Anatomy of a rape joke

Yeah, I know I’m a little late to the party on this one. It’s a hazard of blogging on Monday.

So any of you who pay any attention to feminist spaces at all have probably already heard about the recent incident with Daniel Tosh and an audience member. For anyone who hasn’t–he was claiming that rape was funny, an audience member said it wasn’t, and he replied that it would be funny if she got raped by five people then and there. Some people are saying she deserved the response she got (gee, where have we heard that one before?), others are saying he didn’t mean she should actually get raped (See also: ), and some are just yelling, “Free Speech!”.

There are a couple ways that Tosh went way wrong on this one (three if you count his attempt at an ‘apology’). Jezebel covers one of them fairly well with Lindy West’s article: don’t make the victim the butt of the joke. I don’t necessarily agree with the examples she gives (though her third one is quite good), but the primary problem with trying to joke about rape is the fear and pain it evokes in people. When the victim is the butt of the joke, you’re not only evoking those emotions, but trivializing them, trying to make people laugh at them.

To side-track a little, there’s a couple pop culture characters that I think kind of get this right (I say kind of because both fail at times, and they are still both problematic). One is Quagmire from Family Guy, the other Howard in the first couple seasons of Big Bang Theory. Both treat women in very, very wrong ways. However, for the most part the comedy from both of them comes from the characters themselves–they are not held up as role models, rather their bad actions towards women make them the ones we laugh at. They fail, things backfire, and if anyone gets hurt it’s usually them. Howard in particular works because of the contrast with Leonard, not to mention Penny just plain not putting up with him.

My personal thought on black humour is that the further from reality you get, the better off you are. Tosh usually stays on the far side of this line–between his delivery and his actual material, he’s easy to laugh at because he’s hard to take seriously. The same jokes coming from many other comedians would fail hard. And this is where I think the ‘but he didn’t MEAN it’ crowd is coming from. In this case though, it doesn’t matter, because the ‘joke’ itself taps into a very real and ever-present fear that women live with, not to mention painful memories for many people. For women, rape and sexual assault is a constant threat. We make decisions around that possibility all the time–what we wear, where we go, where we park, how we act…some women even take self-defense classes and/or carry pepper spray and tasers in response to that possibility. We contemplate the possibility of unwanted sexual advances and how to deal with them, and not for the mental exercise–pretty much all of us have dealt with some level of it at some point, sometimes even from friends. So Tosh didn’t have to be making a threat, because the threat is already there. He simply tapped into it. Worse, he aimed it at a specific person and made her the butt of the joke. Simply put, his response was too real to be funny. (We can see this principle at work elsewhere–we’re a lot more okay with kids watching Elmer Fudd shoot Daffy Duck and making his bill spin around his head than we are with letting them watch something like Terminator.)

I’m not in the ‘rape is never funny’ crowd–I think anything can be funny in the right circumstances (though I also understand why some people think otherwise) and I’m rather fond of black humour. Tosh just fails hard on this particular subject.


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