When Women’s Laughter Keeps Men in Line; or, What Gathering-Hunting Women of Central Africa Have in Common with Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, et al.
Among the Mbendjele gathering-hunting people who live in the Republic of Congo,
“women’s laughter manages to keep men in line.”
Drawing from ethnographic research by Jerome Lewis, anthropologist Chris Knight relates that among the Mbendjele, “senior women exercise a special privilege, seeing it as their enjoyable role to bring down anyone who seems to be getting above themselves.”
To explain what “getting above themselves” might include, Knight enumerates an impressive list:
- not providing enough to eat
- threats of, or attempts at, violence
- chasing another woman
- not having sex often enough.
Why should we care about Mbendjele women’s complaints about their men’s bad behavior?
Given that all humans began (evolutionarily speaking) as gatherer-hunters in sub-Saharan Africa, anthropologists have long pointed out the special insights that contemporary hunter-gatherers of Central Africa hold for our species history. Expanding on writings by anthropologist Chris Boehm, Knight uses the example of laughing Mbendjele older women to develop a broad-ranging theory of how laughter may have evolved as a unique human pleasure.
Here, my aim is far less ambitious.
Let’s call this a Memo to the [Increasingly Empowered] White-Clad Women of the U.S. Congress:
Why not learn from your Mbendjele sisters and take up coordinated public laughter at out-of-control men as your next power move?
In fact, our newly-elected women Members of Congress have already gotten a brief but great head start.
Maybe the next group press conference held by our women MoCs critiquing unjust laws and unethical practices (patriarchal and otherwise) will be accompanied by a full-scale, Mbendjele-style laugh-in. Our species’ long evolutionary history might well support it.