Art by Martin O'Neill
Written by Nikita Biswal
The women in my family are excellent impressionists. Occasionally, my mother breaks into an animated account about a peculiar classmate from her school days or a distant uncle – who once drove his wife and a baby of two years all the way to his in-laws without realising they never sat down on the backseat of his scooter – enacting each detail with theatricality. Unlike me, she holds her humour while narrating these stories, making it easier, and much more likely, that her audience is left laughing.
At parties, I envy her and my sister for the way they hold the attention of the entire room. They have a knack for picking the winning anecdote and relaying it with an easy charm and comfort, imitating the speech of their characters, pulling in and out of the story with jokes, drawing new punchlines from old punchlines. Each experience of newness, of carelessness and frustration acquires potential for hilarity in their minds.
I remember how surprised I was the first time someone at university told me ‘You are funny!’ They said it simply, as if it was an obvious thing to notice. I was confused, because despite it all, I didn’t inherit the funny bone from my mother. I laugh too much to ever land a joke in time, thoroughly entertained by the things in my head. I often struggle with finding the right words and am still determining what language I make better jokes in. I thought about the simple observation all evening – I was funny!
I’ve since thought a lot about that initial shock. The idea that women could be funny sticks out. There seems to be something inherently uncomfortable about it. Women are a (glow and) lovely sex – pretty looking, gregarious, successful, intelligent, even witty. But they aren’t ordinarily seen as funny.
A funny woman is ‘goofy’ or ‘dorky’ or ‘silly’ or another synonym that deflects women’s humour to eccentricity, something unusual and out of the norm. “You’re pretty, but you’re like … goofy. It makes no sense,” a date once told Olga Khazan, staff writer at The Atlantic. A funny woman is ‘not like other girls’. These archetypes shift the conversation from a woman’s funniness to pit humour against conventional standards of femininity. From very early on, women are conditioned to laugh ‘softly’, to be quieter, to not gimmick in public, such behaviour taken as callous, or worse yet, frivolous. A friend points out that the class clown in school was never a girl, and looking back, I wondered what it means to be female and funny.
Culture mass manufactures gender roles that prioritise humour as a man’s business. Old films are lined with countless examples of the shy heroine giggling behind a drawn veil or tittering at a window as their sweethearts put up boisterous performances downstairs. When they joke, it is in the company of female friends, or while writing private diaries. Following suit, modern pop culture presents us with women who fall into love peeling with laughter. The funny women of modern cinema are repeatedly depicted as awkward, clumsy or sardonic. In time, the popular version starts to seem normal.
The 2011 Intelligence study shows that women are less likely to identify themselves as funny. When asked to measure their funniness on a scale of one to five, women gave themselves a 1.5 on average. 89 percent of women and 94 percent of men found men, in general, funnier. Laura Mickes, a professor of Psychology at the University of Bristol, conducted a followup study on the subject noting that “maybe over time they (men) are encouraged more to be funny”.
This gender bias is rehearsed to an extent that women are seen as a funny sex so long as the butt of the joke is typically, and sometimes quite literally, a woman’s. While a good sense of humour in men is popularly seen as the ability to crack splitting jokes, a sense of humour in women often means they can laugh at jokes. The problem alienates both sexes – building untoward pressures on men to drive social humour and encouraging women to train laughter into muscle memory.
From fond memories of her childhood, my mother remembers imitating actors in famous Hindi songs. My aunt, with a scarf wrapped around her head, would play the romancing jokester, my mother the charming tease. The innocent game is a small but deep reflection of how humour comes to be gendered. The need to assume the role and manner of a man to ‘act funny’ seemed natural then. Today, humour is being radically desexualised by both professionally funny women and the women in our lives who undo the stereotype in everyday conversations. Yet, a funny woman remains tethered to her sexual identity.
A woman’s humour comes attached with a body, difficult to ignore and impossible to overcome. Funny women on stage are seen through filters that refocus on how they look. One notices the clothes they are and are not wearing, the colour and shape of their skin, registering their presence through an assessment of their physical appearance. “She looks so cute!” a friend tells me time and time again sharing videos of a comedian we both love. She did, but in response I said, “I loved when she made that joke – ”. “You have to desexualise yourself as much as possible because you don’t want to be viewed as a sexual creature, you want to be viewed as funny,” Aditi Mittal told Elle in an interview in 2017. It is antithetical, and amusing, that women first need to be taken ‘seriously’ in order to be funny.
Recent events show that this is just as true today. Criticism towards a woman’s humour is directed to her body without question. Objectified, shamed, threatened to be molested and raped and mutilated in public imagination through and through. It goes without saying that this is true for women and their bodies in every field, but there is something particular about a woman making you laugh that is shifting. Funniness is inherently anti-establishment and in an increasingly speech-policed country, a sense of humour is political. However women, already made anomalies in the field of comedy, experience the restraint differently, and almost always, in relation to their bodies – through violent descriptions of how they will or will not be fucked.
A joke is an act of power. It is about establishing enough control over your audience to provoke a reaction. Growing up, I never thought of myself as funny, not even occasionally. When I find people laughing on something I said, I clock the moment in my head to remember how it felt for as long as possible. I am unaccustomed to being at the other end of the joke. In group settings, where individuals learn to drive conversations with humour, it is surprisingly more common than you’d think for a funny woman to feel overlooked. It is ordinary to expect women to take jokes on themselves ‘like sports’ – the angry feminist in the room quickly becomes the nemesis of all good humour. Historically, humour has been used as a tool to dismiss and diffuse women’s opinions – “If a woman pulls out a knife during an argument, give her some bread and mayo!” This difference between how men and women joke and laugh has hardened into invisible borders that guide social humour. In making a joke then, a woman is crossing a fine line.
This is a continuous dance of performing humour. I led and chased my ideas over many, many conversations to find that a funny woman is never just funny, but always, a funny woman.
These women would tell you about their funny aunts and aunties, or this one female friend who cracks them up every time. How their grandmothers did this hilarious ‘bit’. How the women in their lives are unaware of their own funniness to the point of being ignorant, which to me – I could never hold a straight face while telling a joke – makes them funnier. I asked my mother this Monday if she thought she was funny, and she turned to me in all seriousness and said, “I don’t think so.”
I’d like to suggest a different possibility.