A misogynist walks into a bar

Mimi Kramer
4 min readJan 15, 2018


On Chris Matthews’s MSNBC rape-pill joke

Herewith my review of Chris Matthews’ rape-pill joke, performed for MSNBC staffers while they were setting up for an interview with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a firehouse in Des Moines during the lead-up to the Democratic Primary. The gag, which was captured from two perspectives in footage obtained by The Cut, was made public a little before 4pm on Friday, January 12.

First, it wasn’t the result of a momentary lapse of judgment or the response to an irresistible cue. It was planned. How do you know? Because nothing precipitated the joke. No one was engaging with Matthews beforehand. Matthews provided his own prompt with the setup line: “May I have some of The Queen’s waters? Her precious waters?”

This in itself seems a strange thing to say. It sounds almost like a reference to something —a running gag perhaps, even a steady stream of fluid-related jokes about Secretary Clinton that Matthews had on tap throughout the campaign. (Perhaps working with Matthews entails putting up with an endless supply of gags based on misremembered lines from Dr. Strangelove and other famous movies he has heard of.)

Still, I liked the way Matthews, who typically speaks in the harsh, gruff tones and blunted, slightly sloshed syllables of the old-school media brawler, lightened his voice on the word “waters.” (The production of the “t” both times was particularly dainty.) He was feminizing his voice there, entering into the presumed world of Secretary Clinton — his idea of a woman’s world — as he might enter into the presumed world of people he was once allowed to think of as “negroes” or “homosexuals.” Good stuff. Very tasteful.

Matthews’ rape-pill joke — and the reaction of his staffers — demonstrate exactly how such faux-transgressive jokes are intended to operate in the workplace, as well as what they’re used for. They’re not meant to be funny; they’re designed to make people you have power over uneasy. They’re meant to upset people.

They also give the joke-teller a chance to revel in his power. You can see from the excited quiver of Matthews’ mouth as he readies for the punchline how much fun this is for him. He keeps glancing from face to face to see the effect he’s having. In the first clip, we see his delight. In the second clip, we see what people’s reactions were to the line: “Where’s my Bill Cosby pill that I brought with me?”

The young men — the one sitting across from him and the one in the background — are doing what guys do when powerful old farts they have to flatter tell tasteless jokes about women. They laugh, but they try to do it in a way they can live with, appeasing or pleasing Matthews and at the same registering some modicum of disapproval.

The woman in the background meanwhile, is startled and shocked — though not really surprised, to judge from the slight change in her face in the fraction of a second before she goes off camera. It’s easy to imagine her wondering, when she gets off her call, “What did that mean? Was he saying he’d like to rape Secretary Clinton? Or just subdue her?” Because whatever Matthews was saying, it wasn’t about Clinton’s politics.

Based on Matthews’ patent enjoyment of the incident, it’s also easy to imagine him telling a friend — even many friends — about how he was going to give those youngsters a what-for with this particular joke. (“Let’s see how they field that one, those snooty kids who think I’m such a dinosaur and fawn over Maddow and those other _________s!”)

Jokes like this told in the workplace aren’t really transgressive in the sense people mean when they defend them against what they purport to worry might be incursions on free speech. The jokes, like their defenders, are only pretending to be edgy or probing. They pretend to be challenging taboos — a legitimate function of jokes in a culture where comedy and satire exist partly to expose hypocrisy and the covert workings of society.

But comedy and satire take the powerful not the vulnerable as their targets; their aim is to comment on manipulation and coercion, not replicate them. Rape jokes — like racist jokes — are transgressive only in order to lure others into complicity. They seek to seduce with the romance of divergent thinking — or something the young and unsophisticated or unsuspecting might mistake for divergent thinking. Their real aim is to enlarge the circle of complicity and win over recruits to a battle that someone like Matthews thinks he shouldn’t have lost.

Men like Chris Matthews who make jokes about rape and bodily fluids in the workplace are engaging in an act of coercive sadism — coercive toward the other men, sadistic toward the women. Because in the workplace no one can refuse to laugh — or say, “Chris, you’re an asshole!”or “Chris, that isn’t remotely funny!” — without fear of losing their job.

What was in the mind of the female staffer who sidled out of that shot, distancing herself from that joke and the man who told it? My guess is that the same thing went through her mind that went through mine: a memory of the New York Magazine cover that I filed away because I couldn’t look at it, even though I felt I had to save it, showing Cosby’s victims — all those broken women — set out like tiles on a grid or a chessboard or a bingo card.

So good on you, Chris Matthews, for being able to find entertainment and amusement in the idea of those women, and good on you, MSNBC, for giving us all someone with such a humane and thoughtful habit of mind to help control the discourse and guide us through these turbulent days.



Mimi Kramer

Bylines: NY Magazine, The Daily Beast, Vanity Fair, Time, The New Yorker and elsewhere. "Unrelatable" is a continuing series: https://mimikramer.substack.com/