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Daniel Tosh: Comedy, fear and the rise of the rape joke

Daniel Tosh: Comedy, fear and the rise of the rape joke

By Anne Russell
July 13, 2012

Comedian Daniel Tosh recently performed a set at the Laugh Factory in LA, which included a prolonged set about how rape jokes are always funny. When a woman stood up and shouted "Actually, rape jokes are never funny!" Tosh replied "Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…" The woman and her friend quickly left the building. Read her account of the story here.

Are rape jokes always funny? Of course not. No subject matter will always make a funny joke; Eddie Izzard's "Covered in bees" sketch is brilliant, in my opinion, but beekeeping is not inherently hilarious. A joke's humour is generally found in its structure: its use of sarcasm, irony, metaphor, wordplay, clever juxtaposition and so on. At its base, humour relies on knowledge (e.g. of beekeeping and flirting) combined with surprise.

This makes comedy quite a complex activity, because to in order positively surprise the audience, the comedian must simultaneously gauge their intelligence and moral values. The latter can be quite difficult, due to how variable these are between individuals, but a successful comedian must not offend their audience. Not being offensive may appear to run counter-intuitive to many people's conception of comedy; after all, the surprise factor of comedy is often translated into shock, and comedy is a good way to offend someone while retaining composure and appearing witty. But while an audience may like to watch a comedian pushing boundaries, laughter will die on their lips the second a joke targets them personally. This is the most immediate, visceral reason that rape jokes are not funny; they remind much of a comedian's audience of a brutal and horrifying experience, and leave them to suffer it out in the cold. The extensive negative feedback Tosh has received is unsurprising, for he has shown he is remarkably unapologetic about inflicting a lot of pain on his audience for the sake of a rhetorical flourish.

Many articles against rape jokes go to the trouble of reminding readers again that, hello, rape happens to real people, and the statistics show that it has almost definitely happened to someone you know. But statistics, while helpful supplements to build this case, are ultimately irrelevant. The essence of a socially provocative joke is that it comes at the expense of power. At its base, a joke in favour of rape can never be funny, because rape is intrinsically about dominance and control. To make a joke that humiliates rape victims will only ever serve to entrench power. Comedy is lazy when it kicks people who are already down.

Admittedly, many rape jokes are tolerated or promoted primarily due to ignorance. Again, the comedy comes when rape is something surprising and incongruous with personal experience. To laugh at the pain of another person requires some distance from that pain, some lack of comprehension that it is really happening. Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts, said that sadness creates humour—in slapstick, for example—but that "it's funny because it's happening to someone else." Those who make rape jokes are not usually the targets of rape culture, or at least want to appear as if they are not—some women, for example, may make rape jokes in an attempt to distance themselves from a culture which expects them to be victims. However, comedians like Tosh appear to revel in rape jokes to a degree that suggests further issues are at work. Part of the jokes' popularity is due to the association of rape with sex, something which our culture generally reacts to with embarrassed giggling. But to find rape jokes truly edgy in a positive way, one must perform spectacular mental gymnastics and conclude, despite all evidence to the contrary, that rape victims have power, and making a joke at their expense is speaking truth to that power—being politically incorrect, if you will.

While this concept mostly deserves hearty mocking, there is a grain of truth in it. Contemporary rape victims in the West are arguably more powerful than most of their predecessors or minority groups within particularly repressive cultures. Various humanist movements, especially feminism and queer rights, have managed to raise greater societal awareness and compassion for rape victims, and provided them a supportive framework in which to recover and speak out. The dismantling of rape culture is a slow and ongoing process, but it has made some progress, along with changing norms around the legal rights of women, LGBT people and so on.

Nicholas Klein, in an address to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in Baltimore, 1914, said the following quote that is frequently misattributed to Gandhi: "First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you." The rise of rape jokes in contemporary Western culture represents an attempt to casually shut down anti-rape dialogue before the situation truly gets out of hand. So despite the depressing and intimidating nature of its existence, the rape joke serves as a marker of the denormalisation of violence as an intrinsic part of Western culture. If there is no social dialogue that decries rape—if anti-rape laws are not established, if they are then not taken seriously, if there is no forum in which rape victims can speak out about their suffering—there is no need for a rape joke, because rape victims can comfortably be ignored.

Although it's often hard to spot through the callousness, the existence of rape jokes is largely due to fear. Not everyone who makes or laughs at a rape joke is directly afraid, of course—like I said, many make them from a position of ignorance—but those deeply invested in rape jokes probably are scared of something. Tosh's retort to the woman wasn't really a joke—there's no structural framework to the one-liner that suggests it was—but an angry reflex to the threat she posed by saying that rape is wrong and you are wrong for endorsing or condoning it.

It seems that if rape is wrong, Tosh doesn't want to be right. While offensive and unacceptable, his position is understandable in context. The changing norms around rape are a threat indeed, when dominant society has long promoted the idea that aggression and physical dominance equate to strength, power and control. While both men and women can be invested in this idea, these qualities have historically been fostered and encouraged in males, which is why they are often referred to as masculine. When men are taught that competition and violence are the ways to live up to their arbitrarily assigned gender roles, any deviation from this will be seen as unseemly emasculation, resulting in a loss of identity.

The prevalence of this patriarchal model is, historically speaking, related to practical concerns. The use of violence is a good way to capture material resources. Many, if not most, wars have been fought largely on a basis of gaining material resources—from the Punic Wars of ancient Rome to the recent War on Iraq—and rape is a particularly invasive and violent war tactic. Given how much of human history has involved warfare, primarily between males, rape has been deeply embedded into our cultural consciousness for centuries, aided and abetted by the systematic violence of particular economic systems. The term 'rape culture' originated among 1970s feminists in the West; prior to that it was simply 'culture'.

Some people believe that rape and violence may form part of our biological framework. Whether or not it is true, the argument is specious; one of the characteristics of being human is having the ability to choose whether or not to follow certain impulses. Not many of us will masturbate openly in a supermarket, for example, out of concern of social stigma. However, if the social and/or economic motivation for performing certain acts is high and/or the risk of following those impulses is low, incident rates will soar. Many more people would probably join supermarket masturbation squads if the rewards involved praise for acting tough and an oil field.

If cooperation and support become societal norms, and thus acts of sexual aggression are seen as weaknesses rather than strength, rape rates will probably decrease. Part of hastening that process may involve making jokes that ridicule rapists and rape culture (Jezebel has a helpful guide for this here). In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf cites a survey where college men and women were asked what they feared most from the opposite sex. While women said they feared men would kill them, men were most afraid that women would laugh at them. Rapists fear being ridiculed as much as the next person, and doing so gives endorphins to those of all genders who are victims of rape culture. First we fight them, then we ridicule them, then we ignore them, then we win. It's very delicate ground for comedians to tread, but people like Wanda Sykes have arguably crafted fairly ethical anti-rape jokes. Perhaps one day we will build monuments to her. Who knows.


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