From eighteenth-century “wits” to present day comediennes and everyday conversations, women have used comedy to explore, salvage and celebrate their lives. Women worry about not having a sense of humor because they have been measuring themselves against a standard that does not take into account the “difference of taste in jokes” between traditional men’s humor and women’s own humor. What are the distinguishing elements of a “feminine” tradition in comedy? What are the hallmarks of women’s humor? Feminine comedy doesn’t attack the powerless; it makes fun of the powerful. It doesn’t create barriers; it can often help break them down. It is cyclical, often depending on a whole story rather than just on the punchline. It often proceeds out of anger, but transforms anger into a challenge to the opponent. It can translate fear into power, or insecurity into acceptability. Laughter is as powerful a gift as it is a weapon, and it is crucial to understand the way it works for women. Women’s humor has a purpose beyond sheer entertainment. As stand-up comedian Elayne Boosler explained, “The best who stand up, stand up for something.”
Often without recognizing it as such, women rely on humor as a tool for survival. Women turn small and large tragedies into funny stories; these stories do not, however, mean that the anger and hurt are expelled or “made better.” Women can learn first to recognize and then to draw on the strengths offered by humor. Understanding the difference between masculine and feminine traditions of comedy can affect personal relationships. Should a woman stop telling the story about losing her left shoe in the cab when the boss walks by? Does it matter if the boss is a woman? She should. And it does. These are important lessons. Women’s recognition and understanding of their own tradition of humor will allow them to use it more confidently, to explore the areas of their lives enriched by comedy. It will also give them the confidence to withstand the assault of the “cliché” and give them–us –the right not to laugh when we find something offensive or degrading.
By learning to use humor women can move from self-sabotage to self-help, move away from smiling in worry to laughing with confidence, and, finally, move from the narrow perspective of a complaint to the broader view of a self-awareness. Humor illuminates, entertains and empowers. There’s nothing more important, better for us, or easier to give away to others.
Gina Barecca is the author of They Used to Call Me Snow White . . . But I Drifted: Women’s Strategic Use of Humor available on Amazon.com.