Volume 90, Issue 78

Wednesday, February 12, 1997



COLUMN: Why can't we laugh at women?

By Mike Gallay

In the context of a society that has taken lengths to root out misogyny, there are still rough patches to smooth over.

In music, Madonna and Whitney Houston can rival the success of any male obverse. Further down the equality ladder hangs literature, where Danielle Steele and Agatha Christie have garnered accolades to compete with most masculine complements. But way down the sliding scale of artistic parity, past dance and film production, lies comedy, rolling around in the misanthropic muck.

There can be no denying that the Western acting tradition has patriarchal origins. In Shakespeare's time, Juliet was played by Jules and Olivia by Oliver. But in today's climate women have an opportunity to perform and a chance to amuse.

I implore all feminists and equal opportunity activists to leave aside representational quandaries. The issue is not whether women get enough comedic roles but if they can excel at the ones they receive.

Men have difficulty laughing at a woman unless she embodies a specific set of characteristics. She can't be an eyesore but she can't be gorgeous either. If she is the former, she is more likely to be insulted than exalted; with the latter she can only generate nervous laughter, if any. Ogling and sexual stimulation are not ideal landscapes for hilarity.

Once a physical middle-ground has been reached, it's time to work on the woman's personality. She can't be too militant or too masculine, or else she'll be relegated to the Women's Television Network. If she is too flaky or plays up the housewife role, she will never be taken seriously – the respect needed to laugh at someone will be lost.

It is strange to think that you need to respect someone to laugh at them, but when you laugh, you laugh with someone. It is that person you must respect. That person, be it an actor, a friend or yourself, is the comic. Whether you are laughing at their abilities or their quirks, whether you are laughing with Jerry as he pokes fun at George on Seinfeld, it takes respect to evoke laughter. There is a definite element of status when you try to laugh at someone who might be better (or better looking) than you.

It is the reason you can't laugh at someone you hate, even though you might want to. It is the reason you can't laugh at the roommate who you've seen too often crack the same joke or make the same goof-up. You no longer respect the aspect of their character that generated the joke.

Though admitting this goes against what's left of my dwindling machismo, men are intimidated by smart women. Though a smart woman can develop a casual rapport with a man if given enough time, men often confuse their own shyness with contempt, so these women often never get their chance or their due.

Inherently, a funny person is a smart person. While there are exceptions, like Victoria Jackson and Bobcat Goldthwait who have been able to lead successful careers, usually a comedian embodies characteristics often thought to be synonymous with intelligence – a quick wit, cleverness and perception.

Funny girls are threatening. What is hardest to explain is why women can't laugh at women, especially attractive ones. Most women want to deny it, but under analysis their favourite comics are not Elaine Boosler or Rita Rudner. Instead, they, like men, judge you for your tone, your political stance or your singing voice, after they have labelled your aesthetic. Men, women, whoever – scrutiny is in our veins. I can listen to you talk but my mind is on your ass. And if it's an attractive one, what's coming out of your head can get lost in the breeze.

To Contact The Entertainment Department: gazent@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright The Gazette 1997