They Used to Call Me Snow WhiteWomen have had a rich history of comedy, even if much of it has had to remain hidden until recently. Good girls weren’t supposed to laugh. As one critic commented, “Annette Funicello never laughed. She either didn’t get the joke at all, because she was so pure, or she stomped her pretty little foot down in protest. She never initiated humor. Bad girls initiated humor.”
The idea that good girls don’t laugh is best represented by what can be called the Identical Cousin Syndrome and operates on programs like The Patty Duke Show and Bewitched.  Patty was the almost-bad girl who “loves to rock and roll/a hot dog makes her lose control,” and “who’s only seen the sights a girl can see from Brooklyn Heights.” Not a pretty picture when you think about it. Patty had all the good lines, and her perfect cousin only smiled politely at Patty’s bad behavior. Patty’s bad behavior was the only thing that kept the show moving, however. Her good-girl side kept her legs together and her mouth closed, thus preventing anything interesting from occurring. Patty meant danger, and danger meant comedy.
Samantha, the sorceress turned-good-wife in Bewitched had her dark-haired nearly identical bitchy sister Serena visit in order to say all the things Sam couldn’t say. Serena also wore the great pop-culture clothes, mini-skirts and polka-dot vinyl boots, while Sam still wore Donna Reed dresses and twitched her nose only to enhance her husband’s career. The dark sister made the jokes and had the fun. Sam smiled at the boss, smiled at her husband and, dutifully, had her identical twin make fun of them both. Unfortunately, few of us have identical cousins willing to act out our rebellious fantasies. Luckily many of us are ourselves secretly bad girls. We not only get the jokes, we make quite a few. Luckily for us, there is a history, mostly submerged but still visible, of women who, like us, use humor.

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.”

When Mae West said, “What a tragedy for a man, what an opportunity for a woman,” she summed up one of the ways in which women’s comedy differs from men’s–women can see possibilities for comedy and for optimism where men can only see failure. When things fall apart, women’s comedy comes into ascendency. Women are often their funniest after their worst experiences.  Women use comedy to narrate their experience and so diffuse the pain. How many times have you woken up your best friend to relate the most horrible story about being abandoned at a party, being set up on the world’s worst blind date, about being fired, about being embarrassed, beginning the conversation with tears of anger or depression and ending with tears of laughter? Your friend will try to retrieve your sense of perspective by introducing humor. One woman was overheard explaining that she didn’t like her recent blind date “because she was looking for something a little higher up the food chain.” Her disappointment was changed through her ability to tell her story to someone else. Traditional forms of therapy work on the same principle–tell somebody your troubles and it’ll help solve them. It is important to remember, however, that to anyone besides a therapist whom you pay to hear your problems, you had better make your stories as palatable as possible. It’s all right to complain as long as you don’t seem self-pitying and narcissistic. The greatest comediennes always complained about their lives, and the best ones still do. Carol Leifer’s complaint about her ex-husband–“It was a mixed marriage,” she confides, “I’m human, he was Klingon”– is very different from the tedious repetition of wrongs so familiar to us all. Learning to frame our disappointments and anger by using comedy will give us a sense of control over our own lives as well as letting other people express their concern without having to manipulate them into sympathy.
Dorothy Parker once commented that if all the girls at the Yale prom were “laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”  “To hell with criticism,” remarked Tallulah Bankhead, “praise is good enough for me.”  Mae West said that it was very hard to be funny when you had to be clean. When were images of strong, bitchy women found funny–when were these condemned? How could Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers get away with condemning their husbands and children in a 1960s world that believed in the “feminine mystique?” Is it true that, as Joan Rivers claims, “There is not one female comic who was beautiful as a little girl?”  When did women’s comedy begin to change? Was it with the women on Laugh In?  The progress of women’s comedy in recent years is most evident in the change of Mary Tyler Moore from the dancer- turned-housewife Laura Petrie in The Dick Van Dyke Show, to a single woman living alone in her own program. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a breakthrough because of the debunking of two important myths: that women who are alone are chronically unhappy and that women cannot create humor out of a non-sexual situation. The interaction of the female characters, especially Mary and Rhoda, created the platform for other programs dealing with women.   

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 Barreca: Laughing Our Way To Confidence was last modified: by

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