Can a Rape Joke Ever Be Funny?

Screen shot 2015-01-26 at 10.44.11 AMIn an ideal world, eliminating the material to even be able to make rape jokes—i.e. ending rape—would be the best solution to our culture’s rape-joke problem. But as Ilana Glazer’s character on Broad City quipped during the show’s recent season two premiere, “we live in rape culture…we just do.”

The episode, which has garnered both critical backlash and enthused support, features a bit in which Abbi Jacobson’s character begins to have sex with “Male Stacy” (played with schlub-charm by Seth Rogen) until he passes out from heat exhaustion in Abbi’s apartment. Abbi and Ilana later mock-deliberate over whether or not Abbi raped “Male Stacy,” and therein lies the most contentious lines from the series.

On paper, there’s nothing funny about watching a character engage in a sexual act with an unconscious or unable-to-consent partner. But this scene, like many others being written, acted and viewed today, isn’t just on paper. From Melissa Leo on Louie to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s monologue at the Golden Globes, the “rape joke” patois requires a reflective critical analysis that should push us to unpack, question and do more than just laugh.

When Abbi and Ilana are deciding whether or not Abbi should be considered a sex offender, Ilana—playing dumb—jokes that Abbi is “raping rape culture” by employing “reverse rapism.” This is funny to me for several reasons: one, as a person of color, nothing tickles me more than hearing people use “reverse racism” as an alibi for overt racism; and two, Abbi’s shoddy explanation speaks to the kinds of people who resort to reputation-cleansing as soon as someone’s otherwise-stellar name is muddied.

Abbi justifies that “Male Stacy” “seriously wanted it,” to which Ilana deadpans, “That is literally what ‘they’ say,” a clear take-it-or-leave-it reference to accused rapists and rape apologists who try and dodge blame. The scene in question has a lot less to do with calling rape “funny” and a lot more to do with the absurd ways people distance themselves from being labeled sex offenders.

I laughed at Abbi and Ilana’s rape “situation” because I feel I can trust Abbi and Ilana, the creators and writers of the series. Like “know-nothing know-it-all” Ilana, the character, I am painfully aware of the broad reach of “rape culture” that permeates our society. So, as a viewer, I know there are worse ways to present content that is, for all intents and purposes, not funny.

Instead of resorting to the knee-jerk reaction of categorizing content as problematic or not, we ought to allow ourselves to laugh in the gray areas. In turn, we complicate a discourse that too often feels overly simplified by eye-catching headlines and a narrative that predominantly serves the male gaze.

To be clear, rape is never funny. But if Abbi and Ilana can offer up a different way to talk about the complicated narrative of rape in society, then I don’t think I’m a bad feminist for finding that my immediate response is laughter. I’d contend that my choice to be critical of content and laugh-to-keep-from-crying is more aligned with the feminist idea that women should be allowed to do more, be more and maybe even laugh more—especially if my laughter is at the expense of rape apologists, not rapists themselves.

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Screenshot from the season two premiere of Broad City. Watch the full episode here.

Jenevieve Ting

Jenevieve Ting is a student at the University of Southern California and an editorial intern at Ms. She has written for The Hollywood Reporter, Next Magazine and Thought Catalog. Find out about.me/jenevieve.ting

Comments

  1. Boom. You hit it. Thank you for common sense. My husband and I have a shared theory that anything can be funny when framed correctly. It also has a lot to do with the gaze (e.g. who is watching/experiencing the artistic work in question).

  2. Sorry. As a die hard feminist- I have to disagree. Rape is never funny- end of story.

    • I know a cancer patient who tells jokes about cancer all the time. Do you think that means she find it funny she has cancer? No. The fact that you tell a joke about a topic, doesn’t mean you find said topic “funny”. Actually, it’s the art of comedy to write a funny joke about a serious topic.
      Not everyone is the same and I understand everyone who doesn’t like jokes about cancer, the holocaust, rape or other serious subjects. But that doesn’t mean they are “no-go area’s” we can’t joke about. Actually, I am convinced humor is a great tool to deal with misery. Laughter will conquer darkness and to some of us it can make a situation that much more bearable.
      Can jokes go too far? YES. But it depends on the joke, the timing and the audience. It doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as a good joke about the topic as a whole.
      NO, rape is not funny.
      YES, some rape jokes are.
      I’m tired of moral crusaders (not implying you are one of them, btw) who tell you how terrible you are because you joked about something they didn’t like. I do volunteer work with cancer patients, but when I tell a joke about cancer some internet warriors who have never done jackshit for somebody else come tell me I am a bad person.
      People should focus on eliminating bad things, instead of focussing on jokes about bad things.

  3. At least Abby was pondering whether she’d done something wrong. Most men who rape do not bother with that much thought one way or the other. She showed more concern for him, even when being defensive, than most rapists of women do. She was using her own situation to shine a light on date rape and rape culture and that is not a bad thing.

  4. “This is funny to me for several reasons: one, as a person of color, nothing tickles me more than hearing people use “reverse racism” as an alibi for overt racism; and two, Abbi’s shoddy explanation speaks to the kinds of people who resort to reputation-cleansing as soon someone’s otherwise-stellar name is muddied.”

    I agree with this completely and Abbi’s flawed logic clearly undercuts her ideas for the viewer, doesn’t it?

  5. The problem is, you forgot about survivors of sexual violence who are hurting because of this episode. Here is our response:

    http://rapecrisisdunedin.tumblr.com/post/109451282723/be-brave-my-fellow-feminists

  6. Ahhh Broad City. Although I disagree with the term “grey area” because of its associations with the colors black and white, hot damn did Abbi and Ilana cross into that “grey area” in this episode and without shame.

    If you’re as religious about Broad City as I am—Ilana is my spirit animal; do not question it—you would know that these two tend to tackle multiple topics in current culture with a bit of a flare. They talk about sexuality, hook up culture, and now, rape culture. Seeing their previous work, you’d probably grasp that quips like “reverse racism” and “that’s what ‘they’ say” are meant to make viewers scoff and be uncomfortable. Art discusses social topics in controversial ways and are supposed to make you question what you know. That’s what these girls are trying to do: discuss responses we come across in rape culture and find a new way to keep the conversation going. However, not everyone is as religious as I am.

    It’s understandable that there would be backlash with this subject and that it’s being handled with humor. Some people are going to be hurt because they are victims and what they went through is in no way a joke. With “grey area,” you have to expect that and be sensitive to the reactions that you face. Rape isn’t funny and the execution of the conversation may not have been correct (“I’m not scared because I’m with a stone cold rapist.”), but I think it’s great that female comedians really are trying to talk about rape culture with what they know—comedy.

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