It seems that the general response to the question of whether or not we should joke about serious harms is that this practice is morally questionable. Yet, to say that humor is off-limits in situations where grave harms have been committed seems a bit too absolutist. In many ways, humor can be part of the healing process. It can also point to deeper truths about a society in which such harms are committed. Humor is thus educative and potentially transformative in this regard. Yet, again, it can also be damaging if engaged in a way that produces further harms to victims and to a society by upholding the status quo. In this installation of “Broadening the Conversation,” I’d like to think about the way humor functions in relation to the fight against sexual violence. Does it hurt or help? Or perpetually do both? And how might we determine which kind of joking is “acceptable joking”?
The moral dimensions of humor is a recurring topic in media and pop culture. Often, this discussion arises through instances in which comedians or satirical newspapers like The Onion, for example, invoke the topic of rape. The question that immediately springs to mind, ethically speaking, is: can jokes about rape ever be funny? In asking this question, plenty more follow. What actually constitutes a ‘rape joke’? Does context matter—e.g. who is telling the joke, where, when, and for what audience? And what exactly are the particular contours of the joke in question?
My last question sets up the discussion on judging rape jokes as importantly requiring much nuance. Because of this, I don’t think that there is a clear-cut answer to the question of whether we should joke about rape. The question might instead be, if we as a society will be okay with rape jokes, what kind of jokes might be permitted? Or, more specifically, what kind of questions ought we ask as we go about determining the ethics of the joke in question? What criteria will a ‘rape joke’ have to meet for it to be acceptable?
It seems important to consider whether or not the joke in question is acting in a way that additionally harms victims of sexual violence. Related to this is the question of power. Who is the joke poking fun at? Is it using stereotypes attached to victims of sexual violence to further shame and uphold the status quo? Or does the joke rely on poking fun at perpetrators or a society in general that allows for rape to be commonplace? Take for example the comedian Daniel Tosh’s “rape joke” wherein he laughed about the gang-rape of a female audience member. In this instance, it seems clear that Tosh used humor to add further insult to injury and in a way that attempted to showcase power over the woman. At best, this “joke” was not funny and at worst, it was particularly damaging. Take for another example Wanda Sykes comedy routine about rape where she jokes about the would-be benefits of having a “detachable vagina” so that women could feel comfortable going for a late night run. While still “edgy” and in some ways controversial, Sykes’ joke aims to poke fun at a society that produces gendered differences regarding fear of assault. It pokes fun at the social conditions supporting rape rather than using rape itself as the punch line. This might be one way of distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable ways to use humor in the context of the perpetration of harm. How else might we think about the morality of humor that engages topics of harm? What other questions are important to ask? And how might we be able to use humor in ways that are socially transformative?