Rainn Wilson, Louis C.K., and the Problem of the “Rape Joke”

Rainn Wilson, Louis C.K., and the Problem of the “Rape Joke”
Ugh: Rainn Wilson.
(Courtesy Getty Images)

Before we debate the issue of jokes about rape and whether or not they can ever be funny, there’s one thing on which we should all be able to agree: Rainn Wilson is a shit. This we base not just on his own rape jokes — this week, it was “If I were ever date-raped I would want it to be to ‘Whole Lotta Love’ by Led Zeppelin” — but the “apology” he later let ooze out onto his Twitter feed: “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.” You couldn’t construct a more classic, cowardly non-apology, from the distancing, disbelieving reference to the “folks” “apparently” offended by his joke to the limp little “sorry” tacked on at the end. He should’ve gotten a surly teenager to mutter it for him.

This was our first reaction to Tricia Romano’s Daily Beast article on the “rape joke,” which seems more prevalent than ever. The main problem, as we recently quoted Vulture writer Margaret Lyons as saying, is that the jokes “are by and large just shorthand for outrageousness, a go-to vocabulary to create a patina of audacity without actually saying anything important, or even funny.” (Romano references the same Vulture piece.) Jokes like these — like Rainn Wilson’s — actually exploit victims of rape. What’s clear is that no rape joke, written or said by a man or a woman, should go unremarked. (And by the way, if you’re uncomfortable hearing — or making — such a joke in conversation, you should probably hold your sitcoms to a similar standard.) But, Romano’s piece suggests, not every one of them requires an apology. In fact, they might not only be funny, but also reflect a certain empowerment of women:

[New Yorker critic Emily 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 …

For [Jill Soloway, a television writer], 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.

Romano also asked the opinion of activist and rape survivor Marnie Goodfriend, who vehemently disagrees:

“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 …

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.”

But what exactly constitutes a rape joke? Romano references a Louis C.K. bit (which you can, and should, watch below) that is hilarious — but that we’re not sure even meets the definition. It’s about the comic’s shock at having a woman tell him she wished he’d been more aggressive with her, to simulate, in his interpretation, rape. That joke is about sex, gender, and communication. Insofar as it is about rape, it is about the line that separates it from sex. And that is clear enough: Rape is, without question, a form of violence. Rape jokes, though, can express all kinds of intent — and even if the intent is good, that doesn’t guarantee that the joke is funny.