Last week, the satirical Adult Swim cartoon The Boondocks skewered maybe-gay playwright Tyler Perry and his films’ drag persona Madea through the guise of Winston Jarome, a theater cult leader who uses Christianity and his cross-dressing stage character Ma Dukes to seduce men. Whether you like Perry and Madea’s brand of cinema or not, he’s a fair target as a (insanely wealthy) public figure; Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder, whose comic strip launched the show, satirized gay Christian hypocrisy and the cult of fame just as much as he did the allegedly gay playwright. But this week, The Boondocks focuses entirely on prison rape which might sound funny… unless you’re one of the countless prison rape victims. And you might have guessed, I set up this paragraph so it must end this way: IS THE BOONDOCKS GOING TOO FAR?!??!?
The episode presents Tom Dubois, a heterosexual lawyer who supports the LGBT community but fears getting raped in prison. To face his phobia, Tom accompanies a group of misbehaving schoolchildren into “Scared Stiff”, a penitentiary-based program where tough-talking inmates terrify youngsters with tales of prison life. It’s exactly like Scared Straight, but stiffer. The convicts basically take Chris Rock’s tossed salad routine to the extreme as they all discuss their preferred techniques for raping other men:
“I raped a few niggas myself. I didn’t really enjoy it — not that much — but it felt gooder than a motherfucker though. I didn’t let that nigga kiss me or nuttin’, but I did tear that motherfuckin’ ass up nigga, I aint gonna lie about it.”
Later, another inmate says:
“Now me, I’m more of the romantic type. I’ll still rape you, but I’ll definitely stroke your head lovingly while I do it. See? Because I want you to like it. You don’t have to like it. But I’d like you to.”
On one hand, The Boondocks has merely pulled a South Park: find a taboo topic, ram it into the ground, wait for viewer response, repeat. But McGruder’s joking leads me to wonder if he’s ever actually experienced the violation and post-traumatic horrors of prison rape himself.
It’s pretty fucked up and he deserves some of the criticism for treating atrocity with humor. But does that mean we should take prison rape completely off the comedy table? Absolutely not.
Putting aside the argument that nothing’s taboo in comedy, McGruder’s spin hits upon something more vital. It’s impossible to view things like prison rape, genocide, animal torture, and child exploitation with anything but horror and pity. Addressing these topics factually empowers us to fight against such inhumanity, but it does not alleviate the pain we feel knowing that such atrocities exist — only comedy can do that.
I’m not saying that “laughter is the best medicine.” I’m merely suggesting comedy grants us special goggles to look at the truly horrifying with something other than despair. It doesn’t condone or excuse it — The Boondocks’ rapists remain monsters — and you certainly don’t have to like it, especially if you or a loved one has lived through it. But you can’t deny the power of laughing at it either.