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There’s a Gordian knot of a conundrum that I’ve been trying to unpick for a long time. I think I may have finally untangled it and reached what I hope you will agree is an unarguable conclusion: The single most effective preventative measure to protect society from sexual and domestic abuse is a picture of a kitten.

You may be sceptical, but let me explain. Over the past couple of decades, access to the internet and other digital communication technologies has increased exponentially to become the most important and influential portal to information, entertainment and media since the invention of television. More than two thirds of Europeans use the internet once a week or more, and we’re still behind the Americans. This, I hope, is uncontroversial.

This revolution has blessed the world with communication and knowledge, but principally it has brought a limitless stash of pornography directly into the living rooms and bedrooms of the developed world.  Much of the human race is now just a couple of clicks away from any manner of nudity, erotica, hardcore fuck films, sadomasochism, bondage, cock and ball torture and enough depravity to make de Sade say sacre bleu!  Whatever individual tastes and fantasies one might have, there is a porn site somewhere that’s just for you. All the evidence is that large proportions of the population, including or especially younger people, have, to some extent, availed themselves occasionally or regularly of the opportunities on offer. I’d furnish you with statistics, but that would require me to Google the word “pornography” and I‘d never get this blog finished. Again, all of this is uncontroversial and so I hope you can take it on trust.

Since the 1960s and 70s there have been enormous efforts made by social scientists and researchers to establish whether exposure to pornography is harmful. Actually cancel that, it is not true. Since the 1960s and 70s there have been enormous efforts made by social scientists and researchers to prove that pornography is or is not harmful, in accordance with their prior assumptions. Pretty much every study that has ever set out to demonstrate harm has demonstrated harm, while virtually every study that has set out to demonstrate that there is no harm has demonstrated that there is no harm. Funny that.

There are genuine grounds for concern about the effects of pornography on the individual and their relationships, in terms of habitual and addictive behaviour, skewed perspectives on human sexuality, blisters on the palms of the hands and so on. But socially and politically, by far the most important question is whether exposure to pornography increases the likelihood that someone will commit violent and sexual crime, most obviously against women and girls. The role of porn, and more broadly a heavily sexualised culture, is cited constantly as a major factor in discussions of sexual and partner violence. In a speech to a meeting this Monday, Jon Cruddas MP placed the issue at the heart of the campaign to prevent violence against women and girls. The NSPCC did the same in relation to sexual abuse of children. A couple of years ago the last government ran a major consultation on domestic violence, and the only causative factor on which they invited comment was pornography and sexualisation.

What such claims ignore is that we are currently in the midst of a humungous real world experiment. If it is true that exposure to pornography is a significant cause of sexual violence and domestic abuse, we would surely expect to see the rates of such crimes rise in keeping with the prevalence of porn. What has happened? Here is a handy graph from the US National Victimization Survey – not reported crimes, but the world’s largest and most authoritative survey on actual trends in attacks over time. I’ve marked the point at which Tim Berners-Lee announced the development of the Hypertext Protocol for the World Wide Web – generally agreed to be the point where this internet stuff began in earnest.

rapedecline_graph

Perhaps there is something unique to the USA there, so let’s look at some different data, the British Crime Survey’s estimates of domestic abuse – again, a large and authoritative victim survey. This time I’ve mapped it against some stats for internet use. I realise they are global, not just UK, but they were the only ones I could find and it would stretch credibility to imagine the British trend has been notably different.DVdecline_graph

It is, as I said at the beginning, a conundrum. For decades we have been told authoritatively that exposure to pornography and the sexualisation of society causes people (or more commonly, men) to become rapists and abusers. And yet at a time when access to and consumption of pornography has increased exponentially, rates of sexual and interpersonal violence, including that against children have been plummeting according to pretty much every available measure.

For a long time, the mainstream feminist and political consensus has assured us that pornography leads to violence and abuse, and they can’t have been lying to us. Something else must be going on. Something has been happening, simultaneous to the pornographic revolution, which has had a powerful enough effect to not only cancel out the harms of porn, but push the overall rates of violence in precisely the opposite direction. So what is it? I propose to you that the answer is kittens. Yes, kittens.

It has been often observed that no matter what random words you type into Google image search, within the first few dozen results there will be a pornographic snap. What must be noted is that the precise same thing is true of pictures of kittens. Try it. What’s more, at least Google has a safe search option which significantly reduces your chances of encountering accidental porn, but there is no kitten filter. Once upon a time kittens were personal things, they lived in a cardboard box under our beds and if we took photos of them we would only rarely show them to special friends. If you wanted to buy a photo of a kitten you had to go to a specialist shop with a name like Athena. Now people are flashing them all over the internet without shame, even setting up webcams so complete strangers all over the world can coo over their kitties. They are ubiquitous, inescapable, and they have undoubtedly saved us from the horrors of Pornogeddon.

Is this credible? It must be. The only other explanation for the available data would be that actually the true causes of violent and sexual crime have little or nothing to do with exposure to erotic (or for that matter violent) media materials, and is much more to do with early socialisation, exposure to and experience of real world violence, emotional neglect, abuse and maltreatment within the family home. That theory would also be in keeping with the available data. Unfortunately it makes for less snappy and sexy soundbites. It’s just so much easier to blame the porn.

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The London Review of Books blog has taken note of the forthcoming anniversary reissue of The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath. In particular, they have noticed the cover – which appears to have been designed by the team responsible for Sophie Kinsella’s Sex & Shopping oeuvre. It really couldn’t be more inappropriate, disrespectful or, sorry but I have to say it, bloody hilarious. here it is alongside its more famous predecessor.

belljars

Once I’d stopped chuckling, I set to wondering whether it might be possible to design a book cover for a vintage feminist classic that would be even more crass, tasteless and wrong?

Well it turned out I couldn’t. But I gave it a good go. Can you do any better?

Second Sex

Gender Trouble

Intercourse

fatisafemiistissue

SCUM

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It’s the second time in a few days that I’ve had to open a blog like this, but I will leave it to (many, many) others to explain why Julie Burchill’s Observer column today is so offensive and hurtful to trans people. Just to be clear on where I stand, I think it is the most vile, hate-filled, bigoted rant I have ever read in either Guardian or Observer. It is as if she made a simple list of all the most offensive things one could say about trans people and wove them into a clumsy cowpat of prose. But the trans community are more than capable of speaking for themselves on that, so I would like to focus on something else.

Of the issues raised by Suzanne Moore’s Twitter meltdown last week, one that has I think been overlooked is the privilege of the commentariat. I touched on this last week, but events since have added whole new layers of significance. One of the odder remarks in Moore’s Guardian piece was when she criticised the feminist jargon of intersectionality, saying

“Intersectionality is good in theory, though in practice, it means that no one can speak for anyone else.”

In Burchill’s piece, she (presumably quite deliberately) begins by describing a lunch with Moore where they ate lobster and drank Bollinger champagne, before quickly reminding us that both women (along with Julie Bindel) are from working class backgrounds.

“She, the other JB and I are part of the minority of women of working-class origin to make it in what used to be called Fleet Street and I think this partly contributes to the stand-off with the trannies. (I know that’s a wrong word, but having recently discovered that their lot describe born women as ‘Cis’ – sounds like syph, cyst, cistern; all nasty stuff – they’re lucky I’m not calling them shemales. Or shims.) We know that everything we have we got for ourselves. We have no family money, no safety net. And we are damned if we are going to be accused of being privileged by a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs.”

Leaving aside the transphobic hate-speech, I think this is a fascinating glimpse into what Burchill (and presumably her friends) believe is meant by both class and privilege. She is saying class is something one is born into and that it is immutable. She believes the precise same of gender, conveniently enough. In recalling the lobster and champagne story, Burchill was, I think, explicitly telling us that she was born working class, and whatever expensive meals she might have eaten, she will die working class. By implication, if you’re born a man or a woman, you will stay that way whether you like it or not.

I think privilege is a useful concept in understanding ourselves in relation to the world, how we perceive and interpret people and situations around us. I do not doubt that the ways in which Burchill, Moore and Bindel see the world are heavily informed by their upbringing as working class women. However to really understand the world in relation to ourselves (which is not quite the same thing) we need to look not at privilege, but at power. It is not privilege which controls people, constrains people, oppresses people and discriminates against people, but power. A straight white male may have privileges, but he does not necessarily have power (although for obvious reasons they often coincide). Your boss has power, political and religious leaders have power, your abusive partner has power, and their power is not necessarily lessened by their ethnicity, gender or sexuality. A working class entrepreneur turned billionaire corporate boss may not have been born into privilege, but it would be ridiculous to say that he (or theoretically she) does not have immense power. When Julie Burchill says she is not privileged it is no less ridiculous then when Lord Alan Sugar says much the same.

Whether they have attained their position through talent and hard work or old school ties and nepotism, star newspaper columnists wield enormous power. They can not only help to shape news agendas and public discourse. They have the power to brighten the day or ruin the week of millions of readers. More specifically, they can choose to wield that power to incite or (more commonly) validate the hatred and bigotry of others, which can have a direct influence on the safety and quality of life of their targets.

It’s almost got lost amid the nonsense, but the at heart of this dispute over the past six days has been the allegation that there is a “powerful lobby” of trans activists who control the debate, stifle freedom of speech and bully opponents into silence. Quite obviously, if the lobby were that powerful neither Burchill’s article nor Moore’s before it would ever have been published and the types of horrors uncovered by the #TransDocFail hashtag would be history.

To the best of my knowledge, trans activists have no powerful allies in the establishment or politics. They have no financial backing to speak of. They have little influence over cultural norms and discourse, or the setting of the political and social agenda. Just about the only weapon they have at their disposal is anger. The anger directed by (some) activists towards Moore, Burchill and Bindel comes from a position of virtual powerlessness. Sure, the outbursts of a few dozen angry activists can ruin a newspaper columnist’s day, perhaps make them feel picked upon and sorry for themselves and earn the tut-tutting sympathy of their friends. The anger of a newspaper columnist, on the other hand, can poison the air for millions.

While I acknowledge and unequivocally condemn nasty trolling, bigoted hatred and needless personal abuse, I have never had much sympathy for journalists at any level who complain about the negative feedback and genuine anger they encounter online. I’m not just talking about the Three Sisters of transphobic feminism here, Robert Fisk was talking just as much nonsense the other day and similar issues come up whenever powerful journalists discuss civility in discourse. It is as if they want all politics to be conducted by the rules of a debate at the Oxford Union, which is entirely alien to a large proportion of the population and always has been. There is hypocrisy in it too – I rarely see complaints about the compliments, fawning praise and adulation that also come with interactive media. It’s not just that the negative is the price to be paid for the positive, it is that it is an essential counterbalance.

Few things make us humans more angry than someone co-opting our voices, speaking for us without our blessing or consent. Anger is the weapon of the weak against the strong, the powerless against the powerful. That doesn’t always make it correct or justified (BNP, EDL or Hizb Ut Tahrir activists are angrier than anyone) but it makes it explicable. People get angry with journalists, and columnists in particular, because of our power, not our privilege. The irony, if you haven’t noticed, is that if we go back a week to the first article by Suzanne Moore that kicked this off, she made almost the precise same point. Forgive me for ending on a cliché, but they do say to be careful what you wish for.

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(Originally published on The Good Men Project)

You’re a thoughtful, intelligent kind of guy. You’re interested in issues of gender, and masculinity in particular. Who knows, you’ve maybe even read a book or two. Well done. I’ve read quite a lot of books about gender too, and yes, I have learned a thing or two from them. Take Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, for example, in which I learned that gender is performative: no identity exists behind the acts that supposedly “express” gender, and these acts constitute, rather than express, the illusion of the stable gender identity.

OK I’m lying, I cribbed that from Wikipedia. In truth I got to about p.50 of Gender Trouble and realised that I hadn’t taken in a word of what had been said because I was daydreaming about the zombie apocalypse. I already knew gender was performative. I learned that aged about 15 when I first saw the Hammer schlock Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde. You see, Judith Butler is all very well, but her books would be so much more engaging with a gratuitous shower scene and a couple of spectacular decapitations.

It would be a stretch to say that everything I know about gender I learned from trashy horror movies, but hell, it’s Halloween, so I’ll say it anyway: Everything I know about gender I learned from trashy horror movies. Feminists picked up on this long ago. You could paper the walls of the Bates Motel with every undergraduate or doctoral thesis that has been written on feminist horror movies: Alien; Cat People; Ginger Snaps; you know the script. Much less has been written on what the genre tells us about men and masculinities. You might conclude that men have got better things to be doing with their lives, but I’m living proof that at least one of us does not. So to guide you through the spookiest night of the year, here are the top eight lessons for men to be gleaned from monster movies.

8. Look after your mum (but don’t be a dick about it)
Key text: Braindead (aka Dead Alive)

Mothers, eh? They go through sheer hell carrying you and bearing you into the world, raise you and nurture you for a couple of decades or so, and then just when you’re ready to hook up with a nice girl and slash the apron strings, she gets herself bitten by a Sumatran rat-monkey and goes all zombie on your ass. We’ve all been there.

In this 1992 Kiwi gorefest by Peter Jackson (who doesn’t seem to make zombie movies these days, so officially residing in the ‘where are they now?’ file), Lionel tries to do the right thing. He stands up for Mum even when she’s chewing on a local German Shepherd. “Oh my God your mother ate my dog!” his neighbour exclaims. “Not all of it” Lionel retorts defensively.

Inevitably though, there comes a time when you have to take a firm stance.  When your beloved mum crosses a line, which may be meddling with your love life, digging out those embarrassing baby bath photographs, or feasting on the gizzards of your friends, it is time to stand your ground. Assert your independence, tell her where you stand, and if all else fails, dismember her zombie minion hordes with a lawnmower.

7. Trust your buddies
Key text: American Werewolf in London.

David and Jack are a couple of good guys who do good things together as good mates should. They go travelling together, go rambling in the wilderness, stop off for a pint in the local pub, get savaged by a werewolf on the way home. As you do.

When this happens to you, it is important to remember that you shouldn’t forget your friendship, even when your pal has returned to haunt you as a reanimated corpse. Friends give the best advice, and they’re often speaking from experience, so when your buddy advises you that you’re about to turn into a wolf and munch your way through the next full moon, he may just know what he’s talking about. Listen to him.

6. Beware the beast inside.
Key text: The Wolf Man

And talking of lycanthropy, 1941 original The Wolf Man is perhaps the creepiest horror movie ever made, and not in a good way. The real action begins when Lon Chaney Jr spies on the lovely Evelyn Ankers through a telescope as she tries on jewellery in her bedroom. He then crosses the road to her antiques shop and asks to buy a pair of earrings which he now knows she keeps in her bedroom. Dude, that is not cool. Really, not cool at all. What were you thinking?  He then asks her out – three times. She says no – three times.  He ignores her and sneaks up behind her at night after work and demands she comes with him. At the risk of becoming boring, DUDE, THIS IS NOT COOL!  If you behave like this, frankly you have nobody to blame but yourself when you get bitten by Bela Lugosi and start howling at the moon in a savage, hairy, mouth-foaming torrent of animalistic lust and end up getting brained with a silver-top cane. You’ll get no sympathy from me.

5.   Looks ain’t everything
Key text: Nosferatu

It is a truth universally acknowledged that chicks dig vampires. I’ve never really seen it myself, but a billion screaming Twilight fans can’t be wrong. The bloodsucking undead certainly get the dishiest casting – before Robert Pattison there were Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, and before those Christopher Lee and Bela Lugosi brought tall, handsome, brooding sexuality to their piercing glare.

But the original (and still the best) vampire movie was Nosferatu, which portrayed a very different vampiric ideal. I had a girlfriend once who was obsessed with the imagery of this film, and she would go weak at the knees when the menacing but charismatic Max Schleck crept up the shadowy staircase. If some women weren’t attracted to pasty-faced goblins with wonky ears and bad teeth the world would be a duller place, and I’d probably still be a virgin.

4. Hate begets hatreds
Key text: Candyman

I’m not the biggest fan of slasher movies, which mostly exist to teach kids that if you have sex, drink beer and smoke pot you will certainly be disembowelled by an axe-wielding maniac sometime in the next 90 minutes. Call me a wishy-washy liberal, but that seems a tad excessive to me.  I do however make an exception for Candyman. Not only is the eponymous anti-hero the dangnabbin’ coolest damned mass-murdering ghost in all of cinema, he’s also the most sympathetic.  In all honesty, if I’d been a slave who was gruesomely tortured to death for no greater sin than falling in love with a woman of the wrong colour, I’d be pretty damned pissed off about it too, even if it was 200 years ago. No, I won’t “get over it” thank you very much. If you need me to explain this in any more detail, just look in a mirror and say my name five times. If I don’t appear, try saying ‘Candyman’ instead. I dare you.

3. Love doesn’t conquer all, power tools do.
Key text: The Evil Dead

This really shouldn’t need spelling out, but when you’ve got a big old crush on a girl and you’ve managed to persuade her to come with you and your friends to a cabin in the woods, then she gets possessed by the demons you’ve accidentally released from the depths of hell and loses all interest in you, you must accept it is over. Move on. Don’t be a damned fool about it. When the time comes to bury that relationship, don’t be half-assed about it. Get jiggy with the chainsaw and put that baby out of its demonic misery sooner rather than later, or no good will come of it in the end. I should point out I am speaking metaphorically here. Very, very, very metaphorically indeed.

2.  Sex workers are people too. Even when they are zombies.
Key text: Zombie Strippers

You might imagine that Zombie Strippers starring Jenna Jameson and Robert Englund is a trashy sexploitation flick mostly made up of lengthy stripping and soft-porn sequences, possibly concluding with an eye-popping reinvention of the legendary Bangkok ping-pong ball trick. Well guess what? You’d be completely right. But as it happens (and I suspect entirely accidentally) Zombie Strippers is also the most ball-bustingly feminist trashy sexploitation flick ever made.

Don’t believe me? When one stripper at the seedy underground Rhino Strip Club is infected with a military-grade zombie virus, her performances take on a certain demonic quality. The customers love it. Her tips go through the roof as not only various parts of her costume but various parts of her body drop to the floor. Seeing what has happened, the other strippers start to queue up to become infected too. In order to become better at their work, they quite literally dehumanize themselves, by choice. Whether or not it looks like a smart choice to you or me is irrelevant. Should you be so bold as to try to “save” them from themselves, you’re likely end up as a zombie stripper supper.

1. Be a good dad.
Key text: Frankenstein.

The author of the original Frankenstein novel, Mary Shelley, was raised by a single father after her mother, the feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft, died in childbirth. That’s a pretty heavy psychological burden to carry through life and when aged only 19, the younger Mary poured all her anguish into the classic parable of birth and death.

James Whale’s magnificent 1931 adaptation captured the essence of Shelley’s book and presented it as a devastating morality tale about bad parenting.  There is no greater honour, and no greater responsibility, than bringing a life into the world. If you fail to do your duty, if you reject your progeny and cast it out into the world adrift, unsupported and unprepared, people might consider it a monster, and you little better. Don’t come whining to me when an angry mob of villagers turn up at your castle with flaming torches and pitchforks. You asked for it.

Author’s note:  Neither the author nor the publisher endorse or recommend the use of dismemberment, immolation or psychogenic exorcism as a lifestyle option or a solution to relationship problems. Please ensure all friends, lovers or acquaintances are confirmed zombies before decapitation. Always read the instructions before handling a chainsaw. 

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Hello dear friends, flakes and passers by. I’ve been rather neglecting this blog in recent weeks, what with this that and the next thing. I’ve got a few things brewing that may become a post or two in the near future, but for now, here are a few of the things I’ve been up to in recent weeks.

For the New Statesman, I’ve been talking about gendered marketing of products.

Capitalist producers and public consumers have a symbiotic relationship. Each plays their role in creating demands to be supplied, manufacturing needs to be met. At a crude level, marketeers and advertisers will only produce such guff because enough of us indulge their campaigns with our custom. Our purchases add up to our public personae, and of course our gender is a key component of our identity. As autonomous adults we can choose the extent to which we want to play along with such constructions. It is rather more troubling when companies like Argos start prescribing gender roles to infants with strictly demarcated Toys for Boys and Toys for Girls.

Meanwhile I had a bit of fun over on Comment is Free with the pressing question of whether or not men should sit down to have a pee.

At my primary school, we boys vied for pecking position via the traditional routes of fighting, football and fabricating extravagant fibs, but there was something else. Lined up afore the trough urinal in the toilets, we discovered a crucial test of manhood: the ability to pee skywards. The class weaklings could barely defeat gravity. I was proud to occasionally reach the words “Armitage Shanks” while a few warriors could clear the porcelain and decorate the tiles.

And then there was Phillip. Phillip was no ordinary Scots wean. He was a superhero, a god amongst miniature men. Phillip could squirt a volley which would rise a good six feet in the air before arcing with exquisite accuracy out of the open window. It was spectacular – I swear he must have mastered top spin. That is how the boys learned: there is direct route from bladder to masculine prestige, and the girls learned not to loiter by the big bins at playtime

Still at Cif, I picked up on David Cameron’s bizarre use of the word ‘butch’ in attempting to insult Ed Miliband at Prime Minister’s Questions.

The linking of political competence with masculinity is rather problematic. Feminists will be rightly annoyed by the implications – our political class is less healthy for its uniformity and throwaway jokes like this only reinforce the perception that parliamentary democracy is a club for boys. Men too should be perturbed that the prime minister thinks masculinity is a function of hierarchical status – real men don’t fetch coffee. Actually Dave, yes we do. Men who carry coffee, make coffee, work for a boss or unthinkingly volunteer to conduct routine chores for ourselves and our colleagues are no less manly for that. Elsewhere on Comment is free, Sali Hughes rightly castigates the media for using the phrase “real women” to validate some female physiques over others, but the “real men” trope is in many ways as harmful and, in fact, far more pervasive (definitive proof here). If “real” women are expected to conform to specific physical ideals, “real” men are expected to adhere to a constricting and damaging gendered model of behaviour and lifestyle – domineering, aggressive and, of course, strictly heterosexual.

Any thoughts?

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What is the job of a comedian? To make us laugh, you say?

I disagree.

Laughter is but one skill of their trade. Saying a comedian’s job is to make us laugh is like saying a taxi driver’s job is to turn a steering wheel. No. Like the cabbie, the comic’s job is to take us somewhere. A great comic can make us think afresh, help us to see the world and our lives from a different angle. Comedians are no different in that sense from novelists, painters, film-makers, poets or any other creative artists.

That’s not to say all comedy should deal in matters of political significance or philosophical profundity. The absurdities of our language, bodily functions or a trip to the supermarket are just as valid as Mark Thomas’s systematic 90 minute deconstruction of the machinations of a petrochemical multinational. But whatever their shtick , comedians should be (and usually are) aware that they are taking their audience somewhere, however happy, sad or dark that place may be. I don’t go to see Stewart Lee or Doug Stanhope to be taken to a happy place, and I don’t go to see Michael McIntyre or Patrick Kielty… actually that sentence ends there.

I believe comedians, like all artists, should take some responsibility for where their journey ends. Fare, please, don’t forget the tip.

My timeline this morning was filled with not one but two Twitter furores (Twittores?) about rape jokes. In an LA club, Comedy Central star Daniel Tosh had reportedly replied to a heckle saying rape jokes are never funny by pointing at the heckler and asking “wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now?” In a subsequent, and it must be said half-hearted apology, Tosh claimed it was out of context, adding in the obligatory 140 characters: “the point i was making before i was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them. #deadbabies.”

I’d scarcely caught up with that story when I heard the rumblings of a new Twitterstorm, this time with Richard Herring at the eye. Wait a minute… Richard Herring? Richard Herring? The impeccably PC, comedic scourge of discrimination and prejudice has made a rape joke? Really?

Well, to be accurate, Richard Herring had made a not-rape joke. In an interview with the Metro paper, he recalled a put-down he’d once used against an annoyingly loquacious heckler: “You’re the one woman in the world where a man would put Rohypnol in your drink and then leave you in the pub,” he’d said. What Herring meant, as he attempted vainly to explain to his Twitter followers, was that Rohypnol would be a handy way to shut the heckler up. The way it was understood, by at least some of his detractors, was ‘You’re so ugly you couldn’t even get raped.’ To return to our analogy, cabbie Herring intended to take his passengers to the station, but took a wrong turn and dumped them in the canal. I despise the modern trend of the ritual public apology but I’d like to believe, at least in private, Richard is thinking: “whoops.”

One of my favourite things on the internet is a YouTube channel called “If Websites were people” and in particular their delicious skewering of fauxminist magazine Jezebel. One of the best moments shows the Jezebel character in a restaurant. Her date says “I’m starving” and she eyes him suspiciously: “was that a rape joke?” she asks. Despite being genuinely concerned about humour which makes light of rape, or which trivialises or mocks the experience of victims, I’m also concerned about the McCarthyite zeal with which the evil rape joke is hunted down and its author persecuted into repentance and contrition.

I was in a comedy club just last week, and my favourite act by far was young and (I hope) rising pottymouth comedian. In her set, she made a joke about being fistfucked in her sleep by a violent, butch lesbian bully. I won’t reveal the punchline, because I think you should go see her for yourself if you can. Suffice to say I laughed like a howler monkey, and so did the entire room around me. I’d lay long odds that the South Manchester audience was 90% educated, leftish, pro-feminist Guardian readers, but how many got up from their seats in disgust, or booed or hissed or heckled? Precisely none. I doubt any of us stopped to think, hey, was that a rape joke? The answer, unlike Richard Herring’s effort, was an unquestionable yes, but we were too busy laughing to notice.

Context matters, not just in the intention but in the comprehension. You could grade rape jokes in order of acceptability according to who is being raped, who is doing the raping, and who is telling the joke: man; woman; victim; rapist.

One of the clichés of this debate is that the question should not be ‘is it offensive’ but ‘is it funny.’ I don’t think that is enough. From a moral and political view, it is not just whether the joke is funny, but where the humour takes us. The comedian I saw last week didn’t take her audience anywhere they weren’t happy to visit. Richard Herring took his somewhere that neither he nor most of his audience intended to go. Daniel Tosh, on the other hand, appears to have known exactly where he was going: he was using the cultural power of rape to take his audience, and a specified target in particular, into a slightly more fearful, hate-filled, uncomfortable world. For what my opinions are worth, I find that pretty loathsome.

All artists, in whatever medium, should be aware of their own responsibilities, but their primary responsibility is to their own art and their own consciences. It makes no more sense to me to argue that a comedian should never mention rape than it would to argue that a novelist should do the same. Comedy is an appropriate vehicle for any issue, but that doesn’t mean any joke is appropriate. In attempting to witch-hunt rape jokes out of existence, feminists risk stifling a popular medium, on a vitally important topic. I believe, reluctantly, that artists of all stripes need to be free to make the world a darker, nastier place with their writing, their work or their performance, but they should also be prepared to accept the inevitable response. Whether the topic is rape, dead babies or skipping to the supermarket, a joke is never just a joke – it’s a journey.

Epilogue

When I wrote and published this, I hadn’t quite anticipated just how big the Tosh story was going to get. It seems every man, woman and dog has now stated their piece about the case, with many good points along the way. In among the piles of pixels, there were two pieces in particular I saw which stood out for me. Lindy West again proved herself the jewel in Jezebel’s purse with How To Make A Rape Joke   – which manages to be not only insightful but funny (see, it can be done) while poet/rapper El Guante cuts right to the heart of the issue in his blog here.  Go see.

 

QUICK UPDATE

I’ve had a message from the comedian I was praising in the original edit of this article. She’s just got a new day job and has asked me to take her name off this. I’ve left the content in, but edited out her name. Hope no harm has been done and very much hope she doesn’t give up the night job!

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