Four examples of the right way to use comedy to talk about rape

A skilled comedian can find the funny side to just about anything, but what about jokes about rape? Do male comedians routinely use these jokes in ways that excuse or promote rape culture? What if the target of the joke is the perpetrator and not the victim; is this OK?

Once again, these kinds of questions were being asked after the debate over rape jokes crept back into mainstream discourse.

It all started with Molly Knefel’s article about “the rape-joke double standard. In the piece, Knefel argued that male comedians seem to have a double standard when it comes to condemning violence (like the Boston Marathon bombing) versus condemning rape.

This debate gained even more traction after Patton Oswalt, one of the comedians Knefel called out in her piece, wrote blog post on how his previous assumption about people who criticize rape jokes was wrong. He wrote that, in the past he thought these critics were unreasonable but now he understood some of the points these critics were trying to make.

“No one is trying to make rape, as a subject, off-limits,” he wrote. “In fact, every viewpoint I’ve read on this, especially from feminists, is simply asking to kick upward, to think twice about who is the target of the punchline…”

The fact that rape is so prevalent is one reason some people give as to why rape in particular is such a sensitive topic. According to a recent government study, in the United States nearly one in five women surveyed said they had been raped or experienced an attempted rape.  

But the prevalence of rape is not the only reason why rapes jokes make many people uncomfortable. Racial discrimination, sexism and homophobia are also prevalent, yet these sensitive topics are routinely explored and (unfortunately!) sometimes crudely exploited in comedy with little to no outrage. What sets rape apart might have to do with the fact that it’s regarded as being a particularly odious crime.

In fact, in entertainment this concept has a name; it’s called the “Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil” trope. In practice, this means that if rape is included in a storyline, the tone can’t veer too far from somber without feeling really off. That’s why you’ll find dark comedies that push all kinds of boundaries but, for the most part, stay away from rape.

However, stand-up comedy is different than comedy in TV and film. Stand-up comedy is a purer and less ambiguous way to tell a story because it’s just one person taking directly to a live audience.

When it’s done right, stand-up comedy can draw attention to certain aspects of rape culture in way that’s easier to process, precisely because it’s not discussed in a way that’s emotionally heavy.

Below are four very different stand-up comedy bits about rape, that are as thought-provoking as they are funny. And the key— they don’t punch down!:

1. Dave Chappelle – Man Rape
On the surface it seems like the male victim is the target of this joke, but really this joke mocks societal notions about masculinity. Specifically, Dave Chappelle is mocking two harmful beliefs about men who are victims of rape:
(1) That they somehow deserve it because they weren’t man enough.
(2) That they should pretend it never happened to avoid further emasculation.

2. Ever Mainard – “Here’s Your Rape
This rape joke was controversial. Some people felt it was racist because it seems to perpetuate the “scary black man” stereotype. But this joke is not just about rape. It’s about white privileged and male privileged and how these privileges can collide in ways that feel threatening for woman and dehumanizing for black men. Women are conditioned to always fear rape and to therefore restrict their mobility (i.e. don’t go out late at night alone). Black men are conditioned to always fear being criminalized and to also restrict their mobility (i.e. stay out of predominately white neighborhoods).

3. Wanda Sykes – Sick and Tired – Detachable Vaginae
The Feminist writer Jessica Valenti wrote a great article about this joke for the Nation. What Wanda Sykes does with this joke is highlight the constant fear of rape almost all women experience, and how society objectifies women’s bodies. In this example, a woman’s body is a commodity that can be stolen and because of this a woman’s freedom is restricted.

4. Louis C.K. – Rape
This is another joke that was controversial because it seems like Louis C.K. is implying that some women are asking to be raped, which is a dangerous message because it excuses some instances of date rape. In fact, Louis C.K. is making the opposite point, which is there’s never an instance when date rape is justifiable. Using a somewhat controversial example of a woman who wants forced sex “to feel real” drives home this point. The target of the punchline isn’t a person; it’s the logic behind justifying date rape. This logic being the erroneous assumption that even if a person communicates no, it’s OK to proceed if you feel like they’re leading you on.

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