Laughing about the unspeakable: Using humor as a medium to talk about rape

(Part of the Hot Spot series “By Any Media Necessary”

By Kari Storla

Warning: Links in this article will direct you to websites that contain discussions of sexual assault. While nothing explicit is mentioned in this post please proceed with caution.

How do you speak about the unspeakable? When we want to address an issue that is at best often talked around and often not discussed at all, does it matter what medium we use? Magazines, TV, the Internet—if something is a taboo subject, what difference does the technology make? Potentially quite a lot. You can argue—and I certainly would—that the simultaneously lauded and decried potential for being both anonymous and/or physically removed from the conversation can allow for more frank discussions about rape and rape culture. However, talking about things online, however helpful it can be, is by no means a cure-all.

Talking about the taboo requires thinking about how we communicate in new ways. Sometimes that means adopting new technologies, but it can also mean communicating in a different manner. This requires a different way of thinking about what, exactly, a medium is. Often when we think about a medium, we think about a technology. We discuss how the advent of the Internet changed (or didn’t change) the ways that we communicate. We classify our entertainment based on what technology they use—film, video games, written word, etc. Media have become synonymous, in many ways, with technology. All of that is important but it also presents a very constrained view of what a medium can be. Rather than just viewing media as technologies, we can also think of them as ways of communicating, regardless of the technology used.

Presenting things in a non-intuitive way can be one method of generating conversations around a taboo subject, for example, using humor to talk about rape. We won’t expect discussions of rape to use humor—the contrast between the two can be an effective way of talking about something we otherwise have difficulty discussing. Humor is a medium that can be used in order to address issues in ways that non-humorous approaches can’t.

In regards to using humor to talk about rape, a prime example of this is Jessie Kahnweiler’s short film, “Meet My Rapist” (previously available on YouTube but has since been made private; it was recently shown at the Slamdance Film Festival). The film is an imagining of what would happen if Kahnweiler (quite literally) ran into the man who raped her years before. It explores a number of questions that cannot be answered in real life: what would their interactions be like? What would she say to him? How would other people react as the rapist tags along to family dinner? Through the nearly silent but omnipresent figure of the nameless rapist, always in the background as Kahnweiler goes about her day-to-day life, the film explores the ways in which rape can continue to affect someone in the long-term.

According to Kahnweiler, “A lot of what’s out there now makes it really easy for the audience. Like ‘yeah, rape is bad, I don’t like rape either!’ But it’s not doing justice to the reality of rape culture right now. The conversation tends to end before it even has a chance to begin.”  “Meet My Rapist” is an effort to change that, to start up continuing conversations. It does so through the medium of humor.

Ms. Magazine explains that the film works on the basis of “the matter-of-fact nature of each scenario and of Kahnweiler’s dealings with the people around her, who simplify and co-opt her experience to the point of absurdity.”  One scene depicts Kahnweiler informing a friend that she was raped. Her friend immediately launches into a barrage of questions: “But were you like really raped? Were you drunk? Was he cute? Was he white?” The scene is played for laughs, especially a bit later when Kahnweiler’s friend hunches over and sniffs that “as your friend, this just really affects me,” leading Kahnweiler to ask, “can I do anything for you?” It’s certainly not the way we think telling someone that you’ve been sexually assault should go.

And yet, reactions and misconceptions about rape like the ones voiced by Kahnweiler’s friend are unfortunately all too common. The humor of the situation, the fact that such situations seem so absurd on the surface and yet ring so true to the experiences of many who have been sexually assaulted, is what generates conversation.

Of course, the use of humor in regards to discussions of rape isn’t something that everyone approves of. There are ongoing debates about whether or not rape jokes can ever be funny and, if they can be, what does a “good” rape joke look like. (Here are a few samples). Issues surrounding rape jokes have recently popped up in the news again, being featured in an episode of Law & Order: SVU and also being part of a school news report on rape culture that led to future content of the school’s publications needing to be approved by administrators. Still, regardless of whether or not a rape joke is good or not, or whether any humor about rape is well intentioned, there are going to be some people and some circumstances where humor isn’t the right approach.

Sure, humor can open up a lot of doors to conversations that might not otherwise happen. But that doesn’t mean it should be the only medium we employ to speak about the unspeakable. More solemn modes of communication have their purpose as well: Patricia Lockwood’s poem, “Rape Joke,” for example, or Project Unbreakable, which showcases photographs of people who have been sexually assaulted holding up signs that describe their experience

The idea isn’t that one of these methods is better than the other. Rather, it’s that they each do different things. The use of humor doesn’t negate the possibility for “real” discussion, but it isn’t the only avenue for it either. What’s important isn’t that one medium is always chosen over another, but that all appropriate media are used in order to communicate effectively and generate dialogues. Talking about rape, rape culture, and what we can about them, are important, however we start those conversations. It’s not so much a matter of “by any media necessary” as it is “by every media necessary.”

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