Slower to get it
Hitchens on women: not funny
December 6, 2006
Via the gimlet eye of Hitchens Watch, I see that in Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens is addressing The Woman Question; or specifically, “Why Women Aren’t Funny”. He adduces many ingenious proofs of the earnest dullness of the weaker sex; and lest you suppose this to be fatuous dribble, he attempts to show that science is on his side. Hitchens refers to a Stanford University School of Medicine Study he read about in Biotech Week that used brain-imaging to argue for gender differences in humour. He summarises its findings thus:
Slower to get it, more pleased when they do, and swift to locate the unfunny—for this we need the Stanford University School of Medicine? And remember, this is women when confronted with humor. Is it any wonder that they are backward in generating it?
“Slower to get it”? Where did Hitchens get that from? The study in question, to which Hitchens refers as though it was news (“we now have all the joy of a scientific study”), was the subject of a Stanford press release more than a year ago, in November 2005. All the material from Biotech Week that Hitchens cites appears in identical form in the original press release. We may suppose, indeed, that the Biotech Week article was simply the same press release. Yet nothing in what Hitchens cites implies that women are “slower to get” a joke. In fact, something perhaps quietly elided expressly says the opposite. Hitchens quotes only the concluding finding, that “women were quicker at identifying material they considered unfunny”, from a paragraph that, in the original press release, states:
In other findings, men and women showed no significant difference in the number of stimuli they rated as funny, nor how funny they found the humorous stimuli. Response time for both funny and unfunny cartoons was also similar, although women were quicker at identifying material they considered unfunny.
Hang on. “Response time for both funny and unfunny cartoons was also similar.” Passing silently over this, unless it was mysteriously omitted from the Biotech Week version, Hitchens assures us that the study concluded that women are “slower to get it”. Let us be charitable and put this down to mere befuddled incomprehension.
So much for his article’s brief flirtation with fact. The rest is mere guff and rant, leeringly picking a fight even when granting a concession:
There are more terrible female comedians than there are terrible male comedians, but there are some impressive ladies out there. Most of them, though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three.
“When you come to review the situation.” It is pleasing to imagine Hitchens, brow furrowed and puffing, reviewing the situation with scholarly dispassion, making little marks in his columns for “hefty”, “dykey” or “Jewish”, or scrawling horizontal lines for a “combo”, feeling perhaps something of the joy of a victory at Tic-Tac-Toe.
Proofs biological and sociological are abundant:
[B]ecause fear is the mother of superstition, and because they are partly ruled in any case by the moon and the tides, women also fall more heavily for dreams, for supposedly significant dates like birthdays and anniversaries, for romantic love, crystals and stones, lockets and relics, and other things that men know are fit mainly for mockery and limericks.
In a mood of greater clarity, one in which Hitchens would not allow himself the sort of slack, bloated prose in this piece, he might have remembered that “romantic love” was invented by, ah, male poets, and that Isaac Newton, for example, by all accounts a man, was obsessed with alchemy and “supposedly significant dates”. But let us not allow pedantry to get in the way of a daring recitation of conventional wisdom.
Generously, Hitchens does allow that there have been some funny women, while claiming that this does not spoil his “argument”, as he is pleased to call it. But those funny women – they’re not really funny either, are they?
(Though ask yourself, was Dorothy Parker ever really funny?)
Happy to take the challenge, I asked myself whether Dorothy Parker was ever really funny. I replied to myself: “Yes she was, you dolt.” The more melancholy question now is, was Christopher Hitchens ever funny? I seem to remember that he was, but it seems so long ago now.
(Update: see also Dennis Perrin’s fine post.)