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bechdel taser (goes live): how do you solve a problem like rape culture in comedy?

I haven’t seen many films lately. Most of my time has been taken up by the University of Melbourne’s Law Revue. I’m one of eight students writing and performing this year, and the time is crunchy. I like making people laugh. I hope my quips in this column have caused at least a titter. I love comedy, and reviewed 64 shows during this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival. But so much of the comedy scene pisses me off, for very gendered reasons. Let’s take a live segue.

Last week the internet hit comedy’s long-simmering cluster-bomb. The result of American “comedian” Daniel Tosh’s set-heckle-response was a Bolt-style explosion that brought up questions of free speech, censorship, sensitivity and political correctness.

Here is my artistic rendition of what happened. The rest of this column needs a big trigger warning for sexual abuse. So you don’t miss my point, I’ll say it now – wouldn’t it be great if comedy clubs didn’t?

I’m really glad this happened. I’m sorry that the woman was made to feel so awful, and I hope the resultant internet discussion has been as vindicating for her as it has for me. In 2012, the debate around women and comedy still lingers on the tired old fallacy that women aren’t funny. It distracts from the rape jokes, which are ripe as baby farts for discussion.

Earlier this year, I was in a comedy room where a rookie made a rape joke. A woman shouts out ‘rape jokes aren’t funny’, and the drunken crowd yells some things, I yell in support of the woman, but am not in the majority. The comedian makes a quip not as vulgar as Tosh’s but defiantly defensive of rape jokes, then insists on continuing the unfunny ‘What if…’ he’d harped on before the interruption. The predominantly young, white, heterosexual, middle-class, tertiary educated, drunken, cis-male crowd decide that any opportunity can be taken through the rest of the evening to yell ‘rape!’ or ‘tell a rape joke!’ It was disgusting. Speeding to the tram stop after 11 that night, I was petrified. I sharpened my stomp and thrust forward my shoulders, hoping to give off an air of un-fuck-with-ability, and made my way through a box of Krispy Kremes upon arriving home.

That weekend I spoke on SYN’s In Joke about why rape jokes are not okay. I think my view on this is more conservative than many commentators. I could get really long-winded explaining it, so here are some dot points:

1. Rape culture. Victim blaming. Women scared to walk home at night.

2. A lot of men are rapists. Those rapists believe all men rape. Seriously. A guy tells a rape joke that normalises rape; the rapists in the crowd will have their belief fallaciously confirmed.

3. Comedy clubs are obscenely masculine places a lot of the time. If you tell jokes that make women feel viscerally uncomfortable, they’ll remain so. By not taking a strong stand against rape jokes, you’re excluding a big part of the population from live comedy.

4. There are so many other things to say. Can you genuinely not think of another way to come up with a tight five? A tight 50? You’re not a comic. You CAN think of enough other jokes and choose a rapey one instead? You’re not a great human.

5. Not all rape jokes are offensive. If you do tell a rape joke, who is at its butt – the rapist or the victim? If you can come out of writing a rape joke and say, ‘yeah, this does not make sexually abused people feel bad about themselves, and hopefully the way I’ve put it will trigger upsetting things for as few as possible’, that’s awesome.

This isn’t a matter of hardening up and dealing with people saying blue things in comedy rooms. That comedy room is still in the world. Rape jokes in a rape culture normalise rape, and the attitude that they’re okay, that it’s the woman’s problem, is equivalent to telling us not to wear short skirts or ‘act like a slut’.

The problem isn’t just people telling rape jokes, but laughing at them. To be a woman sitting in a room, hearing a rape joke, and having a crowd believe that it is something to laugh about and not take seriously, is horrifying. I’m not great at stand-up but I’d like to develop. I don’t think it’s fair to be put in that position every time I put myself out there. Further, I imagine the people who would enjoy my jokes are those who would be equally uncomfortable in that environment. They’ve been scared away from live comedy by the blokey atmosphere. Uncool.

When I joined the Revue, I was determined not to let sexism (or other bigotry) slide into sketches. Not to see women given all the shrill and straight roles, or to always be seen in relation to men… or to allow rape jokes. I want to make an inclusive show. Sometimes women are the butt of the joke, but it’s not because they’re women. Femininity is mocked less than masculinity, I think… probably in tune with our 3/5 gender divide. Ending sketches to be sharp and punchy and build to something can be hard, but after one was written to culminate in a woman being overcome by horny massive lizards, I told them about triggers and rape culture, and reminded them we’re smarter than that.

Anecdotally, we’re all the type to retort. Being funny every minute of the day can get hard. Mostly we end up singing Call Me Maybe but the offense level starts slipping up. Quick shock, cheap laugh. After trying to explain why that stuff is even anecdotally toxic, why those jokes are hurtful and not on the same par as other ‘edgy’ material, I ended up in tears, with a crowd of people not understanding that I was personally upset by the idea of being physically overpowered and forced into a sex act. That people would find that amusing.

No one’s made a rape joke since. But I resent having to be the one taking offense. Having to make the issue heard. I’m so glad Tosh fucked up. That Tumblr, Twitter and some parts of the media took on the issue. So many people have had to think about the problem and address their beliefs. Listen to the women who are drowned out by the masculine culture of comedy clubs.

Here’s some great commentary on the Tosh incident:

Feminaust wrote a letter to comedians defending Tosh.
The Daily Beast took the position that rape jokes can be great but Tosh’s was more than that – an incitement to sexual violence.

Jezebel offered a guide of how to tell a rape joke.

(Image credit)

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