Introduction: Humor and Power

by Gloria Kaufman (pp. vii-xii of In Stitches)

Humor is empowering.

Oppressed peoples deliberately use humor to lighten the burdens of daily life so that they can survive. Feminist humor, however, is not merely (or even primarily) survival humor. It grows out of a conviction that the assigning of power on the basis of genitalia is both ludicrous and unacceptable. Feminist humor clarifies vision with the satiric intent of inspiring change. It is therefore essentially hopeful rather than resigned or bitter, as mainstream women's humor often is. In contrast to feminist humor, nonfeminist women's humor is frequently survival humor. It accepts a status quo regarded as inevitable. [1] The empowerment derived from such humor is far less than that of revolutionary humor, which points toward change.

Feminist humor, insofar as it indicates (or inspires) change, is obviously concerned with the transfer of power from those who have it overwhelmingly to those who have too little. But feminist humor is much more. To indicate its overt political dimension is like describ­ing a dolphin only in terms of the magnificent muscle that propels her flamboyantly into the air. If feminist humor is our dolphin, we must also describe her sleek body, her rich language, her subtle smile. The subtleties are immense.

Why, then, attempt to define feminist humor? Because an editor has some obligation to explain to readers interested in such matters why some of the items in the book have been included. "That's amusing, but how is it feminist?" was a constant challenge I received from Leslie Viktora, whom I used as a sounding board in compiling In Stitches.

All definitions are of course partial, for as soon as a person or an idea can be defined, it is dead. But the world of ideas and people is richly alive. What eludes definition? Perhaps it is their possibilities that are the most important aspects of concepts and of creatures, and we don't define a person or an idea by its potential. Understanding, then, that my quixotic sallies into definition are incomplete, let me add to my initial description of feminist humor, our graceful dolphin. Her spectacular leaps are the self-conscious political aspects of feminist humor I have described in the opening paragraph, but there is more to say about her life under water. If a contributor is a proclaimed feminist (such as Mary Kay Blakely and Barbara Ehrenreich), then her feminist vision informs all aspects of living, and it is reflected in her humor, not only in overt but also in quite subtle ways. If an artist is subconsciously or unconsciously feminist, that too is expressed in complex and oblique ways that are far less discernible. Furthermore, feminism so pervades our culture today that feminist humor is sometimes produced by consciously nonfeminist people – and even occasionally by antifeminists. When the "message" of a piece is overtly political, it is of course easy to label. That is the dolphin leaping. Under water, I am disposed to quote Dorothy Parker (as Nancy A. Walker did in introducing her book on women's humor):

I had thought, on starting this composition [The Most of S. J. Perelman] that I should define what humor means to me. However, every time I tried to, I had to go and lie down with a cold wet cloth on my head. [p. xii]

I, like Dorothy Parker and countless others, am undone by the task at hand. Much of the humor of In Stitches is not brazenly political, and is thus "under water." For example, the feminist aspects of Bambara's "My Man Bovanne," a poignant work of art, are less obvious than many of the story's other important meanings. But when we think about how painfully typical it is that United States culture devalues or ignores the humane wisdom of older women and how painfully typical it is for mothers to be treated with disrespect by their children, we see profoundly feminist perspectives.

Under water, we must acknowledge that the sleek body of feminist humor has an endless variety of subtleties, as shown in Bambara's fiction. Under water, we must realize that our dolphin’s rich language has multileveled meanings (as in Virginia Maksymowicz's “The History of Art," p. 169) that make critics' current comments on subtexts seem inadequate, simplistic, and reductive. Under water, we can suppose that our dolphin's enigmatic smile asserts that she is totally beyond definition and that she tolerantly chides our attempts to describe her and that she wants us to know she is not even who she is but also who she will become, that her soul is her as-yet-unrealized and never-to-be-described potential.

The only sense, then, in which I am willing to define my vision of feminist humor is to assert that the entire volume of In Stitches is an instance of definition by example. The contents taken totally define the dolphin to the extent that definition is possible. The reader's imagination is then free to discover subtleties other than those that I see, to disagree with my selections, to ponder, and to meander where it will. (I particularly invite disagreement because my choices and analyses of feminist humor reflect my own bias toward what is positive.)

The humor that people create is a strong indicator of who they are and what they value. Feminist humor celebrates modes of power quite different from masculine societal norms. Indeed, it regularly satirizes as puerile or illogical the common equation of force and power. In the feminist view, the man with the gun, lacking persuasive power, lacking imagination, insecure in himself, is weak, not powerful. Molly's Designer Guns (p. 70) are a delightful burlesque, comically suggesting that men have failed to appreciate the best potential in firearms. Pat Oleszko's walking poster (p. 69) shows us the multiple powers of art, of pleasure, and of visual delight. Jane Wagner's "The Suicide Note" (p. 128) is a brilliant and subtle demonstration of how a mere feeling for the connectedness of human beings can charge us with another kind of less conscious but vividly felt understanding­ – an understanding that is both exhilarating and deeply empowering.

Feminism is committed to the idea that knowledge and understanding themselves con­vey strength (far more than guns and force), and that they can be put to use to enhance their powers still further. In a general sense, therefore, everything we know empowers us. In the "Zap!" section, all the street actions bringing information to the general public express (in complex ways) both the power of words and the power of actions. In another sense, our learning that such actions took place, as, for example, that the Ladies Against Women held a bake sale at the Republican National Convention (p. 154), gives us greater knowledge of our history of protest, and that knowledge strengthens us. In contrast to mainstream masculinist humor, feminist humor often and consciously presents informa­tion that can empower people.

Mainstream attack humor is not salutary in the way that feminist humor is. The laughter that a put-down elicits smears a smile over someone's pain and leaves its victim hurting. Perhaps it even damages the teller, who certainly knows he or she has provided more pain than mirth. The smirk of the superior is not a positive thing. Feminist humor, in contrast, invites its "victims" to change their wrong behaviors and join the laughter. Thus in "Psychic Economics " (p. 137), Mary Kay Blakely allows the unnamed administrator to share with us the foIIy of his "psychic income." Her purpose is not to hurt him (or to ridicule him to elicit a cheap laugh) but rather to educate him so that he can make intelligent changes. The intent of the humor is to improve rather than to damage its object. Where mainstream humor strives to hurt the weak to maintain hierarchy and the status quo, feminist humor strives to educate both weak and powerful in order to stimulate change in the direction of equity or justice.

Some of the most imaginatively rebellious feminist humor comes from the art world. In Stitches deliberately attempts to suggest the variety of feminist humor in artistic productions – Glenna Park's Texas Marching Band (p. 155), Virginia Maksymowicz's "The History of Art” (p. 169), Elizabeth Layton's self-portrait (p. 53), Pat Oleszko's numerous “spectacles of herself," Susan Mogul's incursion into stand-up performance (p. 142), Evi Seidman’s environmental art (p. 128), and so on. If I have partially succeeded in suggesting the variety of humorous art by feminist artists, I have in no way been able to suggest the enormous quantity of such art.


"How to Dress," photograph by Gloria Kaufman, published on pg. 84 of In Stitches.

Humor and power are related in highly complex ways. On the one hand society has recognized the expression (or creation) of humor as an exercise of power and has reacted negatively to women humorists. (Things are changing.) On the other hand women (and other suppressed groups) have privately and regularly used humor to empower themselves in order to survive oppression or subversively to resist it. No one doubts that humor is empowering. It is especially positive in dispelling fear. Laughing at our enemies diminishes them and emboldens us. When they hear our impertinent, fearless humor, it additionally discomfits or angers them; sometimes it nourishes their self-doubts. But they also grudgingly admire our wit, if only subconsciously, and that somewhat weakens their will to oppress us.

Power dynamics are visible in joke telling, and a few comments are in order to explain why there are no jokes in In Stitches. Jokes are not a favored form of humor with feminists – not only because so many jokes are based on stereotypes and feminism tends to sharply critical of stereotypical thinking. And not only because some jokes are aggressively destructive. Freudians explain such jokes as a healthy mechanism for the release of repressed hostilities, a convenient catharsis beneficial to the joker. Surprisingly (since they are therapists), they fail to consider the negative psychological impacts on victims of such jokes. Feminists do. Where catharsis for an aggressor leads to trauma for a victim, feminism sees no benefit.

The above reasons, however, do not sufficiently explain the dearth of feminist jokes and jokebooks. As feminists we are more likely to enjoy or to collect the jokes of other groups than to create our own. Our preferences are toward spontaneous wit, amusing real-life anecdotes, clever dialogue, and other forms of humor that are participatory. Jokes involving tellers and listeners. The teller is the active one at the center of attention, and the listeners are relatively passive. While the joke is being performed, conversation is closed off. Even when one joke teller does not monopolize attention and allows others in the group to tell their favorite jokes, spontaneous human interaction is largely absent. The group listens to performances that are predetermined and often unrelated to the lives of the listeners. (The truly artful joke teller, of course, knows when to joke and when to be silent.)

In dialogue, feminists generally prefer wit to jokes. The witticism grows out of the conversation: it is spontaneous, integrated, and integrating. Witty remarks contribute to dialogue, while jokes interrupt and distract from it. Jokes interjected into lively colloquy often seem, therefore, less creative and less meaningful than integrated witticisms. Feminists are far more likely than others to regard jokes as artificial, as old hat, or as inhibiting community, and to prefer humor forms more spontaneous, unpredictable, participatory and lively. (For these reasons, I often advise social scientists measuring the reception of humor according to gender to use forms other than jokes in their studies.)

Finally, the joke teller often exerts a kind of control that feminists find unpleasant, particularly in social situations. The performer is safe. He is in control. He disallows the egalitarian risks of dialogue. That is one reason that Ronald Reagan told so many jokes. As Eileen Bender has pointed out to me, Reagan's joke telling gave him access to a power he could not have achieved in any other way. It allowed him to sidestep uncomfortable questions. It allowed him to defuse anger. It allowed him to take control from interrogators armed with far more information than he. Ronald Reagan's success is, indeed, one of the best illustrations of the power humor gives to those who know how to use it. Regan validated his position as leader by his use of humor.

Because establishment patriarchal culture recognizes that humor is empowering, it has sought to deny women, children, and other "inferior" groups the capacity for humor. While society has failed to convince us that we women are humorless, it has succeeded in using mainstream humor to denigrate and to divide us. Mainstream humor has created a rich palette of negative stereotypes as devices for maintaining and increasing senses of inadequacy in oppressed groups. Think of all those mother-in-law jokes (by contrast, there are no father-in-law jokes). Mother-in-law jokes cause women to bond with men against other women (the mothers-in-law) and finally against themselves; for in patriarchal normative society, every woman will become a mother-in-law – nagging, unattractive, unpleasant at best, and nasty at her usual worst. The oppressive stereotype is so harped upon that mother-in-law humor causes the new young wife to look upon herself as exceptional, as unlike other (nasty) women. It teaches her to dislike and to separate from members of her own gender group. Negative stereotypes, a mainstay of patriarchal culture, are thus effective in maintaining the rule of “superior” white males over stereotypically conceived women, children, and minorities.

Feminist humor does not use power in such a way. It avoids stereotypes. A major purpose of feminist humor is, indeed, to build people up rather than to break them down. In the Introduction to the first collection of feminist humor and satire, Pulling Our Own Strings (1980) [2], I described feminist humor as largely pick-up in contrast to the huge quantity of put-down mainstream humor. Hostility humor is ultimately unattractive. We want something more, and we find it in other kinds of laughter – in humor that restores, in humor that renews, in humor that creates. The scholarship focusing on positive aspects of humor seems to me much more valuable and profound than the relatively monotonous work emphasizing humor as aggressively destructive. [3] Perhaps that is inevitable in a culture still dominated by Freudian ideas. Yet humor is surely striking for its positive effects, not only in stimulating laughter and pleasure but also for restoring perspective and enhancing clarity of vision.

Notwithstanding my personal preference for the positive, there is feminist humor this is angry or despairing or bitter. In general, the greater the perceived possibility for change, the more cheerful the humor. The less the likelihood of change, the grimmer or the angrier the humor. Much medical humor tends to be bitter because most people (feminists included) see little chance of significantly change a profession so extravagantly worshipful of money and prestige. Of course, the other professions also cherish money and status, but none so deliberately train their practitioners to be arrogant (see Getting Doctored by Martin Shapiro, M.D.). More important, no other profession has established the unique control that places physicians almost entirely beyond the reach of the law: i.e., almost nothing pernicious or even homicidal that a physician does is subject to criminal investigation or penalty. Currently, the medical profession is seeking further to diminish liability for its consciously harmful acts and devices (such as the Dalkon Shield). It reasons that compensating people who have been proven permanently harmed is too expensive. Logic, of course, dictates that medicine should stop the known harm. Physicians, however, use a special form of thinking that guarantees their blamelessness. Hazel Houlihingle explores that thinking in “Medical Logic” (p. 122), a piece that is more cheerful than much feminist medical humor because of its hilarious analogies.

A sense of humor is requisite for twentieth-century living. Today we are daily bombarded (through mass media) with more of the wrongs, miseries, and evils of the world than sensitive people can endure. Humor saves us; it preserves sanity. It insists that in the persistent darkness, there is also light. Its insistence is not a delusion but an important part of truth – a part too easily trivialized, a part too rarely prized.

The clarity of vision gifted to us by feminist humor should be emphasized in any comments on humor and power. The purpose of feminist theory is to strengthen us through analysis that leads to understanding. Feminist humor, however, often conveys understanding without leading us through jungles of abstraction. Thus, for example, Glenna Park’s Texas Art Band marching down the streets of San Antonio, combined with relatively short news coverage, was able to convey a rich understanding of government priorities vis-a-vis budgets for the Department of Defense and the National Endowment for the Arts. The Band effectively dramatized national values. Humor, thus, often visits us with instant understanding. It is a valuable (and sometimes necessary) supplement to theory.

In Stitches intends to reaffirm our positive directions, to restore flagging feminist energies, to demonstrate the progress of the past decade, to cherish our artists who through humor achieve clarity and insight, to demonstrate and to reaffirm that in diversity there is strength. Feminist humor has a salutary social function. It brings us an abundance of nonmalicious laughter. It encourages playfulness. It puts our problems at laughing distance, restoring our perspective and sharpening our insight. It allows us to share our deep and serious commitments in joyful ways. Feminist humor renews in the mysterious way that great comedy renews – by putting its finger on the hugely positive potential of human beings and by reminding us of our rejuvenating choices.

Indiana University at South Bend

January 1991


[1] For a somewhat different view of feminist humor, see Nancy A. Walker, A Very Serious Thing: Women’s Humor and American Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).

[2] Pulling Our Own Strings: Feminist Humor and Satire, edited by Gloria Kaufman and Mary Kay Blakely (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1980).

[3] Uninformed readers can get a sense of the variety, volume, and solidity of humor scholarship from Patricia Keith-Spiegel, “Early Conceptions of Humor: Varieties & Issues,” in The Psychology of Humor, edited by J. F. Goldstein and P. E. McGhee (New York: Academic Press, 1972), pp. 3-39; and from Paul E. McGhee and Jeffrey H. Goldstein, eds., Handbook of Humor Research, 2 vols. (New York: Springer Verlag, 1983). They might also consult publications of the International Society for Humor Studies, which are rich and various. A new interdisciplinary journal, HUMOR: International Journal of Humor Research is edited by Victor Raskin at Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907.

In Stitches, 1991
Introduction: Humor and Power