Last week, a brouhaha erupted on the Internet after Daniel Tosh, a lackluster comic and host of Tosh.0 on Comedy Central made a joke about rape. Or rather, he attempted such a joke, knowing full well that somebody out there in the world, if not his audience, would find it unfunny and offensive. Many smart people have written about why there’s no place in comedy for jokes or comic routines on the subject of rape, others have waxed eloquent on where this moment intersects with the First Amendment, but I’d like to expand the discussion here.
The issue of what’s funny and where the boundaries of taste and appropriateness in comedy comes up often. Stephen Colbert recently apologized for likening the food industry’s infamous pink slime to transsexuals. Tracy Morgan was taken to task for saying during a stage routine that he’d kill his own son if he found out the kid was gay–when asked about the lines, he remarked:
I don’t “f*cking care if I piss off some gays, because if they can take a f*cking d**k up their ass … they can take a f*cking joke.
Adam Sandler’s last movie, let’s face it, was one big affront to LGBT people and not too many other folks thought it was funny. It swept the Razzies and Rotten Tomatoes for bad filmmaking.
Am I trying to steal the attention away from rape survivors? Um, no. But maybe it’s time we took a look at a bigger framework here. Let’s posit that popular culture has a relationship to actual lives–after all, we spend time, money and energy on engaging with popular culture, we talk to our friends about what we’ve seen (OMG, Breaking Bad was awesome last night!), and we anticipate popular culture like we anticipate spending time with people we know. But more than that, we use popular culture as a shared, communal experience (e.g., the water cooler discussion), and we debate the issues and subjects popular culture offers us.
Finally, popular culture is, by design, attempting to get a response from the audience. Comics may be looking for laughs and not hecklers, sure, but they do anticipate a reaction–that’s what jokes are for. If the makers of popular culture’s products weren’t invested in the audience’s response, they wouldn’t look to publish, televise, or release their work to the public. Thus if people like our aforementioned comics are going to make careers and livings out of putting their products into the public space, then they have also opened themselves up to critique.
So what is there to critique? Well, as already noted, popular culture’s content has effects on the people living in culture. We form and develop opinions based on the world around us, and that includes the movies, comic routines, televisions shows, Web sites, etc., that we consume. There may not be a simple formula or path from rape joke to an actual sexual assault, but there certainly are material effects from suggesting, even jokingly, that a group of nearby men should gang-rape a woman in their midst. And I would argue that when Stephen Colbert suggested that there were so many hormones in pink slime that it deserved a place in the transsexual community, he reduced the image of transfolk TO the hormones they take. What does it mean to do that? Well, for one, it’s dehumanizing. And I know I don’t need to explain why dehumanizing an entire community is a bad thing, right? (But it’s also inaccurate–transsexuals aren’t on more hormones than anyone else, they’re just on the opposite ones, which shuts down their original sources of hormones. In fact, many trans people I know are on low doses once their initial transition is over.)
Representation matters, insofar as mainstream culture offers more exposure of people on the margins of society than the people themselves do. After all, marginalized groups often must go through some institution of popular culture to get any kind of widespread exposure, be it the press, a gatekeeper from the industry (like an agent or editor), a publisher or producer, or a spokesperson who then interacts with…an arm of popular culture. Even if social media has carved out some paths around traditional media organizations, popular culture rushes in [sic] and reinterprets these moments, picking up Twitter feeds and Facebook posts and vaulting them to media outlets on the Web, and so forth. In many ways, negative feedback to the producers of content in popular culture represents one of our best ways–and it’s a democratic way at that–to change those representations for the better. I would hope that with a curtailing of lynch, rape, and murder jokes, that more people would glean the idea that these are unacceptable acts, and conversely, fewer people will put up with jokes premised on such things. After all there is more than enough space in the sphere of popular culture for jokes that are truly funny and that don’t rely on suggesting individuals harm each other.
No, Daniel Tosh is not the problem. He’s the symptom of a larger, structural problem in understanding and representing vulnerabilities among different groups of people, but it’s also the case that he’s made his career on laughing at people in one of the most juvenile ways possible. Perhaps someday so many of us will see that his humor is so bereft of interest and cleverness that popular culture itself will turn away from giving him any air time.