I attended the lecture given by Nicholas Mason entitled “Can Women be as Funny as Men? Caroline Bowles & Women’s Satire in the Age of Austen. It was an excellent lecture. Mason talked about what women had to do when they expressed satire and humor in society.
He began with an explanation of early modern England definition of humor. Humor showed advanced intelligence and creativity, and was highly valued in men, even essential for men during courtship to impress women. Mason explained that when women said a man was funny was the same as when a man said a women was pretty. Men valued women’s receptivity to their humor. If humor was a high sign of intelligence, then women displaying humor were a threat to men when they displayed humor, if it was to clever or satirical.
For women to express humor, and thus their intelligence, they had to do it within the bounds of what was considered proper for a women. They had to “tone it down” and not appear either to funny or too sarcastic. Satirical humor displayed aggression, intelligence, lewdness, political savvy, physical punishment, all couched in a tough world, thus unsuitable for women.
Women could exhibit humor, but they had to put a “face” on it, to soften the edges. Their realm was love, not satire. Their humor was moderated, they had to be careful about when they were funny, how far they could push the joke, and know when they needed to retrench. This is illustrated in Jane Austen’s novel, Emma. At a picnic at Boxhill, Frank Churchill decides they need to play a game; each person will say one thing very clever, or two things moderately clever, or three things very dull. Miss Bates said “then I need not be uneasy. Three things very dull indeed. That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth.” Emma says, “but there may be a difficulty, you will be limited as to number - only three at once.” When Miss Bates catches Emma’s meaning she is embarrassed and hurt. In private, Mr. Knightley censures Emma and asks “How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?” Clearly, Emma overstepped the bounds of propriety when she expressed her humor.
So, women could be funny, but only within the proper bounds allotted them. This seems to be a theme through women’s history. They could be religious, they could be educated, they could be employed, they could fill a social and political role, but only in the “domestic” realm and in ways deemed proper for women. The degree women displayed patience, perseverance, and tenacity throughout history as they embraced each new change or shift in society is inspiring.