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Reviewed by:
  • Women and Comedy: History, Theory, Practice ed. by Peter Dickinson et al.
  • Stephanie Brown (bio)
Women and Comedy: History, Theory, Practice.
Edited by Peter Dickinson, Anne Higgins, Paul Matthew St. Pierre, Diana Solomon, and Sean Zwagerman. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013. 250 pp.

The essays collected in Women and Comedy: History, Theory, and Practice, originally presented and discussed at a 2011 symposium held at Simon Fraser University, highlight, examine, and celebrate the role of women in comedy. The editors note in their introduction that the symposium, like much recent work on women in comedy, was in many ways a scholarly reaction to Christopher Hitchens’s now infamous [End Page 322] January 2007 Vanity Fair article “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” Of course, the way for Women and Comedy was paved by pioneering scholars of women’s humor like Nancy Walker, Regina Barreca, Zita Dresner, Joanne Gilbert, and Judy Little, whose work sought to “prove that women’s humor is and always has been around,” and, more importantly, to “celebrate its power and uniqueness” (xxv). This collection helps to build on that long-standing project while also interrogating it and pushing it a step further. To this end, Women and Comedy seeks to complicate not only constructions of gender but also constructions of comedy. Further, the ultimate goal of the book is not to define comedy, but rather to examine “what it does and where it does it” (xxvii), while simultaneously demonstrating that women have always been active producers and audiences of comedy, not just the objects of men’s jokes.

The contributors to this collection, like all who take critical approaches to concepts as slippery as humor and gender, struggle with what Peter Dickinson refers to in his epilogue as the “essentialist/constructivist” divide (220). Is there an essential set of characteristics that unite women’s humor? If both gender and comedy are social constructs, then what is the core on which we should center a study of women’s humor? Throughout the book, scholars wrestle with questions inherent to a project devoted to women’s comedy: how do we define, make visible, and celebrate women’s humor without overgeneralizing the concepts of women or flattening the comedy? As the editors note in their introduction, scholarship on humor in practice historically meant men’s humor, thereby ignoring women’s humor and generalizing, as universal, a subset of the wider range of humor that has been produced (xii). Any project aimed at adding women to the comedy canon must therefore strike a balance between celebrating women’s humor and generalizing all women-identified humorists as the same. As Barreca notes in the book’s preface, “age, race, ethnic background, and class are all significant factors in the production and reception of humor” and must be understood in relation to gender (xii). Still, a collection aimed at refuting Christopher Hitchens’s simplistic, reductionist argument that women don’t have a sense of humor necessarily must make some essentializing claims. The collection therefore repeats familiar arguments about the nature of women’s humor: that by simply telling or laughing at jokes, women are subverting traditional gender roles; that women’s humor attacks the powerful rather than the powerless; that women’s humor breaks down barriers; and that women’s humor functions as a means of communication among women. Such assumptions [End Page 323] are, to the collection’s credit, not only repeated, but also interrogated, questioned, and at times refuted.

Women and Humor is loosely divided into three sections. The scholars in Part I, “Histories, Politics, and Forms,” revisit and highlight women’s humor in literary and cultural texts from the Classical period through the nineteenth century, an era in women’s humor that has largely been ignored. In the opening chapter, “Comedy in Ancient Greece and Rome,” Barbara Gold exemplifies the collection’s scholarly and pedagogical spirit by discussing the challenges of translating ancient Greek and Roman humor with her college students, thus highlighting the importance of cultural and historical context to the reception of humor. Gold offers both practical teaching advice and an important reminder of the ways in which comedy is “a social document, a snapshot of its...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2333-9934
Print ISSN
0095-280X
Pages
pp. 322-327
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-19
Open Access
No
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