Violence Against Women Can Be Funny

In defense of the Onion’s story about Chris Brown’s desire to beat Rihanna to death.

Chris Brown and Rihanna attend the 55th Annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 10, 2013 in Los Angeles

Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS

Louis C.K. recently told Jon Stewart that, when it comes to making rape jokes, comedians and feminists are “natural enemies.” Why? “Because stereotypically speaking, feminists can’t take a joke” and “comedians can’t take criticism.”

At the time I found this annoying, because is it really true that feminists can’t take a joke? C.K. and Stewart were discussing outrage over Daniel Tosh pointing to a woman at a comedy club and saying “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now … like right now?” The problem with that joke is that it isn’t that good. It’s alarming and will shake you out of your stupor if the show is flagging, but it just relies on the pure shock value of the word rape, which is a lazy comedy club trick.

If you want to yuk it up about rape or child molestation or mass murder or the Holocaust, then the joke has to earn its right to that darkness by being really damn funny. This is the whole point of the Aristocrats—that the success or failure of a comedy bit depends on timing, context, and delivery. Tell a dirty joke badly and you’re a filthy minded loser. Tell it well and you are transgressing social norms to prove a point more effectively than any sober-minded discussion ever could.

Given all that, you know what’s even more annoying? When feminists prove Louis C.K. right, by failing to recognize an excellent joke even when it’s so obviously doing their work for them. Yesterday, the Onion published a one-paragraph story with the headline “Heartbroken Chris Brown Always Thought Rihanna Was Woman He’d Beat To Death.” The Onion item mimicked the usual tone of celebrity relationship blather, talking about the broken-hearted lovers’ dashed hopes and dreams. Only in this case, the hopes and dreams were totally off. An excerpt:

“After revealing yesterday that he had recently split up with longtime girlfriend Rihanna, a heartbroken Chris Brown tearfully told reporters that he always thought the 25-year-old singer was going to be the woman he’d beat to death one day. “Despite all the ups and downs, I was so sure Rihanna was the one I’d take by the throat one day and fatally assault, and even toward the end I continued to hold out hope that we’d be together until the day she died at my hands from blunt-force trauma,” Brown, 24, said in a radio interview this week, telling DJs he still has abusive feelings for his ex-flame and is hopeful that he might punch her again one day.”

Is there anyone who can read this item and not think that the writer is disgusted by domestic abuse, and more specifically disgusted by Chris Brown’s casual attitude toward domestic abuse? Apparently so, as seen in the outraged responses compiled by BuzzFeed. Feministing founder Jessica Valenti tweeted that “using Rihanna’s imagined death as fodder is awful.” Others said the article was “horrifying” and that “violence against women isn’t funny.” A Tumblr user also called out for a “trigger warning,” so they wouldn’t have to risk reading about domestic violence. This then expanded to a general discussion of whether the Onion was sexist and racist.

Would the reaction have been the same if the joke were about a conservative Republican congressman assaulting a young boy? Definitely not. Jokes are only “offensive” if they offend our particular political sensibilities. As my colleague Will Saletan points out: “It’s liberal prudery. You can soak a crucifix in urine because there’s a larger point to be made, but you can’t mix humor with domestic violence even when the point is blindingly obvious.” The anti-Onion reactions basically amount to: hide it, don’t mention it, keep it away from our delicate sensibilities. That’s the opposite of what comedy is designed to do. In fact, this item brings more attention to domestic violence that 100 earnest blog posts on the same subject ever could.

At the end of its item, BuzzFeed calls on the Onion for comment, which effectively means they are waiting for an apology. There is a precedent for this. On Oscar night, the Onion tweeted, “Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhane Wallis is kind of a cunt, right?” CEO Steven Hannah promptly took it back and apologized: “No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire,” he wrote.  Hannah was only half right. The tweet didn’t fall flat because of the subject matter. It didn’t work because it wasn’t funny. Like Tosh’s lazy rape joke, it relied on the shock value of a single word. Personally, I’m waiting for the Onion to take its latest satire a step further and do that same item from Rihanna’s point of view. That really would be an Aristocrats-level challenge.