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May 10 2007

So Christopher Hitchens Walks Into A Bar…

Susie_brightYou know, there are so many things wrong with this, I don’t even know where to begin.

“This” being Christopher Hitchens’s recent piece in Vanity Fair about why women aren’t as funny as men. The key sentence: “For women, reproduction is, if not the only thing, certainly the main thing.” Because we bear and raise children, women are both more nurturing and take life more seriously than men, and thus lack both the mean-spiritedness and the frivolousness required of humor. That’s a gross over-generalization of Hitchens’s piece; but then, Hitchens’s piece is pretty gross, so I guess it’s appropriate.

Ellen_forneyI don’t even know where to start. And no, I’m not going to start with the absurdity of “For women, reproduction is, if not the only thing, certainly the main thing.” I have better things to do than shoot that particularly slow and stupid fish in that exceptionally small barrel.

Rosalind_russellSo I guess I should start with the obvious: It isn’t true. Flat out, plain, R-O-N-G Rong. Other bloggers have been busily coming up with lists of counterexamples, so I’m not going to bother. (Google it yourself if you like; I’m putting some of my personal favorites in my illustrations.) Instead, I’ll just say: He obviously hasn’t met my friends. Or my co-workers. Or my family. Or my girlfriend. Or the commenters on this blog. Or… well, you get the drift. It’s as if Hitchens spent 2700 words carefully pondering the question of why birds don’t fly.

Alison_bechdelAnd of course, there is the slow, stupid fish in the tiny tiny barrel — the assumption that all women are focused on baby-making above all other forms of human endeavor, a focus that drives everything that might interfere with it clean out of our pretty little heads. (And that no men are like that at all.)

Florence_kingBut what really kills me is the assumption that we are all — women and men alike — either completely nurturing or completely mean-spirited; utterly serious or utterly frivolous. You have to be one or the other — you can’t be both. You can’t make chicken soup for your sick girlfriend and then make mean-spirited snarky jokes on the Internet; you can’t spend all week taking care of mentally ill homeless people with AIDS and then spend an hour and half on Saturday night getting dressed up to go to a drag show. Nope. One or the other, please. Pick now, all of you. NOW, dammit!

Marilyn_monroeThis is the thing that irritates me most about this sort of simplistic “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” gender analysis. It’s the ham-handed division of the human race into two easily distinguishable camps, with everyone in one camp having A, B, and C qualities in unadulterated proportions, and everyone in the other camp having X, Y, and Z qualities in an equally pure form.

Sarah_vowellThe reality is that, whatever gender-differentiated behavior trait you can think of — aggressiveness, competitiveness, co-operation, empathy, whatever — we all of us have all of them to at least some degree, and there’s an enormous amount of overlap between the genders. Even in the areas where women’s and men’s behavior is pretty demonstrably different — the tendency to get into physical fights, for instance — it’s not as if all women are lumped from 1 to 5 and all men are lumped from 6 to 10. It’s more like we’re on overlapping bell curves — with women bell-curving from, say, 1 to 8, and men bell-curving from 3 to 10. (I’m literally and physically pulling those numbers out of my ass as we speak, by the way. But I’ll bet you that my science analysis is still better than Hitchens’s. A small Russet potato could analyze the science in this story better than Hitchens did.) And leaning towards the male end of one particular spectrum (spatial relations, say) is no guarantee that you’ll lean towards the male end of any other spectrum (like verbal ability).

Julia_sweeneyAnd maybe more to the point: I’ve seen studies that show that people — both women and men — who aren’t rigidly gender-typed, people who have lots of typical characteristics of both genders, tend to be happier and better-adjusted and more satisfied with themselves and their lives than people who adhere to rigid gender roles and expect others to do the same.

And I bet we’re funnier, too.

20 comments

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  1. 1
    Eclectic

    I agree, bullshit. I’d ask Hitchens about Eddie Izzard and Ian Harvie, but I’m afraid that I’d get dirty when his brain exploded.
    Look, folks, even if there *is* a clearly demonstrable difference between groups X and Y in the mean scores they achieve on test Z, that doesn’t tell you *anything* about the chance that some individual x will score better than some other individual y.
    If the standard deviation of the scores is much higher than the observed difference in the means, then the difference has negligible predictive power. Suppose group X has a mean IQ of 100+/-25 points, while group Y has a mean IQ of 101+/-25 points. Would you like to work out the chance that a random x has a higher IQ than a random individual y? It’s less than 50%, but not very much.
    As for “female brains”… you know why *straight* women always score poorly on spatial relations tests, don’t you?
    Because (holding fingers about three inches apart) they’re always being told that that’s nine inches.
    (*rimshot*)

  2. 2
    Layne Winklebleck

    The interesting thing in this story is the science that inspired it. I agree that Hitchens makes some silly comments in his piece, including the bit about reproduction being the main thing for women. He jumped on new Stanford Medical School research to make points that the research did not make. However, the research itself, which involved using functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery to see the brain lighting up in response to viewing cartoons, is very exciting. The sample was small and selective, 10 women and 10 men, all first year Stanford Medical students, but still, the use of the fMRI gives us, for the first time, ways to actually observe the brain regarding such things as gender differences in how we respond to humor. The researchers were puzzled to find that, while the female and male participants shared most aspects of humor-response in the brain
 “some brain regions were activated more in women. These included the left prefrontal cortex, suggesting a greater emphasis on language and executive processing in women, and the nucleus accumbens, or NAcc, which is part of the mesolimbic reward center.”
    The mesolimbic reward center is responsible for the rewarding feelings that follow such events as monetary gain or cocaine use. The researchers speculated that “because the women in this study used more analytical machinery when deciphering humorous material, it signaled that they weren’t necessarily expecting the cartoons to be as rewarding as did the men. When a woman’s brain encountered the punch line, her reward center lit up. According to Reiss [Allan Reiss, MD, the Howard C. Robbins Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research] the activation of this center not only signals the presence of something pleasant, but that the pleasure was unexpected.”
    Well, maybe, and how Hitchens got to where he got from that is a huge stretch. But the differences, whatever they might mean, are intriguing. Readers of this blog may or may not have seen my comment some weeks ago here that I wished the fMRI machine at Stanford Medical School (which a neurologist told me is only one of two in California) would be used for looking at questions of telepathic connections. Fat chance. However, the implications of this new technology for understanding soooo many things about human responses and relationships are profound. As soon as I saw in the Vanity Fair piece that Stanford Medical School was involved I immediately thought, ohmigawd, functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery! So I looked up the press release on it. Fascinating stuff.

  3. 3
    Emile

    Pardon me if this is an unwelcome return to an over worked thread (and me ignore if so), but Layne:
    How can you use fMRI equipment to investigate telepathic connections in the absence of an experiment that can convincingly demonstrate that such connections exist?
    As to the actual article; I couldn’t read more than the first page. However, I think Greta’s analysis of Hitchen’s piece (from my limited exposure) gives him too much credit. He wasn’t trying to actually think about the study in question. He was just trying to use it as a leaping off point for his “comic” riffing on sexist stereotypes.

  4. 4
    Greta Christina

    Actually, Layne, I totally agree with you. I think the research Hitchens cited is fascinating, and worth following up on. I just think the conclusion he drew from it was beyond bone-headed.

  5. 5
    Nurse Ingrid

    Heaven help me, I actually read the thing. How on earth did the author of “The Missionary Position” turn into such a fuckwit? I just have a few questions. (and to Eclectic: Eddie Izzard!! BRILLIANT counterexample!!)
    1. Women don’t joke about their children, or about motherhood. Really? What about Erma Bombeck? Ayun Halliday? Roseanne? (I think I just covered the entire American political spectrum in those 3 names…)
    For that matter, what about Bill Cosby, Dave Barry, Paul Reiser, and all the MALE comics who base their material on their experiences of marriage and fatherhood?
    2. Women don’t joke about bodily functions. Really? I guess he’s never read Bust, or Bitch, or any punk-grrl zines, or heard Janeane Garofalo, or Sarah Silverman, or Amy Sedaris, or Gilda fucking Radner, or…shall I go on? Sheesh, didn’t he see “The Aristocrats?” Some of the sickest stuff in that movie came from the chicks, baby.
    3. I haven’t checked with the Committee or anything, but I’m pretty sure Mr. Heterosexual does NOT have permission to address anyone as a “dyke” or a “queer.” You know the rules, breeder boy, or you should. We can use them, you can’t.
    4. Women who are funny are mostly fat, Jewish, “dykey,” or some combination thereof.
    Really? Even supposing we buy that for a second: what is his point? That they don’t count as “women”?
    OK, I have to get back to being a nurse now. Rest assured, my colleagues and I have NEVER, even in our darkest moments, EVER joked or laughed about our work. Because 90% of us are women, and, well, we’re just so…nurturing.

  6. 6
    Eclectic

    Responding to Ingrid’s comments:
    4. Humor is often developed as a defense mechanism, by people under stress. This leads to a disproportionate representation by minority groups.
    5. My point about stress above: nurses are under a lot of stress. Anyone who hasn’t seen some pretty spectacularly impolite jokes by nurses has no clue how to STFW. http://www.nurstoon.com/ has some that are on the polite side.
    2. I remember Joan Rivers on the Tonight show talking about bodily functions rather a lot. Certainly a lot more than any male host the Tonight show has ever had.
    4. (again) It’s disproportionate (I didn’t know Goldie Hawn was raised Jewish), but there are certainly female comedians who don’t fit into any of those three categories. Julie Brown, maybe? Julia Sweeney? Both were raised catholic. Ellen Degeneres may be lesbian, but she’s not “dykey”.
    Now on to what I really wanted to ask about… 3. I had thought that “dyke” had to be used carefully, but could be used by non-members of “the club”.
    Until I met one woman who informed me rather coldly “only other dykes are allowed to call me that.” I asked the next dozen lesbians I talked to, and they didn’t mind, but now you’re the second person to say it’s totally off-limits.
    Can you explain the associations from your point of view?
    The analogy isn’t perfect, but it’s kind of like the word “bitch.” I can mean it hurtfully, but I also use it to people’s faces in appropriate circumstances. (Cue Roberta Gregory.) And “tough bitch” can be as much a term of respect as “bad-ass motherfucker”.
    As for “queer”, I *know* that’s okay, but then I use it to describe myself (“I’m not LGB or T, but I like to think of myself as an affiliated queer”).

  7. 7
    Nurse Ingrid

    Context is everything. Remember the Everpresent Wordsnatcher in the Phantom Tollbooth? “I come from a land very far away called Context. But it’s such an unpleasant place I spend almost all my time out of it.”
    So I don’t necessarily mind if straight friends or allies use the words “queer” or “dyke” or “fag” in essentially benign contexts, like “I think so and so might be a dyke” or “he lives in a queer neighborhood.” What I find, though, is that most of the straight people I know tend not to use those words, out of respect. And I appreciate that. I mean, I can’t imagine any context in which it would be OK for me, as a person of European descent, to use the “N” word. Even if I’m quoting someone directly, I never actually say it. (OK, I make an exception for the Patti Smith song, but I don’t really have a good reason for that…except context. That song has literary merit, dammit!)
    When a privileged and pompous white man like Christopher Hitchens says the sentence “Oscar Wilde was a queer,” or when he refers to an entire group of women as “fat, Jewish, and/or dykey,” there is no WAY that is being said out of respect. And I am going to call him out for it.

  8. 8
    QueerKitten

    Q: How many men does it take to wallpaper a room?
    A: Only two, but you have to slice them real thin.
    See, women do have a sense of humor.

  9. 9
    Bill Brent

    [BB bangs head against biological determinism...]
    [Again.]
    I guess my predilection for smart, funny, independent women is some kind of aberration, then.
    Starting with my mom and her sister who helped raise me.
    I thought “humor” had something to do with “humanity.” Silly me.
    –Bill

  10. 10
    Eclectic

    Ingrid, thanks for the elaboration. I fully understand that “dyke” is a loaded word and must be used with care, particularly by non-members of the club, but do you mean to say that “breeders” (what a strange term; the first couple in my high school class to have a child were lesbians) flatly aren’t allowed to use the word?
    I could ridicule that statement in its strictest form (I’d get a lot of funny looks while volunteering for the pride parade if I kept talking about the “women’s motorcycle contingent”), but I’m actually interested in the personal perception.
    I had thought that it had lost a lot of its sting.
    http://nsrc.sfsu.edu/MagArticle.cfm?Article=601
    “[Feminism is] a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” — Pat Robertson Once you realize that by “kill their children” he means abortion, I’m in favor of all of it.

  11. 11
    stephen gottlieb

    come on, hitchens is totally right about this. women don’t have the sadism to be funny, I have never met a cruel, selfish thoughtless woman. they are too busy caring for others and breastfeeding to possibly be funny. and really, all ladies know you are endlessly pursued by the men whom you center your affections on, not just the ones who want to con you into the sack. so you don’t have to relish the humor of a good bowel movement joke, you have boobs, talk about a gender advantage!
    from a scientific perspective, women are not as significantly expecting a joke to be funny, therefore they recieve more neurological reward from a good joke. so women are paid off better for a joke that is really funny! but they miss out on laughing at all the semi funny, dick and snot related jokes out there. poor, humor reflex impaired women. because I have never known a woman to make fun of a dick before (hanging head in shame).
    he also points out that all good humor is inherently flat and crude. and no woman would laugh at, nor be able to make, crude jokes. except for the one my parter got off about the woman her uncle worked with, whose whole office broke into her house to celebrate her birthday and found her coated in peanut butter with her rottweiler. when that story was told, not one of those poor humor impaired women hitchens wrote about so much as smirked. they were all just shocked she hadn’t been in the kitchen making a bundt cake in the hopes a gentleman caller would come by and knock her up, so she could fulfill her only true biological imperative, the use of her vagina for reproduction.
    I will stop pointing out all the way that Hitchens is correct, letting him instead get back to the truest humor of all, watching roadhouse and beating off every time patrick swayze breaks somebody’s nose. Now THATS funny.

  12. 12
    Susie Bright

    Hi Greta, Well, you certainly got our household talking about this. Jon said, and I realized this is true for me too, that when you hear someone describing their new squeeze as “having a great sense of humor,” or that “S/he makes me laugh!”—- that’s the polite way of saying, “No one else sees on the surface what it is about my lover that’s so great, so here’s what you don’t see…” So if your new sweetheart isn’t drop dead handsome or filthy rich, or there’s some shocking age difference, saying “he makes me laugh” is the way you smooth over it, even though it’s obviously a lot more complicated. Other than that, I think Hitchens is high.

  13. 13
    Iamcuriousblue

    Belated reply here, but I couldn’t disagree more with what Ingrid was saying about straights using the word “queer”. I think the best guide to any issue like this is to simply look at real-world usage of a word and go from there. With “queer”, you have a “queer community”, “queer literature”, and several universities (such as Humboldt State and Wesleyan) have officially-designated majors in “queer studies”. Clearly this is not the equivalent of African-American use of the word “nigger” as an informal term of affection that’s taboo for the outgroup.
    It follows that when any group uses a word as an official and public designation for their community, they axiomatically lose the right to claim that only ingroup members can use that word.
    While I don’t think its too cool for white people to be actively using the words “nigger” or “nigga” (though I’m 100% anti-censorship in terms of being against any kind of legal sanctions for doing so), I totally reject the substitution of the term “N-word” for quotational use of the word “nigger”. Jesus, how old am I, 5? Clue – I’m an adult and I don’t speak in euphemisms like the “f-word”, the “b-word”, or “the n-word”. Nor do I consider it respectful to be asked to do so.

  14. 14
    Nurse Ingrid

    OK, I guess I need to clarify my earlier comments. All I was saying, really, was that in my opinion the writer Christopher Hitchens ought not to have used the words “dyke” and “queer” in the particular context in which he used them. When I was asked subsequently about my opinion about straight folks using those words in general, what I said (or meant to say) was that it depended on the context, and that of course there were times when it was OK, but that when I came to think of it, it occurred to me that the trusted straight people in my life rarely use those words when it’s not strictly necessary, and that I find I appreciate that. That’s a far cry from censorship, which I would never advocate.
    As for my use of the word “breeder,” I thought I was making an obvious joke of the “turnabout is fair play” variety. I was trying to point out that Hitchens probably wouldn’t like it if I used that word about him. That’s really the whole reason for the word’s existence — I don’t think I’ve heard anyone use it in any kind of a serious way, except maybe during a 3 month period circa 1990.
    I feel funny going on about this, because truthfully, it’s not an issue I lose a lot of sleep over. Hitchens just irritated me, is all, and I felt a need to mention it.
    And can I just say, I am more confused than ever about Hitchens the person?? I have to give him props for his TV appearances in the aftermath of Jerry Falwell’s death. Watching him face down Ralph Reed on Fox News was priceless. “Oh, so now I have to take morality lessons from Jack Abramoff’s lackey!” Dude certainly does have his moments.

  15. 15
    Eclectic

    That’s more or less what I understood. I didn’t mean to put you on the defensive; I was just sincerely curious about the perception. I must say, since I am sensitive to their exact meaning, I don’t say “dyke” or “queer” very much either. But certain women ride what I can only call “bitchin’ dyke-mobiles”, and they don’t seem to mind the appellation.
    Likewise, I’ll sometimes describe someone (and I use this as a term of approval) as “queer as a three-dollar bill” to explain that they’re obviously one of Dorothy’s friends, but not specifically “flaming.”
    Yes, I’m *quite* aware that you were using “breeder boy” in a tit-for-tat way. It’s just a term I don’t care for because it’s unkind and exclusionary to the same-sex couples who are going to the trouble of raising children.
    Yeah, Hitchens makes a career out of pissing everyone off. Invading Iraq was a good idea? My ass. MacArthur allegedly said it to Kennedy, and it’s still true today: Never get involved in a land war in Asia.
    Unfortunately, I think pulling out is almost as big a mistake. You break it, you bought it. And the U.S. has definitely broken it.
    Abandoning a civil war to fester in an already unstable region is really asking for trouble. I’d call the situation America’s own Northern Ireland.

  16. 16
    Rebecca

    QueerKitten stole my joke! I’ll have to settle for this one:
    Did you hear about the hermaphrodite infant born at SF General? No, really, it was born with a dick AND a brain!
    [runs away snickering]

  17. 17
    Buck Fuddy

    Honestly, why is Hitchens going to such lengths to explain something that just isn’t true? Men and women are equally funny, but some humor appeals more to men than it does to women. All you need to do to understand this is ask a few of your friends. Maybe the problem is that Hitchens doesn’t have many friends.
    The thing I’ve discovered, sort of accidentally, is that humor is a great way to open your mind to other people’s perspectives. I have this odd habit of asking people to explain a joke if I don’t get it. It’s just not true that a joke isn’t funny if you have to explain it. Sometimes a joke isn’t funny until you explain it. Sometimes you need that missing piece, or that unique perspective, that makes it work. When you get that missing piece, you not only get to enjoy the joke, but you get to broaden your own perspective. You get to learn something. You get to grow a little as a person.
    All Hitchens is really saying in this article is that he doesn’t understand where women are coming from and that he really doesn’t want to.

  18. 18
    Eclecic

    Buck Fuddy: Wow. Thank you.
    There’s a truth there that I sensed before, but was never able to explain, and you have.
    I utterly reject a binary division of the sexes. It’s just not true that all women are X and all men are Y. If you get to the more intimate details of sex chromosomes and anatomy, I have to drag in data points like transsexuals to provide counterexamples, but psychology is just not that hardwired.
    On the other hand, I think it’s equally stupid to fail to recognize that there are many ways in which MOST women differ from MOST men. It could be nature or nurture (self-fulfilling societal expectations), but for this discussion it doesn’t matter.
    Which is all a long-winded way of saying that, as long as one doesn’t get too dogmatic, I think it’s okay to talk about “male” and “female” characteristics and points of view.
    And yeah, Hitchens is a misogynistic bastard. Not because he doesn’t understand women—that’s ignorance, and can lead to problems, but is not inherently evil—but because he doesn’t want to.
    “Women suck, because I don’t understand them, and I don’t want to learn.” Either decline to make value judgments about things which you know nothing about, or learn, but judging while being unwilling to think is called “being an asshole.”

  19. 19
    C. L. Hanson

    I joke about my kids and about motherhood and about bodily functions. Did he somehow miss my puking story? http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com/2006/09/wedding-in-brittany.html
    Or my post about the gigantic whale schlong? http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com/2007/01/birds-and-bees-and-whales.html
    I love your description of the “overlapping bell curves.” I think it’s interesting to analyze differences between the sexes too, but it’s important to point out that even if there are trends, it’s pretty rare for men and women to have completely disjoint traits.

  20. 20
    Eric

    1. Hitchens was making a generalization. All of this nonsense about “not all” and “not every” and “there are many examples” is addressed in his article and his followup article. He is, of course, speaking in generalities, meaning that while you can find fine example s of uproariously funny women (e.g. Sarah Silverman), by-and-large women in general are not as funny as men. That is obviously true, since the VAST majority of comedians and comic actors are men, and the minority – the exceptions – are women.
    2. You all realize that your hysterical reactions in going bat-spit crazy, listing examples of funny women, talking about all the friends you have that he hasn’t met, is exactly what he was going for, don’t you? He wrote the piece to get a rise out of people. Watch his rebuttal video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7izJggqCoA – and watch for his sneaky smile towards the end…he’s getting your goats.

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