A few months ago, a stand up comic friend of mine told me a story. We were having coffee and discussing her experiences in the scene, and she told me about the ways in which women are accidentally marginalized in male-dominated comedy spaces. Recently she had performed at a show with a male comic who told rape jokes throughout his entire set, while the audience guffawed and played along. While he was on stage, she wondered whose rape was funny. Was her rape funny? She asked herself if he had bothered to connect the two, his jokes with her daily realities as a woman.
That question would be quickly answered.
After his set, they began to talk while she pictured politely beating him with a sledgehammer. He mistook her kindness for camaraderie and when she later went to leave asked if he could walk her to her car — because it was dark outside. She declined, and he asked her if she was sure. “Do you feel safe?” he wondered. “Are you going to be okay?” She just blinked at him, mystified that he couldn’t do the math.
She got to her car by herself.
I thought about this moment when I saw This Is the End, a movie that premiered in theatres a few weeks ago. Starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, it’s a frat pack bonanza of the Knocked Up variety, ditching the romantic comedy subplot for a post-apocalyptic bromance featuring demons and the rapture. (Obviously.) With some notable exceptions, I actually really liked it, finding it sharper than your run-of-the-mill stoner comedy. The film is a brassy satire of Hollywood life and a sly commentary on celebrity, lampooning the public images of stars Rogen, Franco, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera and Emma Watson, who steals the show in a small supporting role.
Emma Watson’s been featured heavily in promotional materials for the film, headlining the memorable bon mot, “Hermione stole all of our shit!”
However, that buries the lead: the film’s most memorable scene, which stands as the only effective use of rape humor I’ve ever seen in a film. As Lindy West has long argued, rape jokes only work when they do not make victims the butt of the joke but instead are effective when they are “about the way that rape culture, which includes rape jokes, makes women feel.”
That’s exactly how this joke operates. In the scene in question, Emma Watson is staying in a house with Rogen and co. as they hide out from the end of the world. Watson finds refuge with the gang after attempting to battle off post-apocalyptic demons (yeah, it’s a weird movie) but finds it not much better inside than amongst the rapture. While they presume Watson to be sleeping, the menfolk discuss the fact that Watson is the only female in the house, while may make her uncomfortable. As they say, it’s a little “rapey.” This quickly devolves into a debate about which of the men in the house looks most like a rapist.
Before you get upset, hold up. This set piece is much smarter than the average bear.
The joke works so well because it’s not about the fact of Watson’s rape but about their inability to create a safe space for women. Although they are attempting to be mindful and offer her comfort, they’re so deluded and self-absorbed that they haven’t the slightest clue how to be affirming — which devolves into the blame game. This only serves to make Watson feel even more uncomfortable when she wakes up and believes that her housemates are having a discussion about which of them gets to rape her. Watson rightfully freaks out and leaves the house, but not before Hermoine Granger beats the crap out of them (with the butt of an ax) and robs them, hence the quote.
Instead of being the butt of the joke, the scene makes Emma Watson the victor, but in a way that’s particularly notable for it’s commentary on gender. In order to win at the rape humor game, Watson has to out-masculine the men around her — by being decisive and taking action. This observation might seem like an aside but it’s extremely important to the film’s comic universe, as the film will make a callback to it later. This is where the rape humor becomes a mixed bag.
Whereas This Is the End showed a mindfulness toward Watson’s sexual assault, that is later tossed aside in a scene that deals with Jonah Hill’s rape, when he is attacked by a demon. In the scene, Hill is going to sleep when a demon climbs on top of him in bed. The scene would have been effective without the sexual undertones (as being attacked by a harbinger of annihilation is scary enough), but screenwriters Roger and Jonah Goldberg depict the demon with a giant, engorged black cock.
It doesn’t take a Women and Gender Studies PhD candidate or a dick genius to figure out the implications. However, if there were any doubts, these are cleared up for us in the next scene, when Hill confesses to the camera that the interaction was “so not chill,” an obvious euphemism for rape.
What’s troubling about the joke is that it’s so quick and tossed off, whereas Roger and Goldberg previously showed so much care on the subject. However, Hill is unworthy of the same courtesy, precisely because he’s shown throughout the film to be prissy and effeminate — an image-conscious, new-age type. Demons aside, Hill is This Is the End’s implied antagonist, a force just as nefarious as the apocalypse; he and Jay Baruchel (the film’s anti-hero) butt heads as Baruchel attempts to expose him for being a pretentious priss. Thus, the Satanic assault acts as a kind of corrective rape, a punishment that leads to Hill’s ultimate demonic possession and, later, death.
This scene isn’t the only instance of male rape humor in the film and is surrounded by jokes about prison sex and the like. However, I’ve become so desensitized to hearing gay sex jokes in bro comedies that I didn’t pay attention. As West once joked, “Pass the cheese.” But Hill’s assault made me hyper-aware of the real world implications of these jokes — because men are raped every day. I was raped six years ago. I insisted that I had a boyfriend and I couldn’t. He told me to “stop acting like a pussy.” When I woke up in the morning, I found him crumpled up on the floor like a discarded hanky.
Was my rape funny? I doubt Seth Rogen would make the connection. After all, he doesn’t know me.
A friend of mine, blogger Miri Mogilevsky, once pointed out that it’s easy to brush male rape jokes under the rug, as one can push the “it’s satire!” argument, but that only works in a world where cases like mine aren’t sadly commonplace and 1 in 6 men aren’t raped in their lifetime. Mogilevsky wrote, “Blindly regurgitating problematic crap is not satire, and it’s not any other kind of humor, either.”
We could easily stop here at the assertion that, “Hey, men are raped, too,” as many MRAs do when we discuss sexual assault. It’s often a tool that delegitimizes female experiences — as if to say “you aren’t special so stop whining.” However, the case of This Is the End shows why no one’s rape is funny — because rape is explicitly an act of gender and power. It asserts roles and hierarchies of dominance, and when we make a world where it’s easier for Jonah Hill to get raped for “acting like a woman,” we create a world that perpetuates female sexual assault. We continue to demonize femininity and promote the exact toxic masculinity that This Is the End, at it’s best, wants to satirize.
Rape culture hurts all of us, even those who aren’t the butt of the joke. Emma Watson’s rape isn’t funny, and neither is mine. It’s about time we start doing the math.