When I read Lindy West’s piece, “How To Make A Rape Joke” on Jezebel.com, (a response to comedian Daniel Tosh telling actual rape jokes at the Laugh Factory) I basically had two reactions: 1.) Wanting to immediately find and marry her then subsequently have her illegitimate babies, and: 2.) Wanting to link it in as many cyberspace avenues as possible–sharing what I thought was a hilarious, critically informed, and well executed article. But a quick scroll down to the ol’ discussions section informed me that I was alone in my praises. Readers slammed her, calling her everything from a “troll” to dismissing her argument as “bogus”.
As self-proclaimed Jezebel groupie I feel it is my unofficial duty to defend, or at least elaborate on West’s article. And as a blogger, I know the feeling (slight nausea, followed by wanting to punch people) when readers don’t quite get what you’re trying to say. So, Lindy honey. Relax. Take a Xanax. I got you.
Now let’s address the most common complaints, shall we?
Complaint #1.) West Makes The Case That Rape Jokes Can Work If Done In Certain Ways, But They Should Never, Ever Be Made Under Any Circumstances.
Not exactly. I think she was making the point that rape vs. comedy is not a black and white issue with only two sides where the winner takes all. She was attempting to push both sides apart far enough to make room for a middle ground, and the middle ground is this: rape is not some sacred, untouchable flower in which the mere utterance will evoke a societal apocalypse. At the same time that denying its existence keeps victims silenced, not talking about it in real or tangible ways is equally silencing–and that includes comedy. It’s just like conversations around race; it’s uncomfortable, so people tip-toe around it, trivialize it, or avoid it altogether. But if we can take race, or rape, or anything else down from its pedestal and onto an approachable level; if we can use humor to soften the tension and open up dialogue, we have a better chance of progress being made.
Perhaps I’m used to the way the black community has always used comedy as an epilogue to struggle; where laughing at pain is more about catharsis and psychological healing than it is about dwelling in it. And maybe I’m too accustomed to thinking of comedy as a political platform as much as a stage; where a mic can be the most powerful thing of all, can give a marginal perspective on social ills in a way that’s critical, poignant, and yes, even funny. The last thing we need to do is emit a closed-mouth policy when it comes to comedy; we need it too much.
Complaint #2.) West’s concept of determining offensive comedic material is weak. Her arguments about who can say what/How audience feedback matters, are irrelevant: if she is arguing that comedians can talk about rape, she can’t tell them when it’s okay or not okay. It’s either all or nothing.
I gotta go with Lindy again on this one. When it came to Tosh’s shittiness, I don’t think it was a matter or “thumbs up, thumbs down approval by the audience” as one reader put it; but that there are always confines and regulations, even within freedom, even within Getting To Say What You Want—and the existence of both censorship and freedom can coexist without being hypocritical. On one side, Tosh and his supporters seem to think that because he–technically–has the right to say stupid shit, we can’t respond to it or denounce it without somehow infringing on his right to say stupid shit. That as a comedic audience we have some unwritten obligation to sit as passive onlookers in the Watch Me Be A Douchebag Show and not dare speak out, because, you know it’s “comedy”. West makes this pretty clear when she says:
..a comedy club is not some sacred space. It’s a guy with a microphone standing on a stage that’s only one foot above the ground. And the flip-side of that awesome microphone power you have—wow, you can seriously say whatever you want!—is that audiences get to react to your words however we want…CONSIDER THIS YOUR FUCKING FEEDBACK. Ninety percent of your rape material is not working, and you can tell it’s not working because your audience is telling you that they hate those jokes. This is the feedback you asked for.”
The whole idea of “go all in or not at all” when it comes to comedy, is ridiculous. So my only options are to shut up and take it, or not come at all? Does that also apply to everything else in culture that may be problematic and beneficial at the same time? To hip-hop? To the fashion and beauty industry? To social networking? To Porn? And if we do participate, are our concerns and opinions no longer valid? Have we forfeited our right to cheer for the parts that move us forward, and throw stones at the parts that hold us back? We can say “no means no” and draw red lines around the Bad Stuff but have to be able to accept that those lines can, and should sometimes be crossed in the right situations.
Complaint #3) Louis CK can joke about rape but Tosh can’t?/ West saying he’s “on the good side of making things better” is not a valid point/You can’t make exceptions for one and not the other.
Well, kind of. While West may have given the impression that comic C.K Louis was “allowed” to make rape jokes because he was a “good guy”, I think her argument was that the How is more important than the What or the Who. That there is a way to can keep comedy a space of unbridled, edgy, or controversial content within reason. It’s the same thing I argue in my article about the “Beauty and the Beat” video that perpetuates negative black stereotypes: we can use humor to talk about racial, gender, sex, or violence issues but if that humor is not attached to any valid historical context or makes no critcal social observation; if we’re laughing at the victims of the system instead of the system itself–then it fails. Period.
And that’s why Tosh’s jokes were so fucked up and wrong; not because he made a “joke” about rape, but he sat there –in his privileged white male body— and used his mic to fight on behalf of, and not against, the oppression of victimization.
Then had the nerve to call the shit comedy.
But in the right hands–and by right, I mean conscious, responsible individuals who understand that what comes out of their mouth effects other people–joking about even something as horrendous as rape can be effective political progress.
Progress is what happened when Chris Rock sarcastically tweeted “Happy White people’s Independence day, the slaves weren’t free but I’m sure they enjoyed the fireworks” on the 4th of July.
Progress is what happened when Margaret Cho satirized her Asian culture for the sake of calling people out on their ignorance.
Progress is what happened when George Carlin talked about abortion to call “pro-lifers” out on their shit.
And it happened ever so brilliantly, when Wanda Sykes joked about the idea of having a “detachable pussy”–one that you could take off and leave at home and say, go jogging at night without worry or fear of being raped. She says: “It can be pitch black, you still out there, jogging, enjoying yourself, and some crazy guy jumps out the bushes like ‘aaahh!’ and you’re like-[nope], I left it at home!”
In this instance, Sykes reclaims the power. She uses her expert timing and creativity to unify women. To imagine what it would mean if we could somehow shed the burden of sexual violence, have the freedom and entitlement to do things with our bodies that men often take for granted. And then to laugh our asses off.
And I know that when it comes to subjects as complex as rape, using exceptions can seem like slippery logic. That if we let one slip, then another, we might end up right back where we started. That “good” jokes and “bad” jokes seem too subjective, too flimsy a compass in which to measure.
But we also forget that anger is not the only response to social injustice. That we are also allowed to–and desperately need–a space of our own to talk back to it, make fun of it, not let it get to us.
I think the point of Lindy West’s article, in the end, is that when it comes to comedy, context is everything. With it, we have the most dangerous and clever kind of power. And without it, we have, well–Tosh.