Friday, July 13, 2012

What's In A Joke?

So I've been following the debate concerning an incident at the Laugh Factory where comedian Daniel Tosh "joked" about rape. Full story here. Essentially, after a female audience member voiced her objection to Tosh's commentary on how rape jokes were funny, Daniel Tosh responded with, "Wouldn't it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now?"

 I've been watching the back and forth exchange between those who believe Daniel Tosh should be flayed alive, and those defending his jokes and his act. I've watched Tosh's show on Comedy Central titled Tosh.0, and I will admit, I laugh sometimes. His show is crude, his act is crude, and sometimes downright offensive. Sometimes as I watch, I cringe at his jokes, because, as some have said, this is not the first time Daniel Tosh has made rape jokes. There have been numerous times while watching his show that I thought, "Ooh... Daniel, no." And that was the same response I had when I read about this incident. I cringed inside, knowing EXACTLY that this huge debate would follow. It's like seeing your friend step on a landmine, hear the tiny click, and know they are absolutely screwed.

 To me, the debate comes down to some simple questions that we, as a society, must ask ourselves.

 1) Is it appropriate to make jokes about rape?

 2) Was Daniel Tosh's joke harmless, or did it transcend a comedian's job from making people laugh to inflicting mental anguish?

 3) What happens now?

Humour, to me, seems like such a delicate subject in general, simply because a person's sense of humour is very personal, and yet, if done well, even those who take offense to a subject can admit a comedian has made it laughable. That's what comedy is. We take these sometimes touchy subjects, or the unspoken subjects, and we make light of them. We make it OKAY to laugh at them. We look our demons of divorce, death, family issues, racial problems, prejudice, and laugh at them. In this sense, comedy can be very powerful. But there's a difference between effectively creating a joke about a sensitive subject, and insulting someone and adding at the end, "What? You're upset? GOD, I was just KIDDING."

Our first question remains: Is it appropriate to make jokes about rape?

My answer: Yes.

Some of you may be looking at me a little oddly. Let me explain. I'm a huge fan of South Park. Those two words probably conjure images of fart jokes, obscene images, and low-brow humour, but South Park is so much more than that. Every subject Matt Stone and Trey Parker address in their show rides a fine line. Often their subjects are controversial, and something we wouldn't speak about, but they always search for the truth in those subjects. What is the truth about bullying? Well, simply that it's everywhere. South Park addressed this by showing that while the kids made a video to stop bullying in schools, bullies exist everywhere, not just with children. Before we can hope to teach our children to stop bullying, we, as adults, have to show a good example and stop bullying each other.

Can rape jokes be done? Yes, and they can be done well. The problem is, this is such a sensitive subject. 1 in 5 women are raped, sometimes by a stranger, but most often by someone they love and trust. Let me paint a picture for you: They've been violated in the worst way possible. They've been beaten, used as an object, and most often seriously hurt physically and mentally. Meanwhile, we live in a society which shows sex as something to be desired. It's something fun. You WANT to have sex, because it's pleasurable, it's a connection with another person, it's love, ect. ect. Sex is everywhere in our society. And this can add so much confusion to the whole mess. Rape victims have survived a horrible abuse, and everywhere they go, they're reminded that sex is good, sex is awesome. Since rape is reminiscent of sex, the victim often hears that their rape is good, their rape was awesome, ect. Not to mention our rape culture, in which victims often are attacked for the rape "being their fault", "they wanted it", "they shouldn't have worn those clothes or flirted with him that much," ect. Everywhere they go, this victim is hearing that their most traumatic experience is right, and in fact, IT'S THEIR FAULT. This is more than just a simple mugging or getting beaten up by someone at the bar. Rape causes serious, long-lasting effects on the individuals.

Because of this, comedians must tread very carefully, just as writers, actors, and anyone else that is representing a subject that could cause serious pain to someone. A great comedian can take a controversial subject and make those who have lived through the pain see the light at the end of the tunnel. Just as easily, comedians can poorly represent a subject and, instead of admitting their own faults, insist the person just "Didn't get the joke."

Which brings us to our next question. Is this what Daniel Tosh did? Did he take a sensitive subject and create a joke that lets us laugh at our demons?

My answer: No.

Daniel Tosh didn't make a joke. I'm not a comedian, and I'm not even a comedy writer, but saying "Wouldn't it be funny if that girl got raped right now?" is no different from me saying "Wouldn't it be funny if my cat chased a dog up a tree?" Admit it, a little kitten chase a dog up a tree would be entertaining to SEE, but my question is not funny, BECAUSE IT IS NOT A JOKE. It is only suggesting that some abstract situation is funny. There was no set-up, no punch-line, no bit of insight to the truth about rape in Tosh's "Joke."

Bottom line: No, Daniel Tosh, your rape joke was not funny simply because it was not a joke.

Daniel Tosh's apology, as well, was complete rubbish. He shows no remorse for what he did to a person, but that doesn't surprise me. He's been in the mind-set of "rape is funny" so long that, apparently, just the mention of it will send him into giggles. Of course he doesn't realize what simply talking about the subject brings up for some people. So, no, I'm not angry at Tosh for his crappy apology. I'm just saddened that he doesn't realize what effect he has.

This brings us to our final question: What happens now?

Some people have begun a petition to get Tosh.0 off the air. So far, it has received 29 000 signatures. Is this the answer? To try and destroy this man's career because of something he said? Sorry people, this isn't the way. Why? Because taking one person off the air who perpetrates rape culture will not stop others from doing it. This is a truly sad fact. If we take Tosh.0 off the air, those comedians and others who support Tosh, who believes his "joke" was actually funny, those people will only believe in their cause more fully. They'll believe that Tosh is a victim, that he is being punished unfairly by people who "oppose free speech." This will not show them that the jokes and rape culture pose a serious problem.

I believe in being kind to my enemies. Tosh.0 should stay on the air, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't do anything. What Daniel Tosh has done, in a way, is actually a good thing. I love it when someone in the public eye says something really dumb, because it opens up so many avenues to TALK about these things, instead of letting them remain in the shadows.

We can't let Daniel Tosh, or anyone else who wants to perpetrate rape culture, think we will allow them to say these things without speaking up. Daniel Tosh has no doubt seen the backlash from this, and perhaps next time he will consider what comes out of his mouth. Even if he doesn't understand why people are getting so upset about his little joke, at least he can understand that continuing down that road will put him in some serious trouble.

The best thing we can do is talk about the issue, explore our feelings, and realize AS A SOCIETY that this is something we shouldn't do. Straight punishment will not change the rape culture. Only education, compassion, and a hell of a lot of conversation can fix that.



1 comment:

  1. The thing to remember about South Park is that the humour doesn't come from "farts are funny" but from that fact that there are people who exist who think farts are funny and we are essentially laughing at those people.

    When it comes to making jokes about sensitive subjects, someone very wisely once told me that you need to think about who amongst the audience will enjoy your joke. Who exactly is this comedian expecting to laugh at a rape joke? The men and women who have been raped or all the rapists who raped them? Why would someone want rapists and misogynists amongst their audience members? Moreover, are the rapists who raped them going to walk away from the experience feeling like their actions are justified? Unfortunately, there's plenty of studies out there that say yes, they will.

    I think the integral thing when you're discussing freedom of speech, is whether that speech is making people more prejudiced and whether that prejudice will make them take actions that impinge on someone else's freedom, i.e. is joking about rape going to make someone more likely to rape? Unfortunately, there are studies to show that rapists believe that all men rape but some just don't get caught. Their actions are reaffirmed by and normalised by dismissive rape jokes like these.

    Things get muddy when freedom of speech is involved. People are rightly protective over it. But people often pull the freedom of speech card to justify being complete dicks. It's immature. And your point about the joke just not being funny is important. Picking on a victim is by far the lowest, least intelligent form of humour. Relying on rape to get some laughs is about as low as you can get. There are plenty of comedians out there who are funny (and offensive) without picking on people who have already been screwed over by life. Hopefully more and more people will listen to them and comedians like the one you mentioned will find the audience for their horrible little jokes diminish.