Jezebel writer Lindy West reading out the hideous comments she received after she spoke about rape jokes. Photo: Jezebel.com
It’s not that I’m not used to hearing jokes about rape thrown about like confetti at a wedding. Hell, it’s not like they haven’t been thrown at me. As Jezebel.com writer Lindy West so brutally demonstrated earlier this week, when you’re a woman who uses the internet to write about feminism and gendered violence, rape threats - sorry, jokes - go with the territory.
West had appeared on FX’s Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell with comedian Jim Norton to discuss that industry’s tendency to excuse and celebrate rape ‘humour’ as edgy and dangerous, and what effect this ultimately has. As she wrote afterwards:
I don't believe that previously non-raping audience members are going to take to the streets in a rape mob after hearing one rape joke. That's an absurd and insulting mischaracterization. But I do believe that comedy's current permissiveness around cavalier, cruel, victim-targeting rape jokes contributes to (that's 'contributes' not causes) a culture of young men who don't understand what it means to take this stuff seriously.
Unfortunately, many viewers disagreed. And they wasted no time in employing the typical methods used by that portion of men aggrieved by a woman encroaching on their sacrosanct freedoms to behave as they want, when they want.
And how did they try and prove me wrong? How did they try to demonstrate that comedy, in general, doesn't have issues with women? By threatening to rape and kill me, telling me I'm just bitter because I'm too fat to get raped, and suggesting that the debate would have been better if it had just been Jim raping me.
You can watch the video of West reading some of the comments here. They include the charming, “Noone [sic] would want to rape that fat, disgusting mess’, ‘Jaba has nothing to worrie [sic] about, not even a prison escapee would rape her’, ‘That big bitch is bitter that no one wants to rape her’ and, somewhat ironically considering West’s apparent unrapeability, ‘There is a group of rapists with over 9000 penises coming for this fat bitch.’
In the past, West has been clear about the fact she doesn’t believe rape is an off limits topic for comedy and I agree with her. The presence of rape in a joke is not in and of itself an offensive act. But as Molly Ivins asserts, jokes that position victims as the punchline aren’t just lazy, they’re vulgar. So while it’s possible to craft good comedy out of the blackest of topics (yes, including rape) it requires a level of skill and/or experience found in only the most clever practitioners.
Unfortunately, that’s not quite reflected in the sheer number of below average comedians out there who confuse laziness with edginess, or who think mentioning Louis CK is a universal hall pass. Controversial topics are seen as clever by proxy, despite the pedestrian attempts to broach them and the staggering regularity with which they occur. In fact, the idea that rape is a dangerous territory into which only the most courageous of comics are prepared to wade is perhaps the only thing funny about this. Rape jokes - especially the bad ones - are a dime a dozen.
As West’s experience shows (and Anita Sarkeesian, Rebecca Watson and all the other women who dare to have an opinion on the internet), women are expected to applaud the casual invocation of sexual violence as a tool for comedy or discourse lest they become the victims of it.
Faced with the weight of that unspoken threat - that this is what awaits you if you speak up - it’s not difficult to understand why so many women chuckle along. If I laugh at the joke about the woman being raped in the park, or at the girl being carried around unconscious around the party, or at the woman being heckled by the comedian on stage, then maybe I can let this guy/these guys know that I’m on their side - and then they won’t target me.
It makes it even more difficult when other women join the chorus of people criticising 'sensitivity', as Roseanne Barr did following West's posts. In a string of bizarre tweets, Barr accused West of advocating censorship. As Marianne argues over at XO Jane, it's not that Barr is expected to side with West because they're both women - but her wilful misunderstanding of West's argument (which has nothing to do with censorship and everything to do with viewing violence in a framework of cultural normalisation) seems at odds with her self identification as a feminist kicking up, not down.
If violence occurs on a continuum, then that cultural normalisation is key. I think back to the number of times I’ve laughed at things that made me uncomfortable - the jokes where I knew that I wasn’t just the listener but also the punchline, and that part of the enjoyment for the teller was that he got away with turning me into both. I’ve acquiesced to that palpable male energy around me, and complied because I’ve been afraid of being called ‘difficult’ or worse, ugly. I’ve been afraid to have the undercurrent of that bubbling wrath turned on me when it turns out I wasn’t so willing to play the part of the dutiful subjugate, so instead I’ve laughed and told myself it’s not so bad. They didn’t mean it that way, so why cause a fuss?
Get upset over being told (as West was) that someone’s going to rape you with a traffic cone - even though they don’t even find you attractive - and you’re being ‘sensitive’ and taking things too personally. But tell a man you don’t like his joke about rape and it’s like Stonewall all over again. You might as well call him a RAPIST, which is like, the worst thing you can ever say to a man EVER. He’s not a rapist! He just thinks rape is funny! Not in real life, silly. Just fake life. Anyway, stop being so mean :(
There’s a deep irony in the fact that the comedy fraternity sees the rights of women to feel safe as theoretical, yet their own rights to joke about raping them a cornerstone of freedom of expression. Honestly, I've never seen anyone with thinner skins than the comedians who claim to need freedom to explore all topics, no matter how they might hurt others. That the industry is overwhelmingly dominated by men is a huge problem; the vast majority of rape victims are women and the vast majority of perpetrators are men. This isn’t about freedom of speech. It’s about one group using the pain of another group (which has traditionally been inflicted by the first group!) to further their own careers because in the swag of tools available to the average comic, rape isn’t seen as traumatic but ‘taboo’.
But as West’s experience shows, this isn’t even about what’s funny anymore. It’s about the fact that women are still expected to view their own existence as a joke; to put up with jokes about being raped or being fat or being fat AND raped, or being too fat to be raped, or needing to be raped in order to be punished for being fat or opinionated or just there.
That we’re expected to laugh at them, to keep our concerns and anger to ourselves and to dismiss them as harmless fun is just the pesto on a spectacularly bad sh-t sandwich. When the most dangerous thing about rape humour is not that it attempts to silence and degrade women but that protesting it makes some men feel bad, then it's time to take a good hard look at ourselves and ask whether or not we deserve all this freedom in the first place.