When Rainn Wilson tweeted earlier this week that he’d like to be date-raped to the Led Zeppelin song “Whole Lotta Love,” he probably was expecting a few retweets from his 2.8 million Twitter followers. The joke, though not really funny, was meant to show a strong affinity for a great song. Instead, Wilson found himself on the defensive. The Office actor ended up deleting the offending tweet and posting an apology: "apparently my poorly conceived date-rape tweet upset a lot of folks. not a good topic to joke about. sorry and won't do that again."
The apology didn’t account for the fact that, when it comes to rape jokes, Wilson is a repeat offender.
Among his one-liners: in September he tweeted, "Rape is never funny. Unless it involves IBM's 'Watson'.”
And then there was this one: “I'm on @ConanOBrien tonight. I'm going to not 'rape' Andy, but consensually 'take' him, you know?"
But Wilson isn't alone in his propensity to make rape jokes. Rape as a comical topic is becoming more prevalent—the word "rapey" has even made into the lexicon. (According to the Urban Dictionary’s first definition, it describes the “creepy hugger at the office.”)
And, as this clip mashup from New York magazine’s Vulture demonstrates, rape jokes are everywhere on television, most egregiously in 2 Broke Girls, the hit CBS comedy helmed by Michael Patrick King (who was behind Sex and the City), co-created by Whitney Cummings, and written by a staff of multiple female writers. Kat Dennings's character, Max, is constantly referencing rape—in one scene she talks about how if a guy were hot, she and her pal Caroline wouldn’t call him a rapist (apparently she’s never heard of Ted Bundy). At another juncture, she undermines date rape by mocking a girl’s whiny voice: "Somebody date-raped me and I didn't think I'd live through it, but I did, but now I am stronger, and I'm still needy."
So rape jokes do abound. The question is: can they ever be funny?
Emily Nussbaum, the television critic for The New Yorker, has weighed in before on 2 Broke Girls and Cummings’s other sitcom, Whitney, and says, “I actually think rape jokes can be hilarious.” She also allows, “I'm the kind of person that thinks you can make a joke about anything.”
For Nussbaum, a rape joke’s success hinges on several factors—ones that can shift depending on who’s telling it and who’s listening. Someone like Sarah Silverman can elevate a rape joke by using black humor and referencing specific cultural touchstones. Nussbaum says, “She does this joke about, ‘When I was a young woman, I was raped by a doctor, which, you know, for a Jewish girl is, like, very bittersweet.’”
Nussbaum and I both laugh. “Not everybody loves a joke like that,” she says.
Nussbaum says that the prevalence of rape jokes is in part linked to the rise of women’s presence behind the scenes in comedy. The more women there are writing the jokes, the more we’ll see “subjects that are super-central to women and cause anxiety,” she says.
Joking about rape, Nussbaum says, is in line with boundary-crossing in comedy generally. “A lot of the best comedy is about the most offensive and upsetting material.” But, she says, “it doesn't mean there can't be horrible rape jokes that are super-offensive.”
For Nussbaum, the most successful rape jokes on 2 Broke Girls are those that hint that Max might have had some experience in that department. When Caroline, her rich-girl foil, pepper-sprays Max on the subway because she thought she was being raped, Max rolls her eyes and says, “That’s not what being raped feels like.”
“I think not allowing women to joke about rape is like not allowing people to process and let off steam about one of the main fears of our lives,” says screenwriter Jill Soloway.
“To me, that dark humor that would cause somebody to gasp, I can find it affirmative in a strange way—which is that this is a woman who is openly saying that this terrible thing has happened to her,” says Nussbaum. “She's this sort of like brassy, thick-skinned, sort of damaged, but urbane person, and that's why the joke is funny, because she has real knowledge of it. It's not just somebody making a joke about rape.”
Jill Soloway, a prolific television writer (United States of Tara, How to Make It in America, Dirty Sexy Money), is another woman who thinks that rape jokes can be funny. She points out in an email that one of the “all time funniest jokes, the Aristocrats, is about incest, rape, and bestiality.”
When Soloway was writing for Six Feet Under, she recalls, “I remember a debate about a line I wanted Claire to say about rape. People always have a knee jerk reaction to them and want those lines out.
“When I wrote that,” Soloway continues, “I had read something that some high school girls wrote on Facebook—or maybe it was MySpace back then—and it was like ‘Oh my God did you see after the party, I was in the elevator with the DJ and he totally tried to rape my boobs.' They were replacing the word 'touch' with 'rape' and it was funny to them. I loved it as an example of how language evolves, that post-modernist way of commenting on re-appropriating a word that has incredibly serious connotations and using very casually.”
For Soloway, writing a rape joke is about seizing power from a situation that makes women feel powerless. “I think not allowing women to joke about rape is like not allowing people to process and let off steam about one of the main fears of our lives. From the moment we find out what rape is, we're scared it's going to happen to us,” she writes.
Comic Chelsea Peretti's special on Comedy Central has a segment that gets right at the heart of that anxiety. She talks about how a neighbor of hers warns her to be careful because there’s been a rape in the neighborhood, and says: “I don’t know what I am supposed to do with that information. She might as well just come to my door, and been like, ‘Hey Chelsea, live in fear, bye!’”
It may be easier to write a rape joke when it’s an abstract idea—something that could happen to you, but probably (one hopes) won’t. “I used to say,” Soloway writes, “the only people who don't like rape jokes are women who have been raped (and lesbians) (who have probably been raped) (otherwise why would they be lesbians).”
But for an actual rape survivor like Marnie Goodfriend, who was dragged at knifepoint into her apartment at 5 in the afternoon, where she and her roommate were held captive in their West Village apartment in New York City and raped over the course of several hours, rape is not abstract. Goodfriend’s case was especially notorious; dubbed the “Greenwich Village Double Rape” by the New York press, her case was nearly cold when, in 2004, the DNA from the rape kit was tested using new technology, and it was discovered that it matched the DNA of Leroy Johnson Jr., a convicted rapist who had been imprisoned for another double rape—that of actress Kelly McGillis and her roommate in the early '80s.
Ask Goodfriend whether she thinks rape jokes can be funny, and she replies:
“My answer to that is, are you kidding? When is rape ever funny? Every topic seems to be fair game in pop culture. A lot of people ask what makes rape different. If you can make fun about different races, religions—why not rape? But we're talking about a violent crime. According to the FBI, it's the No. 1 most violent crime that a person can survive.”
Though those who think rape jokes are fair game might call someone like Goodfriend humorless, she bristles at that notion. In the long run, she says, rape jokes do more harm than good, and create a vicious cycle: “People seem to feel comfortable making fun of rape and date-rape and acquaintance-rape situations. And those are the rapes that are largely underreported. And one of the reasons why [they are underreported] is because of pop culture, our society, and myths about rape that if you report a crime, no one is going to believe you—victim blaming. And if you are watching a TV show, or you see a tweet about rape, it just morphs into some type of slang.”
She doesn’t buy that talking about rape in a jokey way is helpful. “I think it's an easy way to mask a much larger issue. The reality is that one in six women will be raped in their lifetime. Some people use humor in the worst situations. That's the only way I can rationalize why woman writers would use rape as a punchline. Because they have the power to change the cycle.”
In one scene in 2 Broke Girls, Dennings-as-Max quips: "Stop fighting it, just give into it," and then pauses to think. "I don't know why I am quoting a rapist.” Why indeed.
Part of the reason Rainn Wilson’s unfunny rape joke struck a chord has a bit to do with the question around whether it’s OK for men to make rape jokes. Louis C.K. has done so successfully on several occasions, but there’s a large divide between him and, say, Rob Schneider.
“Who can make rape jokes?” Soloway writes rhetorically. “Only women, and men that we decide. It's like the Supreme Court and porn, only we know when it's funny or not funny and we'll tell you.”