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Rape Jokes in the Era of #MeToo

silk screen by Mike Quinn entitled "Rape Jokes"

Rape jokes are not new to stand-up comedy. In his 1990 special, Doin’ It Again, George Carlin famously argued that no subject is taboo, asserting his claim that even “rape can be funny” using an absurd scenario: Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd.1 Joan Rivers once joked that a would-be rapist had asked her if they could just be friends.2 Not unexpectedly, debates about the effectiveness or appropriateness of rape jokes in stand-up are also not new. Since 2012 (the year The Daily Beast labeled “The Year of the Rape Joke”3 ), these debates have gained more widespread attention on social media like Twitter and Facebook and from popular culture websites including Jezebel and The Huffington Post. Pop culture critics and the online commenters who respond to their work tend to engage in what anthropologist Elise Kramer calls the “Sisyphean battle” over whether or not rape jokes can ever be funny.4 Her research reveals that online commenters generally fall into one of two entrenched camps: “rape is never funny,” or “rape CAN be funny.”5 However, Kramer concludes that commenters agree on one point key point, “that humor has the power, at least in theory, to recontextualize traumatic subjects in ways that dislocate them from the act of telling, and that this power hinges on the unrealistic nature of the narrated event.”6 In other words, a rape joke should not be about actual rape. Both Carlin and Rivers’ jokes adhere to this premise. Neither joke proposes a narrative involving a real-life victim or aggressor. But in the age of #MeToo, women comedians, and some men, are undermining this basic agreement by placing an actual rape at the center of the rape joke. In this paper I will examine the contemporary rape joke’s evolution from an irony-dependent, male-generated critique of rape culture, to a literal, woman-generated critique foregrounding the comedian’s body as the site of sexual assault. I argue that the rape joke in the era of #MeToo marks a shift in the culture of stand-up comedy in which a kneejerk defense of toxic masculinity in the name of freedom of speech and quasi-liberalism might be read more plainly as an outdated assertion of patriarchal oppression and the perpetuation of rape culture.

In Lara Cox’s essay, “Standing Up against the Rape Joke: Irony and Its Vicissitudes,” she argues that irony is – and must be — at the heart of rape jokes seeking to subvert rape culture; however, she argues that this use of irony has the paradoxical effect of reifying a dominant patriarchal frame and perpetuating rape culture. She concludes, “the irony that [the rape joke] engages is dependent on two sets of people: one always already in the know and another that is excluded from understanding,”7 opening the possibility for damaging misunderstandings among listeners. Such is the effect of Louis CK’s rape joke, “you should never rape anyone… um, unless you have a reason…like you want to fuck somebody and they won’t let you.”8 This joke depends upon both irony and an acceptance on the part of the audience that C.K. exists outside the sphere of violent masculinity. In 2009, when the joke was recorded, this dichotomy remained intact: the audience “in the know” accepted the irony with the understanding that C.K. was not “one of those” men, and was telling the joke from the perspective of a feminist ally. However, C.K.’s real life sexual misconduct reveals the ironic hyper-masculine persona for what it has always been: a perpetuation of rape culture and violent masculinity.

Here irony is the primary tool at C.K.’s disposal. Cox points out, “[i]n a world where feminist consciousness-raising has made it common knowledge that rape is ‘a crime of violence by men against women, no longer as deserved behavior for women’s sinful ways’ (Moses 2012), a crucial rhetorical ingredient in joking about the matter must be nonliterality.”9 Cox’s argument is an excellent lens through which to examine the limitations of irony and nonliterality. Cox argues that nonliterality is the essential rhetorical ingredient in the rape joke, but that, paradoxically, its potential to be misread or misunderstood undermines its effectiveness. It is a bind that renders the successful rape joke nearly impossible; however, recent stand-up routines by comedians like Cameron Esposito and Hannah Gadsby challenge this conclusion, insisting instead upon literality: the sincere, sometimes explicit, examination of rape as a systemic cultural practice exercised on the bodies of women and other vulnerable peoples.

In July 2012, stand-up comedian Daniel Tosh engaged in what is now a notorious exchange with an audience member during his live stand-up routine at the Laugh Factory. In the act, as Tosh uses humor to defend rape jokes as a concept, a female audience member shouts, “Rape jokes are never funny!” to which Tosh reportedly responds, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys? Like right now?” The exchange was widely ridiculed on social media, in the press, and by many of Tosh’s fellow comedians. According to The Guardian, “comedian Alex Edelman explained how the interruption presented a dilemma for the comedian: ‘If he actually addresses something you’ve said in a serious way, then a) he’s abandoned his bit and b) he’s actually made rape really come into the room” (emphasis added).10 Here Tosh inserts literal rape into his attempt at a joke in response to a heckler. It is an obvious and extreme example of the need for irony and nonliterality in the rape joke, particularly when told from the male perspective. Cox argues that well-intentioned male comics tell rape jokes that play into a “postfeminist ideal […posturing] their masculinity as incommensurable with that of the rapist, who remains exceptional.”11 Tosh’s obvious failure here is in aligning himself with the rapist. As Alissa Bassist wrote in The Daily Beast just following the incident, Tosh’s invocation of gang rape “is not a joke. It’s an invitation. It’s a celebration of a violent crime, which is itself another violation […] To promote the insidious—‘rape is hilarious’—is to join the crime.”12

In John Mulaney’s 2009 Comedy Central special, he attempts to distance himself from the specter of the violent rapist by distancing himself from masculinity itself. In the opening of this rape joke Mulaney expresses his amusement that women in New York City may view him as a threat when, he quips, “I’m still afraid of being kidnapped.”13 He then gives an account of following a woman through the subway a two o’clock in the morning. The two are alone in the subway tunnel, and the woman begins to walk more quickly, stealing glances over her shoulder at Mulaney, who, thinking the woman must hear the train approaching, also picks up his pace behind her. Finally, Mulaney comes to the realization that the woman is running because she fears that he’s a rapist, an idea he finds absurd given his slim frame and boyish affect. He wants say to her, “no, no, no…I’m not a” – he proceeds to make clubbing and violent thrusting gestures – “I’m not like a…I’m not a man.”14 The punchline elicits an easy laugh from the audience, who is no doubt reassured by Mulaney’s unthreatening comic persona; however, as Cox concludes, “When [comics] rely on —and simultaneously distance their ‘true selves’ from— the ironic performance of a barbarous, rape-prone masculinity, these male comics risk contributing to the preconception that rapists are psychologically exceptional beings.”15 C.K.’s rape joke, that “you should never rape anyone… um, unless you have a reason…” also establishes this distance between comic and sexual predator through the use of irony. His recent admission of sexual misconduct not only undermines his past material, but also rape jokes made by other comics. Rape jokes like the ones told by Mulaney and C.K. rely on the audience’s acceptance that a culture of violent masculinity is one that good men can opt out of. The comic insists to the audience, “rape culture exists, but I am not a part of it.”

As a matter of comedic strategy, male comics who insist on telling rape jokes must perpetuate and reinforce the figure of the psychologically aberrant and exceptional rapist in order to reimagine the boarders of exceptional speech without alienating their audiences. But as Cox asserts, “male comics are not as distant as they would have their audiences believe from the power allotted to and enjoyed by the figure of the rapist in our culture,”16 and one can argue that it is precisely this power that gives them the social authority to make these jokes in the first place.

Other comics have sought to use rape not to attack or expose a culture of violent masculinity, but to prove the adage that nothing is off limits in comedy. In George Carlin’s rape joke from 1990 he asserts:

[People] say, “You can’t joke about rape. Rape’s not funny.” I say, “Fuck you, I think it’s hilarious. How do you like that?” I can prove to you that rape is funny. Picture Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd. See? Hey, why do you think they call him “Porky,” eh?17

Here Carlin positions rape at the center of a discussion about what is and is not acceptable speech. In this telling, Carlin defies the audience to take offense to the absurdity of the image. To take offense, Carlin suggests, is to render the listener absurd, prudish, and antagonistic to free speech. The joke is designed to put the audience in what Michelle Bemiller and Rachel Schneider call a “double bind.” When confronted with a rape joke,

Women [in particular] are left with two options – laugh at the joke or express dismay at the joke’s content […] If she laughs, she is complicit in her own group’s humiliation. If she does not laugh then she is a ‘spoiled sport,’ someone with no sense of humor … In either case […] she has experienced subordination.18

In this case, it is the nonliterality that squeezes the audience into the double bind, demonstrating the paradox Cox identifies: the necessity for irony in the rape joke also leads to a reification of the dominant patriarchal frame and perpetuates rape culture. Carlin’s insistence that the ironic or absurdist portrayal of rape is fair game and non-threatening silences a feminist counter-narrative about rape before it begins.

In the 2005 film The Aristocrats (made seven years before “the year of the rape joke”), over one hundred comics take on the secret handshake of twentieth century stand-ups, “The Aristocrats” joke.19 The joke centers around a family performance act (think the Osmonds, but with sex and bodily excretions), the leader of which is tasked with pitching the performance to a promoter. The narrative buildup of the joke – not the punchline – is where the comic generates laughs, describing in excruciating, scatological detail, a performance centering on sex, feces, incest, and bestiality. Comedic giant Phyllis Diller reported passing out the first time she heard it. The joke is long, largely improvised, and unwieldy. At its conclusion, when the promoter asks what the act is called, (que the punchline) the leader (usually the father) proudly announces, “The Aristocrats!” Though it has its limitations, it is a self-conscious exercise that aims to identify and undermine the parameters of acceptable speech.

Prior to the release of the documentary, The Aristocrats had been a joke reserved for the back rooms of comedy clubs, exchanged among comics without the feedback of an audience. Many of the male comedians in The Aristocrats can barely get through the joke. Comedians Gilbert Godfrey, Kevin Pollack, and Jason Alexander appear more like middle-school boys than grown men, struggling to maintain composure as they spin a tale of mothers performing oral sex on their sons and fathers penetrating circus animals.

Of all the tellings of the Aristocrats joke in the film, two rise to the top. The first is comedian Bob Saget’s grotesque and rambling rendition, centered predominantly on incest, child molestation, and feces. Saget’s cultural footprint as both the beloved father on the 1990s sitcom, Full House, and the host of the saccharine America’s Funniest Home Videos is what really generates the laughter heard off camera from the cameramen and filmmakers. The 1990s-era nurturing, widowed dad violates the audience, undermining culturally constructed assumptions about patriarchal protection and decency.

The second is comedian [Sarah Silverman’s version] (https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2...). Silverman is one of the few female comics in the documentary to deliver an extended version of the joke, only she chooses to play the straight man in contrast to the school-boy delivery offered by her male counterparts. She delivers the joke in the persona of a former child star in her family’s Aristocrats act. Her narrative is sentimental and nostalgic: “I don’t actually put the aristocrats on my resume anymore,” she says sweetly. “But it doesn’t take away from my pride.”20 Her narrative is rich with the requisite scatological ingredients, including a father/son masturbation routine, “kind of like dueling banjos…” and a “Piccassoesque” cross-streaming ejaculation, but unlike the other comics, who through barely controlled laugher dutifully deliver the joke as it was intended, culminating in the punchline, “The Aristocrats!” Silverman, make-up free and draped on a lounge chair, recalls her life in the theater as though from the therapist’s couch, sometimes trailing off, silently gazing out into some distant memory, until the film-makers pull her back.21

Her story builds to a realization as she reveals that the promotor, Joe Franklin (a real-life New York City television and radio host) had become so enamored of her family’s Aristocrats performance that he ingratiated himself to Silverman’s parents (as a child, she calls him “Uncle Joe”), until he eventually lures the young Silverman to his office where he has a special bed for “little people.” Silverman then looks directly into the camera and says as if it has just in that moment become apparent to her, “Joe Franklin raped me,” as she anxiously worries a stuffed cat.22

What stands out about Silverman’s delivery of The Aristocrats joke is that her description of The Aristocrats act mirrors the versions told by her male counterparts in almost every way, eliciting the familiar off-camera laughter. But her conclusion, entirely unhumorous, is the literal interpretation of the story that the male comics before her have engaged with: the Aristocrats joke is always a story about rape and the sexual exploitation and denigration of women and children. She begins with nonliterality as a way of drawing the viewer in and forcing him/her to engage with the literal act of rape. “Joe Franklin raped me” may not be a punchline that “kills’” but it is a meta-rape joke, exposing the truth about the rape joke, which is that beneath the irony and the attempts to counter rape culture, the ironic rape joke subordinates the victim to the satisfaction of male laughter. Hers is a literal rape joke, exposing the shortcomings of all other rape jokes.

Over the course of her career, Silverman has, however, been criticized for rape jokes and jokes-about-rape-jokes she has made in her stand-up. During her Jesus is Magic tour in 2005, Silverman joked, “I was raped by a doctor. Which is, you know, so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.”23 It’s a rape joke couched in a send-up of her own Jewish culture (something Silverman does often with great success). The joke is sharp, ironic, and elicits a furtive but genuine outburst of laughter from the audience. Because Silverman is a woman, she is able to make George Carlin’s argument that “rape can be funny” without the labored build-up to establish moral authority. Her body, which is implicitly aligned with victimhood, is her license. At the same time, Silverman and the audience refuses to acknowledge that within the context of the rape joke, her body must also be the site of violent male aggression. Cox’s argument regarding irony’s limitations becomes clear here: permission to laugh about rape without an interrogation of rape as a literal and violent act upon women’s bodies perpetuates male violence. When asked about this specific joke in a recent interview with the The Guardian, Silverman was reflective: “Comedy is not evergreen! There are jokes I made 15 years ago that I would absolutely not make today, because I am less ignorant than I was. I know more now than I did. I change with new information.”24

Silverman’s [2013 joke about rape jokes] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fYUD...) from the special We Are Miracles, comes closer to challenging the notion that the rape joke is a victimless celebration of free speech. Again, as Bemiller and Schneider argue, the rape joke forces the female audience member into a double bind: if she laughs, she risks complicity, if she does not laugh, she is a spoiled sport. Silverman begins the joke with a caveat: “Rape [is] obviously, the most heinous crime imaginable,” before continuing,

[But] rape jokes are great … because they make a comic seem so edgy and so dangerous. And the truth is, it’s like the safest area to talk about in comedy. Because who’s gonna complain about a rape joke? I mean, I would say rapevictims, but they’re traditionally not complainers. [audience laughs]…I know, that was a tasteless joke about the fact that rape victims often don’t report rape.25

Unlike Silverman’s rape joke about the Jewish doctor or C.K.’s ironic defense of rape culture, this joke demands that the audience acknowledge both the rape victim as well as the social conditions that permit the comic to make a rape joke at the victim’s expense. Silverman’s joke challenges Carlin’s specious argument about the acceptability of the rape joke, which begins with a familiar defense of free speech:

Ohh, some people don’t like you to talk like that. Ohh, some people like to shut you up for saying those things. You know that. Lots of people. Lots of groups in this country want to tell you how to talk. Tell you what you can’t talk about. Well, sometimes they’ll say, well you can talk about something but you can’t joke about it. Say you can’t joke about something because it’s not funny. Comedians run into that shit all the time.26

What Silverman exposes (and Carlin overlooks) is the real threat to speech: the stifling of victim’s voices in favor of a violent and oppressive male narrative.

Even before the #MeToo movement, a catalogue of literal rape jokes and entire rape joke routines had begun to emerge on small stages in the U.S. and Canada. In 2016 Canadian comics Heather Jordan Ross and Emma Cooper founded the “Rape is Real and Everywhere Comedy Tour”27 in which rape survivors make their rapes the central focus of their acts. There is a notable absence of the nonliteral in these jokes. One comic begins, “let’s talk about the time my uncle raped me!” the audience explodes in laughter that is both spontaneous and commiserative. Another male comic [quips] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Xvr...), “if you don’t laugh at these jokes, I got raped for nothing.” He is a rape survivor, and in challenging the audience to laugh along with him, he assembles a crowd of rape resistors to his cause. Perhaps the most adventurous joke available on YouTube is from a female comic who notes, “it was weird being raped by somebody that you know pretty well because, like, when the clawing and hitting wasn’t working to get him off of me, I would just try to say things that would hurt his ego and make him go limp: ‘nobody agrees with your opinion about the financial crisis!’” The joke isn’t entirely literal, but its literality lies in the personalization of the rapist, undermining the attempts by comics like Louis CK and John Mulaney to distance the “good men” from a systemic rape culture.

In an interview in Canada’s Globe and Mail, Cooper borrows from her stand-up, recalling, “My rapist left a poem on my bicycle beforehand. In the poem he misspelled the word ‘beautiful’ with two L’s. I need a higher standard of rapist. My rapist is an idiot.”28 The joke serves two purposes: to place the victim in a position of intellectual superiority to the attacker, and to remind the listener that sexually violent behavior is most often not perpetrated by an unknown, psychopathic attacker outside the parameters of liberal manhood.

Comedian Sasheer Zamata accomplishes a similar purpose when she tells a role reversal joke about a man who exposes himself to her on the street. In a short video clip on director Chioke Nassor’s website in a series called “[Chioke Nassor’s Storytime] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5377...),” Zamata attempts to inhabit the flasher’s thinking by telling the story from his point of view, lifting the aggressor from the caricature of the figure in the bushes to a person with an emotionally and intellectually stunted conception of sex and relationships. In what can only be described as a mock stand-up routine re-enactment, Zamata plays the role of the flasher, who is now a comic telling the story of his encounter with Zamata from the stage:

I saw this girl walk out the subway by herself…

Zamata inhabits the character of the young, hyper-masculine black comic with enthusiasm and likability. It’s a comedic persona we’ve surely seen before; Zamata is dressed in baggy shirt and pants, her flat rimmed baseball hat is slightly askew. She utilizes the tried and true microphone-as-penis gag. However, she ends the bit with the flasher having an almost pitiable moment of self-reflection. As the crowd applause dies, he says,

But then, um…but then like, nothin’ really happened after that. Um, she just said ‘no’ and walked away. And I don’t know what I was expecting… I thought about it, and what if that was the girl of my dreams. I showed her my manhood and she didn’t want it. Kind of, like, a bad impression.29

In inhabiting the mind of this seemingly ordinary sex offender, some might argue that Zamata humanizes male aggression, but we can also read this as a warning: the comedian whom you admire is not separate from this culture of violent masculinity. He perpetuates it and benefits from it at the same time that he proposes its critical examination.

Many of these literal rape jokes demand that the audience consider women’s bodies as the site of the violence only alluded to in their male counterparts’ ironic rape jokes. Rarely do the rape jokes told by men past or present acknowledge the bodies at the center of the sexual violence they seek to undermine. In Wanda Sykes’ now famous rape joke, she envisions a world in which women have [detachable vaginas] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_c...):

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our pussies were detachable? Just think about it. You get home from work, it’s getting a little dark outside, and you’re like, ‘I’d like to go for a jog…but it’s getting too dark, oh! I’ll just leave it at home!’… [There’s] just so much freedom—you could do anything. You could go visit a professional ball player’s hotel room at two in the morning. Sex? My pussy’s not even in the building!30

Here Sykes exposes the way in which rape and the fear of rape debases feminine identity, relegating all cis-gendered women to the status of potential victim, burdened by the vulnerability of her vagina. She describes a potential rapist jumping out of the bushes to attack a jogger who replies, “I’m sorry! I have absolutely nothing of value on me. I’m pussyless!”31

Similarly, Adrienne Truscott’s stand-up show [Asking For It] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LBf6...) is an entire act devoted to the topic of rape. Truscott enters the stage wearing a bra and jean jacket and no pants, and performs in front of framed photos of Daniel Tosh and Bill Cosby, among others. She finds that men have a difficult time facing the literal “pussy” we’ve heard joked about by male comedians for years, and more recently, the President of the United States. She performs the female body as a caricature, makeup smeared, hair disheveled, intoxicated, written upon in black magic marker. Her costume confronts the audience with a stark reality: this is the body that is asking for it. This is the body we claim it’s okay to rape. Truscott explains,

the most important thing is that this is the sight of the trespass we are talking about. If you are going to pretend like this isn’t that big of a deal and that if anyone who’s gone through it should just get over it, or as we saw most recently [in the Brock Turner case] it’s just 20 minutes of action, just move on with your life. You’re like no, this is the site, this is wear [rape] goes down. It’s a part of a woman’s body, it’s a real place that gets violated. It’s not covered up in adorable Victoria Secret panties.32

Truscott goes so far as to open her set with George Carlin’s “Rape is Funny” routine projected onto her bare vagina. Just as Silverman’s performance in The Aristocrats is a meta-rape joke, Truscott’s use of Carlin is a meta-literal rape joke. The vagina is not only the site of trespass; it is the site of the rape joke. Carlin’s bit attempts to divorce women’s bodies from the act of rape by replacing rapist and victim with Porky Pig and Elmer Fudd. Truscott puts the rape joke onto the vagina, insisting on a literal consideration of the rape joke. Though literality is the defining characteristic of Truscott’s show, she does not shy away from the ironic, joking, “if you don’t want to get raped, just don’t do any of these things: You know, no make-up, no miniskirts, no booze, no sexy dancing, and you should be pretty much just fine. Like in India and Iran.”

Truscott’s work and the “Rape is Real and Everywhere” show predate the current attention given to the #MeToo movement;33 however, since accusations of sexual assault and misconduct by Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein broke in October of 2017, literal rape jokes have gained more popular and widespread attention. In April of 2018, director Kelly Bachman organized “Rape Jokes by Survivors: A Night of Comedy and Catharsis” at New York’s Caveat Stage. The show’s lineup included thirteen comics (including Truscott), and its stated purpose was “not just to push boundaries and break taboos, but to help rape survivors heal.”34 Bachman’s ambition is to foreground catharsis on the parts of the comics and the audience. As comic Brittany Brave explains, “It’s a very consensual audience, ironically…We all know what we’re getting into.”35 In other words, the show’s creator and participants have constructed an environment in which the literal rape joke is guaranteed not to fall flat.

In one joke, highlighted in an Elle Magazine feature on the show, comic Brittany Brave begins, “My name is Brittany, and I know that makes you either want to take me to a mall or punch me in the face. If you’re my ex-boyfriend, you get to do both.”36 Brave reports to Elle that this joke, placed within a regular comedy set, receives mixed reviews because of the audience’s discomfort with a woman joking about her own abuse.37 The body as the site of brutalization is the subject of the joke at the same time that it is starkly present. The audience’s revulsion is a reaction not just to the audacity of the comic, but to audience’s own practiced responses to rape jokes. Comedy audiences are conditioned to laugh along with the ironic rape joke or face ridicule from the comic and fellow audience members; the Tosh response calling for a gang rape of a vocal female critic is an extreme example of this threat. Audiences are unpracticed in the literal rape joke, one owned by victims and largely centered on the female body. Audiences in the #MeToo era are now offered both freedom from ridicule and an uncomfortable challenge: to examine the site of trespass, the raped body. In Brave’s analysis of her own joke, she argues, “If someone came up to me after a show and said, ‘That joke was fucked up…I’d say, ‘Well, what’s fucked up is that this did happen to me and my boyfriend did punch me in the face. The joke is not what’s fucked up.’”38 In this way, Brave and comics like her challenge audiences to deconstruct their own laughter, to ask themselves, have I been laughing at a rape narrative perpetuated by men that demands the erasure of the victim’s body and experience?

In June 2018 Cameron Esposito released her stand-up special [Rape Jokes] (https://www.cameronesposito.com/) in which she analyzes and satirizes heteronormative perspectives on sex and pleasure and the violent masculinity that often results. Esposito concludes the special with her own experience of sexual assault at the hands of a male college classmate, explaining, “I know that I didn’t say yes, and I know that I couldn’t have. I was fucked up. And I used to tell this story at parties as like a funny thing that happened to me.”39 Esposito acknowledges the absence of the rape joke as she brings the literal sexual assault to the stage, and in so doing, reclaims the rape narrative. Unlike the survivors in “Rape Jokes by Survivors” or “Rape is Real and Everywhere,” Esposito denies the audience the opportunity to laugh at rape, though she does relieve the tension by quickly shifting to a joke about the ways in which the SVU series depicts sexual aggressors as madmen dragging bloody cleavers at their sides, as opposed to the benign figure of the college boy. The audience laughs, but still she does not let them off the hook, returning to the assault and the effect it has had on her: she is “sort of afraid of men.”40

In an interview with Vulture, Esposito argues that the #MeToo movement is not simply about taking down powerful men in the public eye. “It’s not one guy,” she explains. “We can take down whatever the growing number is. The eight dudes whose names we all know. And that doesn’t change shit. They should be shamed and they should face consequences, but this is culture. This isn’t eight guys. This is culture. ” Further, she concludes, “Having the eight guys separates you from the eight guys.”41 Esposito’s act counters the narrative insisted upon by even those men who would position themselves as victim allies (like John Mulaney and his subway chase joke), that rape and sexual assault are aberrant behaviors perpetrated by a few disturbed men. To conclude, however, Esposito offers a redemptive male figure, a coworker who, in her words, “got in the way”42 of a potential second assault by her attacker. By the end of the special, the male coworker emerges as the story’s hero, and the hero of the entire special: a masculine figure who undermines violent masculinity not through humor, but action.

Finally, comedian Hannah Gadsby’s special Nanette, also released in June 2018, is the culmination of the #MeToo era deployment of the literal rape joke. Gadsby places her own gender non-conformity at the center of the narrative. For the first quarter of the special, Gadsby makes herself the butt of a range of sometimes familiar-sounding jokes about her masculine gender presentation, her failure to include a sufficient amount of “lesbian content” in her act, and the limited amount of time she spends “lesbianing.”43 But these jokes only lay the foundation for the deconstruction to come.

“What sort of comedian can’t even make the lesbians laugh?” she asks, pausing for audience laughter before the inevitable punchline: “every comedian ever.” She interrupts the audience’s applause, reflecting, “Aw, that’s a good joke, isn’t it? Classic. It’s bullet-proof too, because it’s funny, because it’s true.” The audience laughs again, but Gadsby is not done: “The only people who don’t think it’s funny are us lezzes,” she says, poking two thumbs into her chest. “But we’ve got to laugh, because if we don’t, it proves the point!” echoing Sarah Silverman’s rape joke that asks, “who’s going to complain?” Not rape survivors. “Check-mate” Gadsby says. “Very clever joke.” But of course, it is not a clever joke. In fact, Gadsby reveals that it isn’t even her joke, but an “oldie but a goldie. A classic. It was written well before even women were funny.”44 The rest of the special uses humor and serious commentary to critique the ways in which women generally, and women comics specifically, resort to self-deprecation and humor when confronted with the reality of misogyny and violent masculinity.

Just after the clichéd joke about lesbians’ lack of humor, Gadsby announces, “I think I have to quit comedy,” claiming she doesn’t feel comfortable with it anymore. Soberly, she reveals, “I have built a career out of self-deprecating humor, and I don’t want to do that anymore.” The audience applauds in support as she continues, “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak. In order to seek permission to speak, and I simply will not do that anymore, not to myself or anyone who identifies with me.”45 Here Gadsby identifies the insidiousness of a heteronormative, masculine comedic narrative that ridicules the marginalized and demands that the vulnerable participate in their own subordination. Gadsby directly attacks the double-bind offered by Bemiller and Schneider: when confronted with a rape joke, or any joke that ridicules a feminine identity, “Women are left with two options – laugh at the joke or express dismay at the joke’s content […] If she laughs, she is complicit in her own group’s humiliation. If she does not laugh then she is a ‘spoiled sport,’ someone with no sense of humor … In either case […] she has experienced subordination.”46

Like Esposito, at the end of her special Gadsby introduces her own experiences with violence and violent sexual assault at the hands of men. But unlike Esposito, Gadsby does not relieve the tension with a punchline, nor does she offer any redemption for men. Dropping any pretense of a comedic framework, Gadsby argues that our cultural stories have always been controlled and narrated by violent and abusive men. She specifically targets the adulation that accompanies male celebrity. “Comedians,” she declares, growing to a shout, “are not immune” from the cult of celebrity:

They are all cut from the same cloth. Donald Trump. Pablo Picasso. Harvey Weinstein. Bill Cosby, Woody Allen. Roman Pulanski. These men are not exceptions; they are the rule. And they’re not individuals. They are our stories. And the moral of our story is that we don’t give a shit – we don’t give a fuck about women or children. We only care about a man’s reputation.47

When Gadsby finally introduces her own assaults into the conversation, it is not for the purpose of focusing the audience on her body as the site of the assault, as we see with Adrienne Truscott and others, but to attack the inevitable result of pervasive toxic masculinity; violence against the powerless:

I don’t hate men, but there’s a problem…I believe women are just as corruptible by power as men, because you know what fellas? You don’t have a monopoly on the human condition, you arrogant fucks. But the story is — as you have told it — power belongs to you. [But] if you can’t handle criticism, take a joke, or deal with your own tension without violence, then you have to wonder if you are up to the task of being in charge.48

Here Gadsby echoes Esposito’s assertion that she is afraid of men because, she announces, “it was a man who sexually abused me when I was a child. It was a man who beat the shit out of me when I was seventeen…It was two men who raped me when I was barely in my twenties.”49 The audience remains silent as Gadsby hold off tears, but insists, “I am not a victim, because my story has value…To be rendered powerless does not destroy your humanity. Your resilience is your humanity.” There are no jokes left because, she explains, laughter is not a medicine for anger. “Stories hold our cure,” she says. “Laughter is just the honey that sweetens the bitter medicine. I don’t want to unite the you with laughter or anger; I just needed my story heard.”50

One can argue that Gadsby’s admission is not a rape joke at all; she makes no attempt to diffuse the tension that results from her anger, as Esposito does with her SVU joke. However, comedy is the context within which Gadsby is able to communicate these literal and painful truths. The lesbian humor joke notwithstanding, Gadsby’s delivery and sophisticated setups result again and again in genuine laughter from her audience. Gadsby explicitly (and Esposito and others implicitly) refuses to engage with the nonliteral rape narrative that has long been controlled by male comedians and adopted out of necessity by women comedians. The #MeToo movement has not only brought the traditional non-literal rape joke under renewed scrutiny, but it has taken the rape narrative out of the hands of men altogether and in so doing, has forced male comedians and their audiences to acknowledge their participation in misogyny and rape culture, even as they have purported to work against it.

Notes


  1. Carlin, George. Doin’ It Again. 1991. Orland Park, IL: MPI Home Video. DVD. ↩︎

  2. Nussbaum, Emily. “Last Girl in Larchmont” The New Yorker, 3 Feb and 2 March 2015. Accessed June 2018. . ↩︎

  3. Romano, Tricia. “Daniel Tosh, ‘Two Broke Girls,’ and The Oatmeal: The Year of the Rape Joke” The Daily Beast, 17 Dec 2012. Accessed April 2018. . ↩︎

  4. Kramer, Elise. “The playful is political: The metapragmatics of internet rape-joke arguments.” Language in Society 40, no. 2 (April 2011): 137. ↩︎

  5. Ibid., 137. ↩︎

  6. Ibid., 143-144. ↩︎

  7. Cox, Lara. “Standing Up against the Rape Joke: Irony and Its Vicissitudes.” Signs:Journal of Women in Culture and Society 40, no. 4 (Summer 2015): 980. ↩︎

  8. C.K., Louis. Hilarious. 2011. NY, NY: Comedy Central Records. Streaming. ↩︎

  9. Cox, Lara. “Standing Up against the Rape Joke…”: 964. ↩︎

  10. Holpuch, Amanda. “Daniel Tosh apologises for rape joke as fellow comedians defend topic” The Guardian, 11 July 2012. Accessed June 2018. . ↩︎

  11. Cox, Lara. “Standing Up against the Rape Joke…”: 971. ↩︎

  12. Bassist, Alissa. “Why Daniel Tosh’s ‘Rape Joke’ at the Laugh Factory Wasn’t Funny” The Daily Beast, 7 Nov. 2012. Accessed June 2018. . ↩︎

  13. Mulaney, John. Comedy Central Presents. 2009. NY, NY: Comedy Central Records. Streaming. ↩︎

  14. Ibid. ↩︎

  15. Cox, Lara. “Standing Up against the Rape Joke…”: 971. ↩︎

  16. Ibid., 972. ↩︎

  17. Carlin, George. Doin’ It Again. 1991. Orland Park, IL: MPI Home Video. DVD. ↩︎

  18. Bemiller Michelle L. & Rachel Zimmer Schneider. “It’s Not Just a Joke.” Sociological Spectrum 30, no. 4 (2010): 463. ↩︎

  19. In her analysis of online commenters debating rape jokes, Kramer notes that “scholars of language and humor have a difficult enough time defining the word ‘joke’ in general,” and acknowledges that “defining ‘rape joke’ has an added layer of complexity: is a ‘rape joke’ a joke that mentions rape? A joke that describes rape? A joke in which rape is the main plot element? A joke that does not mention rape but implicitly gestures toward it? Are jokes about pedophilia ‘rape jokes’? For my purposes here, I take a broad view of what constitutes a rape joke. If the stated purpose of the performance is comedy and the joke takes on the aforementioned topics as its subject, I have included it in my discussion. As such, the various iterations of the Aristocrats joke are categorized as rape jokes. ↩︎

  20. The Aristocrats, produced by Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza. 2005. New York, NY: Thinkfilm. DVD. ↩︎

  21. Ibid. ↩︎

  22. Ibid. ↩︎

  23. Silverman, Sarah. Jesus is Magic. 2005. Los Angeles, CA: Roadside Attractions. ↩︎

  24. Haewood, Sophie. “Sarah Silverman: ‘There are jokes I made 15 years ago I would absolutely not make today.” The Guardian. 19 Nov. 2017. Accessed April 2018. . ↩︎

  25. Silverman, Sarah. We are Miracles. 2013. HBO. Streaming. ↩︎

  26. Carlin, George. Doin’ It Again↩︎

  27. “Rape is Real and Everywhere” YouTube video, 2:38. Posted 18 April 2016. . ↩︎

  28. Bielski, Zosia. “Can a rape joke ever be funny? Sexual assault victims host comedy tour to find out.” The Globe and Mail, 17 May 2016. Accessed June 2017. . ↩︎

  29. Ibid. ↩︎

  30. Sykes, Wanda. Sick and Tired. 2006. HBO. Streaming. ↩︎

  31. Ibid. ↩︎

  32. Hairston, Tahirah. “Meet the woman making rape jokes that are actually funny.” Splinter, 24 June 2016. Accessed 15 June 2017. . ↩︎

  33. MeToo was begun in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke to spread awareness of sexual assault among young women of color. The movement’s resurgence began in October of 2017 with revelations about Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct.

    ↩︎

  34. Mulshine, Molly. “Who Gets to Tell a Rape Joke?” Elle Magazine, 26 Apr 2018. Accessed 15 May 2018. . ↩︎

  35. Ibid. ↩︎

  36. Ibid. ↩︎

  37. Ibid. ↩︎

  38. Ibid. ↩︎

  39. Esposito, Cameron. Rape Jokes. 2018. Los Angeles, CA: Aspecialthing Records. Streaming. ↩︎

  40. Ibid. ↩︎

  41. Fox, Jesse David. “Cameron Esposito Is Taking Rape Jokes Back for Survivors.” Vulture, 28 May 2018. Accessed 29 May 2018. . ↩︎

  42. Esposito, Cameron. Rape Jokes↩︎

  43. Gadsby, Hannah. Nanette. 2018. Netflix. Streaming. ↩︎

  44. Ibid. ↩︎

  45. Ibid. ↩︎

  46. Bemiller Michelle L. & Rachel Zimmer Schneider. “It’s Not Just a Joke.” ↩︎

  47. Gadsby, Hannah. Nanette↩︎

  48. Ibid. ↩︎

  49. Ibid. ↩︎

  50. Ibid. ↩︎

References: 

The Aristocrats, produced by Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza. 2005. New York, NY: Thinkfilm. DVD.

Bassist, Alissa. “Why Daniel Tosh’s ‘Rape Joke’ at the Laugh Factory Wasn’t Funny.” The Daily Beast, 7 Nov. 2012. Accessed June 2018. .

Bemiller Michelle L. & Rachel Zimmer Schneider.  “It’s Not Just a Joke.” Sociological Spectrum 30, no. 4 (2010): 459-479.

Bielski, Zosia. “Can a rape joke ever be funny? Sexual assault victims host comedy tour to find out.” The Globe and Mail, 17 May 2016. Accessed June 2017. .

Carlin, George. Doin’ It Again. 1991. Orland Park, IL: MPI Home Video. DVD.

C.K., Louis. Hilarious. 2011. NY, NY: Comedy Central Records. Streaming.

Cox, Lara. “Standing Up against the Rape Joke: Irony and Its Vicissitudes.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 40, no. 4 (Summer 2015) 963-984.

Esposito, Cameron. Rape Jokes. 2018. Los Angeles, CA: Aspecialthing Records. Steaming.

Fox, Jesse David. “Cameron Esposito Is Taking Rape Jokes Back for Survivors.” Vulture, 28 May 2018. Accessed 29 May 2018. .

Gadsby, Hannah. Nanette. 2018. Netflix. Streaming.

Haewood, Sophie. “Sarah Silverman: ‘There are jokes I made 15 years ago I would absolutely not make today.” The Guardian. 19 Nov. 2017. Accessed April 2018. .

Hairston, Tahirah. “Meet the woman making rape jokes that are actually funny.” Splinter, 24 June 2016. Accessed 15 June 2017. .

Holpuch, Amanda. “Daniel Tosh apologises for rape joke as fellow comedians defend topic” The Guardian, 11 July 2012. Accessed June 2018. .

Kramer, Elise. “The playful is political: The metapragmatics of internet rape-joke arguments.” Language in Society 40, no. 2 (April 2011): 137-168.

Mulaney, John. Comedy Central Presents. 2009. NY, NY: Comedy Central Records. Streaming.

Mulshine, Molly. “Who Gets to Tell a Rape Joke?” Elle Magazine, 26 Apr 2018. Accessed 15 May 2018. .

Nassor, Chioke and Sasheer Zamata. “Chioke Nassor’s Storytime: Sasheer Meets Her Flasher.” YouTube, uploaded by PunchApp 23 July 2012. .

Nussbaum, Emily. “Last Girl in Larchmont” The New Yorker, 3 Feb and 2 March 2015. Accessed June 2018. .

“Rape is Real and Everywhere” You Tube video, 2:38. Posted 18 April 2016. .

Romano, Tricia. “Daniel Tosh, ‘Two Broke Girls,’ and The Oatmeal: The Year of the Rape Joke” The Daily Beast, 17 Dec 2012. Accessed April 2018. .

Ryzik, Melena, Cara Buckley, and Jodi Kantor. “Louis C.K. Is Accused by 5 Women of Sexual Misconduct. New York Times, 9 Nov 2017. Accessed April 2018. .

Silverman, Sarah. Jesus is Magic. 2005. Los Angeles, CA: Roadside Attractions.

—. We are Miracles. 2013. HBO. Streaming.

Sykes, Wanda. Sick and Tired. 2006. HBO. Streaming.

About the Author: 

Beth Anne Cooke-Cornell is an Associate Professor of English and Humanities at Wentworth Institute of Technology and the co-chair of the Women’s and Feminist Studies Area of the Mid-Atlantic American and Popular Culture Association.

Volume 3, Issue 2

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