Magic, Dangerous, Deadly: The Uncanny Powers of My Uterus

Curator's Note

 “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” ~ Todd Akin

The comedy website Funny or Die has created a “Legitimate Rape” pharmaceutical advertisement parody based on the outlandish comments made by Republican Todd Akin.  The video spoof suggests women might consider rape a means of avoiding pregnancy while still having sex.  In other words: rape is a form of birth control.  The video effectively highlights how historical understandings of the female body—and the uterus specifically—as magic, dangerous, and deadly, are being redeployed in the interests of an anachronistic political philosophy predicated on masculine dominance and control of women.  

The video attempts to use humor to reveal assumptions at the core of Conservative ideas about rape.  Sometimes it does a fairly sophisticated job.  For example, when it switches to a cartoon uterus, complete with talking ovaries discussing whether the rape taking place is “legitimate,” it connects anti-choice rhetoric to a long tradition within Western masculinist thought that imagines the uterus—“hystera” in Greek—as an autonomous, mysterious and potentially dangerous organ with privileged access to the female subconscious.  (The bogus diagnosis, “hysteria,” was founded on this imaginary relationship and psychiatric “treatment” included removal of the mystical organ through hysterectomy) This cartoon humorously highlights the Conservative belief that, while women themselves are not trustworthy when it comes to charging rape, their uterus’s powers of discernment are irrefutable: it knows when a woman is being legitimately raped and, it reacts appropriately, with deadly “secretions” and military-like closures.  So, though a woman might say it was rape, her uterus, with its privileged access to her subconscious desires—desires she may be unaware of or, more likely, unwilling to admit—knows the Truth.  And, in a move we can liken to 17th Century witch-hunt logic, suddenly “if she floats she’s a witch”: her body can be counted on to betray her. Through these ideological gymnastics women are reduced to uteruses.  

Despite how this spoof reveals a disturbingly consistent patriarchal genealogy of meanings around the uterus, I do not endorse it.  The violent mock rape it depicts reduces rape’s horror to comedic ploy and comes off as confusing and dangerous evidence that “maybe she really does like it violent.”  This spoof had the potential to address the Republican Party’s widespread (and strategic) “rape illiteracy,” instead, it reinforces their potentially devastating, misogynistic cluelessness. 


Yesterday's piece about Honey boo Boo and her family raised an interesting question about who is being laughed at and whether or not they are in on the joke. Today's piece takes that question a bit further and seems to ask - what happens when the joke isn't funny? Like you said, while the spoof ad is obviously attempting to point out the absurdity of Ryan's views (speaking of which, today has got me feeling a little uneasy), and the play on typical drug commercials offers a humorous way to approach the topic, there is nothing funny about rape. That said, I am really loving this week's theme because it makes us all think about what is and isn't funny - which is exactly what makes humor so powerful.

Karyl, thank you for your post and your thoughtful approach to the topic. As you point out, and Rachel reiterates, humor can certainly be an effective weapon against oppressive thought and institutions, but in its attempt to puncture privilege it can also undermine a necessary seriousness about those issues. Are there topics that are inherently off-limits to comedy? (Or did this particular example just miss the mark?) How is that boundary created: is it about topic, teller, or audience?

Charlotte, I am looking forward to Karyl's thoughts on this as well. In reading your comment I was reminded of a Tumblr post titled "a useful rape analogy" that I think uses satire quite well to expose the absurdities of the dominant discourse about rape: But I think there was something qualitatively different about the Legitimate Rape ad. I agree with Karyl that the depiction of the violent act is the moment that the comedy breaks down (so much so that I felt compelled to append a trigger warning for my students). My post on Friday addresses a different Funny or Die video that engages in the same uneven application of critique. I suspect that the moments of failure in both videos have more to tell us than the moments at which they are successful. Although they are mostly online, Funny or Die content is pretty heavily situated within the main stream of the entertainment industry. So they are catering to the widest audience possible, an audience that finds humor in the juxtaposition of a woman being attacked while smiling and cheerily advocating for "legitimate rape."

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