By Anna Fields, Columnist
The conversation about rape jokes made a lot of men realize that a culture of rape existed. They didn’t previously see it because they’re not friends with trolls. They’re friends with other guys who would never even think of raping anyone, and as a result, they don’t see – or even recognize – when men in comedy (and everywhere else) create the kind of environment where rape can happen. I think it’s rare that people set out with malicious intentions. There are very few truly evil, Bad Guys walking around, out in the open. But there are a lot of people who make excuses for them. Who cover their eyes and ears and mouths, and add #NotAllMen or to their statuses or share Wood Allen’s privilege-laden “witch hunt” manifesto without comment.
People don’t often recognize the bars of the cage, much like John Landis had never recognized racism on a personal level until he worked with Eddie Murphy in the 1980s:
“After the tragedy of The Twilight Zone [actor Vic Morrow and two Vietnamese child actors were killed on the set], I was so freaked out I just said to my agent, ‘I’ll take any job offered. I just want to work.’ So, Jeff Katzenberg sent me this script of Black or White [which would later be renamed Trading Places], and I said that [Richard] Pryor would be brilliant in it. But Katzenberg said, ‘What do you think of Eddie Murphy?’ I had to say, ‘Who?’ And he said, ‘We’ve made this picture called 48 Hrs.’ When it previewed, Eddie tested through the roof. So, they gave me a tape of all the things he’d done on Saturday Night Live, and I said, ‘Kind of young, but he’s funny. I especially love the ‘James Brown Hot Tub’ [sketch].’ So, I fly to New York to meet with Eddie, who’s a baby, like 19, whatever, and we come down onto Fifth Avenue, and he said, ‘You have to get the cab, because they won’t stop for me.’ It was trippy.”
For this and so many other reasons, we have to not only truly, deeply empathize with our fellow women in comedy (and, again, everywhere else), but also (here comes the hard part) sympathize with the men who can’t (yet) see/hear/sense what we all know. We have to change them. Open their eyes. Because nobody knows until he knows. We all think we’ve gotten the message, but really: We have no idea. That’s sort of the essence of privilege, isn’t it? Thinking that if something doesn’t affect you personally that it doesn’t affect anyone personally. Kind of like how, if you’re a male gatekeeper who’s looking to book one girl in your next show, then you don’t necessarily, consciously realize there’s only one girl onstage. And that everything she does will represent everyone else in her group. That if she’s not the funniest thing you’ve ever seen, then no women are funny at all. It’s just another one of those Rape Culture-created burdens. The question presented is never simply, “Is she funny as an individual person?” Instead it’s a standardized test. “Are any women funny? And if she fails, then all of us do, too.
Which brings me to a little something I like to call The Problem with Trying to Talk About Women’s Issues:
Woman: This is a problem for women.
Man: No, it isn’t.
Woman: … Well, it isn’t for most men, but many women face this issue.
Man: No, they don’t. If it were a real problem, you’d tell someone about it.
Woman: We’re literally telling you right now.
Man: But this isn’t even an issue. I’ve never experienced this problem in my entire life.
Woman: That’s because you are a man, and this is an issue that primarily affects women.
Man: That’s sexist.
(Again, I wish I could take credit for this, but I can’t. I stole it from an anonymous meme and then corrected all the typos because #Internet. So, here’s my honest attempt at citing my source, anonymous-meme-writer!)
So, how do we fix it?
One way is by making fun of it. Sapping Rape Culture – and all the Harvey’s and Woody’s and Daniel Tosh’s out there of their power.
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which is all about a woman who’s survived abduction and rape for the past 15 years, accomplishes this “speaking truth to power” tactic beautifully. I can’t imagine anything like that existing on television at any other time. To tackle subjects that are and perhaps always will be (until we live in a post-#MeToo world) so shocking and potentially hurtful to women, and yet making those subjects laughable, is a true form of art.
But how do we pull that off? How do comedians include ourselves in this conversation that has, for too long, been seething beneath the surface… and yet make it funny?
How did we find the funny in rape? Because it certainly didn’t used to be something anyone wanted to discuss, let alone lampoon. So, what makes Kimmy different? Why do we find her foibles so funny today when, only a few years ago, topics like rape, kidnapping, and assault weren’t necessarily considered fodder for comedy?
The answer I’ve finally come to is simple: The play’s the thing.
Meaning: What makes anything funny is just really great writing. And, of course, doing it from a place of sympathy. I try to approach things this way ever since a traveling salesman came into my production office trying to sell me a new printer. At first, I had the usual knee jerk reaction… But then I thought of Willy Loman. And I couldn’t help but want him to succeed. Try thinking of characters that way: from a place of compassion for their motives. And never try to do anything poorly. If you’re going to act like a stripper, strip to the best of your ability, because you’re a human being, and you’re not a stripper, and you’re going to fall short. And falling short, unapologetically, is where the comedy comes from.
“What also makes things funny,” said Portland’s Funniest Woman, Susan Rice, “is coming at any joke from the underdog’s point of view. That’s the person people will feel compassion for. I think that a lot of the problems that we have, as comedians, over whether or not something is funny, or whether or not it’s too soon, boils down to power: Who’s got in and who doesn’t inside the joke itself. And the beautiful, elusive power of humor is when you can use that power to make someone laugh from a place of your own vulnerability.”
“So, essentially, you should always include yourself in the joke?” I asked.
“Exactly. You come to a social understanding. At first, you’re railing, and you’re trying to strive. Yes, I will fight for women’s issues. I will always fight against Rape Culture. But down the line, you have to extend empathy to everyone, I think. And that’s what a true Feminist does. And that’s what Carol and Lucy and Moms and Gilda did. They never ran away from that label, and neither will I.”
Anna Fields is an author and independent filmmaker, whose various works have been published, produced, developed, and awarded by Penguin Putnam, Skyhorse/Arcade, The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Forbes, Marie Claire, Bunim/Murray, PB&J Television, CBS, ABC, Turner/Cartoon Network, LaMaMa Etc., and the Austin and Toronto Film Festivals. Her latest book, The Girl in the Show, is available now wherever books are sold.