I frequently write about queer comics. Queer representation in pop culture from WONDER WOMAN to LUMBERJANES is near and dear to my heart. Today I’m writing about a different kind of queer comic. One queer stand-up comic in particular: lesbian comic, Cameron Esposito. Last week, Esposito made waves with the release of her hour-long comedy special RAPE JOKES. It turns the misogynistic history of rape jokes in stand-up on its head.

The Necessary Balance of Political Correctness in Comedy

Proceeds of her special benefit RAINN, a national anti-sexual violence organization. So far, it has already raised over $20,000! Wrapped in Esposito’s brilliant humor, the special uncovers a frank discussion on sexual assault from a survivor’s perspective. Importantly, Esposito challenges audiences to help change the frighteningly normalized sexual assault culture in America.

Representation Matters. Here’s Why:

Esposito’s RAPE JOKES talks about a social issue that many Americans are afraid to talk about. However, this is nothing new to Esposito. I first heard of Esposito in 2014 when she performed on Conan, joking about her signature “Thundercat” side-mullet.

Although there are other lesbian comics who have made the big-time (*cough, Ellen, cough cough*), Esposito unapologetically fills a gap in queer representation. Her comedy talks about life, and what life is like as a lesbian. As a young queer person, I love to see someone celebrating queer experiences with Esposito’s hilarious irreverence.

Take My Wife
Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher, TAKE MY WIFE.

Since then, Esposito and her wife Rhea Butcher have produced several comedy specials and a TV show, TAKE MY WIFE. The show features Cameron and Rhea as — more or less — themselves. More to the point, it shows queer people living their lives! Normalizing queer relationships and giving queer audiences characters with whom we can identify is important, not just for queer audiences but for their families.

Esposito continues to provide a platform to support queer and minority artists on her podcast QUEERY. The podcast features guests including Lena Waithe and Tegan and Sara. Esposito’s RAPE JOKES also creates a space for an intersectional dialogue. Indeed, Esposito acknowledges her white privilege. She addresses the fact that white people are responsible for the Trump’s election. She calls out the fact that it is the responsibility of those with power and privilege to change the culture that accepts sexual violence as the norm.

Rape Jokes, Taboos, and Humor

In the first season of TAKE MY WIFE, Esposito and Butcher call out the normalization of rape jokes when a white male comic uses it in a set. The powerful episode deftly shuts down the idea that sexual assault is an acceptable punchline. In the special, Esposito acknowledges that comedians rely on taboo subjects because they prompt reactions from audiences.

Esposito points out that using rape as a joke is both offensive and lazy comedy writing. As Esposito continues through the set, she talks about her Catholic upbringing, a hilarious bit about swimming pools, her first relationships with women, and being the victim of rape. She illustrates how to use comedy to talk about taboos.

Cameron Esposito Is Making A Problem Known

For example, she talks about the quality of sex education at a Catholic school and a resulting incomplete knowledge of how to operate a tampon, among other misconceptions! However, she never uses rape as the final joke, nor does she make light of trauma and violence. As a result of her comedy and honest account, Esposito helps audiences heal from the trauma of sexual violence.

The Problem of Defining TV Women with Rape

Esposito shuts down the idea that “political correctness” is a first amendment attack. In RAPE JOKES, Esposito does not shy away from taboo subjects that are in fact funny. For example, she mixes biographical stories about having to poop (I laughed so hard I cried) with an honest discussion of why sex education matters.

Despite the heavy material and important messages, Esposito’s set is a testament to her sharp and accessible sense of humor. Importantly, Esposito is not making fun of the violence. She is not talking about taboos just to get knee-jerk, awkward reactions. She roots her comedy in the culture that has conditioned men and women not to question misogyny. Moreover, she helps audiences laugh, thereby opening a door to make social changes. 

Saying What Needs to be Sad

In the opening of her set, Esposito points out that following the #MeToo movement, we must continue to work on changing America’s culture of sexual violence. As a queer woman and victim of sexual violence, Esposito’s observation that the current political administration is a “nightmare” is an understatement.

The president of the United States has bragged about sexually assaulting women. Naturally, Esposito delivers her politically charged points with a hyperbole that is truly funny. Indeed, part of the humor comes from Esposito’s enthusiasm and, when appropriate, righteous indignation. But RAPE JOKES aptly points out the horror of a culture that facilitates that level of misogyny.

Cameron Esposito. Image from Vanity Fair’s The #MeToo Movement Has a Place in Comedy: Just Ask Cameron Esposito.

Esposito also talks about being sexually assaulted on a college campus. The deeply personal story is amplified by how she carefully articulates the cultural context of her experience. Sadly, according to RAINN’s statistics, “11.2% of all students experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation (among all graduate and undergraduate students).”

Furthermore, “1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.” What’s worse, many survivors do not come forward because of the culture surrounding sexual assault. The culture of victim blaming, making light of violence, and lack of advocacy sparks Esposito to call her audiences to action. The #MeToo movement brought the conversation out of the shadows. Now, pieces like Esposito’s help continue to encourage discussion and change.

Cameron Esposito: Being a Person of Consequence

Esposito’s RAPE JOKES honors those who stand up for others by being “a person of consequence” and by choosing to “get in the way.” Although we generally think of comedy as lighthearted, Esposito’s comedy is a catalyst. RAPE JOKES buoys audiences to participate in social change that desperately needs to happen.

Cameron Esposito

A few years ago, my twin saw Esposito perform live in Madison and met her. Although I will be forever jealous, I do have the darling autograph to prove it. It says “Hey Molly, your sister loves you. – Cameron.”

I mention this only to illustrate that Esposito is a person of consequence in both the big and little things she does. After all, to a young queer person, seeing someone celebrating queerness the way Esposito does is maybe not so small an achievement. Now, seeing Esposito take aim at American misogyny and the culture of sexual violence, it is clear that she is a person of consequence.

Esposito’s actions have an impact. And as she points out in RAPE JOKES, our actions can have an impact too. 

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You can watch Esposito’s RAPE JOKES here or see her live on her PERSON OF CONSEQUENCE tour. 

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