The rape-joke double standard

Male comics have been moving in condemning violence, like the Boston bombing. On degradation of women? Not so much

Published May 9, 2013 9:57AM (EDT)

  (AP/Charles Sykes)
(AP/Charles Sykes)

There’s something of a general cultural consensus that sensitivity and empathy be shown in the wake of tragedy or violence; after a mass shooting or a terrorist attack, many comedians explicitly avoid making jokes. But, it turns out, there are exemptions to the rule.

A conversation about misogyny in comedy sprang up this week after feminist journalist Sady Doyle wrote a critical response to jokes performed by male comedian Sam Morril. Doyle's impression of Morril's material that night, as well as his Twitter feed, was that it disproportionately relied on jokes about nonconsensual sex, violence and the degradation of women. Her piece was a good-faith effort to bypass the usual debate about “rape jokes,” which often gets stuck around concepts like the importance of dark humor and freedom of speech, to explore issues at hand: the number of women who experience sexual violence, and the merit (or lack thereof) of making those women the target of jokes. An Onion article this week about Chris Brown and Rihanna also functions as a helpful distillation of how violence against women can act as a punch line; many feminists, notably women of color, felt that a domestic violence victim became collateral damage in service of a joke.

But for all the jokes about violence against women, Morril displayed earnest compassion after the bombings in Boston, tweeting: “This kind of violence is infuriating. Thinking of everyone in Boston.”

When Doyle called him on this disparate reaction, Morril responded in good faith, insisting that he does not “condone rape” and saying that while he was “horrified by the Boston bombings,” he still made jokes about them.

Patton Oswalt, another comedian, wrote a moving, thoughtful message on his Facebook page -- during the horrible uncertain hours following the two bombings at the Boston Marathon -- about the goodness of humans in the face of tragedy. “So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance,” wrote the comedian, “just look it in the eye and think, ‘The good outnumber you, and we always will.’” The message went viral and was widely reposted on both news and pop culture sites. There’s something comforting about seeing a comedian break character to voice support in a time of crisis.

But as everyone shared the post, I couldn’t help but think of another widely shared message from Oswalt last summer in the midst of another controversy about rape jokes, regarding Daniel Tosh. When a blogger wrote that Tosh had directed a specific, violent gang rape joke toward her -- after the blogger herself had heckled Tosh for an earlier rape joke -- Oswalt sided with Tosh, tweeting about the blogger: "Wow, @danieltosh had to apologize to a self-aggrandizing, idiotic blogger. Hope I never have to do that (again)."

The tweet was retweeted hundreds of times and provoked criticism from some of Oswalt’s fans, prompting him to clarify that he disagreed with what Tosh had said but disagreed more with the blogger’s method of criticism. At the time, Oswalt’s outright dismissal of the woman who criticized Tosh felt crushing to those hoping for a respectful conversation regarding the prevalence of jokes about violence against women.

Sam Morril is just one comic -- he may have a microphone in his hand, but he does not have a national audience. But Oswalt, who has a huge, well-deserved platform and a reputation as one of the most talented comics working right now, highlights the power that comes with having an amplified voice. Seeing how his uplifting status about Boston had the power to comfort many in a terrifying time makes one wonder what enormous potential his words could have had had he used his ability for compassion and thoughtful reflection in the “rape joke” conversation.

The vast majority of comedians also used their platforms to either side with Tosh, defend their freedom to make rape jokes, or buy into a false dichotomy of “feminists” and “comedians” (articulated by the usually brilliant Louis C.K. on "The Daily Show," although C.K. did acknowledge the constant threat of violence women face, a massive step in the right direction, which few comics followed); a similar, smaller-scale reaction has happened in the wake of Doyle's criticism. Last summer, had talented, wildly popular comedians like Oswalt and C.K. acknowledged the specific arguments coming from critics, including rape survivors, about the damage done by the overwhelming onslaught of sexual violence jokes in comedy, a conversation about combating rape culture could have reached much larger audiences and been treated with far more respect. Perhaps then, the conversation this week would have been different.

As eloquent as Oswalt’s message about Boston was, it is not particularly challenging to side with the victims of a horrible act of violence committed against civilians. Americans are united in their desire to condemn such atrocities. Many comedians, including Oswalt, also condemned the Aurora theater shooting and made an explicit point not to joke about it. None of this is to compare these different types of violence, but to offer an observation on the types of violence that are universally condemned as opposed to culturally sanctioned. The consensus formed by the majority-male comedy population is that sexual violence is not just OK to joke about, but joke about with extraordinary frequency and viciousness, where the targets of the jokes are the victims, not the perpetrators.

What is challenging, though, is speaking out against the normalization of sexual violence, the degradation of women, and the role and responsibility that men have in either perpetuating or combating rape culture. It is challenging to confront the ways that we do and do not value affirmative consent. I believe that Morril, Oswalt and the comedians who came to Tosh and/or Morril's defense are against rape; but Oswalt chose not to use his platform to speak about it with sincerity or gravity. As a man with a platform and a gift with words, he missed an opportunity to be an ally and to support the millions of women who experience violence daily. The suffering in Boston, as horrifying as it is, is largely abstract to a nation that has, for the most part, never experienced such a thing. On the other hand, in every room Oswalt performs comedy in, there will be a rape survivor. Statistically speaking, there will be many. There will be even more if he is performing at a university. If exceptional violence illuminates our human capacity for empathy, then structural violence shows the darkness of indifference.

I don't mean to single out Patton Oswalt. He's one of the first comedians I ever listened to religiously, and I think he is an incredible thinker. He's just one guy, just like Sam Morril is just one guy, who is not responsible for the culture we live in. But look at the impact that one guy's words had after a tragedy -- look at how widely shared and widely praised they were. Imagine if Oswalt had sat down to pen something so beautiful, so thoughtful and so compassionate while the nation was discussing rape, free speech and humor. Imagine if he had shown the level of respect for that violence as he did for Aurora and Boston. Perhaps it would not have been shared so widely, but it certainly would have comforted a great deal of people fighting to have their voices heard. Oswalt has a gift.

An incident of exceptional violence has a way of injecting a boost of humanity and solidarity into America's consciousness. It is worth remembering those who experience the more silenced, more acceptable, more structural forms of violence, and show our love for their humanity too.

By Molly Knefel

Molly Knefel is a writer, comedian, and co-host of Radio Dispatch, a political podcast that airs Monday-Thursday. Follow her at @mollyknefel.

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Boston Explosions Comedians Comedy Jokes Patton Oswalt Rape Sexual Assault Women's Rghts