I’ve been dismayed to see a lot of uninformed trashing of Christopher Hitchens in the days since he died. One piece of his writing, Why Women Aren’t Funny, seems to have been latched onto by those under the impression that that piece and a handful of similar essays made up the bulk of his output, which of course is not the case. Last year, I wrote a short post about Hitchens, and I’d encourage anyone to check out some of the articles to which I linked before passing judgment. And, of course, anyone who wants to tar him as a “misogynist” might first want to check out what he had to say about the empowerment of women.
Okay, with that out of the way, on re-reading I found a very troubling idea in Why Women Aren’t Funny, expressed in this passage:
Why are men, taken on average and as a whole, funnier than women? Well, for one thing, they had damn well better be. The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex, and Mother Nature (as we laughingly call her) is not so kind to men. In fact, she equips many fellows with very little armament for the struggle. An average man has just one, outside chance: he had better be able to make the lady laugh. …
Women have no corresponding need to appeal to men in this way. They already appeal to men, if you catch my drift.
Alessandra Stanley wrote a rebuttal, Who Says Women Aren’t Funny, to which Hitchen’s replied in a video with 5 minutes of Marcotte-bait…
… in which he reiterated men’s desperate need to impress women:
There is no question that for women the need or ability to be funny is tremendously less than it is among men. Nobody has been found to deny that. Alessandra doesn’t even try to deny that. … She even, at one point, echoes what I think is my strongest point. Namely, that women don’t need to be funny. That for most men, if they can’t make women laugh they are out of the evolutionary contest. They are never going to get laid. Most men are fantastically unattractive. What women see in them is mysterious to most men as well as most women.
There is some truth to what Hitchens is saying, of course. A man can’t attract women the way a woman displaying her body can attract men. Or as Dan Savage once bluntly put it:
Men and women are attracted to different things. Most men — not all — are attracted to fertile, 18-year-old girls. Most women — not all — are attracted to power, i.e. bigger, stronger, richer men. (Anybody wanna marry a multi-millionaire?) An 18-year-old boy taking his clothes off in a strip club is not, by definition, a man with much power, so most women aren’t gonna waste their time in strip clubs…
I’d say Dan Savage is excessively discounting the possibility of women’s physical attraction to men – I still remember how floored I was when I first read that in my twenties – and Hitchens goes overboard with hyperbole: “out of the evolutionary contest” etcetera. Looking at sexual relations this way may have been stimulating to Hitch – he seemed amenable to gladiatorial bullshit – but it tends to create a self-defeating, self-fulfilling prophesy of failure for a lot of men. Take a man longing for connection and desperately overestimating his wit, resolving when his jokes bomb to grease the comedic wheels with still more booze and this will not end well. And while you might say he shouldn’t be so desperately needy, it’s the constant refrain men hear – that they’re “fantastically unattractive”, their sexuality unwelcome, they’ve got “one outside chance” to impress – that instills the desperation in the first place.
So it would be good for men – especially young men – to challenge the idea that a man is never inherently attractive unless he can perform and impress and demonstrate high value. This idea is usually presented in jocular form in the popular press, but it poisons young men nonetheless, even if offered up with verve by wits like Hitchens. In my twenties, it poisoned me. Yet a lot of feminist thought prevents a challenge to these toxic ideas. Not because feminists agree with Hitchens, of course. It’s that they won’t concede that there’s any truth to what he’s saying, and that makes an effective refutation impossible.