I was just going to use the title “Chicks Aren’t Funny,” but it turns out I did. About a year and a half ago. And since I save all these in a file on my computer, it popped up right away. And it’s true that I don’t actually hear that assertion much these days, but I’m uncertain if that’s because the concept is less prevalent or because the circles I move in all know better. But what strikes me, as more and more people come forward about sexual abuse they’ve suffered, is that the idea that chicks aren’t funny might actually feed into some of the toxicity of comedy.
Because when I first heard that Al Franken had been accused, my thought was, “Now or back in the ’70s?” And the defense some guys offer up for Louis CK is that the women were just misunderstanding what things are really like in comedy clubs, and that’s just how things are. Which is sadly not necessarily untrue, but the guys don’t stop to question what the problem is there. I keep waiting for the lawsuit against DC for creating a hostile work environment for how they sequestered women to keep them away from known abusers.
You see, if “chicks aren’t funny,” it’s okay to mistreat women in that environment, because they don’t really belong there. The same with geek spaces and Fox News and the military, and presumably a whole lot of other spaces. If women don’t belong in those spaces, it’s okay to do whatever you want to them. Either it will drive them back where they belong or else they’ll take it and prove that they’re “just one of the guys.” There’s no need to treat them well, because they don’t belong there.
Obviously, you can dismantle the whole thing by listing women who were funny. I don’t love I Love Lucy, but I acknowledge Lucille Ball as a talented comedic actress, for example. But even more obviously, you shouldn’t have to. Because even if women somehow “don’t belong” in whatever space, a concept I reject pretty much universally, that doesn’t give you the right to mistreat them. Especially if they aren’t actually hurting you. You may think of them as taking your job, but surely then the drive should be to work more toward a meritocracy to drive out those who don’t belong. If I were a male comedian, I like to think I’d be angrier at a fellow male comedian who just wasn’t funny than at a woman. Especially if he also stole my jokes.
I’m certainly not pretending that it’s the only thing that creates the environment. I mean, I could list, and it wouldn’t be a short list. But I do think it’s exacerbated by that idea, the thought that women don’t belong. That women can never belong by nature of simply being women and therefore not being biologically capable of the work. And that’s at least an understandable thought when you get into jobs like fire fighting or construction, jobs that require a physical strength. (Though even there, you get into the whole “individual variations” thing, and if you can pass the physical tests, you’re doing better than a lot of my male friends!) But when some of the greatest names of the twentieth century were funny women, it’s a little jarring.
Another issue that cannot be overstated is that comedy reflects our values. A picture of pretending to grope a sleeping woman can be seen as intended to be a joke because people will see it as a joke when they look at it. Many of our jokes involve the domination and/or humiliation of women. If people didn’t find the jokes funny, the people who make them would not be successful. Now, that does get a bit chicken-and-egg; do the comedians make the jokes because people find them funny, or do people find the jokes funny because they’re so accustomed to the idea of them as comedy? Either way, yeah, that explains the public jokes.
And if it’s funny in public, it’s funny in private, right? If the public finds it funny, so must the woman, and if she doesn’t, it’s because Women Don’t Have A Sense Of Humour. Or else the woman, to prove that she belongs, might suppress her distaste and go along with it so she isn’t seen as a humourless shrew who doesn’t belong. It’s all pretty toxic stuff. I’m worrying now about how to teach my kids to avoid this attitude, and I think the best way to start is to teach them that women are not as different from men as all that in most ways. Certainly they’re capable of being funny.