Is there a line you can’t cross in comedy?

I’ve been seeing a whole lot of articles and discussion about rape and rape culture as of late. While it’s an interesting topic, I’ve largely stayed away from writing about it, partly because it’s one of those topics that most people don’t want to read about, and partly because most of my thoughts on the matter have been expressed more eloquently elsewhere. The latter was especially true for the on-going discussion about rape culture in video-games, as my views were pretty set in stone and obvious. For those of you not aware, there has been a growing trend in gaming culture to use the word rape as an insult and to mock opponents, mostly in online FPS games. Not only has this led to the word becoming over-used, to the point where people use it without thinking about its true meaning, but it’s created a nasty hive of sexist behaviour in a culture that already struggles to represent women positively.

Anyway, there’s been a lot of different events over the past few months that have heightened my awareness of references to rape in any medium, and gender issues in general. I don’t know if I’d consider myself a feminist, but when you hear about people on the internet threatening to rape someone for even suggesting that there may be gender inequality in video games, it’s kind of hard not to feel support for feminist views. I don’t think someone’s a feminist for thinking that threatening to rape someone is wrong, under any situation, but certainly a lot of people that stand up against this kind of shitty behaviour get branded as such, as if its a dirty word, and then ignored. It’s an ugly situation, but one that I don’t have enough to talk about to make an article out of.

However, as efforts to change things go on, I recently heard about the debate on rape in comedy, specifically whether or not it’s ever OK to make a joke that involves rape, and it’s made me think a lot over the past couple weeks. Now, I don’t think I have to go into detail on what makes a joke completely, and utterly not OK. In the same way that nobody except total idiots tell racist jokes nowadays, it’s not OK to directly laugh at someone that’s been raped, or laugh at the idea of rape occuring.

The fact that people can even get away with making such jokes (when someone making the same jokes about racism would be instantly reviled) is pretty damning proof on how terribly women are seen in society over all. While rape certainly isn’t something that can only happen to women, it’s seen by society at large as something that men do to women, and because of that it has less ramifications than say, racism. Case in point, the American comedian Daniel Tosh responded to a woman heckler by saying about how funny it would be if she was raped. That’s beyond un-funny, it’s just straight up horrible, and yet people have defended him.

After reading about this incident and others, I found one of my core beliefs about comedy being challenged. Namely, that any topic is OK for comedy as long as the joke isn’t coming from a hurtful place. I love comedians like Ricky Gervais and Jimmy Carr, who have been called controversial, because their jokes play with offensive material without actually being offensive. For example, a joke that mentions WWII but makes fun of Hitler or the nazis is fine, because the joke is ridiculing someone horrible and in no way ridiculing those who suffered.

I had always assumed that any topic was OK, including rape. If you make fun of the rapist, or the absurdity or rape itself and in no way insult the victim, the joke should be fine. An example would be this part of routine by Louis CK (incidently, tweeted by Ricky Gervais as an example of how rape can be talked about in comedy). He’s being in no way insulting to rape victims, so it stands to reason that the jokes are alright. Certainly, if you’d asked me whether it was OK a couple months ago, I would have said yes.

Recently though, I’ve read quite a few articles by rape victims who have made me think twice. One in particular was this moving article by an anonymous writer on the escapist. The points that stand out to me are things like seeing rape in a film, and having to stay to the end of the credits so that no-one would see him shaking. Things like that bring to mind how brutally awful rape really is, and how it can really fuck people up psychologically. I have absolutely no idea what it would be like to live as a rape survivor, but I’m pretty sure its worse than I could ever imagine. A lot of the gamers I spoke about above have probably never actually considered how awful rape is, and so how evil it is to use it as a threat, insult or to laugh about it.

What made me think twice in regards to talking about rape in comedy isn’t the sudden realization of how hard rape survivors must have it, but the fact that comedians are, by definition, meant to make people laugh and enjoy themselves. There’s nothing wrong with pushing boundaries or including political messages, but at the end of the day if your audience isn’t enjoying themselves, you’re doing something wrong. Now of course, a lot of ‘edgy’ comedians are always going to come across people who dislike their comedy, or find them distasteful, but that doesn’t mean they should stop what they’re doing because one or two people don’t find it funny.

However, the problem with talking about rape in comedy is three-fold: 1. you never know how many people, if any, in your audience are rape victims; and any that are, aren’t going to want to admit to such, 2. being made incredibly uncomfortable because the comedian mentioned rape and its giving you flashbacks isn’t in any way the fault of the victim – they can’t help that anything mentioning rape isn’t funny to them, and 3. even if the joke isn’t directed at the victim, being reminded of the worst memory of your life whilst in a room filled with laughing people is enough to make anyone feel uncomfortable.

So what’s the solution? A lot of people would just say that no-one should ever make jokes about rape, and I can certainly see their point. Afterall, no comedian needs to talk about rape in their routine, and even if their comedy relies solely on being ‘edgy’ and pushing boundaries, there are plenty of topics to choose from that are a lot less likely to make a few people in your audience feel like utter shit, when your sole intention is to make them laugh.

The problem with that line of thought, however, is that while its true that comedians don’t ever need to talk about rape, the same could be said for every entertainment medium. If a person making a humanist drama wants to show rape in order to convey to the audience just how despicable it is, should they be allowed to? They’re certainly not making light of it, but at the same time the scene will likely be seen by rape victims, who may well have to suffer through memories they’d rather forget. It doesn’t matter that the film may put across to a lot of people how bad rape is, some rape victims will still see it and suffer.

So is the solution to never talk about rape in any entertainment medium? I don’t think so, and I think most people would agree with me. Never talking about rape means that society is essentially ignoring an issue that should be discussed, because it needs to be shown to people how awful rape is and how big a problem it is in society. With that in mind, while its true that comedians are attempting to make people laugh, they have the same right as any other medium to make people think about serious issues. The only difference is that comedians can bring this point across by laughing at the rapist, and calling them out as the scum they are. There is something that feels inherently wrong about putting the words ‘laughter’ and ‘rape’ in the same sentence, but to say that rape should be a banned topic in comedy would make it awfully hard to decide where to draw the line.

It sucks that a comedian who wants other people to laugh at how pathetic rapists are may make some people feel uncomfortable, but allowing these sort of jokes means that we help to bring rape up as a serious issue, and reinforce to people how disgusting it is. I understand now where people who attack comedians for discussing such awkward topics are coming from, but they need to realize that jokes can either come from a bad place or a good place. You may not find either funny, but its a necessary step in the discussion on rape. That said, its still very important to call out comedians who make jokes on subjects such as rape that come from a bad place – when you know that the person is straight up laughing at rape or rape victims, they need to be called out on it. Doing so isn’t ruining the fun for others, or being unable to take a joke, it’s a way of showing to society that rapists are the scum of the earth and need to be talked about as such.

No, Daniel Tosh, it wouldn’t be funny if that woman was raped in front of you. If you thought about it for a second, you’d realize it wouldn’t be funny at all, and that you’re a terrible person.

/end rant

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