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