the fearless funny women of comedy tackle sexual violence

How comedians like Margaret Cho and Jessie Kahnweiler are helping women speak out about abuse.

by Jane Helpern
18 January 2016, 3:35pm

In November of 2015, the raunchy and riotous bisexual Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho's anthemic new music video "I Want to Kill My Rapist" caused the collective male scrotum to quiver with trepidation (as it should). It was a ferocious battle cry heard by abuse and rape survivors around the world, and a bold and humorous approach to raising sexual violence awareness — perhaps even the first of its kind. "I do not condone violence but cathartic rage has its place in art," said Cho in a statement. "I believe if you have been sexually abused, you must 'murder' your rapist in your mind. Abuse leads to self-abuse, drug addiction, depression, eating disorders, suicide. I want to kill it before it kills me."

It's an unfortunate reality that in our demented world, where one in every three women has been sexually assaulted or otherwise abused during her lifetime, many women still feel too ashamed and afraid to come forward or press charges (and when they do, these cases are notoriously hard to prove). But Cho — and a cohort of fellow comedians who are breaking their silence about sexual violence with ripping one-liners — are helping women feel increasingly empowered to speak out and share their own harrowing accounts in the hopes of dismantling rape culture.

In Cho's Tarantino-esque revenge fantasy, she leads a motley militia of kick-ass girls and women as they prepare to slay their ringleader's cowardly abuser. These fearless and funny ladies aren't concerned with the comfort levels of those around them. They are using comedy as a tool to confront and conquer the particularly horrific violations that too often occur at the hands of trusted friends, significant others, and family members — as was the case with Cho's abuser, who was a close relative.

Filmmaker Jessie Kahnweiler is also no stranger to the healing powers of humor. In "Meet My Rapist," she directs and stars in a dark short about unexpectedly bumping into her rapist at a farmer's market. As she navigates just another day of family dinners and job interviews, she struggles to connect with a handful of empathy-challenged friends, parents, and therapists who simply don't understand the extent of her emotional trauma. She rides a rollercoaster of emotions, from anger to desire, ultimately arriving at her own personal picture of peace and acceptance. "There are people who watch my shit and are just like, 'you should not exist at a person.' My work is really polarizing. So I just try to make it clear that this is just my story," she says.

Lauded by some as "rape comedy done right," "Meet My Rapist" elicits initially-reluctant-then-wholly-embraced laughter when she asks her rapist if they met on Tinder? If he remembers her boob freckle? Later she asks him for a ride home, because, as she jokes, he owes her one. For Jessie, comedic relief has always been instinctual. "I can't afford therapy so I make films," reads her Instagram bio. "The more honest I am about my struggle, the more free I feel," says Kahnweiler, whose new series produced by Transparent's Jill Soloway premieres at Sundance and tackles the equally taboo territory of bulimia. "Anytime something fucking terrible would happen in my life, I make a joke about it. So, when I say comedy, I just mean being honest. Like, anytime I really laugh at something, it's just because that person's being really fucking honest."

Recently, comedian Beth Stelling, who rocked 2015 with the the release of both a stand-up record and a Comedy Central special, took to Instagram to courageously speak out against the physical and sexual abuse she endured by an ex-boyfriend. She writes, "My personal is my professional. That is how I've always been; I make dark funny." She goes on to announce that she will be telling these stories on stage and incorporating them into her comedy act. "I'm allowing this to be part of my story. It's not my only story, so please don't let it be," she adds.

Following Stelling's Instagram confession — which almost immediately went viral — her friend and fellow comedian Courtney Pauroso corroborated Stelling's story and revealed that she, too, had been abused by the same man in their comedy community. Next came comedian/actor/writer Julieanne Smolinski's powerful essay about her struggle in an abusive relationship and why she stayed, entitled "The Funny Thing About Abusive Relationships." In it, she recounts the time she laughed uncontrollably when her friends didn't want her to go home from a party because they genuinely feared her abusive boyfriend might kill her.

She writes, "For many women who write and perform comedy, choosing this career path involves the cultivation of a chitinous exoskeleton, involuntary or not. It's hard not to let it extend to your personal life. At work or onstage, you respond to trauma with a stupid joke. When my boyfriend texted that he was going to set my apartment on fire, I turned and asked my friend at the party, 'What am I going to do? I'll never find another place that close to the park…'"

A recent Buzzfeed report by Katie J.M. Baker exposes the pervasiveness of sexual assault and harassment in the Los Angeles comedy scene. It explains how a renegade comedy girl gang, led by Courtney Pauroso and Beth Stelling, used Facebook groups to excommunicate alleged harassers and assaulters from the tight-knit, male-dominated community, taking matters into their own hands when authorities and comedy group administrators failed to act on these complaints. The report reveals how the particularities of the comedy and improv scene — political incorrectness, dirty jokes, and honest expression — make boundaries difficult to identify and enforce.

"Lauri Roggenkamp recalled one improv scene during a class at UCB where a man simulated sex with her so aggressively that he forced her leg up and ripped her jeans. 'If you complain about it, you're not viewed as a team player,' she said," writes the Buzzfeed journalist.

While we live in the age of X-rated oversharing and the XO-Jane-ified confessional essay, there are still societal expectations and imposed guidelines about how women should tell their stories about sad, painful, traumatic things. When women have fought so hard to be perceived and treated as equals with agency (which they obviously fucking are, and they shouldn't have to act tough all the time in order to prove this), it can feel shameful to admit weakness or to ask for help. And then there is the fear of being permanently labeled as a "victim" or "the girl who that terrible thing happened to."

"I once wrote an article about being constantly cheated on as a form of emotional abuse. A reader commented that I seem like a doormat with low self-esteem. Like, thank you, empathetic internet stranger, I already know that! I stopped reading comments that day," explains Alison Segel, a Los Angeles writer who, inspired by Stelling, Pauroso, and Smolinski, decided to go public about her own experience in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship. "He pinned me down on his bed and reprimanded me for being disrespectful. I think I had made his friends laugh. Being funny was a no-no. I wasn't funny. You think you're so funny Alison, you aren't funny," she writes.

But the thing is: she is funny. Despite abusive men who say otherwise and try to strip their power away, these acerbic-witted women have always had their ability to laugh through the tough shit. Even when the urge to crack a joke is seen as more than a little inappropriate. Even when sarcasm is not viewed as the "healthiest" reaction. And isn't that the ultimate subversive weapon? So, this is a thank you to Margaret, Jessie, Beth, Julienne, Courtney, Ali, and so many other women for being brave, resilient, and fucking hilarious. When life feels like a sick joke, perhaps laughter really is the best medicine. And until there is a cure, the inextinguishable female voices of comedy will continue to speak up for the voiceless. 


Text Jane Halpern
Image via YouTube

Margaret Cho
sexual violence
Rape Culture
jessie kahnweiler
beth stelling
courtney pauroso
julieanne smolinski