Last year while in the Truman Media Network newsroom — a fellow coworker told me about a conversation that happened in her linguistics class. They were analyzing language and gender and she told me her professor declared “men tend to make more puns than women.” She then told me she thought to herself “But Rachel Fechter exists.”
Flattered as I was that for a moment I was thought to have broken some sort of arbitrary gender role that men tell more puns than women — it got me thinking. Why is this?
I feel this misconception that only men can pun has come from the “dad joke” stereotypes. Lame, awkward, but lovable dads across the country have taken to puns as a valid form of comedy. And while we must always remember to acknowledge their puns — whether that be with a groan or a chuckle, let’s also remember that this group of men does not have a monopoly on telling puns.
I have seen many examples of empowered and confident women making puns as well as puns being used to promote feminist messages.
Take The Women’s March of January 2017. Women and men alike took to the streets of Washington D.C. as well as other cities across the nation showing their disdain for Donald Trump’s blatant sexism throughout his campaign and their ardent disapproval of him becoming the president of our country.
Puns during this march became a valid way to showcase quick and clever messages about the disdain of the current political climate. Here are some examples:
Puns on Trump’s appearance, the accusations against him for sexual assault and his stances against women’s reproductive rights were all used to creatively protest and criticize. These punny messages are much more than dad jokes. These puns are freedom of speech at work. These puns were used to bring about change to a broken system that still puts women below men in many different sectors of life.
And how could I talk about The Women’s March, puns and feminism without mentioning the pussyhat?
The Pussyhat project was started by Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman, two women intending to go to the Women’s March in Washington DC that was planned shortly after the announcement of Donald Trump becoming the President of The United States.
Zweinman spoke on the project saying “The idea is both a play on pussyhat, pussycat, and also references the hot mic from the Access Hollywood video. It does reference Donald Trump and those comments, but it’s also so much more. It’s reappropriating the word ‘pussy’ in a positive way. It’s a pussyhat — one word. This is a project about women supporting women.”
The movement clearly sparked more than just a couple laughs about a cat pun. It empowered women across the country and across the globe.
Puns and feminism are also nothing new to society. While this Trump era politiCAT (heh heh) climate has brought on a lot more wordplay and outspoken outrage, there have been examples of feminist puns in media for centuries — just maybe a little less overt.
I’m sorry but I’m gonna have to shake things up again, and talk about Othello for a bit. Emilia, the wife of Iago — who is the main villain in the play — has a very feminist pun towards the end of the play. Emilia is about to reveal the evil plot of her husband to everyone when her very sexist and controlling husband tells her “Hold your peace” (Act V, Scene II, Line 230) to which Emilia replies ‘Twill out, ’twill out.—I peace? No, I will speak as liberal as the north” (Act V, Scene II, Lines 231-232.)
If you are not familiar with the play I will not to spoil too much but all I will say is that throughout the play Emilia has for the most part, though begrudgingly, submitted to her husband. However, in one of the final scenes she begins to develop a moral change that prompts her to stand up to him and the evil plots he has put in motion throughout the play.
The line “I will speak as liberal as the north,” to me is a subtle but very clever, feminist, and empowering pun. “The north” Emilia is referring to is where I believe the double meaning lies. The somewhat more obvious north she is talking about is likely Heaven, where she’d be truly free from oppressors in her life on Earth.
However, I’ve interpreted a second meaning with Emilia’s line. “The north” could also very much be talking about Northern Europe. Othello takes place in Venice, Italy — where women were treated both legally and socially as objects of their fathers and husbands. However, during the time of the Elizabethan Era — women, in slight ways, in places like England were experiencing small but still significant freedoms.
Don’t get me wrong — women were in no way equal to men. They still got accused of being witches if they spoke too freely about politics, social issues, or you know talked.
However, during this time women did have more artistic freedoms to create paintings and writings, more affluent women had access to education and some women could serve as an heiress of property — especially if their family lacked male heirs.
In addition, while women could not act in the theatre, English women were some of the first women in Europe allowed to attend the theatre alone without the accompaniment of men. Stephen Greenblatt in The Norton Shakespeare explained this further.
“In Venice, there was a special gallery for courtesans, but socially respectable women would not have been permitted to attend plays, as they could in England,” Greenblatt said. “In London, not only could middle- and upper-class women go to the theater, but they could also wear masks and mingle freely with male spectators and women of ill repute.”
Greenbelt continued to elaborate on the freedoms of women in England.
“Foreign visitors were struck by their relative freedom, as shown, for example, by the fact that respectable women could venture unchaperoned into the streets and attend the theater,” Greenblatt said. “Single women, whether widowed or unmarried, could, if they were of full age, inherit and administer land, make a will, sign a contract.”
While this could be a stretch — I feel Emilia when she says “liberal as the north” could also be referring to the more radical feminist actions taking place in London and England as a whole that had not yet moved to Venice. And while her meaning is hidden in this vague sort of diction and wordplay, her intentions of standing up to the male counterpart who has oppressed her throughout the play are apparent.
Keeping all of this in mind, it seems fair to say puns are not just limited to dorky dads. Puns can and have for some time been used by bold and radical women to make bold and radical statements.