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What Do Women Really Want? And Will We Ever Get It?

Even if our lives look seamless and easy, they are not.

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illustration of women walking up stairs and pushing a boulder
Molly Snee
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We want to be subjects, not objects. We want to be seen as strivers, creators, intelligent creatures. We want to be respected for our differences from men rather than ridiculed. The jokes are no longer funny. In an age when women are often breadwinners, caregivers and mothers all at once, the diminishment of women seems obsolete.

Of course, there are still unfunny men who like to joke about women. But they seem to be very old or dying out. What do women want? We want to be able to joke about ourselves. We know our own failings and we have not lost our sense of humor. But it has certainly changed — now that we do everything that men do and can do it backward in heels, many of our jokes seem to be about exhaustion. When we are alone with other women, we might joke about physical things like arthritis and menstruation and menopause, but we will never do that in mixed company. So, there are jokes that exist only between women. Women need women now more than ever, because only a woman knows what it’s like to live in a woman’s skin.

Women used to be tweaked about their role in the kitchen, but now men do a lot of cooking. It’s no longer funny to joke about how many women it takes to change a light bulb. Jokes about women’s supposed inabilities have gone the way of the corset and the petticoat.

But we don’t want to become as humorless as men have sometimes been. We know that we’re not perfect and we want to invent ways of joking about it. But that will be impossible until we are completely equal. In a world where women still struggle for equal rights and abortion, humor is hard to come by. But women tend to be funny about their lives, particularly with other women.

Abortion is not funny. Even Gloria Steinem’s quote “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament” has more gravity than levity. We’re not going to joke about abortion. So, what can we joke about?

That leaves us with the failings of men. Though reversing roles in this simple way is really no fun. We love men. Even when they’re ridiculous. We hardly want to diminish them. Now that men and women are moving toward an equal playing field, mutually encouraging jokes, even subtly sexual ones, can be amusing, if not knee slapping.

My husband comes into the room and says he is going to have lunch. I ask him, “Do you want me to come?” He says, “I always want you to come….” In other words, if neither sex is the butt of jokes, what will jokes be about? We are going to have to invent a whole new, nonsexist kind of humor. Are we capable of it?

Both men and women are able to be ridiculous. The old jokes about women making absurd mistakes don’t tickle us. Money is no longer funny. Women never have enough money — we are paid less than men are. The inequality about money is shocking when you think about it, because women do so much of the world’s work.

The iconic Henny Youngman line “Take my wife, please” is no longer funny. Many women do not even want to be wives. The challenge will be to find humor that is universal and not diminishing. I wrack my brain for examples.

It seems to me that what women need most today is time. After that, money. After that, sleep. And we need one another. We need equal pay for equal time. We need our ideas and opinions to be received without prejudice. We need to be able to work in any field without being shoved into lesser categories.

Tokenism is rampant. Beautiful women — often women of color — are front and center in advertising and in all media: television, magazines, billboards and, perhaps most important, social media. The exemplary woman may be brown, yellow or white, giving the impression that all races are treated and represented equally — but that is an illusion.      

Behind the scenes, it’s the “same old, same old.” Women need meaningful work and equality of access. Women need support for their families, including support for breastfeeding in the workplace and for maternity. The truth is, we are still far from that. The beautiful world created by the media (celebrating racial and sexual diversity) is not the world we live in (yet).

What do women really want, and will we ever get it? We want equality of opportunity and understanding of the multiple roles we play and how they are undercut by prejudice. We are always noted for our appearance before our brainpower, unlike men, who get to grow old and paunchy and bald, and people still say how smart they are.

We still want to laugh but without being the butt of the joke. Everything we do takes time and energy. We want acknowledgment that even if our lives look seamless and easy, they are not.

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