Opinion: Christopher Hitchens, Sarah Silverman and the Twitter wars


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On Thursday, I logged on to my Twitter account and noticed I’d been the subject of a sudden flurry of activity. It seemed that the comedian Sarah Silverman had fired off five angry tweets about me over the course of what looked like a few minutes, a move that caused many of her nearly 2.5 million followers to immediately follow suit.

Silverman had taken offense to my Thursday column about Christopher Hitchens’ infamous 2007 Vanity Fair essay ‘Why Woman Aren’t Funny,’ in which, while recognizing the generally boorish tone of Hitchens’ essay, I suggested that he was right that women are not, in the aggregate (i.e., there are many, many exceptions, among them Silverman, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, Wendy Liebman -- a personal fave -- and more, which is why I qualified the statement) as funny as men. I said this not to be sexist but in fact to shed light on the sexism at the root of the very phenomenon.


In the minds of many (not all) men and women, humor tends to defy culturally approved notions of femininity. Speaking from my own experience as a woman who is often (not always) perceived as funny, I can say that the moment of eliciting laughter is nearly always accompanied by a momentary sense of androgyny. And guess what? For me, and presumably for the legions of funny women out there who know what I’m talking about, it’s exhilarating. But presumably there are also women who censor their humor out of a fear of that androgyny. As I wrote in the column, humor is power. And ‘to be deprived of this power, even by dint of one’s own vanity, is a form of oppression.’

Based on her initial tweet, Silverman actually seemed most upset about something else. A photo of her had accompanied the column, and the caption erroneously stated that she had objected to Hitchens’ article. Her distress was understandable (fyi: Writers have nothing to do with headlines, photos and captions), and The Times quickly corrected the error.

But in subsequent tweets, Silverman attacked the column itself, suggesting it lacked a point of view and saying that ‘today you have distinguished yourself as another great example of who ‘the man’ really is: women like you.’ Within seconds, scores of her followers were accusing me of everything from sexism to anti-Semitism to being a hack, an idiot, a disgrace and so on. Several seemed eager to watch a cat fight between Silverman and me, while another (my favorite so far) posited that ‘this dialogue would benefit if we added an inflatable pool of lube.’ Indeed.

As a regular on the Opinion page for more than six years, I know that columns, like jokes, aren’t going to resonate with everyone or even most people; in fact, if they do, that’s a pretty good indication of their mediocrity (in other words, if you please all the people all the time, it’s probably because you’ve helped them fall asleep). Silverman, a brilliant, brave and original comic whom I’ve admired for years, surely knows that better than anyone.

That’s not to say she doesn’t genuinely hate my column -- she well may, which is fair enough -- but I do think there’s something ironic about the fact that her fans, in attacking me out of loyalty to her, are also attacking my attack on the double standard faced by women comics and funny women in general.

Needless to say, this has added a new dimension to my holiday fun -- not to mention confirming my suspicion that Twitter is an excellent and productive use of everyone’s time. Now where’s that pool of lube?



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--Meghan Daum