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The long, wearisome cultural argument about rape jokes appears to be reaching a tipping point.
To sum up this debate: On the one side, we have the points made by feminists. The argument on this side is nuanced, well-researched and complicated, drawing from decades of theory, but it tends to go as follows: First, while comedy is a wild beast that can rarely be mapped out or summarized with schematic ideological arguments, comedians (like all entertainers) have the power to contribute to widespread cultural assumptions. Second, jokes that mock rape victims contribute to rape culture — a culture that normalizes sexual assault to such an extent that it becomes socially riskier to identify as a survivor than to commit the sexual assault itself.
On the other hand, we have the arguments of comedians who enjoy telling rape jokes. These arguments are less well-thought out, less well-researched and invariably go as follows: Comedy is a magical, special place where you get to say whatever you want and nobody can say anything about it, so shut up, The End. Every joke is sacred! Every joke is good! Every joke is needed, in your neighborhood!
The conversation has been in this particular stalemate for quite some time. Yet the ongoing feminist conversation about rape jokes has been gaining purchase in fairly high-profile quarters — and, thankfully, more and more comedians have been willing to take a less absolutist, pro-rape-joke stance.
The latest comedian to demonstrate his common sense in public? None other than Curb Your Enthusiasm and Arrested Development veteran Jeff Garlin. In a recent New York Times Magazine interview with Adam Sternbergh, Garlin broke down his thoughts on “a recent controversy” (which, full disclosure, I may have started) with a genuinely delightful degree of self-awareness and intelligence:
[Sternbergh]: How about fans tweeting or blogging about what they’ve seen at a show? One such incident led to a recent controversy over comedians making rape jokes. Can those kinds of jokes ever be funny?
[Garlin]: Comedians sometimes forget that there’s an audience. You gotta be conscious that you’re performing for other human beings. A comedian has no right to do rape jokes. Excuse me, I take that back. He does have a right to do rape jokes. But there are no rights for him in terms of not paying a price for it.
[Sternbergh]: So you don’t buy this argument that there’s some sort of sanctity to the stand-up stage? That anything goes?
[Garlin]: No. The word “sanctity” and stand-up comedy? The only thing that I demand of the audience is that they listen to what I’m saying. Other than that, they owe me nothing. They don’t owe me a thing.
Well, we may not owe him anything, but, as with Patton Oswalt’s recent disclosure that he “was. Fucking. Wrong” about the rape joke issue, Garlin has generated a substantial amount of goodwill nonetheless. He is right: Comedians are entertainers, entertainers require audiences, and the moment that an entertainer considers the thoughts and feelings of his audience to be irrelevant to his choices, he has failed. Audiences don’t owe their entertainers much, except the obligation to consider them, but comedians can’t write off the hurt or anger of their audiences without writing themselves out of a job.
As more comedians come forward with these statements, the old stalemate on rape jokes may begin to crumble, and a genuinely nuanced understanding of artists’ position in the culture may begin to take its place. In the meantime, there’s Garlin’s new movie, Dealin’ With Idiots, entering theaters. As always, voting with your dollars may be the best way to show support for comedians who are willing to encounter this issue with honesty, integrity and an openness to the changing world.
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Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.