Ellie Levenson: Where jokes are concerned, context is all

Humour is a way we work through our feelings about difficult issues

Share
Related Topics

Some time ago I was on a train late at night on my way home from visiting a friend. In my carriage was just me and a man, a stranger. He started talking to me. He didn't seem threatening and the conversation turned to comedy – he was writing a sitcom. He said he would tell me a joke and it went like this: "A man walks into a bar and says to the barman 'I could have any woman in here that I want.' 'How's that?' says the barman. The man replied: 'Because I'm a rapist.'"

I laughed. Not because rape is funny, but because he'd broken the rape taboo, the unmentionable fear that all women have in this kind of situation. For I think most women would feel vulnerable on a train just them and a stranger, and indeed on realising it was just the two of us in the carriage I had already checked out the location of the emergency alarm and satisfied myself that there were people within sight in the next carriage. By making the joke this fear was addressed and dismissed, and I was able to relax into the rest of my journey.

There's a debate happening online about this on two feminist websites at the moment, on The F Word, a UK site, and on Feministing, a US site. The F Word debate is in response to a passage in my book in which I analyse the above joke, and the consensus on these websites seems to be that actually, jokes about rape can never be acceptable.

I don't agree. Are there any subjects where jokes are off-limits? We could say that racist jokes are unacceptable, and indeed in most circumstances they are, but what about a joke about an affectionate stereotype told by a member of that race to another member of that race? As with all jokes, context is all. If the rape joke had been told to me aggressively or if we weren't already talking about comedy, I may have read it as a threat not as a joke. But in fact the joke was not really about rape. It was about men's egos, and about reminding men that actually they tend not to be swoon-inducing attractive man that can just pick a woman and "have her".

Humour is one of the natural ways humans work through their thoughts and feelings about difficult issues. In the bleakest situations people find a funny thought. A couple of days after the tsunami that killed thousands of people across Asia, I went to a comedy show. The act was full of jokes about the tsunami – things such as tsunami being a high scorer on Countdown (presenter Richard Whiteley had just died) and the Tsunami (Toon Army) causing havoc across Asia. Did these jokes make me think the comedian, or the laughing audience, did not feel the horror of the natural disaster that had just happened? Of course not. We were coming to terms with tragedy through humour.

Laughing about rape does not make rape funny, but it does help us to work out our thoughts and feelings about a subject through the prism of humour and to understand that while rape jokes may be funny, rape itself never is.



The author's latest book, The Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism, is published by Oneworld

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Bob Geldof  

Ebola is a political AND a medical disease

Paul Vallely
 

I've tried reason, but my cat is pig-ignorant

Dom Joly
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, say DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin