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I was ordering lunch at a counter-service café with a girlfriend when the male cashier handed me one of those place-saving placards. You know, the kind with numbers on them to place at your table? But, instead of numbers, these placards had names of vegetables. And which one did I get? Not arugula. Not basil. But rapini.
“Rape-ini?” I said loudly. “I will not be ordering that!”
That’s your rape joke? Oh. That’s not that bad, you might be saying. Sounds a little more like a pun. In fact, it could be argued it wasn’t so much a joke about rape as it was about an unfortunately named vegetable.
Well, that wasn't the bad part.
The really bad part is that after I said it, I looked at the clerk and quipped, “It’s really hard to make a good rape joke!”
I laughed and whirled away with my receipt and my rapini thingie. Then, I stopped cold.
It was only after lunch, alone in my car, that I replayed the scene, and wondered, Why would I, a rape survivor, would do such a thing?
First, let me start with the word “rapini.” I know it’s officially pronounced with a short, “a” as in “apple” or “wrap,” but every time I see the word all that jumps out is the word RAPE with a cute little “ini” tacked on at the end. It seems to me mocking in its cuteness.
And there it was, this innocent-looking little rape reference, sitting high on a card above the lemon bars and snickerdoodles. Fuck you, rapini.
Here I am trying to order my squash soup and mixed greens salad, and just the sight of you has me mentally back in college, crying quietly against a cement-edged bed, filing a report with a sturdy station policeman, who looks at me with pity, softly shaking his head and saying, “It’s a small town, ma’am. People are going to wonder what you were doing in his room.”
Sometimes we defuse discomfort, or anger or rage with humor because there is nothing left to do in the moment. Hence my "I will not be ordering that" quip. Consider the situation slightly defused. But, this didn't explain my second comment. “It’s hard to make a good rape joke!”
Was my ego high on the laugh I got from the pun? I had just made myself, and people around me, laugh with the rapini bit. Was there a part of me, for a millisecond, that felt compelled to follow it up with a closer? A second dig, or a kind of self-directed, backhanded dismissal of my humor?
More importantly, was it funny?
This was months before the now the infamous Daniel Tosh incident, where the comedian Tosh walks on stage, asks audience for topic to riff on and a man yells out “Rape!” When a woman in the audience responded, “Rape isn’t funny.” Tosh "joked," “Wouldn't it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now?" The episode prompted this national “Is there such a thing a good rape joke?” debate.
Here’s the problem with that: Tosh’s remark wasn’t a joke. A joke has structure. It has a set-up and a pay off. This wasn’t a joke. It was just a lazy insult, a cheap shot, and a way to shoot her down, to humiliate her, put her in her place. You know. Like rape itself. Designed to hurt this woman, strip of her of her power, shame her, silence her.
I’m no Sarah Silverman, but when she jokes that “being raped by a doctor is sort of bittersweet for a Jewish girl,” she isn’t so much joking about rape as she is about the desperation she feels as a Jewish girl to marry well. A reference to rape can be part of humor if the intention is to shed light or juxtapose the horror of it with some aspect of ourselves.
There's a Wanda Sykes’ routine that contains what some people often refer to as a “rape joke,” but this is a misnomer. "Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our pussies were detachable?" jokes Sykes, "Just think about it. You get home from work, it’s getting a little dark outside, and you’re like, ‘I’d like to go for a jog…but it’s getting too dark, oh! I’ll just leave it at home!’ To me this isn't a "rape joke," rather the implied reference is a doorway into a revelation about the fear of sexual violence women face every single day.
I am no comic genius like Sykes, but after much thought, I decided to stand by my joke, and here’s why: The rapini bit was the set-up; the “hard to make a good rape joke” was the pay off. The punch line functions to reveal the subtext, which is this: There IS no such thing as a good rape joke.
But despite all of that rationalizing, I was still confused. I couldn’t stop thinking later about how to the male cashier smiled, laughed out loud. Despite being the one who made the joke, the fact that someone else laughed made me uncomfortable. Later, I thought, I’m allowed to laugh, asshole. Not you.
So why did he laugh? And more importantly, why did I?
That same year of my own rape, my college theater professor led a discussion on the definition of comedy versus tragedy. Aristotle says that while tragedy is based on fear and pity; comedy imitates our reality. Plato says comedy blends pain with pleasure. Olsen says comedy relies on katastasis, or the moment that precedes catastrophe in a tragedy. So humor exists on the razor’s edge of tragedy.
And, like the memory of the rape itself, sometimes the only way to walk on is to feel the razor beneath your bare feet; to move across that tightrope of past and present with faith and yes, sometimes humor. When the sight of a simple word (an innocent little leaf) flays your heart with the horror of its association.
And you laugh, because what else is there to do on a sunny California day, by a window full of pretty, pink petit fours and rows of strawberry scones?
You’ve been robbed of so much. And you won’t be robbed of that.