Comedian Jim Norton never sent anyone rape threats. Daniel Tosh never threatened to rape anyone (ok, except that one time). But, their fans sent a barrage of rape and death threats to women who spoke out against them (or in Norton’s case, to a woman who just had a civil debate with him on TV, Lindy West). Joe Rogan seems like a smart caring guy who would never personally hack the comic Jamie Kilstein’s Twitter account and post rape jokes. But, his fans did it with the hashtag #deathsquad during the fight between Rogan and Kilstein.
Why use rape jokes as a form of putting people in their place who disagree with you or “act up”? Why are the fans going that route? Is it only because rape was the topic at hand? Or does it go deeper than that? Can we consider just for a moment the idea that a comic’s words can affect individuals and groups of people. Comics, is it possible that maybe the fans aren’t processing the subtle nuances of your jokes and ideas the way you hoped they would? [Someone came up to me once and said, “I love your Paris Hilton joke.” No!!! It’s a Scooter Libby joke!] A lot of comics believe that feminists are seeing something in their jokes that isn’t there. Could it be that the fans see the same thing the feminists see?
Every comic worth his/her weight in chicken fingers knows that words have power. In the new documentary on Richard Pryor, Paul Mooney said “Richard understood that words are powerful.” If you don’t get that, maybe you should make your living off something other than words. We comics choose words very carefully in our jokes, to create imagery, melody, metaphors, similes, to invoke emotion…. to provide the most bang for our buck. We care so much about words that free speech is our number one issue over all else. Or as Jamie Kilstein sarcastically put it:
"As comedians, we don't have health care, get paid shitty, and have no union.
The hill we chose to die on was rape jokes."
I am here to protect Lindy West’s free speech. I am here to defend and protect the free speech of the women that spoke out against Daniel Tosh. The issue is not rape jokes. The issue is that people have the right to respond to and have a dialogue about those jokes without getting death threats and rape threats and silenced. Lindy West was not a heckler who went to a comedy club and interrupted a live performance and deserved to be shouted down. She wrote her opinions in Jezebel magazine and, when invited, participated in a televised debate, and then got overwhelmed with threats to her safety for SPEAKING HER OPINION. Her right to free speech is under attack. Comics, to the rescue!!! Um, comics? Comics??
These women and men have the right to respond to art, to anything. But, what are they even going on and on about? What is this rape culture anyway? What does comedy have to do with any of this?
The Pen is Mightier than the Sword. Do you believe that comedy, poetry, art, journalism, writing, etc can be forces for good? Do you believe that movements have been started from the powerful words of charismatic leaders? Or sustained in the universal pep talk telling us that we are ok and to stay the course? Richard Pryor and George Carlin had the same thing that Martin Luther King, Jesus, Maya Angelou, John Kennedy and Barack Obama have: words and charisma.
If you believe that words can be used for good, then why not evil? How can words stir people to act, to respond, to feel? Jokes reinforce the status quo or challenge the status quo. The status quo in our culture (not just “over there”) is that rape is treated differently than other crimes. Rape and rape victims are treated like a joke, dismissed, diminished, questioned, interrogated. It is a common belief that rape accusations are often false, when studies show that rape has no higher a % of false claims than any other crimes and, in fact, is underreported and under-convicted. When people are robbed or murdered, we never hear: Well, why did he go up to the room with him? He must have wanted to get murdered. Why did he wear that expensive watch if he didn’t want his wrist broken and his watch stolen? He flaunts that watch all over town. Watch whore.
MRA groups tout that in domestic violence cases, often the “women started it” by pushing a man and he just pushed her back to defend himself blah blah blah. Cut to your mental picture of Rihanna’s beaten and bloody face. I have heard in conversations about violence against women, men bring up alimony and gold diggers as if a woman’s behavior (however misguided) is an invitation to a beating. In all the mass shootings in America over the past few years, I wonder if any of the victims were gold diggers. C’mon! They clearly had it coming. Especially those kids. Or maybe victims are just victims and the perpetrators are to blame…. Nah!
What did the Stubenville kids hear about rape besides what they were taught in our culture? What they heard was: jokes from comedians that make fun of victims and condone non-consensual sex, the media coming out against sports figure’s rape victims blaming the women’s behavior and doubting their stories, movies that sexualize and glorify rape and other violent crimes and, finally, feminist writers and speakers representing the other side that those kids are not exposed to and would never listen to anyway (because everyone knows feminists are man-hating lesbians who should be threatened with rape for speaking).
In Stubenville, the parents, teachers, law enforcement officials, coaches and friends all thought that the future of those boys were more important than the rape victim and dismissed what happened to her as unimportant and worse, a joke. Now tell yourself this just happens in Stubenville. Anonymous, the group that exposed the Stubenville rape cover-up, stated that they were inundated with requests for help from rape victims all over the country (and the world) after that incident.
We can’t even protect our women in the military. While 1 in 4 civilian women are raped, that number goes up for women in the armed forces. [Men, think about why you are afraid to go to prison] What helped begin to change the attitudes toward rape in the military and how the victims are treated? A documentary: The Invisible War. Art started the change. Words. The pen is mightier than the rape whistle. We can not be silenced. Our very lives depend on free speech.
We are very lucky to have free speech. I could not do my job without this right. It is precious and must be protected. But, if you read the U.S. Constitution, you’ll notice that free speech doesn’t just cover comedians. It includes feminist bloggers, and gasp, any people who don’t agree with you. Comics, while you may still not believe your jokes contribute to culture or that your words have any effect, watch how your fans are reacting to what you are saying. Maybe they aren’t in on the joke. Maybe this issue is complex and the dialogue deserves to be continued. Maybe both sides should be allowed to speak.