Is gender bias one big joke?

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In the past 100 years, women have gained the right to vote, the right to education and the right to equal wages. In fact, in most of the Western World, woman can do pretty much anything that men can do (more if you include childbirth!) and yet many people still take the view that women just don’t have the same comic value as men. Even here at the university, we see the number of women trying their hand at comedy painfully overshadowed by the ever more dominant number of men.

In 2007, Vanity Fair published an article by journalist and literary critic, Christopher Hitchens, entitled ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’, which caused substantial uproar, particularly amongst the female actors, comedians and directors it seemed to be targeting. The article highlighted the contrasting ‘attributes’ of men and women in comedy, essentially stating that women are not funny according to the male psyche. Hitchens posits the idea that woman who are considered ‘funny’ in our society tend to be unattractive, thus using humour in lieu of physical beauty. He goes on to suggests that this is a typically masculine approach to seduction, hypothesising that, evolutionarily, men have used humour as a tool for seduction, whereas women have relied solely on their physical characteristics. This seems to me as archaic a view as the Victorian approach to women as objects to be seen and not heard. Surely now in the 21st century we have moved far enough forward for that not to be the thoughts of the majority?

Besides, even if a man has never been as fully amused by a woman as he has been by his male counterpart (which I sincerely hope is not the case, or all the men I know are better actors than I realised) why would this alone make women, as Hitchens states, “backward in generating [humour]”. I can spend hours a day, whilst meticulously neglecting that all important revision, watching back to back episodes of New Girl, Friends and Miranda and cackling like an evil witch on séance day at how the actresses perform on screen. I have also been known to spend considerable amounts of time watching back old YouTube clips of Miranda or Sarah Millican’s stand up shows, when I would have been much better off researching Berlusconi’s rise to power instead. I know I am not alone in this (what some might call) obsessive behaviour and know that many of my closest female friends like to neglect their degrees in an equally entertaining way. So if women, currently a good 50.7% of the population for all you mathematicians out there, find these shows so funny, who are men like Christopher Hitchens to so bluntly state that they are not?

Perhaps there is a feeling of resentment towards these women. As Hitchens clearly states in his article, evolutionary women have not needed humour to beguile men, whereas it has been the main male form of seduction. It is true that historically woman have not had any reason to be funny, they could quite as happily lure a man in with a suggestive glance as by cracking a joke to the whole court. However, the idea that comedy holds no reward is now also no longer true, with wealth, fame and adulation all being results of a successful career in comedy. It is no wonder then that women now aspire to pursue this path as much as men. So surely now, with this contemporary incentive, women can evolve to be seen as funny in society?

Hitchens argues that his ideas are in no way disrespectful to the females of the species, even making to portray his views as complimentary; why would women be funny when they have so much else at their disposal? Wit is synonymous with intelligence and therefore, by stating that women have no reason to be funny, he is arguing that intelligence is divorced from male attraction. This idea then is equally as offensive to men as it is to women, implying that woman have nothing more to work for outside of physical attraction because men have nothing more to pursue.

This for me brings about the obvious conclusion that the issue lies, not with women, but with the outmoded ideas still running though the subconscious of our society. Perhaps we are forgetting that it is only in the past 100 years that we have come away from living in a male dominated world, which has given us the ingrained attitude of women being as inferior in humour as in all other things, except possibly baking (we’ve all seen Mary Berry with a cake). Therefore, despite the sexist views and obstinate opinions put forward by some like Hitchens, we must also understand that, socially, there is some truth in what he’s saying. In reality, humour of the modern kind as we think of it today is still in its early stages of evolution and for now continues to be subjective to gender. The fact seems to remain that for women it’s the jests, whilst for men it’s the breasts.

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