The Rape Joke Embodied: Invoking the Vagina

Curator's Note

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.


Elizabeth - After our discussion on Tuesday about what is funny and what isn't, I think your referencing Daniel Tosh is pretty much on point. Stewart's clip is funny because it makes fun of those who minimize rape whereas the legitimate rape video is not funny because it attempts to make fun of a woman on the ground being raped. I'd like to suggest another element to the humor, or lack there of, of these clips - current politics. Without assuming people's political views or attempting to impose my views on others - can Tuesday's election open up some space for humor now that the "legitimate rape" candidate is no longer in the running?

I really enjoyed Rebecca Traister's opinion piece for The Washington Post in which she argues that the recent spate of legislation has opened up space to challenge stereotypes of feminists as humorless. From satire in proposed prostate exam legislation to knitted uteri flooding the offices of legislators, she noted a shift in the way women were responding. There were certainly a lot of tweets regarding "shutting that down" as soon as Akin's defeat was announced on Tuesday night! Satire is a time-honored mode of challenging norms, but sarcasm is especially celebrated in our current cultural context. So much so that the word "snark" is heavily used and implicitly references the pleasures of sarcastic commentary. In addition, digital platforms that allow for faster circulation are making these responses more visible. Plus social media like Facebook and Twitter are somewhat permeable and allow users to engage legislators differently. The combination of these factors (and probably more) seem to be shifting the context for humor, including humor about such serious subjects. Traister suggests that "fighting funny may not be inherently more effective than fighting mad." I'm curious to hear what others think about this.

I just read a piece on Rachel Maddow's blog saying that Charles Krauthammer thinks there's nothing wrong with the GOP's positions on "women's issues"--the problem, he argues, is that those positions aren't being articulated "delicately" enough. I find his position quite heartening, actually. I'm assuming he'd be opposed to the kind of humor we're discussing this week not only for its message but for its indelicate delivery--for its form as well as its content. Could this mean that "fighting funny" IS an inherently effective strategy?

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