Humor provides us with the opportunity to make social commentary, to connect with others, and to laugh when life sometimes feels too damn serious. But when does humor cross the line from breaking boundaries to reinforcing oppressive ideology? Is the in-group “allowed” to make offensive jokes? Why do and should we accept these jokes at all?
Lately, these questions seem particularly relevant to popular humor about rape and sexual assault. In the New York Times article, “Female Comedians, Breaking the Taste-Taboo Ceiling,” Jason Zinoman writes about famous female comedians, who have traditionally lagged behind male comedians, and often been considered “too aggressive.” Today, lady comedians such as Sarah Silverman, have breached this barrier with rape humor. Many of the audience members unwittingly and self-consciously laugh at these crude jokes, aware that the comedians’ message is troubling. Still, it seems that these lines, when delivered by women, make a killing.
Zinoman’s article leads me to ask a few questions. What does the actual content of their humor suggest? Does it simply push limits, or defy them? Why is this the niche that makes female comedians successful? A few themes run through the wisecracks themselves. Zinoman cites Silverman saying, “I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.” While Phoebe Robinson, another young female comedian, teases, “When I watch a movie where there’s a really good-looking rapist, I think about the girl: Why are you complaining?” Silverman and Robinson both reinforce two of the main misconceptions about sexual violence: Myth #1: Rape is sexual, not violent. Sexual violence in all forms is violence. Myth #2: Women/victims of rape want it. In court rooms, relationships, families, and police precincts, people ask victims, why were you wearing that? Why were you drinking? Why were you alone? Such questions place the blame on the survivor, and perpetuate the myth that we provoke rape. Sexual violence is not the survivor’s fault.
However, comedians do more than simply propagate myths. In one performance, Silverman proclaimed that she needed more rape jokes, clearly recognizing their role in her success. “Who’s going to complain about rape jokes? Rape victims?” she asked. “They barely even report rape.” It is true that rape and other forms of sexual violence remain vastly underreported. What Silverman fails to mention are the causes for underreporting. Many survivors live unaware of the resources that are available to them. They may fear telling the police or going through a criminal proceeding, perhaps for their safety, or because they may not be able to remember every detail due to their trauma and fear being undermined. Often, the authorities respond with questions like the ones above, blaming the victim for her assault. Let’s look at the cause for SlutWalks as an obvious example of such victim-blaming. When asked how to promote women’s safety, a Toronto police officer said “Women should avoid dressing like sluts.” Most importantly, Silverman implies that victims of sexual violence are powerless and voiceless, another dangerous myth.
These are the jokes and ideas that make female comedians successful, that prevent women from being considered “too aggressive.” Why? While the argument exists that this humor pushes the envelope and frees women from PC rhetoric, these jokes fully support a victim-blaming understanding of sexual assault. Comedians such as Silverman and Robinson do not challenge men. Instead, they reinforce the oppression of rape survivors, who are primarily women, and basically function as minions of patriarchy. Why does the audience laugh, albeit insecurely? Simply put, we live in a rape culture. Sexual violence, along with myths and misconceptions about sexual violence permeate our lives. To many who have not removed the veil of rape culture, rape is funny. Perhaps some individuals’ sheepishness comes from an inner knowledge of the unfortunate reality of violence.
If this is the only way for female comedians to achieve success, what do we do about it? They could change their material, and find a different, still edgy approach. But what about the viewers? Would they still find popular female comedians funny without rape humor? Ideally, our whole society would reject the misconceptions that these jokes breed. We could still use comedy as a release, and as social commentary, but as productive criticism, rather than a mechanism to reinforce oppression.
People might tell me, and other “sensitive feminists” to lighten up. Take a joke. But when the joke, no matter who delivers it, minimizes the violence that affects someone every 2 minutes in the United States, I’m not laughing.