The Soapbox: The Thing That Is Funny About Rape
Wouldn’t it be funny if the boys that photographed themselves assaulting Savannah Dietrich got raped right now? Also, that priest, Monsignor Lynn, who is going to serve three to six years for failing to investigate sex abuse claims against priests — wouldn’t it be hilarious if he were raped in prison? And Jerry Sandusky? Just picture him in the showers with a bunch of bigger guys! Are you laughing? No? Well, that’s because imagining someone getting raped is about as humorous as imagining someone stepping on a landmine or getting car-jacked. It’s terrifying and no one deserves it.
But using rape in a joke is another story. A couple of years ago, I taught a writing course at The New School called Humor and Controversy. The premise was that humor artists like Margaret Cho, Chris Rock, and Sarah Silverman speak with more insight and honesty about race, sexuality, reproductive rights, gender, religion, and class than most politicians, which is why comedy is important. Students were encouraged to use wit and self-deprecation to shed light on thorny issues. One prompt was to write an essay entitled “My Rape Fantasy.”
At this point I should say that the students had read Margaret Atwood’s 1977 short story of the same name for inspiration. In it, Estelle, the protagonist, shares her rape fantasies with her friends; in none of them is the rapist successful. He either has cold symptoms that keep him from succeeding or she draws out his emotional problems, which distracts him from his task.
Atwood’s story prompted me to open up about my own rape fantasies. Last year, my most riveting imagining was that Anne Sinclair, the wife of Dominique Straus Kahn, confronted him as he sat naked on the bidet one morning, telling him he would have no access to her huge fortune if he couldn’t stop raping (or having spontaneous, rutting sex) with hotel maids, journalists, and prostitutes. When Sinclair reportedly left DSK earlier this year (he was described in the press as apartment-bound and lonely, playing chess on his iPad —great image), I gained an even better rape fantasy.
I thought of this class and my rape fantasies in light of the Daniel Tosh “joke” controversy. To recap: Tosh (star of Comedy Central’s “Tosh.0″) was doing a set in which he purportedly said that rape jokes are always funny. When he was “heckled” by a female audience member who called out “rape jokes are never funny”; he responded “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now?”
It didn’t work for me, but I do believe that a joke about rape can be funny. For example, when Sarah Silverman says “I was raped by a doctor… which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.” I emailed my friend Abraham Higginbotham, a comedy writer for “Arrested Development,” “Family Guy,” and “Modern Family,” to support the thesis that rape jokes can work. As a gay man raised in suburban Pittsburgh, Abraham loves exposing bigotry in his comedy writing. “For me, rape jokes can be funny when they disempower the rapist,” he wrote me in an email. “Or when the shock value is so strong that it forces a laughter that, weirdly, reminds the audience of the horror of what the joke is about. The levity with which an atrocity is handled has the power — not that this should be necessary — to illuminate, once again, the seriousness of the subject matter. A laugh reaction being, ‘Oh, Jesus. That is awful. And, oh yeah, that exists in this world and I don’t think about it much.’”
He mentioned that his trainer refers to the overly-coy Carly Rae Jepsen hit song “Call me Maybe” as “Rape Me Maybe.” “For him, it’s a comment on how desperate that girl sounds,” says Higginbotham. “Like… ‘pull yourself together; you seem too willing to do anything to get a guy to notice you.’ So I guess that isn’t about disempowering the rapist, but perhaps it is about empowering the girl. And it did make me laugh the first time I heard it.”
The issue for Higginbotham with the Tosh joke, which he found unfunny (he used more profane terms), is that it was a cheap shot lobbing personal anger at the “heckler,” not shedding light on a larger social condition. Sarah Silverman’s recent bit about rape jokes has no personal insult and does point to the social justice issue: “It seems that when you do rape jokes that like the material is so dangerous and edgy. But the truth is it’s like the safest area to talk about in comedy. Cause who’s going to complain about a rape joke? Rape victims? They don’t even report rape.” She goes on to tell even funnier jokes that satirize the way that rape victims blame themselves — and sheds light on how awful that is and that it exists in the world while most of us don’t think about it much.
Meanwhile, Louis C.K. recently featured a sexual assault, his own, on his show — he was coerced into performing a sexual act after he said no — but the reversal of the traditional gender dynamics made it funny, disturbing, and thought provoking. Can men be raped by women? Was what she did “as bad” as it would have been had he done it to her? I’ll be mulling those questions for a while and, thus, that was a rape joke that worked, in my book. When he remarked on “The Daily Show” that feminists and comics were natural enemies because feminists can’t take jokes and comics can’t take criticism, I laughed. “It’s funny because it’s true,” as Homer Simpson would say.
The Tosh brouhaha is basically over — a stalemate between those who deplore censorship and those that deplore cheap, angry, talentless humor. As it fades, I’m baffled why there is such outrage about this joke —and so little about the actual incidence of rape. Virtually every person on this planet either has experienced sexual assault or knows someone who has. Most of us know many, many people, including children. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, the vast majority go unreported, but of the 100,000 or so where police are called only 25 percent lead to an arrest and only 3 percent of rapes result in an assailant spending even a day in jail. More Pennsylvanian voters see Joe Paterno favorably than negatively, in spite of his ignoring the rape of children by his assistant coach.
Anyone who writes about rape and incest, as I do, hears new harrowing stories every day. I don’t see a lot of outrage about the epidemic incidence of sexual violence (except from feminists, of course, who are often tuned out) — and, actually, I find the denial kind of funny. Not funny ha-ha, but funny strange. I guess, for most of us, it’s preferable to be upset about the joke, because the reality of rape — what is happening in our homes, as a weapon of war in the Congo, on our campuses — is overwhelming. Daniel Tosh? He’s manageable.
Jennifer Baumgardner is the author of Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics, Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and The Future, and F’ em: Goo Goo, Gaga, and Some Thoughts on Balls. Find out more about Jennifer Baumgardner here.