There is a growing body of new research and literature on both
women's psychological development and women's humor, but theorists
in these two fields have not yet fully integrated their findings.
Research on women's psychology has introduced new models of the
identity-formation process and how women develop their identities
in relation. Self-in-relation theorists focus on the early mother-infant
relationship and how it serves as a model for development based
on emotional and cognitive intersubjectivity. In contrast to earlier
models that posit rigid individuation and separation from the
mother as the major goal of psychological development, these feminist
theorists point out that the early mother-infant bond facilitates
identity based on empathy and mutual recognition of the other's
subjectivity, as Janet Surrey explains:
They [mother and infant] both will proceed to become further defined as people as they change because of the relationship. Optimally, they both will grow toward more relatedness, not less; toward better relatedness, not separation. And better relatedness means more flexibility, scope, and choice for all individuals and for the relationship itself.
In the instance of conflict, the healthy self-in-relation seeks to resolve the conflict with respect for the other's subjectivity and without rupture in the relationship.
These new theories also shed light on women's use of humor and
help explain some of the discrepancies noted by humor theorists
between men's and women's use of humor. Through these new models
of female psychological development, we can see how women's humor
follows the same patterns of communication used by women to address
conflict, or in terms of humor theory, incongruity, without damaging
interpersonal connections. Because earlier models of psychological
development have largely overlooked these aspects of women's experience,
we can expect weaknesses and inaccuracies in previous theories
of women's use of humor.
Women's Lack of a Sense of Humor
Almost every woman who has theorized on women's humor has had to address the stereotypical assertion that women lack a sense of humor (among other things). Kate Sanborn, in the introduction to her 1885 anthology of female humorists, The Wit of Women, claims that her desire to challenge this assumption became the motivation for her work. In her introductory chapter, she does not theorize as to why women have been accused of lacking wit; rather, she discusses her predicament of having too many excellent writings to include in her collection. Sanborn introduces her collection with references to early joke tellers, including the Grecian woman who, when her host gave her a miserly amount of very old wine in a tiny glass, responded, "Isn't it very small for its age?" Unfortunately, Sanborn's attempt did little to extinguish the popular conception that women (comparatively) lack a sense of humor. She came back to her subject in 1905 with an article entitled "New England Women Humorists," in which she admits that the stereotype of the humorless woman has persisted. Almost one hundred years later, Robin Lakoff, in her 1975 study on "women's language" (which she defines as speech deemed appropriate for women in American society), confirms the cultural perception that women lack a sense of humor: "[I]t is axiomatic in middle-class American society that, first, women can't tell jokes--they are bound to ruin the punchline, they mix up the order of things, and so on. Moreover, they don't 'get' jokes. In short, women have no sense of humor."
Although the stereotype of the humorless female has stubbornly persisted, reinforced by studies concluding that women use humor less often than men, Sanborn's accomplishment remains important. She preserved anecdotes, jokes and humorous stories that contained the themes and ideas that comprise what current scholarship has come to recognize as "women's humor." Today there are several scholars and theorists dedicated to exploring, identifying, documenting and preserving women's humor. Nancy Walker, Regina Barreca, Zita Dresner, Emily Toth, Gloria Kaufman, Linda Morris, and June Sochen, among others, have compiled several anthologies among them and have developed a sophisticated body of theory dedicated to answering the questions: Why have women been accused of lacking a sense of humor? Are women less witty than men? Is there such a thing as "women's humor"? What are women more or less likely to laugh about? How do women use humor? What are the effects of women's humor?
A study of their responses to these questions reveals three primary
explanations of the long-held assumption that women lack a sense
of humor. The first explanation is related to Lakoff's early observations
on women's use of language: women have been discouraged from using
humor in public situations in the same manner that their expression
in general has been restricted. Lakoff and Regina Barreca note
that humor, particularly those forms of humor that disparage individuals
or groups, is not considered "polite," and women are
brought up to avoid any semblance of impoliteness. Additionally,
much humor is overtly aggressive, and women are discouraged from
expressing aggression in any form. In a frequently cited cross-cultural
study, social anthropologist Mahadev Apte tells us that:
The use of humor to compete with or to belittle others, thereby enhancing a person's own status, or to humiliate others either psychologically or physically, seems generally absent among women. Thus the most commonly institutionalized ways of engaging in such humor, namely, verbal duels, ritual insults, and practical jokes and pranks, are rarely reported for women.
Many cultures, therefore, discourage women from participating in disparaging forms of humor, which accounts for much of the humor in these cultures.
The second reason the stereotype persists is that much of women's humor has been either censored or misinterpreted. In this scenario, women do not lack a sense of humor at all; rather, their humor has been ignored or unrecognized. The anthologies compiled by the scholars mentioned above effectively support the finding that women's humor has a healthy history; but the gatekeepers of our written history and literature have, until recently, omitted it from their collections. They have overlooked such humorists as Fanny Fern, whose weekly newspaper columns were among the most popular of mid-nineteenth century America, and fiction writer Marietta Holley, who at the end of the nineteenth century enjoyed a popularity that rivalled that of Mark Twain. Despite the efforts of women such as Kate Sanborn, those publishers and academics who decide what will be handed down to the next generation to read and study have ignored or neglected some of the greatest wits of the American tradition. This situation is in the process of being rectified as dozens of feminist scholars bring these women back into the study of American literature and history. Nevertheless, women have heretofore been largely denied the knowledge of the legacy of humor left by our foremothers.
Included in this censoring and misinterpretation of women's humor are faulty research methods that favor male forms of humor, making women appear to lack a well-developed sense of humor. Closer examinations of the studies often reveal serious methodological flaws. Mary Crawford points out that many such experiments use humorous stimuli that reflect masculinist and androcentric values with the results being used to "prove" that men are funnier than women. For example, in one such study, researchers surveyed approximately 250 undergraduate business students from a major university to determine their response to the hypothetical situation of a colleague whose briefcase flies open, spilling papers all over the hallway. The choices given were in terms of three response categories: (1) ignoring ("I would avoid looking at him and keep on walking"); (2) helpfulness ("I would stop and help him pick up his papers"); or (3) use of humor ("I would tease him about being a master paper shuffler"). As can be predicted, men had a higher "humor" response and women had a higher "helping" response (men and women rated about equally on the ignoring response). Remarkably, the creators of the survey (all male) asked the students to pick one of the three types of responses, which reveals the surveyors' view that one cannot be helpful and humorous at the same time. If given a choice between being helpful and being humorous, it is not surprising that women more often choose to be helpful. That does not account for the possibility that many women might integrate humor into their helping activities in such a situation. Another problem with the study is that it posits "humor" as a one-line quip in a slapstick situation, which is not women's preferred form of humor.
The third reason women have been found unfunny is that men have long decided what officially comprises funniness. Women often find humor from sources that fail to move men to laughter, while at the same time women fail to see humor in some of what men find laughable. Several studies, in addition to that of Mahadev Apte, find that men's humor is more often characterized by jokes that express aggression and hostility while women prefer word jokes, puns, and anecdotal stories. Women tend to avoid the derision characteristic of much male humor in favor of understatement, irony, and self-deprecation. (An important disclaimer needs to be emphasized here. These studies are citing generalities only; there are significant numbers of individuals who do not fall into their gender category.)
One of the common findings of all the gender and humor studies
is that there does in fact exist something that can be identified
as women's humor. It is a distinct form of humor characteristic
of and arising from women's experience that serves distinct communicative
functions associated with that experience. As a form of communication,
women's humor can be expected to closely parallel women's use
of language (our primary means of communication). I intend to
argue that women use humor for many of the same reasons that we
use language -- as a means of both establishing and maintaining
relationship and expressing our personal and collective identities
within our social situation. In particular, I contend that among
the various functions of women's humor, one of the most unique
is how it serves as a nonalienating, nonviolent, strategic means
of expressing anger and frustration over societal injustice and
oppression. It also serves as a means of maintaining connection
to the people, including the men, in our lives. This proviso
is critical because humor as a means of responding to and battling
domination has long been recognized as a tool of the oppressed.
Woman's struggle against this oppression, however, takes on unique
form in that it is most often characterized by both a desire to
shake off domination and a desire to avoid alienation and atomization.
Women's humor seeks to maintain relationship even while it attempts
to destroy the cultural status quo. Thus it seems at times ambiguous,
ambivalent or inconsistent.
General Theories of Humor
To understand how and why women's humor works the way it does, it is necessary to look at predominating theories of humor to understand what makes us laugh and why. There are three primary theories of humor under which most theorists' views can be categorized: superiority theories, repression/release theories, and incongruity theories.
The first articulation of superiority theory is usually credited
to Thomas Hobbes (with a nod to Plato), who claimed that laughter
was associated with glorification of the self, usually at the
expense of someone else. Hobbes, in Leviathan (1651), wrote
that we laugh when we suddenly recognize our superiority by its
own virtue or by virtue of others' shortcomings:
Sudden Glory, is the passion which maketh those Grimaces called LAUGHTER: and is caused either by some sudden act of their own, that pleaseth them; or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves.
Along with this notion that we laugh at others' limitations because it makes us feel superior, Hobbes believed that those people with more limitations will laugh more often. In other words, the joker is not a positive character within Hobbes's paradigm. Lawrence La Fave concludes that by this "egocentric, competitive interpretation of superiority humour theory, the individual is amused only when he feels triumphant and/or another person looks bad in comparison with himself." Hobbes's theory seems to work well with much deprecatory humor, but it certainly cannot account for all that people find laughable. Additionally, even disparaging humor does not always work in the way that Hobbes's theory would suggest: La Fave cites studies that have found that not everyone finds humor directed against others funny. While one would expect that people who are members of a social group would find humor directed against other groups funny, this is not always the case. Members of a group that has suffered from some type of social discrimination find humor directed against other victimized groups less funny than people who have not experienced discrimination based upon their social identity. Moreover, not all individuals who share an ethnic identity find jokes directed against them as "unfunny." Nevertheless, the psychological nature of Hobbes's assertion that laughter is rooted in a "glorification" of the self, or perhaps more appropriately, a preservation of the self, suggests that humor plays a part in establishing identity and warding off perceived threats to that identity. With this understanding, superiority theory (in a toned-down form) can be read in terms of those psychological theories of humor that claim that we engage in humor that affirms our personal and collective identities. Because domination or the threat of domination plays a primary role in the protection of our identities, humor will necessarily have a lot to do with power and control. Humor can be used as a means of establishing and maintaining power and control over others in the service of the protection of the ego.
Mention of the ego introduces the Freudian realm and provides a segue to repression/release theories of humor. Sigmund Freud contended that aggressive and sexual drives, necessary for survival, are repressed in their socially unacceptable form by the ego. Humor thus provides a socially acceptable and pleasurable form of release of this repressed psychic energy. Within this model, as within superiority theory, humor serves the ego in the form of a defense mechanism rather than an offensive tool. Freudian humor theorists, therefore, tend to analyze humor in terms of what it reveals about the psyche of the joker or his appreciative audience rather than how it might be used as a means of power or control. Sexual jokes reveal an individual's repressed sexual drives and disparaging jokes reveal aggression toward or fear of certain individuals or groups. Such analyses often do not take into account the strategic use of such humor as a means of taking or maintaining control over others.
While repression/release theories attempt to explain what happens
during the laughter process, they do not account for exactly what
we find funny and why there are such discrepancies in what different
people find humorous. An example comes from some classroom humor
based upon my own experience. In teaching women's literature courses
for primarily first- and second-year college students, I have
found it necessary to provide a short overview of Freud's theories
of human sexual development. I begin by citing the etymology of
the word "uterus." I explain how it is related to the
word "hysteria," that omnipresent malady of Victorian
females that baffled the best doctors, and how it was once believed
that the uterus travelled throughout the female body causing mysterious
and unaccountable illnesses in women. This discussion usually
generates a good laugh from my students; and, aware of the importance
of good timing, I take the opportunity to move on to "penis
envy," using Freud's own words:
The first step in the phallic phase . . . [is] a momentous discovery which little girls are destined to make. They notice the penis of a brother or playmate, strikingly visible and of large proportions [here I get a few smiles from my female students], at once recognize it as the superior counterpart of their own small and inconspicuous organ [a few more smiles, lots of puzzled faces, and an audible laugh or two], and from that time forward fall a victim to envy for the penis.
Freud then contrasts this process with the boys' discovery of
the female's lack of a penis, leading eventually to castration
anxiety (which usually generates some amused looks, particularly
from the male members of the classroom). Freud continues:
A little girl develops differently. She makes her judgment and her decision in a flash. She has seen it and knows that she is without it and wants to have it . . . [audible laughter from several of the women]. From this point there branches off what has been named the masculinity complex of women . . . . The hope of some day obtaining a penis [I am interrupted with laughter from both my female and male students] in spite of everything and so of becoming like a man may persist to an incredibly late age and may become a motive for the strangest and otherwise unaccountable actions . . . [hearty laughter from all]. Thus a girl may refuse to accept the fact of being castrated . . . and may subsequently be compelled to behave as though she were a man.
At this point, I confess that I find it hard to keep a straight
face, and the final paragraph ends up being read in fits and starts
to accommodate our outbursts of laughter:
The psychical consequences of penis-envy . . . are various and far-reaching. After a woman has become aware of the wound to her narcissism, she develops, like a scar, a sense of inferiority. When she has passed beyond her first attempt at explaining her lack of a penis as being a punishment personal to herself and has realized that that sexual character is a universal one, she begins to share the contempt felt by men for a sex which is the lesser in so important a respect.
The point here is that I certainly do not believe that Freud meant these words to strike us as funny as they do today. While Freud no doubt would argue that the classroom reaction suggests our repressed sexuality, we certainly are no more repressed than he was. He obviously did not intend humor here. What we laugh at is the absurdity of his assertions based upon our own personal experience and observation. I was not impressed, upon first sight of my brother's penis, with any "strikingly visible and . . . large proportions." I certainly did not compare it with my own "small and inconspicuous organ." I did not live my girlhood with the hopes of someday obtaining a penis of my own. And I certainly do not "share the contempt felt by men for a sex which is the lesser in so important a respect." That Freud's train of reasoning leads from physical difference to the established inferiority of woman based upon her lack of a penis seems absurd to the point of laughability in our culture, as evidenced by the spontaneous laughter of both the young men and women in my classroom. We laugh because Freud attempts to use logic and arrives at what we find absurd, based upon our own experience. Here we have the basis for the most encompassing theory of humor, incongruity theory.
The concept of incongruity as an essential element of humor has ancient roots. Incongruity theories focus on similarity and dissimilarity and how, in the presence of certain other factors (i.e., surprise or suddenness and a perception of harmlessness), they elicit laughter. The eighteenth-century philosophers Joseph Addison and David Hartley rearticulated earlier theories and argued that "resemblance and opposition" are necessary ingredients to humor. Humor occurs, according to most incongruity theorists, when two distinct logic patterns or models of thought unexpectedly collide. In language concepts, G. B. Milner's semiotic analysis of laughter contends that "the stimulus to laughter consists of the collision of two normally quite distinct universes of discourse within a single context." For example, when words collide, we have puns or malaprops; and where structures collide, we have spoonerisms. We laugh when we suddenly recognize new differential relations. According to Milner, behind these unexpected reversals "stands the human tension between nature and culture, deeply rooted in the unconscious." Patterns of thought that we have never entertained before rise to the surface. In 1900, Henri Bergson stated it like this: "A situation is invariably comic when it belongs simultaneously to two altogether independent series of events and is capable of being interpreted in two entirely different meanings at the same time."
Incongruity, according to Norman Holland, can take many forms. Cognitive incongruity occurs when "something affirms and denies the same proposition simultaneously, when something creates disorder and then resolves that disorder, when something shows the limitations of the real word as a way to affirm the logical order of some other, ideal plane." Ethical incongruity involves our sense of values, such as the contrast between good and evil, the noble and the contemptible, the high and the low, the beautiful and the disgusting. Formal incongruity involves defects of forms -- "something harmful presented harmlessly," the pathetic and tragic presented painlessly, something insignificant masquerading as something momentous, or vice versa. German theorist Theodor Lipps wrote about the comic nature of "that little thing which behaves as though it were a big one, that swells itself to do it, that plays the role of a big thing and then behaves again like a little thing or melts into something insignificant." The phallus here becomes the "prototype of the laughable" (as Holland has observed), or to poststructuralists, a (transcendental?) signifier of the comic.
Early twentieth-century theorists of humor, such as Bergson and Freud, further pointed out that it is incongruity followed by resolution that maximizes humor and takes it beyond the mere nonsense level. Humor, according to this incongruity/resolution model, comes from a gap between what is expected and what actually occurs, followed by understanding, or resolution, of the incongruity. Several theorists discuss the importance of the presence of a feeling of play that makes humor possible, a feeling that there is no danger to one's person or existing schemas. Resolution of the incongruity signifies its nonthreatening nature and restores order. In this capacity, humor can be construed as a form of social control in that social structures may be challenged but eventually are reinforced. However, the perception of incongruity, safety and resolution is highly subjective.
Mary Rothbart has noted that individual responses to incongruity vary widely and may preclude the offered resolution--different people find different stimuli more or less incongruous. The hearer must recognize the ambiguity presented; but such recognition remains contingent upon the person's cultural and personal life experience. Bruère and Beard, who compiled a 1934 anthology of women's humor, recognized women's contrasting paradigms and how they clash with the male world: "The angle of vision from which women see a lack of balance, wrong proportions, disharmonies, and incongruities in life is a thing of their world as it must be -- a world always a little apart."
Denial of women's right to vote for over 140 years after the
founding of a nation based on the equality of all people made
evident an incongruity noted by almost all of the women humorists
in Bruère and Beard's anthology. A society that espoused
egalitarianism in principle but denied full enfranchisement by
law or custom to over half of its members abounded in incongruity
and provided a limitless source of humor for women in the nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries. Many men failed to recognize the
incongruity or the offered resolution. Alice Duer Miller, a writer
of verse, satiric novels and short stories, and a columnist for
the New York Tribune from 1914 to 1917, wrote an introduction
for her first column entitled "Are Women People?," which
features a dialogue between a father and son emphasizing the longstanding
contradiction of woman's disfranchisement:
Father, what is a Legislature?
A representative body elected by the people of the state.
Are women people?
No, my son, criminals, lunatics and women are not people.
Do legislators legislate for nothing?
Oh, no; they are paid a salary.
By the people.
Are women people?
Of course, my son, just as much as men are.
Miller returned to the subject repeatedly in her column and once
took the approach of turning the tables, whereby the incongruities
of the argument became apparent:
Why We Oppose Votes for Men
1. Because man's place is in the armory.
2. Because no really manly man wants to settle any question otherwise than by fighting about it.
3. Because if men should adopt peaceable methods women will no longer look up to them.
4. Because men will lose their charm if they step out of their natural sphere and interest themselves in other matters than feats of arms, uniforms, and drums.
5. Because men are too emotional to vote. Their conduct at baseball
games and political conventions shows this, while their innate
tendency to appeal to force renders them peculiarly unfit for
the task of government.
While American society eventually came around to recognizing the inconsistency of anti-suffrage arguments, many men still did not find Miller funny (and, perhaps, many still don't).
Women also find incongruity in things that men take, or have
taken, very seriously. For instance, what seemed logical to Martin
Luther concerning the roles of men and women seems very incongruous
to most women:
Men have broad shoulders and narrow hips, and accordingly they possess intelligence. Women have narrow shoulders and broad hips. Women ought to stay at home; the way they were created indicates this, for they have broad hips and a wide fundament to sit upon (keep house and bear and raise children).
A correlation between shoulders, hips, and intelligence strikes us as absurd and funny; but I am certain Luther was speaking in all seriousness. (By the way, how do women "keep house and bear and raise children" while they are sitting on their "wide fundaments"?) The resolution that allows us to laugh at such preposterous statements lies in our knowledge that there is no rational correlation between hips and intelligence (although the essence of the argument still lingers). Likewise, my students' perception of the incongruity of Freud's theory of penis envy arises from their entirely different perception of the events surrounding the discovery of sexual difference. Resolution occurs because women in our culture are not "officially" (relative to the Victorian era) considered inferior.
While we can laugh at such seemingly outdated absurdities (whereas it was a bit more difficult for Victorian women to do so, although many of them did), I do not mean to suggest that incongruities in perceptions of gender roles and devaluation of the female no longer exist. In the case of cross-dressing, men dressed as women elicit laughter because their appearance is incongruous with gender roles in culture. From Shakespeare to modern movies ("Some Like it Hot," "Tootsie," and "Mrs. Doubtfire") to television ("Bosom Buddies"), men dressed as women never fail to get laughs. Women dressed as men, however, do not strike most of us as funny (unless, like Lucille Ball, they sport a mustache and mimic a pompous male stride). Why is it more comic for men to dress as women? If we draw superiority theory back into the equation, we might have an answer to the problem. La Fave notes that humor must involve a "sudden happiness increment (such as a feeling of superiority or heightened self-esteem) as a consequence of a perceived incongruity." It is assumed that women have something to gain by assuming a male role, so we are not surprised when women sport men's clothing (which they have been doing for centuries and which at various times has been outlawed). By contrast, it is perceived that men have nothing to gain in a female role; to do so strikes anyone in a patriarchal culture as extremely incongruous and catches us by surprise. It remains harmlessly humorous, even to the cross-dressers themselves, because the incongruity is resolved by their actual maleness -- they are not really females. Others might point out that we laugh only when men sport distinctly female accoutrements (high heels, pantyhose, dresses, makeup, certain types of jewelry) that are intended to display one's beauty in an attempt to be physically attractive to the opposite sex -- the stereotypical role of woman. Women can laugh because, in spite of the trappings, the men are (in most cases) not attractive to the opposite sex. The order is essentially unchallenged: men remain better at being men, and women are better at being women.
But is the order really left intact? Some theorists (e.g., Bergson
and Freud) argue that comedy restores the social order with its
resolution; another group counters that comedy is subversive and
can even be revolutionary. Karl Marx claimed that humor separates
us happily from our past (a catharsis) and can provide a space
for change. But comedy can also keep relationships going that
would otherwise dissolve with conflict. Anthropologist Mary Douglas
believes that humor serves both social and subversive roles in
that it represents a challenge to cultural forms that is usually
resolved unthreateningly. She sees the joke as "a play upon
form . . . [in which] one accepted [social] pattern is challenged
by the appearance of another which in some way was hidden in the
first." Its role, then, is exactly opposite that of the
rite: while the rite solemnly reinforces cultural structures and
values, the joke undermines them, at least for a moment. Minority-group
humor often takes this form inasmuch as comedy allows a challenge
of an unacceptable norm of the dominant culture without being
perceived as an anarchic attack. But certainly much humor can
be interpreted as borderline in this respect. What about the cross-dresser
who refuses to take off the dress and go back to his privileged
position as a male in our culture? Hasn't the class clown always
challenged and defied authority? Doesn't our laughter at Freud's
theory of penis envy effectively emasculate it? (Pun intended.)
Humor is subversive when it refuses to resolve itself in accordance
with the status quo. Subversive laughter has long been a nonviolent
tool of oppressed classes and minority groups, and we infer that
the privileged classes do not find it so very funny. Can we
assume that women's humor would also be highly subversive? Women,
as a discriminated group, have much in common with other racial
and ethnic minorities. It follows that women's humor would contain
many of the same elements of the humor of other minority groups,
which, in fact, is the case. Because women live in such close
relationships with members of the dominant group (men) in ways
that members of other socially subordinated groups do not, their
humor reflects the unique dynamics of those intimate relationships.
Well, We Think It's Funny: Comparing Communicative Approaches
With an understanding of some basic theories of humor, we can
turn our focus back to some of our initial questions. What is
"women's humor" and how is it used? Because most of
our meanings are generated by difference, we can perhaps most
easily understand women's humor by contrasting it with "men's
humor." As previously mentioned, research shows that men
tell more jokes than women, and those jokes are more often disparaging
and deprecatory. Men's jokes tend to be shorter than women's jokes
and are more likely to be sexual. Women's jokes are longer, more
anecdotal, more often involve wordplay, and are more likely to
be self-deprecatory. What can account for these differences?
I believe the answer can be traced to the contrasts in women's
and men's communicative approaches.
Women Rarely Prefer the Quickie: Women and Joketelling
I believe that women, even empowered women who feel relatively
free to share their humor, generally do not use the male forms
of humor mentioned above because they simply are not the best
tool to facilitate their communication goals. Humor is highly
social -- we laugh more when we are with others -- and therefore
can be examined in terms of what we know about social interaction.
Mary Crawford's research shows that the men in her study favored
hostile humor, jokes and slapstick comedy. Women preferred humor
in the form of anecdotes based upon their own experiences or the
experiences of their friends and family. Barreca concurs:
Where men tell jokes, women tell [humorous] stories, usually stories about themselves or their friends, and not surprisingly, these will concern issues of particular importance to women. . . [T]he "one-two punch line" form of most traditional jokes simply doesn't appeal to most women.
One of the reasons for this discrepancy has already been mentioned.
Joketelling has been perceived as a male form of communication
and women are reluctant to transgress societal perceptions of
appropriate linguistic behavior for women. "Making us laugh
was always the boy's job," explains Barreca, and cracking
jokes or even "getting" jokes labelled one a "Bad
Girl." Julia Klein, in her article about the problems
faced by female stand-up comics, argues that "[c]omedy is
itself an aggressive act; making someone laugh means exerting
control, even power. But a woman cannot come off as overaggressive"
or she will make people uncomfortable -- a condition not conducive
to laughter. Many researchers note the position of superiority
held by the joketeller, a position that might be uncomfortable
for some of the parties when the performer is female. Barreca
says that "[m]aking a joke is like making a pass -- you take
control, take a risk, and try to bring the house down. Good Girls
just wait." Paul McGhee's research supports Barreca and
Because of the power associated with the successful use of humor, humor initiation has become associated with other traditionally masculine characteristics, such as aggression, dominance, and assertiveness. For a female to develop into a clown or joker, then, she must violate the behavioral pattern normally reserved for women.
When a women does cross these boundaries, she may be perceived
as unfunny, as Alice Sheppard explains:
It has been known for some time that humor in a social setting is initiated by someone of higher status. Women, of course, are recognized as being of lower status than males. When a person of low status initiates a joke, the judgment may be that it is inappropriate for that person to be joking. In that case, indignation supplants amusement, and any tendency to respond humorously is suppressed from the outset.
While it seems indisputable that cultural conditions have traditionally discouraged women's joketelling, I do not believe this completely explains our preference for humorous narratives over joketelling. I believe that characteristics of women's humor in general will reflect those dynamics that are also identified as directing women's language. Because women's conversational goals differ from men's, it figures that women's humor will serve different purposes and take different forms. Several studies conducted over the last twenty-five years document gender differences in language use, and of particular interest here are those studies that conclude that women and men use language toward different ends. (Again, I want to stress that these findings show generalities only. Many of us are sensitive here because we are close to some exceptional men.) Crawford notes the findings of several researchers that conclude that "men talk more, hold the floor, tell jokes, interrupt women and ignore women's contributions to dialogue. Women tell more personal stories, support others in the conversational spotlight, and collaborate more than they compete." Women also offer more feedback or other signs of attentiveness, rarely dominate the floor, and are less likely to demand the full attention of an audience (this, of course, excludes the nuns in parochial school and several women in my family).
Now consider a joke within these parameters. For a joke to occur, the performer must get (demand?) the attention of the audience, and the audience must signal their attention with eye contact, verbal response, and so on. The performer then presents a set of circumstances, often in the form of a question ("How does a Jewish-American Princess . . ."). This is a position of power for the performer in that he or she possesses information about these circumstances that the audience does not. The audience signals that they are allowing the performer to be funny by responding to the question ("I don't know. How does a Jewish-American Princess . . . ?"). The performer then delivers the punch line, an unexpected outcome of the circumstances, and expects the audience to be impressed or amused. The audience responds, showing that they "get" the humor by laughing or rolling their eyes, or providing some other nonverbal response.
This whole scenario describes precisely the male-female dynamics in conversation as described by Deborah Tannen in her book, You Just Don't Understand (New York: Ballantine, 1990). The male is performer and the woman is audience/helper. This supports Barreca and Lakoff's notion that women, in leaving the joketelling to men, are simply fulfilling culturally prescribed roles. So we might conclude that as these "culturally prescribed roles" change, women will tell jokes more and more often. I think it is safe to say that women's roles today are not as culturally prescribed as they were fifty years ago, twenty-five years ago or even a decade ago. Indeed, Barreca establishes that women's humor is alive and well and that women are telling more jokes than ever -- but they still don't tell jokes as often or of the same kind as men (i.e., disparaging, sexual). Women prefer other types of humor to jokes and no matter how much freedom we attain, women will still less frequently be the ones who come into the office each day bellowing "Hey, did you hear the one about . . ."
According to Deborah Tannen, men in general use language for
positive self-presentation, that is, to establish and maintain
status. Women, on the other hand, use language to connect, to
establish and maintain relationship and intimacy. While narrative
forms of humor can be used to promote women's goals in conversation,
the format and the content of the typical one- or two-line joke
would not easily facilitate such connections. The power held by
the joketeller, however, can advance those goals Tannen identifies
with men, as we can see in Mercilee Jenkins's description of male
Joking for men establishes them as credible performers and affords them an audience for whom they demonstrate their prowess. Their jokes are less personal, like their social groups, and they can be told in a variety of settings. Men can develop a repertoire of jokes which they can use to compete with other men for audience attention and honors. Their jokes are exclusive in that they more often put down others or are told at the expense of others. The teller rarely identifies with the butt of the joke . . . .
Likewise, Jenkins' description of women's humor shows how it serves
their purposes in conversation:
[Women's humor is] much more context-bound. It is more often created out of the ongoing talk to satisfy the needs of [a] particular group of women. Since the goal of interaction is intimacy, there is not the same need to compete for performance points ... [Women's] humor includes and supports group members by demonstrating what they have in common.
Nancy Walker points out that women's humor is often enmeshed
within a larger text that works "by cumulative effect, not
by one-liners" and takes the form of "lengthy conversations
between women that are basic to communication among women":
First, women tend to be story tellers rather than joke tellers. Humor functions for them more as a means of communication than as a means of self-presentation, a sharing of experiences rather than a demonstration of cleverness.
These descriptions of male and female humor also raise an important
point made by several researchers: women often avoid jokes because
they have for so long been the butt of them. Almost every woman
has at one time experienced what Barreca calls the "booby-trap"
joke in which, while in a group of men, she is told a sexual joke
primarily so that the men can amuse themselves with her embarrassed
reaction. Many women, because of such experiences, sympathize
with other groups that are the targets of hostile and aggressive
humor. This helps explain why women are less likely than men to
laugh at other's misfortunes or at situations in which someone
is hurt or embarrassed and why they seldom use jokes for the purpose
of embarrassing the listener. Even retaliation in kind proves
difficult for the woman whose empathy extends even to the aggressive
male joketeller. Barreca cites an occasion when a female friend
was able to "come back" against harassment directed
at her but then became concerned with the possible effect of her
I know a woman who was once so angry at such a [sexual] comment [from a man on the street] that she screamed back "If your mouth is so big, your dick must be real small" and then spent the rest of the day worried -- honest to God -- in case he really did have a small dick. Believe me, this is misplaced compassion.
While most women would probably agree with Barreca that this woman's compassion was misplaced, we might also understand her discomfort with aggressive humor. While anybody has a right to be angry when she is made the butt of someone's hostile joke, women still value the ability to empathize, to experience compassion for others. Barreca admits this when she says that "women are often cautious about using humor around men, not because they perceive individual men as powerful, but because they perceive them as vulnerable, easily wounded."
A conversation recorded by Michael Mulkay illustrates another
example of women's reluctance to respond to aggression with aggression.
This conversation involves cocktail waitresses who have been harassed
by the bartender's sexual jokes:
Rob made some reference about my chest.
Same here. But I don't know what we can do to get him back.
Maybe we could all get together and try grabbing him.
That's silly. We aren't strong enough and they would just make a joke about it.
We could all ignore him, but that wouldn't work because he would just pick at us until we responded. If we ignore him, we're admitting defeat.
There's no way we can get them back. We can't get on their level. The only way to get them back is to get on their level and you can't do that. You can't counter with some remark about the size of his penis.
Regina Barreca would respond to this last comment with a resounding, "why not?" and would suggest that these women empower themselves with a barrage of witty comebacks. While most women would argue that men who direct aggressive humor against women deserve a taste of their own medicine, women often choose not to be the dispenser of such a tonic. The caveat attached to Barreca's own recommendation to use aggressive humor in such situations suggests the reason why women often avoid the tactic: "If and when you decide to use aggressive humor, you have to be sure to do it with finesse. It has to appear not to matter to you at all, otherwise it won't work. Like any joke, it depends on concealing the true feelings underneath."
Barreca's warning that it must not appear to matter to us and that we must conceal our feelings is advice many of us are unwilling to accept. While it would give satisfaction to retaliate against the aggressor, it does in fact matter to many of us and we do not want to hide those feelings. We have done that for far too long. Still, Barreca explains why she prefers the snappy comeback: "When you respond with a bitchy, funny remark, you are not so much being hostile as asserting your right to be heard. You are making sure that you have the last word, and the last laugh."
For many women, however, conversational goals of connection and
relationship make them less concerned than men are with having
the last word, or the last laugh.
The Phyllis Diller Complex: Women and Self-Deprecatory Humor
While women are less likely to employ the quick quip as a form of humor, they are more likely to engage in self-disparaging humor -- that is, humor at one's own expense. According to Murray Davis, this is humor at the expense of a person or group with whom the humorist is closely identified, such as a spouse, mother, father, sibling, or own ethnic group. What is going on when Judy Carter says, "I had a relationship that lasted 13 years, and ended just like that. She said, 'Let's just be friends.' I said, 'OK Mom,'" or when Joan Rivers declares, "I was the ugliest child ever born in Larchmont, New York . . . When I was born, my mother looked at me and looked at the afterbirth and screamed "Twins!"? Finding humor in these situations would seem to be contrary to the findings of Zillman and Cantor:
Witnessing the disparagement of those things we do not hold dear is enjoyed because it gives us a moment's glory of superiority. The ridicule of esteemed objects, in contrast, cannot possibly be enjoyed because it is considered degrading and debasing to the self.
La Fave goes so far as to claim that self-disparaging humor does not exist -- that no one truly finds their own misfortune amusing. So why do women disparage themselves with their humor? Why do they perpetuate stereotypes of women, such as the nagging wife, the hated mother-in-law, the inept housekeeper, the JAP (Jewish American Princess), the dumb blonde, the flat-chested woman, the fat woman?
Freud claimed that self-deprecatory humor was aggression toward others turned inward. One might theorize that self-disparaging humor in the manner made popular by Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers has come about as a result of the repeated message that women are inferior. Anger at this message may be turned inward, particularly if inferiority has been internalized. In this case, the pleasure of the joke can be read as masochistic or, in the case of those who disparage other women, as an indicator of a psychological need to compare favorably with others who are devalued. McGhee's studies support others who have found that those in power within a culture prefer humor that disparages the powerless, whereas those not in power tend to prefer self-deprecatory humor. His findings have an important qualifier: not all women found self-deprecatory humor funny. Those who accepted more traditional sex roles and values tended to prefer self-disparaging humor, while those who were open to changing and progressive roles for women tended to reject such humor. But Freud also claimed that the ability to laugh at oneself represents the "triumph of narcissism and assertion of invulnerability." In this model, the individual shifts some of the energy from ego to superego and "stresses moral values at the expense of pragmatic interests, thus lessening the impact of physical adversity." Because humor at one's own expense has a long history, Hobbes even had to acknowledge this phenomenon and explained it by positing a present and a past self. People laugh, according to Hobbes, at "some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly." We laugh at ourselves only when we feel that we are actually distanced from that former inferior self.
Still other theorists believe self-disparaging humor has a positive function. Laughing at how we fall short of the ideal has long been considered a healthy facet of comedy because of the self-knowledge gained. Christopher Wilson argues that genuine amusement at self-ridicule more often reflects resilience and adjustment than masochism. It may be a tactic used to deal with seemingly overwhelming problems by sporting an amused acceptance and a denial of pain or harm. When the joker is not sincere, it may be used as a social ploy and possibly an attempt at ingratiation. While self-deprecatory humor may reflect woman's acceptance of her devaluation and her perception of vulnerability in patriarchal society, it can also become an offensive weapon against that devaluation. By disparaging oneself, the humorist claims knowledge of her own vulnerability, and by that knowledge gains mastery over it. Walker notes that:
Laughing at one's shortcomings is not only a way of diminishing their importance and potentially overcoming them but is also a technique for cleansing them of pejorative connotations imposed by the dominant culture and, thereby, turning them into strengths.
In this manner, even self-deprecating humor can be seen as assertive. Erma Bombeck's lament of the problem of swimming-suit season provides a good illustration:
No, I don't think I'm ready for a bikini again this year. Heaven knows I try to bend to the dictates of fashion, but let's face it, I'm a loser. When I grew my own bustle, they went out of style. When my hips reached saddlebag proportions, the "long, lean look" came in. When I ultimately discovered a waistline, the straight skirt came into being. I had a few bright moments when they were exploiting the flat chest as denoting women with high I.Q.'s, but then someone revealed a certain clearly unflat movie star's 135 (I.Q. that is) and shot that theory down . . . Tell you what. If I don't "shape up" by June, go on to the beach without me. Stop on the way back and I'll serve you a dish of homemade shortcake, topped with fresh strawberries crusted in powdered sugar and wallowing in a soft mound of freshly whipped cream.
While Bombeck's target may seem to be her own body, it is really the "dictates of fashion," which are forever changing the standard of women's beauty in our culture and have created a problem with her body the way it is. This is also the case with much of the humor directed toward women's bodies. Arbitrary and ever-changing standards of beauty in our society weigh most heavily on women and humor can be seen as an antidote to such arbitrariness. Bombeck overcomes any perceived vulnerabilities and becomes the actor of her narrative at the end when she substitutes sensual edibles and good company for the dictates of fashion.
Christine Lavin, a folksinger/comedian, targets herself and other women who sacrifice common sense to fashion in these excerpts from her song, "High Heel Shoes":
I'm getting dizzy way up here
I haven't been this high in years
Oh whatever possessed me to
blow eighty dollars on these
high heel shoes . . .
"Looks like a pump,
feels like a sneaker"?
Do they think we're idiots?
But I bought 'em
Now I'm standing in a subway car
I ride because I cannot walk far
I couldn't find an empty cab on the street
They were filled with high-heeled women
with non-functioning feet . . .
Take pity on my vanity
Maybe question my sanity
Why I wear these uncomfortable things
which makes me wonder about these pierced earrings
and my pantyhose, my control top . . .
Oooo, I can see you don't want me
to sing out about pantyhose
You'd rather I go back to tap dancing
Like my close personal friend Paula Abdul
Who, like me, was a geek back in high school . . .
In this last verse, she acknowledges that such humor can strike a little close to home for some of us. In an episode of her weekly sitcom, "Grace Under Fire," Brett Butler comes down the stairs dressed for a night at the opera. Her best friend comments, "Why, Grace, I didn't know you had cleavage." Looking down she replies, "Well, I don't really. I'm wearing a 'Wonderbra'. This is really my fanny." Here the joke is directed at the "Wonderbra" and its incredible claim to make our bodies achieve the cultural standard of big breasts. In a similar manner, dumb blonde jokes can be read as a reaction to the arbitrary preference for blondes in our culture, and Jewish-American Princess jokes can be interpreted as class protests (since their protagonist is usually rich and spoiled).
Tania Modleski, in her study of humor and classic cinema, has
also noted that when a woman laughs at a joke at her own expense
or at the expense of women in general, she may be responding to
the "liberating pleasure of anger" at "getting"
a joke and the subsequent insight into how oppression works. This
consciousness of the nature and structure of women's oppression
can also serve to bring women together, as Suzanne Bunkers has
Self-deprecatory humor, when used by women, often functions not to demean a particular woman but to establish a common ground among women . . . [A]s women begin to identify with one another, the sense of powerlessness decreases and the use of self-deprecatory humor takes on the function of uniting women and of laying the groundwork for the creation of other, more positive, forms of humor.
Women do not necessarily need to make males the brunt of their
jokes to use humor to their advantage, because it is the joking
itself, rather than its content, that brings them together and
keeps them connected. Such humor can foster community among women
and effectively cross the boundaries of ethnicity and class that
often divide them and thereby create what Nancy Reincke calls
an "antidote to dominance":
Women's laughter counteracts dominance when it constructs a counterknowledge, a counterknowledge that is collectively produced through female bonding across barriers of class and race. The threat to male dominance isn't women laughing at men; the threat is women laughing with women.
The Wife Who Sat Around the House: Domestic Humor
We have learned from researchers that women's humor tends to be longer and more anecdotal, focusing on domestic subjects that reflect their day-to-day experience. Women prefer storytelling to joketelling. The length of a story or anecdote provides increased opportunity to connect with one's listeners and to impart information about one's life. This has led, according to Nancy Walker and Rita Dresner, to the development of a "distinctive body of humor with common subjects and themes that set it apart from the male tradition of American humor." Female humor, they explain, differs for obvious reasons. Women write about things that interest women, and in our culture, women's experience has included the domestic realm. Women's humor, from the earliest documentation of it to the present, has a strong emphasis on the household and the interpersonal relationships of the family. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when "woman's sphere" was limited, the focus of women's humor was located in the kitchen, the nursery, the parlor, church, school, and corresponding interpersonal relationships. Today woman's sphere has expanded greatly, but much of the humor springs from the same source--family life.
Marietta Holley, a humorist as popular as Mark Twain at the end of the nineteenth century, created an opinionated, outspoken character whose life at home with her farcical husband, Josiah Allen, provided the backdrop for all her humor. Samantha, who ironically refers to herself as "Josiah Allen's wife," takes on subjects of national concern and compares them to problems she faces on the farm. She then applies her common sense. In the following excerpt she responds to her husband's espousal of the popular position against women's enfranchisement:
"If wimmin know when they are well off, they will let poles and 'lections boxes alone, it is too wearing for the fair sect."
"Josiah Allen," says I, "you think that for a woman to stand up straight on her feet, under a blazin' sun, and lift both her arms above her head, and pick seven bushels of hops, mingled with worms and spiders into a gigantic box, day in, and day out, is awful healthy, so strengthenin' and stimulatin' to women, but when it comes to droppin' a little slip of clean paper into a small seven by nine box, once a year in a shady room, you are afraid it is goin' to break down a woman's constitution to once."
She subsequently decides to write about the "great subject of Wimmin's Rites." Holley cleverly uses Samantha's relative lack of education as an opportunity for wordplay (as in "Wimmin's rites" and "woman's proper spear"), but her good sense always transcends her lack of mastery over the language.
Fanny Fern (Sara Willis Parton), long considered by historians a writer of sentimental fiction only, was better known during her lifetime as the satirical, humorous, outspoken columnist for the New York Ledger. For sixteen years she offered her witty observations on everything from fashion to literature to women's rights. In "Hints to Young Wives," she addressed the subject of the wife whose idealized love for her husband makes her a slave to his every whim and necessitates her constant efforts to win back his affections, lost as a result of her obsequious, fawning behavior. She orders the wife to dry her eyes and quit making a fool of herself and offers the following observation:
Mr. Fern came home one day when I had such a crucifying headache that I couldn't have told whether I was married or single, and threw an old coat into my lap to mend. Well, I tied a wet bandage over my forehead . . . and sat down to it -- he might as well have asked me to make a new one; however I now lined the sleeves, mended the buttonholes, sewed on new buttons down the front, and all over the coat tails--when finally it occurred to me (I believe it was a suggestion of Satan,) that the pocket might need mending; so I turned it inside out, and what do you think I found? A love-letter from him to my dress-maker!! I dropped the coat, I dropped the work-basket, I dropped the buttons, I dropped the baby (it was a female, and I thought it just as well to put her out of future misery) and then I hopped up into a chair front of the looking-glass, and remarked to the young woman I saw there, "F-a-n-n-y F-e-r-n! If you--are--ever--such--a--confounded fool again"--and I wasn't.
The tendency of young women to romanticize marriage and motherhood has been validated, particularly in the nineteenth century, with romanticized, idealized notions of womanhood. Mahadev Apte has observed that men justify the restrictions they place on women, including the freedom to publicly engage in humor in the public domain, by "creating ideal role models for women that emphasize modesty, virtue, and passivity." Women's humor during this period sought to shoot down these popular conceptions. Bruère and Beard, in the introduction to their 1934 collection of women's humor, note how the humorists target this stereotype and envision a world without it:
The male type may be an amusing wag; the female must be somber and suggest the superhuman. But think how relieved the tension among nations would be, and how much brighter their international discourse, if they could no longer fall back on the obscure divine mother for militant justification -- if armored ladies symbolizing war, preparedness, and patriotism, or unarmed angels and Amazons leading on embattled hosts were removed from their minds!
Fanny Fern's column, a very public domain, frequently sought to dispel such notions, as she does here in her "Whisper to Romantic Young Ladies":
"A crust of bread, a pitcher of wine, a thatched roof, and love,--there's happiness for you." . . .
Water and crust! RATHER spare diet! May do for the honey-moon. Don't make much difference then, whether you eat shavings or sardines -- but when you return to substantials . . . if you can get your husband to smile on anything short of a "sirloin" or a roast turkey, you are a lucky woman. . . .
Lovers have a trick of getting disenchanted, too, when they see their Aramintas with dresses pinned up round the waist, hair powdered with sweeping, faces scowled up over the wash-tub, and soap-suds dripping from red elbows. . . .
In the 1960s, Judith Viorst similarly deromanticizes motherhood:
Last year I had a shampoo and set every week and
Slept an unbroken sleep beneath the Venetian
chandelier of our discerningly eclectic bedroom,
This year we have a nice baby,
And Gerber's strained bananas in my hair
And gleaming beneath the Venetian chandelier.
A diaper pail, a portacrib, and him,
A nice baby, drooling on our antique satin spread
While I smile and say how nice. It is often said
That motherhood is very maturing.
In the same way that nineteenth-century female humorists challenged idealized notions of true womanhood by countering them with the reality of their own experience, today's female humorists tackle the problems of double duty (housekeeping and outside careers), "super momism," and the Barbie complex.
The endless cleaning up after others that is part of woman's
experience provides a source for much women's humor, from Fanny
Fern's description of wives standing over the washtub to contemporary
cultural anthropologist Riane Eisler's observation that if women
ran the world, toxic waste would not be a problem because we have
always picked up after ourselves. Then, of course, there is also
the woman who insists that no one should say anything about her
housework on the grounds that she shouldn't be criticized for
something she didn't do. But housekeeping is approached from a
different angle by Nikki Giovanni, who shifts the focus from drudgery
to self-asserting practice:
Housecleaningi always liked housecleaning
even as a child
i dug straightening
putting new paper on
washing the refrigerator
and unfortunately this habit has
carried over and i find
i must remove you
from my life
Giovanni, instead of focusing on the unromantic aspects of housecleaning, treats it as a skill that has added to her character and employs it as an effective domestic metaphor.
While domestic humor served the purposes of nineteenth-century
female humorists, an undervaluation of the domestic arena contributed
to their disappearance; and it is only through the work of feminist
scholars that so many voices, so much like our own, have been
preserved so that we can laugh -- and cope -- with them. "Domestic
humor," say Walker and Dresner, "provided a way for
both writer and audience to minimize through laughter and, therefore,
better cope with the frustrations and demands of their lives."
Their comment suggests the undercurrent of much domestic humor:
The Angry Woman: The Tactical Use of Humor as a Nonalienating Means of Resistance
While women laugh, they also cope with anger and stress in a positive way. Women's humor generally does not involve ridicule, deprecation, or humiliation, but aggression is not absent; rather, it has been masked. In general, disempowered members of a culture are restricted from the expression of their anger because it would be perceived by the dominant forces as a direct threat, so anger is either repressed or expressed in seemingly nonthreatening ways. Although expression of anger through humor presumably represents no threat to the status quo, any self-expression whatsoever remains empowering and signifies a rejection of cultural codes. It represents what Elizabeth Janeway has called the "first power of the weak," that is, the "ordered use of the power to disbelieve." Women's humor refuses to accept hegemonic definitions of women and thereby subverts them.
In general, women release anger and aggression subtly and indirectly. Female humorists seem particularly adept at this. Emily Toth asserts that:
Women humorists from Anne Bradstreet through Anna Howard Shaw were all, in some way, angry: about the limited roles they were given, about the pious platitudes droned at them to justify their submission, about the outright false statements about women's "nature." But their responses were not truly an attack on men, not a "so's your old man" response. Theirs was an attack on patriarchal norms -- on hypocrisy, on irresponsibility -- in the name of a higher norm. Women humorists were not seeking domination -- but equality.
Nancy Walker likewise maintains that even when it points to the absurdities of the patriarchy, women's humor has a "subtext of anguish and frustration."
Sarcastic humor in particular carries an undertone of anger and provides an outlet for rage that has been too long repressed. Each successive time I teach Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, I am increasingly struck by the undertone of anger that accompanies it. Sarcasm functions most effectively as a means of social criticism, and Stowe waxes eloquent when she takes on the fugitive slave law. Apologizing for the crude behavior of the slavecatchers gathered in an inn, the narrator says to her readers:
If any of our refined and Christian readers object to the society into which this scene introduces them, let us beg them to begin and conquer their prejudices in time. The catching business, we beg to remind them, is rising to the dignity of a lawful and patriotic profession. If all the broad land between the Mississippi and the Pacific becomes one great market for bodies and souls, and human property retains the locomotive tendencies of this nineteenth century, the trader and catcher may yet be among our aristocracy.
When Tom was on a southbound boat on his way to be sold, he witnessed the separation of a slave mother and her child. Stowe contrasts his simple, supposedly ignorant, views in an attempt to shame those who hold more sophisticated views that include acceptance of the sale of human beings:
Tom had watched the whole transaction from first to last, and had a perfect understanding of its results. To him, it looked like something unutterably horrible and cruel, because, poor, ignorant black soul! he had not learned to generalize, and to take enlarged views. If he had only been instructed by certain ministers of Christianity, he might have thought better of it, and seen in it an every-day incident of a lawful trade; a trade which is the vital support of an institution which an American divine tells us has "no evils but such as are inseparable from any other relations in social and domestic life." But Tom, as we see, being a poor, ignorant fellow, whose reading had been confined entirely to the New Testament, could not comfort and solace himself with views like these.
Such biting sarcasm represented an overt attack on slavery in America, or what Stowe referred to as the "patriarchal institution," and reflected a particular rage at supporters of slavery who considered themselves good Christians. But Stowe's domestic novel, with its condemnation of slavery, cannot fail to also be read by contemporary readers in the light of the restrictions placed on women of the period--restrictions that amounted to a type of slavery. Her narrative abounds with women from the North and the South, women of all colors and classes, who each faced some kind of oppression in their patriarchal culture. It could be the oppression of the slaveholder who intended to sell her child, the husband who supported the fugitive slave law, or the slavecatcher who barged into her quiet Quaker community. Stowe's ubiquitous satire and sarcasm in her denunciation of slavery must certainly also reflect her own frustration with woman's oppression.
While Stowe's relatively privileged position, as the wife of a clergyman and a member of the well-known Beecher family, made her sarcasm not too risky a project, Harriet Jacobs, ex-slave of a respected town doctor in North Carolina (with relatives still under his control), had to be more careful. Stowe's anger in part reflected her keen ability to empathize with the slave woman, but Harriet Jacobs's anger was developed firsthand. In the narrative of her life under slavery and her eventual escape, she tells the story of her Aunt Nancy, the servant of her mistress ("Mrs. Flint"), who was forced, even in sickness or disability, to make herself available to the demanding woman twenty-four hours a day. At night she had to sleep on the floor outside her mistress' door in case she needed her. The toll on her own health caused her to lose all of her own children through premature birth and eventually resulted in her own premature death. Jacobs tells how the whole town was impressed with her mistress' devotion to her servant when she announced that she wanted to provide a plot in her own cemetery for her "beloved" servant -- a black person had never been buried in the white cemetery -- but Jacobs was not moved. She related how her grandmother refused the offer:
When my grandmother was consulted, she at once said she wanted Nancy to lie with all the rest of her family, and where her own old body would be buried. Mrs. Flint graciously complied with her wish, though she said it was painful to her to have Nancy buried away from her. She might have added with touching pathos, "I was so long used to sleep with her lying near me, on the entry floor."
Jacobs, a recently freed black woman in the North with family still in the South, was under even more pressure than most women of the period to repress her anger. Her narrative was written under a pseudonym -- Linda Brent -- with the names of the principals changed. Probably the humor and sarcasm in her narrative were toned down considerably and represent only the tip of an iceberg.
Regenia Gagnier, in her study of Victorian middle-class and working
women's humor, purports that their humor, targeting social incongruities,
represented a "prolonged anarchic assault upon the codes
constricting them." It had "socio-behavioral implications
for exploring difference rather than merely disparaging it and
for prolonged critical action rather then momentary release."
Suzanne Bunkers points out that the use of sarcastic humor "enables
women to speak out in a non-violent, assertive way about adverse
societal norms and to take the first step toward replacing pejorative
images of women with more positive images." Implicit
in Bunkers's comment is the notion that women seek change through
nonviolent means. Women also seek change through nonalienating
means -- that is, in ways that preserve relationship and connection.
Harriet Jacobs's narrative engenders in her readers a deep empathy
for her grandmother who, although a free woman, refused to move
away from her beloved community and her life-long attachments
there. Uncle Tom's Cabin abounds with characters (even
slaveholders) who also appeal to the reader's sympathy, because
of their valued interpersonal relationships. A violation of these
relationships becomes the greatest crime, and we are allowed to
hate only those characters who break up families and whose evil
natures are exaggerated and overstated. Even when women humorists
target such "evil" men in their humor, it is rarely
with the sadistic derisiveness that characterizes some men's humor.
Conclusion: Women's Humor as Creative Imagination
Emily Toth claims that women's humor has gone beyond the mocker characteristic of much of men's humor and beyond parody and role reversal to a third stage: "creating new norms, a new culture." It attacks the stereotypes that have for so long restricted women but seeks to replace them with something new. With impressive insight, Bruère and Beard stated that "under stress especially it is important to remember laughter, for it is more than a defense mechanism, a means of adjusting to circumstances, a safety-valve against tyranny -- it is an agency in creative enterprise." Women take their oppression and, through humor, turn it around and create. Regenia Gagnier calls it "a process of imaginative engagement." This creativity represents women's attempts to deal with the incongruities of women's situation in a patriarchal society while maintaining connection and relationship with each other and the males in their lives.
Women's humor reflects our need to be understood as well as our need to understand others. Janet Surrey tells us that women all share the need to be understood or "recognized" by others, but it is equally important, "but not yet emphasized, that women all through their lives feel the need to understand the other -- indeed desire this as an essential part of their own growth and development, as an essential part of self-worth and the ability to act." Women's humor, by allowing for the simultaneous expressions of protest and desire for connection, empowers women by facilitating their ability to act.
Further studies of women's humor should consider more thoroughly the role of language, which plays a critical role in psychological development and also represents an essential element of most humor. I have examined briefly how language plays a role similar to humor in self-expression and the establishment and maintenance of connection, but there is more work to be done. The acquisition of language is an important part of the process of relationship, for it signifies a major step in the infant's ability to communicate, and thus connect, with her mother. Women's use of language continues to facilitate the same goal.
However, even before the first word is ever spoken, there are lots of smiles and play that strengthen the connection between mother and child. When the mother provides a nurturing, facilitating environment for the baby, she makes room for the smiles and laughter of play, the first social interaction. "Peek-a-boo," as humor theorist Thomas R. Shultz notes, "is quite clearly a social phenomenon involving intense interpersonal attachments." Those early instances of laughter arise because the child feels safe and can experiment with her self and her new world and thus prepare for the incongruities of life. That she will grow up using humor as a means of expressing herself and maintaining her connections should come as no surprise.