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When Jokes Aren’t Funny

By Catherine Y. Zhang

Two weeks ago I was searching for a document on the Google Drive of Satire V, a satirical campus publication of which I am an associate editor, when I found some troubling articles that had faded from institutional memory. The first article I read, “Male Rape: the Real Prisoner’s Dilemma,” has since been deleted from the Satire V website but followed an economist who developed an “eloquent model” for inmate rape based on game theory. Calling the rapee a “scrawny b****,” the article concludes: “No matter what the rapee chooses the raper is better off raping, and this is, therefore, his dominant strategy.”

The other articles were less violent, but equally appalling—crude, dehumanizing, and viscerally misogynistic. “Harvard Student Expands into Allston Girl,” which parodies Harvard’s expansion into the neighborhood of Allston, describes a man who wants to “forge a blazing path of glory right into every Allston girl” after a breakup with his ex-girlfriend. “Al Gore Blames Global Warming on Hot Babes” quotes a fictional prostitute who remarks “Guys want something raw and savage, something displaying lots of skin and a vagina, not an amorphous sack.” “WHO Gives Paris Hilton Head” features a picture of a half-naked Paris Hilton with the World Health Organization logo photoshopped onto her bra cups. UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon is quoted saying: “we unanimously agree that the heiress, actress, singer, model, and designer that is Paris Hilton will warmly fill our eager holes.”

Like many comedic spaces, up until a few years ago Satire V was overwhelmingly white, heterosexual, and male. To be sure, women and people of color have held important positions within the club, even at the time these articles were written. But it takes more than a few people to change an institution. Even when you’re in a position of power, it’s hard to raise objections—you don’t want to be the one who ruins the fun. It’s not too difficult to imagine how these articles passed editorial review. Any 13-year-old boy who has played the penis game can tell you that sexual jokes are easy humor, especially when they’re introduced in inappropriate contexts. It feels wrong to mention an international institution like the World Health Organization in the same sentence as oral sex. And because it’s wrong, it’s funny. (This is the premise of dead baby jokes and the game Cards Against Humanity.) There’s something satisfying about disrupting the sacred, about bringing the powerful down to a place where they don’t belong.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my status as a woman in comedy. What it means to be a part of an organization that only five years ago so casually trivialized rape—how to interpret this history when every day generates a new stream of sexual assault allegations against once-untouchable men. What it means to be afforded a platform that allows me to confront the structures that have made women feel powerless. How I feel lucky but also guilty, even undeserving, of this kind of access.

When you parody the thing you fear, you loosen its control. The exercise of writing satire is my way of taking power, of convincing myself that I have a voice.

But the more I read the news, the more I am scared of trying to use that voice in an industry that seems so fundamentally resistant to change. Comedy has the unique power to normalize. By directing our laughter, it tells us what behaviors to accept. But too often, the ability to reshape our norms is excluded from the people who need change the most. For each man whose legacy crumbles, there are thousands of others who accepted his behavior—who assumed their “progressiveness” meant everything was fine.

There’s this tendency among comedians to assume that because we’re the underdogs, we’re incapable of being wrong. I see this even in my most liberal comedy groups. We’re supposed to be the “good guys”: the ones who call out power imbalances, not perpetuate them. We’ve learned to cut out the worst of our humor, soften our voices, refer abstractly to “the patriarchy.” The notion of progressiveness inspires a tendency to dismiss objections with blithe remarks that “you can’t please everyone.”

But if we’ve learned anything recently, it’s that comedy suffers from the same pathologies as everything else. Comedians hurt people. They abuse their power. Sometimes their transgressions are smaller: They speak over women, respond solely to men, or host social events that are too “bro-ey.” Good intentions are hollow consolations in the fight for a culture where women feel not only safe, but empowered to vocalize their opinions.

Over the past five years, Satire V has seen serious changes, both in content and representation. Sixty-three percent of the members we initiated this semester were women—as are our president and two out of four of our associate editors, including myself. In the past two months alone, women in Satire V have written articles criticizing gender bias in Harvard’s math department, the reductive categorization of women’s body types, and the disproportionate burden on women to shoulder emotional labor in heterosexual relationships. And in the wake of revelations about the pervasive abuse of power by men in the entertainment industry, we’ve written articles responding to figures like Louis C.K. and the cultural attitudes that enable their bad behavior.

But we can’t allow this progress to convince us that our work is done. Numerical representation doesn’t say anything about whether the presence of women is valued, whether they feel comfortable speaking, or whether they feel empowered to communicate in their own voice. The question is never if we can do better, but how.

Catherine Y. Zhang ’19 is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House. She is an Associate Editor for Satire V.

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