March 18, 2015

Can Rape Jokes Ever Be Funny?

I’m the first one to call out comedians who lazily carry the banner of “taboo or offensive topics automatically make jokes funnier”.  We know that this can’t possibly be the case (Daniel Tosh is a great counter example to this claim), and yet there are still a plethora of popular comedians and comedy writers who rely on jokes about rape and gendered violence to lend shock value to their content. As much as my passionate feminist leanings drive me to make an absolute statement regarding the horrifically unfunny nature of rape jokes, I think it’s worthwhile to ask the dreaded question. Can they ever be told in a productive manner? Can rape jokes ever be funny?

A number of critics have noted that perhaps rape jokes can be funny, as long as they “shoot up, not down”. This saying is used in the comedy community as a means to indicate where the punch line of a joke is aiming. For example, jokes about sexualized violence that make the survivor of abuse the punch line of the joke, thereby further victimizing an already vulnerable and victimized individual are not only in poor taste, but also contribute to the overwhelming shame and incredulity placed upon them in society.  Does it matter who ends up the butt of a joke, as many liberal leaning people claim?

It’s probably fair to evaluate jokes that make an effort to examine societal issues of gendered violence from a perspective of anti-oppression differently, than one would say, anything that comes out of Daniel Tosh’s mouth. However, even a feminist joke about such a traumatic issue could be damaging to any potential listeners, especially survivors. A number of progressive pop culture commentators were outraged at Tine Fey and Amy Poehler’s jokes about Bill Cosby at the Emmy Awards, despite their explicit aim at Cosby as the target. Does this mean that comedians can never tell jokes dealing with issues such as rape? No, it doesn’t. Rather, it simply means that they, having taken it upon themselves do so, will be rightfully subject to the public’s opinions about it. It seems so simple, and yet in the face of backlash, far too many comics are still crying about “freedom of speech”. 

Nobody, least of all feminists are preventing comedians from saying exactly whatever it is they like. The catch of course, is that we get to say whatever we like in response. It seems to me that comedy is in a pretty sad state when doing away with rape jokes is discussed like it’ll single handedly kill the art itself. In a culture that continuously denigrates the experiences of rape survivors, that blames the victims rather than the perpetrators, that shames survivors publically, making the process of reporting a rape, a second trauma for many people, it’s not hugely surprising that comedy is yet another vehicle for this oppression. What is more surprising, for me at least, is that people so boldly defend rape jokes even when faced with first hand accounts of their damage. Dane Cook, who performed at The Laugh Factory the same night as Tosh’s blunder, defended his colleague in a tweet reading, “If you journey through this life easily offended by other peoples words I think it’s best for everyone if you just kill yourself.” I think it’s safe to assume that people triggered by rape jokes are not just “easily offended” but have rather suffered an offense that can be psychologically damaging and are intolerant therefore, of people making light of it. It’s clear where Cook and Tosh’s allegiance lies- namely not with people all over the world whose lives are upended by an act they had no control over, but rather with rich, straight, white comedians who are scared out of their wits that marginalized groups will no longer stand for being their fodder for punchlines. Now that is a joke.

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