Friday, December 07, 2012

Matthew Inman, The Oatmeal, and another lesson in jokes about rape

I wanted to touch, again, on one of the little hang-ups in the whole "rape humor" controversy. I know the saturation point for this topic is WAY below the volume of material being churned out, and pretty much everyone who's given it any thought it dug into their point of view and sick of any further discussion. Still, each time I come up with a new angle on it, anything I think might be useful trying to sort out their own ethical position, I'm going to throw it out there where people can get to it.

Last time this came into my purview, it was the Daniel Tosh incident and the subsequent commentary by Louis CK. I've learned since then, largely via this article: it's also come up for Rainn Wilson, who is a very conscientious and self-aware entertainer; and that Two Broke Girls, which I've never seen and don't have that much interest in, apparently has a hat in the ring of this controversy, as well. And even as I was writing this, there was a little burst of controversy about FHM making a casual joke about rape victims in the middle of a tongue-in-cheek fashion advice piece. Clearly this is a raw, red, touchy, twitching, swollen nerve center on the butt-cheek of public discourse.

The big vortex of controversy today comes courtesy Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal, who found himself swamped in a ton of shit for a throw-away line in one of his recent comics. The final panel – the one that's no longer there – said something to the effect of, "The F5 key = The rape victim: 'The Internet is not behaving as expected! I must now violate you over and over and over again!'" As of this writing, it can be found here:

Now, upon getting broadsided by a barrage of criticism, Inman made a typical move that we should recognize from other similar cases: he lashed out in self-defense, replacing that offending panel with a bratty editorial snark, found here: Just for the record, he has since taken this down and issued a more thoughtful response, so read all this with the understanding that I'm still a fan and I appreciate his mindfulness.

As I've said before, this is the first, biggest mistake when facing a battlefront of critics. You don't give voice to your first self-righteous reaction. It will only amplify the anger, escalate the conflict, and thereby fully trivialize the larger issue. Penny Arcade, Michael Richards, Daniel Tosh... all of these major "offensive comedian" controversies happened because the comedians saw their provocative material as some kind of territory that should be defended against critics, and they ended up losing any diplomatic perspective whatsoever. In contrast, consider Rainn Wilson's simple response, which allowed him to get out from under the hate almost immediately. Rainn is not, and will not become, an icon of anti-feminism to anyone out there in the activist community.

But there's another tangent I want to follow before I shrug my shoulders and say, "There goes another one." In his faux-apology, Inman seems to think he's being criticized simply because he used the word Rape, and that every use of the word is now policed and shut down. If he was paying any attention, he would know that this isn't true. Even in comedy, some people mention rape and it goes unpunished, and even appreciated. The question is, what was it in Inman's particular case? What unique lesson might he learn here?

It's not that complicated, honestly, and it holds consistently across all the cited examples: Penny Arcade, Rainn Wilson, Daniel Tosh. And it contrasts mightily with other cases, like Louis CK and Sarah Silverman, who can get away with joking about rape without being shouted down for it. What triggers the outrage is that Inman (and PA and Tosh) seemed to use "rape" as a punchline because it's the first damn thing they thought of, and they just blurted it out. It was a simple "so provocative!" verbal cue that made whatever they were talking about funny by default.


Rape is an actual thing, with very serious cultural and psychological implications for a ton of people. It is not a good thing, ethically or pragmatically, that it's a de facto punchline, funny just because it makes people gasp and giggle. It's especially dangerous that, in a certain way (and I know this is debatable), it's a little winking reminder to violent, abusive people that their power is feared, accepted, and trivialized by our culture... i.e. by everybody around them, who are content to laugh at rape jokes without actually considering their content. Look, I'm not a sociologist. But I know a sociological issue when I see one.

The point is, don't throw rape around as a punchline because it's easy, and it's the first thing you think of, and it's easy shorthand for "abuse, but funnier!" That's what all those outraged, screaming PC police are trying to tell you. Talk about rape, and make jokes while you're doing it, but when "rape" is some kind of punctuation mark that makes people laugh reflexively, that's a problem. Don't be the asshole comedian who makes it worse.

To his credit, Inman has issued a much more solemn apology later, indicating that he had actually thought about the issue and didn't want to lock himself into being a dismissive douche about it. For a while, he retweeted the criticisms of his comic... at first in defiance, I think (I could be wrong), but eventually it seemed to become a form of penance. Personally, I think Inman has paid his dues, and has settled upon a wise and well-considered response to all that controversy, and deserves to continue his gross, hilarious, extensive comic production unmolested.

Self-awareness: it's the new S-M-R-T.

1 comment:

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