Can you remember the first time you heard prison rape jokes? Was it at the movies – perhaps watching Leslie Nielsen wear iron underpants to shower in jail in Naked Gun 33 & â…“ or Norm MacDonald joking about anal rape on Saturday Night Live? Or maybe on the numerous occasions when NBC family man Jay Leno chuckled about soap dropping, Justin Bieber maybe getting raped in jail or convicted Republican congressman Tom DeLay needing to avoid an inevitable jailhouse rape? It could also have been when you were just child, watching jokes about it on animated TV shows like Family Guy (which, to be fair, loves rape humor in all kinds of settings) or Nickelodeon’s Spongebob Squarepants, which ran a joke about not dropping his eponymous soap.
But there’s no need to think back that far. Just last week, RuPaul’s Drag Race featured a skit that included a prison rape joke and Get Hard, the interracial buddy comedy about prison, makes plenty of light-hearted references to it as well.
Prison rape has become a staple of American comedy because nothing is as hilarious as bad people getting their comeuppance – especially if they are black men. America likes to see “bad black men” who run afoul of the police state humiliated – and what can be more hilariously humiliating than to take a black man and let him be raped? It can emasculate incarcerated black men and turn them into a “prison bitch” – a powerless bottom.
It is impossible to know exactly how many of the millions of Americans who are in detention each year are sexually abused by guards or fellow inmates, given under reporting. However, a 2013 report from the Department of Justice estimated that: “Accounting for inmate turnover – roughly 200,000 people were sexually abused in detention” in recent years. And that’s funny because of who is affected: while 678 per 100,000 white men are incarcerated in America, 4,347 black men per 100,000 are.
Prison jokes in popular media are just one sadistic way American comedy laughs at those raped behind bars. They share a genealogy with the absurd scenes of sexual abuse documented in Abu Ghraib prison. Those military photos are evocative of the Ving Rhames faux-jail rape scene in Pulp Fiction; just whisper “bring out the gimp” to film majors who graduated circa 1999 and you’ll hear peals of laughter.
From postcards of lynchings to the Walter Scott video, the specter of black suffering went viral in America long before the invention of the meme. And this black suffering, mined for comic potential, is not just about black men. The artwork of Kara Walker is an uncomfortable reminder that the rape of black women is no less funny to many Americans than the rape of black men.
“Rape persists”, writes the formerly incarcerated poet Chandra Bozelko, “because it’s the cultural wallpaper of American correctional facilities”. But it also persists because, like slipping on a banana peel, we think it is funny. The comic tradition that makes light of the deepest, most intimate suffering of the most marginalized people of color is also, tellingly, as American as apple pie. It’s a joke that, literally, will make you cry with laughter.