Feminism fights back against rape jokes

By Emma Ailes
BBC Scotland

Image caption,
Welsh-Iraqi comedian Nadia Kamil describes her show as "socialist, feminist whimsy"

Last year, controversy erupted at the Edinburgh Fringe over the number of comedians telling rape jokes.

Now a new wave of feminist comedians are taking a stand.

"The open-mic circuit has basically turned into a rape circle," says Irish comedian Mary Bourke.

"There are a lot of comics and not much audience, so the comics play to each other... and to get a laugh out of a comedian, you've got to shock."

Domestic violence, sexual abuse, rape. All fodder for comedians at open-mic nights - and at last year's Fringe.

Image caption,
Irish comedian Mary Bourke is performing a show about feminism 'without all the boring preachy bits'

And feminist comedy? You must be joking.

But there are signs things are changing. Bourke is one of three comedians doing specifically feminist shows at The Stand venue alone this year, alongside Bridget Christie and Nadia Kamil.

Elsewhere in the festival there are feminist authors, plays, cabaret - even men doing feminist shows, such as Alan Bisset's Ban This Filth!

Welsh-Iraqi comedian Kamil calls it the beginning of a backlash.

"This year it definitely feels like a much more friendly environment to do explicitly feminist material," she says.

"That's really exciting. I think before it had to be couched in something else. You sort of hid the fact that you were doing something feminist, but secretly it was feminist."

"Absolutely ridiculous"

But why is misogyny seemingly still so prevalent in comedy?

Manchester-born stand up Michael J. Dolan believes performers and audiences just aren't thinking about it.

He was stunned last year when a reviewer called his show misogynistic.

"The first thing I thought was 'the reviewer's mental'," he says. "Absolutely ridiculous…she's brought her own agenda to it.

"But going back over it and looking at it, it absolutely was.

Image caption,
Comedian Michael J. Dolan says he was shocked last year when a reviewer called his show misogynistic

"It was more of a case of collectively, the tone of the piece came off being more misogynistic than I'd realised, rather than the jokes themselves. It was a shock!"

Now, he doesn't do any of that material - and is a lot more careful.

"On an individual basis, I don't think any one joke is a problem," he says.

"I think you can defend any individual joke.

"The problem is it's contributing to a culture of misogyny. And personally, I didn't want to continue to contribute to that."

Unsurprisingly, one the topics on lips of feminists at the Fringe is Twitter trolls.

Feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, TV historian Mary Beard and MP Stella Creasy all hit the headlines last month after receiving violent threats on the social networking site.

Troll of the month

Bourke and her peers have experienced their fair share too.

"We've all been trolled," she says.

"But we have the troll of the month club, so you get a bottle of champagne and a tiny troll key ring for the best troll comment.

"You have to laugh at these things, because if you take it seriously, that means they've won.

Image caption,
A women's charity threatened to protest outside comedian Chris Dangerfield's show

"I refuse to be silenced by trolls - it's just some sad lonely man in a bedsit somewhere."

But it's not just feminist comedians receiving threats.

Last year, a group calling themselves the Feminist Avengers sent a courgette and a pointed note to comedians doing material they considered misogynistic.

Among the recipients were Jimmy Carr, and Chris Dangerfield, who was performing a show called Sex Tourist, based his on real life experiences in Thailand.

This year, he was scheduled to return with a new show called How I Spent £150,000 on Chinese Prostitutes.

He was forced to cancel the show because of debt problems - but before he did, a women's charity had already threatened to picket the show based on its title alone.

"I know that they hadn't seen the show, simply because I hadn't even written it," he says.

"But they were already up in arms - so what can it be? Just prostitution? Is that just definitely wrong?

"They see them as a bit sensitive, and they feel the need to respond in some kind of aggressive and almost bombastic way.

"The way women are treated in this culture is awful, and it is woven into our society, so to come and waste your time and resources protesting people who are making jokes is insanity."

Only joking?

Dangerfield says he finds the suggestion that he is a misogynist ill-informed and offensive.

Moreover, he believes there is value in being able to use comedy to explore and question.

He cites an example of comedian Benjamin Crellin who tells a joke about dropping a nuclear bomb on Korea in a computer game.

"He takes a flame thrower to all these civilians. And the audience is cracking up, because he's doing all the faces and the gestures of being on the Playstation.

"And then - knowing this debate and how ridiculous it is - he says "argh, where's the rape button? Come on, gotta rape 'em".

"And it goes silent, absolutely silent, every time. And he looks up and just asks the question: hang on, it's alright to take a flame thrower to a bunch of people or drop a nuclear bomb on Korea? We can laugh at mass, holocaustic murder.

"But as soon as you mention rape, even in the context of it being simulated on a computer game, people are stuck.

"They don't know how to have that debate with themselves, they don't know how to react."

So is there any such thing as an acceptable rape joke?

Both Bourke and Kamil agree there is - in fact, three of Bourke's favourite jokes are rape jokes, all told by women - but it depends on context.

"Yes, you can do rape jokes, but for the rape joke to be good, the victim of the joke has to be rape culture and not a rape victim," Kamil says.

"There are some people who say jokes don't matter. They do, because they contribute to our entire social culture."

"If your jokes are harmful to other people, take a look at yourself. Why are you doing that? You can do it - sure, freedom of speech - but you're a bad person."

Not only that. Comedians who carry on doing offensive rape jokes are simply becoming outdated, Bourke says.

"There's nothing edgy about doing rape jokes anymore. It's like doing jokes about airline food."

Feminism - that's the new funny.

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