Thursday, December 14, 2006

Hitch Not a Stitch

In 1945, George Orwell published an essay entitled "Good Bad Books" devoted to the idea that "one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one's intellect simply refuses to take seriously..."

The "supreme example" of the Good Bad Book, in Orwell's estimation, is Uncle Tom's Cabin.
It is an unintentionally ludicrous book, full of preposterous melodramatic incidents; it is also deeply moving and essentially true; it is hard to say which quality outweighs the other.
In reading Christopher Hitchens' latest offering in Vanity Fair, I can't help but think it's a supreme example of the Bad Good Essay, though the scales in this case tip further in the direction of the ludicrous than they did for Ms. Stowe. I'm tempted to say it generates more heat than light, which numbers among Hitchens' least favorite phrases, fond as he is of reminding his readers that there is no source of light but heat. Instead, I'll simply observe that the 'light' he generates is of a decidedly garish and unfriendly hue.

"Why Women Aren't Funny" is, as with all Hitchens essays, expertly written. It's wry, knowing, sly and deft, but it is—and here's the cardinal sin for any who would attempt to editorialize on the subject of humor—not funny. Indeed, no essay that quotes approvingly and authoritatively from the works of Rudyard Kipling can be.

The central argument of this essay is some biological/evolutionary claptrap about how men are funnier than women because they have to be in order to attract the eye and affection of the gentler (but less uproarious) sex.

Certainly, he concedes, there are funny women, but he dismisses them as being invariably "hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three." Therefore, one must conclude, not real women. Taking the first two as self-evident, Hitchens elaborates on the third. "...[B]oiling as it is with angst and self-deprecation," he opines, "[Jewish humor] is almost masculine by definition," which certainly marks the first time anyone has ever referred to Woody Allen as masculine.

It would be something of an understatement to note that Hitchens is guilty of dabbling in stereotype. I'm sure he's well aware of that. What's so much more troubling is that he's being uncharacteristically imperceptive in the process. There is some truth to the claim that humor finds those who need it most, to be sure. The sexualization of this tendency, however, is arbitrary. The unpopular, the ungainly, the unusual, the unlovely, the unappreciated, the unwanted—these are the true kings of comedy. It develops not as a biological imperative designed to get guys laid, but as a cultural weapon awkward children of both sexes learn to harness against the true enemy: the cool kids.

I've met plenty of humorless people in my time, both men and women. While there's great variety, these mirthless souls tend to be well-adjusted, reasonably attractive people who claim to have actually liked high school. Physically and/or socially gifted people in our society can get away with a tremendous amount, from humorlessness (ooh, he's brooding!) to outright stupidity. The rest of us make ourselves feel better by making fun of them.

But Hitchens misses this boat entirely. Instead, he goes in for a naive "biology is destiny" argument that would have earned him a swift backhand from his ex-colleague Katha Pollitt. Women, says Hitchens, wield tremendous power over men. Not only do they take center stage at the end of the miraculous procreative process; they play gatekeeper at its only-slightly-less miraculous beginning. Too busy with the solemnity of womanhood—and, to Hitchens, it's synonym, motherhood—women just don't have time for humor.
For women, reproduction is, if not the only thing, certainly the main thing. Apart from giving them a very different attitude to filth and embarrassment, it also imbues them with the kind of seriousness and solemnity at which men can only goggle.
Women have children; men act like children. Hitchens is at turns vulgar, rude, scatological and childish. It is clearly his intention to elicit a deluge of letters from unamused women, which would allow him to declare his point proven. The fact that his essay is so unfunny proves that humor is more than a mere list of ingredients—it needs a chef's touch.

"Why Women Aren't Funny" is declared by the magazine—as disclaimer and alibi—a "provocation", and with good reason. Unfortunately, while it easily provokes disbelief, disappointment and, no doubt, anger; it is singularly unlikely to provoke thought.
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