Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Humorist Gina Barreca leaves 'em in stitches at Horizons Town Talk

by Janet I. Martineau
Gina Barreca at Horizons
If laughter is truly the best medicine for what ails us, then there are about 1,000 extremely healthy women in Saginaw.
They attended the season’s final Horizons Town Talk program Tuesday noon at the Horizons Conference Center in Saginaw Township where the speaker was “humor maven” Gina Barreca.
For the better part of an hour Barreca kept the women in attendance, and a few men there as well, in stitches; the kind of deep belly laughter that results in the ribs aching and the facial muscles too. 
Or, as she put it, the kind that results in mascara running, needing to hold on to underneath bust and, well, having to pee. (“Men are nervous when we laugh because they think we leak.”)
And guess what...she got a standing ovation at the end, from an audience not usually given to standing ovations.
What makes her presentation even more amazing is that Barreca, age 54 and weighing in at 148 pounds, is a professor of English literature and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut. To be blunt, university professors with doctorates and/or feminists are not usually known for their humor; in fact, some angry men-bashing women have given the word feminist a bad name.

Enter Barreca, who delivers a strong feminist message -- and it is solidly there -- with an abundance of gentle humor.
It started with the announcement of her age and weight (stated above) at the outset “because those are the two pieces of information women want to know about you up front.” And it continued through spoofing her Brooklyn Italian heritage and the women in it, what men find humorous vs. what makes women laugh, overcoming body issues when buying clothes and bathing suits, dolls and Dartmouth’s motto.
The fact that her numerous books with their ribald titles have been translated into eight languages, and that she has appeared in places like Perth, Australia, at the other end of the world, is proof, she says, that what makes women laugh is universal “because our lives are funny.”
“Everything I will tell you today is true,” she said. “If you pay attention in life, you don’t need to make things up. And when you tell the truth, life is a riot. Think about it. You always hear laughter coming out of the ladies room; rarely out of the men’s room.”
And that laughter, she said, comes from retelling something real that has happened.
“It is imperative we, as women, tell the true stories of our lives because if you find it funny somebody else will find it funny. Make sure our laughing voices are heard. Don’t respond by saying ‘nothing,’ as way too many women do when someone asks them what is so funny when they are overheard laughing.”
So what had ‘em laughing on this day? It’s hard to sum up her witticisms because, as she correctly noted, women don’t tell two- or three-sentence jokes like men do. No.....they tell long, involved stories that take numerous detours before arriving at the punchline.
So with apologies to Barreca for boiling her stories down, here are some of her observations.
-- “I was raised Catholic where we were told sex was something dirty and disgusting you saved for someone you love.....28 years of therapy has helped me deal with this.”
-- “I played with Barbie dolls when I was growing up, and she was always getting married. My brother had a GI Joe and he did not have a wedding outfit or a private life. His job was to kill other toys. And Barbie was not a nice girl because she got married all the time.”
-- The songs we grew up with. “The women sang things like ‘I Will Follow Him’ and men ‘The Wanderer.’”
-- She was, she says, the first in her family to go to college, and got accepted to Dartmouth in New Hampshire, one of the last Ivy League schools to admit women.
Her Aunt Josephine, upon hearing the news in Brooklyn and that the college was in New Hampshire, said, “Oh Gina, you’re pregnant, right. It happened to your cousin  Elaine.”
Once she got there, she noted with amusement that the former all-boys school had the following motto: “It May Be Small, But There Are Those Who Love It.” She related her humor in that slogan to some of the male students who, well, didn’t get it.
-- Men often accuse women of “honey, can’t you take a joke” because, Barreca says, the two sexes have different rituals. “We hate the three Stooges,” she said, mimicking some of their body English that “we don’t do and we don’t think is funny.”
And, she added, “we don’t think the apex of humor is the fart scene from ‘Blazing Saddles.’ I know men who play it over and over (on their DVDs). It’s a wonder we get along as well as we do.”
-- As for body images, women try to fit their body in clothes that don’t fit “while men feel bad only if they can’t fit into a foreign car. You don’t hear them say, ‘I want to fit in a 42 short by Christmas.’’’
So branch out, she told the women....find the humor in living life and foster it, let the bad girl come through in your humor “because she needs to get out” and let your soul reach out with humor “because it is as close as a hug.”

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