Last week, Patton Oswalt wrote a long, thoughtful essay about, among other things, rape jokes. For a long time, Oswalt wrote, his own ideas about rape—that it’s horrific and not something he would ever do or even think of doing—made him “dismissive” of critics, who accused him of being insensitive on the subject. “I had my viewpoint, and it was based on solid experience,” he wrote, “and it…was…fucking…wrong.”
So when is it not wrong to joke about rape? Generally speaking, you can pull off a joke about rape when 1) the butt of the joke is the rapist, not the victim, and the humor calls attention to the reality of rape and rape culture.
As it happens, there are three moments in This Is the End, one of the funniest movies to come out this year, when rape is the subject of comedy. Do these rape jokes work? Are they OK?
Joke No. 1: The gang of guys worry that they’re giving off a “rape-y vibe.”
After seemingly everyone else within the city limits of Los Angeles has been sucked into the ground by an unknown force, our heroes find themselves holed up in James Franco’s house for survival. Emma Watson, who has also lived through the chaotic events, breaks down their barricade with a giant ax seeking cover, and joins the otherwise all-male group. Then Jay Baruchel, the neurotic moral compass of the gang, expresses concern that a woman cohabitating with six men might worry about their intentions. This conversation, which takes place just outside the room where Emma is resting, escalates into an argument over whether the guys are giving off a “rape-y vibe,” with everyone else accusing Jay of harboring his own inappropriate thoughts. No way would I ever think about harming Emma, they each argue. How dare Jay suggest such a thing—he must want to rape Emma himself.
The joke here is on the men, and the way that each suspects the other—but is horribly offended by any suspicions cast their own way. This is, in fact, precisely the mindset that Oswalt describes in his essay. “There’s no “evidence” of a “rape culture” in this country,” he once thought. “I’ve never wanted to rape anyone, so why am I being lumped in as the enemy? “
Here, This Is the End calls out its protagonists as foolish and ignorant regarding the reality of rape. It also calls attention to a reality that women, who must consciously avoid such potentially dangerous situations, face. As Jenni Miller astutely puts it, “It’s not that all men are potential rapists, but that it doesn’t necessarily occur to them what it’s like to go through the world as a woman and deal with the threat of rape. When they do realize how pervasive it is, they’re shocked and horrified.”
The joke here is not on the victim, or potential victim, and it’s not about the act itself—it’s about our culture’s continued inability to seriously confront the subject of rape.
Joke No. 2: Jonah is raped—by the Devil.
This is the End plays heavily with the ideas of good will and redemption. Midway through the film, Jonah is revealed to have a less than honorable side when he prays to God asking God to kill Jay because Jonah doesn’t like him. It’s not long before a garish, dark figure—the Devil himself, it turns out—appears at his bed while he’s sleeping, and rapes him.
Jokes about the rape of men are just as tricky to pull off, though not always for the same reasons. Many times, such jokes come couched in unsettling homophobia. In this case, because the rape in question is performed by a mythical figure known for meting out punishment, the scene could be seen to suggest that Jonah deserved to be raped—not something that a rape joke should ever imply. It’s also playing the violent act itself for laughs, particularly with a shot of the Devil revealing that it’s well-endowed.
Cinephiles, however, will recognize that the scene is a comedic reinterpretation of the infamous scene in Rosemary’s Baby when Rosemary is forcefully impregnated by the Devil. This meta aspect of the gag—not to mention the absurdity of the whole scenario—mitigate the joke’s insensitivity a bit. This is not a horribly offensive joke. But it’s not entirely defensible either. Sometimes, with a complicated subject like this one, you find yourself in a gray area. And that’s where this joke puts us.
Joke No. 3: James Franco recalls taking advantage of a famous actress’ lowered inhibitions.
In a rare moment of humility, the remaining guys finally accept that the rapture has happened, and that they’re still on Earth because of their unforgivable sins. James admits to having sex with Lindsay Lohan one night when she came to his door in an inebriated stupor, wanting to have sex with him. Apparently, she thought he was Jake Gyllenhaal.
When I first heard this joke, I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t even really consider it a rape joke—and judging by the other articles I’ve read about rape jokes in the film, many other viewers didn’t, either. But Jenni Miller points out exactly why this was a rape joke. “Even if a starlet who’s known for being a hot mess is banging on your hotel room door and begging to have sex with you,” she writes, “if she is too blitzed out of your mind to know your name, you shouldn’t have sex with her.”
She’s absolutely right. And in this case, the rape joke doesn’t work: James is smug in his telling of the story—though as Miller points out, he meets a particularly karmic ending later on—and the punchline falls much heavier on Lohan than it does on James. Lohan’s reputation has been sullied to the point where anyone who associates with her, professionally or romantically, is considered a little crazy. She may be responsible for turning herself into a go-to joke for late-night hosts and online commenters. But joking about taking advantage of her problems for your own satisfaction is not OK. This joke should have been about Franco, not Lohan. It crosses the line.