Today, the comedy website Chortle (which I won’t link to, because frankly they’ve had enough traffic for one day) published a piece in their Correspondents section – part of their website where comedians write “first person opinion pieces” about issues affecting comedy – by a comedian called Mike Sheer. The blog, (which again I won’t link to, because it’s had enough hits for one day) was called ‘Women or Rape: Which is Less Funny?’ and was seemingly, Sheer’s attempt to answer, once and for all, that age-old question of whether women are funny, by comparing women to every Fringe comedian’s joke du jour: rape.
In the piece, Sheer decided that while women aren’t really that funny, an idea he explained by using several incredibly humourless and brutally offensive anecdotes about women getting an easier time of it because they’re “weak and soft”, they were less funny than rape jokes. Although, he was in support of rape jokes in general as the censorship of them, according to Sheer, is “abhorrent”.
The piece, as you can imagine, was not received very well online, and on Twitter at least, people are already announcing that Sheer’s career is over, and Chortle has come under heavy criticism for publishing the article. However, Sheer has had some support, not least from fellow comedian James W. Smith who revealed in his blog that the piece originally appeared on Sheer’s personal blog, and was republished by Chortle. Smith’s blog actually gets to the real crux of the issues with Sheer’s piece, which is that while he knows him personally and also his comedy style, Chortle should not have republished his work.
Herein lies on of the many problems with Sheer’s article. The internet, unlike the human mind, doesn’t come with a sarcasm alarm; no klaxon sounds in our ears when we read something that the author has intended as a joke, albeit a very unfunny and sexist one. The fact that Sheer is not very well-known, and his views on the subjects of rape and women appear to be so extreme means that a lot of people are going to read what he’s written as opinion, not humour. Additionally, when you write such sexist material you’re going to elicit a response that you haven’t prepared for.
However ‘hilarious’ Sheer’s intentions might have been when he wrote his article, Chortle’s decision to repost it is what really concerns me, as does their response to the online reaction the piece has caused. Chortle’s Editor, Steve Bennett was quick to defend the article saying “…we’re not about causing needless offence” before stating that the piece was about making fun of issues of censorship and arguments about what is appropriate inside the comedy circuit. However, Bennett didn’t apologise and he ended his statement by admitting that he found the negative reaction funny, saying: “ The fact people have taken this article seriously might be the funniest thing I’ve ever heard, outside a fart.”
Whether Sheer’s piece is simply a poor attempt at satire, or a platform for him to make a better name for himself by being controversial, the fact remains that the continuing popularity of rape jokes in the national and international comedy circuit must be addressed. Bennett’s defence of Sheer’s work, which veers on the standard response of “It was just a joke” reveals a lack of understanding and empathy for the power that any writing about rape has on people, or the gravity of the depth of feeling towards the use of rape jokes in the comedy circuit.
Put simply, any fool could make a rape joke, and it seems like most fools do, especially if they are paid to go on a stage and say it in front of hundreds of people. However, the way many comedians use rape as a source of their jokes doesn’t do anything for the crime or its victims. Recent incidents, such as when the American comedian Daniel Tosh, who dealt with a women in the audience who disagreed his statement that “rape jokes are always funny” by saying: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” reveal that more and more comedians view rape victims as something to be laughed at. In Tosh’s case, he used the threat of gang rape; a brutal and repugnant act of sexual violence, in order to silence a woman who merely disagreed with his material.
Rape is a violent crime, it is not about sex or desire, it’s about power and control, it’s about one or more people violating another human being in the most despicable and inhumane way. We must find a way to talk about it more, to help end the stigma that exists in our society that stops victims for coming forward out of fear of not being believed. The same stigma that vilifies the victim through the use of cruel practises like victim blaming, where society blames the rape victim for any reason, such as walking home late at night, being in a relationship with the rapist, being drunk, having had a drink, or simply for wearing a short skirt. Telling rape jokes like the ones that Tosh et al have championed is not the way. If anything, the rapists are the ones most deserving of a dose of satire, of jokes and of laughter because they have to prey on others for their own twisted and pathetic pleasure.
So what next for Sheer and Chortle? While it looks like they tried to do something different with this piece, they’ve offended a lot of people, regardless of their intent. An apology issued by both Sheer and Chortle would go some way to make up for the offence caused by the article, as would make a donation to a rape charity or a local rape crisis centre. In the meantime we can only wait and see what happens next.