We know rape is serious. So how did it become the joke du jour?


We know rape is serious. So how did it become the joke du jour?


We know rape is serious. So how did it become the joke du jour?




When Quentin Tarantino appeared on The Jimmy Kimmel Show in April to plug his latest film, the schlockand-maw double feature Grindhouse, he brought with him a fittingly depraved piece of movie merchandise—a boxed action figure modelled on his character in the film. “This is Rapist No. 1,” he said, holding up a pot-bellied doll dressed in military fatigues, toting a gun. “When you go to Toys “R” Us ask for me by name,” he joked. “Rapist No. 1. Not Rapist No. 2. Not No. 3.”

The audience cracked up. After all, this was Tarantino, the original “gore-teur,” a guy celebrated for pushing the boundaries of ironic gross-out humour. Yet in riffing on rape, the director was decidedly behind the very curve he helped create. Sexual violence is now routine fodder for the comic master class. Sarah Silverman’s line “I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl,” is upheld as a model of the “meta-bigotry” genre: a classic taboo pas de deux—rape and anti-Semitism in one swipe. Sexual plunder was a leitmotif in the beloved 2006 mockumentary Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen’s character proudly introduces his father “Boltok, the village rapist,” and boasts of his country: “In Kazakhstan we have many hobbies: disco dancing, archery, rape, and table tennis.” Even Jerry Seinfeld, known for working clean, jested lightly about the topic last week while promoting his upcoming animated Bee Movie. He praised the insect for living in “the only perfect society on earth”: “They have no crime, they have no drugs, they have no rape. A little rape, but it’s not that bad.”

Jocular rape allusions have even trickled into prime-time TV, that bastion of propriety where network censors turn apoplectic over Janet Jackson’s exposed nipple. Arrested Development routinely referred to “roofies” (a.k.a. the date-rape drug Rohypnol) as “forget-me-nows.” Earlier this year, NBC’s hillbilly comedy My

Name is Earl referenced The Accused, the 1988 film starring Jodie Foster as a gang-rape victim. In one scene on the show, the central character stands in a bar with his wife, who turns to him and says “All right, fine. So we’ll just wait until this place closes and you can do me on the pinball machine like in that porno Jodie Foster did.” It wasn’t the first time the movie, which features one of the most brutal rape scenes on film, was culled for comedy: the Fox series The Family Guy alluded to it in 2006 as did the 2005 hit movie Wedding Crashers.

So how did rape become the new banana peel? Didn’t feminism teach us that rape is a political act—not about sex but power, and never to be taken lightly? Hasn’t our collective consciousness been raised by “Take Back the Night” marches, “No Means No” campaigns, and rape-crisis centres? Or is the emergence of the mainstream rape joke to be seen as an indicator of enlightenment: only idiots joke about The Accused, so really the joke’s on them? Certainly the unfunni-

ness of rape has never been more acute. International war crimes tribunals have classified it a war crime, a human rights violation second only to genocide in gravity. The news is filled with rape atrocities—from the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq to grisly accounts of unprecedented sexual violence in Darfur. What gives?

The rape joke has skulked around for years, of course, though in recent memory it has been subject to a moratorium among the politically correct. Over the past quarter-century, telling a rape joke got one branded a philistine, a misogynist, a redneck. Sensitivities were such that when Chris Rock told a joke about date rape on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1989, Hall issued a public apology the next day. Rape jokes were exiled to men’s magazines where they played off the retrograde notion that women enjoy sexual violation—viz. the Penthouse cartoon of a rapist running away from a woman lying on the ground yelling out “Encore...” or the Hustler graphic of two women jogging above the

caption: “The trouble with rapists is they’re never around when you need them.”

But now the rape joke has taken a more subversive turn. Certainly as Freud pointed out in Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, the bigger the taboo the stronger the inclination to joke about it. And rape, as George Carlin said in the 1980s, is no different from any other taboo. Context is everything, he contended. As proof, he told a joke in which Porky Pig violates Elmer Fudd. Today, the cartoon imagery is quaint. Now comedy routinely tests that line between what’s shocking but acceptable and what’s unequivocally out of bounds. Discomfort comedies Curb Your Enthusiasm and South Park are mainstream, invoking laughs about incest support groups and child abuse. A joke’s hilarity is measured in terms of just how wrong it is.

Little surprise, then, that rape has become part of the arsenal of the comic guerrilla vanguard-educated, politically progressive “metabigots” such as Baron Cohen, Silverman and Bill Maher, who are well-versed in the complex algorithms of taboo (who’s allowed to joke about what, to whom, using what terminology). Rather than tackle the taboo laundry list—race, rape, abortion, incest, mass starvationstraight on, they mock discussions of them via subtle contextual winks. It’s up to the audience to intuit the unstated, smarter message underneath. Silverman stole the 2005 documentary The Aristocrats with a shocking

version of the eponymous filthy joke in which she shyly revealed being sexually abused by the then-septegenarian show business veteranjoe Franklin. She ends the joke looking straight into the camera and saying, “Joe Franklin raped me.” (Franklin didn’t see the humour and threatened to sue.) When the Cambridge-educated Baron Cohen presents rape as recreation in Borat, the audience is supposed to see him as a latter-day Jonathan Swift suggesting the Irish eat their own children. Only a halfwit wouldn’t get it, Silverman explained to an interviewer in the June

issue of Maxim. When asked “How do you distinguish between a joke about racism and a joke that’s racist?” she answered: “By not being retarded?”

But as Freud also pointed out, a joke is never only a joke; it also can be a sneaky way of saying what is otherwise unsayable. Jokes tend to run in cycles for a reason, Arthur Asa Berger writes in An Anatomy of Humor: “whenever there is a popular joke cycle, there generally is some widespread kind of social and cultural anxiety lingering below the surface that the joke cycle helps people deal with.” Just what anxiety the rape joke signals is rich for interpretation. Judith Levine, author of My Enemy, My Love; Women, Masculinity and the Dilemma of Genders, believes the mainstream rape joke is another indicator of a backlash against feminism, part of a larger cultural moment in which grandmothers take pole-dancing lessons and “torture porn,” a cinematic genre in which women are bound, gagged, raped, and disembowelled, was just named “the newest rage in Hollywood” by the ad-industry Bible, Advertising Age. “People tend to think that the function of feminism is as a thought police or a speech police, but

when there’s a strong feminist movement there’s a stronger consensus that rape is not funny,” Levine says. Focus on the rape of women has been supplanted by attention on the sexual abuse of children, she observes: “Women are no longer innocents to be protected. We have another population of innocents to protect—children.”

The shibboleths of feminist doctrine are suddenly ripe for questioning. And comedy offers a platform for dissent, says Christie Davies, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Reading. Being able to speak

in only one acceptable way about a subject makes people find relief through humour, says Davies, author of Jokes and Their Relation to Society and The Mirth ofNations. Hence the black humour that inevitably springs from disasters like Chernobyl or the space shuttle explosion. “You have a dominant, hegemonic mode of speech about something,” he says. “As soon as you establish that, people try and sneak round it.”

These days such acting out is most evident on college campuses, where date-rape campaigns prevail, as do literally sophomoric attempts to mow down sacred cows. This April Fool’s Day, the University of California at San Diego’s newspaper The Guardian ran a story about the school’s “Intramural Rape League,” mocking a campus anti-date rape campaign, specifically its boast that the vast majority of students (though not all) agreed non-consensual sex is unacceptable. Titled “Predators Stalk Campus for Big Win,” it was illustrated with a photograph of a smiling four-man squad which “draws from the 10 per cent of UCSD students who don’t require verbal consent before engaging in sexual intercourse.” The article detailed the team’s training regime (well-lit areas are avoided) and quoted a player, who said, “There is no such thing as rape season, unless you’re talking about the entire year.”

More oblique rape-associative imagery punctuated the April 1, 2007, “spoof” edition of the University of

Western Ontario’s The Gazette. One story was titled “Western student loves taste of Rohypnol (She’s a Real Knockout!!!)” Another, “Labia Majora Carnage,” told the fictional tale of a student feminist named “Jennifer Ostrich” (a thinly veiled reference to campus activist Jenna Owsianik) participating in a “Take Back the Nightie March.” In the story, Ostrich’s vagina “crawled out of her flowing white nightie,” stole a loudspeaker and “went on a rampage.” She was stopped by London police chief Murray Faulker (busy “greasing his nightstick”), who grabbed the loudspeaker



from the vagina and took it into a dark alley to “teach it a lesson”; the vagina followed, giggling “I love it when a man in uniform takes control.” The intent, explains Gazette managing editor Brice Hall, was to skewer the language of “doctrinaire political feminism.”

But the editors learned how humour can map the outer limits of a society’s tolerance. After protests at the school garnered national coverage, the university’s board of directors voted to monitor the paper’s editorial content, an unprecedented move for a Canadian university.

Joking about rape is to comedy what the triple lutz is to skating—without the skill or finesse to pull it off, an embarrassing, painful disaster. The line between satirist and creep can be thin. Heavy-handed or humourless meta-bigotry can look a lot like—and even mask—actual bigotry. The two shock jock hosts of XM satellite radio’s “Opie & Anthony Show” learned that in May after laughing at a guest who ranted on about his desire to have violent sex with Condoleezza Rice, Laura Bush and Queen Elizabeth II. They were suspended for 30 days, the first performers to be bounced from satellite radio where government rules restricting raunchy content do not apply. Reaction to Tarantino’s Rapist No. 1 action figure was equally swift, as activists and politicians banded together to censure the doll. Outrage also followed Seinfeld’s bee-rape comment, forcing the comedian to recant. “I don’t find anything funny about rape,” he told the New York Daily News. “I was only referring to the insect world.”

Such immediate reproach signals just how polarizing—and thus presumably joke-worthy— rape remains. When Asda, a British supermarket chain, introduced a men’s T-shirt in January as part of its “comedy line,” it was

criticized for encouraging sexual violence against women. The offending garment, designed by a woman, was illustrated with women raising their glasses above the caption: “If at first you don’t succeed, buy her another beer.” Some 15,000 shirts were sold before Rape Crisis Scotland launched a letter-writing campaign calling the message “plainly and simply an incitement to rape.” Joke anthropologist Davies disagrees. “That joke is not really about rape but about alcohol and inhibitions,” he says. Nonetheless, Asda pulled the item.

Yet a decided double standard exists within the rape-joke universe: there’s no enraged letter-writing campaigns when men are the victims. The movie Wedditig Crashers was

animated by a rape gag in which Vince Vaughn’s character was repeatedly assaulted by an attractive woman. In one scene, he is awakened in bed, bound hand and foot to the bedposts, straddled by her, naked, his protests that she stop silenced with a sock stuffed in his mouth and secured with duct tape. Later, he refers to the incident as the “midnight rape,” saying “I felt like Jodie Foster in The Accused.” The audience laughed freely, apparently because the idea that a woman could rape a man is ludicrous.

More seemingly hilarious is the notion of a man being raped by another man. Prison rape has long been the focus of jokes—from a commercial for 7-UP a few years ago that featured the brand’s dim-wit mascot entering a jail and repeatedly expressing fear of violation, to an ad last year for the comedy Let’s Go to Prison that showed the title carved into a bar of soap lying on a shower floor, no explanation required. What makes inmates fair target for mockery, apparently, is the underlying idea that victims of prison rape brought it on themselves. In 2001, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, the state’s chief law enforcement official, joked to the

Wall StreetJournal that Enron CEO Kenneth Lay deserved to be jailed with a cellmate who would say to him, “Hi. My name is Spike, honey.” Humour, in this instance, is a distancing technique: if you’re laughing, you’re not standing in the other person’s shoes.

But if joking offers a way to say the unsayable or to work through the uncomfortable, it can also provide a forum to say what is meant without taking responsibility. Consider the “jokes” recently made by high-level officials. After Israeli President Moshev Katsav was accused of raping female staff members in 2006, Russian President Vladimir Putin jested, “I would never have expected this from him. He surprised us all. We all envy him.” Kenya, where rape is a widespread but invisible crime according to Amnesty International, is a rape-joke factory. In 2005, then-justice minister Kiraitu Murungi called the country’s fight against corruption “like raping a woman who is already willing.” Last June, Reverend Dominic Wamugunda, dean of students at the University of Nairobi, told a joke about a man’s vow to rape nuns to warm up the crowd at a sexual health conference. Later he told the Associated Press his remarks were

harmless. “That joke came into my mind and I love a good joke,” he said. “Some women take feminism too far.”

That excuse isn’t restricted to high-ranking public officials. A “rape joke” prompted Hong Kong’s first conviction for public indecency online in October 2005. Johnny Chan Sekming was charged for inviting others to join him in “flash mob rape.” The 42-year-old laid out the modus operandi on his website: “After that [we will have] her mouth sealed and hands tied before [we] flash [away] together

[that’ll] be great!” The invitation drew more than 100 responses. His lawyer argued readers should have known it was a joke, that the post was no different from drunken banter in a bar. He invited a judge to consider “the culture of the Internet,” which is full of verbal expressions of lurid fantasies. The judge did, and sentenced Sek-ming to 160 hours of community service.

The line between rape as joke and rape as threat can be so thin as to be non-existent, as witnessed in “cyber rape” threats recently made against high-profile female bloggers. One, Kathy Sierra, shut down her technology site Creating Passionate Users after graphic and sexually violent comments were posted anonymously about her, including threats of suffocation and rape. Another, Jill Filipovic, a law student who writes on the blog Feministe, was subjected to abusive comments on an online forum, including talk about “hatef-king” her. Were they, too, only joking? Or, should we not take it seriously because the threat is virtual, not physical?

Activists like Peggy Brown, executive director of the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, express concern that rape humour has a desensitizing effect. The real crime is being dealt with, Brown says, noting stricter laws and penalties as well as higher incarceration rates. What worries her is the adoption of a ho-hum attitude toward depictions of graphic violence.

Indeed, the word “rape” has been denuded, turned into a synonym for all forms of violation or trauma. In a 2006 episode of The Family Guy, a central character charges his doctor with “rape” after a prostate exam (in the flashback of his “rape scene” he is thrown against a pinball machine as in The Accused— that old comedic chestnut). After a difficult test, students will complain, “That exam raped me.” An admiring profile on Silverman on Slate was subtitled “How Sarah Silverman is Raping American Comedy.” Owsianik, the target of The Gazette’s incendiary “Labia Majora Carnage,” herself described her reaction in an interview with thus: “I feel like I was raped by the article.”

The Tarantino “rapist action figure” sets a dangerous precedent, Brown says. “A doll like this normalizes rape. What’s the next thing? A child-molester doll?” Yet anyone who saw Grindhouse—a number smaller than those familiar with the action figure—knows Rapist No. 1 suffers a disturbing demise that prevents him from ever living up to his name. It’s a comeuppance, fittingly, echoed in the joke universe. As Davies notes, there’s a longstanding tradition of jokes and urban legends about rapists being castrated, in a sort of comic karma. Funny, though, nobody’s laughing about that. M