Does A Comic's Joke About Rape Speak to A Larger Problem?

Perhaps you've caught wind of the mess involving a former Second City employee in Chicago who told a story on an open mic. In the story, a slightly drunk female customer gives a Second City waiter her number and tells him to call her. The waiter has a girlfriend, isn't interested, and passes the number off to the "joke"-teller. He calls the woman, pretending to be the waiter, and she invites him over. When he shows up, clearly not the man she was expecting, she tells him to leave. He tricks her into letting him stay long enough to use the phone, and takes advantage of her open hotel door (a moment that prompts him to say "Bingo!") and forces himself inside. As she repeatedly tells him to leave, they end up on the bed. He assures the audience she's physically stronger than him. They end up having sex. When it's over, she again asks him to leave, and he finally does.

You can watch the video of this monologue here (WARNING: it is very disturbing, and I kind of wish I hadn't watched it.)

The most obvious problem is that he's describing an account of rape. It might be fictional, but he's still describing rape as funny. (And I don't want to hear the defense that it's not actually rape, which is what many commenters on these different articles are arguing. The woman said "No." He forced himself in and had sex with her. That's rape.)

Jezebel discusses these problems. Blue milk does a great job of talking about how the incident is indicative of a larger cultural problem that allows rape to be viewed as acceptable, even humorous. These are serious issues, and I'm glad the discussion is taking place. In fact, the spread of this video through blogs has led to a police investigation and the man losing his job.

It has also generated important discussions about consent, legal clarity, etc. In addition, it opens up some interesting issues with open speech and social media. This NPR article by Linda Holmes uses the incident to take a look at these issues. Holmes is interested in the way that the openness of social media like Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. changes the way we tailor our delivery for different audiences:

But who you are talking to no longer has anything to do with who you think you're talking to. You can tell a story to your narrow circle a hundred times and have nobody bat an eyelash, but the minute you step outside that circle, everything is completely different. And that can underscore the way that a sudden explosion of your audience can give what you say a completely unexpected reception.

This is not a new issue; it's just a new spin on it. The problem of authorial intention and audience perception is as old as speech. The moment your thoughts leave the protective bubble of your own mind, you no longer have complete control over them. The audience becomes complicit in the interpretation. Some of your audience won't get the same meaning you intended. Some audience members will get something else from it entirely. Sometimes the responsibility for this misinterpretation lies with them: they don't have the necessary former knowledge, they didn't listen very carefully, they don't have the same vocabulary. Sometimes it lies with you: you assumed too much about your audience, you didn't speak (or write) clearly, you gave a faulty example. Sometimes it's a combination of the two. So, of course, when your potential audience becomes anyone with internet access, you're opening yourself up to this risk ten-fold. What does this have to do with this rape monologue? Holmes explains:

If Eric thought telling this story in public would open up a serious public back-and-forth about whether this is a story of sexually assaulting this woman, he wouldn't have done it. He thinks he looks cool in this story, and indeed, a certain number of people in the audience keep laughing the whole time.

He had the wrong expectations for his audience. He expected them to respond like his friends, and some of them did, but most of them didn't. The comedians on the stage frequently point out that this sounds like assault, but he just keeps going. By the end, many in the audience are booing. And those are just the people who were there with comedy in mind. Now his monologue is being linked on feminist blogs, and these audience members are even further from the audience he assumed he had. Holmes concludes with this:

Certainly, the fact that he told this story may be a good thing if it gets somebody to deal with whatever is going on here, whether there's But the idea that there's a guy who thinks this story makes him look good, who apparently had no idea that other people would think it made him look like a criminal, or at best a revolting heel, makes me wish video had never been invented, because part of me just didn't want to know.

And I get her point. I wish I hadn't seen the video, but my wish is different. I don't wish that it hadn't been videotaped for me to see. I don't wish that the audience at the comedy club had stopped the man before he finished by illustrating just how disturbing it was. I don't even wish that the man had the sense to recognize his audience was different and not tell the story in the first place. I wish that I hadn't seen the video because I wish that there wasn't a man who thought a rape story was funny, and (if it's a true story) I certainly wish it hadn't happened.

While Holmes laments that the internet's openness sacrifices gatekeepers and exposes us to filth, I'm a little glad. It's only when we see what people are truly thinking and doing that we can call for change. It's easy to dismiss the feminist movement as a moot argument if all you see are carefully edited stories demonstrating equality. It's easy to dismiss racism as a thing of the past if all you get are carefully crafted images of our biracial president and the increasingly multi-racial interactions of everyday people.

Smothering overt signs of oppression makes it much harder to recognize the more pervasive, and therefore, more dangerous, subtle ones. If you don't know that Americans still scream racial epithets at their neighbors, you're less likely to listen to complaints that black children are getting sub-par educational opportunities. If you don't know people think rape is funny, you're less likely to take seriously claims that perfume ads objectify women. If you don't know millions of people think oppressive thoughts, it's easy to think oppression isn't happening. The subtle is easy to ignore, and these are subjects most of us would rather not have to think about.

Shutting down the video cameras doesn't shut down the beliefs, and it's the beliefs I fear, not the documentation of them.

Balancing Jane: PhD student. Educator. Mother. Wife. Feminist. A look at the intersections.

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