I fear that I’m getting a reputation for being not-fun in my old age. Sure, I’m only 30, but it’s clear that a whole landscape of human interactions has closed off to me. My interest in movies and television has waned. And I really don’t enjoy dating as much as I used to. It all seems to emerge from the fact that, over the past 10 years, I’ve gradually stopped laughing at rape jokes.

It’s the sort of thing you don’t notice until you do, and then when you do, you wish you hadn’t. My whole life, I’ve been a sort of guy’s girl, a real tomboy who likes sports, sex, beer, and food. I’ve always had more men friends than women friends, and even took a lesser scholarship for college so I could go to a school that was two-thirds male. I still come off as “game,” someone who probably likes to wrestle when she’s drunk. (I do.) But the rape joke thing comes up and suddenly I’m not so “fun” anymore.

“Rape jokes,” in my mind, are ones in which the punch line, the thing that produces the “humor,” is the victimization of someone weaker or socially marginalized. Sometimes it’s a joke about literally raping someone. Often, they’re jokes about gay or transgendered people. Racist jokes also fall under this category for me, as well as jokes about disabled people or poor people. If the joke doesn’t make any sense if you just say “person” instead of “woman,” “fag,” “tranny,” “Helen Keller,” or pick-a-racial-slur, it is, it takes the form of what I’ve called, in my mind, a rape joke.

A lot of jokes follow this format, I guess, because it’s a lot easier to make fun of suffering than it is to make fun of, say, the powerful or the wealthy. It’s even harder to come up with good jokes that require wordplay or knowledge. Jokes tend to be based on the idea that you share some knowledge or opinion with your interlocutor, and that you can use familiar signifiers. When someone tells a “tranny joke,” he’s assuming that the fact that you’re not a transgendered person means that you find your position of cisgendered privilege as hilariously pleasurable as he does. We haven’t all read the same books or seen the same movies, but appeals to the pleasures of being “normal” are almost universal.

And the fastest way to gain acceptance among the “normals” if you’re in a minority is to tell jokes that victimize your minority. It’s a way of saying, “Hey, straight white dudes; it’s OK–I’m cool!” I can’t tell you how many times I heard white guys at college defend their racist jokes by pointing at their token minority friend and saying, “He always laughs, so I’m allowed to say this!” or even, “I got this great fag joke from my friend who’s gay, so it’s OK.” It’s OK!

I learned at a very young age that the only way to win my dad’s love was to laugh at women. They’re so pathetic and always crying and shit, amirite? The fact that my mom was suicidally depressed for many years went unnoticed while Daddy and his little collaborationist joked in the other room about moody ladies. When you’re little, you learn pretty quickly that laughing at the right things is how you survive. It’s how you prove to people that you deserve love and acceptance, and getting that love from the most powerful person you can find is the strategy that makes the most sense to a four-year-old. When you don’t get the joke, you violate the normativity contract, and the consequences can be really scary.

I did high school theater with a very popular and charming young man who, whenever directed to make mumbling conversation behind the main action, would approach one girl at a time and threaten to blow her brains out while she sucked his cock. He was trying to get us to break character and laugh. Because that’s hilarious. If you didn’t laugh, he’d follow you around for the rest of the day, screaming his threat in your ear. Until you laughed. Because it’s so funny. Don’t you get it? I’ll shoot you in the head while you suck my cock. Get it? Eventually, everyone gave in, to get him to stop bullying us. Big smile, big laugh. Oh, now I see! You’re going to shoot me in the head while I suck your cock. That is a good one. It was so funny, in fact, that he wrote it in my yearbook, next to “Have a great summer! Love, You Know Who.”

It sounds psychopathic, right? I’m sure if someone had described that behavior to him, even at the time, as if it were someone else, he would have been appalled. Who would do that? He was the most popular boy in school. The weirdest part of the rape joke, to me, is that, unlike regular bullying, in which the bully gets off on seeing fear and hatred in his victims, the rape-joker seems to want love and acceptance, while saying the most appalling imaginable things. He wants you to laugh and verify for him that it’s OK to make light of very real threats to the safety of a group of people, even when those people are you.

I currently work with a rape-joker. It’s his way of communicating that he likes me, and thinks that I’m fun, and that we’re somehow the same. He’s always got a new one, about bitches getting what’s coming to them, or LGBT people, or some racial group, and when I don’t laugh, he insists that his other female/queer/non-white friends found that joke hilarious. What am I so humorless for? Can’t I just enjoy life? Why take things so seriously? Then there are the explanations that these jokes are actually about making light of sexism, racism, and homophobia. Geddit now? He’s just talking about how life really is. What am I, some kind of censor? Don’t academics believe in free speech? All I did was not laugh.

Finally, I interrupted one of his infuriated rants at my humorlessness by smiling calmly and saying, “If I hadn’t been a victim of physical and sexual abuse, I probably would think that joke was really funny. Does that help?” It seems to. So does, “Last week a transgendered friend got the shit kicked out him for walking down the street, so I guess that one isn’t hitting my funny bone.” Does he deserve this much information about me and my friends? Of course not. But the harassment has stopped.

What seems to confuse people like this is that I laugh a lot. I joke around all the time. My students think I’m hilarious. I talk openly and lightheartedly about sex. I am just less willing to fake laughter to get someone off my back now than I was when I was younger. I’m not out to change the world or lecture people. I just don’t laugh at rape jokes.

19 responses to “Humorless”

  1. maureen says:

    here was a funny story: a guy wanted to shoot something and his neighbor said he could shoot at some starlings on his property. the gunshots made too much noise and other neighbors called the police. the man was arrested. all he had done was shoot and kill a starling. a starling. useless, noisy, plentiful. i had to have this explained to me a few times, to check my funny bone. i am incomprehensibly weird.

  2. A White Bear says:

    There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the Tribeca Film Festival’s showing of “Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives,” which is described on their website this way: “When a group of transgender women are violently beaten and left for dead, the violated vixens turn deadly divas in this hilariously campy homage to the exploitation films of the ’70s and ’80s (‘Transploitation,’ anyone?). Loaded with bodacious bods and extreme violence, this revenge fantasy proves that it takes more than balls to get even.”

    Hilarious! “Violated vixens” lol.

    Am I missing something?

  3. Tim says:

    They call it a punch line for a reason. Usually, someone is getting punched.

  4. Dave says:

    When you’re little, you learn pretty quickly that laughing at the right things is how you survive.

    I had never quite connected the getting of jokes to the more general category of pleasing behavior. I am good at getting jokes, and even when I don’t get them I often pretend I do, basically as a way of ingratiating myself with the joke teller.

    These problematic jokes, though, create a problem for me. I used to laugh at them like you did, AWB, but like you I’ve become more aware of the pain and harm they cause. Not long ago a straight acquaintance of mine told a rape-jokey anecdote, the moral of which was that it’s perfectly fine to murder a gay guy if he hits on you but you might not want the trouble with the cops that would result, to an audience that consisted of three gay guys and two straight guys. I stared at him, feeling very uncomfortable, and a few other guys laughed halfheartedly. It only occurred to me later that this was one of those situations where I should have said something. That would not have been ingratiating, though.

  5. A White Bear says:

    I’m not sure that “saying something” ends up being more powerful than not laughing. Maybe I’m just bad at it, but whenever I’ve responded directly to a rape joke with “Hey, I’m not cool with that,” the joke-teller usually then lectures me about how PC-ness is destroying America, or accuses me of secretly finding it funny, which is probably the most obnoxious thing. But somehow, not laughing is really powerful in the context of rape jokes, because the stakes of your laughter are so high. If I tell a joke to my class or during a conference paper, I enjoy the few titters I get, but I don’t feel humiliated or threatened by those who don’t laugh. It’s normal for people not to laugh. But somehow, it’s really not normal if you don’t laugh at a rape joke, and it’s a highly confrontational thing to do.

    By not saying anything, just not laughing, you put the joker in the position of directly asking you for an explanation of why you don’t think it’s funny, or, even better, in the position of figuring it out for his own goddamn self. We’re not missionaries.

    Bonus rape-joke points for homophobic-murder humor in a crowd of gay guys. WTF? But seriously, this happens a lot. I can count dozens of times when I’ve brought up trans rights issues in front of a group of friends and coworkers and the *only* thing they can think to say is a funny-ha-ha tranny-rape joke. Not a question, or saying something like “I don’t know any trans people,” not anything other than an immediate recourse to the tranny-rape joke–in the context of a conversation about civil rights!

  6. ScottyGee says:

    I really appreciate this post — a lot. And I find myself getting more and more easily offended as I get older (especially by movies like The Hangover), but I’d like to pose a question:

    Do you (or anyone else out there) think that it somehow diminishes the gravity of the act of rape itself, or somehow potentially devalues the feelings of rape victims themselves to include in the same category, non-violent jokes about any historically disadvantaged group and jokes that actually have to do with sexual violence?

  7. KS says:

    Wow, yes ScottyGee, I also felt like using the word “rape” as an umbrella category for anything that pokes fun at the marginalized and disempowered was problematic, but I didn’t have time to write a thoughtful comment to that effect this morning when I first read this post. But this post has been in my head all day.

    While this post artfully addresses the difficulties surrounding passive and active rejections of hate/prejudice/bigotry/rape jokes (whatever you choose to call them), I tend to think that extending the definition of “rape” in this way might diminish the meaning of this specifically violent sexual crime. I’m not sure I want to put “dumb blonde” jokes in the same category. I’m also not sure I agree that the best response is to not laugh at these jokes, rather than to openly and proudly speak out against them, though I get the argument about why this opens up the opportunity for the joke teller to make lame excuses for h/ir bigotry. This is such an interesting conundrum with gendered implications. I suspect it’s a great deal more difficult for women to openly express hostility toward the joke, and perhaps in many situations less meaningful than it is when men do it. What’s wrong with any of us calling “bull shit” when someone tries to justify the hate joke? It takes a great deal of bravery to do so, but I suspect the fall out is easier to deal with than the regrets over not doing so. But this is just my p.o.v. based on my own regrets about silent, conciliatory non-laughter.

  8. A White Bear says:

    About the sexual/political/violent oppression thing, I guess they seem to go hand in hand for me. Sexual threats seem already a part of racialized violence (and systematic rape an organized process of genocide). I don’t mean to make light of either side by the comparison, but to say that a sense of sexual superiority, ownership, and oppression seems embedded in racist jokes as much as in homophobic or misogynistic jokes. They’re jokes that say, “We can do whatever we want to you.” Most of the racist jokes I heard while growing up explicitly made reference to sexual inferiority or dysfunction, or failure to reproduce “appropriately.” They’re all invested in limiting the future, limiting reproduction, or survival, or any other “normal” process of life.

    By calling them all “rape jokes,” I guess I want to say that while oppressive jokes take a lot of forms, they’re all about deciding who’s “in” and who’s “out.” The people who are “in” get to make decisions about what to do with their bodies, their lives, and their futures. Those who are “out” are denied the right to think about their lives as their own.

    There was recently a dust-up about Newsweek’s recent feature on feminism, in that it focused exclusively (as most such things do) on the experiences of bourgeois white American women who thought they could have it all and realized they couldn’t. That is, they thought they were part of that “in” group and are now painfully realizing they’re not. The reaction from, e.g., Racialicious was like, really? You were surprised by sexism, and that’s the only story to be told in Newsweek?

    The problem with separating feminist discourse from discourses of race or queer identities is that we all have to realize we’re being fed shit, and making a bunch of boundaries and distinctions because that shit comes in different flavors is missing the point. It’s still all shit, and it comes from above. I’m far more interested, I guess, in putting the emphasis on the ways people with social power work constantly to maintain that power through intimidation than in saying one kind or another of violence is “special.”

    I can’t say what other people’s experiences are, but, far more than being raped or molested or beaten up, the thing that has made me feel controlled by my position in the culture is the sense that there are all these people who threaten you if you try to be something other than “out,” and they expect you to love them for it. Of course it’s not everyone. And the same people who make these jokes often don’t think they’re making a joke about me or my friends, and may not be the same people who actively rape or beat up people. But they are often the same people who vote against legal protections and civil rights for me and my friends.

    Nobody can guarantee that bad stuff won’t happen. But I do want to live in a culture where I am not threatened when I don’t find it funny that it happens to others. I’m not trying to co-opt the suffering of others, but to say that, as someone who’s gotten one kind of shit, I don’t appreciate seeing someone else get a different kind. Does that make sense?

  9. A White Bear says:

    And yes, I’m guessing that for a white straight man, not laughing is probably not as powerful as saying something, and I am definitely more likely to say something if I’m not part of the group being made fun of. IME, if you’re part of the group being made fun of, the person making the joke is looking at you specifically to see if you laugh or not, and may have a follow-up comment prepared to start that discussion. It’s a case-by-case basis, for sure. Sometimes speaking up is more powerful, depending on your relationship. Sometimes it can put you in a scary situation *really* fast.

  10. A White Bear says:

    To be clear about my comments on the Newsweek thing above, I think that one of the problems of separating out “women’s issues” from other kinds of oppression is that it tends to turn into the Newsweek situation. They may not want to “get into” racism or homophobia or classism, so they’re only going to talk about straight white bourgeois women. Why does oppression of white straight women get so much special treatment, when so few of the world’s women are straight and white? It’s not at all to say that straight white women don’t get the shaft–they do–but it shouldn’t be seen as belittling their experiences to have a more diverse representation of experience.

  11. Tim says:

    To paraphrase Marx, the point is not just to interpret the world, but to change it. However, I think it’s very difficult to make blanket or prescriptive statements about how best to challenge (and therefore, ideally, change) our racist, sexist, heteronormative, etc. acquaintances and friends. It seems more a set of decisions best left to tactics instead of theory. Some would-be jokesters might best be approached with silence, others with outrage, still others with puzzled questions about the logic of the humor. Much depends, too, on the occasion, setting, and so forth. Undoubtedly, one will make mistakes, sometimes provoking reactionary responses with a direct challenge, sometimes inadvertently encouraging with accidental nervous laughter, sometimes giving tacit, unknowing approval with silence. Here and there, a victory will occur. The point, for me, is to use such moments as occasions for learning — not just teaching or preaching — about oneself and about the structures of discrimination that undergird such vicious humor.

  12. ScottyGee says:

    Say the point of all of this — and by all of this I mean the academic research, the articles, the blogs, the guerilla activities and the other street-level actions, and the social interactions — is to make for a better world. And that the ideal world is filled with pure equality (social and otherwise). If this is the goal of social movements, (and I understand that there are many branched of feminism, and that this is not the goal of every one, but for ease of operationalization I need to get sloppy here) then doesn’t it make sense that education might be the tool of choice? And if this is the case, then shouldn’t one always be ready to discuss a joke, comment, or any other behavior that goes over the line?

    But here’s the rub, if the goal is a world in which the norm is acceptance by all, we are talking about a proposal that not every historically disadvantage person/group is going to be comfortable with. What I mean is that what we are suggesting is ultimately trying to win the approval of the key-holders to the dominant societal strata. Of course, another option would be violence, but…

    Let me back up here…so if equality is the goal, what we’re doing is asking those in power to relinquish a degree of their power. So (even if we’re talking about some jerk, high school student like the one in your post) the question is how do we go about that education in such a way to win people over? Or am I way off base here? But I’m just trying to get to the point of it all.

  13. LP says:

    I was initially a little confused when I read this post. Maybe it’s because of where I live, or the fact that I work at home and don’t have to interact with a lot of colleagues / acquaintances who don’t share my political / social views, but I don’t have anywhere near “dozens” of recent experiences of hearing people tell off-color jokes. It happens extremely rarely, and generally the people nearby offer the same response I do: stony silence. I’m realize I must be lucky to not have to deal with this all the time, based on the comments to this post.

    I think that a good response to such jokes is a quiet, “Not funny.” If the person asks, you can explain why. If not, they got the message anyway. Certainly, laughing at offensive jokes is a way to sustain someone’s belief that they’re okay. None of us wants to be a lecturer, but it’s not okay to let certain “jokes” pass by without comment.

  14. Stella says:

    I’m propelled back to my college days and life in the 90s…i used to take on every argument about jokes, sexism etc. I would be sucked into crazy arguments with people, ending up in tears of frustration at their inability to accept a pro-equality view of the world. I think I have deliberately distanced myself from that level of reaction as I just couldn’t deal with my constant anger and outrage after a while.

    Now I spend most of my time with incredibly liberal people who don’t need yelling at. You are making me conscious of the cozy little cocoon i enjoy. People suck.

    I was also listening to something on cozy little npr…about moral intention potentially being a function of brain process rather than an actual choice…maybe one day we’ll just fix everyone’s brains…in a good way.

    And – what I especially appreciate about your post is the highlighting of the power of the joke – this quick verbal interaction becomes a point of total consensus, or war, or potential violence. It turns out to be such a powerful form of communication.

  15. Dave says:

    Maybe “violation jokes” would be a better term? In English, “violation” doesn’t have to be sexual but is still closely linked with the concept of rape and the metaphorical weight that carries.

  16. jms says:


    Okay, so this post has caused me to fume for a good part of the day, because it made me remember — for the first time in like ten years — the most upsetting rape joke I’ve ever heard.

    What made it so bad wasn’t so much the content (although it was, make no mistake, pretty fucking gross) but the context. It was when I was in college. I was taking a class about the Korean War, and the professor, an old white guy and a celebrated campus asshole, was talking about wartime atrocities. He then begins to tell a series of super-fucked-up jokes about raping Asian women.

    Oddly, he was straight up shocked when I got up and walked out. He even (or so I was told — I didn’t go back) gave some kind of half-apology the next session.

    I’m not even sure now why I am telling this story, except I guess that I want to push (gently) back against what ScottyGee says in 12. I really, really don’t feel that it’s my responsibility to educate assholes. I agree that one of the goals of social movements is, broadly stated, equality, but it’s a remote goal. In the here and now, I’ll settle for being able to go about my business without feeling harassed, and attending my undergraduate courses without being made to feel like garbage. I don’t have the time, the energy, or — and this especially — the obligation, to educate jerks. If I can make people not tell rape jokes in my presence, by making them uncomfortable, or by going silent, or by walking out of the room, that’s good enough for me, and that’s what I’ll do. My peace is, in the day-to-day, more important to me than the education of Asshole X.

    I also don’t feel all that optimistic about the power of education, at least as carried out by me and in that context. As A White Bear points out, the power of a rape joke depends upon taking for granted a very important, and deeply felt, hierarchy. A rape joke reads something like, “I know that these days we’re all like ‘equal’ now and [X] people are considered like just as good as other people, but no seriously come on, we know how it really is.” Can I really educate people about this way of thinking by discussing their fucked up joke with them? I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

    Of course, there are contexts in which one does have the ability, and some responsibility, to educate. If say I overheard one of my nephews telling an anti-gay joke, I’d want to have a talk with him. But for the most part? I don’t think I have much power to change the way people think. And again, it is really, really not my job.

  17. ScottyGee says:

    ” In the here and now, I’ll settle for being able to go about my business without feeling harassed…”
    Good point.

    I totally get what you’re saying. I know that my comment proposed some pretty lofty ideas, but I was just trying to get to the big picture. Of course, just walking away from “Asshole X” is completely your right.

  18. A White Bear says:

    In my favorite Zizek lecture, he tells a joke that is about rape at 22:00, and defends it after being criticized by the audience at the end, and I like what he says there. He’s talking about having been at a Hitchcock conference in California during the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia, and people at the conference start accusing him of not talking about what he “should” talk about, which is the suffering of his people, and Zizek’s response is, no, you should talk about my suffering. I want to talk about Hitchcock.

    I guess I often feel that way about the rape joke situation. Too often, the only people who feel like it’s their right to stand up against this bullshit are the same people who are being threatened by it. Trans people are often the only people educating others about trans rights, even in circumstances in which they’re the people most in danger. Women are expected to stand up for themselves in situations designed to take advantage of patriarchal control. No wonder people think feminists and queer rights activists are “angry”; if we don’t stand up for ourselves, it’s often true that no one else will. Is it want we want to do with our time, or feel safe doing with our time? Actually, I’d rather be talking about Hitchcock, you know?

  19. NickS says:

    Dropping in from unfogged, I wanted to mention that this, “too often, the only people who feel like it’s their right to stand up against this bullshit are the same people who are being threatened by it. ” reminded me of one of a very nice, pithy, expression of this idea. From Words That Wound.

    “Whenever we decide that racist hate speech must be tolerated because of the importance of tolerating unpopular speech, we ask Blacks and other subordinated groups to bear a burden for the good of society — to pay the price for the societal benefit of creating more room for speech. … We must be careful that the ease with which we strike the balance against the regulation of racist speech is in no way influenced by the fact the cost will be born by others. We must be certain that the individuals who pay the price are fairly represented in our deliberations and that they are heard.”

    Reading that passage changed the way that I think about discussions of free speech. The real world never lives up to that, or course, but it’s a good principle.