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Helen has been writing at the Cast Iron Balcony since 2003. She has been a proud contributor to the Australian Group blogs Road to Surfdom, Larvatus Prodeo and Progressive Dinner Party. She's a blogger, she's a grinner, she's a mother, she's a sinner. She plays her music in the sun.

21 Responses

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  1. tigtog
    tigtog at |

    Great post, Helen. With regard to the “I can joke about genocide, why not rape?” argument, I have only ever seen truly powerful/challenging Holocaust comedy done by people who belong to families that actually lost a relative to that genocide, or who have had a close personal relationship to a Holocaust survivor. Otherwise, unless it’s a simple anti-Nazi one-liner, Holocaust jokes rarely work. I would expect it to be the same with other genocides, it’s definitely the same with n-word jokes, and it’s my belief that it’s the same with rape.

    Comedians: if you are not a rape survivor yourself, or have never had a detailed conversation with a rape survivor about that experience, or have never even read some of the academic literature around rapist characteristics and rape survivor narratives, then it is most unlikely that your rape joke will be either substantive or subversive enough to be worth making. How can you think it’s transgressive or a display of comedy skill to simply mouth off glib, predictable, dismissive crap about rape? Every other arsehat in the pub can and does do that, every other day of the week.

    I have seen occasional one-liners work so long as they were mocking rapists who were currently in the news, but only one per set please. Being jolted into thinking about rape more than once in your set just for a one-liner ruins any possible fun.

    Most importantly, if your joke in any way implies that the rape victim was not careful enough or somehow deserved to be raped, then you have descended into horrible human being territory, and should climb back up into halfway-decent human being territory ASAP.

  2. TimT
    TimT at |

    Hooray, Feminist Killjoys!

  3. Mark N
    Mark N at |

    Here’s a thought for some “comedians”: would the joke be funny it was about your daughter/mother/sister? Depressing thing is that still probably wouldn’t discourage all of them.

  4. tigtog
    tigtog at |

    I’d prefer to ask them that about a female friend, Mark N. Asking it about a female relative or gf ties into traditional male-protector tropes that are part of the problem.

    As orlando commented on a previous rape-joke post here:

    What you have to ask is: is this joke designed to make the rape victim laugh and the rapist squirm, or to make the rapist laugh and the victim squirm? I think you’ll find most rape jokes fall into the latter category, and we all need to have a really good think about what that means.

  5. Mindy
    Mindy at |

    Fantastic post Helen.

  6. Hilary
    Hilary at |

    Hi Helen,

    Thankyou so much for this post. Immediately after we left and Gen had a panic attack, I regretted going ahead with this. But now? I’m so glad we did. The outpour of support and condemnation of these fifth-rate comedians from all walks of life in Melbourne has just been so wonderful. It was a DISGRACE what they planned to do, what they did, and what they through their actions condone.

    I’m so glad to have an aunt like you. You inspire me, you inspire your daughter, and what can I say? We’re feminist killjoys 4 lyf.


  7. tigtog
    tigtog at |

    I was reminded of this 2007 Shakesville post about a rape-joke made by Jerry Seinfeld:

    If you’re going to make a joke about rape, it’s got to be funny to rape victims. And yeah, it’s possible. I got more approving emails about my “Soberest Fuckhole” trophy than any other graphic I’ve ever done. That’s some serious gallows humor, wickedly subversive, and it made a hell of a lot of survivors of sexual assault and their advocates laugh and cheer, because it played on all the stupid bullshit surrounding victim-blaming and rape. It’s a rape joke, but it didn’t treat rape like a joke. And that’s what most “rape jokes” do—including Seinfeld’s.

    Up above I spoke about other controversial jokes I’ve heard which “worked” (i.e. made the audience think rather than storm out in disgust), and the crucial point they all share is that in none of them was actual genocidal/racist/sexual oppression treated like a joke – the perpetrators of the oppression were the ones being mocked, not the atrocities themselves nor their victims.

    From the reports above, it appears that Butler et al set up and vigorously defended an event where rapists would be much more likely to be laughing along with the comedians than rape victims would be. If this was done deliberately, this was unethical and inhumane. If this was done unwittingly, this was empathy-deficient and lacking in intellectual rigor. Either way, it seems generally indicative of having their social and entertainment priorites utterly topsy-turvy.

  8. zoot
    zoot at |

    Well done, Feminist Killjoys!!

  9. orlando
    orlando at |

    I heard Margaret Throsby (I think?) interviewing Michael Palin the other day, and she asked him the standard “do you think there are any topics off-limits for comedy?” question, and it really irritated me, because I realised it’s the wrong question. The answer a comedian gives is always going to be “no, because [all these virtues of gallows humour].” Comedians need to be asked “are there any targets who are off-limits?” Then we would get to find out whether they are “kick up/kiss down” types or conscienceless self-cranial-colonoscopers.

  10. Li
    Li at |

    Ugh. What on earth inspired Fairfax to open up those articles to online comment?

  11. Mercurius
    Mercurius at |

    So glad you are directing some sunlight/a spotlight onto these cockroaches. As always, a sharper focus on the perpetrators’ actions is helpful. This “comedian” and his barrackers seem to have trouble heeding words such as ‘no’, ‘stop’, ‘don’t do this’ and ‘you’re hurting people’. Like all abusers, they are adept at rationalising and deflecting, avoiding responsibility and playing the victim. It is very distressing to witness this occurring from afar, I can only imagine what the people up-close are going through.

    Hopefully the public exposure will stop this man, albeit belatedly, from the career trainwreck he seems hell-bent on pursuing. Do the Studio 59 Managers have any regard for the future viability of their business? Making it clear to the world that your nightclub is not a safe space for young women looking for a fun night out is commercial suicide, quite apart from the ethical and moral issues. Although on their current form, they seem not to understand signs that say ‘wrong way, go back’.

    I hope Melburnians will take this opportunity to show Australians and the world once again that they are prepared to stand up for women’s public safety. It may also be just a coincidence, but it makes my skin crawl to think how close this publicly-condoned humiliation and hatred against a rape victim follows on the heels of that much graver crime of a few weeks ago. Do Melburnians in particular have some work to do about the culture in their inner-city? Sorry, easy for me to say from a thousand miles away in a sleepy country town, and we have our own issues here too…

  12. Mitch
    Mitch at |

    Just a quick question; what do you consider actually transgressive comedy?

  13. tigtog
    tigtog at |

    what do you consider actually transgressive comedy?

    Basically, transgressive comedy has to subvert the status quo. If a joke simply reinforces existing marginalisations, then it’s not transgressive, it’s just trivialising uncomfortable truths about how society views certain classes of people as lesser than others.

    What I see in a lot of standup is too many unsophisticated understandings of how various social taboos reinforce the status quo, so that some comics appear to believe that simply making people squirm about something is “edgy” and “making them think”. The whole reason that some things are taboos is that by making them embarassing and awkward subject matter then people compartmentalise them as things they don’t/shouldn’t think about it, so sending one’s audience into squirm mode does exactly the opposite of “making them think”. People can relish being made to squirm because it does tend to generate a small adrenaline rush due to the associated fight/flight reaction, and that squirm-rush can be something an audience will come back for from certain comedians (e.g. Little Britain, Ricky Gervais), but the reason they often come back to the same old squirm-makers is that they know that it’s a safe-squirm, squirm within certain tightly managed gross-out-the-squares boundaries, not anything that’s actually going to change the way that they view the world.

    Basically, if the audience is saying that the comic is “saying what we’re all thinking” or “I nearly died when s/he said that” or “did you see so-and-so’s face? Bwahahaha” then it’s most likely not transgressive. If the audience is saying “I never thought about it like that before” then some transgressive comedy may have just occurred.

  14. tigtog
    tigtog at |

    P.S. I don’t think all comedy should be transgressive, btw. There’s nothing wrong with somebody being good at taboo-based comedy that makes people squirm with laughter, since there will always be audiences who love being propelled into horribly hilariously awkward territory. Just don’t represent playing around with taboos as something more noble than it actually is.

    The best taboo-trampling comedians have a very sophisticated understanding of which taboos can be played around with without trivialising the pain of other human beings, and tread the line delicately because they take great pains with how they frame their material empathically. (e.g. Eddie Izzard, who does cross over into truly transgressive material fairly frequently too)

    The hack taboo-trampling comedians, on the other hand, simply aren’t knowledgeable enough or don’t care enough to avoid trivialising other people’s pain as part of their material, and then get their hackles up about the purity of transgressive comedy when they are challenged for being insensitive to other people’s pain.

  15. SunlessNick
    SunlessNick at |

    Basically, if the audience is saying … then it’s most likely not transgressive.

    “It’s funny because it’s true” is usually a bad sign as well.

  16. tigtog
    tigtog at |

    Not necessarily a sign of bad/unfunny comedy, Nick. Just a bad sign for ground-breaking comedy.

  17. tigtog
    tigtog at |

    For example, a staple of comedy festivals is the confessional show about the comic’s history of drug addiction or coming out of the closet etc. These shows do challenge some social taboos regarding shame expectations, but nowadays are not considered especially transgressive (20-30 years ago was a different story). These shows are still somewhat transgressive regarding mainstream entertainment, since they’re rarely the shows that get featured in a TV best of the fest compilation; transgressive because they do show members of marginalised social groups as full human beings.

    Confessional shows are often exceptionally poignant and powerful comedy in the hands of a seasoned performer who has decided to take off their most tenacious masks, and much of their impact comes from the “it’s funny because it’s true” moments they are sharing. Rarely these days is there anything that a festival audience won’t know about in principle regarding what happens to kids growing up same-sex-attracted or to those who become addicted to illegal substances – the skill lies in how the comic structures those stories to elicit humour from shared humanity rather than just shock value.

    I’ve yet to see a confessional “I used to be a homophobe/sexist/racist” show. I’ve seen a very few comics play around with those ideas as part of their routines, or at least the “we’re all kinda homophobic/sexist/racist” idea, but I’ve not seen anybody tackle it as the major theme of a 1-hour show. Now that would be transgressive.

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