Sisterhood Blog

What 'Rape Jokes' Could Learn from Jewish Humor

By Sarah Seltzer

  • Print
  • Share Share

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:

After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” and I, completely stunned and finding it hard to process what was happening but knowing I needed to get out of there, immediately nudged my friend, who was also completely stunned, and we high-tailed it out of there. It was humiliating, of course, especially as the audience guffawed in response to Tosh, their eyes following us as we made our way out of there. I didn’t hear the rest of what he said about me.

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: Because it seems that when you do rape jokes that like the material is so dangerous and edgy. But the truth is it’s like the safest area to talk about in comedy. Cause who’s going to complain about a rape joke? Rape victims? They don’t even report rape.

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.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • For 22 years, Seeds of Peace has fostered dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian teens in an idyllic camp. But with Israel at war in Gaza, this summer was different. http://jd.fo/p57AB
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.