What 'Rape Jokes' Could Learn from Jewish Humor

For weeks, verbal volleys have gone back and forth across the internet, the television airwaves, and now the pages of newspapers over the appropriateness of rape jokes and the role of feminism in humor. It all stemmed from an account on a blog written by a women who went to a stand-up show by popular comic Daniel Tosh. She complained out loud about his rape humor and then got subjected to some uncomfortable words from the stage:

In my mind, the issue embedded in this individual incident, as reported, isn’t really “rape humor,” but rather common-sense decency. No matter how flustered Tosh was by his heckler, decency mandates that you don’t engage a crowd in gang rape threats, under any guise at all. But as Soraya Chemaly notes at the Huffington Post, “One man told a really lame joke, but many, many men and women laughed at it. We don’t equip people with the tools to understand how deeply immersed we are in a rape culture.”

The question then arises where, in a rape culture, the line on rape humor lies. A group of feminists put together a video showing a wide variety of rape humor, from the deeply intelligent Sarah Silverman routine which essentially unpacks rape culture in two or three short lines, to the thoughtless humor regularly employed by Tosh.

Silverman’s routine proves that feminism and humor — and rape and humor — aren’t natural enemies (which Louis CK said this week on the Daily Show). To add to this point, Jennifer Pozner interviewed a bevy of comedians who declared themselves dedicated both to humor and to unpacking patriarchy: “Feminists aren’t against good comedy —they’re just against lazy hacks,” she writes.

This makes a lot of sense to me. Writ large, Jewish culture has traditionally used humor, sometimes deeply transgressive, self-deprecating and shocking strands of it, to cope with a history of persecution and marginalization. We’ve also been the butt of jokes that aren’t funny at all. It wouldn’t take a genius to understand why the same Jewish joke might play well in Brooklyn but be offensive in Berlin, or why a joke about anti-Semitism would work better targeting anti-Semites rather than, well, Semites.

In these debates over humor, context is everything. Making fun of the powerless and bolstering the powerful with “comedy” may not be comedy. It may just be bullying.

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