Laurie Menser was a 7- or 8-year-old in Rockville, Md., when she wandered over to a neighbor’s house one day, slipped a glass eye in her mouth and got the attention of the grown-ups in the room. She smacked the back of her head, stuck out her tongue and waited for laughs.
“They were appalled,” she said. “They were like, ‘You need to go home right now and tell your dad what you did.’ ”
The neighbors didn’t know that it was Menser’s father who’d picked up the fake eye at a yard sale and taught his daughter the gag. Don’t worry, he told her, “they just don’t get the joke.”
Looking back, Menser wonders how the episode might have gone had one element been different: What if she were a boy? “I think probably the neighbor would have told the little boy, ‘Hey, that’s gross and weird and don’t do that anymore,’ ” she said. “Whereas I got, ‘This is appalling.’ ”
Menser, 38, is a director of development at a science association. She has scaled the corporate ladder and is respected in her field. And she thinks that more than anything, her success has been driven by her sense of humor.
She just had to ignore all the voices telling her not to use it.
“There was an expectation that girls would be quieter. And wouldn’t ruin their dresses and wouldn’t be roughhousing and cracking jokes in church,” she said. “And I was very often doing a lot of those things,” thanks in part to her father’s encouragement to let her be what she was: funny.
Today we encourage our daughters to be ambitious and athletic, opinionated and outspoken. We want them focused on STEM and outfitted in T-shirts that read, “Who runs the world? Girls.”
But what if raising empowered girls also means raising funny ones? What if we teach our daughters humor is their turf — just as much as any boy’s?
“One of the things that happens to girls is that they are encroached upon by the world,” said Lisa Damour, a psychologist and author of “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood.”
“And one of the things that humor can do is … help girls stand up for themselves in ways that people don’t retaliate for.”
There’s an abundance of research on the social advantages that come with a strong sense of humor. Humor conveys intelligence. Funny people are seen as more confident and competent. The ability to crack a joke shows social ease and can turn awkward silence into a golden moment of human connection.
“It can actually shift perspective of status — and by status what we mean is respect, influence and admiration,” said T. Bradford Bitterly, co-author of a Wharton business school study on the use of humor in professional settings.
Humor isn’t alien to girls. Caroline Nugent remembers asking her father why people were always laughing at things she said. “It’s called wit,” he told her.
Nugent is 13, smart, self-aware and so enamored of Tina Fey that she spent two weeks at a Second City comedy camp.
Still, these days she isn’t that comfortable cracking jokes around boys or adults she doesn’t know well.
“I feel like when boys make jokes that are edgy, they get more praise for it, but since women are stereotypically dainty and quiet, especially in the past, they aren’t as encouraged to be funny,” she said.
Women’s potential for making jokes is equal to that of men, said Peter McGraw, director of the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado.
“When you actually measure a woman and a man’s ability to be funny in the laboratory, you create an even playing field — you remove the social pressures,” he said. “Women are just as good at this stuff as men are.”
But when Robert Provine, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County, camped out at food courts and campus quads documenting instances of laughter, he found that men got the most laughs.
“Both men and women are more likely to laugh if a male is talking to them,” said Provine, author of “Laughter: A Scientific Investigation.”
McGraw concluded that there is something societal going on, not biological.
Natalie Sellman has heard stories that as a kid, her mother was a funny girl with a loud laugh. But she has never known her that way. In fact, Natalie’s mom told her that her own mother didn’t approve, often saying: “You laugh like a hyena. Women aren’t supposed to laugh like that.”
Sellman, a 36-year-old medical assistant from District Heights, Md., received some of the same messages. “Do I continue to be who I am?” she remembers wondering. “Or do I slow down just a little bit to fit in with the crowd?”
She piped down. A lot of girls do. But in her case it didn’t feel right. By the end of high school, she didn’t care what people thought anymore.
Today she laughs as loud as she wants and tries to get everyone — including her two daughters and the dozens of patients she sees every day — to do the same. Many of the patients tell her that it helps relieve the tension generated by a visit to the doctor.
McGraw argues that by stunting women out of expressing their humor in mixed company, we’re shortchanging everybody.
“Funny people are better company,” he said. “They make the world an easier, more enjoyable place.”
Gina Barreca, a professor at the University of Connecticut who writes extensively about women and humor, thinks the reason girls often suppress their humor in adolescence is “it’s seen as alpha behavior.”
She added, “Someone holding the mic or getting the last word is not displaying traditional feminine behavior. A good girl doesn’t make anybody uncomfortable. Doesn’t take up too much space.”
But our ideas of “traditional feminine behavior” are always evolving. It wasn’t that long ago that athleticism wasn’t considered feminine. Now we almost require it.
So how does a parent cultivate humor in girls?
“Modeling it,” Damour said. “Being playful. Seeing it as a tool set like any other that can be fostered.”
Praise attempts at humor. Combat messages that diminish it. Encourage our sons to value humor in their girlfriends and girl friends. And their moms.
Recently, Menser’s 8-year-old niece said she liked that Menser is “funny and adventurous.”
“And I said, ‘So are you,’ ” Menser recalled.
“She recognized that that’s something valuable about me, and I want her to know that to me, that’s valuable about her. Because I see that there’s value there. I don’t know that everybody realizes how far being funny can get you, but it helps. It helps a lot in life.”