Monday, 24 December 2012

Let's Talk About Rape Jokes

These days, it seems that the easiest way for a comedian to get publicity is to make a joke about rape. This is almost guaranteed to get people sitting up and listening, and may even spark a media frenzy. Most recently, a Virgin Mobile US advert was accused of making a joke about a husband raping his wife, describing this as the ‘gift of Christmas surprise’.

As a result, a wave of debates has been provoked, with news sites and Twitter pages being flood with opinions and responses. There has also been the inevitable backlash against feminists or other groups who have commented on or criticised rape jokes. Louis CK perhaps articulated this resentment most obviously, arguing that comedians and feminists are natural enemies. In turn, the familiar retort of “they just can’t take a joke” gets banded about, attempting to silence and belittle those who dare voice an opinion.

Yet we can and should talk about rape jokes.

I will start by saying that I am not in favour of enforcing some kind of censorship on comedy. Even if it was felt a useful thing to do, we could never draw up a set of rules and parameters delineating what counts as acceptable. In other words, people should be free to say what they want. But, in the same way, people should be free to react in the way that they want.

Rape jokes don’t operate in purely abstract terms; not only is the high incidents of rape an ongoing reality, the politics around the issue are often very contentious. This is unlike cases of, for example, racism or paedophilia, where there is generally a clear demarcation between the guilty and the innocent. Rather, accusations of rape are often met with the attitude that the victim deserved, or was somehow complicit in, the act. Needless to say, women’s rights and other social groups have much anger towards what they see as the ignorance and misconceptions around rape.

So when a comedian engages with the issue of rape, people tend to listen closely. And those who don’t like a particular joke aren’t hypersensitive, they’re human. At some point in each of our lives, we will hear a joke or line that we find offensive or an affront to our taste; everyone has ideas that they care about, viewpoints that they are protective over.

Sarah Silverman
However, it is not the contentiousness of the subject of rape that in itself results in the criticism of certain jokes. In fact, the tendency to provoke strong reactions is what can make jokes about rape really great. Sarah Silverman’s line “I was raped by my doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl” got her a big laugh from many feminists, for example. Here, the act of making a joke from the perspective of a woman disrupts the dynamic of the powerless, silent female victim. Yet, more generally, rape jokes can be about breaking a taboo as a means to challenge a dominant viewpoint.  When Louis CK quipped “I’m not condoning rape, obviously you should never rape anyone… unless you have a reason, like if you want to fuck somebody and they won’t let you”, he was mocking the prevalent dismissal of rape as an unfortunate yet inevitable outcome of overriding sexual urges.

To me there’s something liberating about these jokes – laughing at social wrongs from a point of view that is insightful and surprising in some way. In contrast, many rape jokes are tired and lazy, simply dressing up sexist and offensive statements as comedy.  In my opinion, Frankie Boyle’s joke about Victoria Pendleton falls into this category: “Victoria can lift twice her own bodyweight. Sexy, as it means she still wouldn’t be able to throw me off”. To point out a man’s ability to overpower and rape a woman is not so much a joke as the reminder of a sad reality. For me, a funny rape joke engages with the culture around rape rather than laughing at the act of rape itself. Otherwise you’re laughing at pain and victimisation, which isn’t exactly hilarious.
Having said this, I do think it’s dangerous to start dissecting what is funny and why. Like I said earlier, there will never be a set of rules for comedy – perceptions of what is funny will always vary. What I am defending is the right of reply. This is nothing new. While the advent of blogs and news chat rooms may be relatively recent, people have always vocalised a response to comedy – be it in the form of heckling or printed reviews. And by making rape jokes, comedians are willfully inviting this dialogue, so must therefore accept all responses – good and bad.

Strong reactions are what keep things interesting and comedians on their toes, because words are important and carry a certain amount of weight. There’s nothing wrong with actually thinking about what you’re saying, which isn’t to say that comedians should censor themselves or intellectualise their actions. Rather, they should have a little conviction about the words they use. This way, if someone has some sort of response, they can retort with something more credible than the rather measly, “you can’t take a joke”.

This article was first published at The Platform.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Gillard gets a Giggle

Australia’s PM, Julia Gillard, displayed her playful sense of humour this week when she made a speech declaring the end of the world is coming.  It was part of a promo clip for the radio station Triple J, and sees Gillard talk about a zombie apocalypse before making the final quip “at least I won’t have to do Q&A again”.

Gillard has often been praised for her ability to see the funny side of things, and many people claimed this spoof speech as further proof of the PM’s status as quick-witted feminist. Indeed, when Gillard accused Tony Abbott of sexism during a parliamentary debate in October, at times her speech was notably comedic, telling the opposition leader that if he wanted to find misogyny all he needed to do was look in a mirror. So although her feminist values have been disputed, Gillard is certainly one sharp woman.

The use of humour has long been used in politics as means of reinforcing a point or, for example, deflating the opposition. Obama gained many fans when he poked fun at the issue over his birth certificate, portraying his birth with a clip of the Lion King

I personally hope we see more of Gillard’s dead-pan comedy. Not only does it disrupt the stereotype of feminists as being overly serious and highly strung, it provides an opportunity to engage with issues in alternative and interesting ways.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Can Burlesque be Seen as a Feminist Statement?

Burlesque and cabaret are pretty popular in London these days - huge hoards of women roll into darkened clubs and gym classes are filled with women sliding down poles. And while burlesque dancing is becoming more of a casual pastime, organisers are also doing well to promote its status as a glitzy high-end performance. This week Crazy Horse Paris presents its show Forever Crazy at the South Bank, an expensive and highly choreographed affair starring Kelly Brook.

I often love to watch these kinds of show but do feel confused over what to make of this so-called art form. Is burlesque another form of sexual exploitation or a way of championing the feminist cause? Well, I think inevitably it can be either, or both. Arguably it comes down to whether the particular burlesque show successfully subverts the conventions of other forms of stripping, as well as the powerless spectacle of the female body more generally.

Burlesque dancers do exert a certain amount of power in that they choose their stage name, costume, and – perhaps more importantly – how much flesh they show. Yet, a more significant area of consideration is the nature of the performance itself. Arguably, burlesque performances are far from a basic form of titillation, but subtle and intelligent works of art.

Indeed, burlesque has a long history of acting as a medium in which to explore the social and political issues of the day. Clickety Split, for example, is a burlesque group from Chicago that make statements on current issues such as abortion rights and war. And of course, pretty much all performances can be said to explore the idea of femininity. Sexual stereotypes and characters – such as the pin-up, housewife, and movie star – are playfully exaggerated to the point of parody and humour. In turn, the notion of the passive female is disrupted as the audience laughs and interacts with the show. In fact, unpredictability and audience interaction frequently comes into play, as performers actively surprise and challenge people in the crowd.

In addition, there tends to be different types of femininity on show – including women covered in tattoos, with shaved heads, and larger women. Shows can promote a diversity of shapes and sizes as well as personalities. 
So perhaps burlesque can be seen as a way of celebrating the female form without displaying it as a passive sexual object. It is often about sensuality and lightheartedness, as well as politics and subversion. Of course, there will always be different forms and interpretations; Dita Von Teese has more of a classic look, seeming submissive and almost childlike in some of her acts. But I think, ultimately, it's important to have diversity. If something is to be creative, there can't be too many rules and set ideas. 

Of course, the risk is that as more women perform burlesque and it becomes more mainstream, it loses its creative and political edge  - instead becoming full of one-dimensional routines, bloated with clichés.

Like the idea of femininity, I think we should strive to think of burlesque as an open-ended and actively creative medium, full of play and humour.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

What Would Beyonce Do?

Last night I saw the stand-up comedian Luisa Omielan at the Comedy Café Theatre in Shoreditch. It was a free show, supported by Ellie Taylor, called What Would Beyonce Do? Contrasting her own life with that of the millionaire superstar, Omielan talked about all the things you might expect - independence, boyfriends and paying those bills bills bills. The comedian was a hit in Edinburgh this year and I can see why. 

Omielan had bags of personality and told some cracking stories. But most of all, I enjoyed how physical her performance was. Blaring out clips of various Beyonce tracks, Omielan danced around the stage and out into the audience, comically gyrating up against people and generally shakin' her thing. Basically, she was loving it, loving her body, loving being out there in the crowd.  

It got me thinking about how the body should be a thing of pleasure. Okay, inevitably it'll always also be a thing of pain but ultimately, either way, it should be something we constantly explore and use in different ways. As Baz Luhrmann puts it in his song: 

Enjoy your body, use it every way you can… don’t be afraid of it, or what other people 

think of it, it’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own.

But for many of us, particularly women, it's a source of worry and shame. We feel it's ugly, too large, or it's just somehow out-of-place in the world. I think we can all agree this is terrible yet, rather than constantly trying to fight these feelings, maybe we should declare apathy for the idea of beauty as something utterly serious and compelling. This is a hard task, I know. But I believe that's where comedy comes in. It affords us a side-position where, while still engaged in notions of beauty, we disrupt these and deflate their significance. It seems likely that we'll always want to be more beautiful. Yet if we laugh at ourselves and see things from a comical stance, we open up space in which to play and perform in new ways. 

Omielan was going through lots of emotions on stage including, towards the end, lying in a crumbled heap pretend-sobbing. The heartbreak she spoke of was pretty intense in some ways yet, we all laughed because life can be both funny and sad at the exact same time. And as women, we try to be independent, we try to be sexy, but ultimately we should also just try to laugh.  

Sunday, 21 October 2012

I Hart Miranda

I wasn't sure about 'Miranda' to begin with, the sitcom seemed clunky and over-the-top. But I wanted to like it, in that way you do when you believe in the concept behind something. And it kept popping up on my TV screen, so I gave it a go. And slowly but surely I saw what other people saw - this big, lovable, embarrassing character who never quite gets it right but keeps on trying.

Well, Miranda Hart has a new book out, 'Is It Just Me?', and is holding an event tomorrow night (Monday 22 October) at the Lyric Theatre. At £21 a ticket, it's pretty steep - although it does include a signed copy of the new book.  Plus she's amazing.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Why laugh?

In what ways can laughter and comedy be used to explore feminism? This question is not new, I know. But I'd like to find out about what's going on today in London and beyond. Which women are laughing the longest, in what ways and why? I propose to discuss this here. Comments/replies/outraged rebuttals all welcome.