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Amy Schumer and the Evolution of the Rape Joke

As a staunch feminist and an avid consumer of pop culture, I’ve always believed that there is one unalterable truth: rape and comedy should never, under any circumstances, be mixed. However, to my surprise, Amy Schumer has changed my mind.

If you, like me, were a little late to board the Amy Schumer train, chances are this season of Inside Amy Schumer prompted you to hop on board. The sketch, “Football Town Nights”, aired in April and became a verified internet sensation. This Friday Night Lights parody featured Schumer as the white wine guzzling, wrist-waving football coach’s wife. The episode features a harrowing locker room speech that likens football culture to rape culture. The football coach in the sketch makes enemies in the town when he tells his team that they are not allowed to rape, and finally regains the team’s loyalty when he tells them that football isn’t about raping, it’s about forcefully taking what you want no matter what stands in your way.

Schumer found a way to relate rape and comedy again in last week’s episode, “80’s Ladies”, which featured a courtroom sketch portraying Schumer as Bill Cosby’s lawyer. Schumer tells a bright-eyed jury that they deserve to “watch [re-runs of The Cosby Show] like no one’s raping,” exposing the purposeful ignorance and apologetic attitude surrounding rape in our culture. After winning the case, a representative of Bill Cosby offers Schumer a celebratory martini, which she eyes for a minute before throwing over her shoulder.

What I’ve just described are rape jokes, so shouldn’t I be pissed? Oddly, I’m not; I’m actually laughing. Both of these sketches change the rhetoric we possess to discuss rape; it offers a safe way to explore the horrendous offense without having to tip-toe around the issue but rather, dare I say, laugh.

Both of these sketches left me perplexed at first. I wasn’t sure if I was breaking some feminist rule by laughing at Schumer’s jokes. When I watched “Football Town Nights” for the first time, I was torn between posting a pissed-off Facebook status about it or, writing this – a bravo and homage to the work that Schumer has done.

What makes this rape joke okay? How, when most of her feminist comedy involves sex appeal, has she successfully shifted away from that when talking about rape and in a way that isn’t offensive? Here’s where Schumer’s mastery at subversion comes in: she has removed the victim from the rape joke, whereas the more popular and wildly offensive rape jokes use the victim as the punch line, Schumer makes the rapist look like an idiot.

In “Football Town Nights,” the football team is aghast when the coach forbids them from raping. Football moms are left asking how the boys are supposed to “celebrate if they win” or “blow off steam if they lose.”  The coach tells the team that “football isn’t about rape; it’s about violently dominating anybody who stands between you and what you want.” Schumer points out the intrinsic connection between football culture and rape culture. Apologists are cornered.

In the courtroom sketch in the “80’s Ladies” Episode, the prosecuting lawyer wraps up her defense and slams an enormous pile of evidential papers down on the table. Schumer does not even attempt to defend against the evidence. She plays music, dances, and hands out pudding pops and sweaters for the jury. Her entire defense is purposefully ridiculous, suggesting that to even begin to defend Cosby is the absurd undertaking.

Schumer is a master at understanding the complexities of subverting patriarchal touchstones in our culture. The episode that parodied the 1957 movie 12 Angry Men, “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” featured a courtroom of old dudes in suits arguing whether or not she was hot enough for TV. Most dismissed her, declaring she was not hot enough. However, in an upset, one of the men admitted that, yes, he did find her hot enough. Not hot, but hot enough. In another sketch, Schumer hosts an orgy in the name of feminism, but decides that the men in attendance are not good looking and she calls it off. She’s shocked and offended when the men don’t seem upset about her sudden cancellation, and even more upset when they tell her that they aren’t all that into her either. Normally, a failed attempt at subverting the male gaze by asserting one’s own sexuality is ready material for a patriarchal punch line, such as a Rob Delaney-esque tweet suggesting that females who don’t meet a certain standard of attractiveness are undeserving of sexual attention and should be laughed at for expecting as much. Schumer, however, demands our attention. Her sketches, even when they are based upon the ongoing conversation about her looks, actually expose the insane standards that women must meet to gain airtime. Her comical content deals with the fine line between choosing to be confident and falling back into crippling insecurity.

Schumer’s jokes regarding rape succeed because they strip away the power that rapists thrive on. She takes authority on this issue, reminding us that rape is not contingent upon sexuality; it is contingent upon the need to dominate. Schumer does not grant the rapist this privilege in her jokes. There is no aggression toward a victim, there only lies the insanity that we live in a world where rape culture is still pervasive and in large-scale media.

Perhaps I’ve been saying it wrong all along: rape jokes aren’t funny, but rapist jokes are. Rapist jokes are what’s really, really funny. Amy Schumer was just the first one to laugh about it.

Sarah Moesta

Sarah Moesta is a recent graduate with an M.A. in English. She spends her time arguing about the merits and pitfalls of pop culture on the internet and in the real world. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found outside, probably petting a stranger’s dog. Some of her other work can be found at Smokelong Quarterly, SPARK's 17/Teen Vogue Challenge, and TheBurg News.