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Is the Tide Finally Turning on Rape Jokes?

Over the weekend, Slate picked up a long, thoughtful, and altogether excellent piece from Patton Oswalt’s blog, which amounts to something of a “state of the union” on three of comedy’s consistently hot topics: joke theft, heckling, and rape humor. The first two topics are covered (as is Oswalt’s standard practice) thoughtfully, passionately, and with no shortage of humor. But the headline here, the reason people should be talking about this piece, is that he does something rather extraordinary in his discussion of rape jokes: he alters his previously stated opinion. “I had my viewpoint,” he writes, “and it was based on solid experience, and it…was…fucking…wrong.”

But this is not just any widely respected comedian performing an abrupt about-face on one of his profession’s most divisive issues. Oswalt has been wrapped up in this thing for a while. Much of the recent discussion over rape humor in stand-up started last summer, when Daniel Tosh was widely criticized for a confrontation with a female audience member/heckler that turned into an ugly series of rape “jokes” (y’know, knee-slappers like “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now?”). When that happened, Oswalt was one of the comedians who came to Tosh’s defense — in the abstract, at least. It was tough to find anyone who thought Tosh had responded in the right way, or that what he had said was particularly funny, or clever, or insightful. But the lines were quickly drawn: if you criticize a comedian, you’re trying to infringe on his right to free expression. It’s a goofy argument, but an easier one to have than dealing with the actual issues and ramifications of rape humor: victimization, consideration of words and their consequences, the general sexualizing of American culture, all that fun stuff.

Last month, Oswalt was pulled back into the conversation, when Molly Knefel wrote about “the rape-joke double standard” at Salon. It came after Oswalt’s impassioned Facebook response to the Boston bombing went viral, but for Knefel, “as everyone shared the post, I couldn’t help but think of another widely shared message from Oswalt” — the pro-Tosh tweet. Knefel explained: “Seeing how his uplifting status about Boston had the power to comfort many in a terrifying time makes one wonder what enormous potential his words could have had had he used his ability for compassion and thoughtful reflection in the ‘rape joke’ conversation.” Over at Jezebel, Lindy West picked up the baton, writing “An Open Letter to White Male Comedians,” in which she cut to the heart of the matter: “I know you think you’re being transgressive and edgy and bad-in-the-cool-way when you are careless with the trauma of strangers, but you’re not. You are being conservative. You are a conservative comedian. You are moving your art form backwards, you are a bully (a bully who has likely experienced bullying himself, which is the worst kind), and you are propping up the status quo in the most boring way possible.” West was invited to debate this issue with comic Jim Norton on Totally Biased — and for the trouble, she was the object of scores of vile death and rape threats.

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It’s impossible to know how much all this influenced Oswalt’s turnaround. But it’s equally impossible to imagine it not playing some role. Yet what’s wonderful about Oswalt’s piece is that it doesn’t feel defensive, or reactive: he examines his own biases and notions, and decides he’s been in error. He does so carefully and thoroughly — and most valuably, he takes pains to destroy the straw man that’s dominated the entire argument.

No one is trying to make rape, as a subject, off-limits. No one is talking about censorship. In this past week of re-reading the blogs, going through the comment threads, and re-scrolling the Twitter arguments, I haven’t once found a single statement, feminist or otherwise, saying that rape shouldn’t be joked under any circumstance, regardless of context. Not one example of this.

In fact, every viewpoint I’ve read on this, especially from feminists, is simply asking to kick upward, to think twice about who is the target of the punchline, and make sure it isn’t the victim.

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And this may be where the discussion has gotten really interesting — because we’re seeing the midpoint on the scale of these opinions slowly, subtly moving. It’s no longer a matter of arguing for everyone’s right to say whatever the fuck they want, without consequence. Early on in that controversial Totally Biased debate, Norton admits that he “totally agrees” with West’s call not for censorship, but for someone who makes a joke at the expense of a victim to be called out as a dick. “If you think somebody sucks for something they said on stage,” Norton said, “you should blog about it! You should write about it!” The two disagreed on how far that can go, but that’s still a much more centrist point for the “pro-rape joke” point of view to start from. When I talked to Marc Maron about the issue last week, he carefully lent credence to both sides of the debate. But even then, he said, it comes down to “whatever you’re gonna say, you’re gonna have to figure out a way to answer to it if you get called out.”

And some are getting called out; Dan Harmon, for example, made an ill-advised rape analogy on his Harmontown podcast Sunday while discussing the fourth season of CommunityEarly this morning, he took to his Tumblr page to apologize. “I will definitely be swayed from the use of that word in comedic contexts because I don’t like hurting people,” Harmon wrote, “and as an added bonus, I don’t like getting yelled at on Twitter.  Especially when the people yelling have phrases like ‘rape joke’ on their side.  It’s kind of hard to think of oneself as being ‘pro rape joke.’  Don’t want to be that guy.  Done and done.”

Guys like Harmon, Maron, Oswalt, and Louis C.K. — who in the space of a year went from a Tosh semi-defender to comedy’s foremost male feminist — aren’t just funny and popular. They’re influencers, both shaping the current conversation in comedy and molding its future, and other comics listen to them. Their decisions to not “be that guy” have an impact. Some people may view the entire debate as an insular, inside-baseball bit of business in the comedy world, but this stuff matters; the way comedians of note choose to deal with touchy topics affects how those things work their way into the culture. That’s all West and Knefel and their fellow feminists were trying to get across, and it seems, finally, like people might be listening.

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