Anthropologists argue that across most cultures, conventional definitions of feminine modesty and a contrived sense of innocence even among women who are clearly adult and experienced causes those women who do laugh freely and openly in public to be regarded and judged as “loose,” “sexually promiscuous,” and “lacking in self-discipline.”
Making a joke is read, in other words, as making a pass—which might account for women's hesitation to make many jokes around men. Initiating humor is the first taboo broken—with that one gone, we can assume other barriers are meant to fall. As scholar Judith Wilt has argued, there is a certain kind of women's humor “tumbles over the edge of myth into madness, " the place where comedy ceases to offer comfort and becomes murderous, violent , apocalyptic. The barriers between comedy as comfort and comedy as castastrophe become erased in the works of certain women writers.
"In the early days of carnival " cautions Fay Weldon "they'd like as not burn their chosen virgin to death. At first on purpose—later on by accident on purpose. That was the purpose of the event. Burn a virgin, fire a barn, drown a witch. Clear old scores and start afresh! What do you think the carnival is about, fun and games? Oh no."
French theorist and author Catherine Clement argues that women's laughter is about the breaking down of barriers. In her essay " The Guilty One,” Clement argues that "All laughter is allied with the monstrous... laughter breaks up, breaks out, splashes over... it is the moment at which the woman crosses a dangerous line, the cultural demarcation beyond which she will find herself excluded."
Excluded from culture, the laughing woman is "dead" to the established order. The fate dealt to women, what Clement calls " her burial" reinforces the image of the woman, empowered by laughter as a sort of revitalized corpse—a woman laughing is a woman brought back from the living death within the confines of the patriarchal system that would bury her in silence and stillness.
What are the alternatives? To be part of a “happy” ending where the female character is silenced and put away in a dollhouse? As Rosiland Russell put it when discussing the “happy” endings of many of the comic films in which she starred: “I’d end up with Fred MacMurray or Ray Milland in New Jersey."
The woman becomes the domestic, in this reading, and men have the last laugh.
Molly Haskell, whose work From Reverence to Rape is a standard text in any course on women and film, implies that women are wary of comedy because "Comedy is gust of fresh air, anarchic and disruptive; it spills the tea, shatters glass and conversation; it is a mad dog that shreds the napkin and the tablecloth, and along with them the last vestiges of romantic illusion."
I would agree with Haskell that comedy is anarchic and disruptive, but I see it as spilling the beans, not the tea. It gets busy shattering ideas about the acquisition of—and right to wield—certain forms of of entrenched authority.
Women's laughter is indeed disruptive, and women do laugh at comedies. But it is important to keep one thing in mind: even when we all laugh at the same time we might not be laughing at the same things. If the women and men in any given audience laugh at one moment they may be illustrating how far apart—not how close together—their responses actually are.
Mary Ann Doane in her study of the "woman's film" titled The Desire to Desire, explains that "The label 'woman's film' refers to a genre of Hollywood films produced from the silent era through the '50s...but most heavily concentrated and most popular in the 30s and 40s. The films deal a female protagonist and often appear to allow her significant access to point of view structures and the enunciative level of filmic discourse...films are directed towards a female audience." These films are most often referred to as "weepies" or "tearjerkers."
I want to consider the following question: is there now a woman's film trajectory that is a "laughie" or—wait for it—a laughjerker? Is there any tradition or even pattern in mainstream cinema where an indentifiably "feminine" comedy or humor dominates?
It's not how women have been framed (and terms "framed" here takes on legal as well as cinematic connotations) in terms of their responses to comedy, is it? Not when we have the assumptions perhaps best displayed by the following tale quoted by Marjorie Rosen in Popcorn Venus: Their producer, Irving Thalberg, advised the Marx Brothers to include romance even if it meant sacrificing laughs: "Men like your comedy, but women don't. They don't have as much sense of humor. So we'll give women a romance to become interested in."
So we've made progress: we have some new films, books, show, and voices where women's humor seems to be unapologetic. But why does it always and still seem as if it's a "new" idea? Why is women's humor always being "discovered" when, in fact, if you put three women together for five minutes, we'll be laughing?