Last week, US comedian Daniel Tosh sparked a furore when, warming up his audience for a 'hilarious' rape joke, he was heckled by a woman yelling, 'rape is never funny'. Tosh's response is a subject of contention. The woman claims he said, 'Wouldn't it be funny if five guys raped this woman, like, right now?' However, the club's owner says Tosh scoffed, 'Looks like this girl's been raped by five guys.'
Either way, the response cuts to the heart of what is fair game for comic fodder. Some feminists say it is never funny to joke about rape because, statistically speaking, there are bound to be rape survivors in every comedian's audience. Other writers and comedians came to Tosh's defence, crying censorship.
Taking to Twitter to defend himself, Tosh wrote, 'there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them #deadbabies'. In this he is correct. Comedians can serve a higher purpose than simply making us laugh. My favourite comedian, Bill Hicks, used comedy as a medium for exposing society's worst ills. Hicks aimed to enlighten as well as entertain as he told what he perceived as the truth.
But what is the 'truth' about rape, and can we ever laugh at it? A friend of mine, Zach Rhinier, works as a stand-up comedian in New York City. When I asked him if it is ever okay to joke about rape, his response echoed that of many feminists, 'Only if it mocks the rapist, but not a victim.'
Tosh's brand of humour fails because it ridicules women rather than rapists and the culture that allows rape to flourish. Tosh's TV show, Tosh.0, frequently takes aim at women. In one notorious segment, 'Lightly Touching Women's Stomachs While They're Sitting Down', Tosh plays clips of women being touched non-consensually, including their confused reactions, and then encourages male viewers tape themselves doing the same.
Make sure the woman is seated, stresses Tosh, so that 'she's aware that you are in fact feeling a roll'. The point is to shame women for not living up to society's impossible beauty standards. Worse still, Tosh encourages men to ignore any protestations: 'Be careful, because they like to pretend they don't love it'.
Where have we heard that before? Tosh is essentially employing the same language rapists use to justify their actions, while giving his three million viewers permission to harass women.
Tosh and his fans consider such jokes harmless. But in fact they reinforce the assumption that women's bodies exist for male use — which is precisely the attitude that underlies rape culture. Touching women without permission, especially in a manner that exploits their insecurities, undermines women's safety and autonomy.
Many, if not most, women have at least one story about being inappropriately and non-consensually touched. It first happened to me while I was riding the escalators at a train station with some school friends. There was a group of teenage boys behind us and one of them, egged on by his mates, placed his hands under my netball skirt and touched my genitals. I was 13. He wasn't much older.
I did not turn around. I did not protest. I did not acknowledge his actions. I just stood there, humiliated, pretending that nothing was happening. He was guilty but I was ashamed. This is the 'rape culture' Tosh perpetuates when he encourages men to treat women's bodies as their personal playground.
So is it possible to tell a rape joke that doesn't mock the victim?
Yes, as Ever Mainard, a US comedian, proved when performing a rape joke this year in Chicago. 'The problem is that every woman ... has that one moment when you think, "Oh! Here's my rape!"' Mainard goes on to liken the feeling of inevitability to a game show. 'You're saying no but he's saying yes. Here's your rape! A suspicious van in a dark parking lot next to your car ... your keys fell? You're fumbling around? Here's your rape!'
In this skit Mainard blasts a culture that sees 50 per cent of the population living with the fear (whether justified or otherwise) that it is only a matter of time until they are raped. She lets individual women know they are not alone in this fear and exposes the failings of a society where something as mundane as walking to a car and dropping the keys could end in rape.
Likewise, Sarah Silverman blows the lid on a 'comedy secret', confiding that rape jokes are not as 'edgy' as some comedians perceive them to be. After all, 'who's going to complain about rape jokes? Rape victims? They barely even report rape.' Here, Silverman takes aim both at lazy comedians for choosing easy targets, and highlights the trauma victims feel. These women, Silverman is saying, are attacked twice, once by their rapists, and again by a victim-blaming culture that so stigmatises them they feel they are better off staying silent.
Unlike Tosh's offerings, these jokes enlighten as well as entertain. They serve a purpose. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, they're funny because they're true.
Ruby Hamad is a Sydney writer and associate editor of progressive feminist website The Scavenger. She blogs and tweets.
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20 July 2012
When comedy workers resort to rape and dead babies for a laugh they have lost their game...never funny subjects any time any where.
20 July 2012
Great article, Ruby, notwithstanding a confronting headline by the editor (but I suppose it is designed to be provocative).
20 July 2012
Thank you for a brave and challenging piece by Ruby. It takes guts to share as openly as she has done. With rape and other atrocities I find it difficult to reconcile freedom of speech with the damage such speech, dismissively made by comedians, may do. Likening rape, a causal factor in such national blights as homelessness (through rape within marriage/relationships, family/domestic violence), and mental illness, to acceptable, appropriately 'edgy' material for stand up merchants is always going to bewilder many of us. I remember unwittingly taking my fiancee to view a mate's role in a student film, which turned out to be about abduction and rape. Lotsa lotsa screaming and nudity ensued, with some sadistic flourishes from the director. We viewed about two minutes of the screening before I was outside apologising. Shellshocked, we were joined by the film's central performer, the 'rape victim', who was taking notes, pleased at our numbed state and other exiting filmgoers. Perhaps the laughter that some comics and artists seem to get from 'rape routines' is a nervous, shocked response, rather than an appreciation of sublime wit and peerless distancing from human fears and experiences. Survivor art may be the only universally recognised art form that can take a stab at rape; but who is going to have the strength to stand up and make light of such a colossal loss of personal power, even to ridicule the rapists that commit such acts?
20 July 2012
I hasten to say that what passes for comedy by and large these days, is pretty sick if you ask me, and this is no exception, especially when these so called "comedians" resort to such topics as rape. Hence the reason, I'm pretty much over much so-called "comedy" nowadays.
20 July 2012
Oh, and by the way, congratulations on such a thought provoking article.
13 November 2012
I just came across this article. I know its a bit late, but thank you for including me in your writing! Hope all is well.