Tuesday, July 06, 2010

humor, gender, and our capacity for surprise.

http://www.doublex.com/blog/xxfactor/if-woman-jokes-forest

Ladd's backflips are impressive in both height and complexity. He argues that men tend to go for a more quick, punchy humor, and women are more interested in what he calls "anecdotal" humor. Never mind that the punchiest, most quick-witted sitcom on television is the brainchild of a bona fide Vagina-American, Tina Fey. "30 Rock" is all about absurdity, maximizing the jokes per minute, broad caricatures, and dick jokes—the very things that Ladd claims are "male" humor and not "female" humor. For all his good intentions, Ladd is being kind of sexist here. He's so eager to paint women as the more mature, evolved sex that he can't look past Fey's gender to see that she's the kind of person you who thinks "your mom" jokes are funny. (As do I, another woman who refuses to go kicking and screaming into the gentle comedy night.)

Ladd gets the closest to the truth of why women are characterized as "not funny" when he bemoans how funny women are considered skanks or bitches. I'd say the whole problem is actually quite simple. Our culture does believe there is a female and a male sense of humor that differ. We tend to say that men have a sense of humor when they say funny things, and that women have a sense of humor when they know when best to laugh when men say funny things. This sense is so ingrained that I had a few occasions when I was younger where I'd say something funny, and get blank stares, only to find a man stealing my joke a half hour later and getting giant belly laughs for it.


Years ago, when I was in college, a friend of mine was interested in a woman who didn't like anime so much, and had certain gender assumptions about the origin of ideas. This is to say she got the idea that Oh My Goddess, which she liked, was sweet and more appealing to a woman's sensibilities while Ranma 1/2 was too raunchy. She discovered to some dismay that Ranma 1/2 was written and drawn by a woman, Rumiko Takahashi. It would be impossible to make any case that there is such a thing as "female" and "male" humor that can be rationally described as such. I am friends with women who enjoy South Park at least as much if not more than most men I have known and I have never doubted their femininity. Conversely, I have known men who are no less masculine for liking mawkish sentimentality. You can guess (correctly) that I share more aesthetic values in common with the aforementioned women than the men on a few things.

This little blurb of an article caught my attention because before I completely gave up on Saturday Night Live as not having the slightest chance of being funny a decade ago the one person on the cast who could persuade me to watch the show for even a few minutes was Tina Fey for the simple reason that she was the only person on the show back then that was reliably funny. Yes, some occasional moments of greatness emerged from Will Ferrell but there was, to speak broadly, no element of genuine surprise as to what he would do that would manage to be funny. He's a Jackie Chan type of funny, you know what he's about to do that's going to be funny but when it works it's still funny. Fey's humor provided the possibility for a surprise, however small.

Comedy in the end is nothing if not about our capacity to be pleasantly surprised and this is why great comedians continue to fill us with joy and with a capacity for surprise, even if that surprise may be profoundly unpleasant. We are happier to receive bad news if it is the truth than we are to receive good news that is a lie. We can joke about the bad news more easily than we can joke about the inaccurate good news. Once we lose our capacity to be surprised or shocked we lose an important part of what humanity is. If we inur ourselves to the capacity for shock, dismay, or relief we dehumanize ourselves. A defensive resentment or misanthropy robs us of the humanity we adopt in order to defend our humanity. In fact we end up becoming the sort of thing we despise if we do this. I promise this will go somewhere in my pending review of Toy Story 3 but I have to consider this at some greater length.

1 comment:

Ira Nayman said...

I am always wary of gender essentialism (men are this way and women that). It seems to me that all human beings are born with the capacity to experience and be just about anything we want. What we think of as masculine or feminine may be general trends, but individuals are individuals, not generalizations, and we find ways of combining traits to become ourselves that are uniquely our own.

I'll edit that to make sense later.

As to the issue of the fear of female comedians: comedy is often linked to aggression. A lot of comedy is a projection of anger outward. The reason many men don't like female comedians is that they are uncomfortable with women expressing anger; in polite society, it simply isn't done! Or, to look at it a slightly different way, comedians are in control of their material, and, ultimately, control the audience's experience. Again, many men are not comfortable with ceding control of themselves so obviously to a woman.