Friday, September 02, 2011

Funny Women Are Dangerous: Rape Culture and American Comedy

Sometimes I miss doing standup. Women who are funny are powerful, and therefore dangerous. But this is the first time I ever regretted not pursuing standup because I missed an opportunity to hand some predator’s ass to him.

Summary: in pursuit of shits and giggles, a man admitted before a live audience that he aggressively pursued sex with a woman who told him repeatedly that she didn’t want him in her home never mind her body. The purpose of said revelation: to inspire other men to improvise a sketch based on this event for even more shits and giggles.

Let someone suggest, however, that rape culture in the United States is alive and well, and heads rush to spew conspiracy theories about humorless feminists.

Yet this occurred in a nation where, according to our own justice department, one in four women will be the victim of a rape or an attempted rape. Where violent words like smash, pound, beat, and hit have become synonymous with have sex. Where a female pop singer can’t even imagine being raped and fantasize revenge without getting several advocacy groups on her case while no one blinks an eye as one male recording artist after the next makes the top twenty by packaging rape carols as love songs.

This happened at an improv festival in New York City. Not in Congo, Iran, Nicaragua or anyone of “those places” we like to turn up our noses and wag our finger at for the atrocious way women are treated. Nope, it happened right here in the good ol’ US of A where a sexual assault survivor has to be damned near perfect if she stands a snowball’s chance in hell of seeing her perpetrator tried by a jury of his peers. Between the acquittal of two police officers for sexual assault (one with a history of being abusive toward women while in uniform) and the dismissal of the rape charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn (who suspiciously leaves a trail of rape allegations wherever he goes), this damned city is turning into Club Med for predators.

The thing that disturbs me the most about this incident is that the male comics on stage were astute enough to crack jokes about the ethical and legal ramifications of this knucklehead’s behavior, but not a damn one of them was brave enough to call it out explicitly and shut him down. Then again, evidence abounds that violence against women is regular fodder for our entertainment, especially comedy. From Ralph Kramden’s threats to send his wife Alice to the moon to Twitter hashtags such as #reasonstobeatyourgirlfriend our society has a long history of laughing at threats and assaults against women.

If you came of age in the 80s, you probably remember Eddie Murphy's 1983 set on singers in Delirious where he imitated Teddy Pendergrast's aggressive style and joked that he "scared the bitches into liking him."

I admit that I laughed at this even though something inside me quivered. At the age of 13, I already knew that no boy or man could ever scare me into liking him. But I wasn't informed enough to know that my instincts were on point and that my age or gender was not a reason to dismiss them. And so I laughed along and repeated the joke like everyone else.

Thirteen years later, I had mixed feelings when Chris Rock insisted vehemently that he'd never hit a woman. On the one hand, I had embraced feminism and knew that his set about relationship violence resonated with audiences because of his deft interweaving of real observable relationship dynamics with frighteningly oversimplified explanations. And yet I chuckled because at the time it seemed like progress.

In between both these blockbuster concert tours, I remember watching another African American male standup comic on TV say of Keith Sweat's Make You Sweat, "You say no, I say yes, girl, I bet I can make you sweat? That sounds like rape!" The audience didn't laugh too hard at that one. Come to think of it, he himself delivered the punch line angrily. It was a joke the comic himself didn't find all that funny. I yelled, "Oh, shit, he's right!" and appreciated him for nevertheless having the guts to say that. To this day I can't recall his name.

I haven't forgotten the revelry that ensued when What's Love Got To Do With It was released in 1993 and dudes on the block fell over themselves to imitate Ike beating Tina (to this day I walk out of the room during the scene where he rapes her in the recording booth.) Nor have I forgotten how I ran scared from the movie theater during the closing credits of Baby Boy in 2001 because I had yelled, "What the fuck is so funny about that?" when the audience laughed at Tyrese's Jody hitting Taraji P. Henson's Yvette.

Spare me talk of humor is subjective and comedy is pain and all the other clichés. The ability to evoke subjectivity when one is not the target is a function of power and privilege. Think it’s so gutsy to make light of trauma? Then have the guts to poke fun of your own pain before you crack jokes at anyone else's.

As I watched the male comics on the stage react to this monologue, I eventually wondered What if a woman had been up there? Then I asked Why are there no women there? And that quickly lead me to conclude Of course, there are no women there!

Women who are funny are powerful, and therefore dangerous.

I made a New Year’s resolution in 1999 to become fearless. This didn’t entail delivering a speech or jumping out of a plane. It meant enrolling in a stand-up comedy workshop. At the time, I simply rationalized that even if I failed to make a roomful of strangers laugh at jokes that I myself had written, I still would become untouchable. “If I hear crickets for five minutes, what could you possibly do to humiliate me after that?” I’d joke. “You can’t do shit to me.”

And failure was likely for me not because I wasn’t funny, but because I came to standup, as I do most of my creative projects, with my activist lens. That means there were certain kinds of jokes I decided to never tell. The sweetest spot for every standup comic is earning that laugh while being who you authentically are and speaking the truth as you see it. For me that meant steering clear of topics that usually guarantee female performers comic gold. I wasn’t the chick who, for example, cracked about her weight, complained about being single or put her mama on blast. Although I had no problem playing up my attractiveness by wearing heels and makeup, I drew the line at discussing my sexual interests and experiences never mind mimicking any of it on stage. And while I have no problems clowning myself from time to time, deprecating myself to make an audience like me was a non-starter.

As if I - a woman, a person of color, a leftist -- already wasn’t stepping into an aggressive form of entertainment on my own terms, I dared to address the most male-dominated subjects of all: politics. That’s Lenny Bruce territory. George Carlin territory. Paul Muthafuckin’ Mooney territory. Nor was I aiming for obvious political targets like elected officials and current events. On the contrary, I wrote jokes pinpointing the politics of things that people like to believe are apolitical -- sports, music, film and other forms of entertainment. I called bullshit on the so-called Latin pop explosion and pretended to be an agent brokering trades between races before Dave Chappelle introduced us to the term “racial draft.” I was coming for the Starfucker’s Zagat Survey of Usual Suspects. Amateur or professional, that’s permissible for men who are deemed courageous for trying and incisive if they hit the mark. A woman who does it risks being dismissed as a catty hater. She must be jealous of the female celebrities or pissed at the fact that none of the male ones would screw her.

I was going to succeed at becoming fearless even if I failed, but I didn’t fail. Nothing makes you understand the power of comedy like succeeding at it. This is especially true when you belong to communities that are usually the butt of the joke. Standup is another way of reclaiming your story, taking space and seizing control over your image. When you deliberately make someone laugh as you speak your truth, you at once build a bridge to your world without handing over the keys to your kingdom. This is a lesson I learned firsthand, and one of my life's regrets is not pursuing the opportunity to go pro (another story for another time.)

No wonder there’s so much ado about whether or not women can be funny, whether or not funny women are attractive, and whether or not men are threatened by funny women, ad infinitum. You know that belief of how men and women alike appreciate a sense of humor in a romantic partner? It turns out that women generally appreciate men they find funny whereas men appreciate women who find them funny. Pursuing laughter is a form of assertion, and assertiveness is deemed a masculine trait. Therefore, a woman who goes for your funny bone is violating gender norms and stepping out patriarchal bounds. Perhaps that's why too much of male comedy is devoted to going for her jugular and putting her back in her place.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that if a woman had been on that stage, she would’ve checked Eric D. Angell. Some women who enter male-dominated arenas do yield to the sexism and misogyny. They play to the male gaze, embrace the limited roles that men deem acceptable for a women (the ride-or-die chick or always sexually available and dexterous dime piece to name two) and emulate and even outdo the men in their vices. But let’s be clear. Such women do that because they’re fully aware that their insider status doesn't make them that much safer.

And frankly the maleness of the comics on stage during Angell’s confession does not excuse them from not taking a stand.

All of this is what makes this monologue, the weak response of the male comics, and the absence of female comics on that stage so damned unsettling. To quote comedian Katie Halper, “It's like an experiment that people will point back to as an example of how socially acceptable rape is.” Funny women are powerful and therefore dangerous. Looks like the world of standup needs more “humorless feminists” to take the stage, wreck shop and put this culture of rape and other violence against women in check.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a rape to report.

For further reading: Revolutionary Laughter: The World of Women Comics by Rosalind Warren


Anonymous said...

Well said!

Fanta said...

this is great ! My philosophy teach once said that laughter is a social punishment and it never left me.
I feel like every time people laugh at rape jokes they are making fun of millions of survivors. They are punishing them for something they did not wanted. Now we have to know why they are punishing them.

Unknown said...

Fanta, thank you so much for sharing that perspective. You've got me thinking. Perhaps they are punishing them for surviving. Since rape is about exerting power to survive it -- and to not suffer in silence -- is continued resistance. By speaking out about the violence, the survivor tells the perpetrators and those who want to stick their heads in the sand, "I will not go away." And so maybe people joke and laugh in another attempt to shame the survivor into silence. Hmmm....

Anonymous said...

There is a reason for everything. Keith Sweat has several allegations that have been going around for years. This is the reason he is not married and the women are afraid to come forth because they know his fans will take his side. Hint the song Make You Sweat Is about rape according to all males