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.


Alastaire said...

I think certain jokes elicit laughter because of their transgressive nature, because they break taboo, because, in this sense, they challenge. That doesn't necessarily make them funny, but I do think it makes them necessary, to a free society. We may choose to laugh at them, we may choose to leave a room in disgust -- as one might were a racist joke being told.

But, ultimately, I don't think most of the 19791 people who voted up sickipedia.org's top joke ("statistically, 9 out of 10 people enjoy gang rape") are themselves gang rapists. So I'm not sure campaigning against bad taste is really fighting the good fight.

Now as I write this the breaking news is that Chris Brown has just been sentenced to probation and community service for his hideous attack on his girlfriend... and that is a joke, a very unfunny one. I don't think rude jokes desensitize us toward violence against women, I think lenient sentences against actual offenders like that encourage it.

In short? Bad taste jokes are always going to be about in a free society. But actual violence is something we should really be worried about, and tougher sentences something we should be campaigning for.

Elo said...

I agree that rape jokes aren't funny. What is also not funny is a woman who has denoted herself a feminist and created a lot of attention for her book, saying that rape jokes are ok. So the natural conclusion that people are going to make is that feminists think rape jokes are OK. And they're not, and we don't think they are either.

sian and crooked rib said...

Argh – spent ages writing a reply and the internet crashed!

Firstly – hey al! hope you are well! How’s writing?
Basically yes – Chris Brown’s sentence is a joke, but not uncommon. But I really believe there is a continuum here. As a society we don’t take violence against women seriously, and telling rape and DV jokes are symptomatic of this. If we took these things seriously, then we wouldn’t joke about it, people would be appalled by the jokes and if, as a society, we took violence against women seriously and not as a joke, then perhaps conviction rates and sentencing would improve. It’s all part of the good fight.

I don’t want to be the humour police, and I find some things funny (Brass Eye episodes spring to mind, and Stuart Lee) that I know some people find offensive. I think there is a place for offensive and controversial comedy in our world and culture as when it is done well it can say something searing and important about our society. But rape jokes are making a mockery of someone’s trauma, of one of the most horrifying things, of something that is used as a tool of genocide, let alone something that can leave serious psychological scars on the survivor. It’s not funny to take the piss out of something like that. And as long as society says it is ok to laugh at rape, then it’s saying it is ok to not take rape seriously, and society continues to not take rape seriously. If it did we wouldn’t still have surveys saying 33% of people think women deserve to be raped if they are dressed “provocatively”.

Plus, as I say in my post, rape jokes don’t do anything challenging with comedy. It’s lazy, it’s Jim Davidson. It’s not Stuart Lee lifting a curtain on religion or Chris Morris highlighting the hypocrisy of a culture that indulges in the sexualisation of children. It’s just piss poor, lazy humour.

And Elo – yes that is one of the many problems I have with Levenson’s book. I think she wrote it with the best intentions and I can see why she wanted to write it, but she is claiming to write a guide to feminism that says things that no feminists I know, and a lot of women I know massively object to. I just find it dreadful that people will read it and think that is what feminism is, and ignore the great diversity and debate that feminism encompasses.

Alastaire said...

Don't think there's any correlation between the frequency of rape jokes and the frequency of rapes, to be honest. It's the same old argument about graphic violence on TV leading to more murders / serious assaults, etc, that's already been disproven.

If anything, from a purely analytic perspective, I'd say the opposite is true -- rape jokes are told because they're taboo. That's essentially why (some) people find them funny. They're transgressive. The moment they stop being transgressive, people stop finding them funny.

Therefore, if people didn't find rape jokes funny, we could infer that rape was no longer a taboo subject and had become normalized -- and that would lead to desensitization and therefore increased frequency of actual rape crimes.

It's impossible to argue that rape jokes desensitise us to the issue of rape, because if they did, the jokes would cease being "funny" as soon as they stopped becoming transgressive. And, therefore, cease being told, because the laugh comes from the "shocking" nature of the joke. If anything, when the jokes stop, that's when we should be worried. Because it means that rape isn't shocking any more.

So yeah, I think we'll have to agree to disagree on this one :P

I'm not trying to defend rape jokes, merely to point out that I think they're actually irrelevent in the wider battle against violence against women, in the same way as trying to get Grand Theft Auto banned is widely irrelevent in stopping actual car theft.

I'd like to see people who commit the actual crimes punished more severely. Now that's a deterrent.