Television

On Pushing the Edge of Edgy Jokes

By speaking more freely about rape, do we help destigmatize it? Or do we run the risk of trivializing it and cheapening its devastation?

As 2013 nears end, I’m starting to think that this year has been the year of the oxymoron. If the phrase “internet privacy” isn’t enough to prove the point, then surely the concept of the “rape joke” is.

Yet, for all the trouble that various male comics (like Daniel Tosh) have gotten into this past year with their attempts to wring humor from the topic of rape, it’s interesting to note that various female comics have been making remarks about rape (and getting away with it) for many years. Sarah Silverman once joked that as a Jewish girl, getting raped by a doctor was a mixed blessing. And both Chelsea Handler and Amy Schumer (on their respective cable TV shows) have made jokes about their own supposed childhood molestation.

Are rape jokes to men and women what the N-word is to blacks and whites? Blacks can use that notorious term in comedy or lyrics but for whites, it is (understandably) forever verboten. (Just ask Paula Deen.) Similarly, female stand-ups can joke about sexual violence without raising ire, but men must always steer clear of the subject. Or so it seems.

Still, the debate continues with some comics, like Patton Oswald, coming out against so-called “rape jokes”. He wrote in a Vulture.com blogpost in June of this year: "Just because I find rape disgusting, and have never had that impulse, doesn’t mean I can make a leap into the minds of women and dismiss how they feel day to day, moment to moment, in ways both blatant and subtle, from other men, and the way the media represents the world they live in, and from what they hear in songs, see in movies, and witness on stage in a comedy club."

Others comics, however, have come out, more or less, "pro", as in pro free speech. Long-time firebrand Roseanne (now going by Roseanne Barr again), wrote for TheDailyBeast, also in June of this year, that prohibiting the telling of "rape jokes" was tatamount to censorship, a further victory for the surveillance state, saying, "Free speech can be messy and bloody and offensive; if you aren’t prepared for the grossout, stay out of comedy clubs that birth comics like Sam Kinison and Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Bill Hicks, and stick to ones that birth comics who do Jay Leno’s show."

Though surely we have enough things in this world to joke about without ever touching on the topic of rape and child molestation, is an all-out ban (as Oswald might suggest) the solution? Or could incorporating this topic into humor—indeed, into all aspects of speech—produce some sort of positive byproduct?

I'm old enough to remember a time when even the term “cancer” was still uttered only in a whisper. And I remember the time that the only phrase that seemed to carry with it more shame and silence than cancer was the topic of child sexual abuse. I can’t help but think that society’s long-standing hushed approach about verbalizing both these issues only originally compounded the erroneous sense of guilt and humiliation that victims of either the disease or the abuse already felt.

If cancer eventually came out of the shadows, due its seeming proliferation and the brave souls who refused to remain quiet, then the subject of child abuse emerged from under the collective, metaphorical rug by the same process. The candor of women like Oprah Winfrey and former Miss America Marilyn Van Derber helped bring the subject to the fore and plant it firmly into the spotlight.

Long silent victims, now liberated from their unofficial radio silence, could now come forward, tell their story, get help if they chose, or, at the very least, no longer feel like they had to hide. The staggering number of victims that emerged and continue to emerge also served to illustrate just how widespread this problem really was, stunning many of us who thought, or hoped, it was a rare occurrence.

Of course, one of the eventual results of this sudden candor and greater personal exchange and disclosure is to see the topic become over referenced and exploited. Too many child-custody cases have become clouded by fabricated accusations of abuse; a number of books (e.g., Room, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) have turned molestation plots and subplots into a go-to theme, an attempt for sudden gravitas. And, of course, there are the aforementioned jokes by the likes of Chelsea Handler and others.

But even with this usage, isn’t it better than suffering in silence like we did for decades? Better that we talk too much about a topic rather than not at all?

And, now, at the end of 2013, should the topic of rape, including rape jokes, be addressed and treated the same way? By speaking more freely about the issue, in any context, do we help destigmatize it and, thereby, allow for more freedom and willingness to discuss the topic, liberating it from imposed quietude?

Or do we run the risk of trivializing it and cheapening its devastation?

I can think of nothing less intriguing or amusing than a stand-up comic (male or female) devoting a significant portion of their on-stage performance to rape jokes. And I would forewarn any would-be “edgy” comic wanting to do so, in the name of First Amendment freedom, to proceed with extreme caution; their audience will immediately let them know what they think is funny and what they are willing to tolerate.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.

Books

90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.

Music

Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

‘The Avengers’ Offer a Lesson for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.

Music

Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.

Music

Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.

Books

First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?

Reviews

HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.

Music

Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.

Music

How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.

Music

Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.