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What Happens When <i>Women</i> Tell Rape Jokes?

The funny woman wields humor in such a way as to remove one gag (through her refusal of silence), even as she makes another -- a joke. Thus, she simultaneously resists shutting down and shutting up.
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What happens when women tell rape jokes?

Is it against the rules? Can there even be rules when it comes to something as bizarre as combining the two words "rape" and "joke"?

Let's start with Sarah Silverman, who embodies the shattering of every comedy rule. She appears in complete control over any situation and as far beyond anyone else's control as a falling star or a wild animal. Comically brilliant, and filthily funny, she's a puzzle society must solve. Silverman relies on the outsider's recognition of society's deeply entrenched moral hypocrisy.

Her deviance has increasingly become the essence of her self-definition, and rape jokes a staple of her routine.

"I was raped by a doctor," declares Silverman and smiles sweetly before adding, "So bittersweet for a Jewish girl."

But she saves the killer line for last: "I need more rape jokes," she explains, unblinkingly making a direct appeal to the audience. "Who's going to complain about rape jokes? Rape victims?" She pauses. "They barely even report rape."

In delivering that line, Silverman didn't join them; she beat them. By confronting the authentically taboo subject -- not that rape happens, but that rape victims are still too afraid, ashamed, or appalled to admit they've been criminally assaulted -- she's using humor to slice, dice, and present for examination one of the culture's most deeply buried dirty secrets. When writing about rape jokes in They Used to Call Me Snow White, But I Drifted: Women's Strategic Use of Humor, I mention Elayne Boosler's bit about walking in the city: "I'm walking in New York with my boyfriend, and he says, 'Gee, it's a beautiful night, let's go down by the river.' I said, 'What are you, nuts? I'm not going down by the river! It's midnight, I'm wearing jewelry, I'm carrying money, I have a vagina with me...'" Next time, says Boosler, she'll leave it in her other pants. (Wanda Sykes has another version of this bit as well).

Silverman, therefore, is building on a long tradition in women's humor by having the microphone in the hand of the "prey" who is challenging the predator.

The funny woman wields humor in such a way as to remove one gag (through her refusal of silence), even as she makes another -- a joke. Thus, she simultaneously resists shutting down and shutting up.

Having passed her 40th birthday, Silverman is no longer an ingénue. Mindy Kaling (best known for her episodes on The Office and her 2011 book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?), working in what she calls a "post-Sarah Silverman world," ensures that the complications, delights and frustrations of the life of a woman humor writer in the second decade of the twenty-first century are unflinchingly examined.

Young women in particular don't understand -- and perhaps it's impossible for us to ever communicate this perception to those under 35-year-old -- that almost every woman at some point in her life has been an ingénue or could have been. This is a young woman who, perhaps even without knowing it, manipulates her youthful attractions to her advantage, receiving attention because she is adorable and yet believing that the attention she receives is given to her because she is brilliant, witty, clever, sensitive, or "one of the boys." No woman is one of the boys. That's one of the hardest things to learn, and you don't learn it until you give up the idea that you have sprung Athena-like from your father's head with no help from your mother.

It's interesting to realize how commonplace it is for smart women to think they are their fathers' daughters and how little credit they give to the influence of their mothers or other women in their lives. Only by acknowledging the significance of the adult female in their own lives can women get on with the process of growing up and accepting, with gratitude and generosity to themselves and others, can we appreciate the lives as women.

Kaling talks about the "post-Silverman" world because she was not expecting to face certain challenges; after all, she grew up during a time when the basis of equity for women wasn't questioned and when outrageous behavior was a "given":

I was freaked out. Sexual harassment was a real thing. You can't just joke about rape at work. We had endured a lengthy sexual harassment seminar on how fireable this behavior was. Sarah Silverman could make jokes about rape because the fact of the matter was, she was much funnier and cuter than us. This was the problem of living in a post-Sarah Silverman world: lots of young women holding the scepter of inappropriateness did not know how to wield it.

Which does not mean that women are the only ones dealing with jokes about rape. In 2012 it was still possible for the popular performer Daniel Tosh, when heckled by a woman in the audience, to ask a comedy club audience "Wouldn't it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now ... like right now?" Tosh received a lot of criticism, unsurprisingly, for his response -- but he also received a lot of support. Fellow comics like Doug Stanhope tweeted, "You're hilarious. If you ever apologize to a heckler again I will rape you." Other male comics offered what passed for explanation: Kumail Nanjiani tweeted, "Two things about the Tosh thing. 1. It was said in the moment and not a pre-written thing. 2. If you think he's pro-rape you're an idiot."

On The Daily Show, Louis C. K. explained his take on the incident, saying that the effect of Tosh's remark was to ignite "a fight between comedians and feminists, [who] are natural enemies. Because stereotypically speaking, feminists can't take a joke" and "comedians can't take criticism." This itself is funny. As Louis C. K. continued his discussion with Jon Stewart, however, he performed a sort of neat rhetorical somersault, suggesting to many viewers that this very pronouncement was itself ironic. The argument over the meaning behind C. K.'s commentary occupied bloggers and writers for weeks and, for some, overshadowed the shrill, unnuanced, and unsophisticated quickie from Tosh. The final result of the brouhaha was that for the 2013 season, Comedy Central renewed Tosh.0 -- not surprising, given that it's the channel's highest-rated series. Yet Tosh felt the need to offer an apology, if only to assuage the anxiety of his marketing team. Given the edgy nature of his humor, it might be the most significant cultural marker of the entire exchange. Tosh tweeted to his followers: "All the out of context misquotes aside, I'd like to sincerely apologize."

Maybe the biggest difference in the twenty years since Snow White was published is that a male comic feels a need to apologize, whereas a female comic feels she doesn't.

Amy Poehler was new to SNL and we were all crowded into the seventeenth-floor writers' room, waiting for the Wednesday read-through to start ... and she did something vulgar as a joke. I can't remember what it was exactly, except it was dirty and loud and 'unladylike.' Jimmy Fallon, who was arguably the star of the show at the time, turned to her and in a faux-squeamish voice said: 'Stop that! It's not cute! I don't like it.' Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him. 'I don't fucking care if you like it.' Jimmy was visibly startled. Amy went right back to enjoying her ridiculous bit. With that exchange, a cosmic shift took place. Amy made it clear that she wasn't there to be cute. She wasn't there to play wives and girlfriends in the boys' scenes. She was there to do what she wanted to do and she did not fucking care if you like it.

A woman making humor and creating comedy is a woman who is not going to apologize for wanting to be in control.

Based on the new edition of "They Used To Call Me Snow White ... But I Drifted" by Gina Barreca (UPNE, 2013).