‘ Margaret Atwood, the Canadian novelist, once asked a group of women at a university why they felt threatened by men. The women said they were afraid of being beaten, raped or killed by men. She then asked a group of men why they felt threatened by women. They said they were afraid women would laugh at them. ’ (Bing:357)
The subject chosen for this independent research project is the body of knowledge and practice in British humour. I will discuss the major processes of intellectual and artistic trends that have shaped the complex dynamics between gender, humour and the sociopolitical representation of women. My purpose is to unearth and trace how ‘humour’ - a formerly male and misogynist domain - was influenced by women and how it transformed into an area for feminist intervention.
Charting the problem with an analysis of sexist humour as part of a male dominated art culture which knows women only as target for laughter and object of consumption, I would like to set two cohering signposts of my research: First, the deeply informative relation between a society’s (humorous) imagery and its political culture. And second, humour as paradoxically serious dimension, where sex and gender arrangements can be articulated, negotiated and challenged. Subsequently, this research will consider the feminist critique and resistance strategies. It will demonstrate how feminist theorizing explored the past of funny women, revealing not only a tradition of feminine humour, but providing a distinct female- feminist1 point of view, that retrospectively challenged conventional frameworks and designed a trendsetting approach for further humorous agency and analysis. I will focus on the British context, starting with the music halls, continuing with ‘alternative comedy’ and the ensuing developments of popular mainstream female actors on one hand and the emergence of demonstrative ‘women-only’ spaces of laughter on the other. The conclusive part will summarize and discuss the complex relation between women, feminism and humour within its intellectual milieu and the broader surrounding society. It will show in how far funny women and the respective feminist theorizing did not only have an impact on comedy’s artistic practice, but in how far this contribution transformed the way humour is thought about.
Arts and Comedy - A men's club
A history ofhostility
To engage in the history of women in comedy is to rake up a history of hostility. Why should we even invest energy in this cumbersome undertaking? There are some reasons to restrain from this topic which is neither highly rewarded in academic circles nor politically explosive. Contrariwise, although humour is occupying a niche in feminist studies, it raises some questions too interesting to be swept aside; it points to some very soft spots of the seemingly strong sex. So, in favour of this commitment we can argue that sex is probably the single most persistent theme comedy that has traditionally allowed the most explicit and frequent discussions of sex in the public arena, which means that comic narratives consistently engage in the debate about the concept of gender and the nature of desire (Stott:15). In combination with the distinct value of feminism, that provides a way ‘in which we can most usefully come to an understanding of the image culture in which we are suspended‘(Jones:3), humour appears as a particularly attractive area to investigate.
To begin with the arts in general, it is a matter of common knowledge that all the forms of art for a long time flourished under male auspice. Because of its attribution to the cultural sphere, art was (and largely still is) coded as white and male and a patriarchal ideology informs our mainstream perception and perspective on comedy, whereas women - for reasons of a seemingly natural inaptitude and primitive character - remained largely excluded from it. Sexism is inextricably interwoven with the history of art itself; it is enmeshed in the codex and display of aesthetics, bodily practices and traditional narratives.
From Aristophanes’ play of Lysistrata (412 BC) - the first comedy giving significant roles to women (Stott: 75) - to the letter of William Congreve ‘Concerning Humour in Comedy’ who confesses: ‘I have never made any Observation of what I Apprehend to be true Humour in Women’ (Streip:117/118)2, continuing until the past century, when Reginald Blyth in ‘Humour in English Literature’ wrote: ‘The truth is ... that women have not only no humour in themselves but are the cause of the extinction of it in others…(ibid)’, these statements exhibit ‘the symptomatics of women’s representation in Western comedy where she is relegated to a generic purpose, the butt of the joke, or a character to be presented by men in drag’(Stott:76). When women appear in jokes or cartoons, they do so mostly as a target or victim for laughter. Some genres of jokes entirely depend on sexism. Thence, the fun of a dirty joke is - as Mary- Ann Doane puts it with reference to Freud - ‘always constructed at the expense of a woman’(Jones:68). This illustrates the traditional role designated for women in comedy, reflecting the long tradition of a hierarchic constellation between those laughing and those laughed at. It is ‘the laughter of power, directed at those perceived as inferior, which has for centuries ignored the humour of women, minorities, and the marginalized’ (Coletta:18).
The etiquette oflaughter and the danger of wit
One of the reasons why there is only little known about feminine humour, feminist scholars ascribe to the connection of humour and moral suspicion. In communities throughout the world women who tell jokes are regarded as sexually promiscuous. Only women who are somehow outside the sexual marketplace - are permitted to make lewd remarks (Barreca, 1991, in Stott:99). Reciprocally, ‘women who occupied the roles traditionally considered sacrosanct by men (…) like the romantic partner or the mother, could not be represented as either physical or humorous (…) whereas the old or the unattractive could (Carlson, 1991 in Stott:97).
Thence, comedy seems to have a tradition of irreconcilability between humour and emphasized femininity - an aspect that makes female humour inherently political and shall be discussed later. This irreconcilability leads to a predominantly negative attitude of women towards humour. Helga Kotthoff, a specialist in humour and gender studies quotes the Durkheimian thesis that ‘societal value hierarchies find expression in almost all individuals in a similar way’ (Kotthoff:59). The outcome is a favourable disposition towards the patriarchal order. We can thus conclude that the rejection of an emphasized femininity results in role distance, paradoxically producing a style of humour either invisible or emulating male norms. To further elaborate the closeness between role expectations and the concerns over women’s demeanour let us consider the following quote from 1774, as John Gregory, in ‘A Father's Legacy to His Daughters’ averted the young ladies:
‘ Wit is the most dangerous talent you can process. It must be guarded with great discretion and good nature, otherwise it will create you many enemies. Wit is perfectly consistent softness and delicacy; yet they are seldom found united. Wit is so flattering to vanity, that they who possess it become intoxicated, and lose all self -command. ’ ( Gregory:30)
Similarly, but almost two hundred years later, John Bayley draws the conventional demarcation line in perfect congruence with this traditional, hierarchic arrangement of laughter. He asserts that ‘being funny without being superior is the genius of funny women’ (Stetz:x).
A significant detection this research was the discovery of a multitude of techniques executed by the influential, public male authority and opinion that have - can we say always? - counter agitated ‘uncontrolled’ expressions of female humour. So, traditionally women have been taught to conceal their humour. ‘Women are allowed their brilliance, freedom, and power in comedy only because the genre has built- in- safeguards’ (Stott: 76). Not only do these limitations placed upon women express the misogynist commonplace that ‘women are prone to narcissism and temptation’ (Stott:98), such words - written or voiced in a joke - symbolize a society’s impulse of instructing women to control themselves. Thence, ‘situations in which female characters learn to be wary about when and at whom they should laugh have remained a prominent feature for women's comedies’ (Stetz:x) ever since. Because of its status as ‘other’ femininity still causes problems for women for they have to decide on the extent to which their womanliness impinges on their act (Macdonald:59).
1 I will make use of this expression to highlight the difference of contexts. Retrospectively detected funny women were not necessarily feminists, whereas feminists analyzing humour are not automatically producing comedy. I therefore recur to the expression of ‘female-feminist’ humour as a signifier that act and intention cannot be identical with later interpretation and placement in a theoretical canon.