“It’s hard to weigh in on this because I don’t even know if I’ve ever heard a rape joke.”
A few months ago we had a lively debate on the facebook page about whether men have an obligation to shut down other men when they make jokes about rape.
The catalyst was a blog post by an author who argued that men who commit sexual assault assume most men commit sexual assault… and that when you don’t put them on blast for making cracks about it, they assume you agree with them and are also a rapist. And this further entrenches their fucked up belief that sexual assault is socially taboo, but ultimately acceptable.
On the FB page, there were a few commentators who argued that their belief in free speech overpowered their desire to critique these guys’ jokes. Others made the case that we can’t take any single topic completely off of the table for humor. Some maintained that all comedy is about crossing lines and being outrageous, others simply posit that feminists don’t have a sense of humor.
And in what is probably the wackiest coincidence in the whole world, all these comments that (in one way or another) condoned joking about rape were… wait for it…. made by guys. On a page with 50% female readership, not one woman was compelled to stand up for the inalienable free speech rights of stand up comics. Not one female felt that every person’s right to say outrageous things was a higher principle than not mocking victims of sexual assault. At least not one that was involved in this particular conversation.
Yesterday I read about comedian Daniel Tosh (whose stuff is generally groan-worthy anyway) joking about rape. When an audience member responded negatively, feeling compelled to object, he joked about her getting gang raped. This story has been making the rounds on various sites.
One blog insisted the incident was fictional, a personalized account of something that happened on Louie (season 1, episode 6: “The Heckler/Cop Movie”). But the scene in Louie is strikingly different (plus his jokes on rape are kind of the exact opposite and Louis CK’s argument against heckling is that comedians don’t have anything else going for them). Eventually Tosh responded to the allegations with a statement of tepid apology but this isn’t the first time anyway.
Like most things that are offensive, you come across clusters of behavior, rather than finding all objectionable content evenly distributed. For those of us who regularly attend live amateur comedy, we hear rape jokes aplenty. If there aren’t at least a dozen gay jokes and half a dozen rape jokes, it’s not an open mic night in Philly. But these are, again, not evenly distributed. It’s not that every comic drops his dose of rape joking somewhere in between his recommended amount of cracks about midgets and politics. There are particular shock acts and there are some super amateur comedians who don’t yet have enough original material and resort to formulaic taboo-buggering.
A week or so ago I was at a comedy competition where the audience voted on who would go to the next round and win a thousand dollars. One dude, looking like a tiny Buddy Holly, won me over at first with his intentional awkwardness. But for no clear reason, halfway through the set, threw out a graphic and truly offensive tale about raping a woman.
In a competition.
Where the audience voted.
That kind of demonstrates how “not a thing” it is.
And in the world of stand up comics, critiquing someone’s content for offensiveness is seemingly verboten. You can give pointers on style and construction. You can coach on stage presence. But if you call someone out, especially publicly, for saying something truly mean and stupid, the comedy community will not stand behind you. They will stand behind the joke teller, no questions asked. Perhaps they feel like an oppressed group, unified by their struggles, that must maintain solidarity.
On or off stage, humor is used to share values, reinforce group beliefs and build intimacy. And what jokes a group tells says an inordinate amount about their shared values.
Recently, a woman heard a stranger joke about raping another nearby woman, and she punched him in the face. She took a picture of her bandaged hand, post-punch and posted it on Tumblr. The post went viral, bringing along a slew of supporters who called her a hero and trolls who insisted she should get raped for her transgression.
But then, threatening to rape women for doing and saying things men don’t like is old hat: from everything to disobeying your husband, being a lesbian or suggesting the world of video games is sexist.
Sexual violence has so much less to do with sex than it does with power. It’s about seeing vulnerability and exploiting it. It’s about taking advantage and getting away with something. It’s about firmly cementing the hierarchy, where the rapist insists he is above the victim. That’s precisely why rape is so prevalent in wartime.
“I find it so odd that you, of all people, would be on this side, since you get so mad at censorship.” This was a comment lobbed at me last night, while discussing this topic.
“But there’s a world of difference between trying to censor content so no one can ever see it and speaking back. It’s the opposite, in fact. “
But there is no “speaking back” in comedy. Comics will tell you to vote with your lack of applause. But never, ever, under any circumstances, can the person who put himself on stage be directly questioned. It’s supposedly free market capitalism in action: offensive, unfunny fucktards won’t get booked again.
But who can argue that, without this incendiary blog post going viral, Daniel Tosh would be hurt in the least by this act? And comics will be the first to tell you that talent does not equal fame or money in their industry, that often some of the shittiest acts become famous while true genius can spend years never breaking through. If the free market of comedy means that the best talent rises to the top, how do you explain Jeff Dunham or Larry the Cable Guy? Their success demonstrates majority rule. There are enough people with shared values and beliefs to support them. They have a niche. And all sorts of humor have niches. Including misogyny and racism. And because it’s 2012, that misogyny and racism has to masquerade as irony.
And it will get sandwiched in between other things, jokes about farts and masturbation. And it will go on and on, because it’s not getting directly countered.
Until it does, like it just did. Because, once again, men who believe rape is sometimes acceptable assume other men do too and if you don’t tell them otherwise, they may actually legitimately not know that. And until we make it painfully apparent that shit is not tolerated, we’re tolerating it.
Comedy is not fascism, despite the arguments of some rape joke apologists. Nothing is more annoying or intellectually dishonest than “it’s a joke- get over it.” You don’t get to both create the content and control the reaction.
And there is a stark difference between satire and cruel mockery. Satire is when the powerful are mocked and cut down to size. Mockery is when the already disenfranchised are further ridiculed. Any lazy moron can reiterate what already is known by everyone. It takes genuine talent to change the paradigm.