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Culture

Maybe We Can Stop Doing the Prison Rape Jokes Now

Debra Messing's deranged Trump tweets show how supposedly progressive people turn horrible when it comes to prisons.

debra messing prison
Late Night With Seth Meyers

You may have seen Will & Grace alum Debra Messing, one of our messier online celebrity types, getting into a spot of trouble on Monday.

It seems that some days ago, Messing had been hanging out on Twitter like she often does when she dropped this comic gem:

Great stuff! This is why I am not a professional comedian—I could not come up with sparkling material like “I hope Donald Trump gets raped in prison a lot.”

On Sunday, conservative blog the Daily Wire called Messing out. Does the Daily Wire care about homophobia or prison rape? No. But this is the kind of bad faith commentary that you invite when you are Debra Messing, a famous person making homophobic prison rape jokes to your hundreds of thousands of followers.

Messing then sent the whole thing to a transcendent new place by tweeting this on Monday:

Ah, OK, so Messing was not saying she hoped Trump would fall in love with a queer person, she was saying that she hoped a queer person would rape him in prison. Which…is what she said the first time. 20 years ago, Debra Messing would have had to call Liz Smith or send a fax to Entertainment Tonight to share her thoughts on Donald Trump being raped, and now she just gets to send the message out to all of us instantaneously. Technology is really something.

At long last, the little “hmm maybe this was a bad idea” button flicked on in Messing’s head later on Monday and she apologized.

Debra Messing’s Trump tweets are not earth-shatteringly important, though that second one was pretty incredible. (“I was just expressing my solemn view that a bunch of gay men do a revenge rape on Donald Trump,” the famous TV star clarified. What a world!) They’re mostly noteworthy because they are an especially sordid example of the way that supposedly progressive and right-minded people turn quite horrible and disgusting when the chat turns to prisons. Debra Messing is as “love is love” as they come, but throw prison into the mix and all of a sudden she’s down in the gutter, reveling in antiquated “don’t drop the soap” clichés, and crowing about the possibility of someone being repeatedly raped—and raped by another man, which is especially humiliating because, you know.

I’m not sure if Messing has ever known anyone in prison, but my instinct is that she hasn’t, because when you know people in prison you stop thinking about prisoners as animals in cages who are there for your amusement and start thinking about them as human beings. Prison rape is not a classic trope in fiction. It is a real and awful thing. But we are so used to seeing prisoners as less than human—so constantly encouraged to dehumanize them—that even people who say things like “I have been an LGBTQIA ally for decades” have to be told multiple times, over a period of days, that there might have been something wrong with using prison rape as a joke before they figure out that they might need to apologize for it.