Hostname: page-component-546b4f848f-fhndm Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-05-30T21:47:50.978Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false

The playful is political: The metapragmatics of internet rape-joke arguments

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 March 2011

Elise Kramer
Department of Anthropology, The University of Chicago, 1126 East 59th Street, Chicago, IL


Rape jokes are a contentious topic on the internet; arguments over whether “rape is funny” unfold in a diverse range of forums, but they generally take the same predictable form. In this article, I analyze the text of a variety of disputes on American websites over the funniness of rape jokes. I show not only that both sides of these arguments are premised on the same underlying assumptions about the ways that humor and language function, but more importantly that these shared assumptions make it possible for rape humor (and humor more generally) to carry social and political valence—and that in order to understand the significance of the debate over rape jokes, we need to understand the identity work that people are doing when they tell rape jokes, laugh at them, or frown and shake their heads. (Humor, language ideologies, rape, joking)*

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



Agha, Asif (2003). The social life of cultural value. Language & Communication 23(3–4):231–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Apte, Mahadev (1985). Humor and laughter: An anthropological approach. New York: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
Bakhtin, Mikhail M. (1986). Speech genres & other late essays. In Emerson, Caryl & Holquist, Michael (eds.) and W. McGee, Vern (trans.). Austin: University of Texas Press.Google Scholar
Billig, Michael (2005). Laughter and ridicule: Towards a social critique of humor. London: Sage.Google Scholar
Bourdieu, Pierre (1991). Language and symbolic power. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
Brownmiller, Susan (1975). Against our will. New York: Simon & Schuster.Google Scholar
Cameron, Deborah (1995). Civility and its discontents: Language and “political correctness”. In Verbal hygiene, 117–66. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
Cann, Arnie, & Calhoun, Lawrence G. (2001). Perceived personality associations with differences in sense of humor: Stereotypes of hypothetical others with high or low senses of humor. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 14(2):117–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Carlin, George (1990). Parental advisory: Explicit lyrics. Atlantic Records.Google Scholar
Cohen, Ted (2001). Jokes: Philosophical thoughts on joking matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Darwin, Charles (1872). The expression of emotion in man and animals. Boulder, CO: NetLibrary.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Douglas, Mary (1975/1991). Jokes. In Mary Douglas, Implicit meanings, 90–114. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. [Reprinted in Chandra Mukerji & Michael Schudson (eds.), Rethinking popular culture: Contemporary perspectives in cultural studies, 291–310. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.]Google Scholar
Duranti, Alessandro (1993). Intentions, self, and responsibility: An essay in Samoan ethnopragmatics. In Hill, Jane H. & Irvine, Judith T. (eds.), Responsibility and evidence in oral discourse, 2447. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Faludi, Susan (1991). Backlash: The undeclared war against American women. New York: Crown.Google Scholar
Foucault, Michel (1978). The history of sexuality, vol.1: An introduction. Hurley, Robert (trans.). New York: Random House.Google Scholar
Gavey, Nicola (2005). Just sex? The cultural scaffolding of rape. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
Goffman, Erving (1981). Forms of talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Google Scholar
Goodwin, Marjorie Harness (1982). ‘Instigating’: Storytelling as social process. American Ethnologist 9(4):799819.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hay, Jennifer (2000). Functions of humor in the conversations of men and women. Journal of Pragmatics 32(6):709–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hay, Jennifer (2001). The pragmatics of humor support. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 14(1):5582.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Helliwell, Christine (2000). 'It's only a penis': Rape, feminism, and difference. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 25(3):789816.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Herring, Susan; Johnson, Deborah A.; & DiBenedetto, Tamra (1995). ‘This discussion is going too far!’: Male resistance to female participation on the internet. In Hall, Kira & Bucholtz, Mary (eds.), Gender articulated: Language and the socially constructed self, 6796. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
Holmes, Janet (2000). Politeness, power and provocation: How humor functions in the workplace. Discourse Studies 2(2):117.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Holmes, Janet, & Marra, Meredith (2002). Over the edge? Subversive humor between colleagues and friends. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 15(1):6587.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Inoue, Miyako (2002). Gender, language, and modernity: Toward an effective history of Japanese women's language. American Ethnologist 29(3):392422.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Irvine, Judith T. (1993). Insult and responsibility: Verbal abuse in a Wolof village. In Irvine, Judith T. & Hill, Jane H. (eds.), Responsibility and evidence in oral discourse, 105–34. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Irvine, Judith T (1996). Shadow conversations: The indeterminacy of participant roles. In Silverstein, Michael & Urban, Greg (eds.), Natural histories of discourse, 131–59. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Irvine, Judith T, & Gal, Susan (2000). Language ideology and linguistic differentiation. In Kroskrity, Paul V. (ed.), Regimes of language: Ideologies, polities, and identities, 3583. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.Google Scholar
Jakobson, Roman (1957). Shifters, verbal categories, and the Russian verb. In Waugh, Linda R. & Monville-Burston, Monique (eds.), On language: Roman Jakobson, 130–47. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Russian Language Project.Google Scholar
Marcus, Sharon (1992). Fighting bodies, fighting words: A theory and politics of rape prevention. In Butler, Judith & Scott, Joan W. (eds.), Feminists theorize the political, 385403. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
Peirce, Charles Sanders (1960). Collected papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vol. I-II. Hartshorne, Charles & Weiss, Paul (eds.). Cambridge: Belknap Press.Google Scholar
Rosaldo, Michelle (1982). The things we do with words: Ilongot speech acts and speech act theory in philosophy. Language in Society 11(2):203–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Seizer, Susan (1997). Jokes, gender, and discursive distance on the Tamil popular stage. American Ethnologist 24(1):6290.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Shuman, Amy (1993). ‘Get outa my face’: Entitlement and authoritative discourse. In Irvine, Judith T. & Hill, Jane H. (eds.), Responsibility and evidence in oral discourse, 135–60. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Silverstein, Michael (1976). Shifters, linguistic categories, and cultural description. In Basso, Keith & Selby, H. A. (eds.), Meaning in anthropology, 1156. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.Google Scholar
Silverstein, Michael (1985). Language and the culture of gender: At the intersection of structure, usage, and ideology. In Mertz, Elizabeth & Parmentier, Richard J. (eds.), Semiotic mediation: Sociocultural and psychological perspectives, 219–59. New York: Academic Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Silverstein, Michael (1993). Metapragmatic discourse and metapragmatic function. In Lucy, John (ed.), Reflexive language: Reported speech and metapragmatics, 3358. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Silverstein, Michael (2003). Indexical order and the dialectics of sociolinguistic life. Language & Communication 23(3–4):193229.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Smith, Moira (2007). He who laughs: A social interactionist theory of the humor audience. Presented at the 2007 International Society for Humor Studies Conference. Newport, Rhode Island.Google Scholar
Wickberg, Daniel (1998). The senses of humor: Self and laughter in modern America. New York: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
Woolard, Kathryn A. (1998). Introduction: Language ideology as a field of inquiry. In Schieffelin, Bambi B., Woolard, Kathryn A., & Kroskrity, Paul V. (eds.), Language ideologies: Practice and theory, 347. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar