Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Why rape jokes aren't a joke

Can rape jokes ever be funny? This is what Ellie Levenson asks in the Independent today: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/ellie-levenson-where-jokes-are-concerned-context-is-all-1776800.html
This question has been asked in her book and has prompted debate across the feminist blogosphere, from the F Word in the UK to Feministing in the US. The majority of responses to this question that I have seen has been a resounding NO. And I have to agree with this stance.

Levenson proposes that rape jokes can be funny as they help us to see through the prism of humour that rape isn’t funny. I can kind of see her point here. Yes, humour helps us deal with pain and tragedy. Laughing is a method of working through a trauma, in the way we share tears and laughter by talking about funny and touching memories when someone dies. But I think that by saying rape jokes are ok because they help us work through the trauma of rape she misses one massive point, and that is often rape jokes aren’t told by rape survivors.

Levenson goes on to compare rape jokes to:
“a joke about an affectionate stereotype told by a member of that race to another member of that race?”
Firstly I am not sure I understand what an “affectionate” stereotype is but this sentence reinforces my point. When we think about rape jokes, I don’t think we picture women laughing merrily about rape and poking fun at the stereotype of rapists. I know that instead I tend to think of men on stage and on TV thinking it is ok to tell a rape joke, and thinking it is ok to make jokes about aggressive sexual behaviour (for example, Frankie Boyle informing Lucy Porter he was planning on masturbating over her when she appears on Loose Women). To say that rape jokes are the equivalent of gay people using the word queer or black people using the N word in the context of a group of people who have reclaimed such words is to completely miss the point. Because, just as in the public eye it isn’t white people who use the N word, in the public eye it generally isn’t rape victims making rape jokes.

The problem with rape jokes is that more often than not it is men who haven’t been raped making a joke about women being raped. An exception to this that I am aware of is Billy Connolly, who has made jokes about rape but is himself a survivor. It is a moment of massive privilege where a comedian takes the trauma of something that he hasn’t experienced and makes a cheap laugh out of it. It’s just stupid. It isn’t adding anything to comedy, it isn’t expanding the comedic genre. If anything, it is taking comedy back to the dull dull days of lazy sexism we associate with Benny Hill and Bernard Manning, and that comedy pariah, Jim Davidson.

Levenson goes on in her article to compare rape jokes to the jokes made in the aftermath of the tsunami:

“A couple of days after the tsunami that killed thousands of people across Asia, I went to a comedy show. The act was full of jokes about the tsunami – things such as tsunami being a high scorer on Countdown (presenter Richard Whiteley had just died) and the Tsunami (Toon Army) causing havoc across Asia. Did these jokes make me think the comedian, or the laughing audience, did not feel the horror of the natural disaster that had just happened? Of course not. We were coming to terms with tragedy through humour.”

But what is crucially missing from this example, and what is missing in the evaluation of rape jokes, is that it is (highly likely) that the majority of the audience and the comedian were in no way personally affected by the tragedy of the tsunami. These jokes weren’t being told in Sri Lanka, the audience wasn’t made up of people who had lost their homes to the sea, the comedian hadn’t watched his family swept away whilst he was helpless to save them. Far from allowing the audience to understand the horrors of the tsunami, joking and laughing about it shows how far removed from the tragedy the comedian and audience were. Personally, I don’t get how jokes about millions of people dying are funny. Similarly with rape jokes. The majority of people who tend to tell rape jokes haven’t been raped. The people who laugh often haven’t been raped. The jokes aren’t allowing the survivors of rape to work through their trauma with laughter. Why? Because most often the survivor often isn’t visible to the joker. The survivor is barely on the joker’s radar.

The other problem I have with rape jokes is the assumptions they make about the audience or the listeners of the joke. It completely ignores the fact that with 1 in 4 women being survivors of DV or sexual assault, there is probably a survivor in the audience. Now, I’m sure that some survivors may find the joke funny. But a lot of survivors won’t. And don’t they have the right to feel that? And don’t we all have the right to feel offended by some things?

I love edgy comedy and I love offensive comedy when it has a purpose, when it is satirizing corruption or greed or politics or right wing lunatics or media idiocy. But rape jokes are (often) non survivors taking the pain and horror of survivors and asking other people to laugh at it. And this is not ok.

In the rape joke that Levenson cites she says the joke is in fact about men’s egos rather than rape. If that is the case, why make the joke about rape? Why not tell a joke about male ego? She says that in the context within which he was telling the joke it wasn’t threatening or offensive. But what if the man who told it to her had then told the joke to a rape survivor? Surely this changes the context and could potentially make the joke offensive and triggering. Surely it is at the very least arrogant to tell a joke that could have that effect, and arrogant to say that the joke is ok because luckily on this occasion the joke was told in the right context.

I just don’t see the point of rape jokes. They have the potential to cause incredible damage and hurt to people, when for the teller it is a throwaway comment. And what concerns me most is that we live in a society where RAPE IS NOT TAKEN SERIOUSLY. The growing popularity of rape jokes fosters this atmosphere, it turns a devastating crime into a silly story, a one liner, and allows people to think that rape isn’t a serious problem. To draw another comparison to racist jokes – when racism was not taken seriously in our society racist jokes were considered acceptable. These days we (at least officially) take racism seriously, so racist jokes are not acceptable. We tell jokes that highlight the idiocy and ignorance of racism instead. Perhaps when rape is fully taken seriously in our society, we will tell jokes that highlight the idiocy and ignorance of those who find rape amusing.

However, I leave you with the funniest joke of the Edinburgh Festival:
Why don’t hedgehogs just share the hedge.

I think that is bloody amazing.

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