The first time I stopped and tried to understand rape culture from a woman’s point of view came after watching a clip of the comedian Wanda Sykes. As a hulking man of 6’1, oscillating between 225 and 245 pounds, I don’t intimidate easily and I rarely feel unsafe to go somewhere by myself. I have lived in neighborhoods where there have been shootings and murders, and for a period of time I worked a job where I walked kids to school mere blocks from the active zone of the East Side rapist. Despite all that, I went to and fro without a care in the world. Sure, I had a vague idea that not everybody had that luxury – and an even vaguer idea that I might be a tad bit too confident – but it was rare I had to confront that reality.
But then I watched Sykes’ stand up special “Sick & Tired.” In it she talks some about the pressures of being vulnerable. “We’ve been taught from an early age that we have something everybody wants. ‘You’ve got to protect it, you’ve got to cherish it.’” She strikes on a novel idea: a detachable vagina. “Ladies, wouldn’t you like this, wouldn’t it be wonderful if our pussies were detachable? Wouldn’t it be great if you could just leave it at home sometimes? Just think of the freedom you could have! You’d get home from work, it’s getting a little dark outside. ‘Oh, I’d like to go for a jog, but it’s getting too dark… I’ll just leave it at home!’ Some crazy guy jumps out of the bushes you could be like, ‘Ah! I left if at home!’”
Maybe that bit’s funny to you, maybe it’s not. But for me, it encapsulates everything good comedy should be. Comedy should be funny, yes. But it should also make me think of something in a way I’ve never thought of it before. It should teach me about someone else’s point of view and experience. (This is the main reason I never found Dane Cook to be funny: he never taught me anything, except how to crab walk on stage.) The best comedy plays with the tension of making us laugh and teaching us something new while making us feel like we knew it all along. When Jim Gaffigan talks about the shame and hypocrisy of eating at McDonald’s, he’s doing exactly that. “’Look, McDonald’s is really bad for you. It’s really high in fat and calories and we don’t even know where the meat comes from!’ And we’re all like, ‘That’s disgusting! …I’ll have a Big Mac, a large fry, and a two gallon drum of Coke.’ Cuz there’s a McDonald’s denial, and we all embrace it. No one’s going in there innocent.”
Yesterday, I saw a series of tweets on the topic of rape jokes. They read,
Women do not think all men are rapists. Rapists think all men are rapists. This has been proven over & over in psych profiles & studies. I get it. You’re making a rape joke. You would NEVER rape someone. You’re a good man who doesn’t understand why your ‘free speech’ is curbed. HOWEVER, when you make a rape joke, there are 2 people who are likely to hear it, due to high rape stats: a) survivors, b) rapists. When you make a rape joke, a survivor relives in vivid Technicolor sound what was probably the worst moment of his or her life. But you don’t care about that, they’re being too sensitive, right? Fuck ‘em. But what about the RAPIST who hears you? The rapist hears you make that ‘Oh bro I got raped at work today’ joke and laughs right along with you, secretly validated. The rapist thinks to himself, ‘Oh, a man who thinks of rape as a normal part of life.’ He thinks you’re a rapist too, because you normalize it. Does that bother you? You, a good man who would never rape anyone? Does it bother you that a rapist identifies with you? If that thought doesn’t make you look deep inside and examine your desire to make rape jokes, may God have mercy on your soul.
I don’t know how valid this argument is. She might hit the nail on the head, she might be off the mark. But the conclusion is worth thinking about. When we joke about rape, are we normalizing it? Do the things we laugh at make evildoers feel justified?
With that in mind, think about this next bit by the comedian Louis C.K. He is talking about how difficult it is for a man to ask a woman on a date, but how that pales in comparison to how difficult it must be, conceptually, for a woman to say yes. “The courage it takes for a woman to say yes is beyond anything I can imagine. A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane. And ill advised. And the whole species’ existence counts on them doing it! How do women still go out with guys when you consider the fact that there is no greater threat to women than men? We’re the number one threat! Globally and historically we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. We’re the worst thing that ever happens to them. That’s true! You know what our number one threat is? Heart disease.”
It’s my opinion that there is nothing too serious to laugh at. War, murder, death, genocide, and, yes, even rape. The burden is on the comedian, though, to make that topic insightful, to help us foster understanding and perspective. Wanda Sykes was making a rape joke; she turned my thinking around. Louis C.K. added yet another vantage point. Can a rapist identify with their material and be able to justify their actions? That seems doubtful. There is an ocean of distance between saying “Bro I got raped at work today” and “How do women still go out with guys when you consider the fact that there is no greater threat to woman than men?” It’s not jokes about rape that should be off-limits, but rather the jokes that validate it, make it seem normal rather than horrific. Ultimately, what are we laughing about? The pain and trauma of others should never amuse us. But there are few better times to laugh than when a light shines on a hole in our understanding and we are able to say, “I never thought of it that way.”