The five things wrong about the 'air sex' video

A still from Rémi Gaillard's 'airsex sex' Youtube clip.

A still from Rémi Gaillard's 'airsex sex' Youtube clip.

Remi Gaillard is a French prankster and comedian. He’s enormously popular in Europe thanks to a series of YouTube clips of him doing things to unsuspecting members of the public and then posting them to YouTube.

Most of the time these are pretty benign, like dressing up as Mario and driving a Go Kart around Paris, which is actually pretty funny.

But he’s got a new schtick and it’s taking the world by…  what’s the less impressive equivalent of storm? Scattered showers? Drizzle? Light to moderate wind on the southern coasts and ranges? Something like that.

That schtick is this: pretending to have sex with unsuspecting women.

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He calls it “air sex”: he goes up to women in public places, positions himself relative to the camera so it looks like he’s penetrating a woman while she reads a book in a park or ties her shoelace in the street, until they realise what’s going on and get outraged, at which point he scampers off grinning at his own hilarity.

The joke is that they don’t realise for a while – they just keep on doing what they’re doing while Remi pantomimes pounding away.

It’s seemingly struck a chord with the planet: the video went up on March 28 and by 2 April had already passed four million views. Needless to say, outrage was not long in coming. The video was swiftly picked up by feminist blogs and websites and Gaillard was the recipient of much criticism on Twitter from all over the world.

Naturally, being a male comedian accused of perpetrating rape culture, he immediately apologised for his insensitivity, addressed the criticisms thoughtfully and entered into an enlightening dialogue about the damaging effects of sexism on socie…

Nah, just joking. He said his critics were humourless scolds and that those who were supporting his right to pretend to screw strangers were “voting en masse… for freedom of expression”. Freedom! Oh, Remi, you’re like the Rosa Parks of pretending to rape people.

Oddly enough, there are some things about this clip that I think are a wee bit wrong.

Wrong Thing #1: the “pretending to have sex with unsuspecting women” bit

There’s a term for “sex with unsuspecting women”. It’s not “comedy”.

The entire point of the joke is that the women are being mock-violated without giving consent. The implied rape is not part of the joke: it’s the entire joke.

The clue is that without that part, it doesn’t work. If the women were obviously in on the joke, it stops being a prank and becomes the equivalent of the “I’m holding up the Tower of Pisa!” Facebook travel photos that help one cull down the friend list.

Wrong Thing #2: b-b-but it’s a joke!

“Ah,” a douche might say, “but you admit it’s a joke!” Yes, it is. Nobody is actually getting sexually assaulted. But the joke is that one unassuming dude can sexually dominate women without their knowledge, and that this is hilarious.

And said douche is going to roll their eyes when the term “rape culture” is raised, but how can we avoid it? The video takes young women minding their own business, and proceeds to show them who’s in control of the situation by symbolically f***ing them without them realising, much less giving any sort of consent.

The only way it could be more archetypical a masterclass in casual misogyny would be if it the background music had been ‘Blurred Lines’ rather than Hank Williams III’s jaunty ‘Rebel Within’. And given the youngest Williams’ punk credentials, one hopes he’s a little taken aback at his song apparently becoming the new ‘Yackety Sax’. 

 

Wrong Thing #3: Defining sexism through percentages

On his Facebook page Gaillard defensively insists that the video can’t possibly be interpreted as being sexist because only seven of the eight people that he pretends to molest are women – number six is an uniformed police officer wearing a motorcycle helmet whose gender is unclear in the clip. Gaillard says it was a dude, though, and he was there and would presumably know.

But still, the argue shakes out to “how can something be sexist if a mere 87.5% of the people being made fun of are female?”

Boom! Case closed, ladies.

Thing #4: respecter la culture française!

I’ll admit this is a very secondary issue, but still: Remi, it’s up to you whether you want to play into hackneyed stereotypes of French culture, of course, but did mime really have to be such a key element?

After all, not every Australian comedian on YouTube feels the need to reinforce people’s lazy ideas of “Australianess” by downing tinnies of beer or denying human rights to refugees as part of their act.

Thing #5: The Freedom of Expression thing

But getting back to the Facebook defence: can we get over the idea that criticism equals repression? It doesn’t. It’s a particular bugbear of mine, because being told you’re wrong is not the same as being oppressed. In fact, if you’re having a debate over whether or not you have the right to freedom of expression, then guess what?You’re enjoying that self-same freedom of expression. The giveaway that you’re being somehow censored is if when you’re arguing your case all the lights go out and you’re unexpectedly bundled into the back of a van.

Thing #5b: No, seriously, the Freedom of Expression thing

What’s interesting about comedians who do actually use comedy for political ends is that they rarely complain about how repressed they are, even when it’s a genuine issue. Like Burmese comedian Zarganar, who has been jailed several times for his satirical work, or Bassem Youssef – the satirist and TV host known as “the Egyptian Jon Stewart” – who can speak with some authority about comedy and limits to his freedom of expression, since when he makes a joke people don’t like he gets actual death threats and the genuine arrest by his government.

That’s what censorship looks like. Being told “dude, tone down the rape jokes” doesn’t compare with the secret police turning up at midnight.

Seriously, Remi. When no-one else is smirking at how hilarious you are, maybe it’s not a joke worth making.