February 09, 2012
How to Tell a Rape Joke
With the UniLad saga starting to send out aftershocks following the initial twitterstorm, I am going to attempt to wade into into waters way beyond my depth and attempt the dangerous task of explaining how one might attempt to larf about horrific subjects.
I am of the belief that anything can be the subject of a joke. I don't tend to be the person to make these kind of jokes, as I don't trust myself with the material, but I believe it can be done. What I don't believe is that any joke is acceptable, just because it's a joke. Some jokes just deserve a slap*. A lot of the backlash against criticism of offensive joke material is that 'you can't joke about anything anymore' or 'people are too easily offended', etc etc. But maybe people don't understand how jokes or offence work any more. So rape, eh? Let's dive in with a point-by-point guideline for those who really do feel the need to make a rape joke:
1 - Rape is Offensive
Let's start with the obvious: rape is a horrific and terrible thing. It's sexual bullying, abusive and scarring both physically and mentally. It's about power and victimisation and is never ever acceptable. So if you're going to construct a joke about rape, understand that you will almost certainly offend some people, purely for making light of the subject at all.
Your joke will not be for everyone and you must understand this before you make your joke. As with any subject matter that crosses boundaries of taste and offence, actually make an effort to understand why these subjects are taboo and rarely to be toyed with. If you're going to 'go there', then have the decency to know what you're getting yourself into. Why do people find the subject offensive? Do you understand the subtleties of its contexts? Do you have a good knowledge of the statistics of rape and understand how most rapes occur and why?
Consider just how offensive your joke might be and then ask yourself: is the punchline worth a) upsetting people, b) the aggro that follows if you do end up offending a lot of people?
2 - Who is the Target of the Joke?
A lot of jokes, especially satirical/topical ones, poke at something or someone; they'll unsettle a subject matter or individual for a larf. Sometimes the subject of a joke becomes grossly mischaracterised in order to make the joke flow. A lot of the UniLad jokes relied on redefining women as game (the hunting kind, not the Scrabble™ kind) in order to make their jokes. In these cases, the women were the targets and the lads/pseudo-rapists were the protagonists.
This is getting a rape joke wrong.
In this case, the audience has to sympathise with the womaniser/rapist-character and in doing so they must implicitly condone his** behaviour. Most people should be uncomfortable with this. If people are uncomfortable with the positioning of the joke then they are less likely to find it funny and more likely to find it offensive.
There are a few ways around this:
a) Don't make the victim the butt of the joke.
b) If the joke teller is playing the part of the predator, they should make it clear that they are playing the antagonist and the joke should either be at their expense, or...
c) the joke should be so obviously ironic and satirical that the rapist's position as protagonist should be clearly absurd. In this case the butt of the joke is the horrific position of the protagonist. This is the most risky type of joke to make, so you'd better make damn sure you do it well as you can easily fall into being shitty and offensive.
The best rape joke should stick the boot squarely in the face of the rape apologist. They are the most mockable, stupid, nasty people in all of rape...ville.
3 - Who is Your Audience?
Let me make something very clear: if your joke/column/blog/forum is on the internet, the answer is everyone. Everyone is your audience. It doesn't matter who your intended audience is, if everyone can see it, then everyone is your audience. This is the equivalent of swearing down your mobile phone on a commuter train. No one cares that your intention was to swear only at your crack dealer - you're pissing off everyone on the train and they all hate you.
Now, my friends and I make all kinds of terrible and potentially offensive jokes in each other's company, in private. We can do this because we know each other well enough that we understand very clearly when a joke falls into category (c) above. Not only that, we're comfortable telling each other if a line of decency has been crossed. In a small group of friends, there is a very clear understanding about what is happening.
Expanding this: if you go and see Frankie Boyle, there should be an understanding that he's going to deliberately cross boundaries of decency because that is part of his schtick. There is an element to the fact that Frankie Boyle should know that his stand-up might well spread beyond his stage and should be aware of this, but just go with me on this.
Be aware of who will hear/read your joke and, you know, try not to offend if you can help it. That's just being an arsehole. So, while you not be doing a gig at an abused women's shelter, you'd do well to understand that not everyone will appreciate your humorous take on rape.
4 - After You Inevitably Offend
This is something you need to be thoroughly aware of and prepared for: if you're going to 'push the boundaries of comedy' (snort), then you probably will offend someone. Expect it. If you're surprised that a joke about rape caused people some discomfort then you're an idiot. Making light of rape is a very dodgy thing to do. And when I say to be prepared for criticism, I don't mean prepare a list of defensive rebuttals, I mean be prepared to listen to it.
Getting defensive and sticking your fingers in your ears to save your ego won't help you: it'll make you look like a massive dickhead. Instead, try listening to what they have to say. If you stay calm, you might get a decent discussion out of it and you can learn something about your subject material, about the boundaries of comedy and how to improve your material and delivery. You might not agree with everything they have to say about you or your joke, but that does not devalue what they have to say. There are reasons behind people's offense and they are important to hear.
And remember: apologising is not a sign of weakness; it's a sign of strength. If you're going to play around at the edge of common decency, you're probably going to fall off once in a while. Accepting that you got it wrong is fine. Just say, 'I was wrong', apologise and move on in the knowledge that you've become better through making mistakes and understanding how you went wrong.
And I'm going to say it again, because it's important. Is the punchline really worth the effort? It better be a bloody good rape joke, is all I'm saying.
** or her, technically, yes.