The “Context” of Daniel Tosh’s Rape Joke

How Daniel Tosh’s joke and his subsequent apology are part of a much larger problem.

by Imran Siddiquee

Supporters of Daniel Tosh and his brand of comedy will often use the defense – as the comedian himself did – that comedy provides a context in which we can joke about “awful things” without worrying about the impact these things might have if said elsewhere (these “things” being, in this case, gang-raping women). The framework provided by a comedian’s stand-up routine, the theory goes, makes any kind of humor permissible because the performer and the audience have a universal understanding that what is said on stage is not truth, but “comedy.”

Or as someone on Facebook put it: “everyone knows there are no sacred cows in comedy.”

Let’s ignore for the moment the possibility that this understanding isn’t actually universal, that all audience members are not equally adept at deciphering between meaning and meaninglessness in jokes, and that a lot of comedy is digested by people who will later quote lines out of “context.” I can accept that stand-up comedians are artists who are not forcing us to consume their material – we are paying to enter – so one can argue they are not responsible for how we use their words later.

Beyond this, though, there’s a fundamental flaw in the “context” argument. Because the fact is, comedy shows are not of an alternate universe – when you walk into a dimly-lit room with a performer on stage mumbling into a microphone, you are not stepping out of time. You are still in a city, in this country. And that’s a real live human being on stage.

Similarly, everyone else in that room is real too. They are, unfortunately for comics, not mindless robots. They are men and women who live in the real world. A world in which 1 out of 6 American women is the survivor of an attempted or completed rape. Meaning if you have 20 women in your audience, there are probably at least three or four women in the room who have first-hand experience with rape. And because of this truth, there are many more women in the room who feel unsafe walking alone at night – the real night that exists on the street outside the comedy club.

We can say comedians exist against a very specific backdrop where crossing societal taboos has the potential to expand minds, but shouldn’t we also consider the specific audience for whom these comedians are performing?

Imagine you’re in a country where people are still consistently assaulted for having dark skin. In this context you suggest that the lighter skinned people in the room whip a brown man into submission after he complains that jokes about darker people being persecuted aren’t funny. Might this make us uncomfortable? Probably, because when the brown man steps out into the real night outside the comedy club, there is a good chance he could actually get beaten and murdered. There’s also a history of this kind of violence actually happening around the world.

Does the “right” to joke about anything trump the realities of the place in which those jokes are being made?

Or imagine you are a heterosexual comedian in present-day Senegal (where being homosexual is illegal and gay men are often killed for being gay), speaking in front of an audience that includes people of various sexual preferences, and you make a joke about how killing gay people is always funny. And then a person in the audience shouts back “I’m gay and I don’t think it’s always funny.” And you proceed to say, hey, what if we beat up that gay guy right now? Wouldn’t that be hilarious?

Here in America, we live in a culture where sexual violence is a real threat. It is a part of the lives of millions of American women (and men) – whether they have been attacked themselves or not – and something that is perpetuated daily by popular culture and the media.

And, as Professor Caroline Heldman explains, “exposure to images of sexually objectified women causes male viewers to be more tolerant of sexual harassment and rape myths.” In a society where they are consistently diminished and sexually objectified, women are “dehumanized by others and seen as less competent and less worthy of empathy.”

We all live in this society that tacitly condones sexual violence through silence and silencing. Daniel Tosh’s joke exists in this same context.

This is not just a woman’s issue, yet it is significant that Tosh is a man who directed his joke at a woman.

When at a stand-up show, the comedian is without-a-doubt the most powerful person in the room. They have the spotlight and the mic in their hand, as well as a receptive audience eager to hear them speak. What he or she says, in that moment, is supremely influential.

Tosh used his power to ask his audience if they thought it would be funny if a specific woman – who was standing in the room – were to be raped at that very moment by 5 other men in the room. He repeated, for emphasis, “right now.”

So what was actually supposed to be funny here? That idea of watching a woman who complained about rape being raped herself?

Put this against the backdrop of a misogynistic society where men are still in power and women are still valued primarily as sexual objects, and the picture gets even darker.

The humor comes from the voicelessness of the woman – the absurdity of her saying “rape jokes are never funny.” Because in the context of the culture in which we live, a woman speaking out against rape jokes to a man is literally absurd. Women challenging rape at a comedy club are probably, the joke implies, more likely to be raped themselves than to be heard and respected by the male comedian. That is what Tosh finds funny. What the audience chuckles at. That is the true context of his joke.

It revels in male power and female powerlessness. Daniel Tosh – feeling threatened after a challenge from an audience member – maintains his authority through the use of violent imagery and barely-veiled threats directed at a woman.

It’s not illegal to make jokes like this (not saying it should be either), but it’s worth thinking about “context” before we go out of our way to defend Tosh’s joke. Because what you are actually defending isn’t just a comic and his right to make rape jokes – you’re indirectly defending a larger culture of inequality, violence and oppression.

Sign the petition asking Tosh to dedicate an episode to rape awareness.

Written by Imran Siddiquee at Follow him on Twitter @imransiddiquee

Follow Imran on Twitter: @imransiddiquee