So You Want to Make a Rape Joke…

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Comedian Daniel Tosh is getting more attention than he ever deserved by talent alone (I’ve never found him consistently funny on any higher level of thinking than the YouTube videos his TV show is based on). He responded to a heckler with essentially threats of rape. He meant to do so wittily, I suppose, but everybody can claim that after the fact.

I’ve laughed at a rape joke before, though, so I can’t claim complete innocence here. In 2008 my childhood idols The Kids in the Hall (from their show I probably shouldn’t have been watching that young) were going on a live tour. I went to the show. It opened with a video of the five guys, by then in their 40s, trying to overcome a collective writer’s block for this tour’s material. One’s eyes light up and he shouts “I know – let’s rape Kevin!” Kevin objects. The rest like the idea, or keep suggesting it again after it’s been turned down. The other four have made up their minds. They chase Kevin out of the room, ending the video, and he runs on stage in his underwear tied up as the others chase after him.

Rape jokes are terrible. They’re always a terrible idea. But paradoxically, that they are always a terrible idea made this idea work. The Kids are all WASP men, and the only one who steps out of that boring old “norm” is the one gay member of the troupe. But they always subversively poked at the prejudices the dominance of their type created. They touched on feminist issues on their early 90s show in ways that would go over many heads. So they made a rape joke. I laughed even though there was another level of ambivalence that troubled me then as now. Rape jokes are terrible. Are jokes about rape jokes terrible?

Who makes the joke and how is entirely relevant. If the ideological background of the comic is well established in his or her work, it is a matter of context. The comic must know that rape is never actually funny. The comic must respect all genders and sexual orientations. The comic must build up to the line that has a very narrow aperture of acceptability. And with that narrow aperture, the context and message need to be deep. (Daniel Tosh, from his comedy in general to this particular incident, doesn’t meet any of these.)

Good comedy is subversive, and so acceptable comedy about anything regarding unwillful sexualization and objectification needs to favour the victim. It needs to call out on bullshit. It’s bullshit the level of rape culture our society tolerates (video games and their gamers, Hollywood gender roles of forceful seduction, victim-blaming of anyone wearing a skirt). This is what rape jokes are perpetuating. Comedy done well on the subject is witty, critical commentary.

And we need that commentary to continuously point out rape culture. Rape is seen as justice – if child molesters are the lowest of the low in maximum security prison castes, they will get raped themselves. It’s an-eye-for-an-eye justification of somebody deserving rape. But that perpetuates it as a fact, as an option, as a solution to something. Exaggerated to meet the urges of a disrespectful, sexist, selfish man, the rule extends to “you made me jizz in my pants and so now I get to jizz in yours”. That is COMPLETELY HORRIBLY UNACCEPTABLE AND WRONG yet despicably common. So stop thinking there isn’t a rape culture problem, and start dissecting popular culture along with your own thoughts and responses to when rape is made a matter for amusement.

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