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 | 05 Nov 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.