On Patton Oswalt's "Rape Joke Epiphany"

[Content Note: Rape culture; rape-related "humor."]

Everyone in the multiverse (and thanks to each and every one of you) has emailed me about comedian Patton Oswalt's "reversal" on rape jokes, which he published Friday, buried at the end of a long post about professional thievery, heckling, and rape jokes. Because the subject of rape jokes is one on which I've spilled a lot of digital ink, a lot of people are quite reasonably wondering what I think about it.

Well, I have a few thoughts.

I'm relieved—for all the reasons that have been well-documented in this space—that there is a popular comedian who (ostensibly) won't be telling rape jokes anymore. At least not ones that make survivors a punchline.

What follows will inevitably be interpreted, by those inclined to take it that way, as the insufficient gratitude of an angry feminist who is never satisfied, which I cannot control. But Oswalt says he is listening, and I see no reason not to take him at his word and offer my criticism.

Because there is a big hole in the middle of his piece—a big hole where no acknowledgment of the rape jokes he has told and an apology for those harmful jokes should be. If he now understands, as is his assertion, the harm caused by the telling of rape jokes that normalize rape and potentially trigger survivors, surely a meaningful reversal must include accountability.

He talks about Daniel Tosh's rape joke, and his reactions to it, and his defenses of rape jokes. But he does not say, straightforwardly, "I told rape jokes. And I am sorry I did that, now that I see the harm that they cause." Instead, he merely offers, "I'm a man. I get to be wrong. And I get to change."

And there is some bit of dishonesty in his claims that he never really got it until now, because at the end of an extended sequence in Comedians of Comedy, in which he assumes the persona of a murderer and rapist, talking to the camera/audience as if to his victim, he falls out of character and says, "Please cut the camera off. I just creeped myself out." It isn't that Patton Oswalt wasn't familiar with the rape culture previous to this moment: He was, like all privileged men, intimately familiar with its tropes and narratives. It's just that he was acting as a purveyor and defender of the rape culture. He was able to identify with rapists, but not survivors.

There is no neutral in the rape culture.

To this point, he was not merely insensitive out of ignorance; he was an agent of the rape culture who told jokes upholding that culture and who tried to discredit critics using well-worn tactics deployed by defenders of the rape culture. He says he was doing it as a comic—"This was about censorship, and the limits of comedy, and the freedom to create and fuck up while you hone what you create."—but, irrespective of the motivations and context of his deployment of silencing strategies, he was effectively (if not intentionally) doing it as a useful tool of the rape culture.

More is owed than "whoops."

I am a survivor of rape, and I have held myself accountable for perpetuating the rape culture: "I have done it. I have perpetuated the rape culture. We have all done it. We were born into it, and we were all socialized to have contempt for consent." One of many examples.

There is no shame in acknowledging we have expressed hostility for consent in one way or another. This is how trust is restored and maintained.

But Oswalt never quite gets there.

And while I certainly appreciate that Oswalt has has some change of heart and mind, this is A Big Problem:
There is a collective consciousness that can detect the presence (and approach) of something good or bad, in society or the world, before any hard "evidence" exists. It's happening now with the concept of "rape culture." Which, by the way, isn't a concept. It's a reality. I'm just not the one who's going to bring it into focus. But I've read enough viewpoints, and spoken to enough of my female friends (comedians and non-comedians) to know it isn't some vaporous hysteria, some false meme or convenient catch-phrase.
There is only no evidence of the rape culture if one discredits the lived experience of millions and millions of women (and men) who experience the prolific manifestations of the rape culture every goddamn day of our lives. Not to put too fine a point on it, but only in rape cases are victims of the crime not considered reliable eyewitnesses to their own victimization. Discrediting women as unreliable narrators, setting aside "evidence" as something that only Totally Objective Arbiters (ahem) can assess after filtering information through their Validity Prisms, is a key tool of the rape culture.

I realize Oswalt set "evidence" in scare quotes, but he follows it immediately by a reassurance that he has Objectively Determined After Speaking to Women that the rape culture isn't "some vaporous hysteria, some false meme or convenient catch-phrase." As opposed to, I dunno, all the other stuff feminists whinge about. Like the rape culture. Until he decided it wasn't.

Two of the most crucial means by which the rape culture will be dismantled are: Accountability and empowering all women (not just the Exceptional Women in one's life) as credible reporters on our lived experiences. I wish I had seen some trace of each in this well-circulated epiphany.

No cookies today, I'm afraid.

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