Rape Jokes: Comedy Or Over The Line?
A lot of the comedy we watch experiments with dark and adventurous humour, but is this below the belt? Jazz explores where the line actually is, and if there even is one.
A few months ago, I was at a friend’s house one evening watching some stand up. I’m generally a fan of comedy and can spend hours watching YouTube clips of comedians like Kevin Hart, Jimmy Fallon and Greg Davies. This time, we were watching a male comedian make what I found to be derogatory and distasteful jokes at the expense of black women and rape victims. Women were described as if they were disposable objects, and instead of using humour to cope with issues of sexual harassment, the sketch instead was celebratory and encouraging. I found myself cringing in a room of people who were laughing.
Where to draw the line is still a very grey area.
I felt uncomfortable. I was the only woman there, I was the great big elephant in the room. I felt alone. What unsettled me more than the content of the jokes was the reaction of my male peers, and how they were able to laugh so freely. Were they showing a complete disregard for abuse and rape, or was I being too sensitive? I couldn’t work it out.
Stand up comedy is renowned for pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable; it plays with the offensive and extreme, and that’s why people love it. Comedians are often celebrated for treading the fine line between humour that is mild and that which is offensive, and the controversy itself allows them to achieve higher recognition. In 2012, Frankie Boyle was infamously called out for making a reference to Down’s Syndrome that many found offensive, and the aftermath of this called out for jokes of this nature to be censored. What I do understand is that with comedy comes freedom of speech, just like I have the freedom to react how I feel appropriate, but where to draw the line is still a very grey area. People will be able to say what they want, both in life and on a stage, but in doing so offensively you should probably expect to come under scrutiny for your words.
Comedians often argue that creating sketches that target sensitive issues like abuse, sexism, or racism is a mechanism that allows the audience to see the situation in a different light. Political and social problems are turned on their heads by making jokes that allow you to laugh about them, and comedy is a device often used to relieve the tension surrounding those issues. So I can see why comedy related to abuse or rape is performed, because when done tastefully it can be empowering for those affected. Female comedians have also been known to make rape jokes, and some of them are drawn from personal experience. Ellissa Bassist, a comic and writer, states, ‘The worst thing that happened to me was something I could now own and talk about without feeling it was the worst thing that had happened to me. I used humour to distance myself from pain, while never forgetting the pain or diminishing or devaluing it’.
Stand up comedy is renowned for pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable; it plays with the offensive and the extreme.
But when a white, heterosexual, middle class male, a common demographic within comedy, is the person making jokes that exploit rape culture, the problem is when it’s projected in a way that devalues the sincerity of the experience and trivialises the struggle. The best comedy is that which kicks up as opposed to down: kicking up at the system, institutions, and government, rather than kicking down at the people who are victim to and oppressed by it.
Comedian Daniel Tosh’s rape joke directed at an audience member during his performance at the Laugh Factory did both of these things. He told a female audience member who objected to a rape joke, ‘But would it be funny if this girl got gang-raped right this moment, like right now right now?’. This is not a joke, but an invitation. This was not only a fierce reminder of the fact that girls are being gang-raped, right now, but it played on her vulnerability and emphasized who was in control and held all the power in that situation
There are issues within our society surrounding rape culture, violence towards women and racism, all of which are present in much of the comedy we are subjected to. Victims of abuse and violence are often treated as if they are at fault. Women are often blamed for wearing ‘inviting’ or provocative clothing and this is sometimes deemed as an invitation to have sex, regardless of consent However, we do not tell someone who’s been shot that they shouldn’t have left the house. Recently, Ohio Republican Governor John Kasich pitched his solution to sexual violence aimed at women by advising them they should not ‘go to parties where there’s a lot of alcohol’ to avoid harassment and rape. What I find worrying is whether this type of comedy being projected is in fact perpetuating the issue. If it’s acceptable to talk about, now it’s acceptable to laugh about, will there be people that as a result see it as acceptable to do?
Comedy is an incredibly powerful tool for conveying a message or strong set of opinions, and when done well it can be educational. There are countless talented comedians out there today using comedy as a way of bringing people together and using humour to shed light on topics that need to be spoken about. There is a massive difference in addressing a difficult issue in a way which is tasteful, witty and empowering than doing so by preying on vulnerability and using humour to cut somebody down. That is the art form.
If you are a comedy lover and want to know where to find it in Bristol, check out Rife Guide for information about venues and events.