- Laughter, Humor, and the (Un)Making of Gender: Historical and Cultural Perspectives ed. by Anna Foka and Jonas Liliequist
“[T]he basic assertion of [the] present volume is that humor and laughter not only are fundamental to the construction and reproduction of gender norms and identities, but also provide powerful rhetorical tools for subversion and change” (2). With these words, the co-editors announce the thesis shared by the twelve wide-ranging studies within this volume. The sole editorial restriction placed upon contributions was that each scholar’s period of study predate the modern era, and with such broad latitude, the articles do indeed vary widely. Cultures and regions under examination sprawl geographically from Iceland across Western Europe to Greece, Sweden, Turkey, and China, and temporally from the seventh century b.c.e. to the nineteenth century c.e. Yet the universality of laughter, humor, and gender as human experiences ensures that, amidst this variety, there will be something of interest to almost any reader.
The question of intended audience nevertheless persists throughout a reading of this volume, especially when the book is priced out of being a casual purchase. Readers interested in the classical world, for instance, will find explicit and extended treatments of Mediterranean antiquity in three articles dispersed among the remaining nine: David Konstan’s “Laughing at Ourselves: Gendered Humor in Classical Greece” (chapter 1); co-editor Anna Foka’s “Gender Subversion and the Early Christian East” (chapter 4), and Alexander Mitchell’s “Humor, Women, and Male Anxieties in Ancient Greek Visual Culture.” (chapter 9). These three chapters read as edifying individual studies, but despite their shared handling of humor and gender, they fail to engage substantively with one another. This seems a missed opportunity insofar as the editors note in the acknowledgments that the collection was conceived during a 2012 multidisciplinary workshop at Umeå University, Sweden, where most of the contributors were in attendance. Some of the volume’s contributions come from scholars of humor, laughter, and emotions; others from scholars of gender; and still others from scholars with specific regional or historical expertise who are alert to elements of humor and gender in their respective fields. With this diverse group of contributors, the anticipated readership must be correspondingly so. [End Page 564]
As if to orient such an interdisciplinary audience, the volume is rich in helpful introductions. In addition to a short general introduction in which the co-editors sketch the framework of the volume (i.e., two parts, each with six articles), each part is prefaced with a more comprehensive introduction in which brief summaries of the articles act as embedded abstracts. Readers have a precise idea of what is to come before they even turn to the first page of a given chapter. Moreover, the articles themselves include generous introductory information to orient readers in terms of the distinct topics, time periods, and regions under examination.
A less salutary consequence of the varied backgrounds of the contributors is the lack of theoretical consistency in the volume, especially with regard to the titular fields of humor and gender studies. Laughter and humor, for example, are granted equal billing in the title and are even distinguished from each other in the “General Introduction” (1), but many of the chapters use the two interchangeably and invoke laughter as an unproblematic concomitant of humor. Stephen Halliwell’s Greek Laughter: A Study of Cultural Psychology from Homer to Early Christianity (Cambridge 2008) and Mary Beard’s Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up (Berkeley and Los Angeles 2014) have demonstrated the frequent independence of laughter from humor in Greek and Roman literature, and a modern reader need only contemplate nervous laughter or an amusing joke appreciated in silence to recognize that the one does not always accompany the other. Gender theory does not receive much more nuanced treatment. The majority of the articles observe a gender-binary of feminine and masculine, with only the rare...