O.k., so first the “disclaimer”: I am a big fan of Tina Fey, and of 30 Rock. It is really one of the best sitcoms currently running on TV; it passed the litmus test enough to be added to my modest DVD collection (Seasons 1 & 2). This post is not meant to slam, defame, or in any way dissuade anyone from tuning in to watch 30 Rock, buy the DVD’s, or view episodes on NBC or Hulu.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve been doing men’s anti-violence work [12/6: for some reason, the server for Men Stopping Rape, Inc. appears to be down, sorry] for the past seventeen years, and once you’ve been attuned the prevalence of rape culture – the manner in which sexual violence is so deeply ingrained in our culture that is practically accepted as normal (and therefore it persists; dominant cultural paradigms of misogyny, oppression, and violence perpetuate across generations by virtue of going un-examined or questioned, etc.) – you can not tune it back out.
This can be a good thing; the more we start to point this stuff out and bring it to the forefront and discuss it, the closer we get to a world where violence will be less acceptable and therefore less likely. But it can also ruin otherwise good moments. To wit: on the Season 2 Special Features, there is a video recording of a live performance of a 30 Rock episode done at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade in NYC as a fundraiser for folks on the show who were put out of work by the 2007-08 Writer’s Strike.
The episode, #208, featured a character played by Edie Falco; Ms. Falco was not there for the live performance, so one of the SNL staff writers, Paula Jean Pam (I hope I heard that name correctly) stepped in to play that part. This information is dispensed to the audience by Tina Fey, who takes on the role of M.C. for this live performance. While introducing the episode, she adds that Ms. Pam and Alec Baldwin “know each other well so I think he might rape her tonight.”
This improvised (?) comment draws raucous applause from the theatre audience.
Now, since I am an actor myself, I understand that sometimes playing in front of a live crowd, especially if you’re trying to warm them up and drum up laughs, things get said that step out of bounds; sometimes you take the risk of being offensive in order to get a laugh. To Ms. Fey’s credit, she got one. But what a sad commentary on our current cultural climate that the bit worked so well; and it worked so well on two levels: not only did it get a laugh about rape, but it also managed to get an ironic laugh about rape – that is, the rape was going to happen because these two actors knew each other very well. As anyone who has ever done any work in the sexual violence prevention movement would know, the vast majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim knows (by 80%).
This raises that age old question: is rape ever an appropriate topic for humor? For myself, I feel the tug-of-war inside where my fan-dom for the show and the performers bumps up against the activist in me and my need to hold those who would joke about this accountable in some manner.
But how? Boycott? An angry letter? (not my style) A cordial, open letter to the writing staff or Ms. Fey herself by way of “thanks for all the good laughs you’ve given me over the years, but try and back off on the rape jokes, o.k.; my friends, co-workers, partners, and dozens of students that I speak to at workshops in the public schools and local universities who have experienced rape in their lives don’t find it a funny thing and by using the term in the context of playful, friendly, sexual play between two friends you help to reinforce the myth that forced intercourse is acceptable and you diminish the voices of victims…”
I haven’t quite decided yet. For now I’m starting by writing this post. I had thought of posting the video either here or on YouTube, but decided against it because, since it is a video recording of a live performance for which people paid admission it is copyrighted material and I don’t want to move into the land of legal challenges.
Any thoughts, feedback, welcome…