Where IS my sense of humor?
On my commute this morning, I resumed listening to Arguably, a selection of essays by Christopher Hitchens. I had laid it aside (metaphorically speaking) to listen to more directly narrative literature for a while but was ready to resume listening to his smart essays on culture and–above all–literature. Aside from a tediously boring essay on some Balkan novel that I don’t recall the name of (sorry if it’s your personal favourite) , I am routinely blown away by the way he talks about books. Give me a dose of that mojo, please, and I’ll be on my merry way.
Today’s listen commenced with “AMUSEMENTS, ANNOYANCES, AND DISAPPOINTMENTS. Why Women Aren’t Funny.” I recall this essay creating something of a stir online when it was published, with people (and by people I mean the 50% of the population made up of women) remarking on its essentializing misogyny. That hubub lies a while back, though, and I didn’t dwell on others reactions, I just toodled down the 403 and listened. With my jaw in my lap.
Others have gone on at length about the merits–or total lack thereof–in Hitch’s argument and I’ll leave them to it. What struck me, and what I am in some position to comment on, as a scholar of nineteenth-century literature and gender, is that Hitchens quoted H.L. Mencken, Rudyard Kipling, and Oscar Wilde as cultural authorities who have seen through to the essence of the differences between men and women.
Color me gobsmacked. So, here we are (or here we were, in 2007 when the essay was published) in the twenty-first century and the only supports a smart guy like Hitchens can find for his bizarre argument that humor and biology are intricately connected are . . . men. Please, oh Rudyard, H.L., Oscar, and Christopher: tell us what we are like, we women. We so YEARN to be defined, described, delineated by you. We are eager to have our depths (or shallows) PLUMBED by you. I can’t imagine how we’d understand ourselves without you.
Reducing men and women and their relationship to humour and filth down to Freudian grappling with our sexual organs . . . there’s some gender discourse for the new millennium. Ugh. So many women–smart women who wrote books and wrote about culture and literature–have already fought this fight. How can someone like Hitchens live as long as he did, read as much as he did, have the friends and acquaintances he had, and show no evidence at all in this essay of an awareness of the difference between (a) how women ARE (if indeed women are a group that can be lumped together in one essential, biologically-defined category) and (b) how women are written about in cultural and scientific literature. To confuse the one (real women, like your partner who may or may not find your joke about premature ejaculation funny) with the other (Oscar freaking Wilde and Rudyard OMG Kipling) is sloppy–and not just sloppy for a feminist. Sloppy for any sort of cultural critic. Poor Showing, Mr. Hitchens. Poor showing indeed.