Thoughts on “rape humor” and “rape culture.”

I’m probably going to stir up a shit storm with this entry, but, what the hell, It’s been awhile since I’ve done that.

I’ve been following the uproar over a Penny Arcade comic strip that appeared back in August with some interest. For those of you who are not fans of both video games and webcomics, Penny Arcade is a webcomic (natch) by and about gamers that is often crass, crude, offensive, and hugely popular with its target audience. In the 13 or so years it has been around it has grown into a new media phenomena that has spawned a twice-a-year video game convention that regularly sells out and a children’s charity that raises millions to provide sick kids in children’s hospitals toys and games.  Love it or hate it, what writer Jerry Holkins and illustrator Mike Krahulik have accomplished is damned impressive when most webcomic creators are lucky just to make a living at it.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of Penny Arcade in part because I often don’t understand the joke being made — probably because I’m getting old and crotchety — but with as influential as it is I make a point to follow it just the same. Which means that on August 11th last year I saw the following strip, which I’m reproducing here for convenience:

Penny Arcade comic The Sixth Slave.

Copyright 2010 Penny Arcade, Inc. - Click to embiggen.

Being a big MMORPG player myself I easily “got” the joke in this strip, which is that the quests in many MMORPG games have arbitrary goals when you consider the gravity of the subject at hand. In this case the player has been tasked with freeing five slaves and, having done so, is callously apathetic about the plight of the sixth slave who is pleading for his freedom from what is a truly horrible situation. This is something I’ve actually thought about while playing World of Warcraft as there are a number of “free X number of slaves” type quests spread throughout the game. The practical reason why there are always a ton of slaves left in servitude when you finish such a quest is so that other players can also complete the quest at the same time without having to stand around and wait for the slaves you just freed to respawn, but the knowledge of the practical reason for it doesn’t stop you from recognizing how odd it is that you just saved X slaves while leaving the rest to their fate. As an aside, one of the goblin quests in the new expansion is quite similar, but involves you trying to douse the flames of fellow goblins that have been set ablaze. When you reach your goal there are still lots of goblins running around on fire screaming their little goblin lungs out, which is even more disturbing to ponder. Given that context, I found the above strip to be not only funny, but pretty spot on.

If you’ve not taken the time to read the strip then you may be wondering what the uproar might be about. The catalyst is in the second panel wherein the slave is explaining to the player his horrible situation with the following text: “Every morning, we are roused by savage blows. Every night, we are raped to sleep by Dickwolves.” This caught the attention of self-described feminist Shaker Milli A who proceeded the next day to write a post titled Rape is Hilarious, Part 53 in an Ongoing Series. I suggest reading the whole entry, but here’s a snippet:

When I have a sense of humor, it is a little offbeat. I have liked, for example, Penny Arcade’s comics about the numerous times they’ve killed each other. I have a dark sense of humor, and I’ll admit it.

But unlike Gabe killing Tycho so he doesn’t have to share a video game, a slave being raped is a real thing that happens in the world every day. I don’t find this “joke” funny because, unlike characters cartoonishly killing each other repeatedly and coming back to life, just as in video games, rape isn’t a central feature of (most) games—at least in the actual gameplay, totally aside from the language used by players.

The problem is, I just don’t find rape funny. Because rape survivors exist among us, and after being victimized by rapists, they are revictimized by a society that treats even real rape like a joke, forced to live in a culture that actually has a lot of rape jokes, including those about rape victims being actively denied justice for no other reason than because people don’t take rape seriously. I don’t find rape funny because rape victims are often doubted, mocked, and insulted openly.

I’ve mentioned before that I grew up in a family where humor was a big coping mechanism and I can’t recall ever being told that any particular subject was taboo. Which isn’t to say that there weren’t any jokes that ended up being awkward or cringe worthy, just that there wasn’t anything explicitly beyond making an attempt at humor about. If someone’s feelings were hurt by a joke we’d apologize for it as hurting feelings was never the intent. Given that you can probably see why I didn’t have a problem with the PA comic when I read it. That said, I can also understand why someone who has been a victim of rape would find the joke offensive. It is my understanding that many victims suffer from PTSD which can be triggered by being reminded of their ordeal.

The above two events are the beginning of a months-long back-and-forth between Penny Arcade and a number of feminists and rape survivors that is documented with links at Debacle Timeline – The Pratfall of Penny Arcade if you want to read up on all the gory details. In short, the guys at Penny Arcade found themselves being taken to task on Twitter, in emails, and on various blogs and forums over the rape reference in their comic. Their initial reaction was to be defensive and they put out a comic in their usual sarcastic style that apologized if anyone had been turned into a rapist by the previous comic. Needless to say, that didn’t help. Melissa McEwan at Shakesville, where the original complaint was posted, fired back with an entry titled Survivors Are So Sensitive:

Most critics of rape jokes object on one of two bases, neither of which are “your rape joke will directly cause someone to go out and commit a rape.” (That idea is absurd—which is why it’s so appealing to defenders of rape jokes to deliberately misrepresent critics’ arguments in such a fashion.) One criticism is that rape jokes are triggers for survivors of sexual violence (and/or attempted sexual violence). The other is that rape jokes contribute to a rape culture in which rape is normalized.

It’s that second objection that tends to get repackaged as “your rape joke will directly cause someone to go out and commit a rape,” which is, of course, a willful and dishonest simplification of a complex argument. The rape culture is a collection of narratives and beliefs that service the existence of endemic sexual violence in myriad ways, from overt exhortations to commit sexual violence to subtle discouragements against prosecution and conviction for crimes of sexual violence. The rape joke, by virtue of its ubiquity, prominently serves as a tool of normalization and diminishment.

No, one rape joke does not “cause” someone to go out and commit a rape. But a single rape joke does not exist in a void. It exists in a culture rife with jokes that treat as a punchline a heinous, terrifying crime that leaves most of its survivors forever changed in some material way. It exists in a culture in which millions and millions of women, men, and children will be victimized by perpetrators of sexual violence, many of them multiple times. It exists in a culture in which rape not being treated as seriously as it ought means that vanishingly few survivors of sexual violence see real justice, leaving their assaulters free to create even more survivors. It exists in a culture in which rape is not primarily committed by swarthy strangers lurking in dark alleyways and jumping out of bushes, but primarily by people one knows, who nonetheless fail, as a result of some combination of innate corruption and socialization in a culture that disdains consent and autonomy, to view their victims as human beings deserving of basic dignity.

That is the environment into which a rape joke is unleashed—and one cannot argue “it isn’t my rape joke that facilitates rape” any more than a single raindrop in an ocean could claim never to have drowned anyone.

I apologize for the length of that quote, but I thought it was important to provide as much context as I could. At this point I think it’s clear to see why this blew up into such a firestorm. The folks at Penny Arcade don’t consider the comic to be a rape joke because rape was never the point of the strip, it was just something horrible they tossed in to highlight the absurdity of the arbitrary goal of freeing only 5 slaves. Meanwhile, the other side — and this is entirely my impression here — seem to feel that any joke that has the word rape in it is a “rape joke” regardless of what the point of the joke happens to be.

As someone who has been guilty of being insensitive and offensive himself, my initial reaction is to come down on the side of the guys from Penny Arcade. While I can see how their reaction to the complaints was probably not in their best interests, I can also understand their defensiveness over it as I’ve been there myself. But I will also admit that this is the first time I’ve come across the concept of “rape culture” so I took the time to read what Melissa McEwan had to say about what rape culture is. It’s a long entry that appears to implicate pretty much every aspect of popular culture as being part of Rape Culture, but the part that’s most applicable to the discussion at hand is this:

Rape culture is rape jokes. Rape culture is rape jokes on t-shirts, rape jokes in college newspapers, rape jokes in soldiers’ home videos, rape jokes on the radio, rape jokes on news broadcasts, rape jokes in magazines, rape jokes in viral videos, rape jokes in promotions for children’s movies, rape jokes on Page Six (and again!), rape jokes on the funny pages, rape jokes on TV shows, rape jokes on the campaign trail, rape jokes on Halloween, rape jokes in online content by famous people, rape jokes in online content by non-famous people, rape jokes in headlines, rape jokes onstage at clubs, rape jokes in politics, rape jokes in one-woman shows, rape jokes in print campaigns, rape jokes in movies, rape jokes in cartoons, rape jokes in nightclubs, rape jokes on MTV, rape jokes on late-night chat shows, rape jokes in tattoos, rape jokes in stand-up comedy, rape jokes on websites, rape jokes at awards shows, rape jokes in online contests, rape jokes in movie trailers, rape jokes on the sides of buses, rape jokes on cultural institutions

Rape culture is people objecting to the detritus of the rape culture being called oversensitive, rather than people who perpetuate the rape culture being regarded as not sensitive enough.

In short, if you try to be funny about rape you’re a rape apologist. As far as Melissa is concerned, it is a taboo topic for joviality.

Now the reason this got me to thinking is because, as I said previously, I didn’t have a problem with the PA comic when I read it. It never occurred to me that the slave saying he’s “raped to sleep by Dickwolves” was meant to poke fun at being raped, and I still don’t think it was meant in that manner. I am painfully aware, on this issue as well as many other sensitive topics, that I am very much the “privileged norm” in terms of being a Middle Aged White Heterosexual Male which instantly makes my opinion on any of those topics subject to dismissal by default by some factions. I am also not a rape victim and even though I have people very close to me who are, that doesn’t mean I understand what it’s like to live through.

I find myself pausing to consider: Am I a rape apologist because I didn’t have a problem with the PA comic? I consider rape to be vile and repulsive. An act I have trouble fathoming how someone could commit on another human being. I believe rapists should be treated as the predators they are and punished accordingly. I have similar beliefs and feelings in regards to torture, murder, and any of a number of other heinous acts. Does the fact that I sometimes find amusement in jokes about torture or murder make me an apologist for those terrible crimes? If I am to accept the reasoning of Mellisa then it must be so.

So what, then, should I think of this bit by The Daily Show on the Republican attempt to redefine rape to eliminate taxpayer funded abortions:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Rape Victim Abortion Funding
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog</a> The Daily Show on Facebook

Unlike the Penny Arcade comic, the folks at The Daily Show are clearly joking about rape in an effort to highlight the absurdity of the Republican legislation. You can clearly hear that more than one of the jokes makes the audience uneasy and they’re not sure if they should laugh or not.  Quite a few of the statements made by Kristen Schaal are easily way more offensive than the Penny Arcade comic, but does anyone really think she’s seriously advocating the position she’s parodying?

I also found this bit to be both funny and strong denunciation of the attempt to change the law regarding abortions for rape victims, but if I am to accept the logic being made against the folks at Penny Arcade then Jon Stewart is easily deserving of the same condemnation. More so, in fact, as rape was the punchline to many of the jokes whereas it was not in the PA strip. Yet there isn’t any word about the bit over at Shakesville. I suppose it’s possible it just hasn’t come to their attention yet.

In the end I will say that I think the guys at Penny Arcade did dig themselves a hole with their responses to their critics. While I understand their initial defensiveness,  they did move into the realm of complete assholeness by putting Go Team Dickwolves t-shirts and sports pennants in their store. It’s probably not the move I would have made, but then I’m not them. They have a lot they’ve built up over the years that could be affected negatively by such tactics, but that’s a price they appear willing to pay. That said, I did find the t-shirts funny.

As for the folks that are upset over the comic, while I can sympathize that it’s probably very painful to be reminded of what they’ve been through, I still come down on the side that no topic is taboo for attempts at humor. Perhaps that does make me a Rape Apologist, but given how expansive their definition of Rape Culture is, I don’t see how it’s possible not to be. That said, they have every right to be heard and their opinions considered. They have some valid points and I think we would all do well to stop and consider the topic. It would probably have helped their cause, however, if their initial reaction hadn’t been so hostile. I understand it’s a highly emotional topic, but that approach is just going to result in the targets being defensive as they were in this case. Clearly the PA guys were not advocating for rape and to insist otherwise does nothing to win them over to your side of the argument.

ArsTechnica covers the “Penny Arcade Expo (PAX08).”

I gotta give credit to the guys behind the Penny Arcade webcomic. Not only do they have one of the most popular gamer oriented webcomics around, but they’ve lived every geek’s dream by starting their own gaming convention known as the “Penny Arcade Expo” or PAX for short. It’s only been around for a few years, but it’s grown year by year hitting a record of 58,000 attendees this year. Hardware and software companies make it a point to attend and show off their latest wares to the hardest of the hard core gamers. Even going so far as to drop out of other industry sponsored events, such as E3, in order to focus on this one. Journalists refer to it as the “Geek Burning Man Event” because they’re not really sure how else to describe it. It’s exactly the sort of convention I dreamed of when I was a teenager myself.

One of these days I’d like to make it out to a PAX, but that wasn’t possible this year so I have to live it vicariously through press coverage and one of the better articles I’ve read in terms of giving you a feel for what it was like is this one at ArsTechnica. Here’s a snip from Bioshock creator Ken Levine’s keynote address:

Instead of talking about his latest game, he talks about growing up young and nerdy, of being ashamed of his enthusiasm for comic books and games like Dungeons and Dragons. He talks about how the issues dealt with in favorite comics like Spiderman may have made him feel more grown-up than his peers, while noting that he was mocked for his choice of reading material.

He describes his first Dungeons and Dragons source book, read under the sheets in the dead of night, as if it was pornography that he was afraid to be caught with. He describes how the gift of an Atari system one Hanukkah changed his life. “This was my Nerd Siberia,” he tells the packed auditorium, as they nod in understanding. No friends. Picked on at school. Ashamed of a growing comic book collection.

He shows a picture of Farrah Fawcett. “Believe me, this was the shit back in the ‘70s,” he says, before changing the slide to a scantily clad illustration. “Me? I wanted to fuck the Scarlet Witch.” The room erupts.

[…] “After many years running from things I love, it’s amazing to come here and see what Gabe and Tycho and so many others have built together,” he said. “We are united by a common element, but it’s not the color of our skin or our ideology or politics,” he went on, his voice rising. “What brings us together at PAX is that we are a giant bunch of fucking nerds.” The kids sitting to the right of me, wearing Magic: The Gathering shirts and suffering through what looked like hard bouts of acne, almost bowl me over as they rush to stand up, applaud, and cheer. I believe one of them is crying. 

I’m welling up just thinking about it. These are my people.

It’s amazing to me to think of how this wouldn’t have been at all possible without the rise of the Internet. I was lucky as a geeky teenager in that growing up in Pontiac Michigan the schools were large enough that finding other geeks to befriend wasn’t that difficult. It also helped that I decided to run a Bulletin Board System (BBS) on my Commodore 64 starting in early 1981, which pretty much guaranteed I’d hook up with other geeks. By the end of my freshmen year of high school I was fortunate to have a core group of good friends who were into many of the same things I was: video games, computers, Dungeons & Dragons (and a dozen other RPGs), and Sci-Fi/Fantasy books and movies. We spent countless hours hanging out between school and work playing marathon sessions – upwards of 12 to 15 hours at a time on weekends – of video games or pen and paper RPGs. We managed to find our way onto the Internet thanks to some of us going off to college long before it went mainstream in 1996. I can only imagine what trying to access the Net today on a Commodore 64 with a 300 baud modem would be like. There was no World Wide Web back then and we had no idea of the revolution that was to come, but we glimpsed the potential in how it enabled us to contact other geeks from all over the world.

Had you asked me then if I could foresee a day when a couple of geeks would achieve a massive following for a comic strip they gave away for free that would start their own gaming convention that would attract tens of thousands of geeks yearly along with a charity that would raise tons of money for children’s hospitals (they also started Child’s Play which raised 1.3 million dollars last year) I’d have probably laughed at the thought that there were enough geeks in the world to make something like that possible. Behold the Power of the Internet!

I suppose this is a very long-winded way of saying just how much I envy the geeks of today. We would’ve given our left nut for a convention like PAX back in my youth. OK maybe not our left nut, but certainly a leg or a foot. Not an arm though cause we’d need that to work the joysticks.