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Good Girls Smile But Bad Girls Laugh

By Mary Warner MarienMary Warner Marien teaches fine arts at Syracuse University. / May 21, 1991



THEY USED TO CALL ME SNOW WHITE...BUT I DRIFTED: WOMEN'S STRATEGIC USE OF HUMOR. By Regina Barreca, Viking, 223 pp., $18.95

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THE teasing title of this book of serious reflections on feminine wit is borrowed from a woman for whom innuendo was an Olympic sport. The quips tossed off by Mae West, the plump coquette of 1930s comedy films like "My Little Chickadee," ushered in an era of Hollywood censorship. Mae West was the quintessential Bad Girl: brash, cheeky, and impertinent. And she was funny.

Good Girls smile, but Bad Girls like Mae West laugh out loud. Good Girls passively approve other people's jokes. Bad Girls crack up over their own wisecracks.

The Good Girl/Bad Girl dualism that Regina Barreca uses to explore women's humor has thoroughly saturated American popular culture. For example, on the popular television series "Cheers," Good Girl Diane found her counterpart in Bad Girl Carla. In "Gone With the Wind," Scarlett O'Hara needed her docile double, Melanie Wilkes, almost as much as she needed Rhett Butler. Even though a recent survey revealed that the majority of high school women would rather be the self-reliant Scarlett than the mild-manne r

ed Melanie, the Good Girl and the Bad Girl still make regular appearances in the mass media. "Murphy Brown," the award-winning network series, can dish up Murphy as a daring and disrespectful TV anchor, thanks to the warmhearted and none-too-bright beauty-contest winner, Corky, who neutralizes disharmony.

Comical as it may be, Barreca's suggestive title is at cross purposes with the message of her book. Often her Bad Girls are guilty of nothing more than spunk. Indeed, they are prototypical feminists, asserting their personal perceptions of everyday life against a social stereotype of what it means to be a woman. Lamentably, being a woman has meant hiding both our wits and our wit. Much of the time, women's humorous insights have been shared only with other women. Barreca's research suggests that men hav e

long distrusted women who laugh for fear that they are being laughed at. The idea that women should be compliant recipients of the joke, rather than jokesters, continues to permeate society.

This text underscores the poignant truth that many women feel it necessary to attribute their own funny lines to other people. It was not so long ago that teenage advice columns candidly counseled young women that "you may be a quick wit with your girl friends, but cool it when he's around."

"He" is around the many comedy clubs that appeared in the last decade, and he can still hear women comics (thankfully, "comedienne" is falling out of use) denigrate themselves to get a laugh. Since comedy is intense and assertive, women who perform or write it can temper the reception of comedic aggression by making fun of themselves. As Barreca notes, "self-deprecating humor supports the stereotype of women's incompetence while managing ... to offer a challenge to those stereotypes."

Both Erma Bombeck and Jean Kerr have kidded themselves and domestic life all the way to the bank. When Kerr wrote that a new brown dress made her look like a large bran muffin, she was subtly questioning why it was (and is) that women are called upon to look alluring all the time.

The author shuttles fluidly between Ivory Tower scholarship and real world experience. Although the sociology of women's humor is her primary subject, her text mixes personal reminiscence with good counsel. If the word were not wedded to the male gender, one would be tempted to call this writing avuncular.

Professor Barreca convincingly demonstrates that while the Bad Girl has routinely paid a high price for her wit, she is not so bad after all. "When you tell a joke or a funny story or make a witty remark and not many others laugh with you, what you've made isn't a mistake," she advises. "What you've made is a beginning." She who laughs, lasts.