I recently read the incredible book of essays, Shrill, by Lindy West. West has been a staple of my gender, sexuality and new media course since she appeared on This American Life to discuss her experience being trolled online, and her book has really made me think a lot about some of the ways in which our culture, and especially our media, tries to simplify the rather complex ideas of feminism. I will, no doubt, write more posts about this book.
The biggest issue on my mind today, however, is the discussion of rape culture. West famously took on the issue of rape jokes in stand-up comedy and forced a lot of people, especially the men who dominate the comedy world, to think differently on the subject.
A little bit about where I was in this conversation, first. I research and write about dark humor. It is a passion of mine. It is one of my favorite things to watch/read. The Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Flannery O’Connor and Fannie Flagg are some of my favorite writers. I always wince a little at most dark jokes, internally, but part of the fun, for me, is overcoming that wince. I truly do believe that comedy can actually lead to real change in the world, and none so well as the darkly comic. Rape jokes, clearly, fall under dark humor, and I always do wince. I take them as part and parcel of the thing I love, much like West took them, and other aspects of gender violence as acceptable in the comedy world.
She is a comedy expert, whether her detractors accept this or not, and she writes so eloquently about how much at home she has felt in comedy clubs among comedians, and how foreign she feels, as well. I’ve only ever been to a comedy club once, and that experience was akin to the latter aspect of her association with comedy. Comedy culture is a boy’s club. That was nothing new to me. But the comedy club setting was a real wake-up call.
A friend got four free tickets to a comedy club and we went, all girls, all excitement, all dolled up, on a night when a comedian that I had always heard and loved on my morning radio show was performing. I mistakenly assumed that his humor would be just as funny, if not more funny, live. It was not. What it was, was misogynistic, hateful and crude. Remember, I like dark comedy, so “hateful” and “crude” are not always bad words to me. But the misogyny was palpable. He degraded women, not just as a theory, but actual women in the audience. I will never forget watching one woman in the front row, clearly on a date, pretend to laugh at his ridicule and overly sexual references to her as her date laughed heartily and with abandon.
Most women, in fact, were laughing, but I doubt that any of them were sincere. In fact, the only women in the club who weren’t laughing were at my table. We were too close to the stage to get up and walk out, terrified of drawing attention to ourselves and being the butt of his nasty sense of humor, so we stayed. The comedian was smart enough to recognize to leave us alone until the very end, when he loudly called one of my friends a bitch for getting caught up in the only fun aspect of the night (finishing the lyrics to Barry Manilow songs), but that’s a story for another time.
So, yes, I recognized West’s authority about the sensibility of the night club as very real. I had experienced it. So her description and defense of what it must have been like for the woman who dared to stand up to Daniel Tosh for his rape joke took on a whole new life for me. I had been one of those people who, if not supportive of the rights of comics to make rape jokes, unwilling to condemn. In this book, West changed my mind. She pointed out the punching up theory of comedy, where it’s only acceptable to make fun of people whose status is above your own. By making fun of people who are “below” them (less privilege, less autonomy, less social standing) comedians are just being mean spirited. She compares it to the CEO of a company making fun of the janitor for not being able to feed his family.
She sure convinced me. And she actually convinced a lot of others too. She writes about a discussion between radio shock jocks Opie and Anthony (the latter of whom was later arrested for assaulting his girlfriend) and their guest, Jim Norton, who disagree with her. They actually admit, grudgingly, that “rape culture” might exist:
I have blogged before about rape in the media, specifically the way that rape is used as a crutch to make women more interesting, and one of the most egregious offenders was Game of Thrones where Sansa is raped and the audience experiences the scene through the eyes of her step-brother, denoting that rape is even more offensive if seen through the eyes of a man (a criticism they’ve refused to accept).
This is not a new phenomenon. Throughout the years, many people have implored men to consider several “what if’s” such as what if it were your daughter/wife/mother? I even remember being very impressed on a television show when a man apologized for approaching a woman in a dark parking garage late at night because he has daughters and understands the fear he must have inflicted. But there are lots of others who have called bullshit on this type of appeal to men. You don’t have to have a mother/sister/daughter to understand that rape is wrong. You don’t have to try to empathize with the fear a woman lives with every time she leaves her house to find rape repulsive anymore than you have to empathize with a parent whose child has died to be angry about the injustice of someone dying so young. Hell, most parents cannot fathom what that must feel like. But there is a way that a man can.
The fact of the matter is, cisgendered men don’t have a clue what it’s like to be a woman in American society. Some startlingly true revelations from my own life:
When I was in college I had so many friends confide in me that they had been raped that I actually sat down and counted it out. Over 50% of my female friends/acquaintances had done so. And that was of the ones who actually told me. Most of them hadn’t told many other people, if any, least of all the police. Why? Because most of these rapes were acquaintance/date rapes. They had “allowed” themselves to be alone with the guy. They had “chosen” to wear revealing clothes. They had lead him on. Even these beautiful and strong (yes, many were strong and confident women) couldn’t help but second guess their own choices, the same way we all do when we face tragedy (If I had only left one hour earlier I wouldn’t have been at that specific spot when that deer on the side of the road jumped out in front of my car!). If they could find reason to victim-blame themselves, what chance did they have with the police? Especially campus police!
As a college professor, and a feminist, I often have reason during the semester to ask my co-ed classes this question: “Ladies, what do you do if you have to walk to your car late at night?” The answers are always the same:
“Hold pepper spray in one hand and keys in the other.”
“Hold my keys in my fist with the sharp points out like a weapon!”
“Check under the car before approaching it.”
“Never approach your car if a van’s parked next to the driver’s door – or climb through the passenger side!”
“Check the back seat before getting in!”
“Always park by a light.”
“Try to be on your cellphone or have 911 ready to dial.”
The men in the class look on shocked and dismayed. Most had never been told any of these things. Ever. We’ve been told these things since we were able to understand “stranger danger.” Of course, just like “stranger danger,” these “lessons” are actually counterproductive. Like “stranger danger” they teach us that the danger is from strangers who lurk in the shadows, even though significantly more women get raped by people they know and trust (just like kids get molested and kidnapped by trusted adults in their lives more than strangers). But most of the men in my class are just stunned. And for many of them, this is a real eye-opening experience for them. Suddenly, they seem aware of their own privilege and our real vulnerability.
West writes about this deeply ingrained fear in her book as well, specifically when she discusses how a woman might actually be legitimately afraid in a claustrophobic night club full of drinking men who find the idea of rape funny and the comedian on stage is encouraging them to gang rape her. Yes, I know. Tosh didn’t really mean that. But does it matter what he meant when women are brought up with the idea of the “gift of fear.” We’re never supposed to let our guard down. Ever. And a crowded club with a famous person on stage is not an exception. I remember watching The Accused in theaters when I was 14 years old and watching Jodie Foster being raped on a pool table (a true story).
I remember watching Dreamworlds, where the rape scene in The Accused juxtaposed with clips of MTV music videos depicting violence against women to show how we’ve become desensitized to the idea, in my Mass Communications class in college. There is no safety in crowds. Not for women.
So, you may ask, what’s your point? What do you mean by “Rape Culture is Important to Men, Too?” Where are we going with this?
There is one place that almost every man can “imagine” what it’s like to be a woman in this world: prison. Unfortunately, the very cruel and unusual punishment of rape has become so commonplace in prisons that it’s the butt of jokes itself (I wonder if prisoners find those jokes funny). So, I implore men not to think of their mother/daughter/sister when they think about rape and rape culture. I implore them to think about prison. Think about what it must be like to walk down those halls on your first day when you have no friends yet. No one to watch your back. Revisit films and television shows with rape shower scenes that make you want to shit your pants. Try this one from Oz that appropriately takes place on a pool table, too:
Was that guy cocky? Sure. Did he deserve to be raped? Were his clothes too revealing? Was he “asking for it?” What would you do in that situation?
You see, what this scene, and so many others like it, demonstrates is that rape is not about sex. It is about power. One character wants to show the other character that he’s the powerful one so he rapes the other man. This is exactly what rape is like for women. It is a forced intrusion into our bodies by an angry man who fears and loathes her. It is not sex. It is not pleasurable. It is a violation, pure and simple, of a human being’s body and soul.
If you don’t believe that rape culture exists, chances are really good that you’re a white man whose been living with his head in the ground and whose most recent pop culture references are Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds. There’s not much I can say to you that will make you agree. But if you are a man who is living in this world in 2016 who is aware of the culture around you, and you tell yourself that rape is awful because it hurts someone you know and/or love, please reconsider. Rape is awful because it exists. It’s a real thing and it can happen to you, really anywhere, but especially in prison. But it happens so rarely outside of prison that it probably doesn’t enter your mind that much. If you were in prison, though, you would know a little something about what it is to live as a woman in America in 2016. It’s terrifying. It’s pervasive. It’s a dehumanizing way to live.