Skip to content

Congress 2012, the National Post, and the fallout…

My conference paper, “Single, Awkward, Female: Debra DiGiovanni and the rise of the female stand-up comic in Canadian popular culture”, was picked up by the National Post to be covered as part of their “Oh the Humanities” section featuring work presented at Congress 2012. This research discusses the success and visibility of DiGiovanni in Canadian popular culture, and potential for this to alter cultural attitudes about women and humour (which unfortunately remain resistant to funny women). As noted in Boesveld’s article, a 2006 study of McMaster University students found that heterosexual males only valued a “sense of humour” in female partners insomuch as they like women who laugh at their jokes. Conversely, they expressed a lack of interest in women who were skilled humour producers.

In relation to this research, I found it notable that DiGiovanni (who I would argue is currently the most visible female stand-up comic in Canada) frames much of her comic persona around failure to attract men. This particular form of self-deprecation has a long history in comic performance. Indeed, Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers both engaged in this type of humour, defining themselves as undesirable despite their actual and very obvious attractiveness. Given the continued cultural resistance to women being funny (for another discussion of this issue see: The Independent), I considered that this type of self-deprecating performance might be a useful strategy in gaining access and acceptance in the comedy field, where women remain a minority of participants.

Unfortunately, it would seem that Boesveld’s article has been very negatively received. The actual parameters and aims of my research have clearly not been conveyed to readers. Some of the main points that readers seem to have taken away from the article very much contradict the actual claims that I make in my research, especially my exploration of the ways that dominant attitudes towards gender frame the performance of humour. Admittedly, analyses such as this can be tricky to articulate, and have a tendency to be poorly received because individuals are often resistant to seeing how social structure might impact their daily lives or actions.

Academic conferences are important spaces for scholars to present work in progress to our peers, and receive critical feedback. The research that I presented is not a completed project, but initial observations in an ongoing study. I’m glad that Boesveld’s article received so much debate, and there is some useful feedback in many of the reader comments. The very articulate reactions from readers, especially working comedians, offer valuable insights upon which I will no doubt draw as I continue thinking through this research.

Humour is a notoriously difficult subject to study. Once a scholar attempts to deconstruct and explain a joke, it often looses its comic appeal. However, this doesn’t mean that we should not study humour. Through joking, we offer indications of the cultural, social, and political norms and issues with which we engage in our daily lives. This makes it a very important (if dangerous) topic of analysis.

You can check out Sarah Boesveld’s article about the research that I presented at Congress this year here: Must women act undesirable to be funny? | News | National Post.

Note: comments are disabled on this website because I generally only receive nonsense spam comments advertising pharmaceuticals. I got tired of deleting them, so I disabled comments. Please feel free to contact me at daniellejdeveau at if you would like to discuss my work further or provide additional feedback.

Tweets by @popculturelab