The BBC has recently reported on a scientific study that has found that men are funnier than women. I’ll admit that, when I read the headline (as someone who considers themselves to be both a woman and a funny one at that), my heart sank. And then, once I’d done what any sensible GCSE maths student would do and checked to see whether it was academic and had a large enough sample size to be credible (disappointingly, the sample size was 5,000 people), I will admit that I felt a certain emotion: I was pissed off.
The study, according to reports, required both men and women to write a funny caption to a given picture, which would then be reviewed by “independent judges” who were unaware of the caption author’s gender. According to Dr Gil Greengross, the study found that “men have higher humour production rates than women”, and Dr Greengross also suggested that humour might have evolutionary purposes in enabling a woman to find a mate.
Humour as a way of finding a mate is a principle I have nothing against; in fact, I am actually all for it. Testing out people’s reactions to my own sense of humour allows me to weed out the hapless individuals (generally male) who are unnerved/put off/emasculated by it and focus on the ones who think it’s awesome. Although it’s not clear from an evolutionary perspective what humour would give as an advantage in terms of raising offspring, it presumably would have been better to be able to laugh your way through a dangerous, short, and violent life back on the prehistoric tundra rather than cry. However, in an era where Sara Pascoe has managed to become a female presenter on a channel with a man’s name (an article will follow on my opinion of Dave both as a TV channel and a waste of time), and Phoebe Waller-Bridge will either become canonised or royalty within the next five years, we should probably also start asking why the study was undertaken in the first place.
What did the researchers hope to gain? Plenty of proof exists that women are funny: Cariad Lloyd, the aforementioned Dame Lady Saint Phoebe, Queen of the Republic of modern womanhood, and Michaela Cole’s continuing mortality to name but a few. Or maybe, as well as questioning why anyone thought this was worth a psychology journal’s time, we should instead take a look at the stereotypes surrounding “funny women” – that special subsection of women – and see whether they might be so ingrained that all this study proves is that no, women in general aren’t funny. Because society tells them they can’t be.
Being funny takes guts. Being funny in public, in front of an audience of strangers, takes an almost inhuman level of self-confidence, and to feel relaxed enough to be funny around people (especially under pressure, in, say, a laboratory setting), you need to feel that you can trust the room. You need to be able to trust that no one will call out some comments about how you look, or what you’re wearing, or a joke you just made about an ex or current partner, or just something generally sexist, or call you “darling” in a way that’s supposed to get you to stop talking. You need to know that there won’t be one person in the room who always has to have the last word, always has to get some form of attention, and just can’t stand that all the attention is currently on you. And if you’re a woman, this isn’t specific to being funny. Being funny just makes space for those reactions to happen: and even if they don’t, there will probably always be a bit of you that’s wondering how you’ll respond when they do.
And, sadly, many women never get to the stage where they feel allowed to be funny. A stage where they feel like they can be funny without being accused of being nasty or bitchy; an accusation that is often levelled at funny women and doesn’t ever seem to apply to men. A stage where they honestly don’t care that some people still think that women can’t be funny, or think that humour is some kind of lads club that women can’t join by virtue of their gender. And even then, women, with their lifetime of society telling them that they are socially and economically worth less than men, often resort to self-deprecating humour: humour that apologises for the fact that you’re making a joke before you’ve even said it, because humour can be used to undermine. Humour, as the saying goes, has a punchline, and the best humour punches up. Humour gets people thinking about new ideas before they even realise you’ve planted them in their heads. Humour is a way of sticking people together when nothing else would unite them. Most people don’t realise that humour is actually power: who holds the room, who tells the joke, who has the sharpest retort. Give women power? No! Far easier just to pretend they’re not funny…