Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

Women, War, and Other Big Jokes

Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

Women, War, and Other Big Jokes

Article excerpt

In the early 1970s, with the surge of Second Wave feminism rising, the women's movement in the U. S. was by any measure an important force. Not the least of its accomplishments was its ability to generate new communities, new publications, and even new forms of address, all of these feats summed up in the establishment of the successful mass-market periodical titled Ms. Yet within a year of the magazine's founding in 1972, one contributor, Naomi Weisstein, insisted that a truly serious analysis of feminist progress would have to take into account the status of women's relationship to the comic. Writing for the November 1973 issue, Weisstein, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology who was also a civil-rights and feminist activist, looked at the state of women's comedy, and she despaired. Where were the inspiring examples of what she called "women's fighting humor" (Weisstein, "Why" 139)--of "people fighting back, retaining their dignity" and ridiculing "those who oppressed them" that she found in abundance within the masculine traditions of Black and Jewish culture? (135). Everywhere she turned, there were media representations, especially in advertising, of women laughing and smiling, but these were images of acquiescence and submission. Where instead were the instances of "independent, mocking humor" exercised actively at the expense of "the objectified role" that women "were meant to fill"? (137). These, said Weisstein, were nowhere in sight, and without them, women remained enchained by "the shackles of self-ridicule, self-abnegation," shut out from their full "rights to self-expression and collective enjoyment" (139).

Yet Weisstein claimed to see reason for hope. If women had not managed to overcome the "extraordinary obstacles to the development of a women's fighting humor" or to the "public presentation of such a humor," they had at least made a start (139). They had stopped pretending to find their own subordination funny, as the very title of her essay, "Why We Aren't Laughing ... Any More," (ellipses in original) made clear. Answering male journalists, critics, and colleagues who complained that "You women can no longer take a joke," Weisstein pointed out the political function of such joking, which served "as a weapon in the social arsenal constructed to maintain caste, class, race, and sex inequalities" through "ridicule of the powerless" (133). Her explanation for why women with newly raised consciousnesses refused to collaborate with misogynist joke tellers came in language far from the neutral tones of academia:

   As women, we live in a coercive, threatening, unpleasant world;
   a world which tolerates us only when we are very young or very
   beautiful ... So when we hear jokes against women, and we are
   asked why we don't laugh at them, the answer is easy, simple, and
   short. Of course, we're not laughing, you asshole. Nobody laughs at
   the sight of their own blood. (134 [italics in original])

Her academic training, however, was evident in the discussion that followed, which qualified this sweeping pronouncement and substituted for it a statement at once balanced and profound: "But this is a glib answer, because people do laugh at their own pain. The important difference is that if they are really to find it funny, they have to have made the joke" (134).

Ultimately, Weisstein's essay was more than an answer to men who ridiculed women and who cried foul when women refused to appreciate the mockery; it was a call to arms, a call for women to equip themselves with "fighting humor." Such a development would not be easy to achieve, for, as she asked rhetorically, "How can you trust humor when it's a weapon used against you?" (138). But as Weisstein averred, progress toward "construct[ing] a women's culture with its own character," with its "defiant" and funny "celebration of our worth" would come nevertheless through "experiment" (139). On their way toward generating their "own humor," women would have to "try out forms" (139). …

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