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The Incredible Shrinking You-Know-What: Southern Women's Humor Anne Goodwyn Jones Southern women's humor. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron, like southern scrod or southern intellectual history. Men are the ones who tell jokes, after all; you don't see men fall into confusion in the middle of a story and say, blushing and suddenly shy, "Oh, I just can't tell a joke." Men wrote the classic southern humor of the Old Southwest, that eye gouging, lip ripping, nose chewing, bragging, boasting male South of white men on the Alabama and Mississippi frontiers. These are the folks who portrayed themselves as "half-alligator and half cooter," who defended their honor by mutilating one another's protuberant parts, and who thought it the height of humor to destroy Mrs. Yardley's quilting party. Women's job was to keep men's humor clean, or keep it out of the house. So Ted Ownby implies in his book Subduing Satan (1990). The southern women's world of evangelical purity aimed to subdue men and their pleasures, to bring them into the fold. For men this meant, besides cutting out drinking, gambling , cockfighting, and other masculine delights, cleaning up their language and, presumably, laundering their jokes. But Ownby's study ended in 1920, and southern women seem to have changed. Some of the jokes you can hear today from the sainted lips of southern ladies would curl the toes of the most reprobate nineteenth-century gators. In fact, some of them are so blue that I am too personally shy to say the words in public. Hence my title: "the incredible shrinking you-know-what." I know what you-know-what is, and you know what a you-know-what is or you soon will, so we should have no problem understanding southern women's humor without losing our dignity and the funding of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mississippi Humanities Council. Before we start shrinking you-know-whats, though, I have a few thoughts about southern women and humor that I'd like to pass along. It has struck me in reading some of the best twentieth-century southern women humorists—Moms Mabley, Florence King, Lisa Alther, Zora Neale Hurston, Fannie Flagg, Beth Henley , Rita Mae Brown, Lee Smith, Flannery O'Connor, and of course, Eudora Welty—that there is sometimes an uncertainty about what should be the territory of women's humor, what is laughable for women, and what is off limits. In fact, 468Southern Cultures I would argue that the history of southern women's humor is the history of expanding the limits of what is laughable. For a long time the favorite target of southern women's humor was southern women. A couple of examples: Do you know why southern women don't like group sex? Too many thank-you notes. And maybe you have heard the story of the Buckhead dowager during World War II who decided to do her part for the war effort: She called down to Fort Macpherson and told the captain she'd like to invite some enlisted men for Sunday dinner. "Just make sure they are good Christian boys," she said. Sunday came, the doorbell rang, and there stood three strong, tall, black soldiers. "Who are you all?" she asked. "Ma'am, we're the soldiers came for dinner." "There must have been a terrible mistake," the lady said. "No, ma'am," the soldier answered. "Cap'n Goldberg, he don't make no mistakes." Think of Flannery O'Connor. What do we laugh at? A Bible salesman steals the wooden leg of a snobby intellectual woman in "Good Country People." A fat, ugly Wellesley girl throws a fit in a doctor's waiting room in "Revelation." A retarded girl gets left in a roadside diner. A forgetful old woman leads her family to mass murder. A bossy mother is gored by her bull, and so forth. Now O'Connor deliberately crosses the limits of laughter in her stories for reasons that have to do with her beliefs about the way the grace of God works in the modern world. She wants to shock...


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