From ‘Broad City’ to Fey and Poehler: When Female Comedians Tell Rape Jokes

“Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them,” goes the famous and profound quote attributed to Margaret Atwood. But what to make of a situation in which women artists, by acting like men, are trying to make us laugh at the threat men pose to women?

Last night’s Broad City Season 2 premiere featured a recurring riff on rape culture and a series of jokes that focused on female-on-male rape, which variously delighted, confused, and turned off the show’s devoted fans. Scanning my feed, I saw a few dozen tweets demanding trigger warnings and expressing disappointment with the show, but at the same time several feminist voices that take rape culture very seriously, like Amanda Hess, declared the joke a triumph, a savvy addition to the canon of “rape jokes that work.”

This was certainly my reaction; I giggled at the rape humor throughout the episode, from Ilana’s confused invocation of the wide reach of rape culture at a dinner party (“That’s rape culture!” “That’s rape culture too!”) to she and Abbi discussing whether Abbi’s man-friend suddenly passing out from heatstroke mid-coitus (a wacky scenario in all respects) renders her a rapist.

Yet my feelings went beyond mere appreciation for the humor, towards something of the catharsis I felt when Tina Fey and Amy Poehler took on Bill Cosby’s rape allegations at the Golden Globes. To me, at least, there’s something inherently empowering about women spinning comedic gold out of the mucky patriarchal straw they have to wade through every single day of their lives. Contemplating the net rape culture has thrown over our entire social infrastructure is dispiriting. So when women artists allow me the space to laugh at this dismal reality, I will do so with pleasure.

I’m Jewish in America, after all, raised from childhood on the ethos of Mel Brooks’ songs about the Spanish Inquisition and Holocaust: They try to wipe us out, we mock them. Lampooning oppression as a way of processing and re-routing a real narrative of humiliation is very much at the root of my cultural tradition.

So, as far as I’m concerned, Broad City’s reverse-rape scenario is something like a feminist version of the Spanish Inquisition song. The song, of course, would not have had the same effect if Mel Brooks were not clearly Jewish, dressed in the superficial raiments of a Catholic torturer of Jews, and taking the piss. (Imagine that song being sung by Frank Sinatra. Not funny at all, right?)

Like Brooks, Abbi and Ilana (both also Jewish, let’s note) are, in a sense, wearing a loose disguise throughout the series. They are continually acting out an absurdist inverted fantasy, remaking themselves into women who have rarely experienced casual misogyny or threats of violence and are thus as free to be as lecherous and predatory as any men around them.

Take the opening joke they made about Orthodox Jewish men on the New York subway. Ultra-Orthodox men on the train present a dilemma to those of us who realize that many of them are forbidden from touching women: Do we make ourselves smaller and shrink away to accommodate their religious practice, which stigmatizes us? Thus, at first Abbi and Ilana walk cautiously past the men. But when Ilana slaps one of them on the ass while disembarking, boom, the power dynamic is utterly reversed. It’s not just a joke capitalizing on sexual harassment and religion for yuks; there are deeper layers.

The rape joke can’t be considered outside its context and questions of agency, either — or the fact that the “victim” is Seth Rogen, living avatar of the kind of male-dominated stoner/potty comedy that Broad City gender-flips. I found the jokes amusing, in part, simply because they were coming out of Abbi Jacobson’s foul feminist mouth and I trust her. And because, as with Fey and Poehler’s Cosby routine, rapists — not rape victims — were the butt of the joke.

Furthermore, the comedians and their characters clearly have a solid understanding of what rape actually is, which they transmit to the audience (sex with an unconscious partner, even if the unconsciousness happens partway through). And their characters hand-wring over it as much as any diehard feminist on Tumblr might, at least at first, before getting on with their narcissistic lives. That’s part of the humor, too, a mash-up of hardcore feminist talking points with inverted misogyny. Would a man in Abbi’s position have the same anguished regrets or epiphany about his transgression of boundaries? Not if recent surveys about male attitudes towards rape show us anything.

Now for the obligatory disclaimers: Making light of rape is in no way universally a great idea. Cruel rape jokes that mock victims further poison the already-fraught discourse. And certainly, for some survivors or sensitive viewers, rape humor can never be fully detached from triggering content. This is a reaction we should respect.

But I do think that feminist critics, particularly male ones, ought to be leery of using the abstract principles of feminism to police and shame women’s artistic expression around their own status as an oppressed class. Women comics deserve the artistic license to make their audiences uncomfortable by playing with the elements of society that threaten them.

And maybe it’s important that they do make us uncomfortable. I polled my friends about Broad City‘s rape jokes last night, and most of us either just laughed or squirmed and laughed at the same time, a reaction which we liked. “I felt like I needed to really think about the jokes and whom they targeted, which is good,” my friend Kristen emailed me this morning. “It was an episode that made you think about rape culture and the gender dynamics of rape.”

Fey and Poehler were declaring open season not on rape itself, but on a famous suspected rapist who had gotten a pass until recently. And Glazer and Jacobsen were exploring the far reaches of their imaginary feminist paradise, in which they are the primary catcallers and controllers of the gaze and might even be accidental predators. Let us survey the scene. Nope, despite the fears of Men’s Rights Activists and Rush Limbaugh, women as a class have not even come close to reaching this status. And that is precisely why it’s funny.