Rape humor is hard to get right, but Amy Poehler and Tina Fey were up to the challenge Sunday night.
At last night's Golden Globes, the duo topped off an edgy opening with a very pointed and direct Bill Cosby joke, inserting the punch line into a longer joke about Disney princesses. ""¦ and Sleeping Beauty thought she was just getting coffee with Bill Cosby!"
While the audience did a collective double take, Fey followed it up by mimicking Cosby. "I put the pills in the people! The people did not want the pills in them!" Meanwhile Poehler briefly pretended to be above the aping. "Hey, that's not right! That's not right!" she insisted, adding slyly. "It's more like, 'I got the pills and the bathroom and I put 'em in the people!'" (Poehler, for the record, has the better Cosby impression.)
For practically any other comedians, jokes about an ongoing sexual-harrassment scandal with a multitude of alleged victims would be deemed too soon or too tasteless, but there's a reason this is Fey and Poehler's third time hosting the Golden Globes. The humor was somewhere between funny and deeply disturbing, and the drawn-out mimicry gave an incredulous audience time to catch up—something they managed at varying rates. A live shot of the crowd posted by Gawker shows a rainbow of reactions: Bill Murray sits stone-faced while George Clooney guffaws and Lena Dunham cheers. Jessica Chastain's lower jaw is practically on the floor.
The jokes come just days after Cosby himself joked about the allegations, using a comedy performance in Canada to make light of the 20-plus women accusing him of drugging or sexually assaulting them. His jokes were as much an attempt to forget the allegations as Fey and Poehler's jokes were an attempt to draw attention to them.
Rape jokes that come from a man accused of multiple counts of rape aren't funny or educational or socially useful, they're the definition of rape culture—particularly when they're well received by the audience and professionally convenient for the man who utters them.
While what Fey and Poehler did Sunday has offended some, there's something powerful and political in their message for anyone paying attention. By pairing it with an opening that joked about the sexual desirability of various men in the audience, Fey and Poehler had already signaled their snark would come coupled with righteous indignation. Rape isn't funny, but highlighting the horridness of the allegations against Cosby on NBC—the network that once championed him—carries the punch of irony. (NBC canceled an airing of Cosby's upcoming project after the allegations began to pile up.)
Celebrities have an important role to play in bringing rape allegations into the public consciousness. Perhaps more than any other time in history, 2014 was the year women began using their star power to bring attention to stories of sexual assault, and their efforts already seem to be having an impact. After a number of NFL players' wives spoke out about domestic abuse this fall, for instance, Congress held its first-ever hearing on domestic abuse in the NFL. And similarly, as more and more women came forward with their stories of campus sexual assault, politicians have stepped up their game. The Obama administration released a series of steps for schools in handling sexual assault, and over on the Hill, Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York introduced a bill requiring campuses to designate advocates to work with victims of assault and discuss the options available to them in confidence.
Such reforms are just the beginning, and in the absence of tighter laws, celebrities have an important role to play in changing the way society thinks and talks about rape. By opening up the Cosby dialogue at the Golden Globes, Fey and Poehler were both removing the stigma for victims and holding perpetrators accountable in the same uneasy laugh. And the comedy queens know exactly how how far to push the joke.
The Golden Globes is sometimes thought of as the Oscar's sophomoric kid sister, but the Los Angeles Times in its coverage of the event said the usual boozy outrageousness was nowhere to be seen. "The Golden Globes is all grown up," wrote Times' television critic Mary McNamara, noting that "tribute was paid to those who sacrificed their lives in the civil-rights movement, survivors of rape, and the many strong women whose performances serve as universal role models," among other minority communities.
Rape jokes, then, are as good as the purpose they serve. Hannibal Buress proved it in his stand-up routine earlier this year, when he reminded the country of just how many times Cosby had been accused of rape to little effect, and unknowingly kicked-off the flurry of coverage that would elevate the allegations to the national stage. To put it bluntly, Buress' rape joke is the reason anyone's even talking about the Cosby allegations. Now Fey and Poehler are trying to do the same thing: use their platform to further highlight what's been swept under the rug for too long.
It's precisely the opposite way Cosby was using the rape joke he made last week. After stonewalling reporters who asked him to respond substantively to the charges, he tried to laugh it off among friends while explaining nothing and casting the women bringing charges as the butt of his joke.
"Rape humor is designed to remind women that they are still not quite equal," writes Roxane Gay in her book Bad Feminist. "Just as their bodies and reproductive freedom are open to legislation and public discourse, so are their other issues." When women respond negatively to misogynistic or rape humor, she adds, they are dismissed as "sensitive" and "feminist."
The rape humor Poehler and Fey offer up is designed at least as much for for women who don't tolerate abuse as for the proverbial boys club. Yes, their humor comes from a twisted place, but as Buress demonstrated earlier this year, sometimes it takes dark humor to shine a light.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.