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Sexism I Can Endorse!

Warren Bell in The National Review Online offers an observation I can get behind: Women aren't as funny as men. Or, at least, most funny people are men, which lets us avoid trying to calculate average humorousness across large populations. Phoebe Maltz protests that she's funny so Bell is full of shit. But one counterexample does not a statistical irregularity prove. Lisa Leslie is a better basketball player than most men (obviously I could take her, but most...) , but that doesn't change the fact that men are better at basketball on the whole. I can't tell what causal mechanism Bell is trying to argue for here. My friend Dave thinks it's because women are too nice. I think the culprit is, pretty clearly, the tendency of magazines to print photographs of attracted women accompanied by commentary from the women in question asserting that she's looking to meet someone funny. This creates incentives all out of proportion to reality for men to try and funnify themselves.

Speaking as someone who considers himself to be pretty funny (people who know me from real life can weigh in on the accuracy of this assertion), a good sense of humor seems to me to be an irrationally overvalued personality trait. Thanks to television, The Onion, etc., a small number of professionally funny people can meet the entire world's humor demand. Something like kindness or personal warmth you need to know actual people to get. Nevertheless, nobody (myself included) actually sees it that way.

February 4, 2005 | Permalink

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» Just What Are Women Good At? from Rox Populi
We know women don't blog as well as men, especially about political subjects. We know this because a bunch of men who blog have said so. We know women aren't very good at math and science. We know this because [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 6, 2005 11:59:55 PM

» Funny Girl from John
I think Matt is just jerking my chain here, but the other day he was enthusiastically endorsing the notion that men are funnier than women. First of all, I reject the premise; this is total bullshit. This isn't like with [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 7, 2005 5:35:27 AM

» Sexism Some Putative Liberal "Endorses" from SIVACRACY.NET: Siva Vaidhyanathan's Weblog
Sexism I Can Endorse! by Mathhew Yglesias "Warren Bell in The National Review Online offers an observation I can get behind: Women aren't as funny as men. Or, at least, most funny people are men, which lets us avoid trying... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 7, 2005 3:09:43 PM

» Matty Y the Pompous Laugh Machine from Loaded Mouth

You know, if this is the bullshit that "reality based" blogs are spouting off, then I think it's about time to change this blog's motto.

I'm up for suggestions...

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Tracked on Feb 7, 2005 6:28:51 PM

» You Can Learn Many Things from Children. How Much Patience You Have, For Instance from Fact-esque, A Reality-Based Blog
Yglesias is back with another pointless salvo in the battle of the sexes. As Roxanne reminds us, Matt has already told us that women can't blog about politics as well as men. He's moved on now to "endorsing" a whole [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 7, 2005 7:53:02 PM

» Hey women, make me laugh from Nerve Endings Firing Away
From my hardly-contested assertion that women don’t take as much interest in politics as men do and to the hotly-contested Havard President Larry Summer’s assertion that women aren’t as able in math and sciences as men, Mathew Yglesias (cites Warren [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 8, 2005 12:01:43 PM

» Calm Down, Ladies. Let Me Handle This. from Happy Furry Puppy Story Time with Norbizness
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Tracked on Feb 22, 2005 12:42:50 PM

Comments

And let's not forget that the funniest female ever on television was a lesbian.

No, not Ellen Degeneres.

Amanda Bearse, from Married... with Children.

Posted by: Glaivester | Feb 4, 2005 7:03:22 PM

Well, make em laugh will get you laid, but they marry the tall, quiet guys. Got evolutionary psychology all over it. Especially with the recent studies of female starlings.

I demand more research. Other variables may be involved, like social conditioning. Cause my experience tells me that women are pretty funny to each other in small groups without men present, and only stop laughing when I enter the room. Unless they ignore me, in which case I never seem to get the jokes.

Was Eddie Izzard interviewed?

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 4, 2005 7:27:56 PM

Matt, I can believe that men believe there are more funny men than funny women, but when you consider women's greater faculty with written and spoken language, it defies logic to think that more men are funny. Of course, maybe we should define funny. There is 3 Stooges funny and there is Elaine of Seinfeld funny. There is belly flop in the pool funny, and there is humurous personal anecdote among friends poolside funny.

This is a generalization but many men tend to monopolize the conversation when they are speaking to women. Clearly, a woman could say, 'shut up and listen to this joke,' but, how fun is that?? And, men tend to professionalize their humor more, thus there are more male stand up comedians.

Personally, I have been blessed to be surrounded by very humorous, fun-loving female family members and friends for most of my life. I enjoy a number of professional male comedians, but if I'm really in a mood to goof off and I usually turn to my female friends.

Posted by: cara | Feb 4, 2005 7:33:03 PM

I'm reminded of Matt Ridley's The Red Queen, where he offhandedly muses that the ability to be funny might have evolved first in women. He posits that women who were funny managed to get their mates to stick around better and help raise the little ones (rather than spread their seed and then run off to excel in math and science). Since it takes a fair amount of smarts to manipulate our social/intellectual understanding and make something funny (think of how hard it is to write a truly good joke), he thinks that this might be how the human race evolved our Big Luscious Brains.

As someone with a lot of investment in evolutionary theories of laughter, I'm not sold on Ridley here, but it's intriguing.

But I'm with Bell on his conclusion--that being funny is something learned, and women aren't rewarded as much by learning it. If men are funnier than women, that seems more like a function of centuries of social pressures against female aggression and game-playing (a big component of the funny) than something innate.

Posted by: Michael | Feb 4, 2005 7:33:47 PM

It's not really sexism if you don't blame the women. Personally, I don't think the humorlessness of the women-folk says anything about them, it's a statement about cultural pressures. But do you really think men are pressured to be more funny? because I would instead guess that women are pressured to be less so. We live in a society where CosmoGirl! teaches girls at age 9 that boys like someone who listens well, and a girl who acts like a clown or does pranks gets labeled a Tom boy.

Besides, I know lots of funny women.

Posted by: Free Radical | Feb 4, 2005 7:41:13 PM

Oh, I have an irresistible urge to commit Freudian analysis. Sorry, everyone.

One of the best pieces of analysis Freud ever wrote was "Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious." He argued there that humor is a defense mechanism, a way of channeling one's fears and desires into acceptable forms that have an impact on another. The reason that someone laughs--despite him or herself--at a joke is that the verbal mastery involved has slipped by the superego's defenses and allowed the unruly drives of the id to express themselves. Someone deploying a joke, then, demonstrates mastery and touches strong emotional forces. The problem of course being that jokes, like sex, are transitory releases, not the basis meaningful, ongoing relations.

The extension to gender relations and training probably goes without saying. But of course I'll say it anyway. Young women are presented with an alternative defense mechanism: they have a whole techonology of beautification measures available... Once they're beautified, however, they need someone to release their drives.

Okay, I'll stop.

Posted by: Temporary Freudian | Feb 4, 2005 7:42:43 PM

Cause my experience tells me that women are pretty funny to each other in small groups without men present, and only stop laughing when I enter the room.

Two things to consider. One is that most laughter (at least according to psychologist Robert Provine) is actually a response to social queues rather than to hearing something witty.
http://www.umbc.edu/psyc/faculty/provine/book.html
If you enter a room of laughing people and ask what's funny, it's often that case that it won't be as funny to you as it seemed to be to them.

The other is that men and women probably differ in what they find funny. Given that the author of the article is male--and MY is, and you are, and I am--none of us are really in a great position to evaluate the claim objectively.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Feb 4, 2005 7:47:46 PM

Here is a dumb joke i read online. It's really dumb but I can't stop laughing everytime I say it.

A guy walks into a bar with a hunk of concrete under his arm and say's to the bartender, "I'll have one for me and one for the road."

Posted by: nowayi'mclaimingthis | Feb 4, 2005 7:49:27 PM

Something you only notice on a re-reading of the article:
Special apologies to the lady who will decide if this piece runs or not. She is hysterical, by the way.I'm sure she is.

Posted by: Michael | Feb 4, 2005 7:57:37 PM

I don't know if women are funnier than men or not. But you know who's not funny? Conservatives.

Posted by: Erik Loomis | Feb 4, 2005 8:11:22 PM

What about Madeline Kahn and Cloris Leachman in Mel Brooks's "High Anxiety"?

Posted by: jjf | Feb 4, 2005 8:15:57 PM

Michael "He posits that women who were funny managed to get their mates to stick around better and help raise the little ones (rather than spread their seed and then run off to excel in math and science)."

Not sure of the time frame here, but it is now generally agreed upon that mothers and grandmothers have always been the ones to raise the children. If we are looking at early hunter/gatherer societies, women tended to provide the food for most days of the week and it was supplemented by important big game meat here and there. Group living, not just nuclear family type arrangements, was imperative for the survival of both genders of early humans, although it was the women who most often introduced new blood into the group due to their instinctive attraction to the "handsome stranger."

Posted by: Go Patriots | Feb 4, 2005 8:16:41 PM

Odd... among my blog reading list, the funniest person of definite sex on it is probably Amanda Marcotte of Mouse Words and the second funniest is Belle Waring of John Belle Have a Blog. (females) (She and Daniel Davies are the only Crooked Timber bloggers I really enjoy) The third funniest might be Jesse Taylor (male, and very much so unless I'm mistaken).

Now, the funniest of them all is Fafblog!, but I don't know who writes it. I suspect that it is written by a male, but I don't really know.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Feb 4, 2005 8:27:28 PM

The whole hypothesis can be refuted with only two words: Lucille Ball.

Posted by: Bob Munck | Feb 4, 2005 8:35:56 PM

Deborah Tannen talks about how jokes signify for men and women. Men joke to get status; women joke to connect with others. Because many men think women have lower status than they do, they don't find women funny. Read "You Just Don't Understand" if you want to know more about this.

I find the supposition that men are funnier than women quite sexist, because I think that men who feel this way are revealing that they see women as one down. I'm disappointed in you, Yglesias.

Posted by: Betsy | Feb 4, 2005 8:38:40 PM

The whole hypothesis can be refuted with only two words: Lucille Ball.

Margaret Cho and Sandra Bernhardt. Your move.

Posted by: tom | Feb 4, 2005 8:47:17 PM

Lisa Leslie is a better basketball player than most men (obviously I could take her, but most...)

Now, that is funny.

Posted by: Thlayli | Feb 4, 2005 8:52:53 PM

I think female funny in the presense of biscuits like yourselves comes in the form of joi de vive : "she's fun" or "she's got a great laugh" etc etc.

Posted by: A Fish | Feb 4, 2005 8:53:43 PM

Go Pats
Not sure of the time frame here, but it is now generally agreed upon that mothers and grandmothers have always been the ones to raise the children. If we are looking at early hunter/gatherer societies, women tended to provide the food for most days of the week and it was supplemented by important big game meat here and there. Group living, not just nuclear family type arrangements, was imperative for the survival of both genders of early humans...

A correction to my earlier comment: Ridley is citing a correspondence with Geoffrey Miller, who argues that the neocortex evolved as a courtship organ, to keep the opposite sex around, in what he calls the "Scheherazade effect." (He also claims a counterpart "Dionysus effect," by which prehuman males seduced women.) I was also probably sloppy with the term "raising children," which is I think what you're objecting to in part; "providing mother and child with delicious meat" is probably more accurate.

I do think that we are talking about different time frames: whenever the human neocortex began to expand to its present size, it happened well before Homo sapiens proper, and therefore before human hunter-gatherer societies. Miller, I gather, would claim that group living (in early humans) was in part a result of this effect (in prehumans).

It's a long way from there to Ellen and Cho and Dorothy Parker, but there ya go.

Posted by: Michael | Feb 4, 2005 9:05:16 PM

I don't know if women are funnier than men or not. But you know who's not funny? Conservatives.

You beat me to it. Witness: Dennis Miller.

In any of the arts you care to consider, conservatives almost universally suck.

Same point should be made about Christian Rock.

Posted by: ScrewyRabbit | Feb 4, 2005 9:10:09 PM

Screwy,

Well, isn't it possible that conservatives think liberal artists and particularly comedians suck?

Posted by: WeSaferThemHealthier | Feb 4, 2005 9:30:55 PM

The NRO guy is a writer for "Acourding to Jim".

Posted by: joe o | Feb 4, 2005 9:34:42 PM

Well, make em laugh will get you laid, but they marry the tall, quiet guys.

Ha. As a tall, quiet guy who's also funny, I can tell you that they tend to marry pliable rich guys, where available. We're merely the backup plan.

Posted by: gavin mcnett | Feb 4, 2005 9:43:07 PM

The reason that someone laughs--despite him or herself--at a joke is that the verbal mastery involved has slipped by the superego's defenses and allowed the unruly drives of the id to express themselves.

Except that what makes us laugh is by no means limited to that which involves "verbal mastery." There's far more to humor than jokes qua jokes (as the common "You hadda be there" suggests).

I'd venture a tentative guess that women are better at nonverbal humor than men, simply because they tend to be more expressive overall.

No reason why nonverbal humor couldn't also slip by the superego's defenses and elicit a response from the id, though, I suppose...

Posted by: Swift Loris | Feb 4, 2005 10:06:04 PM

thanks for sticking up for me julian! I was just about to bitch matt out but I think I'll take the high road...

Posted by: belle waring | Feb 4, 2005 10:07:06 PM

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