Thursday, February 4, 2016

The 'women can't be funny' myth, and the power of making people laugh

A male speechwriter I know believes he can't put jokes in speeches he's writing for women because "women can't be funny." In 2016.

He should be ashamed of himself for believing and perpetuating this durable myth: As this "totally incomplete" Brief History of "Women Aren't Funny" notes, the concept goes back centuries, and stretches into the present day, not unlike slut-shaming and other methods of getting women to be silent. After all, if someone tells you that you can't be funny, you won't try, then, will you?

This myth is so ingrained that both men and women have trouble recognizing it as the silencer that it certainly is. Consider what comic Joan Rivers said of her fellow comedian, Phyllis Diller: "The only tragedy is that Phyllis Diller was the last from an era that insisted a woman had to look funny in order to be funny."

Gloria Steinem shares perspective on women and humor in her memoir, My Life on the Road, as she writes about her stint as the only "girl writer" on That Was The Week That Was, a political satire show on British, and later American, television in the 1960s. She writes:
...the power to make people laugh is also a power, so women have been kept out of comedy. Polls show that what women fear most from men is violence, and what men fear most from women is ridicule. Later, when Tina Fey was star and head writer of Saturday Night Live, she could still say, "Only in comedy does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity."
So it's a double-edged sword for women to be funny, in the eyes of men. They fear women might ridicule them. Steinem adds more reasons why humor holds power:
...laughter is the only free emotion--the only one that can't be compelled....laughter explodes like an aha! It comes when the punch line changes everything that has gone before, when two opposites collide and create a third, when we suddenly see a new reality....Laughter is an orgasm of the mind.
No wonder they want to keep it to themselves. In Speechwriters, don't write differently for women. Write differently for men, I asked speechwriters to stop including suggestive or misogynistic content in the speeches they write for men--much of which takes the supposedly harmless form of suggestive or sex-focused humor. I can see why a male speechwriter might think he can't write off-color jokes for a woman speaker, but that's no reason to blame her and say it's because she "can't be funny."

The idea that women can't be funny limits women's speaking in insidious psychological ways. Its variant, that pretty or hot women can't be funny, sounds a lot like what both men and women report in surveys: We think women can be competent, or likable, but not both. After all, the ability to use humor well is part of what we consider "likability." But as has been said before on this blog, if you're worried about your likability, you can't tell your story.

The humor myth limits women's speaking in practical ways as well. Many speechwriters and speaking experts advise that speakers make use of humor, particularly self-deprecating humor, both to relax the speaker and help her connect with the audience. But for women, putting yourself down when you're not starting from a position of strength and credibility can be risky, even if it's done with humor. If women don't use humor, or are diverted or discouraged from using it, they may miss out on invitations to emcee or chair an event at which that quality is desired, as it so often is. If speechwriters won't write jokes for women, women won't get to tell them--and may not notice the omission, perpetuating the myth. And when decisions about women being funny are made by people who don't believe they can be funny, we in the audience are losing out, as well as the women speakers.

What can you do about this, eloquent women? Recognize that men fear your ridicule and are uncomfortable with your use of humor--and use humor, anyway. Seize that power to make the audience laugh, so you can better connect. Talk about this double-edged sword and call out those who say women can't be funny, so we may all learn how prevalent is this view. Exercise your funny bone by listening to, reading, and watching humor of all kinds. Practice your humorous turns and try them out on a variety of listeners to see what works. Make a study of comic timing, and using pauses for comedic effect. Just don't doubt your ability.

We've got some great resources right here on The Eloquent Woman for you:
I've got a Famous Speech Friday in the works on famous humorous speeches by women, and I'm up to nearly 20 speeches you will be able to use as examples. Don't let this myth stop you from trying a comic turn in your next speech. Start using your humor, eloquent women!

(Creative Commons licensed photo of panelists at "The Smoking Bra: Women and Comedy at 92YTribeca)

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