The Power of Women’s Humor: From Supreme Court Justices to Comedy Stars

snowWhiteTitleImageNovelist Fay Weldon instructs us that, “Comedy is the most crucial thing we have left in a world that’s coming apart.”

Comedy in all its familiar forms–from novels to films, from cartoons to stand-up comedy, from humor in the workplace to humor in intimate relationships–can help women recognize new sources of power within themselves. The productive use of humor is a challenge facing a generation of women who have grown up only half-recognizing the power of their own laughter.

Humor gives women a chance to criticize without pain, express our anger without injury and deflate someone’s pretensions while allowing them their dignity. A joke correctly placed can open doors, repair damage and avoid crisis. On the other hand, a joke badly placed can cut communication, cause embarrassment and create irreparable harm. A joke is never just a joke; it’s all about power and voice. And a gag can stifle your voice, shut you up if the gag is placed over your mouth–or allow you to be heard more clearly than ever before, with the fabulous, fierce triumph of the last laugh.

Women’s humor often misfires in the workplace, for example, because self-depreciating comments are taken literally instead of ironically. If a woman waits around for people to contradict her when she uses a hackneyed line– “I embody the stereotype of a dumb blond,” for example—she might wait a long time. Folks start to believe what they’re told; although nothing about a woman’s actual work might suggest that she was anything but capable, efficient and talented, her humor can back-fire. Where and when did self-deprecation stop being sweet and funny and start becoming damaging? How can woman get taken seriously when we also need to treat the world, on occasion, with a light touch?

And how does women’s comedy differ from men’s? How can women draw on the tradition of our own signature humor to assert and enjoy ourselves? Examples offer the best evidence. The new edition of my book They Used To Call Me Snow White … But I Drifted: Women’s Strategic Use of Humor, draws heavily on material from the most well-known names in women’s comedy, as well as in contemporary culture generally, including those women who are known for their work in literature, politics, the arts, and law.

What’s changed in terms of the creation and reception of women’s comedy since my book on women’s strategic use of humor hit the shelves in 1991? That year, Thelma and Louise hit the big screen and Anita Hill hit the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings. In ‘91, Comedy Central began broadcasting in its current format and the Soviet Union ceased to exist. In 1991, the Cold War ended and the Gulf War began. Designing Women, Roseanne, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, and Married with Children were television hits, while books by Erma Bombeck were on the bestseller list.

Clarence Thomas made it to the Supreme Court., but so have Sonia Sotomeyer, who seems never to appear in a photograph without her signature smiling face, and Elena Kagan. In 2010, Justice Kagan proved what I’d been arguing — give women an education and a chance at the microphone, and we’ll prove we are funnier than most men.

During the hearings that confirmed her appointment to the Supreme Court, Kagan got the last laugh at the expense of South Carolina’s Republican Senator Lindsay Graham during a moment that can serve as a template for women’s smart answers. When Graham, rather lackadaisically intoned, “Christmas Day. Where were you on Christmas Day?” I’ll admit that I held my breath. Kagan began what sounded like an elaborate, roundabout and detailed response concerning the finer points of law in conjunction to a question about the 2009 Christmas Day, aka Underwear Bomber.

Kagan, remember, was being examined precisely on those finer points of law, but Graham interrupted Kagan and drawled, “I just asked where you were on Christmas.” That’s when the world heard Kagan’s laugh—it was a real laugh, not some tinkling-bell girly, self-deprecating simulation of laugh. It was a serious Bea-Arthur-ish, “You got me!” guffaw.

And then the soon-to-be member fourth female member of the Supreme Court did something remarkable: She refused to let this gentleman’s funny remark stand at her expense. Kagan shifted the ground. She answered, matter-of-factly and with dead on comedic timing,“Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”

It’s great when somebody can answer a question while addressing the invidious issues beneath it: Why was the Senator from South Carolina asking where she was on a Christian holiday, anyway? Some of us thought Kagan should have asked Graham where he was on Purim.

As for today’s world of comedy, younger women are working in what Mindy Kaling, known from her writing and role in The Office and her 2011 book Is Everyone Hanging Out With Me? (And Other Concerns) calls a “post-Sarah Silverman world.” The complications, delights, and frustrations of the life of a woman writing humor in the second decade of the 21st century are writ large by Kaling and unflinchingly examined, especially those parts she was not expecting because she grew up during a time when the basis of women’s equality wasn’t challenged and when outrageous behavior was a “given”:

“I was freaked out. Sexual harassment was a real thing. You can’t just joke about rape at work. We had endured a lengthy sexual harassment seminar on how fireable this behavior was. Sarah Silverman could make jokes about rape because, the fact of the matter was, she was much funnier and cuter than us. This was the problem of living in a post-Sarah Silverman world: lots of young women holding the scepter of inappropriateness did not know how to wield it.”

Maybe the biggest difference in the twenty years since Snow White was published is that a male comic often feels a need to apologize whereas a female comic doesn’t. Tina Fey explains in her book Bossypants:

“Amy Poehler was new to Saturday Night Live and we were all crowded into the seventeenth-floor writers’ room, waiting for the Wednesday read-through to start…and she did something vulgar as a joke. I can’t remember what it was exactly, except it was dirty and loud and ‘unladylike.’ Jimmy Fallon, who was arguably the star of the show at the time, turned to her and in a faux-squeamish voice said: ‘Stop that! It’s not cute! I don’t like it.’ Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him. ‘I don’t f—ing care if you like it.’ Jimmy was visibly startled. Amy went right back to enjoying her ridiculous bit. With that exchange, a cosmic shift took place. Amy made it clear that she wasn’t there to be cute. She wasn’t there to play wives and girlfriends in the boys’ scenes. She was there to do what she wanted to do and she did not fucking care if you like it ….”

A woman making humor and creating comedy is a woman who is not going to apologize for wanting to be in control.

I see women’s humor as having made great inroads into new territory but I nevertheless have some worries. I worry about young women believing that they have to imitate men in order to be considered funny. YouTube hasn’t made this any easier either, since the whole YouTube phenomenon has made the Internet into venue where humor is treated as if it’s been vetted, when really it’s only been downloaded. The result is that if some guy decides to fill his mouth with ginger ale, baking soda and kitty litter “just to see what happens” and places it on YouTube, he might well be considered a new comedy star. He could get his own series. He could become famous as “The Exploding Kitty Litter Guy.” And they will be some girl who will think she’ll be the female equivalent to the kitty litter guy. It won’t be pretty. I worry that women’s humor will continue to lean in towards the imitative and that it will be something like the way men now wear hair product and get their eyebrows waxed. Twenty years ago the idea of women pointing out that men didn’t spend excessive time on their hair or going through the ridiculous process of getting hot wax poured on various parts of their bodies and then hair ripped out by the roots was supposed to stop women form doing it, not to encourage men to do it.

Excessive, playful, blasphemous, indulgent, insurgent, and fiercely courageous, great women humorists have one crucial thing in common: they know humor is the shortest and most electric line between two–or more–points. They set about connecting the wires so the rest of us can hear the noise inside their heads, and focus on that to create change and discussion. To them, nothing is sacred. Nothing scares them. The only thing they have to fear is the grim, tight-lipped, faux-funny earnestness of anti-feminism itself. By questioning, mocking and demystifying the world, they illustrate in every line that humor is our culture’s third rail: electrified, powerful, and dangerous.

Guest contributor Gina Barrecca is the author of They Used to Call Me Snow White … but I Drifted: Women’s Strategic Use of Humor.

Image via Gina Barrecca

  • Amy McVay Abbott

    Absolutely wonderful piece. Loved the quote about Amy Poehler. It is a terrible balance between self-depricating humor and sense of self. As a mid-Boomer, I’ve seen too much in the workplace just like Poehler saw. Young women won’t put up with it. Bully for them.

Why I Wrote “Trumping And Drinking”
Get Over Yourselves. We’re All Rory Gilmore
Hillary Clinton, Shake It Off, Taylor Swift, Hillary Clinton Campaign song
Six Reasons “Shake It Off” Should Be Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Theme Song
Nancy Reagan dies, Just Say No, Ronald Reagan
A Not-So-Positive Ode to Nancy Reagan’s Frothy “Just Say No” Campaign
I Married for Health Insurance
Why I Wrote “Trumping And Drinking”
A Case of Nixonian Deja Vu
Post-Election Munchies: What is Your Grief Snack of Choice?
Why I Wrote “Trumping And Drinking”
A Case of Nixonian Deja Vu
Trump Reality Check, Now with Actual Facts!
Fascism Facts
I Married for Health Insurance
Get Over Yourselves. We’re All Rory Gilmore
Post-Election Munchies: What is Your Grief Snack of Choice?
Women’s Elections Rights in Saudi Arabia: A Token Drop in an Abysmal Bucket & the Plight of Women Under Sharia Law
Maybe It Wasn’t Rape: Emerging Matriarchy and the Altering of Women’s Past Sexual Narratives
Paris attacks, Paris terrorism
Is Paris Burning?
Chinese government and women's reproductive rights, adopting Chinese girls, international adoption
Dear Xi Jinping, I Am Writing to You as an American Mom of a 19-Year-Old Chinese Daughter
The Vital Voice of Hillary Clinton: Part 1
Maybe It Wasn’t Rape: Emerging Matriarchy and the Altering of Women’s Past Sexual Narratives
The Eyes Have It!
Ashley Madison, Jared Fogle, sex, rape, sexual affairs
Ashley Madison vs. Jared Fogle: Rape, Sex and Hacking in America
women's viagra, Viagra, Flibanserin, sexual arousal, women's desire, sex after menopause
That “Little Pink Pill” Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Get our new weekly email
Broadly Speaking

featuring our best words for the week + an exclusive longread