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Very Big Conversations: Is That Joke Actually Funny?

post #2 in my series on Very Big Conversations About Women

I was going to start this post with the statement, "rape jokes are never funny." But as my thoughts have taken shape, I've realized two things - first, that my concerns extend beyond solely  rape jokes. And secondly, I know that I have laughed at jokes that may fall under the rape-joke category. The one that comes to mind is Mike Birbiglia's story about moving a new bed into his apartment. Last night, I lay in bed unpacking why I find this particular joke funny rather than offensive, and I'm not sure if I can explain or justify it. (what do you think? Is it offensive? Why/why not?)

So I am not going to say, categorically, that any kind of joke is never funny. Humour is a complex blend of art and science, and one of its functions is to push limits and make observations that otherwise may not happen. I recognize that.


I have been in the room when an off-colour story or joke is told, and it is all I can do to keep from berating or hitting the teller. In fact, sometimes I have not held back. I remember walking away in fury over a sexist "joke" someone made towards me as a teenager, came back slightly calmer to seethingly explain why his words were completely unacceptable. On another occasion, I punched someone (hard) in the arm. I was so angry that I didn't know what words to use.

I think that is our problem, often. Not knowing what words to use. Not knowing why we use the words we do. Generally, not thinking about others - the people we're speaking to or the people we are speaking about (either specific or general categories).

Jokes and stories are often told on a whim, so maybe this seems silly, but here are four questions I think it's important to ask about the humour we use:

1. Does this joke potentially minimize the real and traumatic experiences of others? 
It is important to recognize that just because a particular experience hasn't happened to me doesn't mean it doesn't happen. Similarly, if I haven't experienced something personally, it is likely that I don't fully understand how it feels. And here's the thing - chances are high that your audience contains victims. Remember, 25% of women are victims of sexual assault by the age of 18. And while the numbers aren't as high, it happens to men too. (Related: pedophilia jokes are about as funny as rape jokes: that is, not at all. Also, using the language of sexual assault as slang is as minimizing and triggering as telling an off-colour story or joke.)

I have been in rooms with friend who have bit back tears or left altogether when casual treatment of very real trauma has brought back their own horrific experiences. It is heartbreaking enough to have lived through it; to have it made light of and brought up casually by ignorance and carelessness is salt on the wound.

2. Does this joke assert my power/dominance over another?
Making a joke from a position of apparent power is very different from joking about the same matter from a position of perceived subordinancy. (I think this is true - anyone care to confirm/disagree?)Making statements from a privileged or non-experiential place can be, whether intentional or not, oppressive. Life can be cruel enough to minorities of all kinds; let's not add to it.

3. Does telling this joke seemingly support an action/attitude I would not endorse elsewhere?
If a census company or a potential employer or even my grandma came up to me and asked, "Do you believe that _________________?" and I would not answer a confident, "Yes," then I probably shouldn't tell jokes that make it seem like I do hold that stance.

4. Why am I telling this joke?
Am I trying to provoke or shock? Why do I think this is the best thing to say? Being gentle and kind-hearted may not get the biggest laughs, but I'm a firm believer that in the long run, its rewards are far greater.

So is there anything left to joke about?? I think so, absolutely. Just as humour can harm or tear-down, it can be used to heal and build-up. So let's do that. I want to do that.


Ariana said…
My view? That joke is funny. It's funny and acceptable because it's not about rape. It simply has the word "rapist" in it. He could just as easily have used "serial killer" instead of "rapist," which is somehow less offensive. Even though it's equally real. Anyway, my point is that even though the joke contains the word "rapist," it really has nothing to do with rape, and nor does it in any way glorify or make light of crimes against women. He's making fun of himself for saying something stupid.
Beth said…
Ariana - yes! I think two things you've said are key:

1. the joke is making fun of HIMSELF and there is no overt or implied victim/oppression in the story.
2. you could substitute the word "rapist" for a multitude of other words and it would be equally funny.

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