Lindy West on Rape Jokes

Here’s a link to Lindy West debating comic Jim Norton about rape jokes.

This debate is important: not just because it’s about feminism and violence against women, but because it’s implicitly about our expectations in the public forum, which means that it’s about democracy per se.

Here’s the setup: a (usually male) comic will make a joke about rape (see the Daily Beast’s roundup here). Feminists like Lindy West respond with something along the lines of “You’re encouraging rape-culture, I object.” Comic replies, “You’re trying to silence my subversive comedy” and/or “Come on, it’s just a joke!”

The problem here is framing: comics like Jim Norton seem to believe that there is no way of qualitatively differentiating between kinds of rape jokes–i.e. that a rape joke is a rape joke, is a rape joke–so when West criticizes a subset of rape jokes because they trivialize rape, make fun of the victim, reinforce assumptions of rape culture, etc., the comics think she’s attacking all rape jokes ever.

She isn’t. If you don’t believe me, go read her brilliant article “How to Make a Rape Joke,” which explains how to differentiate between oppressive and subversive rape jokes. Her point is not that rape jokes should be verboten, but that oppression-reinforcing rape jokes should be criticized as such.

She’s not saying, “Don’t use comedy to talk about rape,” so it’s either a misunderstanding or a dodge for pro-rape-joke comics to respond to her as if either all rape jokes are okay or no rape jokes are okay. Her point, I think, is that comedy is like any other form of speech in the sense that it has meaning: jokes express linguistic content in the same way as regular declaratory speech. When you make a joke, you’re saying something, and people get to respond to it as such.

That’s what makes this an issue of democracy: our ability to work together in autonomous communities depends on our ability to have thoughtful conversations with each other. The idea that comedy is beyond criticism, or that irony is some kind of carte blanche to say whatever you want, is a confusion which prevents us from doing precisely that.



  1. ironic considering it seems like you raped a thesaurus while writing this piece

  2. Well, when you’re right, you’re right. Your clever rejoinder has changed my mind: I now endorse all rape jokes.

  3. work/time · · Reply

    This is great. This is exactly the kind of easy “here is the point you dummies” article without the tone that stops people from listening. I hate that it’s even necessary because Lindy’s articles are awesome and anyone deserves to be able to feel strongly about a subject and write the way they feel, but simple minds always meet force with force. It takes training, patience, self awareness, general awareness, and humility to actually HEAR what a person with an opposing opinions is ACTUALLY saying. Unfortunately, the people she’s arguing with have none of that. The selfish babies.

  4. Thanks! I found myself in the odd position of not knowing how to summarize her essay because it’s just so damn good, so I spent a fair amount of time thinking about how to distill the issue. I think there’s more going on for her than what I’ve said, but this is the aspect of her argument I find most interesting.

  5. Here here! Well said Ron.

    (But seriously, good synopsis, thanks for linking the Daily Beast round-up.)

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