By Nian Hu
The significance of society’s inability to find women funny
It is a (supposedly) well-established fact that women just aren’t funny. As a result, it’s tough being a woman in comedy. Take Amy Schumer, comedian du jour. A talented and unabashed stand up comic and sketch writer, it’s easy to see why everyone is talking about her all of a sudden. In “Last F*ckable Day” she rips apart Hollywood’s sexist treatment of aging actresses. In “Milk Milk Lemonade” she parodies the booty craze. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Her show Inside Amy Schumer is ruthless. She leaves no avenue unspared. She turns left and right, bashing stereotypes and gender roles and sexism and societal hypocrisies. And all the
while, she is downright hilarious.
But look down at the comments section, and you might wonder if the commenters just watched the same video you did. Her sketch may be a satire of Bill Cosby fans, but all the commenters can see is her weight and the shapeliness of her legs. Compare this to the comments that male comedians typically receive on their YouTube videos. Commenters on a Louis CK video usually gush over how funny he is and marvel at his talent. But commenters on an Amy Schumer video systematically criticize her weight, call her ugly, compare her to various unflattering animals—and then go on to admire her rear end and discuss the likelihood that he would sleep with her (implicit in this discussion, of course, is the assumption that a talented woman such as herself would have sex with a 40-year old man living in his mother’s basement writing hateful YouTube comments).
No discussion about how funny she is. No mention of her talent. Just comment after comment about her body. And Schumer, perceptive as always, has already skewered this relentless objectification in her skit “Twelve Angry Men,” a parody of the classic movie—except this time the men are debating whether or not Schumer is “hot enough for TV.” And through this skit, a deeply depressing truth is revealed: No matter what she does, no matter how many jokes about her own vagina she makes, many people will never see Amy Schumer as funny.
And it’s not just Amy Schumer that they have trouble finding funny. It’s women in general. A 2012 study found that most people, men and women alike, tend to ascribe funnier cartoon captions to men rather than to women–even when they’ve already been told the writer was a woman. Simply put, it’s hard for people to see women as funny.
But what does it matter, right? As Christopher Hitchens once said, and as Amy Schumer video commenters often echo, maybe women aren’t funny because they’ve never needed to be funny. I mean, it’s just evolution. Throughout the years, as dinosaurs evolved into chickens and as carrier pigeons evolved into iPhones, human males evolved a sense of humor because it got them laid more often. One knock-knock joke, and before he knows it, the lucky man is a father to a litter of funny boys and unfunny girls. Or something like that. Science!
Sorry to burst your bubble, but while humor is a lot of things, it’s a lot more than just a flirting device used by men to woo women. Sidenote: if “Damn girl, that dress looks good on you but it’d look even better on my bedroom floor” is what you consider humor, consider me unimpressed.
No, humor is far more powerful than that. And that’s why it’s important that our society finds it so difficult to put “funny” and “woman” together. Humor—particularly satire—is a tool of social commentary and criticism. It’s a way for people to hold up a mirror in front of society’s face and point out all the pockmarks. Women, of all people, know that society is deeply flawed. When we routinely get paid less than our male colleagues, and , and when the length of our skirts determines whether or not we deserve to live—well, how could we not turn to humor to shine a light on society’s failings? It sucks to acknowledge these truths, but it sucks even more to pretend they don’t exist. And one way of making it suck less is by using comedy to reveal how shitty life is sometimes. And that’s a huge part of the reason why Amy Schumer has been so successful, with sketches like “Girl, You Don’t Need No Makeup” making fun of unrealistic “natural beauty” expectations and sketches like “Hello M’Lady” satirising those pushy guys convinced they’re in the “friendzone.” They get people to laugh, but they get them to start thinking, too.
So the question is not so much, “Can women be funny?” Humor, like most things in life, is subjective. Clearly I find Amy Schumer hilarious, but her style of humor is definitely not for everybody. The real question we should be asking is, “Why does that matter?” Why does it matter that most people find it so hard to believe that women can be funny?
It matters because humor is the voice, and oppression is the joke. And when you say “women aren’t funny,” you’re essentially silencing an entire population by telling them their voice isn’t important, and their oppression isn’t real. Society’s inability to find women funny isn’t just an antique strips them of a vital weapon.