By Molly Freeman
Photo courtesy of Greg Razzi.
From the number of stories in the news about rape, it’s debatable whether the U.S. is moving forward in its portrayal and discussion of the subject. Sure, the two men in Steubenville were convicted of their rape charges—though they received minimum sentences for the crime. Meanwhile, Anonymous had to get involved in Steubenville, and now Maryville, in order for the cases to be taken seriously.
On the other hand, the FBI changed the definition of rape to include men as well as oral sex. The discussion of rape has also begun to include terms such as “victim-blaming” and “slut-shaming”, which were rarely, if ever, heard in the mainstream media.
With all the advances and setbacks, it’s hard to tell where public opinion stands on rape and where it’s going exactly—though looking at Twitter could be a way to gauge how people are talking about the subject. Currently there is the underlying debate about rape jokes, which first began in mainstream media last year. A Daniel Tosh performance made headlines when a woman in the audience claimed the comedian joked about her being raped after she heckled him. Feminists and victims of sexual assault were outraged, but this event spawned a dialogue about a comedian’s right to joke about rape and other serious subjects.
Recently, a slew of rape jokes made by regular people—not comedians—proliferated on Twitter in response to the third season premiere of American Horror Story Coven. The episode featured an exceptionally realistic rape scene in which Emma Robert’s character, Madison, is drugged, pulled into an empty bedroom, and gang raped by a group of frat boys. The scene is shot from Madison’s point of view to make it extra horrifying—and triggering for those who have suffered similar experiences.
While the scene was powerful, the responses to Madison’s rape were even more appalling. Some of those watching the premiere reacted on Twitter, making jokes that crossed the line between questionable and downright horrible. They expressed joy over the events of the scene—many because they dislike Roberts.
“So happy @RobertsEmma got frat raped in #AmericanHorrorStory her acting is so lame. But that was funny. I’m going to hell, wait…I’m here” one viewer tweeted. While another tweet read: “Emma Roberts getting gang-date raped, sweet.”
Some viewers even wished the brutality of the scene on the actress: “I hope emma roberts gets raped.”
It should be pointed out that these tweets are quite similar to something Daniel Tosh said to a female audience member at that same news-worthy performance last year. So perhaps there is a trickle down effect from what comedians joke about to what people think is acceptable to remark on Twitter—though that’s not to say Daniel Tosh or any comedian is to blame. But it might serve as a telling example of what happens when mainstream comedians irresponsibly exercise their right to joke about anything they want.
This past summer Jezebel writer Lindy West debated the subject with comedian Jim Norton on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. Norton and West discussed a comedian’s freedom to joke about anything and everything, as well as the repercussions for such jokes. West then continued the conversation online.
“I believe that the way we speak about things and the type of media we consume profoundly influences how we think about the world … I do believe that comedy’s current permissiveness around cavalier, cruel, victim-targeting rape jokes contributes to (that’s contributes—not causes) a culture of young men who don’t understand what it means to take this stuff seriously,” West said in her piece on Jezebel.
Norton also made it a point that comedians who joke about rape should only do so if it doesn’t come from a place of anger. However, the jokes made on Twitter in response to Emma Robert’s rape scene were most definitely said out of anger and hatred. It’s possible that while people might learn from the media, as West asserts, that it’s okay to make rape jokes, they might have missed Norton’s point about leaving anger out of those jokes.
So is there a correlation between comedians joking about rape and these tweets that can only loosely be defined as jokes? As West points out, a person could believe that the way media—not just comedians, but news anchors and other public figures as well—has affected the way these Twitter users think and speak about rape.
In Kelsea Stahler’s article on Bustle, “’American Horror Story: Coven’ Rape Scene Cheered on by Emma Roberts Haters,” she discussed what these tweets say about the people who wrote them.
“Troves of young people — men and women, alike — find no issue with joking about rape, fundamentally detaching themselves from the true weight of the word and allowing themselves to turn it into a vehicle for a few measly retweets,” Stahler wrote. “They’ve found enough detachment from the word “rape” as they have from accepting that Roberts is a real person and that acting is her job, not a mystical veil that turns her into plastic so she can safely absorb threatening Internet comments.”
Jokes on a subject, especially a lot of jokes on a subject, can have a normalizing effect—the detachment that Stahler mentions—but many of those who take issue with rape jokes are afraid of that normalization. Do rape jokes cause rape? Of course not. But, as exemplified by the Twitter users who wished violence on Emma Roberts simply because they don’t like her, rape jokes desensitize people to the act and may lead people to not take sexual assault as seriously as it should be taken.