Humor in Women’s Talk With Women

A few researchers have studied women’s humor in all-female groups, and most have noted differences between it and the kind of humor that

emerges in mixed-sex or all-male groups. The most extensive discussion of these differences is by Mercilee Jenkins (1986), who maintains that humor in all-female and all-male groups serves different functions. Women’s hu­mor supports a goal of intimacy by being supportive, compassionate, and healing, whereas men’s humor supports performance goals: competition, maintaining hierarchies, and self-aggrandizement:

Men in their groups seem to be saying, “I’m great.” “I’m great, too.”

“Gee, we’re a great bunch of guys.” In contrast, women seem to be saying, “Did this ever happen to you?” “Yeah.” “Oh, good, I’m not crazy.” (p. 10)

Jenkins also noted a collaborative storytelling style. Instead of a single speaker holding the floor and leading up to the climax or punch line of a story in linear fashion, speakers told stories of their own experiences by first presenting the main point and then recounting the tale with the en­couragement and participation of the other group members. Susan Kalcik (1975) observed a similar dynamic in women’s rap groups. The kernel of a story would be told first so that hearers could participate in the telling, knowing the direction and point of the story all along in collaboration with the teller.

Women’s reputation for telling jokes badly (forgetting punch lines, mixing up the sequence of the story, etc.) may reflect a male norm that does not recognize the value of cooperative storytelling (Jenkins, 1986). Although the collaborative style of storytelling is not unique to women, it may serve their interests better than more individualistic styles when they are in all-female groups.

However, we should be cautious in interpreting sex differences. Hu­mor is a flexible speech strategy that may be used for many different con­versational goals. Any approach that dichotomizes humor strategies and goals by sex is surely oversimplified. Moreover, the study of humor in women’s and men’s social groups creates an interpretive problem in itself. Many of the women’s groups to which researchers have had access are support groups of one kind or another—rap groups, consciousness-raising groups, mothers’ clubs. It is impossible to decide whether the cooperative, supportive speech styles observed occur because the participants are women or because the norms of support groups call for cooperation. In contrast, the men’s groups studied have been larger and more public (e. g., pub gath­erings), with different norms and goals. As so often happens in sex differ­ence research, social context is confounded with speaker sex. One approach to the problem of separating sex from context is to study one’s own social groups, where group norms and goals are understood from the inside by the researcher (Coates, 1996; Jenkins, 1986).

Because humor is so dependent on the social context, particularly shared group meanings, it is important that the humor of particular groups of women be studied by insiders to those groups. To date, there has been little systematic research on humor among lesbians, African American or other women of color, older women friends, and so on. However, several writers have speculated about the characteristic humor of some of these groups from an insider’s perspective, and these speculations can provide useful starting points for future research.

Marsha Stanback (1985) has proposed that the communication style of middle-class Black women is characterized by a tendency toward equality with men. Black women have always worked outside the home, and self­reliance, strength, and autonomy for women have long been the norm within the Black community. Research on women’s friendships across color lines also suggests that in pairs of Black and White friends, the Black women are typically more assertive and direct (McCullough, 1998). At the same time, Stanback argues, there is pressure toward more gender-differ­entiated styles due to the Black women’s recognition that this is valued within White middle-class culture. The Black tradition of female outspo­kenness and the White ideal of femininity may present a unique set of contradictions for Black women. One way to look for the expression of these contradictions, I believe, is in the humor created by Black women in same-ethnicity and mixed-ethnicity groups.

The African American oral tradition of folktales and ballads also may provide a window into contemporary Black women’s humor (Watkins, 1994). There have been many collections of these materials made by folk­lorists, but few capture the interactive nature of their telling. (An excep­tion is Zora Neal Hurston’s Mules and Men, 1978). These tales were typi­cally recounted in ways that tailored the story to the immediate audience and incorporated a great deal of audience commentary and response. On the surface their function may have been amusement, but their underlying function was as “moral instructives and coded expressions of outrage at actual grievances” (Watkins, 1994, p. 444).

Mel Watkins (1994) in his comprehensive history of African Amer­ican humor, maintains that the storytelling tradition, with its valuing of verbal acuity and spontaneous wit, still forms the basis of much Black humor. The decontextualized, set-piece joke, of White (male) culture “is rarely witnessed at black rap sessions or social gatherings.” Instead, (humor) flows from the participants’ commonly held satiric view of the world and themselves… it is derived from an acknowledgement of the shared ironic attitude underlying the quip (p. 472).

Creativity, spontaneity, and the ability to leave a personal stamp on the story are valued much more highly than the simple retelling of a joke. Watkins (1994) gives an example of the inventive use of a familiar story by describing a conversation between two men and a woman overheard at a New York bar:

The original folktale. . . concerned two men standing on a bridge and comparing the length of their penises while urinating; one says, “Damn, the water’s cold,” and his friend replies, “Yeah, and it’s deep, too!” The response was put to an altogether different use in that Man­hattan bar. After one of the men went on too long with a rap about how much money he had, the woman sarcastically snapped, “Fool, if money was air, you’d have to borrow an oxygen tank to breathe.” Bent with laughter, the other man said, “Damn, home boy, that’s cold.” Without missing a beat, the woman quipped, “Yeah, and it’s deep, too,” which caused all three to break into spasms of laughter. Their spon­taneous banter, which… inventively refocused the punchline from a traditional folktale with which they were all familiar (in this case heightening the original put-down, since the woman indirectly sug­gested that she was as much a man as her would-be admirer), was a perfect example of spontaneous reshaping of familiar folk wit. (p. 473)

This example underscores the importance of insiders’ perspectives on humor. To an observer unfamiliar with the original tale, the meanings and functions of this humor would be obscure.

In a unique insider’s account of humor in its social context, folklorist Rayna Green (1977) has described the sexual humor of U. S. southern women based on her own (White, lower-middle-class) family network. Most of the humor she describes occurred at family gatherings at which men congregate outdoors while women and children are in the kitchen. Many of the most outspoken of the bawdy humorists were old women. Like many traditional cultures, the U. S. South allows increasing license to old women, and Green notes that the women she observed took full advantage in presenting themselves as wicked—as in the retort by “Granny” quoted at the beginning of this chapter.

Green observed a great deal of sexual joking. Often the source of humor was men’s boasts, failures, or sexual inadequacies—what one woman termed “comeuppance for lack of uppcomance.” Preachers were the butt of many jokes, reflecting the rigid control of women’s lives by evangelical Christian traditions. However, there was a marked absence of racism and hostility in humor about sexuality. Instead, these women engaged in cre­ative word play, inventing comic names for genitals that mocked the eu­phemism expected of them. Thus, children were told to “wash up as far as possible, down as far as possible, and then wash possible.” Women’s pubic areas were affectionately called “Chore Girl” (after a bristly scrubbing pad) or “wooly booger”; male genitals were “tallywhackers.”

The functions of humor were several. First, the storyteller gained re­spect and admiration as an inventive and entertaining user of language. “The ability to evoke laughter with bawdy material is important to these women’s positive images of themselves” (Green, 1977, p. 33). Second, the humor was educational. Green suggests that the sexual information chil­dren gleaned from stories of lustful young married couples, cynical prosti­tutes, rowdy preachers, impotent drunks, and wicked old ladies was at least as accurate as a parental lecture on where babies come from, and much more creative and fun.

Perhaps most important, women’s bawdy humor was subversive of the gender system. The bawdy tales functioned to break the cultural rules con­trolling women’s sexuality. “The very telling defies the rules. . . Women are not supposed to know or repeat such stuff. But they do and when they do, they speak ill of all that is sacred—men, the church, marriage, home, family, parents” (Green, 1977, p. 33). Green speculates that in their humor women vent their anger at men, offer alternative modes of understanding to their female hearers, and, by including the ever-present children in the circle of listeners, perform “tiny act(s) of revenge” on the men who have power over their lives.