When The Joke Stops Being Funny
About a month ago, I saw comedian Mike Birbiglia perform his most recent stand-up routine, “The New One,” at the Warner Theater in Washington, D.C. The act was dark, to say the least-- morbidly humorous. One of the big jokes centered around a particular concept: the idea that there are no “good” men-- none. The context for the joke was that Birbiglia recently became a father (to a daughter), and he worried about bringing his daughter into a world where all men could be divided into two categories: awful and “alright.” Some men are genuinely well-intentioned, Birbiglia argued, and they try. But they fail-- often.
At the time, I laughed at this premise, thinking of scummy frat boys or fake “woke” liberal men who had let me down personally. But recently, the punchline of the joke has been on a refrain in my head: There are no good guys. There are no good guys. It’s a legitimately terrifying thought, particularly if you’re a woman. We can’t trust anyone. There are no good guys.
I was devastated when allegations of sexual misconduct were levied against Louis CK. Obviously, sexual assault, perpetrated by anyone, of any background, profession or political bent, is reprehensible. And I feel for the victims who come forward and marvel at their strength, no matter what. But the Louis CK news felt personal, like a punch to the gut-- this was a man I admired, a man whose humor (however crude) was progressive, feminist and self-aware. I spent hours upon hours watching and re-watching his specials in college. He’s famous, not a friend, but I always felt that I knew him, and that he could be trusted.
Then came Al Franken-- if possible, an even larger disappointment. There is so much to respect about Franken and his meteoric rise to political significance. I’ve listened to countless interviews where Franken talked with reverence of his wife, with tenderness and compassion for the poor and marginalized and with a fighting spirit for people without healthcare, or equal protection under the law, or the basic resources they needed. So I know that Franken has a rigorous morality. I know that he knows sexual assault is wrong-- that women should not be objectified and belittled, that consent is non-negotiable. And yet even he exploited his position of fame and privilege.
I don’t know exactly where I’m going with this piece, except to say: I’m feeling incredibly disheartened this week. More than disheartened; I think I’m heartbroken. And I’m scared, and I’m angry. Because what this week has reinforced to me is that anyone is capable of committing violence against women-- anyone has the potential to become a harasser, an assailant, a rapist. We exist in a sexist, patriarchal culture where men-- even the best, most well-intentioned, most morally upright men-- are empowered to push their limits, are excused of their bad behavior, and escape consequences for their indiscretions.
There are no good men, because there don’t have to be. We’ve set the bar too low, we’ve created societal norms that enable rape culture. I don’t know where we go from here; maybe I’ll write more on that later. But to the men seeking to be, at least, “alright”: understand this week and always that the women in your life are scared, because they don’t know who they can trust. They don’t know if they can trust you. They don’t feel safe speaking up for themselves, or saying no, or acting too confident or too empowered, or challenging authority or reporting abuse-- because they never know when an ally could become an aggressor. We feel friendless. We feel alone. Try to empathize and check your own behaviors accordingly.