Recently I was solicited by the popular literary blog, Htmlgiant, to write an essay regarding Patricia Lockwood’s poem, ‘Rape Joke.’ I worked tirelessly to articulate my thoughts on the poem, and I produced the essay you see before you today. Gene Morgan, Editor-in-Chief of Htmlgiant, gladly accepted the essay, praising it as ‘solid and respectable discourse.’ Needless to say, I was shocked when, one week later, he went back on his word and banned the essay from Htmlgiant forever. I was stunned, but when I prodded Gene for a reason, he provided me with a familiar one: “The problem with your essay is not the viewpoint, but who it comes from.” It appeared that Gene judged my character without considering my heart and thus decided the essay should not be read. However, due to an overwhelming response from readers like you, I was compelled to publish the essay myself, which very nearly never saw the light of day. Without further ado, I present to you, ‘Rape Poem,’ by the Barred Bard himself, Ted Hash-Berryman.
by Ted Hash-Berryman
The rape poem is a joke.
The rape poem is hardly a poem at all.
The rape poem is way too long. Way too long.
–Excerpt from Ted Hash-Berryman’s Journal
Approximately one year ago, the first truly viral poem self-replicated throughout the immunocompromised literary bloodstream and forced its way into our hearts. Many people lauded the poem in question for its direct confrontation of the taboo subject of rape. These people latched onto the poem for its easy accessibility and youth appeal. Other people* found the poem offensive on many levels. Yet, these people were forced to the fringes of the mainstream discourse, where their dissenting voices echoed off into the uncharted valleys of obscurity, until today.
One year later, the rape poem feels as outworn and dusty as its author’s Twitter feed. The rape poem, authored by internet poet Patricia Lockwood, was entitled ‘Rape Joke’ in order to provoke exactly the viral response it received; this accounts for the rape poem’s success as a moderate flash in the internet’s electric wok. Taken as a marketing strategy, the rape poem is undeniably great, which is the last positive thing I’ll have to say about the poem.
It goes without saying that any act of violence is despicable and counter to everything that makes human existence divine and beautiful. Rape is a particularly egregious kind of violent action that is a physical and psychological torture nothing less than a form taken by the shadow of pure evil.
That being said, there is nothing brave or visionary about writing a poem decrying the act of rape. It is tantamount to slapping a ‘Rape’ sticker on the bottom hemisphere of a stop sign; awareness is raised momentarily, and then quickly forgotten, since no sincere incitation to action has been proffered.
What is brave about the poem is the willingness with which it confronts and presents an act of rape in a way that flies in the face of the moral turpitude of such an act, i.e., by being tonally cool-headed, class-clownish, and honest, and by dispersing the grim pall that often consumes any conversation regarding this act of wicked villainy.
My intent is not to dismiss Lockwood outright, but, in part, to question and ultimately undermine the protected status of anything that’s been unduly labeled a ‘great work of art.’ Because of the rape poem’s provocative nature, the responsibility for it to attain greatness is even higher; as such, the poem’s failure to achieve such greatness must be identified and displayed. For accepting mediocrity simply because good writing is challenging is doing the greatest of all disservices to art.
Unfortunately, Lockwood has attempted to pass off a stream of sentences as a legitimate poem. Her writing is undoubtedly poor in quality; it is unevocative, flat, callow, and basic; it is the crudité to great writing’s soupe à l’oignon gratinée des Trois Gourmandes. The rare moments of poetic diction in the poem are impossibly vague and therefore maintain no relevant immediacy. Had Lockwood written the poem about rape that the subject deserves—a poem with force, sense, soul, music, agility, mystery, purpose, compassion, awareness, high-minded presence and cosmocentric thought—a rapist would have no other response but to burst into tears and beg immediate forgiveness from God.
The rape joke is that you were 19 years old.
The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend.
The rape joke it wore a goatee. A goatee.
If I was handed ‘Rape Joke’ in a first-year poetry workshop, I would give it a sympathy A because it’s such a difficult subject to write about; however, because Lockwood is one of the most widely publicized poets of today, I must look into the poem rather as if a microbiologist delving beyond the felt presence of immediate experience and into the unseen bacterial realm of the cosmos. With this mind, I will present three arguments against the implications contained in the rape poem. These arguments will be laid out logically with the acknowledgement that rape as a subject often understandably dusts up a whirlwind of painful emotion and must thusly be handled with compassionate care.
Imagine the rape joke looking in the mirror, perfectly reflecting back itself, and grooming itself to look more like a rape joke. “Ahhhh,” it thinks. “Yes. A goatee.”
The first dangerous aspect of Lockwood’s poem is one which is so deleterious that she could not have been cognizant of it, yet so glaringly obvious that she must have been aware of its implosive presence within a poem that rests on its plain language. That is to say, Lockwood has made a specific technical decision while being unaware of the full gamut of implications that decision presents. The maneuver of referring to the poem’s rapist solely as ‘The rape joke’ strongly suggests a direct A=B relationship between these two entities; i.e., one who recites a rape joke is equivalent to one who rapes another human being. The unstated corollary to this A to B relationship, therefore, is that C=D; i.e., the resulting harm of the telling of a rape joke is equal to the resulting harm of an act of rape. Such a suggestion is patently absurd. Without question, this means the rape poem’s implication is far more disrespectful, destructive, dismissive, and outright offensive than any one rape joke could aspire to be.
The rape joke is that his best friend was named Peewee.
OK, the rape joke is that he worshiped The Rock.
The rape joke is that his bookshelf was just a row of paperbacks about serial killers. You mistook this for an interest in history…
The second, similarly dangerous, aspect of the poem is the black and white paradigm in which Lockwood traps the rapist, and therefore the reader of the poem. In other words, because of the way the rapist is presented, no reader is allowed to offer him empathy without raising alarms of infinite contempt from the majority of opinion-holders. Let me be clear: It would take no one short of a Buddha to truly forgive the perpetrator of his or her rape, and of course such forgiveness is expected of no one; but, to relentlessly dehumanize a rapist does little more than perpetuate the cycle of hatred that gives birth to heinous acts of evil in the first place. The rape poem is teaching that vitriol is the appropriate response, rather than compassion and empathy, which are exactly all that is needed to begin down the necessary path towards the extermination of rape culture. Once again, the paradigm Lockwood has sold us is far more damaging than the rape joke that she is so fearful will be told.
Can rape jokes be funny at all, is the question.
The above is an example of a stupid question. The simple answer: Of course rape jokes can be funny. How often they are funny, or in what contexts they can be funny, are different questions entirely.
The sheer implication that a rape joke can never be funny and therefore should be off limits is closed-minded, intellectually stifling, and socially irresponsible. In a sense, such con trolling roots the meek seed of free expression in the shadowed soil gathered beneath the rank monstrous tree of authority to wither and die before it can grow to flower; that is to say, categorically outlawing a specific way of communicating, e.g., a ‘rape joke’, reinforces an environment in which oppressive perspectives stifle progressive objectives.
Most people would likely agree that a rape joke in which the survivor is being mocked is probably going to be in poor taste. But what about jokes in which the aggressor, the rape denier, the stereotype perpetrator, or the culture of rape itself is what is being lambasted? Indeed, these would be categorized ‘rape jokes,’ but, Patricia, would you really stand by saying that these jokes can’t be funny, and even more that they are not actually necessary in actively addressing the issue of rape?
Let’s you and I take a look at a couple of ‘rape jokes’ that I’ve selected at random from Twitter, which address some of the issues stated above.
This joke, written by poet and popular Twitter personality Ted Hash-Berryman, indemnifies an agent of, which is itself a product of, rape culture. So, is this joke evil?
This joke, by comedian and writer Megan Amram, copies Hash-Berryman’s formula by mocking the culture of date rape, while coincidentally being a much funnier joke than my own. For this, does Amram deserve to rot in Hell alongside Jack the Raper?
Maybe Lockwood would think these jokes are off color and that they have no place in our society, despite their meanings and intentions. So let’s take a moment to consider a world in which no jokes of this nature are allowed to exist. First off, by adding rape jokes to the banned list, rapists and rape abiders gain more power and impunity at the expense of an impactful discourse (Consider the Voldemort Theory.): The current power structure is reinforced by giving rapists more space to hide, when the opposite is what is needed—more fingers pointed and more veils lifted. Second, banning rape jokes strips women comedians like Amram of a unique power to be able to address the topic of rape on stage in a positive atmosphere. Because of the intertwined natures of the system of patriarchy and the culture of rape, a woman’s unrestricted voice is more contributive to progress in these areas than a man’s.
Additionally, what about jokes involving other terrible or despicable acts such as murder, torture, war, terrorism, and slavery? Is the stance that rape is categorically and definitively worse than these other atrocities philosophically defensible? I can’t imagine that anyone is prepared to decree the order in which we must rank vile action, and less so that there is anyone with the wisdom or moral authority to do so; yet, this is the position that Lockwood is tacitly asserting by implying that jokes about rape are a special case.
“It is the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.”
Comedy’s power lies in its ability to force people to confront difficult realities in the context of something inherently positive—laughter. A good joke, as with a good poem, is a force of expression capable of discreetly opening a person’s mind to the higher perspective presented within it. A comedian, working within an atmosphere in which laughter and joy are of prime concern to the audience, is able to approach and parse ideas that would otherwise remain shrouded in the collective’s fear fog. A joke, properly deployed, invokes a hypnotic state of being that allows people to open to ideas moreso than in any other context; therefore, to say a subject is outside of the bounds of comedy is to actively stilt human progress in a most disturbing way.
So let me ask you, can we afford to demonize the ‘rape joke’? To seal off a door in the house of humor? To force ourselves to enter a field of negative light in order to confront this nearly incomprehensible act of violence? I have no more wisdom than the lowliest of thinkers, but I do have an idea: Maybe the things that we are quickest to censor are exactly the things that deserve the longest look, for they may very well hold the key to a more effective, honest, and harmonious realm of human thought.