Douchebag Decree: Daniel Tosh and the "Comedy" of Rape Culture
Some weeks it's tough to choose who gets the Douchebag Decree. I'll admit that I've written posts that were a bit of a stretch in the past, or tried to cram two stories into one because I couldn't decide who was the bigger douche. This week, however, the guesswork's been done for me. You know him, you probably don't love him, you may be disgusted and/or threatened by his very presence: Ladies and Gents, it's Daniel Tosh!!!
Shhh... My rape jokes are sleeping.
Trigger warning for discussion of rape and sexual assault.
In case you haven't been following the rape comedy incident heard 'round the world, here's a quick summary: On Friday, a woman and her friend went to see Dane Cook and Daniel Tosh at the Laugh Factory in LA (I know, I know, but some people like Dane Cook). They'd never heard of Tosh. He came on stage, and this happened:
So Tosh then starts making some very generalizing, declarative statements about rape jokes always being funny, how can a rape joke not be funny, rape is hilarious, etc. I don’t know why he was so repetitive about it but I felt provoked because I, for one, DON’T find them funny and never have. So I didn't appreciate Daniel Tosh (or anyone!) telling me I should find them funny. So I yelled out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”
Tosh responded to the woman thusly:
After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” and I, completely stunned and finding it hard to process what was happening but knowing i needed to get out of there, immediately nudged my friend, who was also completely stunned, and we high-tailed it out of there. It was humiliating, of course, especially as the audience guffawed in response to Tosh, their eyes following us as we made our way out of there. I didn’t hear the rest of what he said about me.
In sum: Tosh made some statements about finding rape funny, an audience member said rape jokes aren't funny, Tosh indirectly threatened her with gang rape, and she left because she understandably felt threatened. (The owner of the Laugh Factory has a slightly different account of what happened, but he also says he "really didn’t hear [what happened] properly." His account also includes the gang rape comment.)
Tosh "apologized" for what happened, then followed it up by defending his right to joke:
This story broke on Tuesday afternoon, and in the two days since it's been unfortunately framed as a debate about what is and isn't funny when it comes to rape. (Um, rape isn't funny?) That's not the issue here, though for what it's worth, I agree with Margaret Lyons that most of the time rape jokes are a bad idea. Daniel Tosh can joke about whatever he wants, and he has. In fact, he has a history of rape joke-making, and anyone who's watched Tosh.0 is probably not at all surprised to learn that. Comics are allowed to make rape jokes, and audience members are allowed to say they don't like them. That's where things get extra douche-y here. Tosh's response to his audience member, threatening and silencing her, was not okay. And the comedians and members of the media who are defending him, saying that a comedy club is a sacred space where anything goes and no one is allowed to talk back? And if they do they deserve to be threatened and humiliated? Yeah, those people can fuck off.
Let's break this mother down, because tons of stuff has been written about Tosh and lots of it is really good and totally worth your time. Okay? Here we go:
Look, I get that comedy is about pushing envelopes, but telling a rape joke—or rather, making a declarative statement about rape jokes, because as far as I can tell Tosh didn't tell an actual "joke" at any point—isn't pushing the envelope. As Jessica Valenti says at The Nation, "threatening women with rape, making light of rape, and suggesting that women who speak up be raped is not edgy or controversial. It’s the norm. This is what women deal with every day. Maintaining the status quo around violence against women isn't exactly revolutionary." And as Roxane Gay put it, in response to people who find rape jokes "brave" or "edgy," "Sometimes, saying what others are afraid or unwilling to say is just being an asshole." They're both right; in my opinion, the only time a rape joke is truly successful is when rape culture is the butt of it—otherwise it implies that rape and rape culture are inherently funny (more on that idea here, where Lindy West breaks down how to make a rape joke; and here, where RMJ outlines the conditions for an anti-oppression joke). Douche that he be, Daniel Tosh seems to find rape genuinely funny. For an example of this, check out this other rape joke of his, where the punchline is that his sister was raped:
LOL right? Um, no. I find Daniel tosh genuinely unfunny, but then again I don't think rape is funny either (also I am a woman and therefore have no sense of humor, so make of that what you will). Okay, on to the next one:
The "joke" is one thing, but Tosh's response to the woman who didn't like it is something else entirely. To quote Elissa Bassist, "Tosh was more than 'just kidding.' He was angry. His 'joke' was reactive to the so-called heckler who called him out in front of an audience. He used humor to cut her down, to remind her of own vulnerability, to emphasize who was in control." Sure, comedians often talk back to hecklers (to my mind, saying you don't like rape jokes isn't "heckling," but it's industry parlance for basically anyone who talks out of turn during a stand-up routine), but what's missing from much of this conversation is that we live in a rape culture, and threatening a woman with gang rape isn't the same as, say, making a "Yo Mama" joke. For all Tosh knows, the woman in question has been raped (fun math break: there were 280 people in the audience at Friday's show. If roughly half of them were women and roughly one in four women have been sexually assaulted, and one in 33 men have been, odds are there were about 39 sexual assault victims in the crowd. I bet they loved it!), and even if she hasn't, living in a rape culture means she lives in fear of being raped, because there is a very good chance she actually will be at some point. Not only that, but Tosh has mobilized his audience to harass women before and they've obliged. If he's calling for five of them to rape an audience member, was she so wrong to be worried? I know I sure as hell would have been.
The Response to Tosh's Response
One of the more disheartening aspects of this whole douchebacle is the circling of the wagons by a host of other comedians. It's as if, by questioning Tosh's actions, they feel comedy itself is threatened. It isn't, you guys! You can say you don't like the way he attacked an audience member and still do comedy! You can make jokes even if you allow for criticism of your colleagues and your industry! Some comedians (sadly some who I thought were more progressive-ish than this—lookin' at you, Nanjiani) didn't get that memo:
This isn't about an "idiot" blogger or Tosh being pro-rape, though he does indeed appear to be pro-rape culture (you don't make that pepper spray joke about your sister if you don't, on some level, find rape uproariously funny. Hell, he even *said* he thinks rape is funny!). This isn't about whether Tosh can make a joke about rape and still have a career—he clearly can, and does. His Comedy Central show is very highly rated and in no danger of going off the air ever—especially if frat guys continue to smoke weed and people continue to act like assholes on YouTube, which they undoubtedly will in both cases.
This is about whether comedy, and the world at large really, will allow women to push back against rape culture. This woman felt uncomfortable with Tosh's rape comments because we live in a world where rape is expected, and she doesn't find that funny. Tosh's response, and the responses of his colleagues, aren't about defending rape jokes—we live in a society where, unfortunately, they don't need defending—they're about shutting this woman up. They're about maintaining the status quo—the one where men are allowed to rape women who talk back, who dress like sluts, who "ask for it"—at all costs, even if it means threatening someone with gang rape. If she tries to fight back then she just doesn't get it. And if others call out this behavior, then they don't get it either.
It sounds depressing when you lay it out like that, but I'm actually encouraged by the response to the response to Tosh's response (oh, the Internet!). It shows me that more and more of us refuse to be silenced by douchebags like Tosh and his fellow status quo comedians. It has me hopeful that in the not-so-distant future they'll realize what we've known all along: They're the ones who don't get it.
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