Why rape jokes aren’t funny
June 25, 2012 § 4 Comments
Understand this: I am not saying you can’t tell a joke about rape, because clearly, you can. Many people have, many more people do or will in the future. I’m saying that no matter how amazingly funny you think you are, or may even actually be, the joke won’t be funny. Why is that? Well, it’s because there are living rape victims who may hear it. Not only are there more people who have been raped than you may believe (you probably know someone who has been raped, even if you don’t know that they have been) but furthermore, rape just isn’t a terribly amusing concept.
“But Matt,” you may say, “We tell jokes about trucks full of dead babies being unloaded with pitchforks. Bill Hicks, your favorite comedian, told a joke where he talked about jamming a shotgun in a man’s mouth and blowing his head off. Why can’t we tell rape jokes, then?”
As I said previously, you can tell them all you want. I am not the joke police. I can’t stop you from telling them, nor is that my goal in writing this. This is about why those jokes aren’t funny, not why you can’t tell them. There are many reasons why these jokes aren’t funny.
- A great many people have been raped, and those people have a variety of reactions to the subject. For a great many, it’s astonishingly painful to be reminded of the subject, due to the traumatic nature of the event. Just like when you’ve survived a plane crash that killed most of the rest of the passengers and crew and you can’t go to an airport without reliving the experience, or someone who was stabbed repeatedly might not be able to bear seeing a knife, some people who have survived sexual abuse or violence simply can’t help going through the experience again when it’s brought up.
- Rape may well be the worst violation one human being can inflict upon another. It’s certainly up there with torture and murder. And because of the way our society treats those who have been raped, they often have to endure a great deal of shame foisted upon them by a society that blames the victim for the crime, for ‘asking for it’ or ‘not doing enough to avoid it’ or what have you.
- The vast majority of sexual assaults are inflicted by men. So if you’re a man telling a joke about raping someone, even if you absolutely mean it purely as a joke, you’re doing so in the social context that says that as a man, you’re far more likely to act on your words. This isn’t funny. Even just telling a joke that is about rape that doesn’t directly involve you personally raping anyone is still veiled in that context. As long as rape actually exists, and men commit the crime for the vast majority of its cases, the joke will seem like a threat to some people who have every right to be worried and concerned.
- Rape isn’t fucking funny. End stop. It’s not funny when you make a joke about criminals getting raped in prison, it’s not funny talking about doing it yourself, it’s not funny because it lingers in the victim’s mind and heart. Someone who has been raped and survived it, even if they worked for years to overcome it, still has that primal scar that’s never going away. They view crowds differently, they feel things you can’t immediately understand if you haven’t had the experience (and I sincerely hope you have not) and internalized it. Rape steals your ability to control your own body from you, it is an act that says “You are so unimportant to me that I can use you as I choose and discard any concern for you as a fellow human being, you are no more important than a used condom I would throw in the garbage.” Carlin was wrong: imagining cartoon pigs doing the raping doesn’t make it any funnier.
- All of that shit I mentioned is damn hard to support in the name of telling a joke about rape. It’s hard for me to conceive of a justification for a joke about all of that. It’s just too much weight for almost any comedian to support. Perhaps Patton Oswalt can, or Margaret Cho. Frankly, I don’t like their odds and if I don’t think they can pull it off, I’m not looking forward to the huge hilarious laughs you’re going to wring out of this kind of violation. To be honest, I don’t think the pitchfork/truck full of dead babies joke is all that funny, but at least I’m fairly secure in the knowledge that no one hearing that joke was pitchforked out of a truck when they were a dead baby.
Consider the following. If you tell a joke that involves rape, and someone busts out laughing, are you comfortable around that person? Do you want to hang and get to know the guy or girl who laughs uproariously at the idea of someone being horribly, painfully, violated and robbed of a piece of their identity that they’ll need to spend years recovering if they even ever can? Does that sound like a party to you? Because if so please refrain from inviting me to any soirees you may be holding. Rape isn’t funny because the act itself combines the worst of misogyny, child abuse, violation of self, violation of trust, and the complete depersonalization of another. You can tell a joke about it, and people may laugh. They also might laugh at your knee slapping Nagasaki joke, but that’s not funny either. They might laugh when you tell a joke about killing small, defenseless animals. Senses of humor are subjective, but the pain you can cause is also subjective, and it’s objectively horrible to make someone who has endured this already relive it for the sake of your stupid punchline.
In a related but different subject, using rape in a narrative to build in a character’s backstory is weird. Rape shouldn’t be some minor detail your heroine or hero overcomes on the way, it should be given the position its narrative weight demands. If you introduce a rape in chapter one, it can’t just be recovered from next chapter. Well, it can, but that’s fundamentally shitty writing even if there’s an excuse like “Well, ten years had passed, she would have had to cope by then.” First off, sometimes people don’t recover from this, and secondly, if it’s important enough to include a rape it’s important enough that you don’t show the recovery process as ‘ten years later’ and gloss over what survivors have to go through. And using rape to simply endanger someone to generate sympathy towards that character is simply shitty as hell.
If rape is important enough to you to use, it had better be for more than just to fill in a background detail or make us feel sympathetic. If you’re not willing to devote significant time to it and its effects then don’t use it.