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Rape jokes – the ‘new black?’

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Izzy Woods
Freelance  journalist

Twitter has been awash with debate about offensive comedy of late.

It began with UK comedian Ricky Gervais and his painfully ill-judged comments about the use of the word ‘mong’.

Another British comedian, Richard Herring, was brave enough to call him out on it and in the ensuing row Gervais finally apologised (kind of) and order was restored.

His reputation just about survived and he did have a new series to promote, so it worked out fine for him and I am sure his current account will not have suffered.

But when I noticed comedian Emma Kennedy almost simultaneously tweeting that comedian Frankie Boyle was again indulging in rape jokes (charmingly, about a female comedian Josie Long), hardly a voice was raised in objection.

I was directed to a brave and heartbreaking post by blogger Sharon Gooner, who asked why rape jokes had somehow become fashionable recently, the ‘new black’.

Young comedians are increasingly using shock jock techniques to make a name and get noticed, apparently. Audiences, who are often desperate to demonstrate their acceptance of the premise that all subjects are fair game in the edgy world of comedy, are seemingly happy to join in with the joke.

One of Frankie Boyle’s rape jokes goes: ‘They say that Viagra takes half an hour to work. By half an hour I find the woman has usually managed to wriggle free’.

There are other recent examples, like the Facebook page being campaigned against here, and the CharGrilled t-shirt reading ‘No + Rohypnol = Yes’.

The t-shirt has been removed from sale after the outcry, with a groveling apology from CharGrilled.

Again, it probably wasn’t bad for business. But can you imagine the planning meeting discussion behind that particular product line? (“All the new the comics are doing rape gags. It’s hot right now…The kids will love it!”)

Offensive. Yes, and it is what we have come to expect from Boyle, for example.

But other more mainstream comedians like Jimmy Carr are arguably making worse rape jokes in their routines, and receiving no censure. Why is it that comics like Carr can get away with it without attracting the attention of other comedians or commentators?

Or audiences for that matter? Are jokes about people with Downs Syndrome worse than rape jokes? Are all rape jokes bad? It’s a question that needs exploring if we want to debate the issue of offensive humour effectively.

When a joke is made there is usually a ‘victim’ of the punch line, the one who the joke is ‘on’.

For me any joke which perpetuates rape myths (“…she was asking for it…”) is simply unacceptable, since the joke is on someone who is powerless and victimized, and can lead to dangerous assumptions about sexually motivated crime. In other words, the victim is to blame.

Comedy at its best is used to puncture the complacency of the powerful, not further victimise victims.  I like my comics to be clever and picking on the weakest in society isn’t clever, although it sometimes has all the hallmarks of linguistic wit and mental dexterity.

If the jokes were on the rapist would they be more acceptable? Maybe, yes, because of the difference in focus from powerless to powerful. The fact that I have yet to come across one, in my dispiriting search for examples, speaks volumes.

Rape jokes are misogynistic by their very nature. How many female comics tell rape jokes, I wonder?

The other rule I have about jokes is about choice. If someone has a joke made at their expense it matters to me whether they have a choice about what is being ridiculed. Boyle’s odious quips about the dress sense of people with Down’s Syndrome is a classic case where this rule is broken.

The structure of jokes can be applied to any situation.  Expectation + Expectation overturned = Comedy, is one simple structure.

Rape jokes are crafted in the same way as other jokes, it’s simply the choice of victim as the target. The fact that some of them are linguistically clever and structurally sound as gags gives them a pass into the comedy circuit where they might otherwise fail. It’s not the rules of comedy that are being broken, it’s the rules of taboo.

Some comedians explore the limits of comedy to find its edges. Herring himself is far from anodyne in this respect.

His desire to examine human uneasiness and the limits of his audience is interesting, in that they are largely collaborative. He explores the boundaries with his audience, rather than trying to overreach them for shock value and notoriety at the expense of the weak.

The collusion between comic and audience for a rape joke, on the other hand, depends largely upon stereotypes and often an assumption of culpability by the victim. The only taboo being explored is the acceptability of picking on subjects that society normally wishes to protect.

The debate about offensive comedy and the place of rape jokes can be divisive and says a lot about the complexity and contentiousness of this issue, and our individual responses to it.

The trend is sparked partly by a rebellion against the pervasive ‘right on’ generation of British comics from the 80s, such as Ben Elton, French and Saunders, and the Richard Curtis gang.

Rebellion has always been part of what comedians do, and perhaps they are right that things have gotten too tame.

But without attention to issues such as the rape joke and the attitudes it fosters, we see young boys considering it fine to set up a rape joke Facebook page, currently being campaigned against by WVoN.

The fact it has not been pulled speaks of a worrying ambiguity about what is and is not acceptable as a subject for humour.

Please see WVoN’s campaign against Facebook rape jokes here.

  1. mazzawoo says:

    Brilliant analysis, thank you.

  2. Assuming the campaign against Gervais tapped into some vein of general support isn’t really accurate. There was a slow build of support, but also some horrendous abuse of those trying to push through the message that this word is used on a daily basis for abusing disabled people simply for being disabled. Nicky Clark deserves tremendous praise for having the courage to take her message and build a coalition of people who eventually forced Gervais to reconsider (and I’m still not sure he really gets it), but you shouldn’t discount the widespread and aggressive hostility encountered, nor assume that rape jokes can’t be challenged in the same way. The message succeeded not because it was automatically recognised as being right, but because we kept banging our position out there until it couldn’t be denied.

    I think there’s a similarity in the circumstances, both rape jokes and disablist abuse focus on denigrating people for who they are, women in one case, disabled people in the other. As a disabled man I understand the hostility and abuse that is out there for us – BTDT into double figures – but most people aren’t disabled and don’t, many are in active denial, and you need to educate them to the daily hostility we face, something that can be a very slow process, until finally they can understand that what they see as a harmless word is actually anything but. That lesson reads across, don’t focus on the joke side of things, people can’t make the leap from there to the damage that results, so start with the damage and push the message that these jokes cause very real damage by giving aid and succour to the real rapists out there, convincing them they aren’t doing anything that’s not at least semi-socially acceptable. Maybe you won’t convert Frankie Boyle, or his more rabid fans, but every person around them you convince that these aren’t acceptable subjects for jokes is one more person they have to keep their mouth shut around, one more piece of evidence that what they think isn’t socially acceptable and they’d better keep it buried.

  3. Good comment David, thank you.

  4. Very good analysis by WVoN and very helpful feedback from David. What a pity that intelligent critiques of rape culture and ‘jokes’ that attempt to make hate crime against disabled people and gender based violence funny rarely reach into the consciousness of the perpetrators (I include the comedians concerned amongst the perpetrators)

  5. vicki wharton says:

    Yup, would agree with all that’s been said – and the first level of softening a society up for further, more hideous crimes against humanity is to get them to accept the outlawed group as ‘outsiders’ by making them the butt of inhumane jokes, thereby planting the notion that they are not human. It happened in Germany and in Rwanda … and whilst I’m not suggesting we are on the brink of mass genocide, we are definitely on that line and heading in the wrong direction. As women, the fact there are a missing 12 million of us in India in the last twenty years speaks volumes about our value as human beings.

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