You know that enduring stereotype that women aren’t as funny as men? I think I’ve identified part of the problem.
I’ve been watching QI, a comedy panel show featuring Stephen Fry as host. Every week, he has four guests who are asked the most obscure questions about all sorts of topics. They gain or lose points depending not so much on how right their answers are as how interesting. And because the four guests are usually comedy people, it’s hilarious.
It’s worth mentioning at this point: the four panelists are most often all white men.
Whenever they do have a woman on the panel, she usually lets the men speak first. If they can’t answer the question or something, then she’ll pipe up with the answer. Often, these women actually know the correct answer, which is surprising considering how difficult and tricky the questions are. Some of them are fiercely funny comediennes or actresses I’ve seen on other shows, so I sit there thinking, “Speak, damn you! You’re funny! Show them you’re funny!” But for the most part, they quietly wait their turn, and then phrase their answer as a question so it won’t be so obvious they knew something the boys didn’t. “Isn’t it, um, is it that the square root of 4,807,991 is, oh, 2 192.71316?”
There are a couple of notable exceptions, and one appears almost semi-regularly: Jo Brand. She hilariously deadpans her way through the show, occasionally referencing stories of her days as a psychiatric nurse, spouting any amusing irrelevant answer that comes to mind and wryly ascribing human motivations to animal behaviors (animal questions are a big part of the show). Part of it’s her delivery – she’s one of those people who could read the phone book and make you giggle. Part of it’s her finely honed sense of absurdity.
But a big part of it is simply that she speaks up as quickly and as often as as the men. I mean, if we don’t speak up, where will they ever get the idea we can be hilarious, too?
It’s no mystery why the other women behave as they do, of course. It goes right back to school. In fact, the show (probably unintentionally) sets up a very classroom dynamic, with Fry as the teacher and the panelists as the students. And what did many women learn in school? What was implied by common occurrences such as:
- The teacher would only call on boys to answer questions. If the boys couldn’t or wouldn’t answer, the teacher would ignore all the girls waving their arms around and give out the answer herself (it was usually a she, in my experience). She might even tack on a lecture about how no one had done the homework – meaning, literally, the girls who had done the homework and knew the answers were “no one.”
- Girls who did answer questions were far more likely than boys to be cautioned about giving others a chance to answer, too.
- Girls who answered questions, especially after boys had been given every opportunity and failed, answered meekly, in the form of a question, sometimes with hair-tugging and other “Gosh, I’m harmless” gestures. (In boy-free company, these same girls would speak boldly, intelligently and decisively). Back in the 80s, we thought girls who turned into “airheads” around boys were hormonally impacted, but in hindsight, I suspect they’d just worked out something I was too naive to contemplate: that boys didn’t like smart girls, and not only did they not ask smart girls out, but they might feel inclined to harass them in some way.
- After a while, many girls didn’t even try. Teachers couldn’t beg an answer out of them even when they knew it.
- Girls who answered questions were also at risk of harassment from girls and even teachers. I personally experienced harassment from boys, girls and teachers.
- I mistakenly thought those girls who wouldn’t answer, or only answered coyly, were just completely and sadly lacking gumption. I bet you that’s the same impression the boys (who would, of course, be oblivious to social rules that only affected girls and never saw the girls behaving differently when boys weren’t around) got. I was wrong: those girls were smart or at least smart enough – they just understood the social game to which I was oblivious.
Women are trained from birth to let men speak first, let men make the jokes, never show up the boys in the humor or brains department, no one likes a smart ass, you’re making a spectacle of yourself, that’s boisterous and little girls mustn’t be boisterous, shut up and sit down.
And don’t forget: even though multiple studies indicate that women utter something like 0.11% more words per day than men, (and I wonder, tongue-in-cheek, if that extra point-eleven-percent is accounted for by all the times we have to repeat ourselves to men and children who weren’t listening the first time) the myth endures that women talk so much more than men. In 2006, a popular book stated that women talk three times as much as men, with no scientific citations to back up the assertion (the author withdrew the assertion in later editions). Marriage counselors jumped on this “fact” and used it to help wives understand why they needed to be more silent (wow, it’s like Paul’s here in the room with us!). The idea that women talk so much more than men is clearly not founded in reality, and yet it fits with our perception so much that we fell for this bogus number.
Why? Because we have a deeply ingrained belief that men have a right to talk, no matter how much we’d often prefer not to listen. But when women say things we don’t care to hear, we immediately start wondering when they’re going to realize we’re not interested, and therefore shouldn’t be subjected to it. Observe yourself: I’ve definitely found these thought patterns in my own reactions, and still struggle with them.
It’s not entirely the show’s fault – there are a lot of social factors at work here, and the fact is, if they had two female panelists who were less outspoken than Jo Brand, I’m not sure they’d be able to generate the sustained inane chatter that makes the show so funny. But neither am I blaming the women who don’t speak up.
What we’re talking about here is a fantastic example of male privilege: boys look at girls being all quiet and meek, and assume it’s a biological difference between the genders. Even male scientists assume this stuff is a genetic reality because nowhere in their world do they see enough exceptions to make them question the “rule.” Men and boys are so profoundly insulated by these conventions that it’s not obvious from their perspective they’re being extended a privilege society works to withhold from women: the right to be assertive. It’s probably a privilege a sizable number of men don’t even want, judging by how often they complain about women not clearly stating their wants and needs the way another man would.
But there probably are plenty of men who still enjoy this privilege. It gives the most useless man a whole half-species to which he can feel superior. And there are misogynistic women who enjoy playing the “exception” to gendered social rules, being one of the boys, and enforcing against other women the very rules they flout. Those are the people I blame.