In case you missed it yesterday, this blog post made the rounds describing one anonymous female audience member’s experience at the Laugh Factory. Apparently during a guest appearance Daniel Tosh (of Tosh.0 fame) was making a series of comments about how rapes jokes are always funny. This audience member, goaded beyond politeness, called out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny.” Tosh apparently responded by staring the young lady in the face and saying, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got gang raped by like 5 guys right now?”
According to the woman, she and her friend left amidst the hoots and laughs of the audience while Tosh continued to discuss her potential rape as though it constituted a joke.
The blog went viral and, as always, controversy ensued. Comedians rushed to Twitter to defend Tosh’s action and call the woman a pig who deserved everything she got and should probably consider killing herself. The manager of the club (who, it should be noted, has a vested interest in Tosh’s happiness) said that the incident was misunderstood and mischaracterized by the woman. Tosh, to his credit, apologized via Twitter despite citing “out of context misquotes.” Overall, it’s pretty much the same age-old discussion about the place of rape humor.
I don’t particularly care what actually happened. It’s entirely possible that the anonymous woman is embellishing the story. It’s also possible that Tosh and the club manager are doing damage control in the interest of future shows. What’s interesting to me is how representative this whole incident is to the way rape is treated in our culture. The problem doesn’t lie with rape jokes or with Daniel Tosh. The problem lies in our cultural denial of rape as a hate crime.
I posted a link to the original blog post on my Facebook page, and to my surprise it started a heated Facebook debate amongst my friends in the comments section. Many of my friends came to Daniel Tosh’s defense, saying that rape jokes are a part of comedy and that when it comes to comedy, no group of people should be off limits. Fair enough. I’ve done enough time in the bowels of the New York comedy scene to understand and appreciate that argument. Of all my friends chatting away on my Facebook page about the sanctity of rape jokes, I can guarantee that I’ve heard more than any of them. I’m also probably the only one who has had the experience of being in a dark room with 30 comics, 3 of whom are women, listening to said jokes. Despite that experience, no, I wouldn’t ban rape jokes. Of course not. Was I uncomfortable? Yes. Did I laugh in those situations? No I did not. Did I feel personally victimized and fearful for my safety? No. I was just enduring shitty jokes. All part of the comedian’s experience.
But the way this incident with Tosh was described (whether true or not) is different than a “rape joke.” According to the blog, he said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got gang raped right now?” That’s not a rape joke. That’s not even a joke, really. It’s a sick, threatening comment. To me, it reminded me of the Michael Richards drama, where he responded to hecklers of color with a series of racist slurs and offensive language. Sure, the fact that someone got it all on video sealed his fate, but I don’t think anyone who heard that Michael Richards had used hateful, racist language (including the N-word) during a public comedy show responded with, “well yeah but it’s a comedy show. Everyone’s fair game.”
That, in my opinion, encapsulates the issue with how we culturally treat rape.
When it comes to humor at the expense of minority groups, we have culturally drawn lines. You can make jokes about Black people, but you can’t say the N-word (unless you’re also Black or (sometimes) Hispanic, but that’s a discussion too broad to have here). There are certain understood standards about where comedy that targets specific groups can go. A joke about beating a gay teenager to death? Those have probably happened, but I think most of us would agree that it’s too far. When it comes to rape, though, too many people seem to think that rape lies completely within the realm of comedy. Rape belongs in comedy. What is rape, if it’s not something for comedians to joke about? What gets lost in that discussion is that rape is crime against those who survive it, it violates them and removes their power and changes their lives. We don’t think about race solely in the context of comedy. But for too many people, within comedy is the only time and place they think about rape.
I made a similar point in my earlier post on Facebook’s policy regarding offensive groups. I’m not against rape jokes. I wish we could have more productive cultural discussions of rape in addition to them, but I understand that they are here to stay. My point is that we haven’t figured out where “the line” for rape jokes is. There should be one. When it comes to rape, just as when it comes to other sensitive issues, we need to determine where is too far for common decency. Rape does not exist to fuel comedy careers. Rape is a real problem. Telling someone in a crowded room of strangers (most of them male) that it would be funny if they were raped right here right now, is too far. That is beyond the line of decency. It might have lacked the anger and explosiveness of Michael Richards’ outburst but in my mind it is the same. You diminish someone by reminding them of the power that they lack. For people of color, this is often expressed by hateful slurs. For women, this is expressed by invoking rape. Rape, and the fact that women of all ages have to worry about it, is a constant reminder that we are not equal. Even more so if you take into consideration what happens to women if they come forward with allegations of rape. If you want to take away a woman’s power, the most effective (and least comedic) way to do it is to remind her that while you can joke about rape, she’s the one who has to fear it (I’m not aiming to diminish the presence or importance of male rape survivors, but for many men it occurs in childhood which is a separate issue. But they exist. There are a horrifying number of them out there).
There were a million other ways that Tosh could have handled a heckler. “Don’t you have a sandwich to be making?” “Wait, when did it become okay for women to have opinions?” “Where’s your boyfriend? I’d like to speak to a man about your behavior. Oh, actually, now that I take a closer look at your face…nevermind.” All are sexist, all put her down. But none is the same as saying, ‘It would be funny to watch you get gang raped right now’. It’s not about sexism. It’s not about the mere existence rape jokes. It’s about how we perceive rape to be a natural part of comedy, when it isn’t. Allowing people to take rape jokes as far as they want, with no consideration of the realities of rape, normalizes rape as a part of culture. I’m not saying that it’s Daniel Tosh’s job to stop rape – I’m saying that it’s all of ours. We can appreciate good jokes, no matter what the subject matter. But I wish we’d stop with the rabid defense of rape jokes that go too far. At the end of the day, comedy is a business about making people laugh, not an exercise in free speech. We as consumers can change the definition of how much rape joke we’re willing to put up with. And in my opinion, in light of the pervasive problem of rape in this country and the world, we should think about it.