Funny is a feminist issue

A SYTYCB entry

This week, the world lost one of its great funny women— nay, funny people— Phyllis Diller. Ms. Diller had been a showbusiness staple from the early 1950’s onwards, and is credited as the woman who broke through the comedy glass ceiling.  Onstage, she portrayed an eccentric housewife, and was known for her self-deprecating humor and outlandish fashion.

Despite the fact that Diller’s presence in comedy predates most of the famous names in comedy today by a good twenty years, the argument still comes up on a fairly regular basis that women are “not funny.”  A look back at some of the great comediennes of all time proves this wrong on example alone.  Diller, Lucille Ball, Joan Rivers, Ellen Degeneres, Whoopi Goldberg, Kathy Griffin, Kristen Wiig, Sarah Silverman, etc. etc. Whether you find them funny or not, their marks on the entertainment world are undeniable.

But why is it so easy to write off women as “unfunny” in light of so many names? Stand-up comedy itself is a very personal, almost sexual art form.  Even Freud, in his analysis of comedy, notes the similarities between the rise of tension and release inherent in joke-telling and the sexual act itself. Comedy, oftentimes, involves story of personal failure, like Diller’s self-deprecating housewife, in order to get a laugh. It is a medium full of failures that can eclipse successes.

In other words, it’s intimate. It requires an empathy between audience and artist that many other media don’t. And, for a lot of men, this intimacy, empathy, and trust of a woman is abnormal and scary. To accept that a female comedian is funny is to accept that she has something relate-able to say. Many men, steeped in the particular brand of masculinity that rejects anything even remotely “feminine,” refuse to relate to a woman, period. Instead of focusing on what they have in common with Diller’s on-stage persona, such as bodily insecurities or a distant partner, they focus on what makes her different— her gender, her fashion, her trademark laugh.

The truth is, it’s not that women are “unfunny,” it’s that some men simply don’t have the right sense of humor. Ironic, since we Feminists are the ones always accused of being “humorless.”

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