Is A Rape Joke Ever Funny?

Illustration for article titled Is A Rape Joke Ever Funny?

I will be the first person to admit that I have a sick sense of humor. I never lose a gross-out contest, I revel in inappropriate jokes and I consider, when telling a joke, a look of horror as nearly as good as getting a laugh. But I often hear from people — men and women — that rape jokes are never, ever funny. Well, I would like to disagree — and to point out that even some people who swear that this is true can find one that they like. But, furthermore, by putting sexual assault on a kind of untouchable comedy pedestal, I think we're getting further away from allowing victims to be able to make it a normative, discuss-able and, yes, mock-able experience, and that the more different we make it and ourselves from victims of other situations, the more difficult it is the get actual equity in the way the rest of society treats it.Granted, most people think I get a pass on this because I have been sexually assaulted. Of course, I spent a good part of the hours after my most recent assault alternating between hysterical crying and compulsive vomiting — and cracking jokes. I got tired really quickly of the quiet whispers and the looks of pity and the hushed voices and the overall funerary air in the room. And then, because the cops and the detective and my friend were all too scared to laugh, I told jokes... jokes that descended deeper into "inappropriate" territory because, if I could mock it, if I could laugh at it — and if I could make them laugh at the absurdity of trying to take a written statement from a drunk, hysterical, projectile-vomiting witness who was singing "Red, Red Wine" under her breath (when she could breathe) — then it wasn't actually The Worst Thing In The World. You're supposed to laugh at that, although no one does — but if I had been mugged, or had my identity stolen or witnessed a crime, it is funny to picture that Exorcist kid spewing vomit everywhere to a reggae beat while the cops look on in horror and try to protect their paperwork. Why is my vagina some sacred crime scene? But, having told this story to Anna and her husband recently — and having upset Anna's husband, who was too horrified by what happened to me to see that there was humor or absurdity in the situation — I know that it is. Anyway, the first relatively mainstream rape joke comes, of course, from Sarah Silverman's performance in The Aristocrats.

It's an arc of a performance, that starts with her telling a sweet but sick story of performing in an incestuous sex show and culminates in the heart-stopping, clear-eyed revelation that "Joe Franklin raped me." Except, of course, she's proudly trodding on the landmine of comedy — and, honestly, it's so disturbing, it's funny.
Jessica Valenti's recent piece in The Guardian about female comedians praised Wanda Sykes' now-infamous rape joke from her 2006 comedy special about detachable vaginas.

Valenti says:

Sykes brings a biting comedy to the most controversial topics, throwing new light on issues that are all too easily written off as age-old and intractable: rape, for example.


And she does, but let's break down what she's joking about: she's joking about stranger rape, and she's making light of Kobe Bryant's victim, who was raped after she went up to his hotel room at the ungodly hour of 2 in the morning. In fact, you could argue — and I am — that Wanda Sykes is poking fun of that victim for being, you know, stupid enough to get raped. Is it only funny when Wanda Sykes does it? Many of you would say yes (and, in fact have said that it's never funny to say something like that). Do you still think so? In fact, Jessica Valenti herself recently wrote, in response to a rape joke shown on The Office "there's never really a funny rape joke, is there?" Well, here's the rape joke she — and many of you, judging by our e-mails — didn't like:

To recap, Kelly claims to have been raped when she is confronted with some office malfeasance — as in, she's only saying it to get out of trouble— and it's not the first time she's apparently done such a thing. Is it laugh-out-loud funny? Nah. But is it poking fun of her character and using that kind of hyperbole to mock people who try to use personal crises ("My grandmother died") to get out of responsibility? Sure. Is it, say, less offensive than implying a rape victim was less than smart to head up to Kobe Bryant's room late at night? Technically, I think both are funny, but I have a sick sense of humor. Which, of course, brings me to the most horrifying of horrifying rape jokes: The South Park episode about Indiana Jones. Although this only has the last two of the three rape scenes depicted in the show, it gives you enough of a sense of what it was about: Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are no longer metaphorically raping the Indy franchise, they're really doing it. Offensive? Yes. Boundary-crossing? Certainly. Horrifying in its detail? Yes. Funny? Arguably so. Which then, of course, brings it back to the question: when is it funny? And I think the answer is, for a lot of people, when you like or respect the person telling the joke. Which is fine, and it's how most jokes work, but you can't then argue that they're never funny, or they can't ever be funny. Lots of humor comes from the juxtaposition of our civilized collective state of being and the ways in which we betray the lie of that constantly — fart jokes, for instance, are funniest when you really, really should be proper. If we take sexual assault off the table of things we can laugh about or joke about, it's just another way of saying: this is a different crime than any other crime, and so we can and must treat its victims differently than any other crime. And, you know, fuck that. I got treated differently than any other crime victim once because of the kind of crime that I was the victim of. If I had been mugged, would the cops have been calling my friends and asking them how much I'd been drinking that night? If I had been only robbed, would it have mattered to the cops whether I'd told the guys I was out with that night that I was dating someone? If I had been shot walking out of the bar, would it have been anyone's business if my friend thought that I was flirting or not? And if any of those crimes had been committed instead, would everyone be so horribly offended by me making jokes about it? It's all part of the way in which society wants to treat me differently because of how I was victimized. Let's treat sexual assaults like any other crime and tell some rape jokes. Cool? Here's mine: When my victim's advocate called me up the week after I was assaulted, she went over the rape kit results and what I could expect from the process, and asked me if I had any questions. I asked her if they could tell me the name of the man who had been arrested for assaulting me, and I heard her shuffle through papers. His name, she said, was "Hey-zeus" after which I started laughing. An agnostic, I was raped by Jesus. Sense And Humour [The Guardian] The Office's Rape Joke [Feministing] Related: Rape Case Against Bryant Dismissed [MSNBC] Earlier: My Sexual Assault Is Not Your Political Issue



In terms of The Office, they skirt this line all the time. There's the Sexual Harrassment episode, which shows all kinds of insensitivities from various characters on ideas of harassment and gender...and there the episode where Phyllis is flashed, which is assault btw, and Michael COMPLETELY dismisses it and makes a horrifically crude joke (while Angela blames the victim).

Kelly, as a character, represents a very, very, very carefully over the top kind of person in terms of self-involvement and what is almost ALWAYS attributed to women in terms of vapidity, competitiveness, and vanity. On purpose. Not because they think women are actually like that, but because they don't. They're showing you exactly what someone whose entire life revolves around tabloids, clothes, and herself would be like. It's a very carefully done caricature.

I found the "rape" joke funny because it was clearly NOT about rape or women as liars who "cry rape". It was about Kelly being awful and selfish and (to a lesser extent) how she has a lot in common with Michael. It makes absolutely no judgement on rape victims at all. And that's extremely important.

I mean, let's keep this in the context of the character. Kelly has:

1. Called the funeral of her sister LESS tragic than Princess Di's.

2. Pretended to be pregnant to win a guy back.

3. Worn a white dress to another woman's wedding for the attention.

4. Tried to get her boyfriend to pick her over his 5 year old daughter.

5. Essentially stole a vg console from said daughter in exchange for a head band and saw nothing wrong with it.

5. Cheated on said boyfriend with the jackass who left her.

6. Did that crash celebrity diet to try and lose weight.

That character is NOT meant to represent any other than what she is...self-centered to the point of being crippled by it. The whole point is that she does not get why what she was wrong, she NEVER gets it. It's supposed to be inappropriate and wrong.

As for rape in general...I think we have to, to some degree, be able to laugh at the things that are most awful. No two people react the same way to trauma and humor is one way to help make something terrible less consuming.

I think a rape joke can and is funny when it explores (like Sykes or Carlin)how awful it is by also pointing out the absurdities. I mean, as Sykes says, women's lives would be SO much easier if we could just detach our vagina's. It's funny because it's ludicrous and true.