Sydney Hartle: A bad joke

By Sydney Hartle , Columnist
Published January 19, 2015

I love Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. I loved them on “Saturday Night Live,” I loved them in “Baby Mama” and I intend to love them a year from now when “Sisters” comes out in theaters. I would love them if all they did was stand up on a stage and read the entirety of the iTunes Terms and Conditions. They’re brilliant writers, incredible comedians and exemplary role models for women working in male-dominated fields.

I got suckered into watching the Golden Globes last week in no small part because the duo was hosting. And it’s my admiration for these women that made their monologue at the Golden Globes such a disappointment for me.

On the one hand, they were able to humorously capture the particular difficulties faced by women in Hollywood, namely the lack of compelling roles for older women. Of Patricia Arquette’s performance in “Boyhood,” Poehler said the film proves that there are still great roles for women over 40, as long as you get hired when you’re under 40.”

Fey pointed to the absurdity of praising men in Hollywood for sitting through hours of makeup when women — us laypeople included — are expected to be made up just to be presentable in public: “It took me three hours today to prepare for my role as human woman.”

The monologue was entertaining and clever, filled with humorous but poignant social commentary on gender inequality.

Then there was the rape joke:

“In ‘Into the Woods,’ Cinderella runs from her prince, Rapunzel is thrown from her tower for her prince and Sleeping Beauty just thought that she was getting coffee with Bill Cosby,” Poehler said.

This was followed by a series of uncomfortable Cosby impressions that were shoddy at best and racist at worst. However, my discomfort with the bit comes from more than the over-the-top impersonation of a Black voice by a white person. It comes also from the reckless insensitivity shown for the victims of the sexual assaults that are the centerpiece of this joke. When sexual assaults are so disproportionately committed against women, it was absolutely appalling to have two comedians who showed such astuteness to sexism making light of it. You can’t quip about the discrimination faced by women out one side of your mouth and spit jokes at the expense of sexual assault victims out the other.

Arguably, the intended target of the joke was Bill Cosby and not the women coming forward to name him as their assailant. And make no mistake, he deserves to be called out for his behavior. The problem is that comparing sexual assault victims to Sleeping Beauty trivializes a serious and traumatic real-life experience. The problem is that bumbling impressions of Bill Cosby that present him as a clueless moron relieve him of a degree of accountability for his actions. The impressions reduced the drugging and assault of women from an intentional decision to an “Oopsies!” that renders the victims mere props rather than human beings who were deliberately violated.

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are smart women. They are skilled comedians who were definitely aware that the joke was risky when they chose to include it in their Golden Globes monologue. The question is why they did it anyway. I’m aware that good jokes can be bawdy, off-color and even downright offensive. Lewdness is sometimes the price we pay for biting social commentary, but the Cosby joke made a caricature of his speech pattern instead of underlining the atrocity of his treatment of women. The Bill Cosby situation absolutely bears further discussion, but a silly impression does not strike me in any way as the correct avenue for doing so.

I think “betrayed” is probably the most accurate word for what I’m feeling in the aftermath of that monologue. I still adore Fey and Poehler, but I think that a rape joke is a lot to ignore in the name of blind admiration. Instead, it’s important to integrate their poor choices into my understanding of them as imperfect individuals. They still need to be called out for their mistakes.

Sydney Hartle can be reached at hartles@umich.edu.