That’s What She Said: The Ultimate Feminist Gag?

Garth: Hey, are you done yet? I’m getting tired of holding it.

Wayne: Yeah, that’s what she said.

(Wayne’s World, 1992)

Thus launched the most recent wave of what may be the greatest oral gag of our time. It’s the little black dress of the joke world; so simple and yet so functional that barely an exchange exists that cannot benefit from an unexpected injection. Whether repeated ad nauseam by Michael Scott on The Office or by you and your 15-year-old brother, That’s What She Said has penetrated pop culture to the hilt. But while it seems on the surface to be a misogynistic tool predominately the province of men, there’s a dynamic, feminist undercurrent to the gambit that has been overlooked.

First and foremost, That’s What She Said gives power to the woman who speaks. Who exactly she is may be unclear, but depending on context, she’s a virginal coquette, a wayward ingénue, a seasoned cougar or an everyday woman trying to get off shamelessly. What’s constant is her sexual appetite: we always relay what she has to say in a sexual situation, and most often in an encounter with a man and his appendage.

As Freud proposed, psychosexual development revolves around the phallus, so whether you have it or lack it, the presence of the penis is felt deep within our psyches. Yet in spite of the phallocentric world in which we live, TWSS has supplanted the dick joke as the ultimate in sex humor for the 21st Century.

In 2009, The TWSS Stories blog launched for anyone to submit an occurrence where a TWSS utterance was apt. In 2010, The Huffington Post published a link to an early version of That’s What She Said from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 film, Blackmail. Back then, the phrase was “As the girl said,” but the effect was indeed the same. “Come here, stand in your place, or it will not come out right, as the girl said to the soldier,” Hitchcock tells a giggling blonde. He dominates the conversation with his hulking masculine figure and delivery, but still speaks for a young girl getting hot and heavy with a man in uniform.

Going even further back into history, one can find a similar sentiment delivered in English Edwardian times. “As the actress said to the bishop” was the line, which author Leslie Charteris of “The Saint” series later put to good use in the late 1920s. Fast forward to today, and we’ve got iPhone apps on the topic, a book, a movie, and more.

In any time period, and in any That’s What She Said, the man is the mere object of the joke and a ‘thing’ to be commented upon. She is always the subject – the acting, speaking subject with sexual agency – so whether the TWSS joke is told by a man or a woman, the listener is receiving a woman’s point of view. Whoever utters TWSS is at that moment inhabiting a woman’s coital perspective. And while it may be fleeting, this transference of subjectivity is symbolic and filled with possibilities. Laugh if you must, (that’s the point, isn’t it?) but this is why TWSS can be read as a feminist joke that has harnessed the willing participation of countless men, who unwittingly objectify themselves with every slip of the tongue.

That’s What She Said subversively promotes female sexual empowerment by giving voice to her actions and desires. Even as a man indulging in the joke tries to mock her or out her as the slut that she is, the gag always has a woman coming out on top, regardless of in whose mouth it originates.