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  • “Have Women a Sense of Humor?” Comedy and Femininity in Early Twentieth-Century Film
  • Kristen Anderson Wagner (bio)

In 1901 Harper’s Bazaar asked the question, “Have Women a Sense of Humor?” (Coquelin 67). More than one hundred years later, Vanity Fair published an article explaining “Why Women Aren’t Funny” (Hitchens 54). These articles are part of a larger debate about women’s capacity to engage in and appreciate humor that has existed for many years and represent traces of a long-standing prejudice in American culture against women performing comedy, a prejudice that has affected women’s comic expression in every form and forum. Public debates about whether women have a sense of humor and the nature of women’s humor date to at least the nineteenth century and clearly continue to this day. Countless writers and critics have argued that femininity and a sense of humor are mutually exclusive and that women’s “natural” inclination toward emotion and sensitivity has left them incapable of possessing a quality—humor—that many feel is dependent on “masculine” traits such as intellect and aggressiveness. Women, the argument goes, are far too refined and delicate to be funny. The True Woman, the feminine ideal for much of the late nineteenth century, was known for her morality, passivity, and spirituality, not for her ability to tell a joke. But just as women in the first decades of the twentieth century challenged assumptions about femininity established with the True Woman, female comedians during this time challenged the notion that women were inherently unfunny.

Comediennes in early twentieth-century entertainments such as vaudeville and silent film were performing at a time when debates about women and comedy were at their most heated and when the very concepts of “woman” and “femininity” were undergoing massive transformation. Because of the pervasive belief that comedy was inappropriate for women, female comics were much more liable than other performers to be seen as crossing social boundaries into unacceptable behavior and were open to criticism for performing certain types of comedy thought to be unladylike. As a result of these concerns and criticisms, comediennes—along with fans and the popular press—were often highly ambivalent regarding the relationship between comedy and femininity. But rather than avoiding the genre altogether, film comediennes negotiated a comic space for themselves in myriad ways. Some, including Fay Tincher, Constance Talmadge, and Dorothy Devore, advocated a more refined, “feminine” comedy as an alternative to the rough-and-tumble slapstick that many felt was unsuitable for women, and some—acquiescing to prejudices against funny women—spoke of their desire to leave comedy for more respectable dramas. Other comediennes, like Alice Howell, Gale Henry, and Polly Moran, unapologetically embraced comedy, even lowbrow slapstick, to the delight of their fans and the consternation of their critics. Although these critics generally felt that physical comedy was antithetical to delicate femininity, many comediennes built highly successful careers on movies “of the ‘custard pie’ variety” (Mack 37). However they chose to conduct their careers in the face of these challenges, comediennes at this time were highly visible examples of women defying expectations regarding ladylike behavior and proper femininity, contradicting notions of how women should behave, and proving that they were capable of succeeding in a “masculine” genre.

In many ways, comedy is an ideal genre for women to push boundaries and challenge traditional gender roles, as the genre has long been used as a means of masking transgression and of rendering acceptable a wide range of behaviors. As Kathleen Rowe points out, “[A]ll narrative forms contain the potential to represent transformation and change, but it is the genres of laughter that most fully employ the motifs of liminality” (8). Certainly [End Page 35] other genres, especially the serial-queen melodrama, also provided silent-era actresses with an opportunity to challenge traditional gender roles.1 However, while serial-queen melodrama “gravitates toward a reversal of gender positions” (Singer 174), slapstick comedy moves toward an erasure of gender positions, an obliteration of traditional gender roles, as the chaos and anarchy evident in the slapstick universe, including pervasive and persistent gender confusion, go cheerfully unresolved at the end of the film. Action...


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pp. 35-46
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