Who Can Make A Rape Joke?
Take It With a Grain of Assault: Palmer finds humor in her rape.
Hint: Frat boys, check; Victims, no.
Amanda Palmer’s new single, “Oasis,” is a sunny tune about a tumultuous time in a teenager’s life. After enduring rape, abortion, and a schoolwide slut-shaming, the girl receives an autographed headshot of her favorite band—Oasis—in the mail, and everything is again peachy. On her blog, Palmer posted a note from her British record label, Roadrunner, saying the video—which features a brief comic rape scene—had met with “fierce opposition” from the U.K.’s major music networks:
Meanwhile, back home, Jamie Foxx’s latest single, “Blame it (On the Alcohol),” is currently No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Its video, featuring Ron Howard, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Samuel L. Jackson, enjoys a heavy rotation on U.S. MTV—despite an equally frothy date-rape theme. The song details Foxx’s pursuit of an increasingly drunk lady. The track also features T. Pain, who chimes through his hallmark vocoder: “Couple more shots you open up like a book.” The song is, essentially, an attempted date rape by a movie star and a dude who sounds like a robot:
Who is allowed to make light of rape?
Foxx, an Academy Award–winning actor and recording artist, recently suggested that 16-year-old Miley Cyrus “make a sex tape and grow up.” Palmer, frontwoman for cabaret rock outfit the Dresden Dolls, explains on her blog that she has experienced both rape (at age 20) and abortion (at age 17). “[I] could try to win points by talking about [them],” Palmer writes, “but i actually DON’T believe those experiences should lend me any credibility.”
They don’t. Rape, along with infant death and the Holocaust, is one of comedy’s most taboo targets. Blogger and humorist Jon Wellington refers to rape as the comedian’s “Mordor.” Despite the stricture, popular culture will accept rape jokes when they’re delivered in the right context—and potential rapists are often granted more room to kid than potential (and actual) victims.
Threat level LOW: People Stereotypically Identified as Potential Date-Rapists
Includes: gangsta rappers, frat members
When A Tribe Called Quest released “The Infamous Date Rape,” in 1992, the New York Times decried the song as “just plain misogynistic.” Fifteen years of gangsta rap later, the track’s date-rape treatment has been reshelved as a smart dissection of misogyny itself. It’s also full of jokes. Shortly after the track condemns nonconsensual sex—“I don’t wanna bone you that much/That I would go for the unforbidden touch”—it presumes that the woman doesn’t want to bone only because she’s currently bleeding out of her vagina. “When you’re done with the pads can you come check me,” Q-Tip taunts.
Asher Roth, a white rapper from Morrisville, Pa., also delivers a soft anti-rape blow, in his ode to undergraduate excess, “I Love College.” On its surface, “I Love College” condemns nonconsensual sex (“don’t have sex if she’s too gone”). So why would a commenter on a Village Voice article about Roth call his first album “nothing more than a soundtrack for date rape”?
Roth, like Q-Tip, takes pains to establish his masculinity despite his distaste for passed-out sex. At the beginning of the song’s video, Roth awakens on a fraternity house couch with a half-naked girl passed out on his lap. He doesn’t date-rape her: He just pushes her off onto the floor and starts drinking again. Later, when the party is in full swing, Roth boasts that he drank the party house dry as he “danced my face off and had this one girl completely naked.” He doesn’t date-rape her: He just uses her naked body to boost his cred.
Roth’s song sets limits for consensual sex—don’t do her if “she’s too gone”—while simultaneously urging college students to push those limits by getting wasted and getting it on—when she’s juuuust gone enough. In a fraternity house full of people partying naked until all the booze is gone, “she’s too gone” might start to seem pretty relative.
Roth is allowed to joke because the standard for frat-boy discourse on rape—as with gangsta rap—is so low. Writes one commenter on feminist blog Feministe: “I honestly didn’t expect that much because date rape is usually so fucking hilarious to frat boys."
Threat level GUARDED: People Not Stereotypically Identified as Date-Rapists
Includes: Jamie Foxx, women
Foxx hasn’t received any congratulations from feminist commentators regarding “Blame It (On the Alcohol)”; the nonconsensual undertones of Foxx’s song have simply been ignored in favor of continuous radio rotation. Jody Hill, who wrote and directed the Seth Rogen mall-cop vehicle Observe and Report, wasn’t let off the hook so easily. While Foxx’s song justifies its date-rape-y tone by simply denying the woman’s protestations, Hill’s film goes one step further—justifying its date rape joke by reserving the punch line for the female victim.
In an interview, Rogen explained:
When we’re having sex and she’s unconscious like you can literally feel the audience thinking, like, how the fuck are they going to make this okay? Like, what can possibly be said or done that I’m not going to walk out of the movie theater in the next thirty seconds? . . . And then she says, like, the one thing that makes it all okay: “Why are you stopping, motherfucker?”
In the film, the victim not only consents—she consents hilariously, with a line that relieves the hero of the charge of “date rape” status and relieves the audience of its voyeuristic guilt with a big laugh (never mind that she was actually unconscious). Date rape jokes are more difficult to slip into mainstream films than they are in the context of rap, which is why Hill and Rogen took pains to brand their film as desperately “edgy.” Still, writers can get a pass when they write the jokes for women.
Threat Level ELEVATED:
Includes: Don Imus
Don Imus should never make a joke about date rape.
Threat level SEVERE: Actual Victims of Sexual Assault
Includes: Dresden Dolls singer Amanda Palmer, former Jezebel blogger Moe Tkacik
It makes sense to be wary of women telling rape jokes written by men. But if rape jokes are considered so offensive because they run the risk of triggering the experience of an actual victim, how do we respond when the actual victim is telling the joke?
Last week, the Guardian shamed former Jezebel blogger Moe Tkacik for not reporting her college date rape to the police—and being sarcastic. “I had better things to do,” Tkacik once said of the assault. “Like drinking more.” When Tkacik first spoke out about her date rape on Jezebel, she also laced the experience with humor, writing: “When he, after about a half hour of fooling around, put on a condom I was like, ‘Whooooah, what are you doing?’ But I’d had two forties and I kept drifting in and out of consciousness—my tolerance, obviously, wasn’t what it is today—and I woke up to find him sticking it in.”
Never mind that a college sophomore may actually have better things to do than report a crime with little evidence and no witnesses, one that will enter her name and sexual experiences into the public record and possibly lead to a years-long legal battle: It was a joke. Critics—like women’s studies scholar Linda Hirshman and Daily Show creator Lizz Winstead—who didn’t find Tkacik’s joke funny argued that, as a victim of rape, she should know to speak responsibly on the issue of sexual assault. Feminism has criticized hip-hop, frat houses, and filmmakers for their own light treatment of rape, so it would make sense for the movement to shut out rape jokes from its own discourse, too. But the critics again fail to catch the context of the joke. Bloggers, like rappers, always have their tongues firmly in cheek. Feminist bloggers, then, are held to the highest standard—they must navigate between the sobriety of the women’s movement and the irony of the Internet.
Blogs have afforded individual women the opportunity to speak frankly and publicly about an issue too often relegated to fiction—their own sexual assaults. By holding sexual assault victims to a higher standard of seriousness, we’re doing something worse than blaming the victims: We’re stripping them of their right to contextualize their rape on their own terms. As Palmer wrote in defense of “Oasis,” (on her blog, naturally): “Humor is one of the strongest weapons that human beings have against suffering, death and fear.”
BONUS: A Hierarchy of Date Rape Jams (I made a chart!)