Thanks for the post, Ben, you’ve raised some great questions for me to think about. Gender and cultural capital is the crux of my dissertation, so this type of feedback is so helpful. In her book, West mentioned that she continues to get violent threats from Norton’s fans, and his response is usually to shrug and say that comedy doesn’t influence people to be violent. I think the point she makes in her debate is important — why is it that comics who think that comedy needs to be a protected space because speech is important simultaneously argue that speech can’t cause violence? That tension is something I’m interested in exploring.
Your point that rape jokes reinforce hegemonic hierarchies instead of flipping them is one of the impetuses for the paper I drew this post from (which I wrote soon after this debate happened) — I kept reading work on comedy relating it to the carnivalesque, and it seemed to me that there was an assumption that the carnivalesque space works similarly for all comics and all audiences, when it seemed to me more complicated. For me, Bourdieu’s framework has been more useful to me in thinking through power dynamics within the comedic sphere.
Your last point reminds me of Beck Krefting’s book — she might argue that Schumer gained capital by adhering to masculine comedic norms, and now that she’s accumulated enough, she can start to be more outspoken in her social critique. At the same time, she still seems (in interviews at least) to see herself as a comic first and a feminist second, while there are many female comics who fail to gain traction in mainstream outlets because they see their feminism as more important than getting the loudest /easiest laugh. Schumer has said that she got a movie deal because Judd Apatow heard her on Howard Stern and thought she was funny, and she’s become mainstream through outlets like Comedy Central and Last Comic Standing that cater to a male audience.
Stephanie, your use of Bakhtin to enter into this debate is really intriguing. Another aspect of the “carnivalesque” is an active, unruly crowd, which social media and Twitter in particular seems to have reconstituted in the digital age. Following the logic of Tosh’s infamous retort, I imagine most if not all netizens barraging West with rape and death threats imagined themselves as the vanguards of bad taste. This is the prevalent theme when writers for “Family Guy,” for example, answer for the frequency of violence against women on their show: it’s shuffled into the grab-bag of beyond-the-pale that is supposedly chosen from indiscriminately when finding new ways to tell jokes about everyday depravity. Assuming that the dominant culture does already abhor violence against women, then, a carnivalesque “billingsgate” (abusive language) would indeed include rape jokes. The feminist critique articulated at least in part by West is that, on the contrary, rape jokes reaffirm dominant power structures rather than invert them, and that the “safety valve” function of Tosh et al’s extreme blue humor thus fails.
EDIT: This clip of Norton discussing the debate on Opie and Anthony is illuminating. Although he doubles down on his position, he also dismisses concerns about free speech, and seems especially focused on the craft aspect.
Your post really has me thinking about gender and cultural capital in comedy. That the NY scene is a boy’s club is a pretty uncontroversial assessment, so the question that follows naturally would be: Do women comics like Amy Schumer or Sarah Silverman, who regularly collaborate with the likes of Norton, Kurt Metzger, and Nick DiPaolo, all NY comics and all outspoken critics of feminist critiques of rape jokes, gain power in this scene by being “one of the guys?” Much of their comedy, especially more recently, would suggest otherwise. Rather, the kinship with their male counterparts seems to subsist more in mastery of a double-coding practice that these comics all, to some degree, have in common, and that Schumer in particular has harnessed as a feminist praxis. But then, another question remains: is double-coding itself gendered, by virtue of being the only way for women comics to articulate experiences of sexism/misogyny while also accruing capital in their male-dominated habitus?
Hi Aaron: Yes, that makes total sense. I absolutely thinking a sort of “there but for the grace of God go I” logic subtends the humor in this clip and allows us to convert trauma into laughter.
You are spot on with regards to Bakhtin and the inversion of social norms. I’ve long been interested in the double standard there: who is “allowed” the freedom to invert the norms are whose behavior is policed. Only certain comics seem to be allowed to actually “play” within a carnivalesque space, so I think it’s important to question and critique the paradigm. Debates like this one, and others regarding the so-called “PC” police in comedy, really bring that to the forefront.
Also - thanks for the documentary rec! I will make a point to check it out.
This particular debate wasn’t on my radar. Thank you for posting about the clip, Stephanie. It’s interesting that you bring in Bakhtin here because there seems to be an unequal inversion happening. What I mean is that male comics can invert social codes—take illegal, unethical behavior that victimizes women and make light of it—but Lindy West’s treatment demonstrates that it is much harder for her to invert the gendered hierarchy and still be funny. The debate is positioned as comic vs feminist (not hegemonic comic vs. feminist comic), making it seem that feminist and comic can’t coexist (because that gendered hierarchy is sacred).
I really like this Women in Comedy documentary and show it to my Humor and Media class. (It also addresses “crossing the line”)
Next time I teach the course, I’ll remember to show the debate Bell facilitated as well.
Lisa, you make a very persuasive case here for assessing irony as a textual function, rather than assuming it belongs to the nigh unchartable terrain of tone. Your analysis also works as a response to the ironic racism thinkpiece genre more broadly, of which the WaPo column is only a more recent (and opportunistic) example. Usually these pieces practice a zero tolerance ethics towards the rationale that putting racist tropes into play allows us to hit them where they live, under the presumption of a naive spectator who won’t “get the joke” and might even have her racist beliefs entertained. This certainly does happen to great, critical comedy: Chris Rock retiring his “N****s vs. Black People” routine after it innervated white mouthbreathers, for example. Hence the need for laser precision and control of context, which the Colbert Twitter account failed to secure quoting his Dan Snyder bit, and which Schumer failed to do on MTV here. No doubt many viewers are too exhausted by racism in their everyday lives to feel the need to give Schumer the benefit of the doubt on her “bumpy” journey, to borrow Kathleen’s term. But, to borrow a point argued at the “Irony in Film and Media” panel I saw at SCMS last year, it impoverishes our discourse to assume there’s no possibility of recuperation.
“Even as Regan creates a straight man for himself in this clip, there are actually three positions being articulated in his performance—self, other, and audience—that seem important to understanding how the comedy works.” Well-put!
Thanks for your comment, Lisa - Since tension and release are so closely associated with the genre functions of horror and comedy I always assume that any film that would build up before revealing a shocking image is borrowing from them, if not of those genres as a whole. But certainly other types of films contain shocking images. A very serious-minded drama might generally avoid manipulative tactics with gruesome subject matter, since facing harsh realities directly is more closely aligned with serious/difficult art…it’s an interesting question!
Lisa, you do such a superb job of not only describing Schumer’s signifying mannerisms but also her intent. I have zero doubt that Amy is playing the wise fool (as Sarah Silverman did before her and as others less famous do as well) and to substantial effect. I believe she is very popular in large part because she is widely admired for her creative expression re racism and sexism (of course there are outliers). The MTV scene was unfortunate but is a good indicator of a comic still faltering when in a different “room.” I’m sure she wished she had more time so she could fully express her usual persona when that joke would have done better. But I also have a hunch that she’s feeling her way toward a different persona (I did hear her say in an interview that she is intentionally bringing more of her real self into her stand-up), so this transition time could be a bit bumpy. She is fearless, and I have faith that her wisdom will prevail.
Good food for thought on your last comment! I am suddenly thinking of so many of the comics I enjoy who, if I read transcripts of their act would probably find puerile or worse. But look at our crop now - Bill Burr, Attell, Amy Schumer, Chris Rock, the list goes on. There is much more to what they are expressing and projecting than the words they utter.