rape jokes and tired tropes: hiding behind the shield of comedy

Over the past year or so, there’s been an online conversation about rape jokes. A male comic performs a tasteless joke that targets rape victims and/or contributes to rape culture, a woman calls him out on it, and the internet response is rife with stale retorts like “humorless bitch” and public threats like “#FuckThatPig.”

I don’t have anything to add to the debate about rape jokes themselves, but I will connect you to some hilarious examples of how to do a rape joke without making yourself look like a jackass. You skewer rapists and rape culture instead of victims as you might make fun of racists and racism instead of people of color.

Instead, I want to talk about some other issues engendered by this debate. First, it’s unsurprising that someone who resorts to the trope of “humorless bitch” supports rape jokes. Responding to critiques of misogyny with misogynistic language only proves the point of critics. Likewise, it’s hard to see responding to concern about violence against women with more violent rhetoric as anything but doubling down on rape love. Rape fascination? Obsession?

Supporters of these comics aggressively maintain the “right” to joke about rape while simultaneously trying to silence women who’ve merely shared their thoughts on these jokes. No one’s trying to take away the “right” to make rape jokes or any other kind of joke; they’re just starting a conversation about the role of this kind of comedy in society and expressing how it makes them feel as women (i.e., as either rape survivors or potential victims, unfortunately). But according to the fans, only comics have freedom of speech? Or perhaps only men do.

Second, there’s an attempt by some of these comics and their fans to pit feminists against comics, as though a feminist cannot enjoy comedy or actually be a comedian. It’s an outdated idea that’s been proven wrong again and again and only serves to demean people who believe in gender equality and nullify their arguments by claiming them unfit to discuss comedy. Haven’t we evolved enough to accept that women can be funny? Moreover, feminism and comedy can work together. It’s not just Margaret Cho anymore. Feminist comedians–or people who are both feminists and comedians–have hit the mainstream in such a big way that I don’t think I need to name them. And they aren’t all women!

Finally, what is the role of comedy? What is the role of art? One of the reasons people are angry about the idea that rape jokes aren’t acceptable is because they don’t want restrictions on art. They don’t want art to be hampered, as they see it, by social responsibility. As someone who studied literature for six years, it’s hard for me to understand this disconnect. Maybe it’s easier to say that literature should serve some larger purpose because it’s designed to make people think, whereas comedy is about making people laugh. But if comedy is just about the passing laugh, is it art?

I think there are plenty of comedians who would say that comedy is about much more than laughter. In his weekly podcast, Marc Maron describes comedy as therapy, philosophy, and poetry. Good comedy makes us think and feel and question as well as laugh. If it doesn’t do that, it’s the equivalent of dime novels or reality television. That’s not necessarily bad. We all need an escape from time to time, but some escape hatches lead to pretty dark places.

When comedians spew sexist, heterosexist, racist, transphobic, or ableist garbage—even if it’s funny—I find it difficult to believe that it’s “just a joke.” (This is a paltry defense, by the way. Jokes have always been part of cultural problems and solutions.) It seems more like they are assholes hiding behind the shield of comedy, that comedy gives them the excuse to say whatever they want with impunity. It’s not edgy; it’s boring and trite. It’s the easy laugh.

Screw political correctness, people say. I don’t want to be told what to do. Let’s try not to base our lives on sound bites. Political correctness is no more than sensitivity and respect. When people say they don’t like political correctness, they’ve just announced that they don’t care if they hurt people.

People can do whatever they want with their art. They can decide that they have no social responsibility when they are performing or writing or painting. But if we are all responsible for our actions, then we’re responsible for the messages we put into the world no matter the medium. The “right” to say whatever we want doesn’t mean there are no consequences. Art doesn’t absolve us of our sins by virtue of being art. We can only do that by being decent to each other.

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One Comment on “rape jokes and tired tropes: hiding behind the shield of comedy”

  1. […] written about the debate over rape jokes, and it goes on and on in editorials, blog posts, and online […]


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