You don’t normally think of the New York City subways as a place for mirth. Filth and rats on the tracks. Jammed trains, when they eventually arrive. The birthplace of manspreading. Still, there it was, the few times I was able to find a seat last month, and it was Regina Barreca’s fault.
Armed with an advance copy of her newest book, I was chortling over chapter headings like: “He Didn’t Lead Me Into Temptation, We Took a Shortcut.” “If You Run with a Bad Crowd, Can You Call It Exercise?”
Barreca—professor of English at the University of Connecticut, PT blogger, newspaper columnist (The Washington Post, Hartford Courant), and all-around wit—first jammed my radar two decades ago. I was researching an article about the differences in men’s and women’s humor. She had just published her first book: They Used to Call Me Snow White…But I Drifted: Women's Strategic Use of Humor. It was smart, full of hilarious insight!
Under the many guffaws of eight books, numerous newspaper columns, and scores of invited talks lies a deep theme: having a big mouth is especially good for girls; it enables them to speak up. Too many are the ways that women restrict themselves. Trying to squeeze into clothes that don’t fit, for example, only feeds feelings of unworthiness, says Barreca. “I’ve never heard a guy say ‘I’ll be a 42 short by the holidays.’”
Few things render women as powerless as a bathing suit, which can keep a good woman out of sight and sun for a whole summer. Yet bathing suits, Barreca reminds us, have only two functions—to keep seagulls and cops away.
Nor is the solution to encase oneself in Spanx. When our grandmothers wore girdles they covered only one part of the body. Now “you’re sealed up in something that goes from your neck to your ankles.” There’s a reason our mothers burned bras and discarded girdles: To be seen and be heard they needed backbone, not whalebone,
There are well-meaning, even well-known, people urging women to be just like one of the guys, which annoys the hell out of Barreca and leads her to one of her best lines, the title of her witty and wise new book, and the mantle of Mae West: If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse? Barecca grew up with guys (father and brother; her mother died young) and was in the first class of women admitted to an all-male Ivy college. Comfortable as she is in Guy Land, she thinks books like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In are “more mirage than map.” “Reading books by wildly high-profile women is a form of masochism. It’s like tearing off your cuticle. We turn the pages and wonder, ‘Why can’t I be more like her?’” The short answer: Larry Summers wasn’t your senior thesis advisor.
Barrecaville turns out to be a very funny place. In it, bad boyfriends are good: They remind us that, just as there are significant others, so, too, are there insignificant others. With that tiny twist of language, she seizes something that was right in front of us the whole time but we couldn’t grasp because we were too focused on the rejection.
Despite all the rowdiness, Barreca’s erudition pokes through every page. She romps across the literary landscape, to say nothing of chick lit, a skill she honed early in the cramped Brooklyn quarters she grew up in, polished at Dartmouth, and perfected as a scholar first at Cambridge University, then at New York’s City College before becoming a tenured professor at UConn, where she teaches and mentors promising young men and women headed for many fields.
Yet to meet her is to be assured that she is more Coney (Island) than Cambridge. Many Americans embellish an Oxbridge degree with diction dredged from the Thames. Two years in Cambridge only buttressed Barreca’s Kings County cadence. “To them, all Americans sounded alike. I came back not even trying to pass anymore. I wasn’t trying to pretend to be somebody I wasn’t. I was a working-class girl who happened to be smart enough and push enough to break into these institutions,” she told me.
Although I suspect she always had a funny bone, Barreca says it was her time at Dartmouth that taught her the necessity of humor. “Guys would come up and say, ‘When our grandfathers went here there were no women.’ I’d say, ‘When your grandfathers were here there were no indoor lights. Things get better.’”
Be warned that it’s not safe to drink or eat around her even at a classy book party: Two seconds into her remarks and you’ll be snorting champagne out your nose or choking on an amuse-bouche. I guess that’s why they’re called gag lines.