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Too tense and worried to laugh

mumbai Updated: Dec 25, 2011 01:41 IST

Hindustan Times
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In my previous column, two weeks ago, I had responded to a reader’s grouse that HT did not feature any women humorists on its pages. Drawing on essays by the pugnacious writer Christopher Hitchens (who died a week ago), and Germaine Greer, the feminist academic, I had suggested that the pool of female humorists was very small because social forces discouraged women from being funny. The essayists had very different explanations though: Hitchens argued that men were funny to impress women and Greer said they cracked jokes to score points not with women but with each other.

In any case, I ended on a hopeful note, saying that society was not static and that I hoped many unknown witty women would send me their punchlines. I did get a few responses; among them was Aditi Mittal, a stand-up comedian. Besides inviting me to see her perform later this week, she made two interesting observations.

First, she pointed out that a lot more women were funnier when in the presence of only women than in a mixed group. “What we perceive as humour is largely what has been decided by men,” she wrote. “For women, humour is a more private affair. That’s why we come back laughing from every trip to the bathroom and why we always reply, ‘Nothing’, with suppressed giggles when dad looks over his spectacles to ask ‘What are you girls laughing about?’”

Second, she noticed that women often become funnier, or rather, become funnier in public, when they grow older. “It is only later on, when women don’t have the pressure of being perceived as attractive that some truly hilarious women emerge,” she said. “For instance, I have observed many older Goan women sometimes cursing out their husbands and friends and mock-fighting with them.”

These observations are consonant with one strand of reasoning that is common to Hitchens’ and Greer’s essays — that humour is a sign of intelligence; that men consequently don’t want competition from humorous women; and, that because of both these things, many women, who are also trying to impress men, suppress their intelligence when in their company.

I have yet another pop sociological conjecture to throw into this vat of speculation, one that partly draws from an ongoing HT series about women’s experiences in public places (which, incidentally, many readers have appreciated): that women are just too tense to be funny.

Let me explain. The series, called Blow the Whistle, began on Monday, December 12, by publishing the results of a survey on the prevalence of street sexual harassment in Mumbai. The results, based on interviews with 4,255 women and 776 men, were grim: 99% of women feel unsafe on Mumbai’s streets and in public spaces and 95% have actually been sexually harassed there. These percentages are appallingly high in a city that is supposed to be one of the safest for women in India.

So what does this have to do with being funny? In order to be humorous, you have to feel relaxed. But when women are constantly worrying about their physical safety, about getting from point A to point B without any incident, I wouldn’t be surprised if they sub-consciously remain wary about taking it easy when in the company of a lot of men, especially those whom they don’t know very well.

If my conjecture is true then a higher percentage of women in societies that are more gender-sensitive are likely to feel comfortable being comical in public. Anyone interested in checking this out?

See you in the new year. Have a great one.

This fortnightly column will return on January 21.