In Christopher Hitchens’s infamous essay in Vanity Fair, he wrote that men have to be funny to attract women, but women attract men by their looks (or maybe just the idea of sexual access). If an audience finds a woman funny, it’s only because the jokes she is making are aggressive and masculine. If I had to guess, I would bet most women would find this opinion incredibly unfunny and they’d assert that women are funny, if society allows them to be.
Below, I’d like to explore the relationship between humor, women, and the workplace. What do we identify as funny and how do women fit into that model? What stereotypes exist that prevent women from being thought of as funny? And when we do see women as funny, why might that be? Lastly, how do we address these problems to allow women to be their genuine, funny selves?
(As a disclaimer, this article will focus primarily on cis-straight-white women we see in mainstream media. Other groups of women have their own unique struggles with this issue, which will only briefly be discussed.)
What do people find funny?
Here’s a joke Evans and colleagues used in their study:
“That’s a good point. I don’t want [my employees] to feel like I’m always breathing over their shoulder … too much of that and they’ll start complaining, "there’s no better vacation than my boss being on vacation," right?”
Did you laugh? It’s a bit too dad-joke for my sense of humor, but someone out there found it funny. Why do we see these differences in humor? People have been trying to figure out what’s funny for decades. Humor is difficult to pin down – it can change in an instance and is incredibly specific to both the comedian and their audience. This general idea is known as the incongruity theory, a theory that suggests we find things funny when patterns are broken; when a normal situation turns into something unexpected. While many other models on the structure and purpose of humor exist, I’d like to focus on this idea of normalcy and defying expectation.
As an example of this theory, here’s a humorous story by my advisor that follows this pattern:
“So, I get to the train station this morning and am about to sit down for a few minutes to get some work done on my laptop. I notice that one of the benches is already occupied, by an egg. What is the story of this egg? Is it a sign? Update: …My willpower gave out and I ate the mysterious egg.”
Something ordinary (I went to the train station and sat on a bench), followed by something unexpected (there was an egg on the bench, and I ate it). Other examples include Betty White making sexual jokes on Saturday Night Live (a cute little grandma saying something dirty!) and classic knock-knock jokes (orange you glad I broke the pattern of repeating bananas?). By changing the length of the ordinary, the shock factor of the unexpected, and the delivery method, a near limitless number of gags can be made, though this art can take a lifetime to perfect.
If humor then relies on being unexpected, what do we expect from women?
Which of the 4 women are you?
“Men categorize women in one of four ways: Mothers, virgins, sluts, and bitches. None of the above is suitable for the modern businesswomen. But you can create your own image by selecting pieces of each archetype that work for you: the sexual attractiveness of the slut, the wisdom of the mother, the integrity of the virgin, the independence of the bitch. This leaves men confused and unable to pigeonhole you. What they’re forced to do instead is take you seriously.”
When we look at men in comedy, they’re allowed to be spontaneous, stupid, and funny. Even as grown adults with children, they often make decisions that are dangerous or financially ill-advised; they can make these decisions because they have a smart, nagging wife trying to reel them in. Think of Homer and Marge Simpson from The Simpsons, Peter and Lois Griffin from Family Guy, and Phil and Claire Dunphy from Modern Family. This trope shoves the women both into the Mother and Bitch category: she knows better and is always there to help fix the spontaneous and monumental problems he created, while also being totally not fun and cool. It’s funny on TV, but it also impacts women in real life. How many women do you know are stuck in relationships where they are expected to mother their significant other? This has become so normalized that men often don’t even realize they’re doing it. There’s even a new show being developed by Rashida Jones about this trope, Kevin Can go F*** himself, which is a stage I hope most women in these kinds of relationships eventually reach.
Comedy, research, and race
Of course, not every woman represented in media fills the nagging role. Often, women can be seen as spontaneous and making foolhardy decisions. Prime examples include Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation, Liz Lemon from 30 Rock, Eleanor Shellstrop from The Good Place, and Kimmy Schmidt from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. While these ladies might not fit into the 4 boxes dictated by Syrup, they all have a lot in common. They’re white, generally peppy, and hardworking. They create few real waves for their mainstream viewing audience, are easy to enjoy, have few needs, and hardly ever create deep conflict in their respective stories. Still, these narratives can be just as problematic – real women have needs and wants, and they take up both physical and mental space, both which tend to be drained by men. Physically, for example, in the form of manspreading on public transportation; mentally, in the form of household management.
Non-cheerful, non-white female comedians and comedy shows exist, but they largely fly under the radar of the mainstream pop culture; when they are heard, they often build off tired stereotypes. There’s a scene in Fresh off the Boat where Jessica, a Chinese mom, goes to a grocery store with her son. An employee offers her a free sample from a party platter of chips. “This is free?” she asks and takes the whole tray into her basket.
It’s funny in the moment, but it plays off the stereotype that Chinese people are cheap and that immigrants don’t understand how America works. For me, a Chinese American, the joke is satirical and relatable, but how might a white person view it? It’s possible that it could reinforce the stereotypes that Chinese people are cheap and obsessed with money, especially when there’s no other mainstream media countering these arguments.
Minorities are similarly underrepresented in research on the appreciation of humor, which mostly makes comparisons between straight white women and straight white men. Studies on these topics conclude that men use humor as a form of sexual selection, are more predisposed to generating humor, and are more interested in dating a woman who laughs at their jokes than dating a woman who is funny herself (Gueguen, 2010; Hay, 2000; Medlin et al., 2018; Bressler et al., 2006; Wilbur and Campbell, 2011; Chang et al., 2018; Crawford, 2003; Greengross and Miller, 2011). Likewise, studies find that women are interested in funny men and would rather advertise themselves as a good partner by appearing caring and positive – traditional feminine values. If we looked at other races and couples who aren’t straight would we find the same results? How about other cultures? Maybe we would – or maybe not.
To the best of my knowledge, no study has been done on how LGBT+ groups use humor in their relationships. As a straight woman, I don’t feel comfortable speaking for this community, but I would question whether or not the differences in the expected dynamics between a straight and a gay couple would change their use of humor as it would change their expectations of who does which household chore. Similarly, if traditional values make you more likely to laugh at traditional (and sexist) jokes as traditional values fade, perhaps new humor and different dynamics will emerge.
Professional women are all bitches
But back to the idea of humor and professional women; to be funny we have to be unexpected and silly. What is the stereotype of a professional woman? In most minds, probably the opposite. To succeed in a male-dominated field, women have had to be better than men at regular business acumen while maintaining a feminine touch (Martin, 2004). If a woman is seen as too professional, they are labelled cold and unapproachable while fielding questions on who is taking care of the kids. Women who attempt to balance family and work are labelled as lacking ambition or accused of being dedicated to neither their family nor professional lives. Regardless of where you fall on the professional to stay-at-home mother spectrum, you’re still swinging wildly between bitch and mother.
Women have a hard time being funny because they aren’t allowed to be anything other than a woman, and women have a difficult time being anything but a stereotype. If a woman plays the dumb trope, she perpetuates the belief that women are less intelligent than men. If she plays the smart trope, she’s falling into the mother or bitch category. If she loves her family she’s meant to be a stay-at-home mother or risk stretching herself too thin to focus on both the home and work. If she doesn’t aspire to have a clean home or want kids, she’s sloppy, irresponsible, or cold. There is a stereotype applied to practically every version of a women – so how can you expect to be unexpected?
You’re funny – other people may just not see that yet
The pieces of media that represent women and other minority groups as multifaceted are worthy of our recognition. Shows like Fresh off the Boat and Blackish are a step in the right direction, even with their imperfections. When we show support for diverse media and narratives that break the mold of what women can be, we build a new culture of humor that doesn’t need to rely on stale stereotypes and that allows anyone to be funny.
Women will be funny when they’re allowed to be something beyond the label of woman; when they’re seen as human, with flaws, desires, and ideas. There are many pieces that give you pointers on how to be funny in the professional world, but I find them largely unhelpful. Most of that advice is simply to relax and just be yourself. While I think that could be good advice, you can’t force others to see you as a human being unless they already do. Until mainstream culture changes, I suspect that women – especially professional women – will face multiple challenges to be seen as funny.
Bolkan, S., D. J. Griffin, and A. K. Goodboy. 2018. Humor in the classroom: the effects of integrated humor on student learning. Communication Education 67:144-164.
Bressler, E. R., R. A. Martin, and S. Balshine. 2006. Production and appreciation of humor as sexually selected traits. Evolution and Human Behavior 27:121-130.
Chang, Y. T., L. C. Ku, and H. C. Chen. 2018. Sex differences in humor processing: An event-related potential study. Brain Cogn 120:34-42.
Evans, J. B., J. E. Slaughter, A. P. J. Ellis, and J. M. Rivin. 2019. Gender and the evaluation of humor at work. J Appl Psychol 104:1077-1087.
Gamage, N. J. W., D. J. T. Hill, C. A. Lukey, and P. J. Pomery. 2003. Factors affecting the photolysis of polyester–melamine surface coatings. Polymer Degradation and Stability 81:309-326.
Greengross, G., and G. Miller. 2011. Humor ability reveals intelligence, predicts mating success, and is higher in males. Intelligence 39:188-192.
Gueguen, N. 2010. Men's sense of humor and women's responses to courtship solicitations: an experimental field study. Psychol Rep 107:145-156.
Hay, J. 2000. Functions of humor in the conversations of men and women. Journal of Pragmatics 32:709-742.
Martin, D. M. 2007. Humor in middle management: women negotiating the paradoxes of organizational life. Journal of Applied Communication Research 32:147-170.
Medlin, M. M., M. Brown, and D. F. Sacco. 2018. That's what she said! Perceived mate value of clean and dirty humor displays. Personality and Individual Differences 135:192-200.
Moore, T., K. Griffiths, and B. Payne. 1987. Gender, Attitudes Toward Women, and the Appreciation of Sexist Humor. Sex Roles 16:521-531.
Mulder, M.P. and A. Nijholt. 2002. Humour Research: State of the Art. Technical Report CTIT-02-34.
Nimrod, G., and L. Berdychevsky. 2018. Laughing off the Stereotypes: Age and Aging in Seniors' Online Sex-Related Humor. Gerontologist 58:960-969.
Wilbur, C. J., and L. Campbell. 2011. Humor in romantic contexts: do men participate and women evaluate? Pers Soc Psychol Bull 37:918-929.
About the Author
Joanna Lee is a Ph.D. student at Boston University studying the evolution of parasitism through the lens of gene expression. She was born and raised in Hawaii and holds a bachelor’s degree in Science Education from Boston University. Joanna volunteers in classrooms and is passionate about demystifying science to audiences of all ages and backgrounds. In her free time, Joanna enjoys visual arts, reading, and creating social media for her Pomeranian.