From The Daily Show to the Michigan House of Representatives, the word “vagina” possesses great rhetorical power when used in a punchline. In his commentary about mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds, Jon Stewart used the terminology of the procedure as the basis of a joke (saying Transvaginal Ultrasound is a "fifteen member jazz fusion chorus band" he once saw), and simply by raising public awareness and outrage, Stewart’s mockery (and Amy Poehler’s on Saturday Night Live) may have played a significant role in defeating the Virginia legislation that would have required the procedure for women seeking abortions. Michigan Representative Lisa Brown, during a debate about an extreme anti-abortion bill, said to her House colleagues, “I’m flattered you’re all so interested in my vagina. But no means no.” Following this statement, Brown was banned from speaking in the House of Representatives, and the story quickly gained national attention.
While the use of the word vagina as a punchline is what connects these jokes, they are also less obviously linked by a word they leave mostly implied: rape. Transvaginal ultrasound has been called “state-sanctioned rape,” and Stewart’s description of the procedure emphasizes this comparison. Brown's "no means no" references an anti-rape catchphrase, implicitly comparing the bill under discussion to sexual assault. Part of the rhetorical punch of these jokes, then, has to be the fact that they are rape jokes. Rape is dangerous material for comedy, but in the wake of Daniel Tosh’s comment this summer, Lindy West cut to the core of which rape jokes are acceptable: you can make fun of rapists or rape culture, not rape victims. And if Daniel Tosh gets it wrong, this is certainly one way in which Stewart and Brown get it right—they do not make fun of rape victims.
Beyond that basic criterion, they even both expand what sorts of things we include in conversations about rape, pointing out the bodily violations inflicted by the state as well as individuals. Coming back to where we started, Stewart and Brown both also use the word vagina in their jokes, and this detail is important. Beyond its shock value, part of the power of that word is that it reminds listeners of the female body where these violations happen. Invoking the vagina brings conversations about rape out of the abstract and back to material reality, where conversations about women's health should be located.