by Jennifer D. Munro
ON the second day of our cross-country motorcycle trip, a stranger at a Washington state gas station said to my husband, “That bike is way too small for a trip like that.” The man eyed the sagging saddlebags on the 750cc Yamaha and on my thighs. “With her helmet-n-boots-n-jacket-n-all, The Wife alone probably comes in at about a hunnerd-n-fifty. Figure in another fifty for the rest of the gear.”
At least he didn’t kick my shins like tires. But the appraisal he gave me would have been different if I’d been revving my own engine instead of riding on the back of a man’s bike, lumped in with the luggage.
AFTER earning my motorcycle endorsement that year, I’d bought four motorcycles, none of them big enough for this summer-long trip, though the bike model names were like Killer for a Schnauzer: Enduro, Exciter, Eliminator. On the freeway, the bike that fit my five-foot-two frame best, a 185cc Yamaha, would be sucked under the tires of an 18 wheeler like a goose flapping too close to a Boeing. My biggest bike, a 250cc, had a lot of pick-me-up — until it slingshot itself to 23 mph, at which point it hit its top gear, and I’d be rear-ended in the slow lane over the Rockies like a Schwinn at the Daytona 500. On any of my bikes on this monumental ride, I’d end up like the flattened armadillos we later saw littering Georgia roads.
Depending on when I’ve last practiced yoga, I’m only an inch or two below the national average height of five-foot-four for women, so it’s not like I’m a hobbit trying to mount Clydesdales. But my feet couldn’t fully touch the ground even on the smallest Honda Nighthawk, a bike favored by many women (until Honda quit manufacturing it for a few years). Much as I wanted to ride my own bike, the gas grip was literally out of my reach, like top-shelf liquor.
The motorcycle market, however, was wide open to most men, who could buy any bike — cheap or expensive, used or new — and know it would “fit” them: they could reach the ground and handles and manhandle it around when necessary. But most women need lighter, lower-to-the-ground bikes, like the low-riding, prohibitively-priced Harley Sportster, still the most popular bike for women. But to take a long trip, the Sportster needed costly custom work, such as a bigger gas tank, which added weight. Motorcycling was a man’s domain — unless you were a tall, well-to-do woman, with hefty biceps and quadriceps so you could hold your bike upright in a strong wind, right it if you dumped it, and push it when it crapped out.
In the early-to-mid nineties, when I started to ride — and write — only 6 percent of U.S. motorcyclists were women, and this low figure could largely be attributed to the equipment. Even if women wanted to ride, most couldn’t reach the ground, handlebars, and control levers, and they couldn’t pick up the heavy bikes if they dropped them. Twenty years later, motorcycling ranks swelled to 25 percent female, mostly older women in higher income brackets who could afford new bikes built or modified just for them. Any shift in numbers was more from a shift in women’s earning power than a shift in bike models; a few smart companies, seeing the profit potential, began catering to women and their growing demand for innovation. We wanted gas tanks, not gas stoves.
Having neither money nor height nor visible biceps under my lunch lady arms, I gave up riding my own bike and perched behind my husband. On our ride that circled the country’s perimeter, I never saw a woman on her own bike. I’ve ridden behind my husband through twenty-six states and Canada for over two decades and have yet to see a man, or a woman, riding behind a woman.
UNGENTLEMANLY, macho bikers carry what they call a bitch helmet, their spare if they convince a female passenger to mount up behind them, legs spread. And bitch helmet it well should be, because women have something to be testy about. Namely that we’re relegated to the back: like the women in this decade’s Library of America anthology, The 50 Funniest American Writers (2011). Ten of the first two hundred chronologically ordered pages are by women. The hilariously mean and suicidal Dorothy Parker is duly trotted out, but one would think women didn’t craft a wisecrack again until Nora Ephron dared write about breasts in 1972. Ten of the fifty humorists are women; I suspect the male editor struggled to come up with even that balance because he understood that any less would stink worse than a roadkill skunk. Not even Erma Bombeck made his cut; household humor apparently can’t hold a can opener to yukster H.L. Mencken. If the sidesplitting Langston Hughes made the grade, then why not the equally hilarious Edith Wharton in the classics selections? Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that eight of the women are in the last half of the book: the times they are a changin’. But I can hear editor Andy Borowitz scraping the bottom of the pot roast pan to come up with even ten, which includes Anita Loos. You know, Anita Loos. A male screenwriter, male director, and male producer based the movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes on her play (co-written with a man), which was based on her own genius novel, of which little remained once men finished with it, rather like women’s reproductive rights.
Editing an anthology is an act of subjectivity, perhaps more so with humor. But four decades represented by not a single woman after Parker in 1933? They existed, and a few come easily to mind: Betty MacDonald (1940s); Shirley Jackson (1950s), who perhaps understood the fine line between horror and humor better than anybody; and Peg Bracken (1960s), who even managed the feat of making a cookbook funny. To have such a glaring omission in an anthology published in this decade of this millennium? To choose Woody but not Erma? David Sedaris but not Sarah Vowell (highbrow) or Chelsea Handler (lowbrow)? George Saunders but not Lorrie Moore? The editor states that he didn’t include standup comedy routines but included material from standup comedians’ books: he then lists three men. Why not Gilda Radner (who managed to give a comedic twist to ovarian cancer in her memoir), or Joan Rivers, who had ten books at that point and perhaps still had her own nose?
Writer’s Digest had an even harder time for their book on writing humor, because they had to scrape up living women humorists to be interviewed for And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft (2009). Apparently they were drawing from as small of a pool as those of us who still have control over our own uteruses, because they found only one (one!) woman who wasn’t too busy writing, for three fourths of the pay while doing three fourths of the housework on top of her job, to make time to be interviewed by anyone other than Oprah.
The New Yorker’s two humor anthologies culled from their own pages and published in this millennium (2002 and 2010) feature twenty women out of 139 authors: 14 percent.
Pages written by women in The 50 Funniest American Writers? 14 percent.
Female writers in the only other general humor anthology of note from this millennium, Humor Me: An Anthology of Funny Contemporary Writing (Plus Some Great Old Stuff Too) (2010), published by HarperCollins? A whopping 20 percent.
The Thurber Prize for American Humor, awarded since 1997, did not even have a female finalist until 2005. A woman won for the first time in 2015, also the first year to have only female finalists, catapulting the overall percentage of women finalists and winners from 14% to 20%.
Harley Davidson, the quintessential American motorcycle, has only grown from 4 percent to 12 percent of bikes purchased by women in the last few decades.
Apples and oranges? Ovaries and testicles? While physical differences account for out-of-reach motorcycles, and the market is slowly changing with the times, there is no such excuse for nationally recognized twenty-first-century humor writing.
The opening line of Borowitz’s introduction to The 50 Funniest is, “Does being funny get you girls?” So humor is the domain of straight men and lesbians? According to the percentages in his anthology, yes: women apparently churn butter, but don’t churn out jokes. He goes on to mention Playboy centerfolds, Playmates, and his having cojones. (Did I mention that this is a Library of America anthology? Not the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue?)
Borowitz — whose bestselling humorous essay about his colon I enjoyed — admits that making selections for anthologies is arbitrary and “bound to irritate people.” Subjectivity aside, he was wrong to exclude such a high percentage of women humorists in a national catalog — as out of balance as our motorcycle struggling through the blasting side winds in South Dakota when we traveled tipped over at a 45-degree angle to the road.
While these “Best of” anthologies were being collated by men, 57 percent of book buyers and 58 percent of readers were female, and they bought 65 percent of books. So I have just one word for the all-male editors of these humor collections: Gong. In motorcycle terms, their judgments are misfiring, and the backfires are deafening. Loud pipes save lives, goes the motorcycle saying, meaning the louder your bike, the more likely car drivers will notice you and not run you down, and I agree: cast off the mufflers of women’s humor writing, let those pipes drag until the sparks fly, and set the pages on fire.
Women humorists should not be relegated to specialty women’s anthologies, just as women should not be relegated to the back of bikes if they’d rather be piloting their own damn hogs. Female readers manage to not only plow through male-penned humor but also to get and appreciate it, and if modern women can master crotch rockets, then bearded fellows can embrace humor penned by those heretofore fettered by fallopian tubes.
THE man at the rest stop — and many other men all across the country who asserted the same opinion — was wrong. My husband and I traveled ten thousand miles on that too-small bike, even with my dead weight on the back. Normally I’d deadpan a joke to put such a man in his place. But I just stood there while he surveyed me as
chattel, dumb as Harpo Marx: it’s hard for women to have a voice in a men’s club. Already a prolific writer, I didn’t pen a single line on that trip. The door has cracked open — especially with Tina Fey’s figurative doorstopper of a memoir — but it’s hard to be heard from the back when the wind is against you.
I didn’t discover until years later, when I wrote about our trip, that Virago — our bike model — is Latin for virile woman. Brave, strong, and poised to cruise and crusade, women have their hands on the throttle, but we’re revving in neutral. We believe we can gun it and blast into the canon, but we’re dead-ending into a closed book industry.
Most motorcycles have no reverse gear, so backing one up even a few feet up a slight incline requires significant effort — using your muscles, with feet solidly on the ground: women have invested the sweat equity and our boots are firmly planted. It’s time to move forward, instead of continuing to wrestle with backward publishing decisions. Open the highway — then watch us give it gas, baby. But don’t worry, we’ll share the road.
Jennifer D. Munro is a freelance editor whose online column, Straight-No-Chaser Mom, was First Place Winner in the 2015 National Society of Newspaper Columnists blog competition. She was a Top Ten Finalist in the Erma Bombeck Global Humor Competition. Her numerous publishing credits include Salon; Brain, Child; Gulf Coast; North American Review; Best American Erotica; and The Bigger the Better the Tighter the Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty and Body Image. Her humorous stories about sex and the sexes are collected in The Erotica Writer’s Husband.
Published in Raven Chronicles, Vol. 21, 2015.