Humor is a powerful tool that can make pain more manageable, but it is a tool that requires care and specificity. The humor I use to cope with trauma I have experienced may be horrifying to someone else who has experienced similar trauma, because humor as a coping mechanism isn’t going to work the same for everyone. This is especially apparent when we are talking about sexual trauma and violence. And so, many of us who celebrated the return of Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s Broad City this week were met with intense disappointment as our beloved BFFs chose to joke about rape.
Rape and rape culture are significantly different. The realities of rape culture are absurd, from the ways in which rape is normalized to the ways in which gender is constructed in the performance of domination. The system in place should be revealed for its real and dangerous absurdity, and we have to collectively confront rape culture as part of deconstructing and dismantling it. Rape, however, is a singular event – one that haunts and terrorizes long after the fact. Discussing the lived experience of rape can be harrowing. The only scenario in which some people feel safe talking about it may be with their most trusted friend, or never at all. How a person processes trauma and learns to live with it is extremely personal. Broad City’s casual storytelling of rape has alienated many fans who trusted the show to be a safe space from a painful trigger.
In addition to harming many viewers with its careless approach to a traumatic event, Broad City’s episode “In Heat” works to perpetuate rape culture rather than subvert it. Ilana’s nonsensical riff on rape culture at Lincoln’s dinner party only serves to delegitimize the idea of rape culture rather than reveal the absurdities of its very real yet illogical horrors. The nonchalance with which the rape of an unconscious person is handled confuses the concept of consent, which is a crucial issue that requires clarity to combat rape culture. Seth Rogen’s character, Stacey, suffers from heatstroke in the midst of having sex with Abbi, and rather than caring for him, Abbi continues to pleasure herself with his unconscious body. Some have argued that Stacey was clearly consenting up until that point, but even Ilana does not support that argument. Humans are incapable of consent while unconscious. Stacey’s enthusiasm while conscious does not transfer to his unconscious body.
Abbi eventually realizes this to some degree and shows remorse, but her remorse is supposed to be funny. She raped someone, and she’s a monster now – hilarious! Defense of the humor surrounding rape in this episode is defense of the idea that rapists can be funny and sympathetic. They just made a mistake! They feel bad, and they should focus on making themselves feel better. Turning Abbi into a lovable rapist is a toxic joke that laughs not with victims but at them, as oftentimes rapists hold powerful positions in their communities, and their behavior is excused as they attempt to solicit sympathy and understanding.
“It’s reverse rapism. You are raping rape culture,” Ilana tells Abbi. Ilana is supposed to be ridiculous. We are not supposed to take her seriously. But here she is not talking about weed or consensual sex. She is talking about rape, and rape doesn’t stop being serious in the mouth of a fool. We know Abbi did not rape rape culture. We know she raped a person, and it is a little bewildering, to say the least, that I feel the need to point out that this should not be comedic fodder in any context.
When Daniel Tosh joked about the gang rape of a woman in his audience, a critical discussion arose around rape jokes. But Broad City is beloved, and even the most avid critics have given them a halfhearted pass, while others have earnestly defended them. This is not to say that Jacobson and Glazer are operating on the level of Tosh, but it is to point out that we are less willing to criticize those we love, and that is a big problem.
Women can rape men, and Broad City at least acknowledged this fact. Unfortunately, beyond that, it led us to believe that women raping men just isn’t a big deal, which feeds into broader narratives that rape isn’t such a big deal, at least not always. In certain scenarios it’s just a goof – like if you’re a woman, and your partner passes out, it’s not really a big deal to continue having sex with his unconscious body. Just feel bad about it for a minute and go on with your day. This is the message I got from Broad City, and it is a message that works to support rape culture.
Many writers argue that Broad City’s embodiment of a kind of gender role reversal makes the humor acceptable. But this argument relies on a binary that reinforces the power dynamics of rape culture. Men and women aren’t monolithic categories, each encompassing a singular experience of gender. Of course, even taking into account the wide spectrum of gender identity and expression, women-identified folks experience far more sexual violence than men. But although our culture privileges men, rape is not an experience unique to women. Especially when we acknowledge the sexual violence experienced by men and women in the prison industrial complex, and we take into account the racism inherent in that system, the oblivious privilege behind broad generalizations about gender-swapping being an acceptable way to make light of rape is revealed. A joke about raping someone is oppressive no matter who tells it.
I am reminded here of the recent sweeping defense of Charlie Hebdo: people just don’t get that it’s apparently anti-racist satire to publish a racist depiction of a black woman as long as you place a lot of context around it making clear how anti-racist your publication really is. Broad City is a feminist show and therefore must have been cleverly satirizing rape culture. Sure, Abbi realizes she raped someone and immediately goes to have fun at Bed Bath & Beyond. No, we never see her talk to Stacey or tell him what happened. Yes, Ilana exposes people who talk about rape culture as silly fools. And okay, the episode spends more time commenting on the disgusting heat of summer in the city than it does on rape culture. But what they must have meant is that it’s wrong to rape, and that rape culture is real and in need of serious deconstruction.
We stretch for our idols in the hopes that they will remain flawless. I was rooting for Broad City. But they did not use humor to cope with pain or to point out the absurdity of an oppressive ideology. They were just being silly. They were being Abbi and Ilana. Unfortunately, neither Abbi nor Ilana is equipped to handle a topic like rape with the care that it requires, and Jacobson and Glazer should have known that. Our faves perpetuated rape culture, and it’s really not funny.