Saturday, July 28, 2012

In Which I Dare to Speak My Mind on Rape Jokes

Dare I dip my toe in the waters of the controversy of the week! Ah well fuck it. A disclaimer before the inevitable flame war for not conforming to the current script:

Of course rape isn’t funny! It is fucking heinous. It is a violent act of sexual terrorism. It has been and continues to be used as a means to control women in one of the most misogynistic ways possible. The mere threat of rape has silenced countless women (and men) since the beginning of human culture.

Also, know this: I have a daughter. I am heavily invested in eradicating all forms of misogyny to ensure that she or any woman never has to experience anything like rape or sexism.

With that said rape jokes can be funny and, more importantly, culturally useful. There is a distinction. These types of jokes can challenge people since comedy, when done correctly, lowers a person’s guard. Their defenses go down regarding their own preconceived notions. Comedy allows huge swaths of people to see controversial topics that may be alien to them from another person’s or group’s perspective in an accessible way. An intelligent and subversive rape joke may allow a man that would previously use misogynistic language or have that attitude to think about the ramifications of such language and actions. In Wanda Sykes bit below, she casually discusses how easy it would be to remove her vagina from her body so she could simply go out at night without having to be a potential target. That is an alien concept to a male. It really is. However, her jokes about this are a way to express something frightening and unmentionable while simultaneously exposing males to the emotions of that anxiety.   

This has worked on racism with great success. I have previously used the examples of Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle as comedians that cracked the walls between blacks and whites in America by employing jokes about racism.  Comedy can be used as a means to introduce subjects that are taboo and difficult to discuss. Via comedy, horrible topics can have that taboo removed for a moment and it allows many to consider the other side.  In Chappelle’s bit linked above he contrasts the open racism of the American South with the WASP-y, hidden racism of the Northeast, because that shit is true! As someone from the “North” I previously looked down upon the “South”. Between the experience of having lived there for a time and Chappelle’s and others' comedy shoving that subtle racism in my face I realized how deep the cultural institution of racism goes.

Now, I am not defending all rape jokes. Many of these jokes aren’t even jokes. They are rape threats disguised as a joke, and fuck those people. How do you tell the difference? Context. Thinking about it. Not condemning wholesale all instances of a joke or reference. That is a position that allows no nuance; no subversive, unconscious ridicule of the targeted position. It is reactionary and unthinking.  By condemning every instance of a taboo joke we lose an important tool in fighting that taboo.

Comedy can diminish the taboo of talking about taboo subjects. It can allow those that wouldn’t normally care about a subject or be able to identify with a subject to do just that. 


Troythulu said...

Good post. I agree that context and nuance are important, and it's also important to "own" the topic being satirized - racism for ethnic groups, etc... I think Wanda's joke works at least in part because of the sheer absurdity of modular body parts, and her ability as a comedienne in actually pulling it off as funny.

Steve said...

Thanks Troy. And there's the rub. It really can only be pulled by truly funny people. Maybe that's why Tosh failed at it (ZING!).

Seriously, jokes about horrible things have their place to communicate emotions that normally are difficult to bring up let alone "transfer" to others.

In my opinion, a lot (not all) of the current argument over this is the confusion between an intelligent joke, an unthinking joke, and threats disguised as a joke. This is, of course, subjective but that just reinforces why broad condemnations are counter-productive and...authoritarian.

Are we to cease making priests raping altar boy jokes? I'm a Penn State alum (so is Adam). We love our school, but we have shared jokes about it to deal with that situation and to show our disgust with the administration. Is that wrong? What about jokes about cults? Religions? Are all gay jokes off limits even when they subversively destroy the homophobes?

Troythulu said...

You have a good point. If we disallow jokes on forbidden topics as declaring them to be always, totally and invariably 'normalizing' the subject matter, without any qualification or exceptional cases, where do we draw the line?

Any topic can then be declared taboo and off-limits... We see this with alleged 'insults' to religious views, like the current trouble that Sanal Edamaruku is in under Indian blasphemy laws.

I think that ultimately, adjudication is needed for knowing when, how, and to who to tell certain types of jokes, and care being taken to show their context when telling them.

Troythulu said...

There are certain types of jokes I would never tell around anyone I know because my sense of humor just isn't that finely-tuned, and I know too many people they would apply to, but I have made jokes about my own predicaments and somewhat effectively, though I find that's best done in person, since there's so much room for misinterpretation online.

Steve said...

The ironic thing about my defense here is that I would never tell this kind of joke either. I have neither the comedic prowess nor the proper experience for insight. Also, quite frankly I don't find them funny except in rare instances such as Sykes' bit above.

I'm just disconcerted by the blanket, authoritarian statements from others about what is and what is not appropriate comedy.

Martin S Pribble said...

Of course you are right here, Steve, and it may surprise you that I am not at a disagreement with you for the most part. My argument was designed (albeit badly maybe?) to tackle the issue beyond Tosh, Sykes, Carlin or anyone else who tells jokes professionally, into the realm of the more insidious. You touched upon some of this here, but I also mad a comment at my blog that seems relevant.

" This is not only about standup comedy, rather the much less publicised, but much more common and insidious tendency to tell these jokes, or make "joking" threats of rape against people as a means to demean them and threaten them. This is where the problem lies. I don't really care about Daniel Tosh, though he has served as a catalyst for a lot of this conversation. What I care about is in the wider community, the everyday conversations of people, the attitudes and actions of men with regards to women."

I think, from what I've seen, many people will come to a blog that either tackles the bigger picture of misogyny, or cries foul at the culture that claims rape to be funny, and immediately come at the issue with a defensive and abusive attitude. IT IS EMOTIVE, in all it's guises. What I am most happy to see though is that people are talking about this, it needs to be discussed.

Dishearteningly though, I have also read many comments that say that the whole topic of rape, feminism, misogyny et al, serves to do nothing but inflame hatred towards men, and that women are hoping to exclude men from any visions of the future. This is, of course, bullshit, but this attitude IS OUT THERE.

Good post Steve. The world would be boring if we were in complete agreement about everything, right?

Steve said...

Thanks for commenting, Martin. I think we are harmonious for the most part; and just to be clear, this wasn't a "response" to your posts. If it were I would have stated as such.

What I have found disconcerting on various blogs and their comment sections is the absolutism that it is wrong without really thinking about it. Rape threats hidden as jokes are a problem and that is something that must be eradicated. Not comedy.

Also, this doesnt matter, but I think Tosh will have Dane Cooks' reputation in a few years. Once upon a time people thought he was funny. They really did!

krissthesexyatheist said...

It's good to differenciate between threats and a valid joke. Generally, I say never apologize for comedy, but rape is where I draw the line...unless it is so teh funziezies.