Saturday, December 16, 2006

I Dunno, Are Women Allowed to Be Funny?

SteveG posted on Christopher Hitchen's essay, "Why Women Aren't Funny," today. Nathifa sent it to both of us and while I scanned the first page, I stopped reading it because I thought the premise was flawed. Women are funny. Some of the funniest people I know are women. But, after reading Steve's post and thinking more about the kind of funny that Steve is, it occurred to me that it's a lot less socially acceptable for me to be funny the way Steve is. Let me explain.

Steve has been asked to do a lot of speaking gigs lately, notably the opening convocation (yes, you can listen to it!). The word is out, he is damn funny and thereby a great public speaker. He has great joke set ups and knows how to throw in a little zinger when you least expect it. He can also swear in a talk and get a way with it. When I juxtapose his speech with the women on the stage, I can't help but notice that the women speakers were far more somber, serious and, dare I say it, saccharine. Many of them spoke both as intellectuals and as mothers. They were caring and nurturing, not funny.

When Steve and I were asked to speak at the Fall Convocation two years ago, I immediately started crafting my speech. It was exactly the variety of speech I just described above: a bit lofty and self-deprecating. I was starting to write a speech about how much I learned from my students, adopting a kind of Socrates-like irony (but, I wasn't really all that ironic). Anyway, when Steve asked me what I was working on, and I told him, he immediately encouraged me to do a dialogue with him where I play the "straight man" and hence set up his jokes. Btw, we both cracked some jokes, but the talk was the better for it. Basically we kept my saccharine shit, but when I finished speaking, he broke in with the "What a bunch of bullshit!" and the jokes kept rolling after that.

Now, I think I am pretty funny in my classes and I am not afraid to swear. But, when asked to give public speeches, I immediately adopt a more formal and ceremonial tone. And, I think that there is a gendered nature to this. After all, how likely is it that I could pull of the kind of speech that SteveG gave at opening Convocation? If I got up there and started to "ham it up," I might lose some street cred with the parents in the audience. Worse yet if I got up there and started to swear . . . I think that women who adopt this kind of speaking style are likely to get mixed results. It's just not, well, I hate to say it: ladylike. And, when women are in positions of authority, and asked to address a large audience, they are already fighting the tendency of many listeners to tune them out because of their pitch or self-deprecating ways.

So I ask you: am I making too much of this, or am I onto something?