Ouroboros And The Onion

Creative Commons Leo Reynolds

Creative Commons Leo Reynolds

I’ve performed a lot of comedy in the last 10 years. Mostly, those performances were improv based, long-form narrative story telling, but I’ve done a great deal of emcee work as well as some funny monologues. I’ve produced a women’s comedy festival for the past 6 years and have watched a lot of sketch, standup and short form improv.

I’m not a leader in the comedy community. My calling is something else (sexuality and social justice), but as someone who has supported many women in producing art, comedic or otherwise, I wind up reacting to various jokes in the internet ether when they are about sex, rape, assault, or such other things.

Humor serves so many purposes and one of those is distancing ourselves from others, from incidents, from pain. The humor can happen by punching up against the powers that be (and cause harm) or it can happen by punching down at the victims. Humor can be a defense and projection against the pain, putting it out on others, or it can be a beacon bringing people closer to something like solidarity.

I use humor to bring people up, but I can admit to enjoying a good attack on the powers that be. I enjoy dark humor, but I enjoy it most when the humor is clearly not at the expense of survivors (of whatever darkness is being joked about). I know personally that it’s easy and tempting to use humor to distance myself from things that hurt me, as a cover for anger at those things that hurt me, as a way to shield myself. Humor that is of the “ist” variety (racist, classist, sexist etc) often serves as a kind of release valve bonding one group against an “other.”

All this comes up for me because there has been a lot of business in the news of late regarding “jokes” and rape.

Molly Knefel just published an awesome Salon piece on rape jokes and double standards in humor. It’s a solid read and lists out many of the recent arguments that have happened, from Sady Doyle confronting Sam Morrill (and his response and her response), to the Onions horrific commentary on Chris Brown (racist, sexist, and unforgiveable in it’s use of Rhianna to make the “joke” work) and other attempts at humor.

Aside from issues around men, privilege, free speech and comedy, the right (or not) to say offensive things, I’ve got this theory that the more hopeless we feel about something real and close, the more that projected kind of humor occurs.

Knefel says (emphasis mine):

“What is challenging, though, is speaking out against the normalization of sexual violence, the degradation of women, and the role and responsibility that men have in either perpetuating or combating rape culture. It is challenging to confront the ways that we do and do not value affirmative consent. I believe that Morril, Oswalt and the comedians who came to Tosh and/or Morril’s defense are against rape; but Oswalt chose not to use his platform to speak about it with sincerity or gravity. As a man with a platform and a gift with words, he missed an opportunity to be an ally and to support the millions of women who experience violence daily. The suffering in Boston, as horrifying as it is, is largely abstract to a nation that has, for the most part, never experienced such a thing. On the other hand, in every room Oswalt performs comedy in, there will be a rape survivor. Statistically speaking, there will be many. There will be even more if he is performing at a university. If exceptional violence illuminates our human capacity for empathy, then structural violence shows the darkness of indifference.”

It may be that because the violence is structural and endemic, we feel a particular kind of hopelessness about it. Really, what is to be done? So the kinds of humor that come out are meant to distance and deflect but have the consequence of only increasing the structural power of that violence.

Something like Boston seems so huge and rare (and we’ve been indoctrinated to believe that it is an ultimate evil to be attacked) that we react with gravity and respect. But daily violence…well, that’s just normal. The response is that it either isn’t a big deal or that it’s such a problem we can’t do anything about it.

So might as well make a joke, right?? Hey, it’s funny cause it’s true!

Well, it is true. There are actual systems of oppression in place in the US such as sexism, racism and so forth. There are defaults which are normal and everything else is up for mockery, take downs or humor and cultural applications that keep the “other” in their place.

Good satire points that out and has the capacity to make us think, make us change.

Bad satire doesn’t.

Speaking of bad satire, The Onion just released a piece about the three young women (Amanda Berry, Georgina DeJesus, Michelle Knight who were kidnapped, raped, assaulted, and lived through unspeakable things. The piece is set up to highlight how horrible the men were that created this dungeon, the dynamics that allow for rape and assault and the structures that allowed police to ignore real calls for help.

But they use the girls as the foil for the piece. I have a real problem with that morally and ethically. It’s too soon, it uses them in a way they have no say in, and frankly I think that’s cheap and desperate.

And it totalizes men. I have a real problem with this as well. I get it, I do. I’ve been writing about men and rape a lot lately and yeah, I’m pretty wigged out about men and rape. But all men are not like this. A man helped rescue them, for god’s sake.

It’s too soon after the event. None of us have any time to really process what this means about us as a culture and society that a) these men did this b) that the neighbors were in the dark, c) police didn’t respond to real complaints. It distances us from the horror, it does not point it out in a way that makes us think more.

It strikes me as if they just wanted to get it up quick while it was relevant and get the page views.

While I could go on at length, I’ll point you in the direction of Erin Gibson, a comedian and performer who has a wonderful and insightful takedown of the Onion’s work, hoping against hope that we will “make double triple sure that satire is diligent about vilifying the wrongdoer while being careful not to exploit the victim.”

“Maybe you agree with this Onion piece, as is.

If that’s the case, let me ask you this. Would you print it out and hand it to Michelle Knight? Would you walk into her hospital room and would you tell her that thanks to her, The Onion has been able to make a trenchant social comment on the evil nature of her kidnapping and rape? Would you sit in the room with her and read this to her…

“Oh, sure, once in awhile they’ll get you pregnant and then lock you in a darkened room for 10 or so years while they viciously beat you until you lose the baby and almost die, but hey, we all have our own little quirks, right?”

And would you look her in the face and say “And they used your real name and face, cause, yu know, satire.”

This really happened to those girls. Something horrible and so horrible that perhaps our only honest response is to distance ourselves from it and turn it into something like Saw or Hostel but funny, right? Which is ironic because we as a culture seem to love those movies.

All this “humor” distances us from the horror, rape or assault or kidnapping. This seems to be how we react to the latest horror through the lens of the internet, because facing it is too overwhelming.

Yet even still, we are hungry for real answers, real ways to make change, to connect. But the way we are reacting to structural oppressions and violence, to the disconnection of neighbors, to the very media representation of ourselves with it’s 24/7 drama and reality TV-ness of real horrors…with a “hey do the Anderson Cooper newscast, make the memes mocking participants, do some standup, get it trending on Twitter, issue an Onion piece on the topic and wait for the next one” it doesn’t help. It makes it worse and worse each time.

It’s like we are a snake desperately consuming it’s own tail and wondering why it’s starving.

And I don’t think that’s funny at all.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Ouroboros And The Onion

  1. druidwinter

    Reblogged this on winterdominatrix.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you. This is excellent. ❤

  3. I play the most violent games out there, waiting for GTA 5 <3, I've joked about ALL violence including rape but only fictional settings, not laughing at someone who's actually been killed or raped. My reaction to rape is one of wanting to turn the cameras off for 5 minutes with a baseball bat and try beat some decency into the rapist which probably won't work but that's the visceral instinct. I PRAY I never have a family member or closed loved one raped like that where I am anywhere near the abuser due to the fear of what I would do to the abuser . And of course I pray no one gets harmed, in any violence, and I don't want to actually HARM anyone ever funnily enough but if say you came across your child being harmed by someone then the rage that would be unleashed would be extremely difficult to control, I am sure it would test the best of us.

    Dark humor is necessary to make the world feel less scary I think otherwise many of us would be miserable as hell. I laugh at my own injuries and people laugh with me, I've laughed at some of the bullying I've recieved, I believe it's part of human defence mechanisms. But there's a big difference in laughing with someone, or laughing at the Elmer Fudd rape joke and laughing at say the gang rapes in India, a real event with real victims. Tosh crossed the line because of a real person and the threatening behaviour.

    Rape jokes will never disappear, I'd bet money on that. People still joke about babies dying, morbid people will joke about anything and everything. The odd thing is the person that laughs about it could be the most caring person face to face but only laugh at fictional violence. I laugh at the violence in games, and laughed hard at Hulk smacking Loki around, laughed hard in the Transporter when he kicks the door in but I don't laugh at the hundreds/thousands of people dying in wars n violence worldwide. I've heard nurses with some pretty sick humor, I know mothers n fathers who joke about shit but protect people, I protect people where I can. The weird thing is that what I can laugh at, what I watch on tv, the fake stuff is ok, I can watch gorey action movies but I cringe like crazy at seeing someone get their arm cut yet an hour earlier I could have seen a limb blown off in a movie n not batted an eyelid.

    People laugh at things they "shouldn't" but part of that laughter is probably nervous laughter. Many of the rape jokes aren't funny at all because of the rape, they're funny because they are edgy and just so taboo that you laugh at someone actually GOING there. I don't find them funny these days because there is nothing new to them, no edge. I think there is this desire in some online folk also to find the most controversial stuff to laugh at, 4chan for instance is depravity at best and I've been linked to stuff there before by friends and refuse to click now. Most people I know feel the same way about rapists, they want to kill them but there are plenty of people I know that have laughed (many nervously) at a joke of rape with no real person in that joke. It's quite strange to know people who'd laugh at that stuff and be the first person in there to save someone being harmed.

    One thing I will say is that there's far more at play than male privilege. One of the most common jokes I hear women discussing involves mutilating a man's penis, hell my mum told jokes about that shit when growing up n laughed with her friends (I NEVER heard a joke from a man cutting a woman open like that). On "The Talk" there were women joking of an actual REAL life event of a woman cutting off her husbands penis, an entire audience laughing, I don't think I've seen anything remotely close to that in the reverse situation. I haven't seen any comics laugh about a woman being raped (probably happens sadly), but if they do I doubt it'd be on prime-time tv during the day. If men had did such a joke there'd probably be advertisers pulling out like crazy, not sure if any pulled out from The Talk but I've never heard of a similar case. Some subjects seem less taboo to laugh about, hell I watched kids movies growing up where the bad guy got kicked in the groin quite regularly yet never saw the same in reverse. Violence is often seen as funny, humorous but still there are taboos and the strange thing is the gendered nature of the taboos. Humor is a very strange beast and quite frankly I can't understand why I find some stuff funny, nor understand why some others find stuff funny (especially SNL!). I just hope most people are of the laugh at fake if they're gonna laugh at anything, but care about the serious type mentality.

  4. sonofadiddly

    Reblogged this on The Secret Liberal Agenda and commented:
    On humor as a defense mechanism and how we can do better.

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