Analysis: Why Rape Jokes Are Useful, Even When We Hate Them

Lindy West and Jim Norton debated rape jokes and women in comedy.

June 4, 2013, 5:47 PM

June 4, 2013— -- Hey, let's talk about rape. Specifically, let's talk about the recent video and Jezebel post that writer, critic, comedian and really great website-haver Lindy West did about rape jokes, language, and the comedy community not being an especially welcoming one for women. The response she received was disturbing and disgusting and not surprising to anyone who has had experience being a woman, being online, and being a woman who is online. West's four-minute video includes her reading, in a dispassionate monotone, the dozens of hateful, sexist, racist and threatening comments she received after debating comedian Jim Norton about rape jokes, the comedic community, language and women.

When it comes to their original debate on FX's Totally Biased, there are points with which I agree more with Lindy, and others where I'm more closely aligned with Jim's view, even though, like Lindy, I'm a 1) female, who 2) performs comedy, and 3) works online at a time and in a world where people have referred to me as a gay slur, ethnic slur, and as a receptacle for certain miscellaneous fluids. But the one point that resonates most when I think about comedians' ability to hurt and offend is this: What society laughs at? Is indicative of the values it holds.

Where Lindy and I begin to diverge is in her assertion that the comedic community, the "comedy world," is one that is inherently hostile to women. Now, I fully realize that one person's anecdotal experience does not reality make. That said, I have found segments of the comedy community to be absolutely vile, yes, and I've also found other segments to be incredibly welcoming and supportive and encouraging and challenging and frustrating in a way that ultimately makes me better at saying or doing things that will make a stranger laugh. I am not saying that the comedic community is not one that is rife with sexism and even misogyny, I'm saying that the world is a place that is rife with sexism and misogyny, and that a platform that allows people to discuss and laugh at or with the world is ultimately going to reflect that. Comedy is a mirror, and what makes us laugh (or cringe or grit our teeth or yawn) does not exist in a vacuum.

The second point circles around the idea of language and the power of rhetoric. "It's not just making a joke about a thing," Lindy says at one point, "it's contributing to a culture that perpetuates that thing." Like Jim, I disagree with this, although for different reasons than he did. The role and rigidity of language change when the context is humor, even when someone is not making a particularly good joke. At stake here is our ability to openly discuss and even ridicule or critique this reality, this culture. If rape jokes (or even jokes about rape, because that line is different for each individual listener) are considered off-limits, that is allowing a group to dictate what is black and what is white in a world that is fantastically and dizzyingly and infuriatingly gray.

Even an ignorant or vile or poorly-executed rape joke can (and, ideally I think, should) be more than a joke about a thing. It's more than a joke about rape. It's commentary. It's an educated guess at what our emotional, visceral response to this joke may be, based on the context we find ourselves in. Sometimes, a comedian isn't smart or funny enough to realize that a joke is more than just a jumble of words with a surprise at the end, and merely end up revealing that they are terrible and not that bright. All these kinds of jokes matter, and all of them can be useful to us.

In her Jezebel piece, Lindy writes the following:

Let me be clear: I don't believe that previously non-raping audience members are going to take to the streets in a rape mob after hearing one rape joke. That's an absurd and insulting mischaracterization. But I do believe that comedy's current permissiveness around cavalier, cruel, victim-targeting rape jokes contributes to (that's contributes—not causes) a culture of young men who don't understand what it means to take this stuff seriously.

And while this can be true, it's often difficult to gauge when it's true. Not only because so much of humor is subjective and rides on the experiences and knowledge and viewpoints we bring to it, but also because, in humor, language takes on a far more complicated role than it does when we are not actively trying to be funny.

Take Daniel Tosh (please), and the reaction he received for making the following joke: "Wouldn't it be funny if that girl," he said, referring to a member of the audience who had earlier interrupted his set to say that rape jokes are never funny, "got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now?"

Funny person/writer Elissa Bassist, writing for The Daily Beast, took a look at this joke and said, nope, not funny, and also it's not even a joke. Funny person/occasional maker of rape jokes Louis C.K. first seemed to defend the joke even though he really didn't and then actually said, yeah sure, it's fine, but also rape is a serious and truly horrible act that directly and indirectly impacts how women live their lives and the pervading culture in which they live it. And comedians/TV hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar were of the mind that "if it works, it's ok."

Rape jokes (and jokes about anything awful or frightening) are also very, very useful, even and especially when they are very, very bad.

An example that Lindy gives is the shift in humor at the expense of minorities, specifically black people. It's absolutely true that, as she says, sixty years ago (and certainly far, far more recently than that) jokes were more openly racist in nature, and these were considered funny by a larger group of people who would find them funny today. But not telling those jokes anymore isn't what created that shift. The shift occurred because of people who stood up and said, to varying degrees, "NOPE." And a lot of the people who did that did it through humor, by using the very language used against them, using and re-using and subverting. (Take, for example, the comedy of Richard Pryor. Or this Dick Gregory set -- and its intro -- from 1965.) Change isn't an ending. You know? Change, by its very nature, is a process. And that process requires a free exchange of words and ideas by any number of people who believe they are absolutely right.

Am I going to laugh if a male comedian jokes about, say, raping a passed-out or unwilling woman? Or about bashing someone's brains out? Or raping a child? Or brutalizing a gay man? Or finding members of the transgender community funny because people who don't look like you happen to exist? No, probably not. But I am probably going to really, really enjoy comedians and critics and bloggers and comedy fans who take those jokes and the language they use and subvert, critique and make these their own. I am going to likely enjoy or at least be pretty curious about the art inspired by language that is hurtful and oppressive, and by the comedy that unfolds when a weapon is transformed into an instrument for something greater. This is the argument against policing language but, instead, building on what exists, offering irony and subversion and context and using the language of those who hold power and those who would seek to dominate and oppress and hurt in order to offer them a differing viewpoint in a way that can truly and effectively resonate.

So the goal shouldn't be to tell someone to stop making rape jokes or saying that rape jokes are never, ever funny. The goal should be to use that language, delve into it, comment on it, subvert it, and build on it to create something different and something useful.