Last night’s debate between comedian Jim Norton and Jezebel writer Lindy West on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell was moving swimmingly until the latter characterized comedy clubs as “dark basements full of angry men.” It was in response to Bell’s question, “Are comedy clubs inherently hostile environments for women?” to which a reasonable feminist would have immediately exclaimed “no” followed by an explanation of how a comedy club – or any place – could become a hostile environment depending on the makeup of a specific group of people and how singling out comedy clubs as Anti-Women Headquarters is absurd.
“On a fundamental level, it’s not an awesome place to be,” West continued about comedy clubs. “And then there’s a dude on the stage saying, ‘Hey wouldn’t it be hilarious if everyone raped that girl. And everyone laughs.’”
I’m sure West has seen her share of live comedy shows. I bet I’ve seen a few more than her, having covered nothing but comedians for the last eight years. I’ve never seen anything remotely like what she described. I get it. She was referring to that one time Daniel Tosh was heckled for telling a rape joke and then delivered a moronic comeback, wherein he imagined multiple guys raping the heckler. Like I said, moronic.
However, disseminating a generalization about comedy just as moronic does not move the conversation forward. Also, constantly shrugging your shoulders throughout the debate and calling one of Bell’s questions “dumb” (which West does only two minutes into a 16-minute segment) similarly doesn’t do a lot for the cause. But at the 5:05 mark of the uncut interview below (video is queued), something even more damning occurs.
West makes a rape joke.
As West continues to reference the Tosh incident, she explains that his comeback was inappropriate, in part, because sometimes “everyone” does rape that girl. “I don’t mean that the people in the club then rally and say ‘Oh, I’m not doing anything’ (looks at an imagined watch on her wrist)…”
She gets laughs. Lindy nailed it.
“It’s actually really trivializing to say that mocking and exploiting a rape victim’s trauma to her face – because there will be women in that audience and probably men who have been sexually assaulted – is the same as making fun of a thing,” she says.
But didn’t she do just that? Is she excused from making a rape joke because the broader context of her appearance on Totally Biased was to defend would-be victims of rape? Does she get a rape-joke pass because she’s a woman? Did she not tell the joke from the perspective of the rapists (a point of contention for her when comedians do the same) during her quick quip?
To be clear, the joke was not a natural extension of her argument; those words were superfluous. She inserted those words for one reason: to get a laugh. Surely she didn’t mean to trivialize rape, right? Rather, it seems that maybe she was trying to inject levity into an otherwise serious debate in order to maintain the audience’s attention and perhaps draw out the stigma of being a victim of sexual violence.
In the end, her joke might have been the most valuable part of her appearance— because her flip attitude and broad generalizations about comedy certainly didn’t help.