Rape Jokes and The Oatmeal: Perpetuating Rape Culture
Yesterday, Matthew Inman from The Oatmeal wrote a comic about the “delicate relationship” that he has with his keyboard. This was the final panel of the comic:
The comic in its entirety was about how he feels and behaves towards the various keys in his keyboard. This panel specifically was about trying to get a webpage to load when you have a slow connection, with the joke centering around Matt “raping” his F5 key in order to make the page load faster. Yes, it’s a rape joke. No, I’m not surprised. Yes, it’s supposed to be funny. No, no one would ever actually “rape” a computer key. Yes, in spite of all that, I’m still grossed out. Now that all that is out of the way, can we talk about how terrible this is? Because it’s terrible. Really, really terrible.
The panel above is the type of joke that normalizes and trivializes rape. Instead of showing rape as an act of sexual violence that will haunt someone for the rest of their life, it’s hilariously portrayed as pushing your F5 key one too many times. What it tells readers is that rape is no big deal, that it’s just this thing that happens. It tells readers that rape is not a powerful word, but instead is a term you can use to describe any kind of forceful action. It tells readers that rape is normal, and even worse it tells rapists that rape is normal. The problem with jokes like this is that not only do they make rape victims deeply uncomfortable, they make rapists feel comfortable.
And you know what? As far as rape jokes go, this one isn’t that bad. I mean, not really. It’s not graphic, and it’s not even describing a plausible situation since, again, computer keys can’t be raped. If we didn’t live and participate in rape culture, this joke on its own wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But you know what? If we didn’t live in a culture where rape was constantly aided and abetted, a culture where rape is so normalized that we think nothing of making light of it, a culture where rape victims are frequently hushed up, dismissed or outright disbelieved, this comic would never have been made. This comic is a product of rape culture and it perpetuates rape culture. The message that this comic sent out to The Oatmeal’s nearly 800,000 Facebook fans (and the myriad other readers who follow the comic on Twitter or directly on The Oatmeal’s website) is that rape is no big deal.
It is a big deal, though. And when some readers of The Oatmeal told Matt Inman that rape jokes are a big deal, this was his response:
Please click to view larger.
I mean, first of all, it seems bizarre to blame Daniel Tosh for this backlash. Just because Daniel Tosh was called out for making a rape joke doesn’t mean that he was the first to do so, or that he invented rape culture. This joke wouldn’t have been funny before Daniel Tosh, and it sure as hell isn’t funny now.
Second of all, it’s really great that Matt Inman donated money to a battered women’s group. But that doesn’t give him license to say whatever he wants. It’s not like making a one-time donation gives him some kind of immunity to ever being called out on misogynistic shit that promotes rape culture. That’s not how it works.
Third of all, this isn’t censorship, and I hope that Matt Inman never lives in a place where true censorship exists. Freedom of speech means that you can say whatever you want, sure, but it also means that I get to call you out when you’re being a dick. You get to make jokes, and I get to tell you when they’re offensive. We are both afforded the privilege of freedom of speech. And you know what? I’m not even offended by this comic; I’m not going to give anyone that satisfaction. See, Matt Inman wants to believe that he’s done something so cool, so edgy, that regular, Family Circus-reading folk will be “offended.” Well, I’m not. I’m contemptuous of this comic, and I’m contemptuous of you, Matt Inman. Every time you make a joke like this, I think less and less of you. So no, you’re not being censored; you’re just hearing the reactions of people who aren’t on board with what you did.
I’m sure that there are people who will accuse me of being so wrapped up in feminism, so focused on seeing misogyny wherever I look, that I’m just not able to recognize humor anymore. There are people who probably want to tell me that nothing is so sacred that you can’t joke about it, that “censoring” comics is the worst possible thing you can do, and that if I don’t “let” people make rape jokes then I’m some kind of fascist.
First of all, I would encourage anyone who thinks that to look up the definition of “fascist.”
Second of all, I don’t think that all rape jokes are bad. In fact, I even think that some of them are funny. The thing is, in order for a rape joke to be funny, it needs to do two things:
1. Not make rape victims the butt of the joke
2. Challenge the status quo, i.e. rape culture
Below is a video by Louis C.K. in which he makes a joke about rape that’s funny. If you are a comic, or aspire to be one, you might want to take notes:
See, what he’s doing in this joke is challenging the idea that rape is sexy or desirable. He’s challenging the idea that some men would leap at the chance to take a woman without her consent, while she is repeatedly telling them no, just because she’s giving out some kind of vibe. He’s challenging a culture that persistently insists that women don’t know what they want, that they play hard to get, that they lie and manipulate and shouldn’t be taken at their word.
That is a joke that challenges the way we think in a humorous way. That is what comedy should do.
Matt Inman did, thankfully, end up removing the rape joke panel, and tweeted the following earlier today:
Update: I removed the final panel to my last comic, as well as my "defense" of it.Both were fucking stupid. Sorry if I upset anyone— Matthew Inman (@Oatmeal) December 4, 2012
It’s not the greatest apology, but at least it’s an apology, you know? I wish that he hadn’t included the “if,” because obviously people were upset, no ifs about it; it would have been better had he just flat-out apologized for the fact that people were hurt and upset. However, this apology is better than nothing, and it’s waaaay better than artists who continue to defend themselves after they’ve been called out for inappropriate behavior. So I guess there’s that.
Sometimes stuff like this feels so relentless, like there’s no way to fight against it because you’ll just never win. Working to bring down rape culture feels overwhelming, because it’s literally everywhere. How do you fight nearly every movie you’ve ever seen, every book you’ve read, every casually misogynistic word that’s ever been spoken to you? Where do you even start?
Every once in a while, though, you do get someone who reconsiders what they’ve done and issues an apology, and that feels like it’s maybe the beginning of something. And like I said, maybe it’s not a great apology, but hopefully it will start people thinking. Maybe this will get fans of The Oatmeal really considering what that rape joke really meant, and why it wasn’t funny.
I think that if even one person who laughed at that comic sits back, thinks hard and changes his opinion, then this fight is worth it. If this post gets even one person to change their minds about how they view rape, and especially rape jokes, then I’ll be happy. Hell, even if this post does nothing more than get people who agree with me to start a conversation about this, then I’m good. The fact is that talking about this stuff, getting it out into the open and engaging people about it, is a huge first step to changing the status quo.
And I really, really want to change the status quo.