Our language is not our problem.

I am not a feminist. 
Wait, wait, don’t hate me for that one little sentence. Give it a minute, then decide. 
Let us begin at the beginning. When I was a kid, my parents never really made it a point to teach me feminism. Nor did they teach me about any other sorts of civil rights issues. Which sounds like a bad thing. It is not. Their point was that we’re all equal, and in teaching me not to care about those arguments, they taught me not to notice the differences between people. It’s a little backwards, but it worked. The first time I heard anyone use a racial slur I was outraged (I was probably eight or so, but I knew damn well what hurt feelings looked like). When my gay friends got made fun of I was the first to jump to their defense (because you always want the angry goth girl on your side when you need someone verbally slaughtered for you). When some asshole slapped his girlfriend at the Wal-Mart parking lot, I rallied my Marine buddies to go tell him in a very scary way why what he did was wrong until he squealed something about never doing it again. Because I will not stand for any of these types of bullshit. This universal acceptance of people is so ingrained in my person that I can’t even see it. Sometimes it’s a problem. I don’t hate anyone, but I am pretty easily annoyed. 
When I got to college, I was suddenly surrounded by all these self-righteous young pseudo-intellectuals who talked talked talked all the time about this injustice or that inequality. I think this might just be a part of the liberal-arts college experience, this learning to quack that people do. Luckily, I went to a school where there was a lot of real social action going on and not just empty talk. It’s a great school. But I’d never been around people like that before. And they bugged the shit out of me. My eyeballs were strained from all the rolling they did my freshman year. Of all these sandal-wearing, patchouli-stinking, future hipsters of America, the budding feminists were the worst. I understand that you’re making a point, young angry lady, but I absolutely will not spell it “womyn.” Nor will I say “herstory” instead of “history.” And there’s only one r in “girl.” No, actually, my period does not make me feel empowered, no matter how much you try to convince me. In fact, it makes me feel like I might scream/cry if I hear the word “empowered” one more goddamn time. Sorry. 
So I choose to say that I’m not a feminist, not because I don’t believe in absolute social justice and unconditional equality for women, but because I simply don’t want to be associated with that particular stereotype. It’s not a stance against the principles of feminism, but a personal linguistic choice. Now, you may call bullshit on that assertion. And that’s fine. I could tell you that I prefer a different term. “Humanist,” for example. But that’s so vague as to ring hollow when I say it. 
Having said all that, something happened this week that just ran all over me. I was about eighty kinds of mad. And it’s being spread around as a “feminist” story, which makes me even more mad. This shit affects all of us. Lindy West is a blogger for Jezebel (and I have not, to my knowledge, read her stuff). She went on W. Kumau Bell’s show and had a brief debate with comedian Jim Norton about rape jokes. It’s a really interesting little snippet, even if both of them walked away agreeing to disagree and they didn’t really dig too terribly deep into any particular point. Worth the watch, for sure. But then she started receiving all kinds of nasty comments, tweets, and emails. Some of them are mean, some are gross, and some are just downright fucking scary (if you watch the video part of this, it’s even more horrible than reading all these things to yourself – you’ve been warned). This is not okay. Not on any level. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Not even if the sender was joking. 
And that’s the problem, really. I agree with points on both sides, because this debate was about so much more than rape jokes. The bigger issues are hiding underneath rape jokes. We’re hearing a lot lately about “rape culture.” This term makes me feel icky (much like “torture porn” or anything else which seems intrinsically both oxymoronic and violent), which I guess is the point. It is icky. It’s infuriating that such nomenclature should even exist. And I know that ideas are perpetuated or disseminated through all forms of media, both good and bad ideas. I do understand how culture and language work. But speaking about a thing does not necessarily mean that the speaker supports it. And eliminating all mention of a thing will absolutely not be enough to eliminate the thing itself. 
Like music or fiction or screenplays, possibly even more so, comedy is reliant on very carefully chosen language. But the assumption is that the audience understands that the person on stage isn’t being serious, which I think puts comedy in an interesting (or maybe even an awkward) position. There’s no getting around the fact that some people are idiots, so you can’t count on them to know farce or satire when they see it. They may not be able to dig out the message buried in the juxtaposition of ridiculousness and seriousness. Should all comedians be briefed on what not to say? Fuck. No. Under no circumstances. I may not like what a person says, but I will fight tooth and nail for their right to say it. I’m a grownup. I can change the channel. I can leave the show. I can put the book down. I know bad taste when I see it and I can choose to not support that person anymore. It’s that simple. Isn’t it? Maybe not. For me, in my own little life, I can make decisions about what to absorb or identify with. But does success equal acceptance, in the case of famous people? If you say something awful and it makes you famous, the math would tell you that a lot of consumers are agreeing with what you’re saying. Are you then somehow obligated to continue saying awful things? And if we create a culture of acceptance, how hard is it to unring that bell? How horrified do we have to be before we decide to change what’s “appropriate” or what’s “allowed”? How many Lenny Bruces must we martyr?  
Furthermore, who gets to make that decision? We, the consumers, have the power of the dollar. I can say, “I won’t buy your thing anymore because I think that you’re an asshole and I do not agree with your worldview.” But that’s a far fucking cry from “You can’t do this anymore,” or, even worse, “What you do is not art.” I don’t think that anyone’s in a position to make that call for another human, not objectively. We can joke about sex, religion, war, death. Is it still art? We can write songs that glorify drug use and violence, and make movies and tv shows that are positively soaked in blood. Is it still art? I heard a story recently on a podcast about a new video game being shown at a trade show. There were dead bodies with exposed breasts in the game, so to make sure that no one was offended by the nudity the designers just covered the breasts with bloody guts. Is it still art? 
Yes. Yes. Yes. Unequivocally, categorically, and without hesitation: Yes. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s good. And it certainly doesn’t mean it’s good for you. And I’m not saying that one shouldn’t consider their language carefully, or create any sort of art without considering its impact on the audience. Clearly some people are more impressionable than others, and in need of guidance or supervision. But someone with a mental illness going apeshit after seeing a movie doesn’t mean that movies like that one shouldn’t ever be made again. A kid punching another kid after reading a comic book doesn’t mean that all kids should have to live in a comic-free world. It means that we should fix our mental health care system and talk to our kids about the appropriateness of punching. See? Bigger picture. That’s all I’m saying, oversimplified and overgeneralized as it may be. Censorship is not the answer, because there are those of us who can enjoy things responsibly. Like they tell me to do on the beer commercials. 
But back to rape jokes. I feel like the issue that isn’t being talked about on a broad scale is how to get people to stop raping people. There are sociopaths with a kind of sexual maliciousness out there in the world, and too often we don’t know they’re there until it’s too late. These people will not be swayed one way or the other by a song or a standup routine. They’re sick in the head and they need help. Then there are people who don’t understand what rape actually means. I’m thinking specifically of those asshole kids in Steubenville. I feel like those are the cases where a culture of acceptance is clearly a great big fucking problem. It sounds harsh or horrible or whatever, but we need to teach our kids about rape. How horrific it is to perpetrate such a life-ruining act on another person. How horrific it is to be assaulted. How to protect themselves, both mentally and physically. At an age when kids are starting to think about sex, how do you approach the issue? How do you know if your kid has that lurking inside them? Do you address it just to cover that horrible possibility? I think so. I think it’s necessary. “Son, if she/he doesn’t want to sleep with you, you go home and jerk off like a fucking gentleman.” Also, “Daughter/Son, here’s how you throw a good punch. Aim for the throat.” That’s probably how I’ll handle that. 
Bottom line? Rape’s not funny. I can appreciate a well-crafted joke and I laugh at a lot of fucked up shit, but there’s no circumstance in which I would think rape is funny. It destroys lives. It wrecks minds and bodies and families. She did not “ask for it,” no matter what she’s wearing or how much she’s had to drink. If she’s passed out, the only thing you should do is make sure she gets home safely. No means no. Seriously. Every time. And if you’ve been assaulted, get your ass to a hospital and then to a lawyer and prosecute that sick son of a bitch to the fullest extent of the law. You did not bring it on yourself. No one will think less of you for speaking up. I, for one, would think less of you if you didn’t. 

5 thoughts on “Our language is not our problem.

  1. Lots of food for thought.

    (and what if I can’t multiply?

  2. Instead of commenting, I’m going to go write. This got the ol’ noodle a-pondering. I’m not sure what I think til I start writing it all down. I’ve been thinking about this since the AFP Salon on Tuesday. Art/Not Art. Being a ‘good’ feminist. All of it. I THOUGHT I knew my thoughts on the subject, but now I’m not so sure.

    Well-written/thought-provoking as usual. Thank you.

Comments are closed.