Smile. Ah! A little more and then, yes, a somewhat twisted smile and then…just a small laugh…a sound, almost the tinkle of a bell heard far away. Yes, that’s the way most women laugh (or pretend to) in the company of men making lewd jokes or ridiculing someone. This is particularly true of women who want to appear traditionally ‘feminine’. This doesn’t mean that, in other circumstances, women do not have the capacity to laugh boisterously or are humourless. It is a myth largely propagated by men that women don’t have the agency to create humour.
Traditionally, men and women’s roles have been clearly identified and defined in our society, and laughter—or the skills to generate it—lie in the male domain. But in fact, women have a great sense of humour and can be instrumental in a delightful comic performance. Perhaps, women have hidden this trait to better conform with the stereotype of being submissive and unchallenging to men’s astronomical space of expressions.
In a patriarchal society, only men are allowed access to elaborate, loud, expressive language which highlights their ability to generate humour. According to a study conducted by Chris Kramarae, a professor of communications and women’s studies at the University of Illinois: “Men and women speak a different language. According to popular belief, at least, the speech of women is weaker and less effective than the speech of men. Our culture has many jokes about the quality of women’s speech…. Compared to male speech, the female form is supposed to be emotional, vague, euphemistic, sweetly proper, mindless, endless, high-pitched and silly.”
Various studies reveal that there is a clear division of men and women into dominant and muted groups respectively. There is a display of power which shifts in favour of men when they speak or communicate with women. This shift is so conspicuous that it leads to an enlarged and expansive vocabulary used by men.
In another report in 1981, Chris Kramarae proposes that “women perceive the world differently from men because of women’s and men’s different experience and activities rooted in the division of labor”.
Language becomes a tool to express that perception. On the basis of such research rests the muted group theory first propounded by Edwin Ardener, which explores why some groups are perpetually silent in society vis-à-vis others. According to this theory, men are the cause of women’s mutedness or silence. The primary reason for this silence is that men don’t want to make any effort to understand the language used by women. They can only understand the one created and constructed by them. Also, men don’t want to acknowledge that there is a separate language used by women because by acknowledging a woman’s language, men would have to give up some of their power of vocabulary and expression.
Historically, our society has been male dominated. Women have been oppressed and exploited while men’s capacity for initiative has been magnified. So it becomes easy for a man to talk about his sexual experiences in a humourous way or share jokes on sex, sexual identities or sexual experiences.
As a feminist in an ever-changing world and ideally moving towards a society which breaks stereotypes, freedom of expression is my most important right. But this is also a century in which we are battling environmental degradation, resource depletion, conflict and civil unrest. All this hardly leaves any space for laughter—much less an understanding of why women laugh in a particular way and why their humour is created and interpreted differently.
But as women struggling to create our own space, express our sexuality and be heard, should we remain quiet? Or should we begin the Herculean task of redefining what are identities are and what representation we should assign ourselves—when we talk, eat, experience sexual pleasure, share a joke or hear one? These are the questions we have to start asking ourselves. Until they are answered, let’s create spaces at home, at work, in the media, in coffee shops where we can discard the ‘serene, composed, dignified, definitely decent’ demeanor and express ourselves freely. Most of all, let’s smile, make humour, and laugh our guts out!