So a rape joke walked into a bar…wait, you’re not laughing.
The last year has seen a flowering of public calls-to-account when it comes to rape jokes in comedy circles. Comedian Daniel Tosh infuriated women last July when he cracked a joke about a woman in the audience being gang raped, and feminist writer Sady Doyle recently challenged comedian Sam Morril on the use of a rape joke in his routine. So, what’s the deal with comedians and rape jokes? And, if we want to get into even more dangerous territory, is there ever a circumstance where rape can be funny?
These are subjects that have been hotly debated for decades — some feminists and women strongly feel that no, there are no circumstances in which rape can be made funny. Others argue that an artfully crafted rape joke, one which puts the lens on rapists and rape culture, can evoke laughter as a criticism of society; what is being made funny is not rape itself, which is a terrible thing, but the dark culture we live in.
Many male comedians seem to believe they’re entitled to make rape jokes, judging from the responses that come up every time the public criticizes a comedian for making one. Comedy is an insular world in many senses, and sometimes comedians are surprised when their routines are discussed outside the comedy clubs and other venues they think of as home. In response to questions about the use of rape for laughs, and how that laughter reflects on the audience, comedians get highly defensive, and they tend to circle the wagons.
Cries of “free speech” arise, and comedians insist that people shouldn’t go to comedy clubs if they don’t want to be offended; Doyle, for example, was presumably at fault for making the decision to go see some comedy because she thought it might be entertaining, and for expecting a comedy routine that didn’t involve a joke made at the expense of her body. Comics say they have a right to offend, with those like Tosh arguing that their entire ethos in fact revolves around offensive routines, that this is what audiences attend for, and those who stumble in unaware deserve whatever they get.
Gosh, that sounded an awful lot like victim-blaming, a common justification for rape, to me. What these comedians don’t seem to understand is that the right to free speech includes not just the right to make offensive speech, but the right to object to it, and to comment on it. And that these criticisms are not “censorship” unless the government itself is cracking down on rape jokes, which, to my knowledge, it is not. In fact, the right to have a lively conversation about these jokes is a key part of freedom — if a comedian wants to make rape jokes and believes them to be critical to his routine despite the fact that they traffic on an oppression he doesn’t experience, he’s totally entitled to do so.
And critics are totally entitled to talk about it.
An important adjunct conversation comes up when we talk about rape jokes and their deeper meaning: are men making these jokes because they think they are funny? Because they know audiences will laugh? Because they find the exertion of male power and authority on stage in front of an audience enjoyable? Rape jokes feed directly into a larger culture that views women as objects for exploitation, affirming the belief that women are there for the raping, rather than deserving of bodily autonomy.
They also raise another question. Can a rape joke be funny? The answer to that question is a tough one, and there are staunch advocates on all parts of the spectrum; those who claim that there are no boundaries in comedy and anything goes for a laugh, those who utterly oppose rape jokes, and those who think they can be funny, when they’re done with care.
Take Wanda Sykes and her famous detachable pussy bit, a comedy routine that’s clearly a rape joke, but also a commentary on rape culture:
She speaks from a place of experience as a woman, and as a woman of color, making her more statistically likely to experience sexual assault, but you don’t have to be a woman to make a good rape joke. Comedian Louis C.K. has learned from conversations about rape jokes and integrated them into his own routines.
He points out that the number one threat to women is men in this dark, wry routine that’s funny because it’s true, and also tragic:
Here’s another joke, one much darker that some people feel is still effective because it’s designed to cause discomfort and criticize the very concept of a rape joke:
Lindy West writes that this joke works: “[Because] the oppressors never win at the end of his jokes. That’s why it’s easy to give him the benefit of the doubt that this joke is making fun of rapists—specifically the absurd and horrific sense of entitlement that accompanies taking over someone else’s body like you’re hungry and it’s a delicious hoagie.”
For comedians who think there should be no barriers in comedy, these jokes highlight the fact that it’s possible to perform a rape joke well, and in a way that’s thought-provoking, but also funny, which makes unfunny and offensive jokes all the more frustrating — sure, anyone can choose to ignore and avoid entertainment that’s not to their taste, but this isn’t just about personal tastes in entertainment. It’s also about the culture reinforced by crude rape jokes, and as long as comedians keep making them, the rest of us are going to keep talking about them.
Photo credit: Comedian Wanda Sykes, by Greg Hernandez