On Being Better Than a Rape Joke


Terrible things on good ol’ interwebz are not new or few and far between, but sometimes you see so much terribleness about the same damn things that it just about does your head in. For me, it’s the internet brouhaha that’s been happening as of late regarding comedians (most notably white, male comedians) and their “right” to make “rape jokes.”

If you’re not familiar, let’s give it some context: the discussion really began ramping up last year when comedian Daniel Tosh made a rape joke at his set at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood. When a woman in the audience responded (or heckled, if you want to call it that) that rape jokes were never funny, Tosh responded, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” The woman to whom this beyond unfunny sentiment was directed at took to the internet to tell her experience. While there was some backlash against Tosh (he later apologised), there also was support for him – and not by just the typical misogynistic internet trolls, but by many other established and respected male comedians. This incident and the overall subject have been written about in-depth in many places around the web.

Since then, there has been much back and forth between comedians clamoring against the apparent “policing” of their material and internet feminists about the problematic nature of rape jokes. Some of these recent discussions include an open letter by Jezebel’s Lindy West where she breaks down the issue of the rape joke, specifically it being told by white, male comedians. In the article and in previous ones she’s penned, West has stated that she is not saying that rape can never be discussed as part of a joke, in fact she’s even written a piece pointing out rape jokes that work. She highlights the constant counterarguments she’s received in her open letter, which I think is a must-read to get a better understanding of where us apparently humourless feminists are coming from.

Last week West and comedian Jim Norton appeared on W. Kamau Bell’s show Totally Biased (By the way, I think Bell and his show are genius). You can check out a clip here. They had a civil discussion. Since that appearance however, the vitriol being spewed at Lindy West for her comments and the articles she has written completely prove her point. Look at the comments under the YouTube video of their discussion if you dare. That is rape culture. That is a messed up, misogynistic culture overall. In fact, in the midst of writing this, West has written a response documenting all the craziness being directed at her since the show. Read it. Let that sink in. (I would like to note that Norton has commented on the response that West has received as well.)

Censorship seems to be the key buzzword for comedians and rape joke enthusiasts. The thing is, no one is actually “censoring” comedians – they can’t actually do that. Rather, they are commenting on and criticizing their jokes – comedians are allowed to say whatever they want, but there are always consequences – if people think what you are saying is problematic, they are also allowed to say so. You can say what you want. If people don’t like it, they can and should look away. But sometimes it’s not that simple and they also can criticize what you are doing.

In my opinion, if you’re a so-called edgy comedian and you have to rely on rape as the punch line of your joke, you’re not a very good comedian. Same with making fat jokes, and using works like “retarded.” You’re not edgy, you’re childish. It’s hack. If you’re so talented, there is LITERALLY EVERYTHING ELSE IN THE WORLD TO USE AS MATERIAL.

They say, “Oh, but I offend everyone! There’s always someone who would be offended no matter what!” There’s a difference between offending say, a conservative racist, and making fun of minorities, disabilities, illnesses and those who have been through terrible traumas like rape. I saw someone on Twitter making an excellent point – comedy should attack the powerful, not the victimized.

Here’s the thing – I understand and absolutely agree with the idea that comedy can help us heal and deal with terrible things. Comedy can and should push boundaries. Sometimes it should make people think and re-examine the world around us. Jokes were made around 9/11, but the ones that worked dealt with our fears, the new changes we were experiencing such as increased airport security, not joking about people who had died or lost loved ones in the tragedy.

Back to the Lindy/Jim discussion, I’m sure Jim is a good, intelligent guy, but during the segment he said something to the effect of the audience knows it’s a joke. The audience knows it’s terrible and you wouldn’t actually do that. Um, do they? Have you been on Twitter? Read the news about Steubenville? A lot of people don’t actually get your jokes. They think terrible things about minorities, women, gays, etc. They are not laughing for the reasons you think they are. It reminds me of a conversation I saw on Oprah between her and Dave Chappelle. Part of the reason he stopped doing his show because he realized the audience wasn’t receiving it the way he intended. The wrong people were laughing for the wrong reasons. Now, that doesn’t mean don’t say anything ever because some idiot out there might take it the wrong way, but maybe just take it into consideration?

I’m not someone who is for censoring everything, really. I am not saying comedy has to be “clean.” To reiterate, I am not humourless. I laugh at a lot of things, trust me. I get jokes. I like edgy comedy – when it is actually making social commentary, not when it’s someone just saying things for shock value. People are using the example of comedians like George Carlin and Richard Pryor in the debate – oh please, most of the comedians in question are not even remotely of that calibre. Also, there is a huge difference in someone using their own experiences, cultural or otherwise to make a joke. As West has stated, “A person making fun of issues within their own cultural group—issues that they intimately and viscerally understand and are affected by—is not the same as you making fun of a cultural group in whose oppression your cultural group is complicit. Basically, be careful when you’re handling other people’s valuables.”

When I was in high school I used to say works like “gay” and “retarded” and so did my friends and we NEVER meant them in a derogatory way, we meant them to say “that sucks.” But guess what, we grew up and learned the power of words. I don’t use those words anymore even if I never meant them in a harmful way – the connotation was still there. If you are intelligent, thoughtful and have real things to say, you can come up with something better than rape being a punch line. That’s not to say there can’t be a well done, funny joke about rape – but where it’s commenting on rape culture and criticizing rapists, NOT those who have been raped.

Being white, I would never tell a person of colour not to be offended by a joke about race. I don’t really think a bunch of guys should be the authority on whether or not rape jokes are okay. Just so you know being female, on the internet and having an opinion on anything from politics to video games is no walk in the park. There are people out there who actively try to destroy the careers of women, as well as threaten the lives of these women and their loved ones because they are actively out there with their opinions online while being female. Yes, celebrities have to deal with crazy people online, but the people I’m talking about are not celebrities – they are average people without the resources to protect themselves and stop the constant harassment and defamation they receive. Once again, case in point.

Yes, I get that someone may always be offended by what you say and you can’t tailor your comedy career around not stepping on everyone’s toes, but when it comes to talking about rape and talking about women, please listen. Just take a look at the internet commentary around the Steubenville and the Rehtaeh Parsons case. Victim-blaming and rape apologies came not just from anonymous internet commenters, but from actual established media outlets like CNN and the National Post. Last summer in Toronto there was a string of sexual assaults in the Christie Pitts area. I ask of comedians so worried about their craft (which once again, no one is actually stopping you from saying whatever you want to say), do you walk with your keys between your hands to easily defend yourself against an attacker every time you walk home and it’s not broad daylight? Do you and your friends always text each other to ensure you have all arrived home safely any time you leave one place and return to your respective homes? Does your family members often tell you “Don’t walk home alone!!!!” (which by the way would make working and living life in general impossible). There’s danger in walking while being a freaking woman, okay?

I don’t get the need to hold on to the “right” to make rape jokes – do you really love it that much?! Don’t tell me it’s about free speech. Just because you can do or say something, doesn’t mean you should. That’s part of being an adult. Free speech is important, but it’s not a shield to cowardly hide behind when someone calls you out for your bullsh#t. If you’re a good comedian you’ll come up with something actually funny and smart to say without any of the terribleness that goes along with things like the act of rape. The criticism of rape jokes, at least from my point of view, is not to crucify, but to educate. In comedy, don’t comics work through their material to see what lands? People can make mistakes, but people can also learn from their mistakes. West herself has admitted to having used problematic language in the past in her own writing and how she would now do it differently. I’m going to drop a Maya Angelou quote here: “When you know better, you do better.” If you’re truly a talented comedian, then be better. Be better than a rape joke.


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