Saturday, October 02, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 241 (10/2) -- I'm With Stupid by Weinstein & Barreca

Stereotypes are pernicious, self-replicating and confining, dragging our thoughts into the same old channels and frustrating attempts to break free or do something new. But they're funny!

Memory has fuzzed out the details of the recommendations I saw that aimed me at I'm with Stupid -- probably all for the good -- but I do remember that it was supposed to be really, really funny, a clever and entertaining new look at the gender divide. Perhaps that "new" is the problem, and I just took far too long to get to I'm With Stupid [1]; it's a book published in 2004 that collects a series of newspaper columns (rewritten and presented along with new material) that themselves appeared over a two year period prior to the book's text being finalized. So, using standard publishing schedules and counting backwards, that implies that many of these discussions are from the 2000-2001 period.

Should that matter with a book about something as supposedly eternal as men vs. women? Probably not, but when an example of male incompetence involves co-author Weingarten only being allowed one check at a time, the reader starts asking "this guy still uses checks for his purchases?" instead of chortling with recognition. Other examples also founder on the shoals of the modern world, particularly broad generalizations that anyone who's spent much time on the Internet will know aren't close to true for huge swaths of the population of whatever sex is being misrepresented. (For example, did you know that no woman in the history of civilization has ever liked porn?)

Anyway, Gene Weingarten was a humor columnist for the Washington Post Magazine -- still is, by the way, close to a decade later -- and, one week, while casting about for a topic to be funny about, discovered that a feminist academic (Gina Barreca) had just published a book about feminism and humor, which he thought would be easy to make fun of for the length of a column. (I'm With Stupid never names that book -- it might be The Signet Book of American Humor, which Barreca edited, from late 1999.) Barreca was smarter and funnier than Weingarten expected, and he kept coming back to her for further columns -- the earliest one I could find in the Post archives is from February of 2001, and it's clearly not the first -- all about the supposedly intractable differences between men and women.

I'm With Stupid collects a couple dozen of those columns -- all in a he-said, she-said back-and-forth dialogue format that's zippy and engaging -- somewhat edited to read more smoothly as a book, and supplemented by some amount of new material. (Only a devoted fan of Weingarten's column, or the authors themselves, could say for sure which is which.) As is typical with humor of this sort, Weingarten, representing men, plays up his uncouth, dirty, messy, too-confused-to-live-in-this-modern-world-without-the-help-of-a-good-woman, anti-intellectual side, and Barreca must, in between being the feminist intellectual, occasionally wax rhapsodic about the joys of shopping, crying, and long discussions of everyone's feelings. It is all undeniably funny, which is the point of the exercise, but it's also all very superficial and standard; it's exactly what you'd expect from a moderately funny he-said, she-said dialogue from two professional writers not aiming to engage too deeply with the material.

Both of them are prone to make sweeping overstatements, which are untrue in the way that all sweeping overstatements are. (Many of them are statistically more true than not, though.) As is typical of this kind of book, Barreca -- representing femininity, civilization, and the goddess of the hearth -- is allowed to win most of the arguments, but Weingarten gets to have most of the best lines and to appear to have the most fun -- this is what passes for gender equality these days. I'm With Stupid is quite funny, but, like most collections of newspaper columns, it reads better in small doses than all at once.

[1] Or perhaps it's the more usual problem of expectations: hardly anything is "really, really funny," if you're told ahead of time that it's going to be.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I skip his column every Sunday; I don't think it's funny. Now he and his son have a comic in the Post newspaper and I read that for a week and haven't read it since.

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