In the month since Trump’s election, I have heard friends and acquaintances wonder how so many Americans could have voted for a sexual aggressor. They have attributed his victory largely to the economic struggles of white Americans and the anti-establishment vote. But little attention has been given to how media coverage of his sexual aggression passed quickly from outrage to comedy, or how that comedy might have served Trump’s candidacy.
On October 7, the Access Hollywood recording revealed Trump bragging about “grabbing” women’s genitals (an act legally considered sexual assault in much of the United States). But what should have marked the beginning of a precipitous dive initiated a month of raucous mainstream comedy. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert featured jokes about Trump grabbing women by the “Billy Bush.” As these jokes were followed by laughter and applause, I found myself wondering whether we were laughing at Trump or laughing at sexual assault. In her essay, “If Rape Jokes Are Finally Funny It’s Because They’re Targeting Rape Culture,” Rebecca Solnit discusses the potential effectiveness of jokes about rape culture, made, for instance, by Amy Schumer (who has used comedy to point out men’s ignorance about rape and their general acceptance of it). However, on The Late Show, Colbert seemed less intent on shedding light on rape culture than on using sexual assault as fodder.
Humor, while a tonic for the most stressful election in living memory, can have a powerful normalizing effect. Numerous studies have shown that discrimination and sexism are more easily accepted when conveyed through humor. But by laughing at a sexual aggressor who got away with it, we might actually be becoming accustomed to him as a fixture of our political landscape rather than reaffirming our outrage. Colbert even staged the appearance of Lincoln’s ghost, who sided with Trump and gave an “unabridged” version of the Gettysburg Address which included grabbing women by the “petticoats.” Had something similar been done at a frat party, with a person dressed as Lincoln and speaking like Trump at his worst, I could easily imagine the audience cheering. Just as the French filmmaker François Truffaut argued that “there’s no such thing as an anti-war film,” I tend to disagree with Solnit and Schumer, and would argue that there’s no such thing as anti-rape humor, at least not for the men in the audience. The humor makes the act seem to be more one of comedic idiocy than of willful brutality. It almost always distances us (men) from the horror and trauma of the violence.
Humor was, in fact, Trump’s own best defense. When he claimed his words were simple “locker room talk,” he was speaking to millions of men who grew up making sexual and sexist jokes about women. During my teenage years, when I changed high schools frequently, and in my twenties, when I lived in many parts of rural America and did manual labor, sexist humor was common. It was common in locker rooms, on construction sites, in the automobile repair shops, in boxing and martial arts gyms, and among educated men, who exchanged their own brand of comedic stories of sexual conquest. Even though many of the stories were quite aggressive, the elicited response was always laughter. This is why Trump’s defense was so effective and the response of liberal commentators so naïve. Male writers published ostensibly reflective pieces about how Trump’s talk sounded like no locker room they’d been in. Perhaps they were describing the middle aged locker rooms of health clubs, or of career-driven professional athletes. I don’t know. But their underlying message was that they were good men and that most men didn’t talk this way. It was another instance of the liberal passion to appear good rather than to address the problem. The hashtag #NotInMyLockerRoom struck me as a not-so-distant cousin to #NotAllMen rather than as a rallying cry of outrage. It implicitly denied how prevalent and acceptable sexism actually is, and it failed to recognize that men can do more to prevent sexual assault if we spend less time insisting upon our goodness and rather reflect on how much sexism is a part of our lives.
I would argue that, for many men, Trump’s defense of “locker room talk” was hardly necessary. While liberal commentators derided him, millions of men nodded in sympathy. They might have said that Trump went a little beyond the acceptable range of the stories men tell, but that vulgar sexual humor about women is part of how many men bond, come of age, and compete with each other to show who has had the most conquests. In this way, Trump appeared as the ultimate conqueror, the one who had the best stories of sexual conquest and repeatedly got away with it. His only wrongdoing in the eyes of many was getting caught. And yet, by refusing to step down and by weathering the largely for-show scorn of fellow politicians, he proved he could get away with it once again. Furthermore, the normalization of Trump’s sexual assault through mainstream comedy certainly didn’t hurt his cause among men who grew up objectifying women with jokes; they wanted to laugh at it, and they were given permission to do so.
But is it possible that sexist humor might influence an election? In 2007, Dr. Thomas Ford at Western Carolina University ran two trials in which men were exposed to sexist jokes or humorous sexist depictions, as opposed to non-humorous sexism or non-sexist jokes shown to control groups. They were then asked (in the first trial) how much money they would donate to a women’s organization, and (in the second) how they would allocate funding cuts to student organizations. In both cases, the men exposed to sexist humor were less likely to donate to the women’s organizations and more likely to cut funding to women’s student organizations. Dr. Ford concluded: “The acceptance of sexist humor leads men to believe that sexist behavior falls within the bounds of social acceptability.”
Though it’s hard not to wonder whether sexist humor made men less willing to support a female candidate, we can easily fathom the effect that Trump’s sexist humor—and that of the comedians whose routines turned the country itself into a locker room—had on the readiness of Americans to accept him when it was time to vote.