Along with Operation Yewtree’s exposure of sexual violence perpetrated by once-loved showbiz institutions come the predictable bad-taste jokes…
‘My wife wanted me to spice up our sex life and meke her feel young again – the white wig and cigar didn’t go down too well…’
‘I hear Rolf Harris has dropped “Two Little Boys” from his set for the upcoming tour…’
…and so on…
The ‘rape joke’ is arguably comedy’s most contentious trope. Racist and homophobic jokes pretty much disappeared from comedy routines back in the ’90s, even if they’ve made a belated comeback appended with an ironic wink. It’s the nature of comedy to push the boundaries of decency and acceptability but it’s telling that concessions to the sensibilities of minority groups so often don’t extend to women. Comics don’t really know – and the best of them will admit, as Henning Wehn did at a gig at a gig in in Lewes recently – whether their routine is actually funny or just offensive until the crowd laughs: the other side of the coin is that the audience really doen’t know what it finds funny until the comic points it up with his ironic aside; her barbed observation. Actually, what’s really funny falls broadly into two interconnected categories: the truth, and the lies and misdirection we deploy to skirt uncomfortably around it.
You know the guy’s onto something when he can riff on sexual violence and feminists praise him for it. In fact, he has received some harsh criticism and abuse, via Twitter and Youtube, and mostly from those he refers to as ‘the rapey man brigade’. Because he tells a truth that they and many others don’t want to hear; a truth that is – in this case, literally – laughable.
There was nothing funny about the reaction of certain elements within the gaming community when feminist (and avid video game fan) Anita Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a study of the portrayal of gender within video games… except… well isn’t it funny, deeply ironic , that the mere prospect of such study being prompted an outpouring of exactly the kind of hostile, misogynistic sentiments that her project sought to expose: an irony one suspects, that said gamers were blissfully oblivious to. But the backlash to the backlash is the real story: in the same way that Mark Williams-Thomas‘ Exposed… documentary enabled so many of Savile‘s victims to come forward with their stories and seek catharsis, even justice, of a kind; so Sarkeesian‘s campaign, or rather the backlash against it, emboldened others equally discomfited by the culture of sexism within gaming to make their voices heard. Games may be ficticious, much as pornography and Hollywood are ficticious (and at least game producers don’t have to grapple with the ethics of employing real actors and actresses – though on reflection that might be a problem in itself) but if the end user is oblivious to the fiction then the distinction (between it and truth) is arguably moot.
You have to stir the waters to bring the detritus, and the treasure, to the surface.
Like Sarkeesian, Kilstein dares to tell the truth. making said distintion clear. Like Sarkeesian, he brings down a shitstorm onto his head; from conservatives – that means people who want things to stay as they are; people who fear change: which specifically means men – and admittedly, some women too – who want to keep on raping, keep on getting away with raping and/or enjoy for themselves the dubious benefits of a society in which rape and the nebulous threat of rape (amonst other violences) provides them with political, social and economic capital. And like Sarkeesian, Kilstein is brave enough to go public and face down his critics; albeit thru the medium of satire.
‘… They would call me some kind of homophobic slur (a frequent conservative trope, to conflate disparate, albeit commonly politically-subversive positions: homosexuality, liberalism, feminism, leftism etc…) or they would be like “I hope you get raped”, “I’m raping someone you know” (and ludicrously) “I’m gonna rape a steak” (but note the parity in content and tone with the Sarkeesian backlash). My favorite were, there were like some homophobes that combined their homophobia and rape so they’d be like “I’m gonna rape you, queer!” And I mean that’s kind of progressive, sorta liberal of the guy like “Oh I hate gay people so much but I hate you more I’m gonna get over my fucking fear of gay people when I rape the shit out of you.” I was like “I’ll take one for the team on that…’
From a critical standpoint it’s crucial that Kilstein is satirizing misogynistic attitudes, not mocking or belittling rape victims, in contrast to the kind of rape ‘jokes’ that rightly draw much feminisic ire: from a comedic standpoint, less so: that ‘jokes’ may superficially reinforce predjudice doesn’t necessarily render them unfunny. In much the same way that it’s not fair or reasonable to project the responsibilty for violence onto its victim – or indeed, media, guns or ‘society’ at large – nor is it fair or reasonable to project the responsibility for verbal offence onto the ‘offender’. This might at first glance appear contradictory but it highlights an intrinsic difference between verbal and physical offence: one can learn from and combat a sexist/racist/homophobic ‘joke’ or comment in real time – and via the internet, forever more – in a way that a victim of rape or shooting can’t. We have a shared responsibility to engage in a public discourse where the violent underbelly of our so-called civilised society is concerned. (Kilsten’s) comedy has a valid role to play here:i
‘Men always say women have it so easy because they can get laid whenever they want. Why, a woman can just walk down the street, point to a dick and, before she can count her lucky stars, that dick will be inside of her. I wish I had women chasing me at every turn! I could just walk down the street by myself at 3 in the morning and be like “Which one of these ladies is gonna take me to street-fuck land?” Sometimes they wanna fuck me so bad, they are literally chasing me in a frantic, horny, serial-killer-like state! Sometimes, with a weapon, probably to show me he has other talents than chasing! Some girls may say this is assault, but the onus is on the girl, for being out at A PLACE and WEARING THINGS! The world is your orgy!’
The tragedy – and which gives Kilstein‘s satire its edge – is that too many men and women buy into exactly this kind of hype. Victim-blaming is endemic in our culture and nowhere more so than where violence against women is concerned; in her 1988 essay M’learned Friends (British feminist) Joan Smith wrote, ‘Some of the assumptions that USED TO [?] apply routinely in the area of coercive sexuality immediately come to light: most strikingly, the idea that men live their lives on a hair trigger and can be provoked to violence by the most insignificant stimulus, a notion which parallels the old proposition that women must behave with circumspection at all times because of men’s uncontrollable sexual urges.’ (my emphasis). But not everyone accepts this cynical reading of human relations. Earlier in the same polemic, Smith quotes one Justice Rougier in his summing up of a 1988 case of indecent assault and GBH over which he presided: ‘Women … are entitled to dress attractively, even provocatively if you like, be friendly with casual acquaintances and still say no at the end of the evening without being brutally assaulted … you broke her jaw just because she wasn’t prepared to go to bed with you.’ Even in 1988, a man more representative than most of male privilege and power was able to recognize the existence and pervasiveness of a rape culture. By this time Savile had been getting away with enacting his violence for over two decades. To date, admittedly scanty reports on the progress of Yewtree nonetheless suggest he was a far-from-isolated case. The price of denying said rape-enabling culture is exemplified by 500+ belated reports of devastating violence and intimidation perpetrated by Savile, his colleagues, colluders, apologists and deniers in the media; and there’s every reason to believe that that’s the tip of a very large iceberg. And here’s the thing: rape works. It intimidates and silences people. It’s taken 40 years for Savile‘s crimes to be openly discussed and taken seriously: which is why media players such as Sarkeesian and Kilstein, as well as survivors of Savile ought to be deserving of our praise.