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.

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