Saturday, June 15, 2013

It's OK To Have A Complicated Relationship With Art: More Thoughts On Rape Jokes

We've been having the rape joke conversation again.  And I have to say, it's starting to actually feel like a conversation.  You could probably go to Bobbie's blog and scroll down to get caught up, but I want to highlight the highlights of this round.  (I won't go back to last year, but if you're interested you can see my in-the-moment response to the Tosh incident here or (better yet) listen to my and Bobbie's conversation that we recorded and podcasted here.)  It started with Sady Doyle calling out comic Sam Morrill (you can read both sides of that exchange here).  I have to say that, while I'm more on the Sady Doyle side of this argument, and I think she made some good points, her argument was a bit cloudy, and Sam Morill kind of got the better of this exchange.  Extremely well-thought out responses followed from Lindy West, my friend Erikka Innes, and Carmen Esposito.  Then Bobbie started writing:

The Subtle Oppression of Women by Comedy (published by America's Comedy dot com)

Portrait of a Feminist Comedian

The Pen is Mightier Than the Rape Whistle (chronologically, I reckon this one should be read after the stuff I'm about to link below)

W. Kamau Bell then had Lindy West and Jim Norton come on his show Totally Biased (which, seriously, you should be watching!) and discuss the topic.  The uncut internet version of that discussion is below:

Kamau Bell attempts to put the segment into context here, Lindy West shares the subsequent deluge of rape threats here, Jim Norton jumps on his fans' shit here.  After all that, there's not all that much to add, but I have a few thoughts I'd like to bring up.

The antidote for offensive speech is always, always, always more speech.  

In a world that wasn't completely topsy-turvy, this advice would mostly apply to the "don't tell rape jokes" side.  But almost everyone on that side--I should say, my side--of the argument has gone out of their way to make it clear that they aren't asking for censorship of any kind, as even Jim Norton acknowledges at the link above.  On the contrary, it's been the other side who has responded with attempts to shout down and intimidate those wanting a conversation.  I should note that I'm not talking about comics, for the most part, who are, unsurprisingly, more intelligent than a lot of their fans.

But I also have a little sympathy for the other side.  I don't think the issue is in any way black and white.  The difference between a joke that points out the evil of rape culture and a joke that makes the victim the punchline can sometimes be nebulous and subjective (other times, it's pretty clear).  I'm not surprised that there was a knee-jerk reaction to the calling out of rape jokes (I was surprised that there was such a defensive reaction to the particular situation involving Daniel Tosh, which seemed pretty clearly beyond the line, but talking to some people in the wake of it, they really didn't hear it as a threat, which may have to do with experience?  A threat is definitely what I heard).  I think there's an idea that these dudes are having the conversation they want to have, but it's also possible that they're having the conversation they expected to have, or are used to having.  I mean, it's very, very rare for someone to start talking about offensive art in America and take the next step of advocating some form of censorship.  I don't know if it's a sign that America is evolving on that front, or just that this issue resonated with a particularly intelligent group (remember that female comedians are central to this whole conversation). 

So nobody is calling for censorship.  What we're asking for is for people to think about rape jokes.  Think about what they mean.  That's important to remember.  The other, related point that is important to keep in mind is that this is rarely about a particular rape joke being over-the-line.  It's about the PREVALENCE of rape jokes.  It's about it being a go-to topic at so many male-dominated comedy shows.  So think about that: are you really saying that, if you hear male comics going to cheap rape jokes over and over and over in the course of a show, and that continues at show after show after show, that we shouldn't even TALK ABOUT WHAT THAT MEANS?

The point of making a rape joke is to shock.

At the basic level, that's why you pull out a joke about rape, the holocaust, or whatever taboo topic you use.  There is really no logical reason to get bent out of shape at getting the reaction you were looking for. 

It's OK to have a complicated relationship with art.

Above is the live version of AC/DC's "The Jack."   It's surely the clearest expression of the deeply misogynist streak that runs through AC/DC's music.  I love AC/DC.  That love doesn't stop me from recognizing the misogyny, and recognizing the misogyny doesn't keep me from enjoying AC/DC.  There's really no reason, in other words, to feel threatened by recognizing the nastiness in an artist's work.  There's no shortage of radical feminists who love the Rolling Stones, NWA, Hemingway, Keuroac...name a misogynist artist, and you can find a feminist who loves his (or her) stuff without looking too hard.  It shouldn't really be too hard to hold two contradictory notions of an artist or work of art in your head at one time.  Forget rape jokes, pretty much everyone I know will acknowledge that (a) Roman Polanski really, actually, in real life drugged, raped and sodomized a 13-year-old girl (or at least was convicted of doing so), and that (b) Chinatown is one of the great masterpieces of American cinema.  I don't think either thing precludes the other from being true.  In other words, when someone asks you to think about rape jokes (either as a comic or as an audience member), they're not saying you are a horrible misogynist.  They are simply asking you to think about things.

Late breaking link: And yesterday, Patton Oswalt, who had formerly been rather vehemently on the...oh, let's call it the other side, has re-examined his views, and written a pretty amazing post about it.

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