I don’t really want to get specifically into the whole Daniel Tosh thing, because a) I’d never heard of him before this and b) it’s been covered well elsewhere, for instance by Alyssa Rosenberg. However, the incident has made me think about rape jokes, and whether they’re even funny.
First of all, a disclaimer: I’m lucky enough never to have been raped. Some boob gropage aside, I’ve never even been sexually assaulted. This means I can’t speak as to how triggering jokes can be, and I won’t attempt to. I’ll stick to analyzing some jokes and the messages behind them. I also feel like I should place a TW here: I’ll describe a fairly violent visual rape joke from a movie later on, so adjust accordingly.
Thing is, I don’t think a blanket “rape jokes are never funny” is true. Nor do I think declaring rape jokes taboo is a good thing. I think rape jokes can be funny. In fact, just this weekend, a friend showed me Wanda Sykes’ “detachable vagina” bit:
Now, to me, that’s funny. And a big chunk of it falls under the qualifier “rape joke”. Likewise the “Here’s your rape!”-bit I came across recently – I’m not a big fan of the execution of that one, but the premise is good.
What distinguished both these examples is that instead of feeding back into rape culture, they expose it. For the jokes to work, you need to be aware of just how pervasive the idea of rape is in a girls education, in a woman’s life. I’m stubborn enough that I don’t let it affect me much in my daily life – I often bike home alone late at night, for instance, and dress however the hell I please – but I’m aware that this means that if anything happens to me, people are likely to shake their heads and think I should have been more careful. And I’m aware it’s not so easy to shrug of for everyone: I have a friend who doesn’t want to come over to watch a movie if it means biking home alone after dark. These jokes acknowledge this reality, and manage to make it darkly funny.
Talking the issue over with BF, he mentioned another rape joke, in the Dutch movie NEW KIDS NITRO, that’s in a very different category.
Background about the New Kids thing (more here): originally a series of online sketches, it’s about a group of decidedly lower-class, none-too-bright guys from Brabant, speaking an exaggerated version of the local dialect, and swearing a lot, with “kut” as their preferred insult (guess what english word that’s etymologically related to…). I watched the first movie made from the show, NEW KIDS TURBO, and thought it was very funny: the makers have an impeccable of timing, and their strength lies in repetition and exaggeration, taking jokes to absurd extremes. As an example: remember the moment in MEAN GIRLS where Regina George is suddenly hit by a bus? Well, NEW KIDS NITRO has not one or two but four (4!) of those, with progressively bigger vehicles, and progressively bigger laughs, too.
According to BF, at a certain point in the sequel, in the middle of a battle, a lady from the (admittedly easy to ridicule) “bond tegen het vloeken” (“association against swearing”) shows up, and lectures them. Now, there’s a way to make this funny: the “do you have to use so many cuss words?” “The fuck you talking about?” exchange from THE BIG LEBOWSKI comes to mind. The “joke” in NKN, however, involves the woman getting bent over and raped with a pool cue.
Yeah. See, I get that one of their things it to push limits. The movie also involved zombies, which are put on a train to Germany as an “endlösing” – clearly, shock is their objective. But aside from being tasteless, the pool cue thing is just… lazy. It’s not just an easy target, but it’s hit with the least amount of creativity possible. Echoing “let’s teach that uptight bitch a lesson” – original thought, there. Worst of all, it’s simply not funny – unless you think upsetting/annoying women if funny in and of itself.
It’s not like it would have been difficult to think of something better, even. For instance, wouldn’t it have been unexpected to have one of the New Kids (or all) suddenly turn around, and lecture the woman in extremely posh and articulate Dutch about the importance of swearing for language? And then show a reaction shot of the woman looking shocked, and then saying, after just the right length of pauze “kut…”*? It may not be comedy brilliance, but if I can come up with a funnier alternative in ten minutes as an amateur, professional comedians should have no trouble finding something better. Something that doesn’t depict rape as a deserved comeuppance for being a prude, preferably.
There is one obvious difference, of course, between these jokes: the first two were made by women, the latter by men. I don’t necessarily think that only women can make good rape jokes, or that they can never make an unfunny or unacceptable one. I just think the lived experience of men and women is very different, so it might require a bit more empathy from men – just like I’d really have to think before I ever made a joke about, say, what it’s like to be a black person. In fact, I’d probably just reconsider telling the joke. So guys: unless you’re willing to put yourself in women’s shoes, and I mean really make an effort, I’d probably just stay away from that particular topic.**
“It’s just a joke!”, you might say. Sure, just like “it’s just a movie!”, “it’s just a saying!”, “it’s just a word” etc. These things all reflect and shape society, and as such are worth examining. And the fact that the most “shock-jock” or “anti-PC” jokes tend to reinforce the status-quo, tend to uphold existing hierarchies? Well, that’s just very fascinating.
*while the New Kids (and, apparently, much of Brabant) uses the term as an equivalent of “cunt”, it can also be more of an exclamation in the same way as “shit” or “fuck”. It can also become a preposition: a “kutdag” is a shitty day. Versatile word, really, and one I kind of like despite its gendered nature. The hard “k” makes it very satisfying to say.
** for those tempted to invoke the first amendment, or call this “censorship”… please.