Last night, when I was playing, of all things, World of Warcraft, a game that I enjoy when I can dedicate some time to relaxing, I went on a quest more serious than any I have ever done in my entire life of gaming: A quest to decide if a rape joke was funny. Not only was this a serious quest inspired by something that happened in-game, but it was because I had made a comment about something that happens regularly in gaming. So, before I tell you all about rape jokes, let me give you a little gaming back ground, to help you understand the example I’m about to use.
In gaming, especially in MMOs, it is really common to get quests to save a population of people represented by non-player characters (NPCs), who face an extreme situation that they need help out of. Usually, though, your quest has a kind of minimum requirement. If you have a quest to vaccinate bears from disease, your quest might only require you to do 7; if you have a quest to save drowning military personnel, your quest may only require that you save 8; if you have a quest to stop the perpetuation of stupid myths about men, women, and family archetypes, once you’ve changed the views of 10 people, you’re done and can turn in your quest. The rest of the diseased bears, drowning victims and sexist douchebags are left to suffer whatever horrifying fate you were asked to save some of them from, because MMOs don’t account for over-achievers. In fact, not only does the quest not make you save more than a certain number, in some cases you *can’t* do more than the number needed after you’ve saved your requirement, due to an equipment limitation. Also, you’re in a game where a few million other people need enough NPCs to save, too, which is probably why some games have that limitation. If someone saved everyone, then everyone else has to wait for more drowning soldiers to respawn before they can finish their quest.
Also, many MMOs have “guilds,” who consist of the people that you regularly cooperate with, in-game, to obtain social perks, to bullshit with while you’re blowing up enemies and to share resources with. So, while I was saving drowning victims, last night, in an area that I was new to, I commented to the guild about how these quests where you save only a few people is basically one that implies that the people you leave behind are screwed. It is an unstated fact, but the fact becomes pretty apparent, to me, while I’m playing. In response, one of my guild mates said that the people over at Penny Arcade had made a comic about that and someone else commented that it had caused a bit of an internet skirmish. So, I began searching on the internet about this comic that I had missed, which my friends informed me was called “Dickwolves.” (Note: This “Dickwolves” thing happened in 2010 – bear in mind some time has passed since then. I don’t wish to revive this controversy for the people involved, I am using it as an example).
So, I’m going to leave that conversation, for a moment, and jump to another experience, and we’ll get back to the Penny Arcade comic, in a moment. A couple years ago, I was visiting a guy friend in Seattle, and he wanted to take me to a movie. So, we went to see The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, because I had heard all kinds of things about it, and I had seen the other movie options available, at the time. I hadn’t realized, though, that there would be a couple scenes that I found disturbing. Once the first rape scene began, I became very tense and felt like I was going to cry. My friend, who’s a very perceptive person, apparently, took notice. I survived the scene, but I was upset as the movie progressed. When the next rape scene was about the happen, my friend leaned over and quietly gave me a warning, so I was able to leave during just that scene, and then return when I thought it was safe. That was very kind of my friend. I don’t have a problem with movies existing that have violent content, or even content with violent sex scenes. However, it is nice when people give me a warning. That’s a polite thing to do. In fact, it is nice when most people are aware enough to help me not have to deal with small mental meltdowns. Because, sometimes, there are things that remind me of what happened to me and while other people are watching a scene in a movie, I have to re-live the worst experience of my entire life.
So, imagine, for a moment, that you’re in an environment where there are lots of people who are familiar with the movie, The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. Next, imagine that you find out that there are people selling shirts that say, “team Nils Bjurman,” referencing the rapist in the movie. Would that make you feel uncomfortable? Admittedly, Bjurman is a fictional character, but these T-shirts are meant for real people. Suddenly, the fictional character, who was a part of one of the most uncomfortable parts of the film can be represented, right in front of you, in real life, on a real person. Obviously, any person who would want a shirt like that is well within their rights to do so. But, just as nice as it is for someone to give a person a warning about risks before they witness something that could be painful to them, it is mean to force others to deal with witnessing that thing, intentionally. That isn’t to say that anyone who would wear a “team Nils Bjurman” shirt is a bad person, but their shirt does have an impact on others that probably shouldn’t be ignored.
So, back to the Penny Arcade fiasco. Penny Arcade had a comic in which a character, one like what you would play in an MMO, is addressed by an NPC who is apparently the kind he’s supposed to save for his quest. The NPC describes the conditions that he is stuck in (NPCs in danger commonly say things related to the quest, that are designed to inspire empathy), he says, “Every morning, we are roused by savage blows. Every night, we are raped to sleep by the dickwolves.” The response of the player character, though, was to dismiss him because, well, he’s fulfilled his quota that the quest required. The original comic was funny, and given the unlikelihood of a person reading the comic identifying with the dickwolves’ captive, it was at least somewhat well done. When I saw it, I instantly recognized it was exactly in-line with what I was commenting on to my friends in my guild. Even the most horrible situation in an MMO can result in that kind of problem. The Penny Arcade comic was trying to highlight that. So, what was the most horrible thing they could think of at the moment? The dickwolves that rape, obviously.
This comic, though, was found to be offensive by many people who feel that rape jokes shouldn’t be made. And so the Penny Arcade guys did a couple things, one of which was probably a bad move. First, they made a comic about the offensive comic and how they felt about the response.
It used to be common for people to ask, “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” And, until very recently, people thought it was a profound joke, because chickens lay eggs and chickens come from eggs. For a very long time, people argued that joking about rape would desensitize people to rape, making them more likely to be comfortable with it. Being a rapist, they claimed, would probably make it easier to find rape funny. Which came first, the rapist or the rape joke? The second Penny Arcade comic, which referred to the first, addressed only this problem, but ignored much of the rest of the commentary about what they had done.
Then, they made a T-Shirt (and apparently a pennant), that looked like a school mascot emblazoned, team logo shirt that might be worn by someone in college or high school, and it supported (can you guess?) Dickwolves! Yes, they made a “team Dickwolves” T-Shirt.
While Penny Arcade did not take down the comics that people found offensive, they did eventually take down the Dickwolves T-Shirt. But, they didn’t seem to like it. It seems that someone did manage to make some good points, but their reasoning for taking it down, they said, was to keep people from feeling uncomfortable. The didn’t, however, acknowledge that maybe that shirt was tasteless or maybe there was an element of something not-quite-right with it.
Now, I did notice, in the conversations I saw, a lot of people complaining about censorship. So, I’m going to make a brief note on that. When someone censors themselves, it is OK. Along with the right to freedom of speech, we also have the right to self-censorship. We especially have a right to self-censorship when not censoring ourselves might allow us to continue with selling something that might be considered a mistake. No controlling body stepped in and forced Penny Arcade to remove the shirt. They chose to do that, themselves.
I also want to note that I don’t have anything against Penny Arcade and I hope that people don’t angry-face-on-the-internet at them for something they did a few years ago that they probably hoped was past them, by now. I used them as an example because it was a perfect example for what I keep encountering in the conversations online about rape jokes. When people ask if a rape joke can be funny, there are several schools of thought. Two schools are completely opposed to each other and represent the extreme:
- NO, rape jokes are never funny.
- Yes, rape jokes are funny and we shouldn’t complain about comedians.
Most people, though, seem to land somewhere in between those.
Last year, Daniel Tosh made this comment to his audience a while after a girl heckled him about a rape joke: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now?”
That joke brought the reality of rape out of the funny for a lot of people. Would it be funny if the girl got raped, right then? No, and most people seemed to realize that. The reality was, Tosh’s joke labeled the woman as a victim, right there, and real people as her attackers. That’s not funny, anymore. That brings the joke about something horrible into a possible reality of something horrible. I would have felt pretty uncomfortable, too, if I had witnessed it.
Gabe and Tycho of Penny Arcade managed to make a joke about rape, that was not set in reality, that was funny and that we could use to reasonably view something as horrifying, but keep our distance from it, so that it could be seen as funny. BUT, they also put an element of that joke into a reality that made people wear the label as supporters of the actual horrifying thing.
So, what makes a rape joke something to be concerned about or something that we can laugh at? Well, it seems that at least one thing that comes into play is that joke’s proximity to reality. Famously, George Carlin commented that anything can be funny. “Picture Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd,” was Carlin’s proof that rape can be funny. Just prior to that, though, Carlin said that he thinks rape is hilarious, in his lead-in to that joke. But, his example was a joke about rape in a fantasy context. It was put in a safe place, where we don’t have to identify with it; where it didn’t have a real form; where the horrifying nature of rape is a part of what made the joke funny.
Also last year, after Todd Akin made his comments about rape, The Renegade Raging Grannies, a local group, came up with this clever song. It, too, was a rape joke. It was a rape joke that made fun of the horrifying nature of what Akin had said, and that is what made it funny. Here are the lyrics, from their website:
“Legitimate rape” is great birth control.
So says Todd Akin, and he oughta know.
If we are raped we can rest unafraid,
‘Cause we can’t get pregnant if forcibly laid.
Our female bodies are clever that way,
We only get pregnant when we say “okay.”
Doctors have told him, so it must be so,
The stork only comes if we don’t say “No!”
Rape won’t make babies and that is a fact;
There’s no global warming; the Earth’s really flat.
We heard it on FOX News so it must be true.
Well, Mr. Akin, we say “FUCK YOU!”
So, rape jokes can be funny, but there’s reason to examine why many rape jokes should be avoided. It isn’t because people want to tell you what to say (an accusation that Carlin made), it is because it is more polite to not put people into the uncomfortable position of seeing it as a personal reality. Much like it is polite not to force someone to witness something that is a serious reminder of a traumatic experience, or to help prevent that. Essentially, you can joke about anything you like, including rape, but don’t actually be a Dickwolf.