cambridge university students were asked on campus why they needed feminism. here are 60 answers. click the link for over 600 more.
Some of these really hit me with how poignant they were. My two favourites:
“I need feminism because some of my friends will laugh at me for doing this.”
“I need feminism because ‘women aren’t funny’ but rape jokes are.”
Late last year, I was asked to contribute to a new anthology of essays edited by Jane Caro called Destroying The Joint: Why Women Need To Change The World. (You can read other excerpts here, here and here.)
I decided to write about the fracas of a rape ‘comedy’ debate in which a group of young comedians - all men - were due to participate. You may have read about it here. You should definitely read about some of the fallout here. You can see the original promotional poster below:
My contribution is reprinted here with full permission from UQP.
Sometime towards the end of last year, a small comedy club in Richmond, Victoria, found itself at the centre of an online frenzy after a promotional poster for one of its events went viral on the internet.
The poster was designed to reflect a 1940s movie sensibility, and featured an animated man and woman locked in a physical battle. Underneath this image of domestic brutality was the event’s title: ‘There’s Nothing Funny about Rape’. And beneath that were printed the names of the people engaged to deliver this so called comedy ‘debate’. There were six of them, and they were all men.
It didn’t take long for the internet to react. Images of the poster were quickly doing the rounds on Facebook and Twitter, the internet’s most accessible meeting rooms for outrage and vigorous debate. The event’s venue, Station 59, came under justifiable attack from people astonished that the concept had even been floated let alone given a green light. Members of newly minted online activist group Destroy the Joint were vehement in their belief that the event itself needed to be shut down. ‘Destroyers’, as they call themselves, were given the telephone number of the pub and encouraged to register their disapproval and protest. Later, it would emerge that some people (whether official Destroyers or not) had tracked down the venue’s manager’s home phone number, and continued to register their protest there.
It’s always disappointing when places and communities that we’d assumed to be allies reveal themselves to be just as rife with sexism and misogyny. But when we talk about ‘the joint’, we have to remember that it’s very, very big. And sometimes, we have to look inward as well as outward when it comes to destroying it. I was among those who saw that poster and felt sick over its implications. That the event itself seemed swamped in ignorance and privilege was one thing. That they had chosen to promote it using the kind of flippant language that can only stem from a culture that normalises rape is another. But their additional choice to employ imagery that diminished both the severity of the act and its impact on its victims reached an altogether baffling level of idiocy. Who were these men who thought it was their place to debate such issues and try to parse them through a comedic framework? And what kind of deeply entrenched privilege must one have that it wouldn’t occur to them to book even one woman to redress that balance – particularly given the marginalisation women already experience in the comedy industry?
The responsibility for the event fell at the feet of one man: Kieran Butler, a comedian who runs the weekly Open Mic night at Station 59. In the days following the uproar, Butler went out of his way to address his critics. Oh, not in the way you might imagine. There was no contrition, no apology. He demonstrated very little in the way of trying to understand why it might have been hurtful for people to see the topic of rape humour bandied about with so little empathy, particularly as it came only a few months after the highly publicised rape and murder of Jill Meagher (a tragedy that led to 30000 people marching down Sydney Road, Brunswick, in a peace march) and also on the back of endless gobsmacking commentary regarding rape and ‘legitimacy’ courtesy of the US Republican Party. No, after Station 59 decided to cancel the event, Butler responded by planning another debate for the following week while grumbling about ‘censorship’ and ‘freedom of speech’. The debate this time would concern itself with why it wasn’t inappropriate to host a rape debate in the first place – as if the potential offence caused to rape victims had been far outweighed by the grievous actual harm being done to freedom of speech. This was for democracy. It was for every comic who’d ever sat in his room and dreamed of one day telling a story on stage about sexual assault to raucous laughter, without having to deal with the panty-waisted politically correct brigade trying to stop him from walking all over the edge, man.
Trying to cover all his fox holes, Butler made sure to invite a woman to speak: twenty-year-old Genevieve Stewart. Stewart had been one of the most vocal opponents of the initial event, a fact Butler made sure to reiterate in his justification for prolonging what was fast becoming the most cringeworthy event in Melbourne comedy’s history – a curious repetition, given that Butler also seemed manifestly interested in protecting the illusion of free speech. Later it emerged that he’d also been insistent that another opponent, Aleksia Barron, come down and ‘defend [her] point of view’. She declined. It was as if Butler hoped to suddenly appear welcoming and inclusive, yet was too consumed by the childish feelings of censure to properly conceal the fact that what he really wanted was for Gen Stewart to justify her opposition and vindicate him as the edgy, dangerous comedian he fancied himself to be. Instead, what happened was this:
Gen took the stage and announced that she was trying to explain why rape jokes normalise rape and harm rape survivors. She set out to talk about the topic of rape jokes generally then describe her own experience, but she was interrupted and heckled so many times during her general discussion she decided to go straight to the story of her own rape at age fifteen. Again, she was repeatedly interrupted. When she expressed her anger and hurt that comedians could listen to such stories and still heckle, she was heckled further.
A further account published in Melbourne’s The Age revealed that Butler had grabbed the microphone from Stewart while she was in the middle of recounting her story. Prior to this, an audience member had yelled at her, ‘Where’s the joke?!’ while another called her a ‘faggot’ on the way out.
So much for freedom of speech.
And yet despite the testimonies of women and men who felt it wildly inappropriate for comedians – and fledgling ones at that; Butler later defended his Open Mic nights as a place for comedians to ‘fall and test out their material … and see whether it will work’ – to use the ruse of a comedy debate to belittle and ignore the experiences of women like Stewart, Butler still seemed fixated on the idea that he was suffering from some kind of gross oppression. It almost beggars belief, but he revisited the issue again when he insisted on being given right of reply after Melbourne comedian Courtney Hocking wrote a critique of the entire affair in online newspaper Crikey. In it, he asserted himself as the kind of freewheeling comedy booker who provided a safe space for ‘fledgling’ comedians to perform with ‘absolute freedom of speech, including a licence to offend, to play in dangerous territory’. He claimed the room was celebrated as a supportive and friendly space for comedians to try out new material and, amazingly, that it had ‘stood for freedom to speak long before “Destroy the Joint” started boosting the ratings of Alan Jones’.
In his defence, Butler focuses primarily on the rights of comedians to have access to safe spaces in which they can perform untested material. There is a notable level of irony in his refusal to see how the safety he values here is conceptual and theoretical – that it comes at the expense of actual safe spaces for women (and men) threatened by sexual assault and rape.
It’s interesting, too, to note how quick Butler was to distance himself from the poster and its creator, Rob Caruana. Unlike Butler, Caruana took no time in issuing an apology on Station 59’s Facebook page once he realised the distress that had been caused. And unlike Butler, Caruana was also quick to take sole responsibility for what can only be described as a massive conceptual fuck-up, despite the fact it was the former who was the organiser and therefore ultimately responsible.
But such scapegoating seems in keeping with Butler’s conduct throughout the entire SNAFU. Butler defends what he calls ‘the values of the room’, but he dismisses the values of an empathetic culture in which rape victims are already too often the butt of people’s suspicion let alone their jokes; he does not recognise that the comedic value of rape is so tenuous that only the most experienced of practitioners should be allowed near it. He declares the discussion ‘topical’ and one that ‘comedians needed to have’, without considering how those comedians may be having it and whether or not it might just be slightly hyperbolic to suggest it’s the conversational equivalent of Stonewall. And crucially, he does all of this without once acknowledging that the weight of his defence is reserved for an industry populated by mostly men, maintaining their ‘right’ to make jokes about a horrific abuse inflicted against mostly women.
It’s easy to imagine comedy as an area that values women, particularly if you frequent the kinds of rooms that feature Proudly Left Wing Comedians. But good comedy doesn’t just make people laugh – it also exposes the foibles of society, poking fun at the least offensive of our idiosyncrasies and outright lampooning deeply held prejudices that diminish us as a people. It’s for these reasons that I believe jokes about racism, sexism, war, death, poverty and yes, even rape, are not necessarily verboten in the world of comedy. Because well- constructed jokes about these topics can succeed by exposing the privilege of those who don’t have to deal with them. They can also succeed by being cleverly explored by the people most likely to experience them. Effectively used, they can help ‘destroy the joint’ as we know it.
When black people tell jokes that ostensibly use racist ideology to make a punchline out of white privilege and racism, this is funny. When Sarah Silverman tells a joke about the confusion felt by a Jewish woman who’s been raped by a doctor, this is funny. Because in both of these cases, the punchline is never the victimisation of one person at the hands of another. But when Daniel Tosh – a privileged white male comic who made a name for himself talking about other people’s YouTube videos on a cable TV show – makes a joke about rape and then heckles someone upset by it by asking, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now … like right now?’ that isn’t funny. And I don’t think we need to be holding ersatz ‘debates’ to explore the difference, when it’s clear that their only reason for existing is so that subpar comedians can continue to confuse being lazy with being dangerous. To quote the late journalist Molly Ivins, ‘Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful … When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel – it is vulgar.’
Unfortunately, this kind of insidious sexism is all too common in industries and groups that would appear – on the surface at least – to be allies. It’s experienced by women like Rebecca Watson, the founder of Skepchick, who are active in the atheist and sceptic community, who find themselves struggling to come to terms with the abhorrent sexism and misogyny they experience at the hands of fellow atheists and sceptics – people for whom the concept of rejecting religious and social oppression is core to their beliefs. It’s experienced also by filmmakers like Anita Sarkeesian who, for the crime of pointing out the rampant sexism on display in the gaming world – a community ostensibly and stereotypically made up of people who don’t adhere to society’s expectations – was rewarded with rape threats, violent memes depicting her being beaten and/or raped, and ongoing anonymous harassment. And it’s experienced by women within the socialist movement, who are told that their rapes and sexual assaults at the hands of leading members are not worthy of police investigation, and will not be properly addressed by the party.
It’s worth remembering that our allies can sometimes also be our foes. The oppression that some men may experience in those arenas will never be quite the same as the oppression experienced by women, but they will imagine that it is and respond to any criticism accordingly. In Kieran Butler’s Crikey defence, he criticised Destroy the Joint’s methods of protest, comparing them unfavourably with his (according to him) more effective stance against Eddie McGuire and the Collingwood Football Club. Unlike DtJ, McGuire didn’t try to ‘silence any future criticism of the Collingwood board by people like us on the grounds he supported freedom of speech’. He goes on to cite further examples of his anarchist streak, such as his public satirisation of MICF director Susan Provan and an incident in which he ‘ruffled feathers’ at The Scotsman.
That Butler imagined his stand against the Collingwood Football Club’s board to be at all similar to the stand taken by people against his rape debate is telling. To conflate evidence of that stand – plus his skit about Provan and some discord at a newspaper – with a protest against using rape as the basis of a comedic ‘debate’, and then using them as evidence that ‘kicking up’ is like, his thing, is an even bigger indicator of just how little he understood the issues at play in November 2012. As a writer, I’ve always suspected a good rule of thumb might be that if you don’t understand the issues, you should be very wary about fighting to the death over your opinion of them.
Yet fight to the death these people do. It’s a particular problem within left-wing politics, because the dominant misconception among its members is that their I-care-about- everyone-therefore-I-can’t-be-oppressive credentials should give them greater leeway when it comes to individually fucking up. You see it with the Butlers of the world for whom the biggest issue facing them is whether or not their audiences will tolerate jokes about rape; the socially oppressed gamers who don’t like being exposed as misogynist oppressors themselves; the atheists who speak loudly and loftily about truth and freedom and then tell their female colleagues that they ‘just don’t get it’ or that they ‘can’t handle it’; the socialists who hail the rights of the workers and cover up a rape in their own ranks. If there’s one thing common across all of these areas, it’s that the oppression of women is always seen as secondary, not as important, not felt as deeply, a problematic distraction from the real issues. And the real issues, we’re told, are what happens when the petty concerns of minorities trample over the rights of men to express themselves without being made to feel bad.
So yes, the joint is very, very big. And we must be vigilant about covering all sides of it. Sometimes our biggest enemies are the ones who think that, just because they loiter occasionally on the outside of the status quo, they lack the ability to oppress those who are forced to live there.
The above essay has been republished here with full permission from UQP. You can purchase Destroying The Joint: Why Women Need to Change the World in all good bookstores or via their website.
people are garbage
yesterday i asked my mother to transfer $5 into my bank account so i could afford to pick up the medicine that keeps me alive anyway congrats zach braff!
God. I can’t believe that after giving Zach Braff ticket money to see that piece of junk Garbage State, people are willing to give him more to make another one. Ugh.