Recently while browsing an archive of “funny” comics I was struck by how often and how easily rape was offered as a theme, a plot, or punchline. These were not retro caveman comics from the benighted 1950s, no! This was late 20th century material, drawn in the 1990s, from enlightened Europe, mostly. Drawn and written after feminism was invented. And yet over and over again, there it was: rape as a means of seduction, rape as a spectator sport. Rape as the funny misfortune that makes bystanders in the comic laugh, inviting comic readers to laugh along. Rape as the dog (sometimes literally!) in a shaggy-dog story.
It’s jarring and uncomfortable to see all the rape humor, looking back from our perspective in the #MeToo era. If you think social change doesn’t happen, think again. Art like this simply isn’t being created today. We have discovered better jokes; we have found things to laugh at that don’t center pain and trauma. Yes, there remain a few comedians — especially in the world of standup — who are ideologically committed to the rape joke and their “right” to tell it as a matter of free speech. And, sure. They do have that right. But they aren’t funny any more — not those comedians, not their stand-up rape jokes, and not these rape-centered comics. Which is a lot of change to have happened in one generation.
Let’s get specific. Look at some of these rape comics. For today’s post I am using comics drawn by Dany, a prolific European comic artist. (Dany is perhaps best known, along with a bunch of other artists, for a long-running comic series called Rooie Oortjes.)
The comic above is using a rape trope to get around some ancient attitudes about female sexual propriety. She’s not supposed to be forward, she’s not supposed to “want it”, she can’t just say “Come over here and fuck me, you sexy beast!” So she’s emphasizing how vulnerable she is to rape, trying to seduce the clueless man she’s with into paying more attention to her than to the seascape. I find it more sad than funny.
In the next example, we meet a pickup artist of sorts. I don’t think he’s literally threatening rape, but he’s clearly being creepy by mentioning it, as he tries to get the sexy babe into his car for sex:
This next comic is the final panel from a story sequence about a man and wife visiting a zoo. In the parts not shown, the man very deliberately manipulated his wife into going into the gorilla pen, so that she’ll be snatched by the horny gorilla. Now that she has been, just look at the amused smirk on his face! He finds it hilarious that the ape is raping is wife while he taunts her:
This is rape-by-proxy as revenge for sexual rejection. Who finds that funny? In 2019 the only people who find it funny are guys who have an unhealthy relationship with the word “no”. Maybe incels? But twenty years ago, when comics like this were mainstream stuff, this was everyday hardy-har-har fare!
I saved the best (by which I mean worst) for last. This comic fascinates me, because when I saw it, I recognized it instantly. This meme used to circulate in my youth as a dirty “joke”, by which I mean, as a sort of sexual fantasy, told verbally as a short adventure story involving Indians and cowboys, with a punchline that was supposed to be funny. I first heard it as an adolescent in the 1980s, but somebody wrote down a long and extremely brutal version of it in the Usenet era and posted it to alt.sex.stories. In all of its various forms, the gist of the story involves a woman captured by villains, stripped and tied and abused, only to have the villains driven off by the arrival of a presumed rescuer. She thanks him in great relief, only to have him begin taking down his pants as he regretfully tells her “This is not your lucky day.”
The best comedy involves poking fun at the powerful. Most rape jokes are the opposite: with a rape victim somewhere in the joke, we inevitably end up laughing at someone’s pain or powerlessness at least somewhat. But this comic? It centers that powerlessness, making it the entire point. Ha ha, she’s utterly helpless and (literally) fucked!
Maybe that used to be funny, but times have changed. And I’m glad.