women and men: splitting sides in the sex war

Q: How many men does it take to wallpaper a room? A: One, if you slice him thinly. Rampant sexism, or biting wit? Aminatta Forna on the rise of anti-male humour

angie le Mar is wearing a sequinned dress and a Diana Ross wig. She is addressing the women in the audience in the low husky tones of a cabaret singer. "Ladies, those of you in long-term relationships, when your man is asleep next to you, tell him what you're feeling." Behind her three backing singers in spangly minis and bouffant wigs croon: "I'm fed up faking it." The audience shrieks with laughter. Warming to her theme, Le Mar begins a low moan, a la When Harry Met Sally, ending in a full crescendo. The audience howls. She pauses before the kill. "I know what you men are thinking. You're thinking 'Hey, I heard that noise last night.' " The women go wild.

It's true, Le Mar concurs joyfully, that not many men like that joke. Earlier, her agent, Debbie Allen, has confided to me, equally amused, that there have been a few complaints from men over parts of the material which contain some fairly unflattering depictions of men. "That joke's not for them," admits Le Mar. "It's about them. It's for the women in the audience and they've just got to sit and take it." This is her all- female live show. In her Channel 4 series, appearing with two male comics, the material has been much tamer.

In the past few years there has been a burgeoning in the number of women comics making jokes at the expense of men. In a recent show, peroxide shocker Jenny Eclair told the audience she suffered from PMT or "pre- meditated tension" as a result of which she is able to disprove the saying that only women bleed by taking a potato peeler to her boyfriend's penis. Donna McPhail has a putdown line for male hecklers: "What do you use for a contraceptive, your personality?" And Jo Brand consistently warns: "Never trust a man with testicles."

What's most odd about this phenomenon is that it has taken so long. Fidelis Morgan's latest book, Wicked: Women's Wit and Humour from Elizabeth I to Ruby Wax is an anthology of women's humour. Yet it contains only a modest selection of jokes at the expense of men, many of them uttered decades ago by the likes of Dorothy Parker and Mae West.

The truth is that women have laughed long and hard at men for decades, indeed centuries. Only they did so in private. The jokes and the humour never entered the mainstream. So while women grew up hearing jokes about their own sex, from the playground to Dick Emery and Benny Hill's television shows, boys have been spared.

Feminism succeeded in dampening the worst excesses of Benny Hill, indeed getting him off television altogether. And in the Eighties came a crop of women comics. Everybody was delighted when Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders and the doyenne of them all, Victoria Wood, showed that women could be funny. They're so much a part of the primetime landscape that it's easy to forget that these women, along with such cosy and comfortable men as Ben Elton and Lenny Henry, were once regarded as deeply ''alternative''. Their humour, Elton's in particular, was scrupulously right-on and politically squeaky clean. Well, there was that French and Saunders workman sketch of a pair of fat, complacent men drooling and hissing obscenities. But, even if they were really rather offensive stereotypes, they were ''sexist'' men and therefore seen as fair game. At that time, women dealt (and continue to deal) in a particularly self-effacing and self-deprecating brand of humour. They poked fun at themselves, dwelling on boyfriends (lack of), PMS, saggy boobs, weight and other physical shortcomings or personal traumas. It was all thoroughly depressing. For many years there was a bizarre situation where it appeared that men had stopped taking the mickey out of women and women had started doing it for themselves instead.

Ironically, political correctness dealt women comics an underhand blow. After a lifetime of having to listen to sexist jokes, suddenly, just when they get a chance to get their own back, all such jokes are banned. Yet in another twist, the current PC backlash has brought about an unexpected turn and several women comics have been quick to exploit it. Brand recently told an interviewer the inspiration for her humour: "I concentrate on men and what horrible bastards they are. I don't suppose I'll ever run out of material."

Neil Lyndon, author of No More Sex Wars, has long waged a one-man campaign against comedians such as Brand and Ruby Wax, most recently in the pages of the Daily Mail. He says they are "fat old bags who fancy themselves". He continues: "If they are going to make jokes about the male physique they should take a look at themselves first." To the suggestion that their humour is retaliation for years of men making jokes about women's bodies he replies simply: "Bollocks!" But it is also true that both comics, Brand in particular, make as many jokes at their own expense as they do at the expense of males.

Lyndon is of the opinion that men do not hold pole position in this society and, therefore, are not fair game. Even if they were, it's not a good enough excuse. Making jokes against women became taboo years ago and women should quit making jokes about men as well. "The fact that educated women laugh at that stuff makes me sad for them." But men laugh too. Lyndon dismisses them: "Fellow travellers and Uncle Toms."

Le Mar doesn't give a hoot either way. The evidence is that the material works. She accuses some men of being PC only when it suits them. "They've always said what they wanted to. Well, now we've got the mike." And she's of the opinion that most women comics couldn't care less if they were branded non-PC.

But Lyndon says they should: "If Bernard Manning made the same jokes about Pakistanis that those women make about men, we would blush, we would be ashamed to hear it."

Recently, two black waitresses took their employers to court after they were subjected to an entire evening of his particular brand of vitriol - racist and also sexist. The newspapers united to condemn Manning. What would happen if a pair of men took up a case against Eclair for this joke: "Men, you can't live with them and you can't chop them up into little pieces and boil them because that would be cooking - and I don't do cooking?" Would we care?

Somehow jokes against men are simply not the same. There are far fewer of them than jokes about women for a start. And men are not subjected to what psychologists call "the dripping tap effect". They don't get that "here we go again" feeling that women experience when the nudge, nudge, wink, wink starts.

There is also a qualitative difference about many of the jokes against men. There's a wryness behind the laughter at Le Mar's joke about faking orgasms. Eclair's belligerence over PMS and cooking is one many women share. Now find the depth in the gag about the ideal woman being three foot, with a flat head and no teeth. Perhaps none of this makes anti-men jokes right, but it does make them different. And Lyndon's parallel with racist jokes may be politically accurate but in practice doesn't quite work. Although Eclair and Brand have declared themselves uninterested in PC they never, ever tell racist jokes. Somewhere in the new crass genre of comedy there is a code of honour: sexism is in, racism is out. It's a code shared by laddish comedians such as David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, who love to boast of how much pornography they consume. Skinner has named Benny Hill as his early inspiration and, in true, Benny Hill style, their show Fun With Wigs even features a buxom serving wench.

Today's women comics have far more in common with male comics like Baddiel and Skinner. While Manning plays to rooms full of unreconstructed Neanderthals, these comics play to twenty and thirtysomethings, a reasonably educated crowd which regards itself as hip. Indeed, finding these comics funny, particularly Eclair, Baddiel and Skinner (who incidentally are all represented by the same agent) is a sign of some kind of hip anti-fashion statement. They are all lads together. In the words of the inimitable Brand: "If you can't beat them. Groin them!"

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