Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Christopher Hitchens' Mismeasure of Woman moment

I keep coming back to it because it's such an amazing book, but let's review the premise of Carol Tavris' book The Mismeasure of Woman. From the introduction:
"In almost every domain of life, men are con sidered the normal human being, and women are the "ab-normal," deficient because they are different from men. Therefore, women constantly worry about measiring up, doing the right thing, being the right way. It is normal for women to worry about being abnormal, because male behavior, male heoes, male psychology, and even make physiology continue to be the standard of normalcy against which women are measured and found wanting."
I was immediately reminded of this idea when I saw (via Christopher Hitchens' latest in Vanity Fair "Why Women Aren't Funny." While Feministing and its commenters do a good job of showing that yes, there are many women who enjoy traditionally male humor along the lines of fart jokes and raunch, Hitchens' mistake is even larger than that. Ostensibly, the reason for female humorlessness that Hitchens is working with is that women are too pretty to need to be funny. They don't seek out laughter from potential mates because mates are seeking them out for their physical goodies, and only in the dire case of unattractiveness or lesbianism will a woman resort to humor for personal interaction. I'll let Hitchens use his own words:
Why are men, taken on average and as a whole, funnier than women? Well, for one thing, they had damn well better be. The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex, and Mother Nature (as we laughingly call her) is not so kind to men. In fact, she equips many fellows with very little armament for the struggle. An average man has just one, outside chance: he had better be able to make the lady laugh. Making them laugh has been one of the crucial preoccupations of my life. If you can stimulate her to laughter—I am talking about that real, out-loud, head-back, mouth-open-to-expose-the-full-horseshoe-of-lovely-teeth, involuntary, full, and deep-throated mirth; the kind that is accompanied by a shocked surprise and a slight (no, make that a loud) peal of delight—well, then, you have at least caused her to loosen up and to change her expression. I shall not elaborate further. Women have no corresponding need to appeal to men in this way. They already appeal to men, if you catch my drift.
Most telling is Hitchens' consideration of the few women he deems to be funny:
In any case, my argument doesn't say that there are no decent women comedians. There are more terrible female comedians than there are terrible male comedians, but there are some impressive ladies out there. Most of them, though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three. When Roseanne stands up and tells biker jokes and invites people who don't dig her shtick to suck her dick—know what I am saying? And the Sapphic faction may have its own reasons for wanting what I want—the sweet surrender of female laughter. While Jewish humor, boiling as it is with angst and self-deprecation, is almost masculine by definition.
This isn't a problem with women or women comedians - it's a problem with Christopher Hitchens. He's starting with the assumption that humor is only possible when it comes from a man or in a pinch, someone more manly than most women.

As is generally the case with those who depend so heavily on the men-as-humanity's-yardstick idea, his reasoning for female humor deficiency is entirely circular. Men are the only funny ones, and women are not funny because they are not men.
Precisely because humor is a sign of intelligence (and many women believe, or were taught by their mothers, that they become threatening to men if they appear too bright), it could be that in some way men do not want women to be funny. They want them as an audience, not as rivals. And there is a huge, brimming reservoir of male unease, which it would be too easy for women to exploit. (Men can tell jokes about what happened to John Wayne Bobbitt, but they don't want women doing so.) Men have prostate glands, hysterically enough, and these have a tendency to give out, along with their hearts and, it has to be said, their dicks. This is funny only in male company.
Women do not tell funny jokes about impotence because they are not men. Anyone who is not a man cannot tell a funny joke about impotence. Best exemplifying this female blind spot is Hitchens' leaning on Nora Ephron as one of the rare funny females, while also claiming that women don't get the hilariousness of their bodily "decay," even as Ephron's I Feel Bad About my Neck and Other Thoughs on Being a Woman sits at number 6 on the New York Times' hardcover fiction bestseller list, four months after being published. Even clearer indication that Hitchens' humometer is discombobulated is when he actually questions whether Dorothy Parker was ever really funny. (Answer: yes.)

If you were to categorize my sense of humor, it would probably belong with the brassier, cruder, more masculine type that Christopher Hitchens honors with his appreciation. Still, I can appreciate that Erma Bombeck has put housewives in stitches for generations - this is reality. It may come as news to Hitchens, but women, with their apparently unfunny aspects like beauty and reproduction, don't need him to tell them what's funny. His imagination might not be large enough to encompass a world where midnight feedings and sock-mate-eating dryers are funny, but luckily for the women whose world is filled with these things, he doesn't define reality. While they may be slightly hilarious in themselves, the presence of testes is not a precondition for humor.
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