Humor With a Gender
“Fortunately, during the last fifty years it has gradually ceased to be incumbent upon a woman to suppress either her thoughts or her jests. So both have flourished and grown apace!”
The attempt to draw a distinction between the humor of men and of women no longer precipitates an outburst of satirical masculine discussion. It is true that occasional flashes of wit in conversation have always been conceded to the credit of women. These have been generously recorded through the ages by men, but usually in the form of verbal duets with themselves. And a complacent idea has been more or less apparent, I fear, that the bass notes have inspired the treble responses! It fell at last to the lot of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, at a time when the burden of proof weighed heavily against them, to give a demonstration to the world of the ability of women to maintain a humorous point of view in extended writing—proving it thereby to be something more than incidental to masculine inspiration.
Theretofore, neither education nor humor had been an essential part of a woman’s equipment; undoubtedly, it had been conducive to matrimonial harmony that she should echo her husband’s ideas—so why not his jokes as well? And probably it was as difficult then as now to discover (although, of course, no one tried) which was the author and which the echo.
But, fortunately, during the last fifty years it has gradually ceased to be incumbent upon a woman to suppress either her thoughts or her jests. So both have flourished and grown apace! And both, I insist, are distinctive in quality.
In order to establish our distinction, we have only to group the forms of humor natural to each sex. In fact, they fall into place almost of themselves. To men belong of right the more obvious sorts: the witty speech, full of ridicule, irony and satire; the rollicking joke; the jest which has become an institution—like the mother-in-law or the inter-city joke; and last, the ‘funny story,’ with which men gravely ‘tag’ each other! For there is an absurd sort of etiquette among jokers, which demands that to a certain man belongs a certain story, on the principle of ‘every dog his bone!’ And, strange as it seems, they will endure countless repetitions of anecdotes and songs under this pressure of prior—and proprietary—claims.
Which of us does not attend ceremonial gatherings and feasts, where brave men laugh unceasingly (and patient women sigh) at that which they have heard before and must yet hear again—if they, in turn, are to be listened to!
Who has not heard it said reproachfully, to some brigand or free-lance of wit, ‘That’s Jim’s story,’ or ‘That’s Mac’s song’! Two thousand years had to intervene before Mark Twain could, with impunity, annex the tale of the Athenian and the frog. So that raconteurs of jaded ‘song and story’ have only to invoke the joker’s law of primo-seizure, to prevent trespass or to get a hearing.
In the gentler sex, the mirth-awakening sense finds expression in more subtle ways. Women have a quick perception of absurdity, the ability to talk diverting nonsense, to accord a narrative its due of imaginative embellishment, and to carry on the give-and-take of conversation with amusing raillery.
Let a man prove unable to meet his partner at dinner (or for life) on these delicate and elusive grounds, and she either turns to serious talk or resigns herself to listening. And at this art she is an adept, in spite of that double-headed slapstick: ‘Women never listen and have no sense of humor.’ It is true that women are not amused by mockery; and they detest ridicule and deplore its effect upon both the user and the object, believing that it blunts the sensibilities of both. Feminine witticisms, even when not entirely guileless, are seldom wholly at the expense of others, and cheer oftener than they wound. The gift of mimicry is often bestowed upon women, but they rarely give it full play; whereas men value it as one of their best assets, and use it to full advantage.
These classifications cannot, of course, apply to those uncommon men who, by the accident of constant association with women, absorb (not always to their ultimate disadvantage) something of their traits and speech; nor to those women who deliberately imitate the facetiousness of men—often in its coarsest form—for purposes of their own.
These are the Lady Mary Wortley Montagus of to-day. They are to be found in many circles, but predominate in the fastest of the ‘Smart Sets’ of our American cities, and on the stage. They pander to the same kind of audiences in private and in public, and find their short-lived reward for the prostitution of their wit in the noisy applause of buffoons of both sexes. With them our differentiation has nothing further to do.
As to the subtlety of true feminine humor, the international controversy of Mark Twain and Paul Bourget is enlightening. Bourget, after a superficial tour of the United States, told his fellow Frenchmen that ‘Americans hardly ever know who their grandfathers were’! Mark Twain, in retaliation, lost no time in informing the world that ‘Frenchmen seldom know who their fathers are’! Now, so far as men are concerned, the story is quite complete. They love it just as it is. They do not want, and rarely listen to, the delightful sequel. Put it to the test by telling the story, and you will find that, from this point on, your audience is feminine.
To resume—Mark Twain and his readers soon found that his retort had gone straight home. Bourget and the whole French people rose as one man and accused Clemens of insulting them. Mark Twain at once apologized, ‘to avoid war.’
He then offered to make the amende honorable by swapping jokes with them. He would begin all over by saying that ‘Frenchmen hardly ever know who their grandfathers were.’ Bourget must rejoin with ‘Americans seldom know who their fathers are.’ The laugh that went up from the world when it perceived why the shoe, which before had been so unbearably galling, now had no pinch, left France bewildered and discomfited.
Clemens had fearlessly bared his country’s breast to receive the barb which had so grievously wounded another, and behold, there was not even a mark! For the merciless but witty revenge of his ‘tit’ for Bourget’s foolish and unprovoked ‘tat,’ Mark Twain is joyfully acclaimed Prince of Humorists by his countrymen; his countrywomen care most for his subtle turning of the tables upon his unrepentant antagonist.
It is the initial sarcasm of which the woman is, I am glad to say, incapable. The English comedian, Foote, asked a man why he was always humming a certain tune. Being told, ‘Because it haunts me,’ Foote remarked, ‘No wonder, when you’re always murdering it.’ One does not readily imagine a woman saying this, or even making the milder, though kindred response of Douglas Jerrold, when a friend announced that ‘A certain air always carries me away.’
‘Can no one whistle it?’ asked Jerrold innocently.
Thackeray once reproached this same Jerrold for having said that his last novel was the worst he ever wrote.
‘I didn’t,’ the critic replied. ‘I said it was the worst novel anybody ever wrote!’
This Johnsonian way of knocking a man down with the butt end of a joke always draws an immediate laugh from men; but women are far more apt to wince secretly with the victim, or go to his rescue if he is unable to take care of himself. (Dr. Johnson’s fling at second marriages, as ‘the triumph of hope over experience,’ shines in feminine eyes as a candle in the naughty, brutal world of his other jokes. His constant implication that men laugh to forget and women forget to laugh, carries no real dismay to the latter, for they are often silent when most amused.)
Women cheerfully sacrifice straight-forwardness on the altar of kindness. They temper the wind to the shorn lamb. Thus, the question to a Frenchwoman, ‘Which brother do you prefer?’ and the answer, ‘When I am with one I prefer the other,’ would never have been uttered in the hearing of either.
Madame de Cornuel said gently to a friend, a man who constantly appealed to her for advice and help with his family affairs but was never satisfied with the results, ‘If I find a teacher for your son who answers all your requirements, I shall marry him.’
Madame de Sablière admonished a man who bored her, thus: ‘Mon cher, you would be terribly stupid if you weren’t so witty.’ A rebuke of this kind possesses the best quality of discipline: it stimulates far more than it hurts.
Against unprovoked satire, however, a woman’s brain and tongue are instantaneous in her service. It is not surprising that her swift attack often seems feline, especially to a more sluggish intelligence, which perhaps has missed the casus belli altogether. When aroused, her power of speech is a two-edged darting sword, the equivalent of a man’s instinctive display of his fists. Therefore she gleefully joins men in instant approval of Sheridan’s famous retort, ‘I believe on my faith, I am between the two!’ — placing himself actually between two royal dukes, who had rudely told him they were discussing whether he was a greater knave or fool. And the remark, ‘If I had a son who was an idiot, I would make him a parson,’ — made by a peevish man to that witty clergyman, Sydney Smith, — and the latter’s quick rejoinder: ‘Your father was of a different opinion,’ exactly illustrate a woman’s idea of an unwarranted affront and its fitting punishment.
The rock that irretrievably separates the humor of men and of women, then, is ridicule. ‘To tell a person lies and laugh at him for believing them’ is someone’s definition of a modern sense of humor. Women—and children—often quiver under the humiliation of this and ruder ‘pleasantries’ — so-called.
The most blighting of all derisive jests was perpetuated by Oliver Wendell Holmes, when he christened ‘young females,’ ‘spring chickens.’ One hardly knows which term is the more offensive of the two!
Surely the little that men say lives after them with extraordinary tenacity. This distasteful bit of facetiousness, with which he sullied the pages of his ‘Autocrat,’ still poisons the mouths of men as gentle as he. And they remain entirely unaware of its dampening effect upon the volatile gayety of women.
It has often occurred to me that the line, ‘Her humorous ladyship is by to teach thee safety,’ might be punningly (in humble reverence of Shakespeare’s English) applied to morals as well as goddesses.
Favored, indeed, is the child whose training is in the hands of a woman with a whimsical point of view that is an integral part of herself, and who has quaint ways of thought and speech. No influence could better equip youth to meet the slings and arrows of fortune. A blithe form of admonition never devitalizes, never weakens the self-confidence of young or old.
It has remained for Somerville and Ross—two Celts—to phrase the ideal of a woman of humor in the larger sense: ‘Inherently romantic, but the least sentimental; the most conversational and the most reserved; silent about the things that affect us most deeply (which is perhaps the reason we are considered good company) — light-hearted, cheerful, and quite convinced that nothing will succeed!’ Dryden proclaimed that ‘her wit was more than man.’ Hardly so chivalrous is the avowal of a modern Englishman, who declares of the stories of Somerville and Ross: ‘It was not until I had read them three times, thank heaven, that I was told they were written by two women!”
The title of ‘Humorist’ is one that all men openly aspire to. It should be equally honorable when borne by a woman. Yet it is a fact that no woman covets it at its present value, or could have it bestowed upon her without being shamefaced about it. How shall men explain the disrepute into which it has fallen at their hands? Is it that they have betrayed their heritage—they who have been the self-appointed guardians of Humor’s sovereignty for so many centuries? If so, do they not deserve that her humorous ladyship shall be taken from them and given over to the care of women? Who will lift her up tenderly, cleanse and make her sound, and finally deck her out with quips and quirks of fancy in gay and blithesome habit, so that, dressed like women themselves, — to advantage! — she may travel and illumine the highways of life?