As fans of the late Christopher Hitchens cycle through the five stages of grief, it's interesting to see which of his opinions can still inspire the kind of anger that is unlikely to ever fade into acceptance. There are, of course, the obvious candidates: his characterization of Bill Clinton as "a rapist" or his vilification of Mother Teresa as "a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud." There is also his oh-so-chivalrous shout-out to the Dixie Chicks, whom he called "fat slugs" (or "slags" or "sluts" depending on your source) despite later admitting "having not the least idea of what any of them looked like."
But perhaps no Hitchens screed has taken more heat over the years than his 2007 Vanity Fair essay, "Why Women Aren't Funny." Working with the premise that humor exists primarily as a male mating call, he posited that women, being objects of desire by default, essentially have no use for it. "The chief task in life that a man has to perform," Mr. Hitchens wrote, "is that of impressing the opposite sex. ... An average man has just one, outside chance: He had better be able to make the lady laugh."
Mr. Hitchens took great pains to emphasize that there were plenty of exceptions to his rule. He also gave the female of the species credit for, generally speaking, having a sense of humor, which he rightly saw as distinct from actually being funny. "If they did not operate on the humor wavelength," he wrote, "there would be scant point in half killing oneself in the attempt to make them writhe and scream (uproariously.)"
But Mr. Hitchens' central thesis, that humor is rooted most firmly in the soil of self-deprecation, cruelty and scatology (male modes, one and all) was put forth as an unassailable proposition. "There are some impressive [funny] ladies out there," he allowed. "Most of them ... are hefty or dykey or Jewish" (way to stay classy, Hitch). When the inevitable blowback listed countless examples of comediennes quite a bit sexier than those Mr. Hitchens seemed to be imagining, he held his ground without flinching. "The achievement of my essay [was] to make sexier women try harder to amuse me," he said in a video counter-rebuttal. "Well, that was my whole plan to start with."
That's cute (actually, I found it hilarious). But was it really necessary? No, because — sorry, sisters — Mr. Hitchens was right. While there are a great many women in the world who are side-splittingly droll, I'm afraid that in the aggregate, we're just not as funny as men. Not that we can't be, but we aren't. I make this point not as some contrarian gesture meant to pay homage to Hitchens' contrarian legacy but as someone who's been in enough classrooms and offices, gone to enough dinner parties and improv shows and watched enough "Saturday Night Live" and Comedy Central to have noticed that for every woman who actually makes people laugh out loud there are probably 10 men.
Believe me, I wish ribald knee-slappers were as likely to be heard in a Jazzercise class as in a cigar bar. I also wish Mr. Hitchens hadn't had quite such a lead foot in this article, because beneath all the knuckle dragging are some important ideas (he may not have meant to make them, but they're there nonetheless) about the ways humor erases culturally sanctioned notions of femininity. Women avoid funny because they're afraid of what they'll have to give up in exchange — for instance, the coy mysteriousness that men supposedly prize above all else. A funny woman, no matter how conventionally lovely, generally has to accept that she'll also be perceived as a little bit funny looking. When she gets a laugh, she risks subliminally conveying the message that she's making up for some hidden deficiency, that she's sad or irreparably broken. Why else, as Mr. Hitchens would ask, would she need the humor?
Well, maybe because humor is power. Maybe it's pretty much the most useful tool we humans have for getting through the day. Maybe because to be deprived of this power, even by dint of one's own vanity, is a form of oppression. And maybe women should have been thanking Mr. Hitchens even as we castigated him. As infuriating as he was, he forced us to recognize our own complicity in that oppression. It's common, after all, for women to value personality over looks when it comes to men. But being a funny woman means valuing personality over looks when it comes to oneself. And that takes balls.
Meghan Daum is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, where this article originally appeared. Her email is email@example.com.