Plight of the Funny Female
Why people tend to appreciate men’s humor so much more than women’s
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A few years ago, Laura Mickes was teaching her regular undergraduate class on childhood psychological disorders at the University of California, San Diego. It was a weighty subject, so occasionally she would inject a sarcastic comment about her own upbringing to lighten the mood. When she collected her professor evaluations at the end of the year, she was startled by one comment in particular:
“She’s not funny,” the student wrote.
Mickes realized that university students didn’t seem to welcome, or even notice, the wit of many of her female colleagues. She’s not the only one. A recent graphic made by Ben Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, analyzed the words used to describe male and female professors across 14 million reviews on RateMyProfessor.com. In every single discipline, male professors were far more likely than female ones to be described as funny.
“I thought, ‘maybe I’m not that funny,’” Mickes said. “But people say I'm funny. I have a great time with my female friends.”
Mickes’s story triggered the familiar shot/chaser of recognition and unease in me. I come from the kind of family that deals with minor adversity by making relentless fun of the petty tyrants responsible. (Major adversity, we smother in smoked meats.) Given three adjectives to describe me, most of my female friends would list “funny” as one of them. But I maybe make a man laugh once every other month.
On one hand, we live in the golden age of female comedy. Tina Fey, Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, Abbi Jacobson, Ilana Glazer, and their ilk certainly aren’t the first women to have wildly popular TV shows based entirely around their own funniness. But they might be some of the first to do it with fearless jokes about their vaginas. Next year, Amy Schumer will be the first female comedian to headline Madison Square Garden.
Women, suffice it to say, are funny. On the other hand, happy hours during which one man holds forth to a gaggle of raptly amused female onlookers exist. Mickes’s year-end review exists. My deftly hilarious female friends exist, and many are eternally single. If men and women are clearly capable of being equally funny, why does humor by non-famous women so often go unappreciated?
* * *
In 2012, Mickes decided to see whether her student had a point. (Or rather, “I decided to redirect my anger into something productive,” as she described it.)
A common way scientists measure funniness is by making undergrads—the typical guinea pigs for social-science research—play a version of The New Yorker cartoon-caption contest. For her study, Mickes asked 32 students to write captions for 20 New Yorker cartoons. The men were “pretty excited about the task,” but the women were more reluctant. “There was one female subject who came in, looked horrified and said, ‘Uh, but I’m not funny,’” she recalled.
After the students finished writing their quips, a new set of participants rated the captions. They found the men’s punch-lines to be ever-so-slightly more clever—about .11 points more on a five-point scale.
The difference was small, but still, Mickes was horrified by the results. “I thought ‘Forget it, I'm never going to do research again,’” she said.
Past research on gender and New Yorker cartoons had been mixed. In a 2011 study in the journal Intelligence, male participants also penned more amusing captions than women did. But in a study the year before, the men’s and women’s one-liners were equally droll.
Mickes’s study revealed another interesting difference: Men wrote some of the best jokes, but they also used more profanity and sexual humor, and those jokes weren’t rated very funny. If men were truly the funnier sex, though, wouldn’t they be more consistently funny?
In a later experiment, Mickes gave both male and female participants a list of random words, such as “beef jerky” and “water slide,” and asked them to write paragraphs using the words. Without prompting, the men wrote funny paragraphs. The women’s paragraphs were more creative and better-written, but they weren’t funny. However, a surprising thing happened when Mickes explicitly told the participants to try to be funny in their paragraphs: Both genders used humor, and in equal measure.
As in hockey, it appears, so in lols: You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. The 2011 Intelligence study similarly found that men wrote more captions overall, both funny and lame. In other words, men make more attempts at humor, so they are successful more of the time.
“Men are willing to take more risks [in humor], and they also fail more miserably,” Gil Greengross, an evolutionary psychologist with Aberystwyth University in Wales and author of the 2011 study. But for the man, “it's worth it. If you fail and you're not funny, you lost maybe a few minutes. But if the person laughs, the benefit can be huge.”
Men make so many joke-attempts, in fact, they are assumed to be funnier—even when they’re not. After they had finished captioning, the students in Mickes’s study filled out a questionnaire about how funny they thought others would find their captions, and also whether they thought men or women were the funnier sex in general. Male participants said that, on a scale from one to five, their cartoons were an average of 2.3 in funniness. The women gave themselves a 1.5. Even worse, 89 percent of the women and 94 percent of men responded that men, in general, are funnier.
In a follow-up experiment, Mickes asked a new set of participants to read the captions generated by the first group and guess the gender of the writer. Both men and women misattributed the funnier captions to male writers.
“Spontaneously, men somehow try harder,” she mused. “And maybe over time they're encouraged more to be funny.”
* * *
But why do men try so hard to make people laugh?
To get some, mostly. Not everyone endorses evolutionary psychology, but those who do would say that women tend to be more selective in choosing their mates than men are because historically, motherhood has been a life-threatening, all-consuming endeavor. If a cavewoman picked the wrong caveman, she might risk a grueling childbirth only to end up raising an illness-addled child without the help of a skillful mate. Thus, choosiness becomes paramount. It behooves women to find a partner who will bestow sufficient time, resources, and good genes on their children—in other words, a smart man.
Funny people are more likely to be smart. (In one of the many New Yorker studies, the students who scored higher on intelligence tests also generated the funniest captions.) Humor “signals a kind of ability to put yourself in someone else's mind and understand what someone else will find funny,” David Buss, an evolutionary psychologist, explained. “It requires social intelligence, and it takes social verve or confidence.”
Since most people don’t go to bars with their completed Sudoku puzzles pinned to their chests, we rely on humor as a proxy for intelligence. On average, women tend to use their laughter to lure in potential mates, while men use their jokes to attract as many women as they can.
I know what you’re thinking. “But I, a man, desire women with a good sense of humor above all else!” #Notallmen.
For decades, this response stumped psychologists. When they would ask men and women what they looked for in their long-term partners, both genders would say they wanted someone “with a good sense of humor.” It was only when researchers pressed their subjects on what they meant, specifically, by “sense of humor,” that the sex difference became clear. Women want men who will tell jokes; men want women who will laugh at theirs.
In 2006, psychologists Eric Bressler and Sigal Balshine showed 210 college students images of two equally attractive members of the opposite sex. Underneath each photo, they pasted either funny or not-funny statements supposedly authored by the person. Female participants said they wanted the funny man, rather than the unfunny one, as a boyfriend, even when they thought the funnier man was less trustworthy. The men did not care about the women’s funniness either way.
In study later that year, Bressler and Balshine again found that, when considering imaginary interactions with people of the opposite sex, women said they wanted men who could make them laugh. Men said it was much more important that a woman enjoy his jokes.
Liana Hone, a psychology postdoc at the University of Missouri, came to a similar conclusion in a study earlier this year: “Men prefer women who are receptive to their humor, whereas women prefer men who produce humor.” Hone gave her study participants an imaginary budget of $5 to “spend” on a trait they’d want in their sexual partners—either a knack for telling jokes or an ability to appreciate them. The more they “spent” on each trait, the more their partner would embody that characteristic. Women, she found, would spend just $1.91 on a mate who laughs at their jokes, but men would spend $3.03 on one.
Many men might contend, “I would love to have a girlfriend or wife who would make me laugh,” said Greengross, who reviewed Hone’s study. “But for men, that’s more of a luxury, not a necessity.”
These preferences aren’t exclusive to college students. Older studies of personal ads in magazines and newspapers found that women were far more likely than men to mention seeking someone funny. Later, when researchers looked at profiles on a Canadian dating website, they found men were more likely to tout how funny they were, while women were likelier to say they wanted a funny man. In a 2007 study that asked 200,000 people in multiple countries to rank their preferred qualities in a mate, women ranked “humor” first. Men ranked it third.
If men try harder to be funny, women do their best to show their appreciation, laughing more enthusiastically and frequently in male company. One study found that when men and women are talking, the amount that the woman, but not the man, laughs can predict whether the pair wants to date each other. The neuroscientist Robert Provine once listened in on dozens of spontaneous conversations in public spaces and identified 1,200 distinct “laugh episodes.” He found that women laughed significantly more than men did, especially when a man was nearby.
When I learned all of this, I immediately ran into the living room and asked my boyfriend if it’s important to him that his sexual partners are funny.
“Apparently not,” he said.
Ouch! But also, that’s so funny! Ugh.
Once, a guy and I spent several months in romantic no-man’s land, trying to decide if we liked each other. My issue with him was that he took me out for dinner at a fancy place and only ordered chocolate milk. I thought his issue was that there was another girl.
I was wrong:
“I just don’t get you!” he exclaimed one day when we were on a walk. “You’re pretty, but you’re like … goofy. It makes no sense.”
The way men and women laugh and joke has been so different for so long that it’s hardened into a stark, oppressive social norm. Norm violators get punished, and often, that means funny women are punished, too.
In another dating-style study in 1998, about 100 college students were shown photos of people of the opposite sex along with transcripts of interviews supposedly conducted with those individuals. In the interviews, the photo subjects came off as either funny or bland. For the women, a man’s use of humor in the interview increased his desirability. The women’s use of humor, meanwhile, didn’t make the men want to date them more—it actually made them slightly less alluring. That’s right: The men found the pretty, unfunny women more desirable than equally pretty ones who also happened to be funny.
It’s possible that men are indifferent to their partners’ funniness precisely because funny women are smarter. There’s some evidence that men are less attracted to women who are smarter than they are. In a study out this month in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, when men were introduced to women they were told had outperformed them on an intelligence test, they rated the woman as less attractive and were less likely to say they wanted to date her.
These biases have a chilling effect on women. The idea that women aren’t supposed to make jokes can trigger stereotype threat, a phenomenon in which simply telling someone that their “group” tends to be bad at something hinders that individual’s performance. Told that their humor isn’t wanted, many women don’t bother.
A 2001 study that analyzed casual conversations among young people found that while men told more jokes and more successful jokes in mixed company, women told many more jokes when they were in all-female groups. “Evidently,” the researchers concluded, “women only joke when men are not around.”
* * *
Sara Benincasa is certifiably funny. She ascended the Internet-comedy scene in 2008, with a series of parody campaign-trail “vlogs” by Sarah Palin, whom Benincasa impersonated in a beehive hairdo, rectangular glasses, and “ooo-keeeys” straight out of Wasilla. More recently, she’s performed a one-woman show about agoraphobia and written several books, including a comedic novel, DC Trip, which came out this month.
She’s so talented, in fact, that I was a little nervous about emailing her to ask for an interview about her relationships. I said if she wanted she could use “pejorative pseudonyms” for her exes. She responded with an encouraging “BWAHAHAH.” This made me think that I, too, am funny. Which, given the scientific literature, made me worry that I will die alone.
Benincasa said that when she was younger, in her teens and early 20s, she would soften her personality in order to please the men she was chasing romantically. She’d tell fewer jokes and laugh more heartily at theirs. Her friends would tell her that she acted differently around her boyfriends.
“I tried to play-act at being a woman,” she said. “This false me was always pretty and always ready for anything, and fun, and carefree. And the real me had a lot of things to say. The ‘me’ I created was not bold and outspoken. She was not very funny.”
Benincasa’s dating strategy changed after she became a comedian. “I had to be myself or the audience wouldn’t accept it,” she says. Her career now serves as a sort of man filter: Dudes know they’re getting a brash lady, and they’d better like it. Her current boyfriend, she notes, is also funny, and he loves her for her wisecracking.
Still, it’s depressing that for many women who aren’t professional comedians, the most valuable social currency is beauty—or worse, “being sweet.” In his infamous Vanity Fair piece about why women aren’t funny, Christopher Hitchens presents humor as an essential tool men can deploy to break a woman’s defenses:
If you can stimulate her to laughter … well, then, you have at least caused her to loosen up and to change her expression.
Women can also stimulate people to laughter—not just for the purpose Hitchens had in mind, but to make a new friend, or to make an old one feel better. To impress a boss or a boyfriend’s parents. To lean in, for cryin’ out loud. If funniness is an implement of power, women deserve access to it, too.
If we acknowledge that these prejudices exist—that men’s humor is encouraged at the expense of women’s—is there anything we can do about it? Buss is skeptical that human desire can be molded; that a stern PSA or even a shift in social mores could encourage men to seek out women who are witty rather than pretty. Entrenched beliefs that are ugly and passé—like racism—persist even when people disavow them. Men’s desire to be the Kings of Relationship Comedy, meanwhile, isn’t even frowned upon.
Hone, from the University of Missouri, is more optimistic. If humankind decides that women’s natural zaniness should be set free, mankind should start to ask funnier women out for drinks. And women could stop dating men who don’t laugh at their jokes.
“Just because a trait has served an adaptive purpose does not mean we should accept it,” she said. “I like to think that there’s hope for all the funny, single ladies out there.”
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