Not to have a sense of humor is considered a severe handicap, and people defend themselves against this accusation as they would against an insult. Humor implies strength, maturity, superiority in the face of danger and calamity; it symbolizes victory and triumph over defeat. The humorist is a hero, and he is human, too. He recognizes reality, usually as bad, but then behaves as if it does not matter, as if it does not concern him.
People without a sense of humor are suspected of being rigid, unbending, inhibited, and repressed; they cannot allow themselves to be kind or tolerant to the child within themselves. Their ego has submitted to the cruel, often tyrannical, rule of the superego. Queen Victoria of England supposedly was such a person. It is not known that she ever made a joke; on the contrary, she is famous for her remark: "We are not amused." Perhaps she had a negative sense of humor: she knew when something was not funny. She came close to some insight when she once remarked: "Mr. Gladstone addresses me as if I were a public meeting."
The apparent lack of humor in mother figures like Queen Victoria does not necessarily rest on accurate observation. We are easily inclined to overlook a sense of humor in mother figures because we repeat with them an old childhood disappointment. Because children may get punished when they expect praise, they conclude that their mother does not understand them -- does not have a sense of humor. Mother never forgives enough. The masculine orientation of our time allows the woman to be humorous but not witty, since the latter means, in our chauvinistic unconscious, to be masculine.
The woman of today is supposed to be warm, understanding, charming, attractive, passive, and accepting. She may show a sense of humor in her later years as a sign of maternal maturity; but she had better not show her wit too obviously if she is young and intelligent, for she will scare the contemporary male, who is easily frightened in his masculinity. She is permitted to have a sense of humor because it is an indication of her kindliness. Wit is decidedly a sign not of gentle love, but of disguised hostility.
Women are traditionally supposed to be incapable of even retelling a joke. This, of course, is true only for the woman who submits to the socially conditioned demands of our time. It reminds me of primitive tribes of the South Pacific in which the language of the men is taboo for the women. They never speak it, but under the influence of Sodium Amytal or other narcosis, they betray a perfect knowledge of the forbidden language.
The woman has as much natural intelligence, hostility, and tendency to enjoy wit as her male counterpart. But if she is clever, she will not show it. Only when the temptation to follow her masculine protest is greater than her caution will she shine in the bright light of her brilliant wit. She will then appear charming only to the man who is unafraid of her because he has overcome his insecurity toward women. If a' woman's masculine protest is strong enough, she may even rush in where men fear to tread. Female students of medicine, lady bosses of editorial staffs, advertising executives, and other types of successful male impersonators are as skillful as any man in inventing and retelling jokes.
The "true woman" of our time may try and may fail. She then behaves as if she tried to whistle, for which she is anatomically as well suited as the man. When she fails, she will fail because she suddenly becomes aware of having trespassed on a terrain customarily taboo to her. The underlying aggression, even in its witty disguise, will be inhibited, repressed, and the joke will be spoiled.
An illustration of a typical "female" misunderstanding of a joke is the following:
A good, kind lady, charming, attractive in her ways, with a great sense of humor and intelligence, beloved by her friends, was frequently teased because of her inability to retell jokes. Because of the teasing of her friends, she developed an ambition to tell jokes well. One day she listened to the old story about a Chinese executioner who was so skillful that his victims sometimes did not know what had happened to them: he swung his sword once and decapitated them. One time, however, the head did not come off after the blade slipped through the neck of a prisoner, who addressed the executioner with the words, "Sir, you forgot me." The executioner, with superiority, laughed at him and said: "Nod!" -- implying, of course, as the end of the cruel story, that then the head fell off.
A few weeks later the lady tried to tell this joke as follows:
"A Chinese executioner lined up his prisoners whom he was going to decapitate. As they were all standing there, he told them to nod their heads. End of story. I must have forgotten something."