The Other Double Standard: On Humor and Racism in Feminism
Last week, The Onion published a piece satirizing Chris Brown and Rihanna’s recent break-up. The “joke”: Brown still has “abusive feelings” for Rihanna and is devastated because he “always thought the 25-year-old singer was going to be the woman he’d beat to death one day.” Cue creepy details of his imagined methods of assaulting and murdering Rihanna.
Sady Doyle recently rekindled feminist criticism of rape jokes, with support from other feminists. Given this, you might think there’d be similar feminist consensus against the use of fatal domestic violence against a real, living woman in a joke.
But when black women on Twitter criticized The Onion’s piece as racist and misogynist, some white feminists saw these responses overreactions to effective satire. They berated critics as humorless, misreading the joke (the title of one called The Onion’s piece a “reading comprehension test), “almost deliberately obtuse,” even prudish.
Jennifer Vanasco argues that The Onion told “the ugly truth in a palatable way” and addressed, “in its way,” intimate partner violence against black women. For Jessica Wakeman, it’s a cringe-inducingly hilarious” joke that “[serves] a higher purpose” of “meta-commentary about abusers.” Hanna Rosin chastises feminists for “failing to recognize an excellent joke when it’s so obviously doing their work for them,” and claims The Onion “[brought] more attention to domestic violence [than] 100 earnest blog posts on the same subject ever could.”
The consensus in these pieces is that women “shouldn’t be angry at The Onion” for “telling it like it is.” Rosin and Elizabeth Nolan Brown call the criticism “annoying” confirmation of the stereotype that “feminists can’t take a joke,” with the latter insisting that “The Onion is so far from the problem that it makes the project of feminism as a whole look petty and absurd when it acts like it is." Gratitude, apparently, is the proper response to The Onion for finding fodder for entertainment in a survivor’s trauma. “The more opportunities to point out that Chris Brown is a piece of shit,” Wakeman concludes, “the better.”
Curiously, three of these pieces quote only white critics of The Onion, despite the fact that the outcry was led by black women: so_treu, AngryBlackLady, TheAngryFangirl, among many others. In the other two articles, I am the only black woman quoted--both times out of context, once without being named.
Here’s the problem: The Onion’s piece was yet another joke about Chris Brown at Rihanna’s expense. The media has reduced her to a single traumatic experience in her life, treating it as abstract fodder for entertainment and analysis, even as she’s been clear that the public scrutiny around it has been painful.
The prospect of Rihanna being seriously harmed or killed by Chris Brown has been floated by the media so many times, it seems almost a ritualized, symbolic punishment of Rihanna for not being a “model” survivor. In a recent "Law and Order: SVU" episode, a barely fictionalized Rihanna was murdered by the Chris Brown stand-in, after the two resumed a relationship. On Rihanna’s birthday this year, Ms. Magazine tweeted a wish that she would “stay safe from violence.” Media like this engages in macabre anticipation of violence against Rihanna--as though waiting for the chance to tell her (by proxy, other survivors) “I told you so.”
The Onion has numerous pieces making fun of Chris Brown, yet implied that the public should “ignore” Charlie Sheen’s erratic and abusive behavior as being “none of our business.” So when white feminists like Wakeman argue that this joke “could be easily have been made at the expense of a white abuser like Mel Gibson,” they miss that Brown and Rihanna have become an obsession and running joke in the media--a meme in a way that abuse by white celebrities like Gibson, Sheen, Sean Penn, and others never has been and never will be.
Ironically, white feminists defending The Onion sound an awful lot like male comedians who scoff at criticism of rape jokes. In fact, let’s compare notes with Sam Morril’s dismissive reply to Sady Doyle.
Like Morril, every white feminist defending The Onion felt the need to condescendingly explain the joke (really, we get the joke). Like Morril, they demand that we prioritize the intent of a joke over its harmful implications. The Onion’s joke is “meta-commentary” in the same way that Morril’s jokes are “commentary on political correctness, not an approval of rape.” Morril’s snotty “Do you understand that neither Louis [CK] nor Sarah [Silverman] approves of rape?” is echoed in Wakeman’s “Wha-what? Do they really think people are sitting around chuckling at the idea of a black woman being murdered?” and similar sentiments.
Like Morril, The Onion’s defenders seem to make zero effort to understand or honestly engage with the criticisms of these jokes. The one exception is Molly Redden, who concedes that The Onion’s joke used Rihanna as an “object” and “passive comedy device.” But even she concludes that it was more “valuable” to make the joke than to “not make [Rihanna] collateral damage.” Good satire “occasionally [does]…disservice to victims.”
The implication: these individual white feminists know what anti-black misogyny looks like better than black women do--even that black women should thank the authors of this piece, almost certainly one or more white dudes, for doing the work of our liberation. This is not so different from white male comedians who think they get to decide what is and isn’t sexist or harmful to survivors.
To build on Molly Knefel’s argument about rape jokes, there’s another dangerous double standard at work here. Black women are expected to rally behind causes when prominent white women lead the charge, but when we raise issues that matter to us, we end up having to divert resources and energy from challenging already considerable erasure, violence, and exploitation to dealing with feminists--supposed allies--telling us we’re doing it wrong and actively undermining our efforts.
What Redden, Wakeman Rosin, Nolan Brown, Redden, and Vanasco suggest is that we prioritize humor as a tool to make a point over the actual people feminism is supposed to most support--girls and women. But in a just feminism, girls and women aren’t fodder for jokes that “serve a higher purpose.” Supporting and centering survivors shouldn’t take a backseat to shaming abusers at whatever costs. In a just feminism, black women wouldn’t have to deal with attacks from feminists whitesplaining how we fail to understand humor on top of challenging racist, misogynist comedy.
T.F. Chalrton is a freelance writer, editor, and founder of Are Women Human?