Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Why Rape Jokes Aren't Funny

Some things just aren't funny.

You expected me to say that, didn't you?  Wrong.  I'm going to start with the TV show Firefly.

If you're not familiar with the show, it's sort of a western in space.  The main characters fly around in a space ship and buy and sell merchandise.  It's like a cinematic version of Elite.

If you don't know Elite either, you need to brush up on geek culture.

Anyway, in the last episode, a bounty hunter named Jubal Early breaks into the ship and tries to take one of the crew.  He threatens the ship's doctor with these words:
They make psychiatrists get psychoanalyzed before they can get certified, but they don't make a surgeon get cut on. That seem right to you?
I asked about those words at a party.  I met a therapist and asked him if he was required to be in therapy.  He told me no. 

"Well, sometimes I meet with other therapists to make sure my approach and methods are sound.  For example, if one of my patients kills themselves."

I asked if that happened to him often.

"A few times.  You know, sometimes people make jokes about suicide.  I don't think they're funny.  They make me sick to my stomach."

That's the crux of it.  Jokes are often pointed at painful moments in the past, but not when people are suffering in the present.  I'm pretty sure Jews didn't make jokes about the pogroms when they were being attacked.  I'm pretty sure Native Americans didn't make jokes about being given small pox infected blankets while they were coughing up blood.  I'm pretty sure American GIs didn't make jokes about exhaustion during the Bataan Death March.

Jokes aren't funny until the horror is long over.  It took 20 years before Hogan's Heroes could be made.  Even then, many survivors (and families of survivors) hated the show.  When Mel Brooks filmed The Producers, he made fun of Nazis and World War II, but avoided the Holocaust; when he made History of the World Part I, he had no problem with Inquisition jokes (even showing Jews being tortured).

Time matters.

A rape crisis has been going on for thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of years.  We've only recently started talking about it, analyzing it, trying to stop it.  In 2010 alone, there were 1.3 million rapes in the US.  That's just a guess; under-reporting makes it difficult to get an accurate count.  Victims often hide their abuse.  They've been taught to feel shame, to feel guilty, to feel it's their fault.

It's hard to find rape jokes funny if you're one of the millions of victims.  It's hard to them funny if your child has been raped, you wife has been raped, your brother has been raped, your friend has been raped.

Chances are you know a victim.  Chances are they didn't tell you.  Chances are they'll suffer from the aftereffects forever.

No matter how carefully crafted your joke is, no matter how much it makes you and your friends laugh, there's always someone who thinks it's horrible.

And they're right.

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