Sunday, November 2, 2008

Rape is Never Funny (Except when it Involves Shakespeare or Stanley Kubrick )

A few weeks ago, in our book club, one of the guys made a crack about rape. This elicited a heated response from a number of people, particularly one of the girls who declared: “rape is never funny.” This past week we got a visit from one of the administrators of Aspirations who spoke to us and told us in no uncertain terms that, while we were all adults and it was acceptable to talk about adult topics, jokes about rape would not be tolerated in the group. With all due respect to feminists and other concerned people, while rape is a horrible act, it is one horrible act among many others and like all other horrible acts, and in part because it is such a horrible act, it is subject to humor and can be very funny.

One of my all-time favorite films is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. It is about the world getting blown to bits in a nuclear holocaust, courtesy of Peter Sellers (in three roles) and George C. Scott. The climax of the film is a man falling out a bomber while riding an atom bomb and waving his cowboy hat. This is soon followed by mushroom clouds going up across the globe to soft relaxing music. I may be perverse but I do find something funny about the annihilation of almost the entire human race. (Those lacking a convenient mine shaft to flee to.) It would seem only a matter of consistency that if I could laugh at the idea of billions of people dying than I should also be able to laugh at the idea of one person being raped. And Stanley Kubrick helps us on this front with Clockwork Orange, which has rape set to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

Clearly, rape can be funny; even Shakespeare uses rape for laughs. In Titus Andronicus, Demetrius and Chiron rape Titus’ daughter, Livinia, (and, for good measure, they also cut off her hands and slice out her tongue.)
Demetrius: So, now go tell, and if thy tongue can speak,
Who’t was that cut thy tongue and ravish’d thee.
Chiron: Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so
And if thy stumps will let thee play the scribe.
Demetrius: She, how with signs and tokens she can scrowl.
Chiron: Go home, call for sweet water, wash thy hands.
Demetrius: She hath no tongue to call, nor hands to wash:
And so let’s leave her to her silent walks.
Chiron An ‘twere my case I should go hang myself.
Demetrius: If though hadst hands to help thee knit the cord.
[Titus Andronicus act II scene IV)

For all you feminists out there, Titus gets his revenge on Chiron and Demetrius; he cuts their throats and has Livinia hold a bowl in her stumps to catch the blood. Titus then bakes them into meat pies, (So Sweeney Todd like.)which he serves to their mother Tamora. (Titus then kills Livinia to “end” her shame.)

Rape can even make for good family friendly musical fun. Consider the Fantasticks with its Rape Song:

A pretty rape!
A literary rape!
We've the obvious open schoolboy rape,
With little mandolins
and perhaps a cape.
The rape by coach;
it's little in request.
The rape by day,
but the rape by night is best.

Just try to see it.
And you will soon agree, señors,
Why Invite regret,
When you can get the sort of rape
You'll never ever forget.
You can get the rape emphatic.
You can get the rape polite.
You can get the rape with Indians:
A very charming sight.
You can get the rape on horseback;
They'll all say it's new and gay.
So you see the sort of rape
Depends on what you pay.
It depends on what you pay.

And the song continues for several more verses, all involving suggestions of possible styles for a good “rape.” (This is meant as a staged abduction of a girl by a theatrical troupe so that her neighbor will be able to come to her “rescue” and bring about all manner of happy endings.)
I raised some of these issues with the administrator. I asked him if we would even be allowed to read something like Titus Andronicus, considering how it makes fun of rape. I also asked him if he thought the Fantasticks, with its singing about rape, could be considered funny. His response was that yes such things were funny, but that it was only funny when done by such people. Apparently, rape is only funny when it is in a published source. I am reminded of the Haredi response when faced with the fact that great rabbis in the past had done something that they now wish to ban: "it was ok for them, because they were so great and because they lived in holier times. But we should not be allowed to do this."

I am not trying to minimize the real-life horrors of rape. I also recognize that society has certain conventions about making jokes about bad things in front of people who have suffered them. (For example one does not crack Holocaust jokes in front of Holocaust survivors.) I can accept that rape is included in this convention so one must be careful in whose company one makes rape jokes. But to say that somehow rape is not funny is absolutely ludicrous. Personally, I take Shakespeare, Stanley Kubrick and the Fantasticks as better guides to what is funny than any angry feminist.


Anonymous said...

The thing is, in most circles (the Jewish community may be an exception) one is much, much more likely to be making a rape joke in front of a woman who has actually been rapes--not all women are public about it. You also have to remember that, to a certain extent, women live their lives in fear of rape in a way I'm not sure men can appreciate. We constantly check behind our backs as we walk through a darkened parking lot, we avoid stairwells, we avoid walking alone anywhere after dark. (Yes, I know, men may avoid these situations because they could be mugged. Women can be mugged too. This is different.) It's just an emotional and personal subject for women, even if they aren't rape victims, because it's a scenario we often have to envision.

Also, are the cracks about angry feminists really necessary? Frankly, I'm sick to death of them. Accusing feminists of being irrationally angry mean-haters is a silencing tactic used to dismiss any possible criticisms they may make. Yes, feminists are angry. Maybe it's a good idea to find out why rather than simply mocking.

Izgad said...

I recognize that rape is a very live issue for women and as such it is not prudent to make rape jokes in front of women unless you know for certain that they would not mind. My concern here has been the charge that rape jokes have no place in humor, when they clearly have.
“Also, are the cracks about angry feminists really necessary? Frankly, I'm sick to death of them. Accusing feminists of being irrationally angry mean-haters is a silencing tactic used to dismiss any possible criticisms they may make. Yes, feminists are angry. Maybe it's a good idea to find out why rather than simply mocking.”
I do not dismiss feminism nor do I deny that feminism makes many valid points. My concern, though, is that often feminists themselves use silencing tactics to dismiss any possible criticism. In this they are not that different from any other group that views itself as having some sort of infallible Truth and that all those who disagree are in some sense “satanic.” Rape is a valid issue but it can also become a tool for blackmail. You talk about how the fear of rape is something that men do not understand. You have to be careful in that this line of reasoning can all to easily turn into an “I have privileged form of knowledge with wide ranging applications so those who lack this privileged form of knowledge must simply submit.” To turn the tables a bit, no female knows what it is like to be a man and live in knowledge that he is being judged by women if he is a misogynist; that every woman he meets carries metaphorical loaded hand gun. All they need to do is cry sexism and your life and career may be at risk. (Speaking as someone who got the cops called on him because a random stranger thought that I being verbally aggressive to a woman and that I called her a c*&*, which I did not.) Everyone has their issues and their realms of knowledge. This is why we have an open society so that all different types of views can make themselves heard.
Just so you should know I do read feminist literature. (I even get regular emails from NOW) I have a certain fetish for reading things that I am likely to disagree with strongly.

Miss S. said...

"This past week we got a visit from one of the administrators of Aspirations who spoke to us and told us in no uncertain terms that, while we were all adults and it was acceptable to talk about adult topics, jokes about rape would not be tolerated in the group."

Do you know what's really not funny? The blaring contradictions in the sentence above...

Tobie said...

A website that analyzes tropes in television ( pointed out that rape is never funny- unless it is rape of a man, by either a man or a woman. Rapes like that- prison rapes, for instance- is played consistently for laughs in shows that would never, ever, ever do anything similar with rape of women.

Nemhain said...

How you can consider those lines of Tito Andronicus as "funny" is beyond me. You clearly lack the necessary brain cells to understand the text. Let's see the context: They have just raped (humiliated a woman in a way that could cause her death by the hands of her own family, which was common then, and is still common among several cultures). They add insult to injury mocking her, but not as a funny act, but as a part of the torture they have just submitted her to. Where is the joke there? Where is the fun? You think that raping a woman, even i literature, and then cutting parts off her and mocking her suffering is "funny"? I suppose the Gestapo in the concentration camps would agree with you, most likely. Probably those guys in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo too, for sure. But I don't find the act of enjoying human suffering (which is what these two characters are doing here)as funny. Under any circumstances. Actually, those lines only caused horror and nausea in me. But fun? No. But what do you know? Perhaps as a woman from a Latin American country with thousands of desaparecidos, who endured rape and torture, I do not tend to find rape and torture and murder as fun topics. Probably Pinochet or Videla would, mind you. Personally, I really wouldn't enjoy to be in the company of people who find rape "funny". Torture never is, but then, it's just me...

Izgad said...


May I suggest that you watch the Julie Taymor film version of Titus Andronicus; Anthony Hopkins is in it. Taymor plays it for all of its darkly comedic value. Titus Andronicus, while it is listed as a tragedy, is a dark comedy full of murder, decapitations, rape, incest and cannibalism. The point of dark comedy is to treat really really horrible things as a joke. Obviously no sane person would find these things funny in real life. This is why fiction is so useful; it allows us the luxury and safety of confronting some really horrible things from perfect safety.

Anonymous said...

Might be interesting to check this link:
... regarding why the lyricist for the Fantasticks removed the rape song.

Izgad said...

Thank you for showing me this. I remember seeing the abduction song replacing the rape song in the film version which was a big disappointment. I think this is a good example of giving in to feminist blackmail. They wish to place rape in some special moral category and thus put women at the top of our grand pathetic societal game of victimhood. I have grandparents who are Holocaust survivors should they or me be allowed to get morally indignant about the Producers or Inglorious Bastards. “Nazis are not funny.” I am now going to stamp my foot, pout and feel morally superior to everyone.

For me humor is about confronting all the horrible things in life.

Watch the beginning of Terry Jones’ Erik the Viking. They have a “wonderful” rape scene.