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Social Semiotics

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Debating rape jokes vs. rape culture: framing and


counter-framing misogynistic comedy

Ral Prez & Viveca S. Greene

To cite this article: Ral Prez & Viveca S. Greene (2016) Debating rape jokes vs. rape culture:
framing and counter-framing misogynistic comedy, Social Semiotics, 26:3, 265-282, DOI:
10.1080/10350330.2015.1134823

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10350330.2015.1134823

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SOCIAL SEMIOTICS, 2016
VOL. 26, NO. 3, 265282
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10350330.2015.1134823

Debating rape jokes vs. rape culture: framing and counter-


framing misogynistic comedy
Ral Preza and Viveca S. Greeneb
a
Department of Sociology and Criminology, University of Denver, Denver, CO, USA; bSchool of Humanities,
Arts & Cultural Studies, Hampshire College, Amherst, MA, USA

ABSTRACT KEYWORDS
Humor controversies can simultaneously reveal and obscure Feminism; framing/counter-
relations of power, as well as the rhetorical/political nature of framing; patriarchy; rape
jokes. US comedian Daniel Tosh ignited one such controversy in jokes; rape culture; sexist
July 2012 when he directed a rape joke toward a female audience humor
member during a live performance in Hollywood, CA. This paper
consists of a two-part analysis of this humor controversy. First, we
examine a televised debate following this incident, between a
comedian and feminist, to map the dominant framing and
counter-framing of rape jokes. We contend these positions are
representative of two frames that repeatedly surface in response
to controversial sexist humor: a dominant patriarchal frame and an
oppositional feminist counter-frame. Second, we analyze the
saliency of these two frames among college students to observe
the way individual interpretations resonate with, challenge, and
complicate those frames. In light of our ndings, we argue the
dominant framing/interpretation of rape jokes reinforce
patriarchal and free-market ideologies, and deny real-world
implications of misogynistic humor, particularly when comedians/
audiences defend such jokes as harmless fun.

Twenty-rst century America does not have a rape culture; what we have is an out-of-control
lobby leading the public and our educational and political leaders down the wrong path.
Rape-culture theory is doing little to help victims, but its power to poison the minds of
young women and lead to hostile environments for innocent males is immense. (Kitchens
2014)
When we talk about rape culture, were discussing something more implicit than [a society
that outwardly promotes rape]. Were talking about cultural practices [ ] that excuse or
otherwise tolerate sexual violence. Were talking about the way that we collectively think
about rape. More often than not, its situations in which sexual assault, rape, and general vio-
lence are ignored, trivialized, normalized, or made into jokes. (Ridgeway 2014)

Introduction
Humor controversies can simultaneously reveal, deect, and obscure relations of power, as
well as the rhetorical/political nature of jokes. US comedian Daniel Tosh ignited one such
controversy in July 2012 through a live stand-up performance at the Laugh Factory in

CONTACT Ral Prez raul.nguyen-perez@du.edu


2016 Taylor & Francis
266 R. PREZ AND V. S. GREENE

Hollywood, CA. During his performance, Tosh discussed the humor of rape jokes, and an
audience member yelled out, Actually, rape jokes are never funny! The comedian report-
edly responded Wouldnt it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, ve guys? Like right
now? (McGlynn 2012). Controversy ensued as comedians, bloggers and media outlets
defended (Corneau 2012) or condemned (Halper 2012) Tosh. Although Tosh later apolo-
gized, the incident crystallized into a televised debate regarding rape jokes, between
comedian Jim Norton and feminist blogger Lindy West, on the cable show Totally
Biased with W. Kamau Bell.
In this paper, we examine the ideological frames (Van Dijk 2006) Norton and West draw
upon in the Comic vs. Feminist debate, to map the boundaries of the current dominant
framing and counter-framing of rape jokes in the US. According to Goffman, frames are
essential in organizing experience by allowing individuals to locate, perceive, identify,
and label objects and events (1974, 21). Frames, however, are not individually held but
culturally shared and evolving. They are a collective resource that allow individuals to
make sense of everyday life, often from conicting perspectives (Levin, Schneider, and
Gaeth 1998; Snow 2004). We contend Nortons and Wests positions are representative
of two frames that repeatedly surface in response to controversial sexist humor: a domi-
nant patriarchal frame and an oppositional feminist counter-frame.
Moreover, we analyze in-depth interviews with college students regarding their views
of both Toshs humor and his rape joke controversy to investigate the relative salience of
these two competing frames among audiences. Examining audience reactions allows us to
move from what Lewis (1994) describes as the art of the possible to the realm of histori-
cal specicity (1920).
The goals of our study are to examine the ways individual audience interpretations res-
onate with, challenge, and complicate the dominant framing and counter-framing of mis-
ogynistic humor. Because jokes are rhetorical (Weaver 2010), jokes are political in nature,
as are responses to jokes. The rhetorical function of patriarchal rape jokes is ostensibly to
convince the audience of the idea that rape, a brutal and violent act, can be funny, enter-
taining and unserious (Kramer 2011). In light of our ndings, we argue the dominant
framing and interpretation of rape jokes reinforce patriarchal and free-market ideologies
and denies the real-world implications of misogynistic humor (Bemiller and Schneider
2010; Ford, Wentzel, and Lorion 2001).

Humor as rhetorical and political


A common defense of offensive humor is that it is just a joke. As Davies (2004), a leading
proponent of this position, asserts:
Jokes, it is held, are disguised forms of aggression. They are not. Jokes, it is argued, are power-
ful. They are not. Jokes have never brought about any signicant social or political change.
Jokes, it is said, may if unchecked have dire social and political consequences. Nonsense
(Davies 2004, 3).

From this perspective, jokes have no real or signicant social consequence. Objecting to
jokes infringes on the rights of individuals in general, humorists in particular, to express
their sense of humor, however harmful it may be.
SOCIAL SEMIOTICS 267

Yet, the rhetorical function of humor is revealed in its attempt to move a listener from
serious mode to humorous mode (Smith 2009). Comedians frame discourse to be inter-
preted in a particular way, the expected outcome being laughter. Assuming a joke is one
the listener can readily decipher, the listener can either display laughter, signaling a certain
degree of acceptance and/or afnity with the joke teller (Fine and Soucey 2005), or
unlaughter (Billig 2005), a conscious withholding of laughter as a form of resistance.
Here, the political nature of humor becomes evident by the capacity of humor to unite
and/or divide interlocutors (Meyer 2000; Mintz 1999). Greenbaum (1999) similarly con-
tends that a comic act is an inherently rhetorical discourse that is designed to convince
the audience to look at the world through their comic vision (33). As a rhetorical and pol-
itical discourse, Meyer (2000) further suggests divisive humor can unify a group participat-
ing in it (323).
For instance, a critical assessment of Toshs rape joke illustrates the rhetorical/political
nature of his joke. The joke directed at the female audience member presumably disrupt-
ing his routine (Wouldnt it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, ve guys? Like right
now?) was both a display of power and an invitation for others to laugh at her. His
joke of choice reinforced dominant gender roles between aggressive masculinity and sub-
missive femininity. Tosh ostensibly used his rape joke to ridicule/discipline the audience
member to quell her criticism. That is, Tosh sought to win the audience to his side. The
unlaughter of the audience member and her sympathizers was a form of resistance to
the performer. The uniting and dividing function of the joke was realized in the comedy
community through the public support for and opposition to Tosh. As Willis (2005)
observes, communities are often divided when the seemingly simple pleasure of cracking
jokes is transformed into an arena of controversy (144). During such conicts, a dominant
interpretation often emerges and is upheld by those in a position to enforce a particular
meaning (145).

Sexist humor in society


It is important to understand the ideological work that sexist/rape jokes and their circula-
tion accomplish. Sexist jokes reect and reinforce a binary gender system where men and
women are inherently different, and men are accorded more value (Bemiller and Schnei-
der 2010, 462). Bemiller and Schneider further contend that women are in a double bind
when confronted with sexist jokes:
Women are left with two options laugh at the joke or express dismay at the jokes content
If she laughs, she is complicit in her own groups humiliation. If she does not laugh then she is
a spoiled sport, someone with no sense of humor In either case, she is hurt in the social
encounter . she has experienced subordination. (2010, 463)

Jokes that target women by demeaning and devaluing their personal and professional
attributes, or that sexually objectify women, including through sexual violence, reinforce
and normalize gender inequality and the subordination of women to men (Bemiller and
Schneider 2010).
Research suggests the ideological and identity work of sexist/rape jokes also has real-
world consequences. For instance, Ford (2000) nds exposure to sexist humor increases
tolerance of discrimination against women. And increasingly, scholars nd a connection
268 R. PREZ AND V. S. GREENE

between sexist humor, sexual harassment, discrimination, and tolerance for sexual vio-
lence and rape proclivity (Ford et al. 2008; Romero-Snchez et al. 2010; Ryan and Kanjorski
1998; Thomae and Viki 2013).
Such humor is not uncontested. Today, with social media at their disposal, critical and
tech-savvy audiences have taken to the internet to voice their opposition. Kramer (2011),
for instance, examined hundreds of online debates over the use of rape jokes. According
to Kramer, the core of these debates is the identity-work performed by those who think
rape jokes can be humorous vs. those who take offense. Although Kramer offers an insight-
ful examination of the discursive structures of these debates among anonymous commen-
ters, Kramers analysis largely focuses on the performativity of political identities, rather
than analyzing the ideological frames that sustain these debates.
In what follows, we examine the ideological framing and counter-framing of rape/sexist
jokes among a prominent male comedian, a feminist critic, and US undergraduate stu-
dents to illustrate how hegemonic masculinity (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005;
Donaldson 1993), or a dominant patriarchal frame, mediates a discourse of acceptability
among male and female participants in same-sex interview settings. We examine this
dominant frame alongside a feminist counter-frame that regards such humor as constitu-
tive of rape culture, what Ridgeway (2014) describes as cultural practices [ ] that excuse
or otherwise tolerate sexual violence.

Data and methods


On 30 May 2013, Jim Norton and Lindy West participated in a segment titled Comedian
vs. Feminist on the FX cable talk show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, with Norton ful-
lling the comedian role, West the feminist role, and Bell serving as moderator. The 16-
minute video debate explored rape humor in the context of artistic intent and censorship.
We use frame analysis (Goffman 1974; Johnston 1995; Levin, Schneider, and Gaeth 1998)
and critical discourse analysis (Van Dijk 1993, 2006) to outline and examine the dominant
framing and counter-framing of rape jokes in the debate. The frames examined below
emerged from a close reading and analysis of the debate and interview transcriptions.
According to Johnston (1995) frame analysis is about how cognitive processing of
events, objects, and situations gets done in order to arrive at an interpretation (218).
By cognitive processing, discourse analysts typically refer not to individual cognition,
but social cognition, or a shared understanding about how the social world operates.
Ideological frames, contends Van Dijk (2006), play a key role in social cognition as they
are not stored privately, but shared socially; they ground and organize social represen-
tations. Van Dijk argues that through systematic examination of text and talk we can
analyze how events are interpreted according to particular ideologies (1993). Labels, like
frames, are also crucial both in the interpretation of jokes and the ideological positions
that sustain them. For instance, although this televised debate occurred on a politically
left-leaning comedy program, the title Comic vs. Feminist reinforces a dichotomy
between presumably fun-loving comics and humorless feminists. In this way, humor
reveals its capacity to discipline joker, target and audience (Billig 2005).
Alongside our mapping of the competing ideological frames in the debate, we examine
college student responses to both Toshs show and the controversial incident, in order to
analyze how audience responses resonate with the two competing frames (Levin,
SOCIAL SEMIOTICS 269

Schneider, and Gaeth 1998). Currently in its eighth season, Tosh.0 (2009present) is the
top entertainment series across all of TV among men 1824 on Tuesday nights (OConnell
2013). On his video-clip comedy show, Tosh serves up 78 video-clips, offering commen-
tary, jokes, and ridicule similar to the disparaging comments often posted in response to
similar online videos. Frequent targets on the show are people of color, overweight indi-
viduals, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender individuals, and, most consistently,
women.
Students interviewed for this study were recruited through announcements in market-
ing, communication, and African American studies undergraduate classes at a large North-
eastern university in the US. Advertised simply as a Comedy Central Audience Study, the
interviews were conducted between September 2013 and March 2014. A majority of the
students were familiar with the show, indicating they had seen most or many episodes
prior to the interview. Participants ages ranged from 19 to 21, reective of the shows
target audience, young adults. Groups ranged from 2 to 6 students. There were 23 partici-
pants in total, 6 male and 17 female, and groups were divided by sex. We included a dis-
proportionate number of female students as we sought to explore how participants on the
receiving end of sexist jokes incorporated and/or contested a dominant patriarchal frame.
Many participants attended with a friend, and one group consisted entirely of friends. This
selection strategy warrants mention as research suggests participants are more likely to
speak openly and honestly when surrounded by in-group members (Eliasoph 1998).
After viewing an episode of Tosh.0 (Hey Baby Girl, Season 5, Episode 11), groups were
asked open-ended questions (e.g. What did you think of the show in general?), allowing
the participants to impose their own denitions and frameworks of interpretation upon
the subject under discussion (Lewis 1991, 80). The interviewer then asked participants
to elaborate their responses. In several groups, participants introduced the Laugh
Factory incident on their own. In groups where participants did not mention the incident,
the interviewer asked participants if they heard about it. The interviews were audio
recorded. All participant names have been changed.

Dominant patriarchal frame


Examining the dominant patriarchal frame, we begin with US comedian Jim Nortons
defense of rape jokes as innocuous and intended to amuse. A number of interwoven dis-
courses comprise this frame. Here we draw attention to three and address how under-
graduate students echoed/employed similar discourses in the interviews: (1)
intentionality, (2) speech has no effect, and (3) let the market decide.

If youre trying to be funny, youre ok


Norton upholds the dominant patriarchal frame by maintaining intentionality as key to
understanding why rape jokes are harmless. The discourse of intentionality surfaces fre-
quently when a given speech act is deemed inappropriate by others. It is used rhetorically
by the speaker to deny ill-intent (Van Dijk 2006). It suggests meaning resides with the
speaker, an idea literary theorists refer to as authorial intent. The discourse of intention-
ality maintains that as long as a comedian is trying to be funny, no harm is done, and no
audience can legitimately claim offense.
270 R. PREZ AND V. S. GREENE

Throughout the Comic vs. Feminist debate, Norton employs the intentionality dis-
course as a way to defend his position that jokes have no serious social consequence,
and that a reasonable audience can distinguish between humor and hate. Norton
applies this logic to rape jokes told on stage:
I just think as long as youre trying to be funny youre okay as long as your intention is to be
funny. I think that we all go into a comedy club knowing that, and theres a great difference
between even a harsh rape joke and saying, All kidding aside folks [taps table] rape is good.
Like we all know the difference between that and, and comedy. (emphasis added)

By employing universal language (e.g. we all), Norton works to normalize a dominant


androcentric framing of rape jokes by homogenizing audience interpretation of
comedic performances. This rhetorical move positions intentionality as obvious to every-
one, thus shielding potential criticism from audience members.
During the interviews, students relied heavily on the intentionality discourse in their
interpretation of Tosh.0:

Jenna (white female): [T]he show is not intending to hurt peoples feelings.
Hillary (white female): [I]ts a comedy show, its on Comedy Central so you know
theyre joking. Its not something to take personally.
Jackie (Black female): I guess in a way comedy kind of promotes being offensive or
being ignorant towards people. But, I mean, the way I see it its
just all for the sake of comedy. I dont think [comedy] is really
meant to hurt people?

Although Jackie showed some concern about the effect of disparaging comedy, she was
uncertain about her position and ultimately suggested what matters are the intentions
behind comedic performances.
Again, the intentionality discourse privileges the comics intentions over audience
members personal experiences/criticism. Asked directly about Toshs rape joke contro-
versy, one white male student responded, If youre gay or whatever, dont go to a
comedy thing because theres a good chance someones gonna offend you. In other
words, despite the intentions of a performer, mainstream comedy is a space where a het-
eronormative order dominates.

Comedy is not a cause of what happens in society


A second discourse used by Norton to support a dominant patriarchal frame is the speech
has no effect discourse. As Norton contends:
Comedy is not a cause of what happens in society; a lot of times its a reaction to whats hap-
pening and a reection of whats happening, and comic speech has never inspired violence.

Norton reects Davies (2004) position by reiterating that jokes are harmless. However,
Norton argues that while there are no negative social consequences to humor, there
are positive social benets to telling/laughing at offensive humor:
I understand why rape is an offensive awful thing, no one is saying its not. But sometimes
comedy does trivialize what is truly horrible. [ ] The relief of comedy is that it takes
SOCIAL SEMIOTICS 271

things that arent funny and it allows us to laugh about them for an hour and then we have the
rest of the day to look at them like theyre as horrible and sad as they really are.

The idea that jokes provide positive cognitive/emotional functions is reected in much
contemporary humor scholarship that seeks to highlight the benets of humor (Billig
2005). Yet, in a society where one-in-ve women is the victim of sexual violence (CDC
2012), rape jokes do not merely offer momentary comic relief for a truly horrible act.
As research suggests, such jokes can also normalize and increase tolerance for sexual vio-
lence against women (Ford 2000; Romero-Snchez et al. 2010; Thomae and Viki 2013).
Moreover, it is important to note that there is a signicant difference between humor
deployed/defended by in-group vs. out-group members, if used by those higher vs.
lower on the social hierarchy, and whether such jokes are used to support or oppress
the target1 (Billig 2005; Lewis 2006; Lockyer and Pickering 2005; Prez 2013).
Among male participants, the idea that jokes were harmless regardless of the identity/
social position of the teller/target was widely accepted. However, they often noted that
Tosh had to deliver his jokes strategically to circumvent opposition from targeted/
offended groups. As Ian (Hispanic male) explained:
[Hes] not just making fun of one specic group, like a group of white people, or whoever it is. I
mean if it was him just targeting one specic group, he denitely wouldnt get away with it, if
he was always making Black jokes or making fat jokes. He kinda takes on the whole spectrum.

Likewise, white female students initially relied on this equal-opportunity offender2 dis-
course to condone Toshs humor:
(Laurel, white female): [Tosh] targets so many different groups who he makes fun of. I feel like
every episode its not like only gay people or only females or something like that, so I feel like
thats when it doesnt matter cause there are ten other groups that hes making fun of at the
same time, so I feel like no one ends up feeling that bad.

According to Laurel and others operating within this frame, making fun of a particular
social group doesnt matter so long as others are also targeted. The discourse around
equal-opportunity offenders and the related discourse of intentionality are thus inver-
sely related to the notion that speech has an effect. That is, the more a receiver believes
the author is well intentioned, and makes fun of an array of social groups, the less likely the
receiver will view the authors jokes as harmful. As the following section illustrates, viewing
humor from this perspective readily lends itself to free-market ideology.

Let the market decide


We refer to a third discourse Norton relies on as let the market decide. According to this
discourse, the audience should decide what is offensive, not critics who are regarded as
over-reactive, pro-censorship, and eager to impose their agendas on an unwilling
public. From this perspective, the audience should be understood as atomized individuals,
rather than social groups with conicting interests and different social positions. Norton
reinforced this discourse when discussing the cancelation of his controversial US talk-
radio show Opie and Anthony:
A lot of times the trouble people will do is if youre doing jokes they dont like they begin
to target your advertisers because the market should dictate whether or not people enjoy
272 R. PREZ AND V. S. GREENE

you but theyll go to the advertisers and say, theyre making fun of things that we dont like,
so remove your nancial support, which is a way to punish.

Norton expressed hostility over organized opposition from offended audiences, object-
ing to the idea that audiences have a right to punish performers by targeting
nancial resources. He views such resistance as orchestrated interference by groups
intervening in an otherwise functional laissez-faire discursive exchange. Norton
implies getting in trouble is a form of censorship. Ultimately, he contends all
comedy must be tolerated, as there is no reasonable way to draw the line in a free
speech/free-market society:
I think like Matt [Stone] and Trey [Parker] said from South Park its either all okay or none of
its okay . If we go down that road of hey dont make fun of this, dont make fun of that
then people have a very legit argument to be like well dont mention Hitler in any context,
because theres never a humorous so Im just not comfortable going down that road.

This all-or-nothing position on jokes suggests that an unregulated form of discourse is ulti-
mately democratic. From this perspective, rape jokes, however vulgar, are fair game.
Students, for the most part, held audience members responsible for their reactions. As
Zoe (white female) asked rhetorically: Its like, what do you expect when you watch it?
Youre doing this to yourself, you dont HAVE to hear it. Jack (white male) noted with cer-
tainty that Tosh delivers what he wants as an audience member. Explaining what he likes
about the show, Jack said:
The fact that [Tosh] pushes the boundaries. [ ] I dont think hes too funny, but some of the
stuff he says, he pushes it, and I think people want to see that. I think people want to see how
far people will push it on TV.

Jack found Tosh more rebellious than humorous, and believed that boundary pushing is
what pulls in other audience members to his show.
Letting the market decide was a powerful discourse both Norton and students used to
lift responsibility from joke tellers. The underlying logic in this discourse is that all voices
carry equal weight in the marketplace of ideas. That individuals can simply tune in or out.
However, as the feminist counter-frame suggests, misogynistic humor is deeply imbedded
in an unequal social system where the boundaries between media and reality, fun and vio-
lence, are increasingly blurred. Audiences can tune out specic programs or entertainers,
but not the larger cultural and structural inequalities in society.

Oppositional feminist counter-frame


Blogger Lindy West operates largely within an oppositional feminist counter-frame. Accord-
ing to this frame, uncritical rape jokes are an endorsement of sexual violence, as such
humor contributes to rape culture. Moreover, such jokes do not exist in a political
vacuum. Rather, they are powerful forms of language that can shape peoples views on,
and acceptance of, rape and sexism. Here we draw attention to three discourses used
by West to counter the dominant patriarchal frame, and address how participants
employed/failed to employ similar discourses in interviews: (1) the fallacy of authorial
intention, (2) the cultural impact of misogynistic humor, and (3) the questionable legiti-
macy of ratings-driven media.
SOCIAL SEMIOTICS 273

Intention is a false argument


An oppositional feminist counter-frame rejects the notion that meaning is anchored in
authorial (or comedic) intention. It also repositions the arbitrator from one who identies
with the male comic to one who identies with female audience members. As West tells
Norton:
Im sure its super comfortable and nice to believe that there arent systemic forces that are
affected by speech, but thats not true and those of us who are affected by those forces
know that thats not true.

From the perspective of the intentionality discourse, the receiver either successfully
decodes the intended meaning or misreads the true intentions of the author. For dis-
course that is ambivalent, like humor, the author/comedian can always assert that a
joke was misinterpreted when challenged (Weaver 2011). West rejects Nortons argu-
ment that intentionality matters, however, by noting that his comfortable position
as a white male comedian prevents him from recognizing the systemic forces that
are affected by speech regardless of intention. In other words, her rejection of the
intentionality discourse is closely tied to her rejection of the speech has no effect
discourse.
In the Totally Biased debate, West explicitly challenges the notion that speech has no
effect, but fails to fully articulate a counter-discourse to intentionality. Elsewhere,
however, she critiques white male comedians and the intentionality discourse:
Its not a game. Its not like you get to declare the comedy stage base and the rest of the
world hot lava and everything you say on the stage exists in some sacred loophole
thats exempt from criticism Rape, domestic violence, brutalization, marginalization, the
struggle to make yourself heard all of this shit is REAL to a lot of people. Theyre not cute
little thought experiments for you to mess around with without pushback. (West 2013a)

Like West, other feminist and anti-racist writers have objected to the intentionality dis-
course, and in recent years have employed terms like hipster racism and hipster
sexism to refer to the practice of presumably liberal whites/males making derogatory
jokes about people of color and women under the guise of irony or satire (see Greene
2012; Peterson 2008; Van Kerckhove 2007).
Although several students, especially female students of color, were likewise critical of
disparaging humor inside and outside a comedic setting, they had difculty challenging
the discourse of intentionality. Gloria (Black female), offered a rare critique:
You know how when somebody bullies somebody and theres like a crowd of people and
theyre saying mean stuff and everybody laughs? I think thats how like [Tosh.O] is kind of
intended, like hes the bully person, hes the one that says the mean stuff, but like every-
ones on his side so theyre laughing at what hes saying even though its offensive. So I
feel like thats how maybe the show came about or, you know, the meaning behind it.

In contrast to Nortons assertion that the comics sense of humor reects their good inten-
tions, Glorias characterization of Tosh as a popular bully suggests that an uncritical
reading of the show/character ignores the political functions of humor, particularly in
the form of ridicule (Billig 2005), and renders the comic as harmless when audiences
take his side.
274 R. PREZ AND V. S. GREENE

Contributing to a culture that perpetuates rape


West responds to Nortons claim that speech has no effect by noting that women are often
silenced around sexual assault. Clearly frustrated with Norton and the argument that
comedy is harmless, she counters:
You dont get to say that uh, comedy is this sacred powerful vital thing that we have to
protect, because its speaking truth to power [ ], and then also be like well, its just a
joke, I mean language doesnt affect our lives at all, so shut up.

Pointing out this contradiction, West then explains how, despite claims of gender equality,
women remain unsafe in contemporary society and that rape jokes contribute to a broader
culture that tolerates sexual violence against women. Critical scholars have worked to
make similar connections between sexist jokes and sexual violence against women.
Thomae and Viki (2013), for instance, found that sexist attitudes and self-reported rape
proclivity are correlated with exposure and tolerance of sexist humor (264). However,
such studies/ndings are generally unpublicized and unknown.
Female students had difculty working through conicting feelings and attitudes
regarding misogynistic jokes and their relationship to gender inequality and sexual vio-
lence. Most white female participants reported liking Tosh, but also consistently reported
feeling upset and unsafe when other people, especially strangers, told similar jokes in real
life. However, as interviews with white female students progressed, they began thinking
more critically about comedy and expressed uncertainty about how comedians jokes
actually differ from those told by strangers. As Eileen (white female) noted:
If I heard something like [a sexist Tosh joke] on the bus and I didnt know them or know that
they were maybe quoting such-and-such, I would be like this guy, what a douchebag! Like,
why would you say that in public to so many people? But thats exactly what [Tosh] is doing!

During the interview Eileen moved from clearly delineating two contexts (real life vs.
comedy) to suggesting the two cannot be so easily separated. Prior to, or in the
absence of, such reection the mediating stage/screen provided a sense of distance
and safety to white female viewers, which was absent when jokes were told in everyday
contexts. That mediated distance and its scripted nature allow audiences to readily inter-
pret such discourses from a dominant patriarchal frame.
The unmediated and seemingly unscripted rape joke Tosh told at the Laugh Factory
blurred these boundaries, and female students discussed it with ambivalence. For
instance, Elsa (white/Asian) recounted her understanding of the incident:
There was something where [Tosh] made a rape joke and then someone in the audience didnt
think it was funny, and she actually like challenged him, and I think he did something where he
said he would invite guys in the audience to go and rape her, but that it was just a joke.

When asked what she thought of the incident, Elsa took a position of ambivalence that
was common among female respondents: Rape is really something thats like awful, so
I can see from both sides, that its just a joke. But at the same time its really not something
that should be joked about. Despite this ambivalence, the fact that Elsa simultaneously
evaluated Toshs comments as just a joke and as an invitation for men to rape a specic
woman suggests she senses that jokes can also be threats and can have effects, though
she was unable to fully reconcile these two positions.
SOCIAL SEMIOTICS 275

Another way students gestured toward, or addressed, the real-life effects of sexist /rape
jokes was through the language of desensitization. Participants in three of the four female
interview groups used the word desensitized to describe their feelings. Take the
following:
Anne (white female): I feel like were desensitized to it. [ ]. I dont take it personally, which
maybe is a bad thing; maybe we should take these things personally well, not personally, but
like its not okay that people are still talking about women like this. But its such a big thing
that people do? You just kind of go along with it?

However tentatively, female students suggested the unchallenged prevalence of misogy-


nistic humor created greater tolerance of sexist discourse not just among males but also
among women. As Krah et al. contend, this is precisely how desensitization operates, as it
is a process involving changes in emotional responsiveness that stem from repeated
exposure (2011, 631).
Anderson (2012) argues that this experience of accepting jokes about sexual assault is a
central component of rape culture:
Rape is invoked as entertainment, dismissed as horsing around, and deployed as a weapon.
Although the victims of rape culture are disproportionately female, it negatively affects every-
one caught in its wake. Rape culture rst desensitizes, then degrades, and nally dehumanizes
its subjects, prompting regular people to blithely laugh at rape jokes.

Although some of the language female students employed, including desensitized, indi-
cated they were partially aware of the way continued exposure to sexism increased their
acceptance of it, they were largely unable to articulate a critique of misogynistic humor
from a feminist counter-frame. Students were notably uncomfortable with embracing fem-
inism as a mode of critique, and had difculty stepping outside the dominant patriarchal
frame and rejecting it.
Perhaps one reason students were so hesitant to align themselves with feminism, or to
make use of feminist discourse, is because feminism is often ridiculed in patriarchal
culture, and feminists are routinely described as humorless (Franzini 1996). In this way,
anti-feminist discourse and humor work to discipline and steer otherwise critically
oriented individuals away from an openly feminist position, and reinforces a feminist/
comic binary. Yet, simply through an open-ended interview process in same-sex groups,
young women began to note how misogynistic humor can reinforce harmful attitudes
towards women. They articulated their discomfort with jokes about violent acts against
women and saw a connection between jokes on stage/screen and jokes in real life. In
other words, they began to consciously recognize that continuous exposure to misogynis-
tic humor leaves them feeling desensitized to troubling attitudes about women, gender,
and power.

If you want to make that product I can choose to call you a dick
Illustrating how powerful anti-censorship discourse is in the US, West struggled to counter
Nortons laissez-faire notion of letting the market dictate the acceptability of misogynistic
humor in public. For instance, although West suggested there should be consequences for
jokes that cross the line, she was quick to assert she was not advocating censorship:
276 R. PREZ AND V. S. GREENE

[E]verything has repercussions, so if youre talking about legal repercussions I do not think
that comedy should be censored and were not here to talk about censorship and Im pretty
sure we agree.

Here, West was caught between her professional commitments as a writer to uphold
freedom of expression, and her ideological values as a feminist critic/activist dutifully
taking a public position on the power of language to harm marginalized groups.
However, by failing to take a stronger position, her counter-argument in this debate
remained underdeveloped:
What Im talking about is the kind of repercussions where you choose to say something that
traumatizes a person whos already been victimized and then I choose to call you a dick and
thats the repercussions.

Publicly challenging speech acts in a society that extols free speech is, in some sense, no
small feat. Were she to advocate censorship, West would risk alienating her position as a
feminist journalist struggling to convince an audience that rape jokes are socially harmful.
Therefore, West concludes more speech is the solution to disparaging humor. However,
as a review of US comedy history suggests, it is possible to successfully challenge racial
ridicule (Kibler 2015; Prez 2014). From boycotts and pickets of venues and performers,
to interrupting performances by taking over the stage, the targets of racial ridicule have
often used collective action, not just more speech, to challenge oppressive humor. Such
actions are precisely what Norton considers foul play, as his comments regarding listeners
boycotts of his radio shows advertisers demonstrate. Nevertheless, given the ideological
dominance of Nortons free-market logic, West had difculty challenging it by failing to
note such collective efforts to contest oppressive humor.
For most students, a critique of free-market logic regarding humor was largely out of
reach. Of 23 students interviewed, only 2 countered the discourse of letting the market
decide, and both did so in the context of discussions about racial as well as gender rep-
resentation on Tosh.0. As Gloria (Black female) observed:
[E]ven though hes highly rated I dont know if thats a good thing. It might be a bad thing, you
know! You might be highly rated for the wrong reasons, but in media it doesnt really matter as
long as youre being watched. So it could be like hes being really offensive, people are
offended and they keep watching it, but he knows that hes being offensive so he keeps
being offensive to get more ratings.

In another group, Willa (Black/Latina female) also rejected an uncritical belief in the
market. Asked how Tosh might have a top-rated show given the offensive nature of
his comedy, Willa responded with exasperation:
[A]s long as theyre making their money they dont care whats on the air as long as its
bringing in a prot I feel like [Tosh] does know better, but he just doesnt care Like
you could be doing so much more with an audience that big.

Again, Gloria and Willa were alone in critiquing the let the market decide discourse, which
they did by noting that media institutions are unconcerned with the public good, high
ratings may well be an indication of a negative cycle of media production and consump-
tion, and television should be held to higher standards than what is protable. Their status
as critical and self-aware young women of color positioned them ideologically outside the
dominant patriarchal frame, and their enrollment in an introductory level African American
SOCIAL SEMIOTICS 277

history course may also partially have accounted for their access to discourses that chal-
lenged the legitimacy of the market as the arbitrator of value.

Discussion
In this paper, we examined two competing efforts to inuence public perception of sexist
and rape jokes, and analyzed the salience of these discourses among college students.
Based on our ndings, we contend the primary discourses used to support the use of
extreme sexist jokes reveal the underlying logic of the dominant patriarchal framing of mis-
ogynistic humor in a neoliberal patriarchal society. As illustrated above, the recurrence of
the dominant discourses to support Toshs humor were readily deployed by participants
and worked to reinforce hegemonic androcentric and market ideologies. These discourses
were generally accepted as common sense interpretations of comedy. As Van Dijk (2006)
observes, Sometimes, ideologies become shared so widely that they seem to have
become part of the generally accepted attitudes of an entire community, as obvious
beliefs or opinion, or common sense. In our review of the West/Norton debate, and
student responses to Tosh.0, it was clear that challenging those ideologies was difcult.
Of the discourses examined above, intentionality was most routinely employed to defend
Toshs humor and support a dominant patriarchal frame. Like Norton, white male and female
participants believed Tosh was well intentioned: his goal was not to hurt women, but rather
to be funny. The salience of this discourse among male participants was perhaps due, in part,
to a racial and gendered afliation with Tosh. As John (white male) explained: [Tosh] is just
kind of like being like your friend, like on the couch, like watching [the videos] with you.
Young men in this study, all of whom reported having seen most or many episodes of
Tosh.0, are generally not targeted with identity-specic jokes in the way participants in
other groups are. Thus, their belief in the discourse of intentionality was absolute. That
said, white female students reported similar viewing habits of Tosh.0, and drew on the inten-
tionality discourse as well. White female students only grew critical of the notion of intention-
ality when situating Toshs jokes in other public contexts. Female students of color, in
contrast, reported seeing hardly any episodes of Tosh.0 prior to the interview, were most
critical of Tosh overall, and were notably more skeptical of his intentions than white students.
When criticism surfaced among white female participants, it was often tenuous and
ambivalent. An exchange between female students in one group illustrates such ambiva-
lence and the power of the dominant patriarchal frame to shape audience perceptions.
When the interviewer noted male participants did not think women watched Tosh.0,
female participants were surprised:

Elsa (white/Asian): Seriously?

Veronica (white): Because they probably think its too much for us to handle. He does
denitely cross some boundaries, like as far as things like being
gross or like sexual or racist or whatever. [ ] But I dont think
that just cause were females we cant handle that.

This exchange highlights Bemiller and Schneiders point that women are in a loselose
situation when confronted with sexist jokes: by laughing she supports a patriarchal
278 R. PREZ AND V. S. GREENE

system, but not laughing further decreases her social power (2010, 463). Moreover, the
student reactions above further illustrate the power of the dominant patriarchal frame
in facilitating the acceptance of hegemonic masculinity (Connell and Messerschmidt
2005).
When white female students did reject the dominant patriarchal frame they often failed
to use a feminist counter-frame. Instead, they formulated a position of skepticism from
within the dominant frame while trying to resolve their own ambivalent feelings about
sexist comedy. White female participants grew increasingly critical of sexist humor and
their own complicity as the interviews progressed. As Veronica (white female) commented
late in her interview:
you learn how to laugh at it. Like, Oh, this is funny now. We can make fun of gay people or
people who get raped! Its kind of insane if you think about it, but we do it, myself included.

However, such insights only surfaced after sustained discussion.


As cultural studies scholars note, oppositional readings of media texts tend to require
access to alternative discourses, entail more work on the part of the interpreter, and offer
discomfort rather than pleasure (Condit 1989). Generally, an oppositional feminist counter-
frame was absent or rendered mute in our study when jokes were described as innocuous,
when a critical counter-frame was not readily available, and when stigmatization seemed
to threaten those who employed a critical perspective.
Gender and racial identity, along with access to critical pedagogies, correlated with par-
ticipants willingness and ability to challenge dominant ideological positions in their
interpretations of humor and humor controversies. Female students of color were most
vocal in challenging Toshs racist and sexist humor, as well as the discourses used to
defend it. Yet, rejecting the dominant patriarchal frame was primarily grounded in an
anti-racist counter-frame. Moreover, they did so with an awareness of the social cost of
expressing their opinions. As Sandra (Black female) suggested, If you do say something,
youre just another angry Black woman.
Thus, although an oppositional feminist counter-frame potentially poses a challenge to
the dominant frame, its discourses were generally not salient for student audiences. The
feminist discourses West articulated were largely absent in our participant interviews. In
the end, it was difcult for participants to use an oppositional feminist counter-frame in
a culture that socializes people to laugh at sexist humor by marginalizing and ridiculing
feminist critics, placing undue emphasis on comedic intentions, and stigmatizing detrac-
tors as humorless killjoys.

Conclusion
In the wake of the Comic vs. Feminist debate, West received a series of vitriolic online
comments. She responded publicly, taking the opportunity to clarify her position about
the way comedy can be used to support rape culture, and to illustrate that such vicious
comments only underscore her argument:
How did [online critics] try and prove me wrong? How did they try to demonstrate that
comedy, in general, doesnt have issues with women? By threatening to rape and kill me,
telling me Im just bitter because Im too fat to get raped, and suggesting that the debate
would have been better if it had just been Jim raping me. (West 2013b; emphasis in original)
SOCIAL SEMIOTICS 279

Norton promptly issued his own response and pleaded with his supporters to stop attack-
ing her (Norton 2013). During the initial debate, Norton, an established white heterosex-
ual male comedian, worked to enforce the notion that rape jokes are harmless. After, the
limits of this logic were revealed by the attacks West received, and through Nortons public
efforts to regulate online commenters who were ostensibly issuing what they considered
funny responses.
In this paper we sought to illustrate the rhetorical and political nature of misogynistic
humor. We highlighted two competing frames and the discourses that sustain them.
Although others have critically examined sexist/rape jokes (Bemiller and Schneider
2010; Cox 2015; Ford 2000; Kramer 2011), such work has largely focused on examining
the contents of the jokes or individual attitudes in order to connect them to broader
issues of gender inequality. In contrast, here we focused our analysis on the shared ideo-
logical frames and the attendant discourses used to accept or challenge such humor. We
illustrated how jokes are a site of political and ideological struggle. Understanding how
jokes, comedic performances, and media texts function within culture entails analyzing
how audiences construct meanings. Rather than examining how the legitimation and con-
testation of such humor was informed by notions of how jokes/comedy operates, we high-
lighted how conicting gender and market ideologies, as well as intersectional identities
and access to critical pedagogies, mediate meaning-making discourses around humor for
performers, audiences and critics.
In a culture industry dominated by white heterosexual males (Gilbert 2004; Krefting
2014), commercial sexist humor nds social acceptance in a post-civil rights era where
open gender discrimination and sexual violence against women has become socially unac-
ceptable. The public disavowal of gender discrimination creates space for such humor to
breach norms/taboos around offensive gender discourse, thus making sexist humor
socially cathartic (Berger 2014). Yet, to be commercially viable, gender ridicule is often
delivered strategically (e.g. equal-opportunity offender), while proponents adhere to
free-market discourse (e.g. let the market decide) to legitimize sexist humor. Such
humor is further legitimized when broadcast on a nationally syndicated comedy
network program. In other words, in a post-civil rights and androcentric society, sexist
humor readily nds an audience and remains protable.
Although our sample is small and we make no claims about the generalizability of
our ndings, we contend young mens complicity in telling and uncritically consuming
misogynistic humor, and young womens overall desensitization to and internaliz-
ation of such jokes as ones they should readily enjoy, reect and reinforce a domi-
nant patriarchal frame, or what Click et al. refer to as the culturally authoritative form
of masculinity that supports the dominance of men and the subordination of women
(2014, 3). Moreover, as Bemiller and Schneider remind us, the potency of such humor
rests in the sexist system from which jokes emerge (2010, 463). Thus, in a post-fem-
inist era where female agency is equated with sexual freedom (McRobbie 2004), mis-
ogynistic humor that targets victims rather than perpetrators of sexual violence operate
hegemonically. In the end, a viable challenge to such humor will require educating the
public, as well as organized and visible opposition (Kibler 2015; Prez 2014). But oppo-
sition will remain stillborn so long as targets and audiences believe they are just
jokes.
280 R. PREZ AND V. S. GREENE

Notes
1. Not all rape jokes target the victim or trivialize the violence. See, for instance, comedian Wanda
Sykes joke about detachable pussies in her 2006 HBO comedy special Sick and Tired:

Wouldnt it be wonderful if our pussies were detachable? Just think of the freedom that
you would have! You get home from work, its getting a little dark outside. You like: Oh, I
would like to go for a jog, but Its getting too dark! Oh! Ill just leave it at home!
It could be pitch-black, you still out there just jogging! Enjoying yourself! You know? If
some crazy guy jumps out the bushes like AAH! You like I left it at home! Sorry! I
have absolutely nothing of value on me. Im pussy-less!
2. It is worth noting that the equal-opportunity offender strategy only emerged in the post-civil
rights era, following sustained protests from targeted groups against the prevalence of racial ridi-
cule (see Prez 2014). The fallacy of this logic is that it is not possible to offend equally in unequal
societies.

Disclosure statement
No potential conict of interest was reported by the authors.

Notes on contributors
Ral Prez is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Denver. His
work has been published in the journals of Discourse & Society and Ethnicities, and has been featured
in Time magazine, The Grio, and Latino Rebels.
Viveca S. Greene is an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Hampshire College. She is co-editor of
A Decade of Dark Humor: How Comedy, Irony, and Satire Shaped Post-9/11 America. Her work has
appeared in The Nation, In Media Res, and We the Media: A Citizens Guide to Fighting for Media
Democracy.

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