Van Heusen - Man's world ties
Van Heusen - Man's world ties

Opinion: Domestic Abuse is No Laughing Matter

Analysing the trend of comedians telling jokes about domestic abuse, and shows why we should all think before we laugh
Feature by Claire Askew.
Published 05 November 2012

A couple of days ago, a woman I follow on Twitter re-tweeted the following two sentences: ‘The person sleeping next to you is statistically more likely to murder you than any other person on the entire planet. Do the dishes.’ My first response was a small smile. I smiled because I thought about my own relationship, about how I sometimes catch myself saying things like, “If he doesn’t stop leaving his coat on the damn floor I might just kill him.” I related to this tweet. I found it funny, so I smiled.

A week earlier, I’d stood in Edinburgh’s St Andrews Square Gardens at a candlelit vigil, organised by Shakti Women’s Aid and Scottish Women’s Aid as part of the Peace One Day campaign. I’d listened as a recording of male and female voices drifted out across the garden: survivors and their allies talking about why domestic violence must be fought and stopped. I’d held a sputtering candle and observed a minute’s silence in memory of those victims of domestic abuse who hadn’t survived their ordeals. I listened as the event’s speakers described domestic abuse as a war in which vulnerable people die every day. I read the tweet again, and felt sick. 

As jokes about gender-based violence go, this one was pretty mild. It certainly doesn’t rival Jimmy Carr’s one-liner, “What do nine out of ten people enjoy? Gang rape,” or Joan Rivers’ recent response to the ongoing saga of Rihanna and her one-time-boyfriend-turned-abuser Chris Brown. In August Rivers divided opinion when she tweeted: ‘Rihanna… still loves Chris Brown. Idiot! Now it’s MY turn to slap her.’  

Women’s groups, survivors of violence, and irritated people of all genders regularly take to their social media platforms to protest against “jokes” like these. And comedians, performers and their fans rush to respond in defence of themselves, their peers, and their heroes. In early September, comedian Simon Caine wrote a piece for the Huffington Post, defending the right of comedians to tell jokes about gender-based violence. In it, he claims that if a joke is ‘more about the word play than the subject matter,’ then it’s probably ‘more funny than offensive.’ He cites Carr’s gang rape joke as an example. The joke is, Caine says, ‘a fact expressed in a blunt and unforgiving style, which is why it's amusing.’ He continues: ‘When you see this performed it is clear Jimmy is not saying "gang rape is great," he is merely using language to address an issue in a cold and direct way so the audience don't see the punchline coming.’

While I appreciate Caine going to the trouble of telling us exactly how jokes work, he has failed to address the real problem behind quips like Carr’s. People who dislike these jokes do not dislike them because they don’t see how they’re funny. I think Carr’s one-liner is repulsive, but I understand why other people laughed. I had a little chuckle at the tweet I received before my own common sense kicked in. And that’s the point: those of us who object, object because after we initially respond to the instinctive appeal of the joke, we step back, think about it, and see the joke in the context of a society where minority groups of all stripes are regularly singled out for ridicule, objectification and abuse. 

Those who defend comedians like Carr often try and take the ‘how is a domestic abuse joke worse than a racist joke?’ line. The answer is: it isn’t. If you make jokes about people who identify as queer, or about people who are fat, or about people of colour, I will object to them just as strongly as I would if you made a joke about a woman being raped. It is possible for a performer to be funny without degrading people who are different to them, but unfortunately, many of our mainstream comedians don’t seem to have realised this.

There are two real problems with jokes about gender-based violence: problems that Simon Caine completely ignores. The first is the fact that a joke about gender-based violence can act as a trauma trigger for people who have survived similar ordeals to the one the joke describes. Trauma triggers can exacerbate the symptoms of PTSD, a condition that many victims of domestic violence, rape and assault suffer from by varying degrees. The second problem is that by constantly referencing something like domestic violence in a humorous context, you normalise it.

Many of the people who defend Jimmy Carr, Joan Rivers and the countless other comedians who tell jokes of this type like to point out that really, these performers are ‘nice people’ who don’t believe in the jokes they tell. That they don’t really think it’s OK for people to rape women or abuse their spouses. That’s good – but it doesn’t change anything for the triggered survivor or the individual who goes home thinking they’re justified in hitting their partner because someone famous said they do it too.

Furthermore, is the ‘nice guy’ get-out always the case? When I contacted the original poster of the tweet that had made me smile then recoil, his response was somewhat menacing. “You’ve gone too far,” he said, before sending several of his 3,900 followers to write threats and gendered abuse on my feed. The bottom line is, there clearly isn’t that much difference between thinking gender-based violence is funny, and thinking gender-based violence is OK. It’s time for comedians to think before speaking, and for audiences to think while they’re laughing.

Comments (9)

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  • So pertinent and hard-hitting!

    Posted by Jess Levy | Monday 05 November 2012 @ 15:58

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  • As a female, as a survivor of domestic violence, and as someone who would probably never be considered a victim at first glance, the only thing I find irritating is the values that are implicit in this article. Abuse victims aren't always meek, humourless shadows, in fact, its often a comfort to find normality and humour when abandoned in the dark and lonely place that is the aftermath of abuse. If I wasn't able to find the humour in the appalling circumstances I once found myself in, I can't imagine how I would have ever transcended victimhood.

    Posted by Anonymous, irritated. | Saturday 10 November 2012 @ 22:51

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  • Hi Anonymous, Irritated --

    Thanks for commenting on my article. I'm sorry to hear it irritated you. However, I have to say I think you're arguing with a straw(wo)man here. Firstly, I only referred to survivors of abuse as "victims" twice (once when describing those who had actually been killed by their ordeals, and once when describing those who suffer from PTSD -- and I know think I should have used a different word in that second instance). I reckon "survivor" is a far better description, precisely in order to shake off the image of a meek, defeated person. Secondly, if you'd show me the section of the article where I even suggest that "abuse victims [are] always meek, humourless shadows", I'll happily retract that statement.

    Posted by Claire | Wednesday 14 November 2012 @ 19:06

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  • Hey Anonymous (funny how folk who can't find something pleasant to say also never want to put their name to their comments, eh)? Sorry to hear about your past experiences -- no, really, I am. NO ONE should ever have to suffer domestic abuse. It's GREAT that you've found humour a helpful way of dealing with what's happened to you. But guess what? Survivors/victims/whatever you want to call them, come in all shapes and sizes and all deal with the shit they've been through differently. I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. If I had to sit in an auditorium and listen to some comedian make jokes about that, I might actually be physically sick (seriously). Does that make me a humourless? According to you (though NOT to this article, so hmmm?!) it does. And yet that's just how I've dealt with -- and continue to deal with my experiences. A little respect for how others cope would be nice... and it's respect that these asshole comedians are lacking!!

    Posted by Liz | Wednesday 14 November 2012 @ 19:13

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  • I'm a follower of the person who posted this tweet. I "favorited" and "retweeted" it, and would again. I'm flabbergasted that it was used in an article with the likes of the "gang rape joke." I have been in relationships a number of times where I've said "oh my God, if you don't just take out the garbage I'm going to kill you!!" Interestingly enough, I've never stabbed, choked, or maimed any of my boyfriends. I've never actually plotted their demise. It was an expression. Many people have these situations in relationships. Which is why we chuckle when we read a tweet like this. Maybe you haven't been involved in a similar relationship? No human contact at all perhaps? Because when I stumble across tweets I don't like, I don't favorite them, I roll my eyes, and move on. Oh, and maybe comedy tweets aren't for you. If this article is any indications you'll be curled up in a ball crying after reading about 10 other funny, poke fun at ourselves tweets.

    Posted by Angie D | Thursday 15 November 2012 @ 05:31

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  • Hi, I'm @sumpeoplelikeit, it is my Tweet that is used, without attribution, in the opening paragraph. You must include my @name if you use my Tweet for your publication. Also, you mention our interaction and grossly mischaracterize my response in order to make me into the straw man you need for this article. Your readers can see our entire interaction here:
    You say: "his response was somewhat menacing. “You’ve gone too far,” he said"
    No reasonable person could look at my response and call it menacing. In fact it was quite the opposite, I was overly nice and respectful. The words "You've gone too far" are the only ones you quote because there's nothing menacing there. You've got this nice little box you'd like to put me in, but I just don't fit. Which is the problem with this ham handed article. There's nothing new or illuminating here, just more hypocritical rhetoric from someone who admits 1. My Tweet made her smile 2. She has had similar thoughts.

    "I sometimes catch myself saying things like, “If he doesn’t stop leaving his coat on the damn floor I might just kill him.”

    Everybody has these thoughts. These thoughts are relatable. I have the ability to put that thought into a format that will make you smile and think. "The person sleeping next to you.." is the most important person in your world, doing little things like "the dishes" is huge in that relationship. It's hyperbole used for comedic purposes. Reasonable, sane people don't murder over dishes. Taking a negative spin on this joke and attacking me in an article like this, lumping it in with "gang rape" jokes, is tone deaf and hack journalism.

    I invite your readers to see my other top Tweets and see if I fit into this little box of yours.

    Trolling the internet for jokes on which to "take a stand" is easy. It's easy to be in the "anti rape" camp. It's not easy to take a thought that everybody has and say it in a new way. A provocative, original way that forces a response from people. I had many responses to this Tweet, yours is the lone negative one.

    And as to the "gendered abuse" accusation, it was all females. Women who were defending me by their own choice.

    This author said I threatened her. That is a lie. She said I was menacing, another lie. She said she endured "gendered abuse", but it was other women telling her to get a clue. Again, misleading.

    The greater danger here isn't the joke, it's wildly flinging accusations about a serious subject to garner attention for yourself. This article is self serving, condescending, tone deaf, grossly misleading and a step backward on the subject.

    Posted by @sumpeoplelikeit | Thursday 15 November 2012 @ 07:02

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  • Hey, "sumpeoplelikeit"? You say "it's easy to be in the anti-rape camp". That means you're NOT anti-rape? And that you think by being "pro-rape," you're being "provocative" and "original"? You're certainly not being original, trust me -- and if you don't think rape is something you should be "anti" to, then I can entirely see why the woman who wrote this article felt threatened by you.

    "This author said I threatened her. That is a lie. She said I was menacing, another lie."
    It's not up to you to tell someone when can/are threatened and menaced. You may not have thought you were being threatening or menacing but that doesn't mean she didn't feel threatened or menaced. See my point above!

    "She said she endured "gendered abuse", but it was other women telling her to get a clue. Again, misleading."
    No. The author showed some of those tweets to me. They were abusive. I've had more of the abuse in my @ box this morning, for tweeting about this article. Here's one (let me make sure the Tweeter gets their intellectual copyright, of course!) from ‏@britt_anylynn:
    "@sumpeoplelikeit @[mytwittertag] wow that is the most utterly ridiculous shit I've ever seen. What a poor excuse for a woman."
    This is just one of many, but I won't copy them all here as I don't want this to turn into mudslinging. But the fact is, you sent hordes of abusive followers to attack the author, and you have now sent them out again to attack me (and probably her too). Yet you try to defend yourself? Please.

    And this stuff IS abuse -- again, it doesn't matter what YOUR definition of/tolerance threshold for abuse is. Furthermore, abuse can still be gendered if it comes from women. Google the term and educate yourself.

    Good luck battling the "anti-rape" stance.

    Posted by Wyn | Thursday 15 November 2012 @ 10:28

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  • And of course, I forgot to mention -- you've also sent your trolls here! That's if Angie D up there isn't just a sock-puppet.

    Posted by Wyn | Thursday 15 November 2012 @ 10:30

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  • Hi Wyn. You start your comment by calling me "Pro rape" and proving my whole point about this. My "easy to be in the anti-rape camp" is a statement about choosing a side that everybody's on and then pretending to be a brave champion. That doesn't mean I'm "pro rape", what an awful thing to say to somebody, it means this author is taking a position that everybody should agree with and using it to sling mud on people she doesn't know or understand.

    You say:
    "You may not have thought you were being threatening or menacing but that doesn't mean she didn't feel threatened or menaced"

    The problem with this is that the word "threat" has a definition. If you had bothered to follow my link to our conversation you will see nothing there that even comes close to constituting a threat. For a woman to lie about a man threatening her is serious and make no mistake, she lied. Follow the link to our conversation and prove me wrong. She was enjoying what she was doing, sticking it to me. Not the least bit threatened.

    And as for the "gendered abuse", let's be honest, she made that statement because she wants her readers to think the reactions were because she's a woman. That's what the phrase means, right? But it wasn't because she's a woman. It's because she's clueless and over reached on something and in an attempt to make herself look good she came off as tone deaf. It's not because she's a woman, therefore the definition does not hold.

    And as for the responses you get, well guess what? This is the internet. You can't blast things on the WWW and expect everybody to agree with you and sing your praises. Your Tweet to me was snarky and condescending and you also made mention of me "threatening a woman on the internet". Don't throw stones Wyn. The internet has many stones and believe it or not, I don't control them all. You put yourself out there like that, your glass house is in trouble.

    "But the fact is, you sent hordes of abusive followers to attack the author, and you have now sent them out again to attack me (and probably her too). Yet you try to defend yourself? Please"

    Again, not a fact, an assumption. Seeing a pattern here? I don't "send" people. And if you're going to attack someone on the internet, which you did earlier today, expect to be attacked back. Your Tweet saying I "threatened a woman" is an attack. You accused me of a serious matter in a Tweet for all to see. And then when people saw it and disagreed....."Oh, I'm being attacked by abusive hordes!!"

    You only see one side, yours. Do you think calling a man "Pro rape" is not abusive? Do you think telling the whole internet that I threatened a woman isn't abusive? With absolutely no proof to back your claims?

    You say: "I don't want this to turn into mudslinging" and then sling mud.

    "Google the term and educate yourself."

    "Good luck battling the "anti-rape" stance."

    "Angie D up there isn't just a sock-puppet."

    Pretty muddy, pretty hypocritical.

    Angie D is a very dear friend of mine, not a troll. She's smart and discerning, you should google that word for you are not discerning. But what she isn't is a troll. This author is a troll and you are a troll my dear.

    This article has been up since the 5th and it got two obviously fake comments and one person disagreeing with the author. Epic fail. So what does a troll do? "Let's go to Twitter and try to drum up some interest in this article nobody wants to read!" That Tweet you sent me was trolling. This author trolled the internet looking for something to be offended by. It's not very admirable.

    You said I was "famous now"! Please. More people read my tweets than read this author's articles. Let's be clear about who is trying to piggy back on who. You want my traffic. You want people to insult you and call you names, that way you are justified in your righteous indignation.

    You anger comes from the fact that you feel you're on the "right side", but yet people are vehemently disagreeing with you. Why is that? Maybe you're wrong? About me. About the Tweet in question. And about how people are supposed to act and react. I have thousands of followers and that Tweet was ReTweeted hundreds of times. I got one negative response. The author. One of literally thousands. What does that tell you? Maybe people don't agree with you two. Maybe I'm not "pro rape". Maybe it's not that offensive. Maybe it is just funny.

    Posted by @sumpeoplelikeit | Thursday 15 November 2012 @ 11:56

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