Regina Barreca '79 explained the differences between male and female humor and described her experiences at the College to a capacity crowd, which gave her a standing ovation at the conclusion of her speech, in 105 Dartmouth Hall last night.
Barreca, a member of one of the earliest graduating classes of women at the College and author, editor and professor, delivered her speech titled "How Many Feminists Does it Take to Change a Lightbulb? -- Women, Humor, and Surviving at Dartmouth," as part of the series of College-sponsored events to celebrate of the 25th anniversary of coeducation.
Barreca began by discussing her initiation into the politics of power and humor at the age of six.
During her childhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., she listened to her aunts' humorous comments in the kitchen and their silence outside of the predominantly female environment.
It was then she first realized that men and women's humor is vastly different.
Barreca said, "There are ways that women laugh around other women that they don't laugh around men."
She compared the way women politely laugh at mens' jokes to the way women laugh with each other.
"When women are having a good time. . . they have behaviors that are the signifier of enjoyment, such as mascara-wiping behavior and bust-holding behavior," Barreca said.
While Barreca comically illustrated incidents where men might feel threatened by women's humor, there was an underlying note of seriousness to her discussion.
She noted that while "women's bodies and women's lives have always been the source of humor in our culture. . . taking sacred male objects and turning them around to produce laughter is startling to our culture."
Men and women's concepts of humor are different, but because "the masculine paradigm is considered universal in our culture," women's brand of humor is not considered funny.
Barreca said this phenomenon was particularly pervasive at the time she studied at Dartmouth, when there was one woman for every seven men on campus.
She said at Dartmouth she began to think about how humor is used to silence women.
She explained that while a "gag" is usually just meant to be a funny joke, it can often silence the object of the humor.
In a more serious tone, Barreca said, "Silence can be as much a violation of self as any action can. . . If women bite back their words too many times, it makes it hard to speak up ever again."
In her interactions with female students at University of Connecticut where she is a professor of English literature and feminist theory, she said she often finds students are resistant to being labeled as feminists.
While she made a joke out of this point, she also said, "I'm assuming if you are walking upright and using cutlery you're a feminist [because feminism] is just the radical belief that women are human beings."
Because women base their humor upon stories and event in their own lives while men focus upon a Three Stooges or Blazing Saddles type of humor, women are often perceived as humorless when eye-poking gags and punchlines fail to elicit their laughter, Barreca said.
Barreca continued, "We need to get our stories out there" and humor "can be an effective strategy for getting our voices heard."
She concluded her talk by observing that women are often reluctant to describe the subject of their amusement if a man questions them, assuming that men will not understand.
She urged women, "When we tell a funny story, take a risk, tell your story, because even if [men] don't laugh, believe what you have made is not a mistake, it's a beginning."