Very recently I was introduced to Tosh.0, a comedy central show where a white male comedian finds clips around the internet and provides humorous commentary. I point out that he is a white male because his jokes about women and minorities seemed more tasteless than clever. I found myself wanting to change the channel, but being a guest at someone's house I decided just to comment that I didn't find his comedy very funny. Having watched with someone who doesn't have a background in advocacy or privilege awareness, I wasn't surprised to get the response that I shouldn't take it wrong since they were just jokes. Thankfully the show is not that long . . . .
It didn't surprise me to recently discover that Daniel Tosh crossed the "comedy" line when it came to stand up involving rape jokes. After stating rape was funny, a woman in the crowd called out that it wasn't. His reply was that it would be funny if she in fact were gang raped right there at the show. Read more about the incident here. Even if you're very liberal about what constitutes comedy, that crosses a line similarly to Michael Richard's rant.
It wouldn't be surprising to think that maybe, just maybe, that woman might actually be a rape survivor making such a retort tasteless at the least. The reality is that rape and gang rape are tragedies that happen every day (as you read this, someone will be raped in the U.S. and several others across the world, especially in war zones). Having been raped by two men on my sports team in college, I have a particular interest in understanding and responding to gang rapes. In reading Tosh's retort my immediate thought was that such a scenario of a gang rape in a public place as people watched on is not that rare of an occurrence:
For those of you who don't follow such tragedies:
- Correspondent Lara Logan gang raped during coverage of the Egyptian riots, followed by remarks blaming her for the brutal assault (read more here)
- 11 year old girl is gang raped by several boys and men in Texas, followed by a New York Times article blaming the child
- 15 year old is gang raped outside a school dance as several students look on an even take pictures
- Pakistan gang rape ordered by a tribal council as atonement for her brother's alleged crime, followed by a Supreme Court acquittal of 5 of the 6 men
- High school student is gang raped while unconscious by a college baseball team until 3 female soccer players break into the room to rescue the girl, but despite the eye witnesses no criminal charges were brought
- 18 year old dies after brutal gang rape and attempted cover up in Ukraine, protests across the country cause the police to take real action
- 21 year old gang raped in a bar by several men as a crowd cheers them on, two brothers save her and received death threats for their involvement in her case
I think the last case is worthy of highlighting, despite the fact that it occurred in 1983. This case was such a classic example of victim blaming and so shocking that it warranted being made into a movie, The Accused. Not only were there men taking turns and assisting each other rape the woman, but there was a crowd watching and cheering them on, and others in the bar who did not get involved at all. The final scene of the movie is a reenactment of the gang rape in all its vileness and makes you question how such an attack could go on without intervention.
Having set the tone for discussing rape, lets now turn to the lighter side - comedy.
"Should there be jokes that are off limits?" I actually don't think this is the right question to start off with, instead I think we should be asking, "what is the point of comedy?" I think that Joan River's interview on NPR is enlightening on this issue (I highly recommend listening to the first few minutes to appreciate the following commentary). Comedy is about making people face their issues and deal with it. The key to her philosophy however is that she jokes about what has challenged her in her personal life, so she has intimate knowledge when she creates her comments. I think this is a key aspect to a great comedian, having experienced the taboo topic that you are commenting upon. Without this you are enabling ignorance and aspects about our society that are distasteful (racism, sexism, etc).
To speak personally as a rape survivor, I have been to a comedy show where all three sketches revolved around rape and child molestation. If I had not been stuck in the front row I would have walked out. I had come specifically to laugh and avoid the senior thesis on rape law that was causing me to have nightmares on a nightly basis. Epic fail. But I have also found a rape joke acceptable, such as Sarah Silverman's joke about being raped by a doctor "which is bittersweet for a Jewish girl." I felt it poked at rape culture in a way I could appreciate.
To be realistic, there will always be some comedians who attempt a taboo topic without any real connection to or understanding of the issue. These are not the great comedians, so I would not recommend spending your money. The likelihood of those comedians offending others and exacerbating tense social issues is fairly high. (Thankfully, Tosh will be sparing society by pulling rape jokes out of a pilot episode for his new show.) But that doesn't mean that we should declare any topic off limits since there are some comedians out there using laughter to help people face tough issues and perhaps even creating some awareness in our society. Comedy doesn't deserve censorship, but it does require talent to be effective.
Laura L. Dunn, Esq.
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