They Used to Call Me Snow White

Title: They Used to Call Me Snow White… But I Drifted: Women’s Strategic Use of Humor

Author: Gina Barreca. She is the author of several works of non-fiction focusing on women.

Genre: Nonfiction

Readers: Stay-at-home mom Marina, prosecutor Rochelle, retiree Sulyn, teacher Ninian and publishing professional Gigi.

Summary: Snow White became an instant classic for both academic and general audiences interested in how women use humor and what others (men) think about funny women. Barreca, who draws on the work of scholars, writers, and comedians to illuminate a sharp critique of the gender-specific aspects of humor, provides laughs and provokes arguments as she shows how humor helps women break rules and occupy center stage. Barreca’s new introduction provides a funny and fierce, up-to-the-minute account of the fate of women’s humor over the past twenty years, mapping what has changed in our culture and questioning what hasn’t.

Our Take: This re-release is definitely more of an academic feminist tome than a light romp. Our readers were intrigued but wish the new edition had more current examples in it.


Women’s humor may seem to be a light-hearted topic, but it definitely is serious business in Gina Barreca’s book They Used to Call Me Snow White..But I Drifted. In a nutshell, many examples are given about how men are threatened by funny women, and what topics women consider to be uniquely humorous.  This emasculation is a result of men fearing that funny women will steal their power.  As a society, women have to choose between being a “good girl” or a “bad girl” and funny women were always relegated to the latter role.

This book certainly will make you think.  However, most likely it will affirm your beliefs, since I doubt that it will appeal to most men.  That’s a shame because it’s an important cultural topic.  However, I was annoyed by the preachy, condescending, and holier-than-thou attitude of the author.  She makes it quite clear that if you don’t agree with all her beliefs, you are basically an idiot.  That’s preaching to the choir, which will certainly limit her audience.  I was also disappointed that this new edition (first published in 1991) only has a new prologue.  So many of the examples throughout the book are quite dated. This book would have been ground-breaking in the 70’s or 80’s.  Today it feels like a history lesson.  It’s true that sexism still exists, however our society has evolved more than this book implies.

Grade: B-



Gina Barreca’s They Used to Call me Snow White…but I Drifted: Women’s Strategic Use of Humor analyzes gendered expressions of humor and the evolution of humor in the United States and advocates that we should embrace our wit and genuine reactions to the world to reclaim our power of expression. She provides concrete advice for us all to seize the power of humor to assert ourselves in life, and to turn oppressive humor on its head when used aggressively against us. Throughout my reading of this book, my brain was begging for Nellie McKay’s Mother of Pearl (aka: “Feminists Don’t Have a Sense of Humor”) to be playing in the background on repeat.

Though this book was originally published in 1991, a lot of the analysis of humor being used to silence women is still relevant today. What struck me was the idea that women who have “a good sense of humor” are generally described that way because they’re able to roll with the punches and amiably laugh at men’s jokes, even if they aren’t funny. The natural extension of that analysis is that man’s humor is another way of creating women as ornaments in the worlds of the men around them. Women are taught to laugh at the laugh track of “the man show”, or risk being known as the one who “can’t take a joke”. If we challenge their offensive humor, we’re told we have no sense of humor. (At this point, I put the book down, pulled up my iPod, and finally gave in to Nelly McKay background music (Feminists don’t have a sense of humor…feminists just want to be alone (boo-hoo)”).

The book advocates that we abandon our nervous laughter and conciliatory giggles in favor of embracing our organic responses to situations, and allowing ourselves to express our authentic reactions. Specifically, “we need to find our own definitions and boundaries for what really delights us – if we’re only doing what’s expected, we can’t expect very much.” Embracing our sense of humor is part of taking ownership of our lives, asserting power at work and in our relationships while staying relateable.

Beyond embracing our dynamic, fabulous selves, publicly enjoying women’s humor is a subversive act. If something makes you laugh, t’s because you immediately see how it could be different, and why this laughable version is funny is in direct comparison to the alternative. When that humor applies to dominant groups, including men, you are at once imagining the non-funny version as better. When other people laugh with you, it is a direct challenge to the status quo that is more powerful than over aggression because it is fueled by laughter.

We’re supposed to keep our thoughts to ourselves and only hint at what’s really going on inside our heads, in order to give us that air of secrecy men have been taught to desire. When a woman laughs out loud, the mystery is replaced with certainty. Everyone around you knows precisely how you feel – you’re having a good time and reacting impulsively and intensely in the moment. You’ve lost that sweet uncertainty and replaced it with a pungent sense of self.

Humor and laughing with others provides a sense of community, unifying people around shared experiences and opinions. When that sense of community is developed around taking jabs at the dominant group, it subverts their power by directly challenging it as laughable. Her analysis and examples are novel and applicable two decades later. Her suggestions for ways we can reclaim our power through laughter and humor are insightful, and get to the heart of a lot of modern day feminist fights: feeling confident enough in our intellect to express ourselves proudly without fear of reproval.

Bottom Line: stick it out through the first 90 pages, which are more historic and theory based as Barreca examines gendered uses and experiences with humor, to get to the last 120 pages about how we can and should claim humor as our own personal tool to assert women’s issues and experiences into mainstream consciousness, and to do right by ourselves.

Grade: A

Read Also: Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem



They Used to Call Me Snow White…But I Drifted is a look at the development of women’s humor from the 1960’s to 1991. The 2013 edition offers a new introduction and additional quotes and jokes from contemporary women whose business it is to make us laugh. Barreca discusses the differences between men and women’s humor. She wants the reader to know that the laugh depends on who is telling the joke, how it is being told, and in what context. She conveys her message through examples of her conversations with writers and excerpts from comics’ routines and with her own brand of humor as well. Unfortunately, hers was the least entertaining.

To me, the author’s balance between the academic and the humorous weighs heavily on the side of a college text book. My highlighting and notes in the margin are evidence of that. Parts of the book were boring. Impressive interjections of the author’s humor could have made the book more consistently interesting. The book’s title and its cover art, might give the impression that the book is a light and fluffy read. That it is not.

Grade: B



I have always been a woman who laughs out loud. I’ve even laughed out loud in mixed company. Even when I’m the only one who gets the joke.

When I started reading Barreca’s book, I was intrigued. I was interested to read about humour that is particular to women and I could relate to many of the scenarios in the book. I have to admit however, with the title came the expectation of more belly laughs than wry smiles.

Her introduction, having been included for the 2013 rerelease of the book, is contemporary and timely, but what struck me the more I read was the outdated nature of many of the references within the book.

In the book’s description it states the new edition “provides a funny and fierce up-to-the minute account of the fate of women’s humor over the past twenty years”. With references in the book from the 80s and earlier, I didn’t feel it was “up-to-the-minute”.

The writing is good and the occasional laughs help, but this reads like a text book on the history of women’s comedy rather than a timely analysis of what is happening now.

I would recommend the read, especially to people who were adults during the 80s and who would remember comedy from the era, but along with a new introduction, if this is meant to speak to the state of women’s comedy in 2013, some updating of the internal content needs to be done.

Grade: B



I liked this but I couldn’t actually finish it. It is a very in-depth look at humor and women and society and it is extremely interesting. It also has a number of jokes that I spent a lovely afternoon recounting to my husband. However, it was originally written in 1991 and I’m sure a lot has changed in the last quarter century. There is an updated foreword but at pretty much every paragraph after that, I found myself wondering “Is this still the case?” Sometimes the answer was clearly yes but, more often than not, I thought back to episodes in my own life and suspected that we’ve made a lot of progress that would be worthwhile noting. I think women have achieved a lot and I definitely think the men I’ve known throughout my life have moved beyond where they were in the book.

I’m sure our entertainment industry needs a lot of improvement but it too has moved beyond Blazing Saddles, the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Bewitched. While I enjoyed the latter two, I can’t remember if I’ve seen them in the last 15 years, and there was definitely no gender divide on Blazing Saddles as neither my husband nor I found it funny (to the point where we called our parents and asked what was wrong with them). In short, it was a great book for its time but needs much more substantial updating than it was given. Read the foreword.

Grade: B


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3 thoughts on “They Used to Call Me Snow White

  1. Rochelle: Thanks a million for your generous, smart, thorough and detailed review. I was especially delighted that you suggested readers pick up Steinam as well (such company you put me in!) You really got the point and if I can be the background reading to Nelly MacKay’s music, then I’m all set. You made my day. Grazie.

  2. Pingback: “They Used to Call Me Snow White … but I Drifted: Women’s Strategic Use of Humor”. Book review | HollabackPHILLY

  3. Glad it made your day, Gina! The book made my day by the time I was finished! I’m a feminist activist, and posted a second, more feminist/activist-focused review on my non-profit, HollabackPHILLY’s, blog because I found your book so relevant to modern day feminist activism. If you’re interested, you might enjoy this review as well! Thanks for writing the book, and bringing it to our attention a few decades later! The HollabackPHILLY review:

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