I smile pretty naturally, usually when making eye contact with people, or performing some minor transaction or while engaging in small talk. What I don’t like is men telling me to smile when I’m not in the mood. Unless a man is a professional photographer directing a paid model, he can’t tell any woman to smile. He has to earn that smile. Crack a joke. Do a funny impersonation, say something stupid to break the ice. I was once at a party, eating from the same gigantic popcorn bowl as a man who asked me, “Was it fate or popcorn that brought us together?” That deserved a laugh.
Although I am a teacher who’s obliged to keep my students’ attention by being engaging and sort of funny, even at my own expense, I’d say I go through life receiving more laughter and enjoyment from others than spreading it myself. Life is a cabaret and all the men and women merely court jesters. Isn’t that what Shakespeare said? Anyway . . .
Christopher Hitchens wrote an article for Vanity Fair titled, “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” He defended his position in a video in which he said that women as a gender are not funny. Well, neither are men, in the same way that any group of people is not collectively anything. I love Christopher Hitchens, but demeaning women for allegedly not having a fully evolved funny bone seems unfair.
Women’s historical roots are not all that funny. For most of history we couldn’t vote, receive formal education, marry whom we pleased, divorce, have children if and when we saw fit, wear what we pleased, fend off sexual harassment and other types of violence and intimidation, and pursue a career that gave our lives meaning and satisfaction. To subject women to all this nonsense, to deprive them of basic rights and then say, “You’re not as funny as we are,” seems a bit naïve.
If a man says, “Was it fate or popcorn that brought us together?” or something equally charming and dopey, social tensions are eased and guards are lowered. This innocent humor and silliness lets women know that such a man is not a threat. That letting down of the guard is the “surrender” Christopher Hitchens was referring to.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where men need to pass the humor test to show they are nice guys. We make the world we live in, and right now, with sensitive egos at the top, women who make jokes, especially at the expense of men, are often treading on thin ice. People who attempt to be funny know that sometimes the jokes go terribly wrong and offend people. Well, what if offending people could get you shunned, shamed, yelled at, or beat up by someone bigger and more powerful than you? Men have been able to bounce back more easily after their jokes bombed than women have.
Not only are women not free to be as funny as we could be, but I’ve found even the type of laughter we exhibit and what we choose to find funny is up for disapproval. On a night out, I recently laughed at a man who was trying to dispense deep powerful wisdom. The problem is what he was saying was so hilariously idiotic, demented, ignorant, and delusional. If he could have controlled me like a puppet, I’m sure I would have nodded and smiled appreciatively at being in the presence of a great philosopher. Instead, I laughed with derision and left.
Comparing men’s and women’s ability to be funny, with equality being a mere concept and not a reality in most of the world, is like comparing plants that are not being cared for equally. One plant sits in the window, is watered daily, and turns a vibrant shade of green. The other wilts in a dark corner, is not watered, and is eventually kicked into a little patch of sunlight and told, “You’re not as stately as that other plant.”
Really? Is that fair?