Get in My Vagina! Language and Power in Online Comedy Videos

Curator's Note

In 2011, more than 1100 provisions to regulate reproductive health and rights were introduced in the U.S.  (up 16 percent from 2010). We are witnessing a marked increase in juridic discourse regarding women’s bodies. Yet certain events indicate that women’s bodies are simultaneously unspeakable within juridic spaces. March 2011: Florida House Democrat Scott Randolph was chastised because he used the word “uterus” on the Florida house floor. June 2012: Lisa Brown was barred from the Michigan house floor for using the word “vagina.” Perhaps most bizarre is an incident from February 2012 when Dave Albo, a sponsor of Virginia’s proposed “informed consent” law, invents the word “trans-v” so he doesn’t have to say “transvaginal.” Linguistic lacunae and reprimands for indecorous behavior imply that women’s bodies must not be named. Thus, they are situated within a Foucauldian multiplicity of force relations that includes both a multiplication of juridic discourse and discursive erasure.

Various online comedy videos engage the tensions between multiplication and erasure by tactically using the word “vagina.” In February 2012, Jeff Poor of The Daily Caller criticized Rachel Maddow for her “dramatic” use of the words “vagina” and “vaginal.” Poor conducted a word count of her usage over a ten day period and compiled a video montage of her utterances. Rather than challenging power, the video aligns with Foucault’s assertion that acts of transgression within the repressive hypothesis reinforce the normative structure. By editing Maddow’s words into decontextualized pathological repetition, Poor frames Maddow as absurd and subtly reinforces the norm of discursive erasure.

Other videos turn the lens on those in power. One example is the Funny or Die video, “Republicans, Get in my Vagina.” The video features “real Republican real women of real America” lamenting all the decisions they have to make and expressing their gratitude that legislators will decide for them. The women assert that they want government “in my vagina,” in part because vaginas are weird and scary. The video is an uneven challenge to polymorphous power. It satirizes the irrationality of the far right’s reproductive legislation at the same time that it explicitly articulates the female body as indecorous and grotesque.

Though both videos use transgressive language, they demonstrate the multifaceted and uneven operations of the moving substrate of force relations that is the current context of women’s reproductive rights in the United States.

 

Comments

Rachel Silverman's picture

So, is it funny or not?

Throughout the week, we have been discussing whether or not jokes about women and women’s health are funny and what they do or don’t do within the current political landscape. Today’s post might be an answer to our questions - or maybe raise even more questions.

If transgression works to reinforce the normative structure, then what does humor do?

Especially if it doesn’t work to challenge the current system.

Kirsten Pike's picture

Re: "Get in My Vagina!" and "Is It Funny or Not?"

Thanks for the thoughtful post, Kim, and the great video compilation, too! I think you’re right about the uneven challenge to power offered in “Republicans, Get in My Vagina.” The video delivers a productive satire of the far right’s ludicrous legislation at the same time that it reaffirms problematic stereotypes about the “scary” nature of women’s vaginas. Your analysis here also connects in interesting ways to Karyl’s discussion earlier this week about masculinist constructions of the “mysterious and potentially dangerous” uterus.

While Jeff Poor may have wanted to frame Maddow as absurd in the video montage of her vagina/vaginal utterances, I wonder if another consequence of the repetition is to articulate constantly and, hence, subvert the norm of discursive erasure, thereby reinforcing the absurdity of the far right (?). In her post earlier this week, Elizabeth suggested that while invoking the vagina in jokes and discussions about rape is not without contradiction, it “brings conversations about rape out of the abstract and back to material reality” in powerful and important ways. I think this is really true. So maybe another way to think about Rachel’s question above would be to consider how transgressive utterances and/or humor both uphold and challenge the status quo.

Kim A. Knight's picture

The uneven challenge of humor

Thanks, Rachel and Kirsten for your comments! I thought many of the posts threaded together quite well this week.

These are humorous transgressions so my intention was to also suggest something about how comedy operates. As Kirsten points out, that can be uneven as well. I definitely think the Poor video is multivalent and much of the interpretation is contextual. My initial reaction was that it is heavily framed by Poor’s blog post that reinforces Maddow’s language as absurd. Unfortunately, the video is not available on YouTube where viewers might encounter it out of context. However, I believe the way I first saw it was through someone I follow on Twitter, who undoubtedly suggested that it was an unfair critique. So I think there is definitely something to be said for context shaping the work of comedy.

Comedy, like transgression, requires the system against which to react. It seems like the potential to reinforce the system in the service of cheap laughs is always present, as much so as the potential to challenge the system through pointing out idiosyncrasies or inconsistencies. And as we saw in multiple examples this week, even in the same moment, this could be happening simultaneously and with regard to different social registers.

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