(Warning: this post deals extensively with rape and sexual assault. I’ve also linked to some videos that have some adult content in them. f you think that this might be offensive or harmful to you in any way, I suggest you not read any farther).
I love comedy.
It’s arguably my favorite genre of any creative medium, and the harder it makes me laugh, the better. And, pardon me for bragging, but my tastes in comedy are pretty widely accepted to be decent; be it my love for Arrested Development and Parks and Recreation, my fangirl obsession with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, or the fact that I could watch Anchorman and 21 Jump Street on loop without getting bored for a long, long time.
(Not that I’m a comedy elitist; a well executed poop joke can bring me to tears in the best way possible.)
One of the things I love most about comedy is how subversive it can be. The heart of comedy is to take something we’re familiar with and turn it on its head. So it’s not hard to take that basic premise and use it to point out aspects of society that are ridiculous, which can be a powerful tool to get people talking about real social issues that might lurk beneath the surface.
A great example of this is Louis C.K.’s skit on being white.
He tackles the hugely problematic issue of white privilege in this clip, but he’s funny enough that you don’t feel like you’re being lectured at, which (at least for me) makes you more receptive to the message.
Or take Wanda Sikes’s bit on rape:
Molly Ivins once said “Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful… when satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel — it’s vulgar.”
I stand behind that 100%. Humor in the hands of a bully is just much less appealing than humor used to point out how ridiculous the bully is being. It may technically still be humor, and it may still be the Constitutional right of that bully to make those jokes, but thinking that a bully’s jokes aren’t funny doesn’t make me a stick in the mud, it makes me a decent person.
On to Daniel Tosh, and this recent event at a comedy club, where a woman stood up and protested against the rape jokes he was making. Tosh’s response was to suggest that gang-raping the woman (I really don’t feel like she qualifies as a heckler) would be hilarious. He has since half-apologized for the event, and a whole lot of comedians have disappointingly come to his defense.
I’m not here to single Daniel Tosh out. He’s not the first to make jokes off of rape, and I know that he makes his living by generally being offensive and crude. That in no way makes it right, but I would rather focus on the larger issues at play here. And to do that, I’m going to quote this fantastic article that Jessica Valenti wrote for The Nation:
Those supporting Tosh are outraged that anyone would dare tell a comedian how to be funny. (There’s also been a lot of “if you can’t take the heat” sentiment aimed at this woman, given that she heckled Tosh.) Many of his defenders insist that his joke—and other jokes about rape—are simply edgy and controversial, which is what a comedian is supposed to be.
But here’s the thing: threatening women with rape, making light of rape, and suggesting that women who speak up be raped is not edgy or controversial. It’s the norm. This is what women deal with every day. Maintaining the status quo around violence against women isn’t exactly revolutionary.
It’s also telling that the vast majority of people defending Tosh’s comments are men—and that they’re being incredibly sexist in their responses to boot. I’d ask these guys why it is they’re so virulently fighting for the right to tell rape jokes. Why is it so important to them that Tosh be able to “joke” about a woman who loudly criticized him being gang raped? (Video blogger Jay Smooth asked a similar question about Gwyneth Paltrow’s using the “n-word.”)
Rape is a very real fear for most women. One in six women will experience an attempted or completed rape or sexual assault in their lifetime. Even worse, it’s estimated that only 16% of rapes will ever be reported, and only 25% of reported cases will ever have arrests (to compare, the arrest rate for aggravated assault is about 50%, and for murder it’s about 79%).
As a woman, this has very real implications for how I live my life. It means a self-imposed curfew after dark, unless I have someone else to come with me. It means that if I have to go somewhere by myself after dark, I will have an escape and/or self-defense plan outlined for as many scenarios as I can anticipate; this means, for example, if I’m in a night class, I’m less focused on what the professor is saying than I am on making sure I can get home safely. It means I can never fully relax at a party, because someone somewhere might try to put something in my drink or pull me into a dark corner. It means that strange men are now all Schrodinger’s Rapists. It means that I am far more conscious of how I look and dress than any man will ever have to be, not because I want to look sexy, but frequently just the opposite: if someone attacks me violently, I don’t want the police writing off my case because I was “asking for it“.
I honestly don’t think a lot of guys really understand how this works for the women in their lives. For them, rape is something that happens to a particularly easy test or a video game, and it’s something you do triumphantly. A lot of men are actually rapists, according to the legal definition of rape, and have no idea, because of the way we teach men and boys about sex and women. Which is a whole other post entirely, but one worth doing some research on if you even remotely care to educate yourselves on this topic.
I’m not asking anyone to become a hardcore feminist here. I’m not calling for Daniel Tosh’s show to be pulled off the air, or anything like that (although an actual apology would be nice). This is actually a great learning opportunity, to point out why exactly we think jokes about traumatically violating other people are edgy and subversive, when, in reality, they’re some of the least edgy and most obnoxious jokes out there.
So I just ask that, instead of rushing to Daniel Tosh’s defense with the knee-jerk reaction of “lighten up, it’s just comedy!”, please just consider the possibility that the people who are offended by these jokes aren’t thin-skinned prudes with no sense of humor. They might be (and, in fact, are) responding to these jokes from a different perspective than yours, one that it wouldn’t hurt you to get familiar with.
And, like Jessica Valenti said, if you can’t get past that, “If you are this attached to jokes about raping women—if they mean this much to you—it’s time to look inward and think about why that is.”