Language in Society


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

Elise Kramera1

a1 Department of Anthropology, The University of Chicago, 1126 East 59th Street, Chicago, IL 60637


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)*

(Received June 05 2009)

(Revised May 30 2010)

(Accepted May 24 2010)

(Reviewed October 13 2010)

(Online publication March 16 2011)


* This article has been presented, at varying levels of completion, at the 2008 Michicagoan Linguistic Anthropology Conference, at the University of Chicago's Semiotics Workshop, and as part of the panel “Humor within and out of bounds: Ethnographic perspectives on ludic limits” at the 2008 American Anthropology Association annual meeting. I thank the participants and attendees of these events for their comments and suggestions. I am particularly indebted to E. Summerson Carr, Susan Gal, Christopher Garces, Barbara Johnstone, Jim Shliferstein, Robin Shoaps, Michael Silverstein, Benjamin Smith, and the two anonymous reviewers from Language in Society for their detailed and extremely helpful critiques of various incarnations of this article. Support for the completion of this article was provided by the Marion R. and Adolph J. Lichtstern Fund.