What Just Happened On My Twitter Feed? Lindy West And Roseanne Go Toe To Toe Over Rape Jokes

I kept blinking, and Twitter just kept not making any sense.
Publish date:
June 5, 2013
twitter, feminism, activism, rape jokes, confrontation

Speaking of shouting into the void on Twitter, I watched a new situation unfold Tuesday evening (which is basically an hour ago, though it's probably more than that now unless you are reading over my shoulder right now). Lindy West, of Jezebel, tweeted a link to a piece she wrote after going on FX to talk about rape culture and the horrific responses she has gotten as a result.

The video she has posted is kind of chilling. (Trigger warning for rape threats, if you had not guessed.) By which I mean, the video she has posted is completely effective -- at least to me -- as a reminder that many people don't seem to view women as actual human beings deserving of any sort of dignity, respect, or even autonomy. Women, especially women who speak out in protest of rape culture, are targeted for dehumanizing commentary and threats.

I don't think you have to be a fan of Lindy West or Jezebel to recognize that the response she is getting from people for daring to debate about rape culture on television is terrible and grotesque. I don't think you even need to necessarily agree with her stance on rape jokes to see the irony of the abuse being heaped on her right now.

Or I wouldn't have thought that -- not before I saw Roseanne Barr tweet that a "female" was advocating the censorship of comedy.

Now, we've talked about rapejokes and rapeculture before here at xoJane. We talk about it pretty often, in fact, because rape is a statistical probability. It's kind of the status quo. Which is pretty much the most depressing thing I have ever typed, I have to admit.

But what strikes me every single time we have the rape joke discussion is how invested comedians and other professional funny people are in protecting their right to make rape jokes even when their actual right to do so isn't being threatened.

This is where Roseanne's tweet comes in.

Roseanne, like so many celebrities, has used Twitter to push some opinions I have a hard time with. I unfollowed Roseanne after what were, in my opinion, transphobic tweets a while back (during her Presidential campaign). And now she has entered into the rape joke debate.

There is something about this debate that seems to make comedians -- all of the ones I have seen speak out about the issue -- feel incredibly threatened. I actually do understand their point that nothing should be out of bounds for humor because humor functions best (most of the time) when it is pushing limits. Sure, that's pretty standard theoretical stuff right there. But I also understand that the vast majority of rape jokes are jokes which further victimize people who have been raped -- and that's not pushing anything except the already widespread cultural belief that rape is a joke.

Stay with me here! Because I completely agree and accept and believe in the idea of treating horror with humor. It's a survival mechanism. It's a way of spitting into the face of a thing that is supposed to tear you apart. When I see women defending the right of comedians to make rape jokes, I always hope that this is what they are trying to protect.

But I think there is a lot of nuance being lost in the conversation -- because rape jokes can absolutely do that for some people but is that really how the majority of comedians are making the majority of rape jokes? I'd say that's not happening. And I'd say we really need to have a collaborative conversation about how comedians can, instead of re-victimizing some people in the audience, use their humor to punch the status quo in the eye.

There's always a list of successful rape jokes in stories like these, and they all seem to have one thing in common: successful rape jokes make rape culture the butt of the joke. Not the victim. Those jokes punch UP. Not down.

I don't expect Roseanne to side with Lindy West just because they are both women. I don't think women owe each other allegiance because of their inherent "womaniness" or whatever, especially when we talk about intersectional identities. Especially when we are having conversations within the context of mainstream feminism, which is often awful at intersectional analysis. Roseanne is vocal about her feminism, though, so it's absolutely fascinating to me that her response to Lindy West talking about rape jokes contributing to rape culture reads as so -- you know, I thought I was struggling for a word here but I'm really not -- fearful when it comes to comedy.

I hate to SAY it seemed like a fearful reaction. But it totally does. It's a fearful response, like comedians are afraid that something will be taken away from them or that if we have this conversation in a thoughtful way, they will somehow LOSE.

There's this cry of "CENSORSHIP!" as though a handful of people saying rape jokes aren't funny is the same thing as legislation making rape jokes illegal. Censorship is a system of official suppression of "unapproved" opinions. And I get that people mean it colloquially to indicate that they are feeling quashed. But feeling quashed and being censored are not actually the same thing.

Still, it speaks to the fear of censorship that comedians seem to have -- and because many of them do their business through making fun of those in power, I can understand that fear. It's the slippery slope argument, right? Censor them on this and suddenly their teeth are pulled, their claws are cut on all sorts of issues.

Except, again, no one is actually trying to censor them.

And I don't think we're going to get anywhere with this rape joke conversation until feminists recognize that comedians are afraid of having their power to get a reaction co-opted and until comedians recognize that "rape jokes aren't funny" isn't an effort at censorship. The two groups are speaking such different languages it's no wonder that they can't seem to find a common ground for discussion.

The Twitter exchange is ongoing -- but at one point Roseanne ironically tweeted that only UNFUNNY rape jokes should be disallowed. I don't want that to be the takeaway on either side, because I think both sides have some important things to say. I wish that comedians were more willing to consider their impact on our overall culture. And I wish feminists campaigning against rape jokes would take a more consistent and aware approach about freedom of speech and how comedy functions for some people. Rape jokes really are serious business.