Standup, Game of Thrones, and Rape Culture

Making an audience feel safe

The characters Sansa and Ramsey from the show Game of Thrones.

I have a joke that I don't do anymore, because even though I don't think there's any particular symbolism in cumming on someone's face, it's clear other people do. The joke isn't even really about cumming on people's faces. It's about learning Japanese grammar, which is why I'm not just telling you the joke, because if you're not a foreigner living in Japan learning some Japanese, it's incomprehensible. The only reason cumming on someone's face is even part of the joke is because the premise is about how in certain situations you're not going to stop to check if your grammar is perfect, so I needed an example sentence that clearly wouldn't be in a textbook.

One time, after performing that joke as part of a fifteen minute set, a woman in the audience told me that she thought my set was, "alright, but a bit misogynistic." Every other joke in that set was just about little life in Japan moments and learning kanji and that kind of thing, completely unrelated to gender politics. Outside of that one sentence, I don't mention anything about anyone's gender in any direction. Clearly, that one sentence, a mere section of a whole string of jokes, was the oil in the water that defined my whole performance for her. Which made it easy at the time to dismiss her as being overly sensitive and looking at my set through her preset worldview of one narrow topic of interest. Especially since my phrasing didn't specify anything about the identities of who was cumming on who's face. Is it misogynistic if a gay guy cums on another gay guy's face?

I had my mind changed a little while later from watching Game of Thrones. I was baffled when there seemed to be some controversy about a scene in which an established villain, a character named Ramsay, rapes a character named Sansa on their wedding night. This is a show which deliberately confronts you with just how horrible medieval life can be, depicting all kinds of horrors no one would want to live through. Just some examples include a man who is physically and mentally tortured for an entire season of the show, including his on screen castration, a pregnant woman who is stabbed to death on her wedding day, and, the scene I personally found most difficult to watch, a little girl who is tied to a stake and burned alive in front of a crowd of people, including her willingly participating parents.

What made objections to this particular wedding night scene all the more strange to me is that it comes across to me as being pretty mild within the context of the show. For a baseline, consider that in another scene, a character named Geoffrey, a young king with sadistic tendencies, uses a new crossbow he has acquired to shoot to death a partially naked servant woman who is tied to a post on his bed. He does this for his sexual gratification, because he gets off on pain and death. For this scene, so far as I know, there was no particular controversy. At least, not within the people who watch the show. I get why someone would dismiss the show wholesale, not wanting to suffer any of the show's darker moments. Objecting to depictions of violence makes sense to me if the criteria for what is considered gratuitous comes across as a uniform standard.

The scene that got attention shows Ramsay bending Sansa over a bed, and then the camera moves away so that we can see a reaction shot of another character, Theon, being forced to watch. There's no question to me that this is rape, since Sansa is not consenting, but there is a distinct lack of torture, blood, or mortal threat. Much later in the series, it should be noted, Sansa explains to another character named Littlefinger, that she bears scars all over her body from where Ramsay tortured her physically for his sadistic pleasure, leaving her face untouched so that she could still be seen in public. But that wasn't shown or known when people were objecting.

Various nuanced details were offered about why this scene was bad. For one, it doesn't occur in the books. It looks like the writers were deviating from the source material just to squeeze in another rape scene that degrades women. However, the pregnant woman stabbed on her wedding day doesn't occur in the books either, and I find it weird that no one would object to that if gratuitous changes from the books are a problem. Another issue raised was that the camera moves away from Sansa's face to show Theon's reaction, and it seems unfair to convey to the audience how horrible this rape is through the reaction of a man than from seeing the woman who is the direct victim. Yeah, fair enough, but I can't help but imagine the objections being just as strong if the camera lingered on Sansa's face. Seems it's equally risky that it could be seen as exploitative. There were other objections, but, I think I've made my point that, to me, they seemed to be nitpicking about questionable details more than revealing a core truth.

In Game of Thrones, there are other scenes of rape that haven't created an equal amount of controversy as Sansa's wedding night. For example, a Mongol-esque horde of barbarians called Dothraki sack a village of people called Lhazareen, and it's not shown in great detail, but the camera passes by women being taken as part of the plunder, and raped by the Dothraki soldiers. Speaking of Dothraki, in one of the first episodes, the leader takes a woman named Daenerys as his wife, and you wouldn't call the sex they have as being consensual, and yet, despite the very similar circumstances, that scene didn't draw attention. There are some fine lines being drawn. Another scene that did raise controversy is when a character named Jaime rapes his sister Cersei in the mausoleum where the dead body of their eldest child is on display. The same objections came up of that being a scene not in the original books, making its addition gratuitous, but, as mentioned before, how closely the source material is being followed doesn't look to me like a standard being applied consistently.

I thought about that controversy a lot, because I felt that I could potentially learn something from it that could help in doing standup. I organize and attend lots of comedy shows where new performers try material out, and rape comes up often enough, and nine times out of ten it fails. Many times it fails badly enough that the audience loses interest in hearing anything else the comedian wants to say, regardless of how funny it might be. I don't have any rape jokes, nor any particular desire to create them, but I do want to be unafraid of any topic and capable of developing material without boundaries. Of my current material, I'm not even really sure which would be my most objectionable bits. But maybe that's a lead in to part of the problem, not being completely aware of how the audience is affected.

If a comedian jokingly said to a heckler, "Do I have to kill you to get you to stop talking?" that would barely get noticed, maybe a laugh if delivered right. If a comedian responded to a heckler by saying, "Do I have to rape you to get you to stop talking?" that comedian almost certainly lose the audience, especially if the heckler was a woman, and the situation could conceivably go bad enough for the comedian to have to get off stage. Why is rape so much more of a minefield than murder? Similarly, I can't think of a single scene of murder in Game of Thrones, or torture for that matter, that was ever objected to. Murder seems to only ever support the narrative by establishing the stakes involved for the characters. Rape is off and on accused of being an attempt by the show creators to exploit female characters for the titillation of male viewers.

I think the issue has to do with a sense of safety. Your personal sense of how safe you are in this world is largely established by your connection to the community around you, both the people you know and those you don't. Your physical ability to defend yourself, a personal notion of how capable you are of dealing with threats, only goes so far. As a reasonably fit middle aged man, I'm not an easy target, but there are a lot of people who could kick my ass. Even if you're the toughest dude in the world, with huge muscles and crazy MMA fighting techniques, if someone sneaks up behind you and hits you in the base of the skull with an iron wrench, you're going down. Not to mention guns, knives, and what could be accomplished by a whole group of people working together against you.

Where I live, in Tokyo, I can walk through the seediest neighbourhoods in town, and pass right through a group of yakuza looking dudes without any sense that they will even care to notice me, let alone turn on me for any reason. There are many levels of culture and society that create that circumstance where I can be so sure that these complete strangers who even make it a point of dressing and looking like hard dudes won't be an issue for me. On the other hand, when I went to the Philippines, while most people and places were really lovely, there were some side streets I simply wouldn't dare to walk down. There are levels of abject poverty there that create desperation in people that I perceive as a threat. The societal framework that allows me to outource my personal safety is based more on ethical agreement and circumstance than rule of law, which makes it very fragile.

Those of us living in comfortable first world conditions, generally go about our day to day lives assuming a comfortable agreement with everyone else that we're not going to turn on each other. There are accepted boundaries of behaviour and understood limits. One of those limits, for example, is that we all understand murder and torture are bad. Obviously bad. Like, so obvious that sometimes it can be hard to take a threat of murder seriously. I've seen dudes get into fights where they'll threaten to kill each other, and even if punches get thrown, no one really expects that anyone really intends on murder as the end goal. Of course, murder does happen, as does everything that society would like less of, but the point is that even when it happens, it's understood as bad.

Rape should be the same. Of course it's bad. Taking away someone else's right to choose their actions and their fate is maybe the worst thing you can do to another person. In a way, that's precisely what makes murder, torture, and slavery bad. Negating someone's will, whether permanently snuffing it out or taking it for a time, is to steal from them the very thing that makes them human. If rape is so obviously bad, I should be able to casually use it as the premise for a joke or as a harmless threat, the same way I could threaten to murder someone and everyone would know I was clearly kidding, right? I think that's the logic most comedians have when they attempt material involving rape.

Except, we don't quite live in that society where rape is clearly and obviously bad. It happens that people, particularly men with more privilege than others, get away without sufficiently corresponding punishment. How often? I don't know, and I think that's asking the wrong question. The important issue is why. People with sufficient power get away with murder too, but, the reasons they get away with murder usually has to do with them applying enough resource to create sufficient doubt about their involvement in what was clearly a murder. After all, there is a body, and so there isn't much question that a murder happened, just who did it. People accused of rape, however, often get away because they exploit disagreement in society about what rape is, or invoke doubts that a rape even happened because of the actions of the victim.

For a guy like me, it's a little hard to imagine what it might feel like as a woman to sit in a room full of people laughing at a rape joke. If a comedian on stage jokingly said something about murder, I'd dismiss it without even thinking of it. Even if a comedian on stage said a joke about murdering me specifically, I might have some kind of reaction, but it probably still wouldn't phase me too much. However, if, say, sometime in my past, my best friend was killed in a bar fight which started out with the guy who killed him making threats about killing him that everyone ignored because no one took it seriously, then I can start to imagine it might bother me to sit in a room where everyone is laughing while a comedian joked about killing someone, even in general.

What if fifty percent of the audience is not totally confident as the other fifty percent that we all agree on what rape really is? If you were in that fifty percent that felt at risk of rape, when a comedian started to make casual statements about it, and everyone in the audience around you seemed to be responding like rape was no big deal, just something you may or may not laugh about, you might feel that general social contract that keeps us all safe being at risk. Nothing would be less conducive to having a good comedy set than making your audience feel less at ease in the society they live in.

I think the problem that people were responding to with the wedding night rape of Sansa in Game of Thrones was precisely because it was so much tamer than all the other horrors of the show. That makes it too close to actual rape that one could conceivably might encounter in real life, and for which there might be little or no support in dealing with. No one is even a little unclear that stabbing a pregnant woman or lighting a little girl on fire is bad. Soldiers raping women after a battle is a war crime. Anyone can watch these scenes and, as horrible as they are, can feel protected by the assurance that everyone else watching the show with them also know that these are bad things. But a husband having his way with his wife on their wedding night? It's less clear that everyone agrees that's wrong. It might be that you and all your friends know that's wrong, but if, for example, you think that out there is a religiously fundamental group made of people you don't know personally but make up a significant voting block, you can feel a risk to your social safety.

Why was Daenerys being raped by her husband on their wedding night not as controversial as what happened to Sansa? Because Daenerys husband was a barbarian, his actions dismissable as the misguided behaviour of someone we all recognize as primitive. In a weird way, I think when the writers had Sansa mention later on that Ramsay did much more physically scarring torture to her, it was because they wanted to make a clear stance on how evil Ramsay was. By adding in the aspect of physical torture, it takes Ramsay's actions out of the realm of what some people might think of as possibly just a husband's rightful ownership of his wife, and into the decidedly evil ways of a sadist. It makes Ramsay even worse than a barbarian, because in some sense a barbarian doesn't know better.

Why was Jaime raping his sister so shocking? It wasn't the incest, as no one questioned the ethics of the writers for including a storyline of a brother and sister completely in love and having three children together. My take on that is a little metacontextual. The character Jaime starts off in the series as an arrogant and shitty person, someone the audience should hate. However, as the series went on, the actor playing him brought a certain amount of charm, and after a storyline where the character had his hand cut off and formed a friendship with one of the more likeable characters on the show, I think the writers felt he was becoming too likeable, defeating the moral complexity the character could bring. The rape of his sister was the way the writers chose to remind us that Jaime is selfish and amoral. However, because they had this likeable character getting away with what is essentially a date rape of the woman who loves him, they blurred that line where all of the audience could be sure that this was something everyone would see in the same light.

That sense of agreement among an audience is important for just about any artist in any craft, though arguably a standup comedian has to create it more immediately and viscerally than many other performers. A successful comedian has to get a whole room laughing, not just various individuals here and there at different tables. If you make a scattered selection of people in the room laugh, all you've demonstrated is that your material has the limited potential of finding random people here and there who relate on a personal level to what your saying. When you get the whole room to laugh, you've created a social entity that goes beyond individuals. You've created resonance with something that is both more internal and intuitive to all the people participating, and at the same time binds everyone together in recognition of what connects us. It's an amazing thing, and feels incredible when you pull it off.

Making some people in the room feel unsafe is the absolute antithesis of that. Which means that the way forward for comedians is not to avoid rape jokes, but to ensure that the audience feels safe with you when you do it. Make sure that they are all totally clear that if you say the word rape, that you've made a context where the audience can receive it the same as if you were talking about murder. The mistake most comedians make is assuming that everyone will know that the comedian stands with them against rape and so obviously any statement about rape is ironic. Society has not yet made it totally clear how to handle rape, and until an audience gets to know you, you're just part of society.

You can't please everyone, and some people are "triggered" irrationally. I still think when that woman said I was misogynistic because of my joke that off hand mentioned cumming on someone's face, that says more about her interpretation of what that sex act means than my attitude about women. But what I do recognize now was that I was assuming everyone saw that sex act the way I did, which they don't. And precisely because the way I deliver that line was so off hand, the casualness itself becomes part of my message that I dismiss symbolism that is important to other people. It's my job as a comedian to make sure that when I get to the point of throwing that line out there, I've taken to make sure the audience knows where I'm coming from.

That's a fair amount of work, to make a joke land, and if you want to do material about rape, you should be asking if the punchline is worth the effort. That one joke I don't bother with anymore, because in the balance, it just wasn't funny enough.