Ouroboros and The Onion
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.