By Cara Baldwin
“What do nine of ten people enjoy? Gang Rape.” — Jimmy Carr, “Rapier Wit”
“Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like five guys right now?… like right now?” — Daniel Tosh
Rape jokes have hit the big time. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, and Wanda Sykes have all told rape jokes. In each case, what motivates them, aside from getting a good laugh, is using humor as a form of antagonism. Thinking about this word, and what it means in relation to cultural production in general, to antagonize, antagonism, leads me to reflect on the practice of the escrache or the scratch—a collectively performed gesture of public shaming used historically in Latin America, notably in Argentina, to lay blame at the doors (literally) of those who participated in genocide and thrived thereafter without repudiation or consequence of any kind.
Nearer still, in terms of time, subject and location, Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz’s Carry That Weight project (2014-105) figures public shaming as a form of culturally produced durational and collective performance. Tactically, this move toward framing the attack—the ‘antagonism’ as cultural expression, as cultural performance, humorous or otherwise—shields the participants from the repressive force they unleash; they are, after all, only expressing themselves. This did not protect Sulkowicz from litigation by her rapist, but this was the only course open to him and one that underscored his privilege and guilt structurally—openly—for all to see. Not funny.
Responding to Amy Schumer’s sketch “Football Town Nights,” an over-the-top parody of “Friday Night Lights,” it seems clear that it is anchored in a question (and a desire for) public shaming. Arguably, ‘we’ speak more frequently about ‘rape culture’ now than we did, say, in the eighties or the nineties. But to what end? If, as Schumer seems to be speculating here, we live in and have given language to both critique and reification of rape culture popularly as never before, how is it that the violence of that act—its reality—is contained by our escalated deployment of language around it? In this ‘skit’, or scenario, the joke is simply floating the absurdity of pushing this practice to its limits in a way that is contained through humor, fiction, language—and in this way, as always, through gender roles and culture. There is no outside or safe zone in this game. It is total. And that is the crux of any rape joke. It’s a joke that’s on us.
The protagonist here is a male coach, and women including Schumer, are alternately apathetic or hostile to his attempts to remove rape as practice from a rape culture here figured in a small town, working class and dubiously Southern (backward with bad accents) community. This parody operates as a dark joke predicated on its inextricability from both common and popular culture. In it, Schumer has taken a popular television show and pastime as her subject; ostensibly football, but actually rape. In summary, this parodic sketch traces out the trial of a new coach in a small town who tries to implement a no-rape code of conduct for his team which is met with not only resistance, but revolt by members of this bible belt community, male and female alike.
In the sketch, Schumer plays Coach Thomson’s wife Amy, a Southern belle dripping in sweet tea and drenched in white wine. As the sketch unfolds, Amy and Coach Thompson find themselves confronted in their front yard by a pair of elderly women out on a stroll who alternately demand of Coach Thompson, “How are our boys supposed to celebrate when they win? Or blow off steam when they lose?”. This query is punctuated by a healthy gob of spit in their yard before the nice little old ladies turn heel and carry on their way. As the insider in the culture, Amy leans in and explains, “These folks, that’s just their way, okay? You can’t bring a wet mule around a hot corn oven!”
So, what does the construction of this piece do at its basest level, this imagining and absurdist representation of rape culture as something accepted, even lauded? In the roughest, dumbest, meanest way possible, this sketch makes the culture itself strange—foreign to itself—something ingested that must be thrown up and rejected. It does this through deployment of cognitive dissonance as well as humor and at the level of mass-distribution and consumption—popular culture.
For her part, Schumer has admitted a certain ambiguity in the representation of rape and its effects, saying that ”You can maybe look at that scene and think we’re making light of something serious, but we really are trying to educate, but that’s not always clear.” Underscoring structural problems in the mode of production at the level of reproduction (mass-production), Schumer further discloses that while the sketch initially included statistics about campus rape convictions, her team of writers struck these saying they were “too heavy-handed.” In this way, she finally pins her hopes with stated uncertainty on the power of representation saying, “Maybe something will get in there and actually helps the culture.” Either way, she concludes, “rape is good fodder for comedy because it’s the worst thing in the whole world. So it’s this untouchable.”
This untouchability goes to the limits of representation and representational politics. Saying a word (or not saying it) has little to no effect on culture— let alone rape culture. Why? Because, rape culture is the dominant culture. In fact, it’s the only culture we know. In football, as in capitalism, our coach reminds us the whole point of the game is “violently dominating anyone that stands between you and what you want.” After all, “that other team they’re not just gonna lay down and give it to you.”
Thinking about untouchability, what does this representation leave out, aside from information about campus rape statistics? For one thing, it leaves out (though touches on) the more insidious forms of rape that aren’t overtly violent in that they are predicated upon predatory behavior like that most recently popularized in what has come to be known as “the Bill Cosby case.” We know by now, that part of the totality of rape culture is that it pervades every part of life; and every cultural sphere.
For my part, and in the circles of cultural production I share with peers, rape is unacceptable on the face of it, but rapists circulate and flourish in the same space. Usually, this occurs over time and in great scale with little recourse for the victims of rapists that appear otherwise. I am thinking here of recent discussions and debates about shaming or outing rapists in cultural ‘communities’ on the left generally, and in the poetry community most recently (over the past year or so). In liberal contemporary visual arts communities, bro culture is still quite acceptable and most definitely keeps the ‘other team’ in check and known abusers unchecked even among the ‘socially engaged’ set.
To return again to the object and subject at hand, what I love about Schumer’s sketch, however limited it is in terms of authorial power or real impact, is that it’s calling out the totality of rape culture, and touching on the general rapiness of life as experienced in the everyday world. I am thinking here of what it feels like to greet a neighbor while on a daily walk with my dog, only to be met with a ‘joke’ about coming at me with a baseball bat if I do not come into his garage to greet him (just as a recent example). Making sport and making culture are of a piece.
If the punchline of “Football Nights” is that there is no outside of rape culture, just as there is no outside of capitalism, what does the joke do, aside from make us laugh knowingly or uncomfortably? The answer would be not a whole lot. The next question, then, is does it need to? Again, the answer is not really. Even if this particular rape joke ran as a PSA against rape on student campuses, it wouldn’t be doing much. We know, as a culture, that rape is rife. Arguably, we all agree it’s wrong.
What is interesting to me in reading this joke as a sort of text, and in genre, is that it centers around the impossibility of our collective agreement that rape is wrong, but also, that we can’t even agree what constitutes rape in the first place. So then, what do we make of the questions regarding what might constitute rape that are raised in the locker room scene not only aloud (as an apparently endless sequence), but also on the dry erase board? These questions go to coercion and emotional abuse. In short, they trace out a violence that is psychological and based in uneven and invisible structural distributions of power across gender lines that exist in our culture. They sit there mute and immutable, “Adopted? No. Dad’s Dead? No.”
One of the things that makes writing this short piece difficult is the way in which there seems to be a need to address a lack of clarity in what we collectively imagine to constitute not only rape, but consensual sex. If we are to understand rape as an act of sexual assault that occurs when the victim does not give consent because they are unable to do so, then what is sex that is or is not consensual, exactly? Following recent conversations on the subject, I advance here a definition of consensual sex as that which is (at least) informed and affirmative and not acquired through coercion, manipulation or violence. This brings us full circle to our punchline and reality; rape culture is total, therefore, we all participate in it—even those of us who are not rapists.
For example, engaging someone in sex without full and honest disclosure about one’s sexual history and status is not consensual sex. In reality, participating in and profiting from this type of ‘exchange’ is to not only exist in, but to actively construct and fortify our collective rape culture. Similarly, engaging a person through manipulation that includes coercion in the context of unequal power distribution through uneven cognitive capacity is nonconsensual sex. In terms of the mutually sustaining relationship that exists between rape culture and rape, it might be useful to consider carefully, for example, this simple question; if one’s ability to make an informed affirmative decision is decisively impaired due to cognitive impairment and that is ignored by another to procure sex, is this an act of rape? It is precisely this unrepresentable, untouchable, and invisible form of rape that is the binding agent for rape culture at large and the rape joke in particular.
Following these blind spots a bit further leads us both to Tina Fey’s inclusion of a joke dedicated to spousal rape on 30 Rock and to reflection on the fact that in the U.S., at least 23 states make it harder for a wife to accuse her husband of rape. Many require clear evidence of violent force while providing a smaller window to report and support spousal victim’s claims, finally doling out lighter punishments to those convicted. In Oklahoma, a man can have sex with his unconscious wife as long as the couple is not separated and, in Ohio, a man can drug his wife and legally have ‘sex’ with her.
And here is my punchline. I am going to say something here that is abrupt and lacks boundary of state and all good form. This is how I end and how we live together.
A rape joke represents our culture; our culture represents a rape joke.