Arguably, Argument, Chauvanism, Christopher Hitchens, Django Unchained, Fallacy, Feminism, Flawed hero, Hatari, Humor, John Wayne, masculinity, Pollen, Problem of Making Heroes, racism, Rio Bravo, Why Women (Still) Don't Get It, Why Women Aren't Funny, Women in Comedy
I tend to kiss Christopher Hitchens’s ass quite a lot on this blog. It’s understandable given what the man was able to accomplish in the small time allotted to him, and as I have demonstrated in previous essays, his powers of argument were unparalleled by any man operating in society at this time. But before I discuss Hitchens I need to talk about John Wayne.
Now since I was boy I have suffered all manner of nasal ailment due to the trees that inhabit East Texas. For those of you who are ignorant of the matter, East Texas is host to forests of Pine trees, as well as many other varieties that reproduce exclusively through spores. Powdered gametes that act as sperm and wind up coating the exteriors of cars across the territory. Seriously, you’ll wake up in the mornings with a coating of phlegm and snot ripping apart your throat before you step outside and discover that your 1996 Ford truck, which was previously white, is now solid yellow. Childhood, from my perspective, was miserable, and the time of the year in which kids are supposed to go outside and play and run around as the earth brings in the new a season of spring…for me, was a period of video games and television because I couldn’t step outside without becoming one of the numerous Zombies in Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror (the line you’re bleeding blood and puss through every sacred hole in your body is both accurate and crushing). As I have explained to many of my students and friends, the drawback to this was that I was unable to play sports as a child. I had no real interest in them, but I would have feigned interest to make some kind of connection with my dad who used to tell me fun stories of playing rugby in college. Dad was supportive, he never made me feel bad for not playing sports, and there was never, let me be clear about this, there was NEVER any pressure to push past it. Still, in many ways I felt like I was a disappointment to the man, like I had failed a test of manhood.
Despite this perception, there was one avenue of masculinity that could unite my father and I, and that was John Wayne movies. Whether it was Hatari, Rio Bravo, Rio Lobo, El Dorado, The Quiet Man, The Longest Day, or Big Jake (Which traumatized me until I was older and got over what was in fact, pretty tame gore) I could always talk to dad about John Wayne. As I grew older, that love has never died. Rio Bravo is, in my mind, the best Western followed only by Django Unchained and Tombstone.
However, the pity of growing up is that what was once black and white becomes grey. Two years ago I bought a book, 50 years of Playboy. A coffee table book, though I imagine only a few would actually place it on their coffee table, which catalogues several of the centerfolds from the 1950s through today. Along with this are several snippets of artwork that has been included, allusions to historical figures, as well as pieces from individual interviews, the only component of the magazine I might add that still feels culturally relevant. One of the interviews was John Wayne, and when I read the quote some part of me died.
I’ve included it here, as well as some extra for you to get the general idea:
With a lot of blacks, there’s quite a bit of resentment along with their dissent, and possibly rightfully so. But we can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks. I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.
I still love John Wayne movies, and I do still believe that young men can find something inspiring in the presentation and example of masculinity in the archetype of John Wayne, but I recognize now a failing trait in his character because the above quote is undeniably some of the most racist shit you’ll read outside of a youtube reply section under a Dora the Explorer video.
But what does this have to do with Christopher Hitchens?
Well, allow me to tell another story. Briefly I promise. It’s summer and we all have things to do. A few weeks back PBS ran a special on the history of female stand up comedians that was informative and encouraging to future gender relations in this country. However during the interview it was noted that two men stand out as prominent detractors to the idea that women can be funny. The first was Jerry Lewis, and the second, you guessed it, was Christopher Hitchens. Looking it up later I discovered in his book Arguably, that he did indeed publish originally in Vanity Fair in January of 2007, an essay entitled “Why Women Aren’t Funny.”
The essay is certainly worth your time, only because it is a nice reminder that even great men can make great mistakes. The conflict with the essay is not that it makes a false claim—it does but that’s not what makes it an inferior work from an otherwise great mind—it is because the essay is both pompous and relying too much upon biological arguments.
Now while the first may automatically make some people say, fucking duh it was Christopher Hitchens, the pomposity derives not from the man’s usual wit, but from a half-assed misogynistic tone that is entering his writing:
In any case, my argument doesn’t say that there are no decent women comedians. There are more terrible female comedians than there are terrible male comedians, but there are some impressive ladies out there. Most of them, though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three. When Roseanna stands up and tells biker jokes and invites people who don’t dig her shtick to suck her dick—know what I’m saying? And the Sapphic faction may have its own reasons for wanting what I want—the sweet surrender of female laughter. While Jewish humor, boiling as it is with angst and self-deprecation, is almost masculine by definition.
This small passage is functional enough to understand why so few people were particularly fond of this essay. It is not just the main argument in play that is bothersome; it is the way in which Hitchens’s usual sharp wit arrives at condescending rather than informative.
If I am correct about this, which I am, then the explanation for the superior funniness of men is much the same as for the inferior funniness of women.
That small, “which I am,” arrives at the reader differently than Hitchens’s usual brand of superior argumentative strategy. The question may be: does this essay come across as it does simply because I’m a feminist? I don’t think so. Hitchens never goes so far as to suggest that women’s place in society is threatening males and that there needs to be a revolution of paradigms that reduces women’s agency back into the home and kitchen. Hitchens in fact notes at the start of the first quote that he recognizes several female comedians that demonstrate a study wit. I don’t believe Hitchens could be called a misogynist.
What bothers me the most about this essay, as a fan of Hitchens and a student of argument, is that the man attempts to bolster his claim on the biological principle that men are funny because they can’t have babies. Now this could have been an interesting argument had it been executed more effectively and without the pompous attitude. He says in one portion:
Precisely because humor is a sign of intelligence (and many women believe, or were taught by their mothers, that they become threatening to men if they appear too bright), it could be that in some way men do not want women to be funny. They want them as an audience, not as rivals.
Now this point is well executed, and while everyone may or may not agree with it, it would certainly lend credence to the real fact that women tend to suffer in the comedy business because men are, and let’s be honest, dominating pricks who want to keep the boys club to themselves. Had the argument followed this route, then it may not have gained the reputation and controversy that it did. However the essay later goes on to say:
For women, reproduction is, if not the only thing, certainly the main thing. Apart from giving them a very different attitude to filth and embarrassment, it also imbues them with the kind of seriousness and solemnity at which men can only goggle. […] Men are overawed, not to say terrified, by the ability of women to produce babies […] it gives women an unchallengeable authority.
Hitchens in further arguments would push this old biological argument, which, while it may have certain merits, is too much of a sweeping generalization. Hitchens’s leaves little breathing room for the average woman to develop for herself an individual wit. Humor becomes first and foremost, a biological novelty restricted to men so that they are able to charm women and contribute DNA to the gene pool. This argument reduces a woman’s humanity because rather than allow her the chance to creatively respond to her experience, she is caught by her own biology and must resign herself to the role of laughee, rather than the laughter…wait, I think I messed up that last part. I think you get it.
I still adore Christopher Hitchens and I believe that if we are to teach young minds how to properly form arguments, then Hitchens is of essential importance. How then do I resolve the damage done by this article? The same way, dear reader, that I am able to still enjoy John Wayne movies: I acknowledge that people are human beings and open to the possibility of dumbassery. That’s the fact of life. We that have grown older have all watched our young heroes develop feet of clay, but does that mean we should reject outright the totality of their work and influence?
John Wayne and Christopher Hitchens are two men in my life who have played a crucial role in my development as a man and as an intellectual. I will always be first to acknowledge that John Wayne was a racist, but he still offered young men a model of masculinity that is both strong and admirable. Christopher Hitchens wrote a dumb essay in a magazine, but he’s still one of the most important orators and essayists of our age.
I guess my final remark is this: it’s embarrassing when the greats open their mouths and say stupid things. So be realistic when you decide to admire somebody, because sooner or later everybody’s going to fuck up along the way.
*Writer’s Note Update*
Since publishing this article I’ve actually tracked down a solid link to the May 1971 Playboy Article where Wayne made the comments that have now become so iconic in their damnation. I’ve provided a link to the site below:
I’ve also posted a link to the essay Why Women Aren’t Funny as well as the companion essay “Why Women (Still) Don’t Get It”: