s one point against Hitchens’ assertion that childbirth is no laughing matter for women.
Sex and gender aren’t synonymous. If women aren’t funny, the problem isn’t an evolutionary predisposition to be a good audience—it’s a cultural injunction to be a good sport (Hitchens didn’t think Dorothy Parker funny either, by the way). And that’s something that should make men nervous: perhaps their much-vaunted sense of humor doesn’t really exist, after all.