In a recent Vogue interview, Natalie Portman announced she has started her own production company with a view to making gross-out comedies for women. She said Hollywood actresses are discouraged from being both beautiful and funny and insists women appreciate juvenile vulgarity every bit as much as men do.
The news put me in mind of an article Christopher Hitchens wrote a few years back for Vanity Fair called Why Women Aren't Funny. Pretty self-explanatory, right?
So much so, in fact, that at the time I didn't bother to read the article. Not that this stopped me from ranting at dinner parties about what a pompous sexist blowhard Hitchens was. I was, of course, deeply offended as a woman - a position which, it failed to dawn on me then, is pretty much the pinnacle of humourlessness.
This is why France has produced so few great comics: Anger is funny, bourgeois indignation is not.
Anyway, I held fast to my position ("I'm a proud and hilarious feminist!"), which was only bolstered by a subsequent Vanity Fair cover featuring three truly funny women: Sarah Silverman, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. They were posed as the three graces in diaphanous dresses above a cover line that read: Who says women aren't funny? Finally, a defence of the fairer, wisecracking sex. Preach it, sister!
The article - which I read - made a ponderous argument for why women are more side-splitting than ever (Norah Ephron puts it down to cable TV: "There were so many hours to fill and they ran out of men, so then there were women.") and took pains to point out that 'twas ever thus. "In Genesis, Sarah, pregnant long past her childbearing years, says her son is named Isaac, Hebrew for 'laughter,' because it's funny she would have a child at her age."
But I still had hope. The Vanity Fair cover was to promote what my (similarly hilarious and offended) girlfriends and I were convinced was going to be the Great Female Buddy Comedy of All Time.
Baby Mama, starring Fey and Poehler, was about an uptight career gal who takes in the white-trash surrogate she has hired to carry a baby. In the trailer, there's a scene where Poehler's water breaks on the street and she automatically reaches down to mop it up before Fey hauls her off to the hospital to give birth.
Sadly, it was the only truly funny moment in the movie - which proved an excellent example of how sometimes in Hollywood a seemingly ingenious concept combined with an all-star cast, clever writing and a massive publicity campaign can simply suck, for no apparent reason.
After the critical failure of Baby Mama (which, I should point out, made roughly $60-million at the box office in the United States), I stopped hating on Hitchens at dinner parties. I read his God-loathing book and thought it was persuasive, if slightly exhausting.
My friends started to have babies. I went to parties where women sat at one side of the room talking in hushed tones about cracked nipples and ear infections and the men went outside to smoke and make fart jokes.
Privately, my head swimming with Facebook posts about the joys of nursing, I started to wonder if Hitchens (whose article I'd managed to read online by this point) was right. Were women less likely to be funny because the bloody business of bearing children made us serious?
Here's my conclusion: Yes, I think, on average, women are less funny than men, and I think child-rearing might have something to do with it. But so does the urge to be pretty and feminine and non-threatening to the opposite sex - usually in the hope of getting married and bearing children, which only seems to widen the humour gap further. The point is, somewhere along the way women are taught that being funny isn't sexy. And that, in my opinion, is a crying shame.
Which is why my heart lifted when I read that Natalie Portman intends to make movies like The Hangover for women. And then sank again when I read she was pregnant. Because honestly, what are the chances that a new mom is going to want to produce and star in (let alone watch) a film about promiscuity and period jokes?
Besides, the formula doesn't make sense. If you don't believe me, try taking any great juvenile comedy moment and reversing the genders: Imagine if, in Something About Mary, instead of the young Ben Stiller getting his penis caught in his zipper on prom night, it had been the young Cameron Diaz lacerating her vagina.
Or if, instead of a horny boy in American Pie, it had been teenage girl humping a plate of warm apple pastry.
Or if Borat was a woman.
None of this is to say that women can't be funny, just that women don't want juvenile comedies made for and about us any more than we want romantic porn. Porn is fine the way it is. And so is The Hangover.
Maybe, as women, we just need to spend a little less time talking about cracked nipples and a little more time cracking each other up.