Humor and Feminist Identity

In an early study of discourse in feminist consciousness-raising groups, Susan Kalcik (1975) noted that humor was used supportively to increase group cohesion. The women in these groups frequently mocked themselves. When one woman had difficulty expressing herself, she apologized with, “Well, you know how we women are; our hormones get up in our brains and fuck up our thinking.” This self-mocking humor was also noted by Jenkins (1986) in her groups. However, it is only superficially a humor of self-denigration. By pointing out the stereotypes of women and their own failures to meet patriarchal standards, these women mock the norms and standards.

Mary Jo Neitz (1980) reports an impressionistic study of humorous interaction in a group she describes as radical feminists tending toward separatism who met on a college campus over a 2-year period (1971-1972). According to Neitz, set-piece jokes were rare; most humor consisted of spontaneous witticisms. The two most common themes for conversational humor were self-denigration and hostility toward men. Like Jenkins and Kalcik, Neitz speculates that apparently self-denigrating remarks (e. g., a group of women climbed into a car and the driver remarked, “Do you think you can be safe with a woman driver?”) functioned to help women manage role incongruities and affirm group values in opposition to the dominant culture. Remarks denigrating women and their roles generated no laughter when they were contributed by outsiders. Hostile humor, much of which consisted of castration themes, functioned to overcome two taboos for women, sexuality and aggression. Moreover, “These jokes gloried in women’s strength rather than colluding to hide it” (Neitz, 1980, p. 221).

The group used hostile humor in mixed-sex as well as same-sex settings, but used woman-denigrating humor only among themselves.

What values are expressed in feminist humor? How do feminists dif­ferentiate themselves as feminists in and through their humor? And what functions does humor serve in the creation of a feminist culture? To address these questions, Cindy White (1988) asked self-identified feminists to keep diaries of feminist humor in mundane settings over an 8-week period. From an analysis of three diaries, White concluded that the following values were expressed:

1. Generalized positive evaluation of women.

2. Celebration of women’s experiences.

3. Affirmation of women’s strengths and capabilities.

4- Autonomy and self-definition for women.

5. Valuing men by making a distinction between men as indi­viduals and patriarchal culture.

One reported witticism that reflects some of these values is the fol­lowing:

At a staff meeting at a college health center, the clinic director told a story about Harvard University’s struggle with their health fee. Men objected to paying the same fee as women, since they couldn’t get a Pap smear. So Harvard went through all this rigamarole to figure out what part of the health fee was attributable to the Pap smear. Finally, Harvard notified the men that they could come pick up their 50-cent checks. К (a feminist and therapist) says quietly, “Pap smear envy.”

(pp. 82-83)

This example uses wordplay to ridicule the Freudian-based belief that women are more envious by nature than men due to penis envy. The feminists in the group were able to reverse the notion of penis envy to their own advantage. (Interestingly, the diary writer noted that the femi­nists were the only ones who laughed at this joke.) Moreover, the feminist speaker takes a routine gynecological test as the norm and celebrates it. The Pap smear becomes an enviable experience, one that men feel de­prived of, and this explains their overreaction to differential health fees.

The value of sexual self-definition for feminists is suggested by the following diary entry quoting a woman who presented a paper on lesbian sexuality at a conference:

Politically correct sex lasts at least three hours, since everyone knows we’re process-oriented and not goal-oriented. If we do have orgasms, those orgasms must be simultaneous. And we must lie side by side.

Now I know that some people think that orgasms are patriarchal. But I’ve given up many things for feminism, and this isn’t going to be one of them. (White, 1988, p. 83)

White notes that just as feminist humor subverts the inflexible gender roles of the dominant culture it mocks inflexibility in feminism. In the orgasm example, a feminist jokes about how the notion of political cor­rectness can be coercive for women and asserts her own autonomy, placing limits on the influence she will allow to feminist doctrine in constructing her own sexuality.

White argues on the basis of the humor diaries she analyzed that the most important role for humor in the creation of a feminist culture is the articulation of common meanings. Feminists differentiate themselves as feminists through humor not by adhering to a doctrinaire or monolithic notion of feminism, but by expressing shared, ingroup meanings. By cre­ating and affirming their own meanings, feminists create a sense of com­munity. When common meanings express ingroup and outgroup relation­ships, they help set the boundaries for feminist culture. These factors allow women to self-identify as feminists and re-create (enact) their feminism in everyday interaction.

Feminist Humor Goes Public

In recent years, feminist humorists have increasingly had a public voice, and this change has had radical implications. Kate Clinton (1982), a lesbian comedian, has described feminist humor as not just a string of jokes but a “deeply radical analysis of the world and our being in the world because it, like the erotic, demands a commitment to joy. Feminist humor is a radical analysis because we are saying that we have the right to be happy, that we will not settle for less” (p. 40).

Kate Clinton’s words capture the subversive potential of women’s hu­mor, a potential that Naomi Weisstein (1973), a feminist psychologist and superb humorist, eloquently expressed more than 25 years ago:

The women’s movement is taking back what has been taken from us.

We are reclaiming our autonomy and our history, our rights to self­expression and collective enjoyment. In this process, we are taking back our humor. The propitiating laughter, the fixed and charming smiles are over. When we laugh, things are going to be funny. And when we don’t laugh, it’s because we have a keen and clear sense of humor, and we know what’s not funny… we are constructing a women’s culture with its own character, its fighting humor, its defiant celebration of our worth, a women’s culture that will help get us through to that better world, that just and generous society. (1973, pp. 9-10)

Perhaps creating humor is culturally specified to be something that women cannot and must not do precisely because women’s humor under­mines the social order. And perhaps this danger is the source of the even more strongly made claim that feminists in particular lack a sense of humor.

When a charge is directed against a political and social movement, it is wise to examine the politics behind the charge (Weisstein, 1973).

Feminist humor is not just a reversal of misogynist humor, although it sometimes mocks the idea that women need men to fulfill their sexual and emotional needs and cannot survive without them. A 1970s feminist aphorism (later recycled in a pop song) is “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” A current example of feminist humor that pokes fun at women’s presumed obsession with men is Nicole Hollander’s two – panel cartoon seen on T-shirts and calendars. The first panel, titled “What men hope women are saying when they go to the washroom together,” depicts two women bragging about the skill of their lovers. The second panel, “What they’re really saying,” shows the women’s actual conversa­tion: “Do you think cake is better than sex?” “What kind of cake?” (Hol­lander, 1994).

In an interview, Hollander noted that “men are frightened by women’s humor because they think that when women are alone they’re making fun of men. This is perfectly true, but they think we’re making fun of their equipment when in fact there are so many more interesting things to make fun of—such as their value systems” (quoted in Barreca, 1991, p. 198).

A great deal of feminist humor can be thought of as the humor of a muted group. Although women’s constructions of reality are obscured by the gender system, they emerge in self-aware women’s humor. This humor may well acknowledge men’s ability to define reality in ways that meet their needs. Yet, in making that acknowledgement public, it subverts men’s reality by exposing its social construction. As Florynce Kennedy said, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” Gloria Steinem’s essay, “If Men Could Menstruate” (Steinem, 1983), describes how “men­struation would become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event” and “sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free.” Women would, of course, suffer from acute cases of “menses envy.” Revisionist humor on menopause is articulated on T-shirts that proclaim “I’m not having hot flashes, I’m having power surges.”

Another much-reprinted feminist classic applies the blame-the-victim logic often used about rape victims to robbery victims. An exchange be­tween the investigator and the robbery victim in “The Rape of Mr. Smith” illustrates the absurdity of the questions posed to victims of rape:

“Have you ever given money away?”

“Yes, of course—”

“And did you do so willingly?”

“What are you getting at?”

“Well, let’s put it like this, Mr. Smith. You’ve given away money in the past—in fact, you have quite a reputation for philanthropy. How can we be sure that you weren’t contriving to have your money taken

from you by force?”

“Listen, if I wanted—”

“Never mind…

And later:

“What were you wearing at the time, Mr. Smith?”

“Let’s see. A suit. Yes, a suit.”

“An expensive suit?”


“In other words, Mr. Smith, you were walking around the streets late at night in a suit that practically advertised the fact that you might be a good target for some easy money, isn’t that so? I mean, if we didn’t know better, Mr. Smith, we might even think you were asking for this to happen, mightn’t we?” (Unknown, 1990, pp. 283-284)

In the following joke, which was told to me in conversation, a man learns about the social construction of women’s reality the hard way:

Joe used to spend many evenings at his neighborhood bar with his friends, having a beer and socializing. Then, inexplicably, he was ab­sent for over a year. One evening, a beautiful woman came into the bar, sat down, and said, “Hello everybody. Do you remember me? I used to be Joe, but 1 had a sex change operation, and now I’m Debbie.” His/her friends were astounded. They gathered around to hear the story.

“What was it like? Did you have to take hormones?”

“Yes, I took hormones for a year, but it wasn’t too bad.”

“Did you have to leam how to dress and walk like a woman? And wear high heels?”

“Yes, but that’s okay, I liked it actually.”

“But… the operation! You know. . . Wasn’t it horrible? I mean, when they cut. . .

“Yes, I know what you mean. No, that part wasn’t too bad, it was all done by medical experts.”

“Well, then, what was the worst part about becoming a woman?” Joe/Debbie replied slowly and thoughtfully, “I guess it was when I woke up from the operation and found out that they’d cut my paycheck by 40%.”

With the reemergence of a feminist sensibility and culture since the late 1960s, there has been increasing attention given to feminist humor. Several anthologies have been published (Kaufman, 1991; Kaufman & Blakely, 1980; Stillman & Beatts, 1976). Researchers have measured ap­preciation of nonsexist and feminist jokes, cartoons, and slogans in women and men with difference degrees of allegiance to feminism (e. g., Stillion & White, 1987). To date, however, there have been few studies of the social functions of women’s self-aware humor.


People construct the meaning of sexuality in many ways. Cultural critics and social science researchers have examined the assumptions of the medical model of sexuality, deconstructed the prescriptions of sex manuals, and explored the effects of religious codes on cultural constructions of womanhood (Altman, 1984; Espin, 1986; Tiefer, 1995). These are all im­portant sources of sexual meaning. Analyzing them helps reveal the cultural discourse of sexuality that may otherwise be rendered invisible, and there­fore made to seem natural and inevitable.

A truism of feminist analysis is that the more natural a belief or behavior seems, the more it should be analyzed as a social construction. In looking at mundane representations of sexuality in everyday talk, I have tried to make visible the taken-for-granted constructions of sexuality that occur within ongoing social transactions. When people make jokes about sexuality, they may be only kidding, but they are accomplishing serious social acts. The reality constructed in everyday talk forms the basis of social organization.