I started in the same place I always did, why it was such an important topic to me, and my own complicated relationship with shock humor. If I had a mantra that I repeated to myself in hard times, it would be "Sometimes you either need to laugh or cry. Might as well laugh." That phrase, and the philosophy that goes with it, has carried me through some dark times, and enabled me to navigate some difficult problems and situations without pissing too many people off. Humor has enabled me to look at the darkest parts of the world around me, make sense of them, and then talk about them without traumatizing anyone too much. Humor is practically a way of life for me, and the darker a thing is, the more likely I am to have (at least to myself) been cracking jokes about it. I do feel I need to say this, but I realize now I don't want that to be the focus.
I looked at Mr. Morril's response. Everything about it depressed and bugged me, but nothing quite so much as his blatant appeal to authority of "I know comedy and you don't." That was where I wanted to start. I'm not a comedian, but I definitely write comically, can I declare myself a reasonable enough authority on the topic to override him? I wasn't sure, so I talked to my sister who's worked in comedy. I asked her thoughts on rape and humor and then harassed her for a comment because that's normal between sisters right?
To quote her,
"From my limited time working in comedy, people who rely on rape jokes for their big laughs have a shock in the place of a punchline.
Though I've heard some funny rape jokes, it's never at the expense of the victim."
Well, she is my sister, I shouldn't be surprised her views are similar to my own. She then reminded me that I actually know a stand-up comedian, and that he's gotten formal training from Second City. So I fired off a quick message asking his thoughts on the topic. I was a little worried, this wasn't someone I knew well, and I've seen people I thought were perfectly reasonable turn interesting colors at the mere mention of the topic of rape's relationship in comedy. My fear was totally misplaced. Maddox Campbell's* response nearly just got copy and pasted in its entirety for this article, but that felt like cheating. Here is some of it.
It also allows us to raise an important political issue to mind without being too straight-forward or preachy. So, writing jokes about rape is not belittling the seriousness of the subject, it’s doing the opposite. It’s saying, “I only have five minutes on this stage that I’ve waited all week to get on and competed with other comics to get and I’ve decided rape is worth discussing.”"
Obviously, that is not the only stance to take on the topic (and sadly not all comedians look at rape as "something worth discussing") but it articulates many of my own feelings well. I asked him if at comedy school they talked about rape jokes, he told me that they were too protective of their image to ever QUITE go there, but he did offer this:
"The basic rule when dealing with any touchy topic is "Don't make fun of the victim." Which is pretty obvious and also more about keeping the audience on your side. Also, if a character is the victim of a scene, they should win in the end of the scene. A general rule would definitely apply any one trying to do a scene about rape."
I've said for a while that there are two types of rape jokes. Ones that ask the audience to laugh at the victim, or the act of victimizing someone. They ignore the fact that by doing so, we're further victimizing them.
EX: My girlfriend told me "REAL men don't rape" I told her "REAL women do as their fucking told"
LOL ISN'T IT FUNNY WHEN WOMEN GET PUT IN THEIR PLACE?
Then there is the second type of rape joke, the one that makes me think that rape (or any topic) should never be taken off the table when it comes to comedy. The rape jokes that make fun of the rapist, the society around rape, and rape culture as a whole. The ones that tell victims "We see you, and we see what bullshit you're going through":
EX: We need more rape jokes. We really do.
I love that some people applauded that. Needless to say, rape, the most heinous crime imaginable. Seems it’s a comic’s dream, though. Because it seems that when you do rape jokes that like the material is so dangerous and edgy. But the truth is it’s like the safest area to talk about in comedy. 'Cause who’s going to complain about a rape joke? Rape victims? They don’t even report rape.
As I quoted above, comedy, at its best, should be a means to talk about the difficult and the dark to challenge people to think about it. Comedy should be a means of saying "No! I will not let this drop!" It is a way to try togame a system that tries to silence people. When people try to speak up against things that rub against people's privilege they're met with backlash of people getting defensive. If we make jokes about it, however, people don't get defensive, and suddenly we can talk about it. It's powerful. Comedy is powerful. Always supporting any rape joke because of free speech (which is not what that means--I'll get into that more at the end) is supporting rape culture. Sure, make jokes about horrible things, but when the people who are affected by these things step up and say "This is not okay" we need to listen. Rape victims are already silenced aggressively enough, do we really want to perpetuate that?
Yes, we're getting into rape culture now. 1 in 4 women are raped. Think about that for a moment. 50% of women in Canada will be abused in some form and there's a huge overlap in the men who rape women, and the men who abuse them. When comedians make jokes about how funny it is for women to get raped, get put in their place, get beaten, they ignore the epidemic levels this problem is at and they condone it. By condoning it, they perpetuate it. People will pay lip service to "everyone knows domestic violence is bad! It's just a joke!" But here's the thing: it keeps happening. We as a society choose to look away, because it's none of our business what goes on in the privacy of people's homes, after all. So now we have a society where not only do we not interfere with domestic violence, we make jokes that are effectively condoning it, even if that isn't their intention.
Rape culture is a problem, and there's the commonly bantered around myth that "all feminists think men are rapists". If that were true, it would make my marrying a man when I'm a bisexual woman a very bizarre choice (seriously, why the hell wouldn't I just date women exclusively?) but the sad fact is that it isn't feminists who think all men are rapists. It's the rapists that do. Seriously, go read that link. I'll wait.
People normalize their behavior. They assume everyone is stealing company stationery (or whatever their own naughty behavior they think everyone indulges in is) and it's no big deal. They assume even if other people aren't stealing stationery, they won't care because it's so minor. In this case rapists assume that their male*** peers are also predators, when in fact it is approximately 1 in 20 men. "Wait, but you said it was 1 in 4 women, right?" yup, which means the average rapist will assault 5 women in his life (about 85% of which will be known to him). So think about it next time you're in a room where there are 20 men, and we'll assume 20 women. One of those men is a rapist, probably, and 5 of those women are survivors of rape (while 5 more of some other stroke of abuse). When you make a joke about rape, you are 1) probably triggering those 5 survivors (and maybe those 5 abuse survivors, too), and 2) telling that 1 rapist in the room that you've got his back. You're confirming his assumption that it isn't just him, everyone does it. If not that, you are at least telling him "Yeah, I'll turn away and assume she was just drunk, regretted it, and called rape after the fact". If you've ever uttered that phrase, consider the social backlash women are met when they talk about having been raped, and maybe have a look at this infograph of how many rapists face any sort of legal consequence.
So what are we fighting for when it comes to rape in comedy? Is it in the name of "free speech"? People speaking out against rape jokes which ask us to laugh at the victim aren't silencing anyone - they're exercising their own free speech. Free speech does not mean freedom from consequences. Do we want to fight for the right of (almost entirely) white, male comedians to make rape jokes without consequences, or can we all finally just agree that sometimes people say shitty hurtful things, and holding them accountable doesn't mean we're silencing them? It means we're exercising our OWN freedom of speech. Can we agree that victims of rape get to be the ones who say what is and isn't okay when it comes to rape jokes, and listen instead of telling them to lighten up? I think comedy is important. That doesn't change the fact that we all culturally need to take stock of what we do, and don't, give a free pass on. I think we unilaterally need to strip "It was just a joke" from our cultural vernacular. It isn't a defense, and jokes should mean more than that.
*You can find his youtube channel Kick and Giggles for some sketch comedy fun or follow him on Twitter @maddoxCampbell
**I picked a random internet joke instead of an actual stand-up Comedian's because 1) I didn't want to give any credit to rape apologists, and 2) I didn't want to provide people with the platform to derail the conversation to being about some random comedian as actually a nice guy.
***Yes, men are rape victims, too, and not all rapists are men, but there are a LOT more male rapists than female, and a lot more female victims than male. However that is not what this post is about. The treatment of male rape victims is a post for another day.