Media & Entertainment

Self-deprecatory Humour by Women in Comedy

self-deprecatory humour

A groundbreaking study on humour production ability was conducted in 2019 by researchers from Aberystwyth University and the University of North Carolina. It looked into the question that everyone was dying for an answer- which gender is funnier? A meta-analysis of 28 studies, which involved 5000 people, 67% of them being female, revealed astounding results- 63% of men were funnier than the average women. 

Sadly, this is not a research parody or fabricated results. It is only proof that even in the scientific world, there is existing research that just seems unnecessary. This article will consider the stereotype of “women aren’t funny” and will reveal the implications of this mindset.

Underrepresentation in the stand-up comedy industry

Unfortunately, comedy is another sector of the entertainment industry in which women are significantly underrepresented. While sources differ, in 2018 it was estimated that the comedic industry is made up of 75% of men and 25% of women. This is problematic for women who want to try stand-up comedy, as it is harder to see any of their popular counterparts. In fact, this is only the first piece of the puzzle. When the Ranker community ranked the funniest comedians of all time, the first nineteen were men and in the top 50 only 3 women appeared, showing how the audience is way more exposed to male stand-up comedy. Not only that, but it also shows that the “women aren’t funny” stereotype remains present, and such rankings only reinforce it.

Men usually are assumed to be funny and have to prove that they are not until they get dismissed, while women have to win the audience and prove that she is funny.

Some comedians and other scholars have theorized the causes of such a phenomenon. Comedian Kim Wayans has explained that men usually are assumed to be funny and have to prove that they are not until they get dismissed, while women have to win the audience and prove that she is funny. Besides, this stereotype can be linked to the traditional gender roles on two levels. Firstly, the man is deemed as the “initiator” of humour, while women are the “responders”, implying that comedy is not suitable for women. Secondly, since stand-up comedy demands active engagement with the audience and domination of the stage, men who are seen as the aggressors seem to fit these criteria well, while such behaviour is not expected from women. However, times are changing for the better with more and more females getting roles in the industry, and overall diversification is starting to unfold. But how do women cope and solidify themselves in the comedy industry?

Self-deprecatory humour: self-destruction or a critical part in stand-up?

Self-deprecatory humour can be considered as making jokes about ourselves, disparaging the cultural values that we share, and usually serves as a mechanism to reverse the impact of the insult. Notably, both men and women in the industry have utilized this form of expression; yet, women’s self-deprecation has historically been disproportionately the object of male humour. Nonetheless, there are two perspectives on the effectiveness of self-deprecation: it either serves as emancipation from gender norms, or a complete reinforcement of them. 

For example, Gina Barreca, a famous academic and a humorist argues that self-deprecatory jokes only make the patriarchal man a friend, because he also finds the jokes funny. The author solidifies the view that self-deprecatory jokes only serve as a reinforcement of stereotypes being a true demerit to women’s emancipation in social systems. However, some critics argue that this might be an oversimplification. Research by Joanne Gilbert contends the aforementioned view and notes that such a form of humour only ridicules the nonsensical narratives about females and can successfully challenge the gender norms surrounding the body. 

The implications of self-deprecation

The elephant in the room regarding such a question is the audience. Critics argue that self-deprecation can be a function of reassurance. For example, if a woman shares an experience about something that is considered taboo, some of the audience would identify themselves with it and understand that they are not alone in solving their inner conflicts. Despite this, it could alienate the audience completely from the programme. The use of self-deprecation could make the audience feel uncomfortable, as by saying that they are not okay with themselves, part of the audience would bring along the same message.

It is clear that so far self-deprecatory humour has not made any change, and the industry itself needs to change.

Essentially, this form of humour is almost always used to dismantle the hierarchies and the structural norms of society; nonetheless, it remains questionable whether the use of self-deprecation is necessary and effective. Considering the fact that a BBC study found that 75% of female stand-up comedians have experienced sexual harassment at work and 25% of them molested by a fellow comedian, it is clear that so far self-deprecatory humour has not made any change, and the industry itself needs to change. Women are still seen as sexual objects and treated horribly not only in terms of working experience, but in getting a fair share of opportunities as well, given that only 16% of comedy screenwriters are female. In sum, such appalling statistics may prove the counterproductiveness of self-deprecation in terms of its ability to challenge the patriarchal realm.

Women have been fighting the narrative of being “not funny” for ages; yet, gender inequality in the comedy industry remains. This has led to fewer female comedians being commercially successful; consequently, discouraging aspiring female comedians from indulging themselves in the art of comedy. However, as the 21st century progresses, social structures and gender norms are continuously challenged, which leaves hope for change in the entertainment industry.


Cover: Idil Sukan

Edited by: Yili Char

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