Saturday, February 26, 2011

Gendering the jokes

Judy Gold: one funny lesbian
Psychologist Jesse Bering's latest "Bering in Mind" column at Scientific American addresses lesbians in comedy-- why are there so many?  Or rather, why are there so many in comparison with straight female and gay male comics?  Obviously the vast majority of comics who do stand-up, whom Bering refers to as "heavy-hitters in the world of comedy," are straight males.  Is there something that Louis CK, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, and Doug Stanhope have in common with Sandra Bernhard, Judy Gold, Wanda Sykes, and Margaret Cho that draws both groups to the clubs?

Bering challenges us to name a single gay male stand-up comic without consulting Google.  I came up with Andy Dick, but stopped there.  I know there are more, but on the spot couldn't seem to muster any other names.  Eddie Izzard definitely bends gender expectations with his transvestitism, but gay he is not.  Bering suggests a reason for the disparity:
Still, one of the hottest findings to emerge from contemporary humor research is the fact that while both men and women say that they value a "good sense of humor" in potential partners, the two sexes mean vastly different things by this. Men prefer women who find them funny ("humor receptivity"), not funny women per se ("humor production"). Women display the opposite trend in their dating preferences. These were the basic findings reported in a 2006 issue of Evolution and Human Behavior by psychologist Eric Bressler and his colleagues. 
The authors interpret these data, and similar data, by drawing from psychologist  Geoffrey Miller’s ideas about the evolution of humor. Miller has argued that ancestral males’ ability to produce entertaining humor demanded a set of heritable cognitive skills, including intelligence and creativity, and thus was a hard-to-fake signal of genetic quality. Due to the sexes’ differential investment in reproduction (just at a coital level alone, about 90 seconds versus 9 months), women would have evolved to be more receptive to signs of genetic quality than males. Men, meanwhile, would have been on the lookout for women who responded positively to their humor. 
I'd heard of this theory before, and find it entirely plausible but also a bit depressing.  Anecdotal evidence from my personal life shows that plenty of straight men are willing to at least claim that they are attracted to funny women-- not just women "with a good sense of humor"-- but it's entirely possible that they did so just thinking that that's what I wanted to hear.  I definitely find myself attracted to men who are funny, and like to think that they feel the same sort of attraction.  But maybe not.  Or at least, maybe not to the same degree.  Straight women certainly aren't immune to feeling a rush of pleasure when someone appreciates their displays of intelligence and creativity in the form of humor; we just don't seem to be nearly as keen to step up onto a stage in front of strangers to experience it.  Julia Sweeney is a notable exception-- when talking about her research into how the mind works in Letting Go of God, she says to the audience "I found that all of our brains are on drugs all of the time. We give ourselves hits: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and vasopressin. The next time all of you laugh, I'll get a hit of adrenaline through my veins, and if you don't when I expect you to, I'll get cortisol instead and I'll feel anxious. I always thought I was a person in my family who escaped addictions, but now I realize that I am up here on this stage right now partly because I am an addict."

Why does Sweeney seem to be often in the company of lesbians in that regard?  Bering suggests that it has to do with hormones:
Researchers who study homosexuality have discovered that the brains of many lesbians were over-exposed to male hormones during prenatal development, influencing not only their adult sexual orientation, but also masculinizing other behavioral and cognitive traits in which there exist innate sex differences. This is not true of all lesbians, but it is especially true for those who exhibit male-typed profiles. So it is not implausible that some lesbians’ courtship strategies would largely mimic opposite-sex-typed patterns, including a differentiated capacity for humor production that attracts female attention. This would not be a conscious strategy, it must be emphasized, and indeed this is what many critics of evolutionary psychology repeatedly fail to realize. So, for heaven’s sake, don’t mistake this as me saying that lesbian comics go on stage just to score chicks. Gene replication is simply a mechanistic means to an end; if it works, it works. Many evolutionary psychologists, including Miller, believe that our minds are often just epiphenomenal interpreters.
The confusion Bering is addressing here has to do with proximate versus ultimate concerns, and it's a common one for both the incredulous people who hear EP theories and don't find them to line up with their own introspective reasons for doing what they do, and often evolutionary psychologists themselves.  A proximate reason is what's going on in your head-- "I do comedy because I enjoy it.  I love making people laugh."  An ultimate reason is what your genes want you to do-- "I do comedy because it'll get me laid, enabling me to further my lineage."  These reasons are not mutually exclusive, though that doesn't mean that the explanation of ultimate concern is necessarily true. Our genes and hormones might not give a damn about whether we get up on stage to make people laugh or not, regardless of who we are.  But it's possible that they do, and that idea doesn't need to be threatening.  The conflict comes in when people differ as to what extent our minds are epiphenomenal interpreters-- the means by which we manufacture after-the-fact motivations for our actions-- as opposed to being directly causal.

For (a possible) example, an early comment on Bering's article:
This seems so obviously cultural to me. It's not considered 'feminine' or 'lady-like' to talk bluntly and sometimes vulgarly the way comedians must to elicit laughs. Lesbians have already been questioning and contradicting social norms of femininity, making it FAR easier for them to fit into the comedy domain.
I don't want to claim that this person thinks that by appealing to social constructivism, he/she can reclaim a degree of agency stolen by evolutionary (read: genetic/hormonal) explanations.  That might not be the case.  But if he/she is, he/she is barking up the wrong tree-- cultural forces don't rescue free will any more than biological ones do.  "My culture made me do it" is as much an abdication of responsibility as "My genes made me do it."  Aside from that, though, it seems like this explanation is begging the question-- why is it not considered "feminine" or "lady-like" to speak in the vulgar ways often used by comics?   Where does that come from?  The goal posts have just been moved back a few yards.  Eventually, we still have to answer the question of where these apparently very influential gender norms originated.

The psychology of comedy is endlessly fascinating to me.  I know the common understanding is that analysis ruins a joke, but I'm prepared to murder a few jokes mercilessly in order to reach a better understanding of what makes people laugh, why it does, and-- most interestingly to me-- why the things that make people laugh so often become a moral issue.  More on that later, hopefully.  In the meantime, have a good weekend, and listen to whatever makes you laugh.

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