Glorious Gaffes and Tribal Laughter

IT'S hard to respond to the charge that feminists have no sense of humor. A blistering ``Oh yes they do'' tends to confirm the charge. I found it was often wiser simply to concede the point - and seek higher ground.

Why should feminism be funny? Lots of things aren't funny. Oil spills aren't funny. Limiting prospects for half the human race isn't funny. (I felt the phrase ``half the human race'' added heft to my argument.) Discrimination against women, I concluded, isn't funny.

But, in fact, it can be.

There was, for example, a job interview with a senior professor in my field at a West Coast university. I walked my new leather briefcase and brown suit into his office, sat in what I took to be the interview chair, and waited. He read a bit longer, then looked up and said suddenly and with almost childlike wonder, ``Isn't it amazing that so many unqualified women are getting job interviews.''

The woman with the briefcase had the wits to ask, in a tone far steadier than her confidence, ``Have you read my resum'e?'' He had not. No, he hadn't meant me, he said. He was just wondering.

The interview wasn't funny at the time. Or even later in the hotel room. It only ripened into funny back on the East Coast in the telling of it to friends.

The laughter, theirs and mine, took the sting away. Curiously, not because he was wrong. I would not have been a good choice for that job. But he had made that call before knowing anything about me - or, for that matter, looking up from his book.

This story was soon joined by others. For example, the faculty colleague who at my ``welcome'' dinner party told me that he had written tough math and economics requirements into his courses to ``keep little girls out of the program.''

A glorious gaffe! To laugh at it the first time (well after the dinner) eased a tough transition into an academic department that had little experience with women as colleagues.

When the few women faculty on campus sought each other out at the end of a week, similar war stories often spilled out. Each careless, intemperate remark (faculty meetings provided abundant grist to grind) was recalled, burnished, preserved for later retelling. It became a kind of ritual.

Over time, however, these stories lost their power to lighten. They seemed to harden in the retelling: the same inflections, the same key phrases. Oft-told stories brought less laughter and more bitter chuckles, knowing nods, and a deepening sense that the problem was just too vast to solve.

Once, in a moment of stunning candor, a colleague told me the reason I had been excluded from a small faculty study group. ``Men laugh at women and women laugh at men,'' he said. Neither can expose the margins of their thinking. They would be too vulnerable.

This exchange never got funny, not even close. It did prompt a sober look at the quality of my own laughing.

These stories, this laughter of the tribe, felt like a protection of sorts. The stories said: It isn't personal. A slight, a biting remark isn't personal, it's prejudice. Other women have had the same experiences.

I was reminded of another protection of sorts: a heavy security bar my dangerous-neighborhood landlord insisted I use to lock myself in at night. The steel rod dropped into a hole in the floor and then slid into a notched metal plate on the door. That part was easy.

The difficult part was living with the image that was involuntarily invoked each time that steel rod snapped into place: a violent enemy outside the door. He (of course) had no face. But the idea of enemy remained as long as the bar did, which was until the real injuries incurred by tripping over it at night overcame fear of possible injuries from an imagined assailant.

Oft-told war stories also tend to fix images of enemies in thought and inflict unintended injury. My ``keep-little-girls out-of-the-program'' colleague turned out to value women as students and coworkers. His gift for gaffe sadly outpaced the quiet evidence of his regard. Our stories only emphasized the problem. I hope they did not discourage him.

Humor can ease over harsh moments. It can go places more sharply confrontational thought cannot and, like Toto in the Wizard of Oz, quietly pull back the curtain on the ``great and powerful'' prejudices. But laughter that lingers can settle into resignation or rancor.

My grandmother maintained a keen sense of humor all her life - and she preserved its healing edge. The only creature I recall her ever injuring was a rampaging porcupine - bopped on the nose with a baseball bat. Her letters often included a cartoon from the Saturday Evening Post with ``Please Return!'' in the margin. Those that were returned (very few) made it into scrapbooks and the rhythm of dinner conversations and bedtime stories.

Once she asked me to bring these scrapbooks to her bed, where she had been for several days. ``I could use a good laugh,'' she said.

What I heard after some minutes didn't sound like a laugh at first. But by the time I reached her bed a second time, she was shaking and tears had started down her face: a full, hearty, rock-back-and-forth laugh. (She would have many more.)

I still remember that cartoon: a woman in free fall down a flight of stairs. Her husband surveys the domestic wreckage with a vexed expression and barks out, ``Well, that's nice - there goes the heel off your new shoes.''

Perhaps one reason it was so funny was because it was so perfectly incongruous. Yet we weren't left with an abiding resentment for the stolid husband at the foot of the stairs. And there was no fear the wife would be injured, either by the fall or the remark.

There is wisdom in such laughter. Every inappropriate, remark I ever made or took offense at was somehow remembered in the laughter, perhaps in the tears, of it. And in the laugh there is the hope that whoever could have been hurt by it will brush it aside with a laugh, and not set it in amber.

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