Just to be clear: I don’t actually think they are. At least, not the way they’re typically done.

Be patient; this is a long post, but it’s the result of a lot of thinking and isn’t too needlessly rambling.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about comedy and women. Full disclosure: on the days I dissertate, I also end up watching lots of stand-up comedy (try Patton Oswalt, Dana Gould, Janeane Garofalo, David Cross, and Patrice O’Neal, if you can deal with his not-funny misogyny, RIP, dude) and roasts on Netflix (the roast of Charlie Sheen is the best in my opinion). There must be something about doing a dissertation in theology that forces the brain toward some kind of time-out involving crudeness, slick anger, and clever word-play. Life isn’t all serious and we all need our outlets. (Perhaps this is how most people feel about Sports?)

Point is: I love comedy, I love to laugh, I sometimes like things raunchy, I really enjoy cleverness, and I think angry-yet-subdued observational jokes about ridiculous social mores are hilarious — shout out to Larry David! In fact, as I am making my syllabus for teaching next fall, I am already mentally preparing to self-censor all the sarcastic jokes I will want to make about the texts by men (it’s a class on women and gender in the Christian tradition) and all the cursing that I will want to do out of frustration (wait till I have tenure…). Anyway. No topic is a priori off the table for me (and you should know, in fact, that most of the other WITS are this way, and you wouldn’t believe some of the crude banter that passes between all of us on a daily basis. OMG, feminists have a sense of humor too!).

[Okay though, at this point this post is going to be analyzing one raunchy (and in my opinion, not-funny) misogynistic joke, so be forewarned.]

I was therefore intrigued when I recently came upon this New York Times article about female comedians. In this article, Jason Zinoman argues that female comedians such as Sarah Silverman, Whitney Cummings, and Amy Schumer are able to push certain taboo topics like rape into their jokes in a uniquely transgressive way that male comedians have not hitherto attempted with such verve (obviously the exception would be the male-rape-in-prison joke, which for reasons inscrutable to me remains a cornerstone of bland comedy in stand-up and sitcoms alike, both by men and women. I swear, it’s like my ears turn off when I hear that joke coming. It’s just. so. over. And just plain old homophobic in a way that doesn’t really reveal itself as such — one can laugh at it without really thinking.).

I must admit, this article by Zinoman has a touch of the “Oh my!  Women are pretty and not supposed to say mean things!” pie-eyed surprise evident in passages such as his description of Amy Schumer as “blond and bubbly” and his opening reference to a sexist line from Johnny Carson in 1979 about how women shouldn’t do crude jokes (HELLO–aren’t we a bit beyond this?). I doubt I’m the only one to make this point. Get over it, dude.

But I would also argue that there’s slightly more going on in this article insofar as Zinoman seems to be saying that female comedians can do more in the realm of rape taboo than their male counterparts, specifically because they are women. The logic seems to be that, for some reason, women are able to make rape jokes in a way, a funny way, that men cannot. This should be the first clue that in comedy, not everything goes. We apparently as a society do have a sense of what’s allowed and what’s not when it comes to our jokes. Otherwise the female/male distinction when it comes to rape jokes would not obtain, and we would all be eating up men’s rape jokes with a spoon, since the dawn of comedy. I will return to this point.

Zinoman’s article focuses on Sarah Silverman, especially the following joke in her stand-up routine: “I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.” Zinoman reports that the crowd laughs and then groans and then seems surprised with itself for laughing. Now, Silverman is ethnically Jewish, so perhaps that makes a difference in terms of the tone of this joke, which is clearly focused on the stereotype of Jewish women as relentless social climbers. And I suppose that, if I ever fulfilled my distant dream of leaving theology and becoming a stand-up, I would probably cultivate some pretty good Catholic jokes. So perhaps that all makes some difference. But not enough.

My question: is this joke, and the rest of its rapey ilk, really trailblazing? Perhaps Zinoman is right in that female comedians are pushing the envelope when it comes to rape (although honestly I’m not sure that’s true). So that seems to mean simply that Silverman and the like are breaking taboos about rape by making rape jokes in poor taste, and apparently comedy is just about upping the ante, so that’s all to the good, ostensibly.

But excuse me, I think all of this sucks. Is this really the new direction of comedy by women?  (I would answer, actually, that women’s comedy is much more diverse, but let’s just accept Zinoman’s parameters for the sake of argument right now.) It’s just so damned boring. Is it just me, or is breaking taboos for the sake of breaking taboos actually not very funny? I don’t actually think that we should make rape jokes in this way. And when I say that we shouldn’t, I am making not only a moral point, but also a comedic one: IT IS NOT FUNNY. Seriously, when I have been party to Silverman’s stand-up, I just feel bored and anxious and I want her to go away. I know a lot of other people I respect feel that way as well. I don’t think that’s the effect that comedy should have on people.

Now, some people also like Silverman and specifically argue thereby that she is actually highlighting the horror of rape, that breaking taboos is important in comedy, and that we can’t police the content of jokes. I strongly disagree with the first claim, am willing to agree with the second claim with some provisos, and disagree in a complex way with the third claim. I’ll explain. Now we’re getting into the issue of the moral status of comedy, since it definitely has one and there’s no point denying it.

First, if we reflect upon Silverman’s joke about the Jewish woman being raped by the doctor and finding that to be bittersweet, I think we have to look at  how the joke is functioning and where the attention of the audience is being drawn. To my mind, as I said, I think what’s getting highlighted in this joke is the stereotype of Jewish women’s social opportunism: getting raped sucks, but it almost is worth it if that happens by a doctor. To my mind, neither the horror of rape nor the culpability of the doctor character are being highlighted in this joke; rape is sort of assumed to be bad in some sort of vague way as a vehicle to underscore the supposed greed of Jewish women. I doubt people walk away from that joke thinking: “God, rape is a tragedy and an offense.”

In fact, second, here’s my more subtle point about jokes and their relation to taboo-breaking. I think people walk away from that joke possibly a little disgusted with themselves but also relieved that they got the chance to laugh at something they know they’re not allowed to most of the time in polite society. And I think that’s where the effects of the joke stop. Like “OHHHH shit, this is SO BAD! [Head down.] HAHAHA.” So I would argue that the real target of the joke in effect is “the culture of political correctness” which instills in a us a sense of the good and the bad ways to speak about politically sensitive issues but which also drives a lot of people crazy. I think a lot of people like to rail against the pressures of political correctness because they forget what’s at stake in these norms and just think that they are being forced to suffer the indignity of “walking around on eggshells” in their speech so as not to piss off people who are way too sensitive about things like rape. Because (if you allow me to continue ventriloquizing this mindset), rape sucks but tends only to happen to people like those sad, scarred women on SVU that Mariska Hargitay helps. And those women probably kind of deserved it anyway–why were they slutting it up with their short skirts at the club? But since rape is such a small issue that happens to such a small percentage of women, and we’re just so sensitive about it as society, we need to be able to blow off steam and say things in poor taste every now and then. Thank you, Sarah Silverman!

In this way, then, I think rape jokes a la Silverman obliquely deride the culture of political correctness and therein actually mask the suffering of the countless women (and men) who have been brutally raped and sexually molested. Because these kinds of jokes obscure our ability to recognize the prevalence and the tragedy of rape as it happens in our society and globally. So we walk away from these jokes refreshed that we finally got to laugh at something we don’t understand and that we take to be happening very far away to some sad-looking victims. These kinds of jokes have the potential to bring out the repressed bully in all of us because they direct our frustrations to the forces that would stifle our amusement at the suffering of others. Jokes as reinforcing moral callousness. Neat.

You don’t have to be a genius to see how utterly exploitative this is. But I will try to break it down even further for you.

Now, I’m not saying we can’t do “rape jokes,” but guess what everybody! There are different ways to address this taboo through comedy. Why so many jokes that simply seem to recite the bullying of rape victims? Why are comedians not more creative? I have a theory, and it starts with this claim: for a joke to be funny, it has to quickly establish a relatable premise that resonates intuitively with the audience. Then you can introduce the clever twist or observation, the punch line, so to speak, that highlights the commonly-understood situation in a new way for people. Cue funniness. It seems to me that Silverman’s joke is using rape as the vehicle to then proffer a punch line about Jewish women. As I have tried to explain, there’s nothing politically courageous about this kind of formula: it uses rape to highlight the nature, nay, the stereotype, of something else entirely.

Furthermore, this joke problematically assumes some vague commonplace sense that rape is bad, and that we all know this. But here’s the rub. We as a society are so deep in rape culture that we actually don’t even really know how to define the contours of rape. We therefore don’t really know how to decry it. So we laugh at rape jokes not really understanding the reality of what we’re laughing at. Basically, when women’s attractiveness is based on their desirability before the male gaze, and when sex, just plain old sex, is conventionally based on male dominance perhaps even to the point of violence, and on women saying, “No no no okay yes! My, you were kind of forceful but I liked that because it makes me feel desired and loved!” we’re clearly confused about the meaning of consensual sex, and our clarity about the contours of rape is therefore compromised.

If you’re skeptical, think about the Twilight movies, Gone with the Wind, and this Jezebel article  revealing that most people can’t tell the difference between British men’s magazines akin to Maxim and interviews with convicted rapists. Neato! Here’s a gem of an example from one of the men in question: “A girl may like anal sex because it makes her feel incredibly naughty and she likes feeling like a dirty slut. If this is the case, you can try all sorts of humiliating acts to help live out her filthy fantasy.” Guess what!  That wasn’t from a rapist! That was from a regular dude! OMG this is so funny!

So, third, I guess I do think we should reflect upon the content of jokes and redirect attention if need be. Because if it’s the case that really funny jokes at least start with a premise that resonates with the audience, how about we start encouraging rape jokes that actually reveal the absurdity and prevalence of rape culture? That’s a legitimate premise for a joke! Because guess what: I go around frequently thinking about the absurdity of rape culture, and I would fine it deeply refreshing if some comedians would do the same. That’s what feels more real to me anyway. I think that rape jokes making fun of rape victims and people who are sensitive about rape just play into the frustrations of people who have the luxury of finding rape itself inexplicably funny. How about we make rape jokes from the perspective of those who are sick of a culture which is constantly decrying and then encouraging a rape-friendly atmosphere? I keep thinking about Audre Lorde’s famous essay, “The Master’s Tool Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” because continuing to do rape jokes from the perspective of the ignorant and the dominant in society means that we will continue to turn a blind eye to the reality of rape, AND that our humor will continue to lack creativity or imagination. This applies especially to female comedians mimicking the rape logic of men (and other women) in society who don’t get what all the rape fuss is about.

So rather, let’s look at the world from the perspectives of the victims and see what moral sensitivity we can cultivate and what genius comedic insights we may find. In case you’re curious for an example, I would direct you to Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update from a few weeks ago about the Joe Paterno scandal. You can watch for yourself, but the main butt of the joke is the rabidly defensive Penn State students and the rape culture mentality they were embodying in their tunnel-vision outrage over Paterno’s firing. Nicely done, SNL.

Regardless of whether you agree with me or not, though, please don’t ever say anything like, “[Wildly offensive thing] isn’t meant to be serious. It’s just funny.”

Comedy is definitely supposed to break rules, but that doesn’t mean it’s amoral. “Just funny” doesn’t exist.

14 thoughts

  1. Elizabeth,

    I agree with you that most humor trades on some observation about real life that the audience can connect with, but I think Sarah Silverman’s ‘joke’ is different

    I would compare it to a Rodney Dangerfield line:

    ‘Mixed emotions is having my mother-in-law go over a cliff in my new Cadillac”

    This “absurdist” joke depends on knowing that in our culture of joke telling men are supposed to love their cars and really hate their mother-in laws. I don’t think it’s about real men and real mother-in-laws.

    Someone from a different culture might find it disturbing that Americans think that a woman falling to her death is funny.

    As an example of absurdist humor, check out the film “The Aristocrats”, where we are treated to a multitude of our leading comedians trying to outdo each other in telling the same filthy, disgusting, vile joke… after a while one is meant to delight in the sheer virtuosity of the excess, since it’s impossible to take any of it literally. The words of the joke become a self-contained system of signs, cut loose from the bounds of earth.

    At the showing I attended, some people left after 10 minutes, others were literally rolling in the aisles in laughter. I was surprised that I didn’t laugh once; a few times I think I was amused

    I think absurdist humor is, at best, witty or clever rather than truly funny

    All foam, very little beer.


  2. Ok, one question–because I’m wondering if the Silverman joke is even worse than you’re giving it credit for. I’m wondering if instead of just using the vague badness of rape as a subtext for a joke mainly about something else, in a way that basically leaves rape culture untouched, the joke actually plays into and confirms rape culture in a certain way. Doesn’t the joke to some extent depend on the intuition that a lot of what passes for rape isn’t all bad, because it gets the woman something she wants but can’t really be seen to want? Social status in the joke, but something like roughness or forced submission or ‘nastiness’ in rape culture more generally? Or am I pushing this too far now?

    1. Yep, I think that’s plausible. I’m just amused at how diametrically opposed your comment/question is from John Rasmussen’s (above). You think things are even worse than I said, and he thinks there is no problem at all.

      I do think there is some negative association with rape in the joke for the joke to work at all (it’s got to be *bitter* sweet, something kind of unpleasant to be tolerated for the gain of something), but I think what you’re talking about is definitely in play at a deeper cultural level that almost always remains implicit. If you look at crappy movies, ESPECIALLY crappy horror movies OR the James Bond GoldenEye movie (which I just watched last night, ugh), it’s like women should almost want to be rape-desired by men, but only if the men are dominating and have some kind of charisma (it’s not cool if ugly men with no prospects try to be that way), and only if the women put up resistance but then give in eventually–that’s the shape of female desire. The desire to be desired, forcefully, and then a “yes” that takes the form merely of giving in, of silent acceding.

      1. Yeah, that’s well put (with or without complete sentences). That isolates a slightly different rape culture perspective than the one I had in mind. In the James Bond-style rape, there’s really nothing bad about the rape at all: the woman’s initial resistance is just part of a broader aggressive-submissive sexual script. I was thinking of college party-style rape, where there’s a vague sense that it’s bad to have sex with someone too drunk to consent, but not that bad, or at least not rape-bad, because she wouldn’t really have gotten that drunk or worn those clothes or been at that party unless she secretly wanted it but couldn’t admit it. That’s the bad-but-not-really-bad logic, or necessarily-secret-consent logic, that I’m wondering if Silverman’s joke depends on.

        Though, actually, the college party example doesn’t get at the power differential between the doctor and the Jewish girl. The way that demanding sexual favor for a job opportunity gets disqualified as “real rape” in rape culture is much more to the point here, actually exactly the same thing as the Silverman joke.

  3. I must have expressed myself poorly, if I was understood to say that Sarah Silverman’s joke was no problem.
    I do think her humor is part of a larger genre, which is deliberately amoral, and flaunts such amorality as absurdity. Where such “edginess” is seen as courage.

    I hesitate to supply many other examples, lest it be taken for approval; just one more from Silverman:
    “My nana was a survivor of the Holocaust or — I’m sorry — the alleged Holocaust, and she had the tattoo, the number, and thank God she was at one of the better concentration camps. She had a vanity number, it said, “Bedazzled,” which is kinda fun.

    How does such a joke work ?? Any explanation would have to claim that taken literally what’s being said is so awful you are not meant to take it literally.

    But, of course, there is a problem: The Holocaust was real, and real rapes happen to real people. Part of the moral life is to be able to name such horrific events truthfully. The power of such descriptions is drained when the words become material for jokes.

    This also happens when such descriptions become mere metaphors: as when a guy says he felt raped having to pay a large fine for speeding, or when some huge screw-up at the office is described as a holocaust.

    But Sarah Silverman, and others, make a lot of money talking like this. I don’t know who, but someone’s is paying for it.

    1. Thanks, John. I do understand your point a lot better now, especially since I see how you actually are claiming there is *some* sort of connection between jokes and “real life,” even if such a connection is complex and difficult to assess.

      I’ve been thinking about study-watching _The Aristocrats_, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to do it yet. I’m anticipating feeling really bored.

      Thanks for bringing up Holocaust/Shoah jokes. I was thinking about that topic also but found myself at a loss for where to even begin.

  4. Excellent article. I think Brian is right: the joke depends on the premise that her rapist was doing her a favor.

    I tripped over this researching an article I wrote today in response to Patton Oswalt’s prison rape joke on Twitter last night. I guess I don’t watch enough standup to know that this is a “cornerstone.” Yuck.

    Re: policing jokes – it’s a lot like the cries of “Censorship!” from people who experience a backlash as a result of saying or writing something objectionable. Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences.

    Here’s my article, Patton Oswalt Thinks Rape is Funny: http://www.martimckenna.com/3/post/2012/02/patton-oswalt-thinks-rape-is-funny.html

  5. I think this question you propose is very insightful: “…if it’s the case that really funny jokes at least start with a premise that resonates with the audience, how about we start encouraging rape jokes that actually reveal the absurdity and prevalence of rape culture?” Louis C.K. is one of my favorite comedians, and in his stand-up, he often makes a joke that speaks to the issue of rape (furthermore, in a theological context). C.K.’s “rape joke” goes as follows:

    “It’s in the Ten Commandments to not take the Lord’s name in vain. Rape isn’t up there, by the way. Rape is not a Ten Commandment. But don’t say the dude’s name with a shitty attitude.”

    To me, this joke at least attempts to “reveal the absurdity and prevalence of rape culture.” C.K. sarcastically points out the ridiculousness of our culture’s consistent failure to view rape as an obviously horrific moral failing. I always find myself rolling my eyes and even feeling queasy at “rape jokes” as they are so often told today, so I really enjoyed this critique. I hope more big-time comedians can follow Louis C.K.’s lead when it comes to humor about truly sensitive issues like this.

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