[Massive trigger warning for this entire post.]
If you look at my About page, you’ll see the mission statement for this blog: “The Funny Feminist is a way for me to explore my two opposing life philosophies: that everyone should be more sensitive to others, and everyone should lighten up and not take life seriously all of the time.”
Nowhere do these two life philosophies contradict each other more sharply than on the subject of rape jokes. Not that I think people should “lighten up” when it comes to rape jokes, and I would never tell another survivor that s/he was being “too sensitive,” but I wondered if there was a way to joke about it in a sensitive manner.
I didn’t want to write about rape jokes because it’s a very triggering subject and I’m still processing how I feel about the subject, but an article entitled “Female Comedians, Breaking the Taste-Taboo Ceiling” appeared in yesterday’s issue of The New York Times, and
I simply couldn’t keep mum on the subject anymore. I have to write about it even though my opinion is still not fully formed.
The article, written by Jason Zinoman, talks about how female comedians are breaking taboos and joking about things that used to be considered “off-topic” for women. Now, they’re joking about the same subjects that men joke about.
I like that taboo-breaking in theory. In practice, my feelings on the subject are very mixed, especially when you look at the subjects that women are choosing to joke about.
Anyway, this article gives me a perfect opportunity to talk through my feelings about rape jokes.
“Comics like Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr and Sandra Bernhard were trailblazers, but if you had to pinpoint one joke as a breakthrough for this new generation of female comedians, it might be this one: ‘I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.’ When I saw Sarah Silverman deliver that signature one-liner in a downtown theater almost a decade ago, the audience exploded with laughter followed by groans. Then came the anxious chuckles whose subtext seemed to be: I can’t believe I laughed at that joke.”
The one joke that is a “breakthrough” for female comedians is a joke about rape. My first thought was, “Wow, this author has a very skewed perspective,” but then I think about Sarah Silverman’s popularity and the fact that she makes a lot of jokes about rape…and maybe it’s not such a skewed perspective after all.
That particular joke quoted, by the way, is a perfect example of why rape jokes can be so problematic. It’s not as much of a rape joke as it is a joke about Jewish stereotypes, but it’s still using rape to get to the punchline. I admit that a part of me wants to chuckle at it, but I also can’t tell if Sarah Silverman is talking about her own experiences, or if she’s completely making something up to get her audience to laugh, and both possibilities make me cringe for different reasons.
“For a certain strain of stand-up, dating to Lenny Bruce, it’s essential to talk about what’s taboo. George Carlin famously argued that rape jokes could be funny. ‘Picture Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd,’ he offered as evidence.”
I love the late, great George Carlin. Love. I am not on the same page as he is when it comes to rape jokes. And yet, the particular image he is describing here is so horrific, so over-the-top ridiculous, that I have to admit, I laughed a little bit when I heard it for the first time many years ago. Is it because a part of me, deep down, agrees that rape jokes are funny? Or am I laughing because the image is so unexpected? Or because I get a little perverse thrill whenever people take childhood classics and show how deeply fucked-up they can be?
“Our culture sends mixed signals about this least funny of subjects. Facebook took down a page dedicated to ugly rape jokes last week after months of pressure, yet every night tourists guffaw at a repeated joke about raping babies as a cure for AIDS in ‘The Book of Mormon.’”
I saw The Book of Mormon and even wrote about it once, but I’ll sum up my opinion here. That particular rape joke doesn’t bother me because the issue of raping babies as a cure for AIDS really does happen, and I see the show as using comedy to put a spotlight on that issue. (Of course, it’s problematic in a different way, as the issue is/was largely a problem in South Africa when the play takes place in Uganda, but the show also makes fun of itself for lumping all the African countries together.)
“Whereas male comedians generally tread more gently, particularly if the victim is a woman (prison jokes are a whole other matter), Ms. Silverman barges forward.”
I’m not sure if I’ve really seen male comedians “tread more gently” when the victim is a woman, for one thing. For another, if a male comedian does “tread more gently” when it comes to female victims, but still rushes to make a bunch of jokes about prison rape, it doesn’t tell me that the comedian is necessarily more sensitive about women; it tells me that he really, really wants to make jokes about rape, but knows he’ll get a lot of shit if he makes the joke about women, so he’ll do it about prisoners instead, because rape is funny when the victim is male. (Hint: no, it’s not, and TV Tropes makes a point of saying that, too.)
“‘I need more rape jokes,’ she shouted nasally before letting her fans in on what she called a comedy secret, that such jokes are actually not so ‘edgy’ after all. ‘Who’s going to complain about rape jokes? Rape victims?’ she asked. ‘They barely even report rape.’ There were no groans this time.”
That’s a rape joke I can get behind, because she’s not making fun of the victims, but in fact pointing out one of the most fucked-up things about our culture: that rape victims often don’t report rape.
Way to go, Sarah Silverman, for pointing out that rape jokes aren’t so edgy after all. So…why do you continue to make them? Ones that don’t criticize rape, anyway?
“[Whitney Cummings'] two new sitcoms, ‘Whitney,’ on NBC, which she created, produced and stars in, and ’2 Broke Girls,’ on CBS, for which she is a co-producer and co-creator, have done well enough to receive full-season orders. The slightly funnier of these conventionally bland shows, ’2 Broke Girls,’ does employ several lame jokes that mention rape, and while the show has drawn some criticism, it is probably not nearly as much as a network comedy would have received a decade ago.”
I’ve seen 2 Broke Girls several times in the vain hope that it will get better after awhile, because I like that the show is about a friendship between two women, but I can confirm that yes, the show is rife with rape jokes. The fact that it receives less criticism than it would have a decade ago does not, in my opinion, speak well of our culture.
“[Phoebe Robinson's] material is tautly written but not particularly risky, except for one joke that received the loudest laugh both times I saw her perform…’When I watch a movie where there’s a really good-looking rapist,’ she says, her tone lilting upward before hitting the punch line on a low note, ‘I think about the girl: Why are you complaining?’”
A joke suggesting that rape is a compliment is somehow “risky” now. Even though it received the loudest laugh both times the writer watched her perform. Contradiction, table for one.
“She sort of apologizes for the joke by looking disappointed with the crowd’s approval.”
Which, once again, belies the idea that making a “rape is a compliment if the guy’s hot!” joke is somehow risky.
You know which rape joke was risky? Sarah Silverman’s joke about rape victims rarely reporting rape. It’s a joke that forces the audience to take notice at the fact that they’re laughing about something very serious, and maybe it isn’t all that funny. Whereas a joke like Phoebe Robinson’s “good-looking rapist” joke, or Silverman’s own “doctor” one, subtly allows the audience to feel more comfortable about rape and more comfortable about laughing at rape.
Unless, of course, the audience member has a rape survivor in it who might have been raped by her doctor, or had a rape allegation dismissed because she should take it as a compliment that a good-looking man wanted her so badly. But that kind of stuff never happens in real life, right?
“Tina Fey tried a similar tactic with a controversial scene on ’30 Rock’ in which her character, Liz Lemon, acts disgusted when her longtime confidant Pete Hornberger describes having sex with his wife while she was sleeping.”
Yeah, I saw that. It wasn’t funny. And I normally like 30 Rock.
“[Amy Schumer] begins one of her most dependable jokes by triumphantly announcing that she slept with her ‘high school crush.’ While this could come off like a boast, her sugary delivery makes it sound like a heartwarming dream come true, albeit over a decade late. Then Ms. Schumer gooses the crowd — ‘right?’ she shouts, earning applause. Pause: ‘But now he expects me to go to his graduation.’
The line between good and bad taste moves so quickly these days that a provocateur must be nimble, constantly looking to raise the ante. So at two recent performances Ms. Schumer added a second punch line, delivered with a catty sigh: ‘Like I know what I’m going to be doing in three years.’”
So we’ve already hit “rape is a compliment” and “rape is funny when the victim is male,” and now we have both “statutory rape is funny” and “rape is funny when the perpetrator is a woman.” (Hint: no, it’s not.)
Did a part of me laugh at that joke? Yeah, a little. I didn’t see the punch line coming, and I definitely didn’t see the next punch line coming, and I do tend to laugh at the unexpected. I can also have a dark sense of humor and I appreciate dark jokes.
Still, laughing at it makes me hate myself a little.
This is my general opinion about rape jokes: I hate jokes that imply that rape is totally funny, that make fun of victims, or try to imply that rape is totally not a big deal. I also don’t like jokes that use rape as a setup for a different joke because I believe they often implicitly condone or trivialize rape.
On the other hand, I tend to appreciate jokes that make fun of rapists or rape culture or acknowledge that rape is underreported and terrible. But even those can be incredibly triggering and upsetting to other survivors, and I’m not sure they’re always worth it.
Yet rape jokes are everywhere.
I have a long list of favorite sitcoms that I have laughed at uproariously, cherished, and watched individual episodes a number of times. I have sketch comedy groups I love. I have comedians I love.
Every single one of my favorite modern shows and comedians has, at one point or another, included jokes about rape or sexual assault. In fact, I’d venture a guess that rape jokes are more common in modern comedy than fart jokes.
Thinking about that, and about this article, I now have three questions:
1) Are more female comedians making rape jokes because they think it’s really funny, or because they’re trying to “fit in” the boys’ club that is stand-up comedy?
2) To what extent does a female comedian’s participation in a rape joke reinforce rape culture?
3) How can a type of humor be edgy if everyone’s doing it?