Are women, on average, as funny as men? Who cares?

Sarah Millican and Josie Long: both much, much funnier than me
Sarah Millican and Josie Long: both much, much funnier than me

I read an interesting piece earlier by Lindy West, formerly of this parish and one of the funniest writers around. She came to my attention a couple of years ago with a splendid evisceration of the second Sex and the City film, which she memorably described as a “146-minute home video of gay men playing with Barbie dolls” (one of the more printable quotes, I might add).

Yesterday Lindy wrote a piece entitled “Hey, Men, I’m Funnier Than You“. For, I would guess, 99.8 per cent of the male population, that statement is absolutely true. She is funnier than you. She is certainly much, much funnier than me, faint praise though that is.

She was responding to a news story about a study which claims that men are the funnier sex. Here’s the key part of Lindy’s reply:

You know what? It’s true, actually. Most women aren’t funny. But that’s because most PEOPLE aren’t funny. Being funny is like any other artistic skill, but to wield it successfully requires outspokenness, unapologetic honesty, supreme self-assuredness, and an outright refusal to pander. And those aren’t exactly the traits we foster in our little girls. (Instead, we go with mistrust of other women, an extreme longing for expensive garbage, and the idea that being pretty is more important than being smart. Oh, here’s your toy, girls, it’s a fake baby that poops fake poop into a fake diaper for you to fake clean up. Have fun “playing.”) We don’t jump to these conclusions when it comes to any other skill. Women aren’t encouraged to be auto mechanics either, so most auto mechanics aren’t women, but only the most misogynistic dumbass would suggest that it’s because our tiny woman-brains are broom-shaped instead of wrench-shaped.

Is this true? I don’t know, and neither does Lindy. The nature-nurture debate on this sort of thing is extraordinarily complex. From my own reading, I think that there is a statistical tendency for women to be less interested, and perhaps less gifted, in mechanical and engineering roles, and the evidence suggests quite strongly that it is at least partly inherent, not solely learned. Regarding humour, I also don’t know, but I’ve vaguely heard evo-psych theories that for men humour is a competitive, status thing, as well as a means of attracting potential mates. So maybe there is an inherent tendency for men to be funnier, but then again, maybe there isn’t, and maybe Lindy is right to say that it is “due entirely to how men and women are socialized”.

I could go through the scientific literature online, and try to find out more – or I’ve got my bible, Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, on my Kindle, so I could go and see what the Great One has to say. But I’m not going to, for a very simple reason: it doesn’t matter.

Seriously. It doesn’t. So what if there is such a tendency? What if 50 per cent of men want to be aeronautical engineers, compared to only 35 per cent of women? Who cares if that tendency is genetic or cultural? Who cares if 66 per cent of women can get a laugh during a meeting, compared to 85 per cent of men? The point is whether a particular woman wants to be a mechanic, or a stand-up comedian, and whether she is good at it. The same with men.

The trouble with making these grand empirical claims, and saying that only (or not even) “misogynistic dumbasses” would suggest otherwise, is that reality doesn’t always fall the way we want it to. It is perfectly possible – I would go as far as to say likely, but again, I don’t know – that there is an inherent difference between men and women. Would reality then be a misogynistic dumbass? Is it, then, OK to be an actual misogynistic dumbass, and go around saying there’s no point in women trying to be engineers, or comedians, because Science says women aren’t any good?

“I’m the person who this streak of conventional wisdom contends doesn’t exist”, says Lindy. But that shows a misunderstanding of the whole thing. “Some” does not equal “all”; “statistical tendency” is not the same as “universal characteristic”. Women are on average shorter than men, but that doesn’t mean tall women don’t exist. Statistically, the average woman might be less funny than the average man, insofar as “funniness” is measurable. But “the average woman” is a fiction, and so is “the average man”. Some men are funny, some women are funny. Some men are tall, some women are tall. You don’t sell all women clothes for the average woman, and you don’t treat every comedian as the average of their sex. If, on average, men are funnier, will that make me any funnier? No, I’ll still be making the same five bad jokes I’ve been making since 1997. If, on average, women are less funny, will Lindy be less funny? No, she’ll still have a searing and scatological way with words that I can only dream of.

Lindy’s right, of course, that idiot men (and probably a statistically smaller percentage of idiot women) will think a survey finding that on average women are less funny means that they can call all women unfunny. Those men are almost certainly not funny themselves, in one of life’s little ironies, although I bet they are enormous fans of “banter”. I don’t doubt that she’s also right that women who want to be comedians face a more difficult path, and sexism in that world as much as any other should be rejected.

But if you try to say that individual women and men should be treated the same because the groups “women” and “men” are statistically identical, then if it turns out that women and men aren’t statistically identical, you’re in trouble. Instead, we can just say that we shouldn’t treat individuals, whether male, female, black, white or whatever, as representatives of a group, but as individuals. In fact, in this case, we can go further. A joke’s funny or it isn’t funny. It doesn’t matter what set of chromosomes the person who made it possesses.


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