Getting in the way : new approaches to rape joke discourse and women’s comedy about sexual violence

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2023-08-03

Authors

Cacace, Katharine M.

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Abstract

One of the most visible pop culture discussions about the relationship between comedy and sexual violence is the construct of the rape joke, a discourse of power and gender that—to use a phrase plucked from stand-up comic Cameron Esposito’s special on this topic—gets in the way of fully understanding how feminism shapes comedy, and obscures novel ways that women speak about their lives. This dissertation builds upon a definition, advanced by Nicola Gavey and Jane Ward, of sexual violence as ingrained within the practices of heterosexuality and develops a feminist ethical framework I call “walking together” to explore rape jokes in women’s stand-up specials, albums, and joke books that sit outside the boundaries of typical rape joke discourse. I examine Phyllis Diller’s books about housework and marriage in the white midcentury American middle-class home as an example of subtle, sneakily feminist, possibly liberating comedy about sexual violence, while my analysis of Iliza Shlesinger’s self-declared feminist stand-up comedy specials finds damaging rape myths. Further, using Sienkiewicz and Marx’s theory of the interconnected right-wing comedy complex, I question whether Shlesinger’s comedy might serve a possible point of entry into political conservatism for white women who are open to something that sounds like popular feminism. Finally, I dissect the common comedy metaphor of punching up and punching down that is so often used to analyze the ethics of a joke and, working instead from comedy about sexual assault and sexual coercion by Wanda Sykes, Cameron Esposito, and Natalie Palamides, I offer shadowboxing as an alternative way to view what comedy is and what it can do.

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