Penny Arcade and jokes about rape
So, I somehow missed this whole controversy last week about Penny Arcade getting in trouble over telling a joke making light of rape. For those you you catching up as well, PA recently did a strip that was more, shall we say, blue than their typical recent ones. The Shakesville blog took strong offense:
Yesterday’s Penny Arcade,a webcomic centered around video gaming and its culture, featured a joke a lot of World of Warcraft players make, in a sense. In WoW, you’ll often get quests like “Kill 10 of these terrible people” or “Save five prisoners”. Because the game has millions of players all existing in the world who will do that quest, even if you kill all the bad guys and free everyone, they’ll reappear against quickly, so the next person can do their good deeds. It’s a silly conundrum if you let your suspension of disbelief lapse.
Penny Arcade took it to another level. In a strip titled, “The Sixth Slave,” the comic features a (white, male) slave begging for rescue from another character. “Hero!” he pleads. “Please take me with you! Release me from this hell unending! Every morning, we are roused by savage blows. Every night, we are raped to sleep by the dickwolves.” The hero tells him, “I only needed to save five slaves. Alright? Quest complete.” The prisoner protests, “But…” The hero interrupts him, “Hey, pal. Don’t make this weird.”
Rape isn’t a part of the game, so for the slave to explicitly state he is being raped is a “humorous” exaggeration. When he hero tells the slave his quest is complete and instructs him not to make it “weird,” we’re meant to laugh: “Haha, what a strange underreaction!” (Or not.)
The problem is, I just don’t find rape funny. Because rape survivors exist among us, and after being victimized by rapists, they are revictimized by a society that treats even real rape like a joke, forced to live in a culture that actually has a lot of rape jokes, including those about rape victims being actively denied justice for no other reason than because people don’t take rape seriously. I don’t find rape funny because rape victims are often doubted, mocked, and insulted openly.
The very next strip, the guys issued an apology (albeit a snarky one), along with the following response in their news section:
What surprised me most about some of the reactions to our Dickwolf joke was not that people were offended. But that this was the comic that offended them. In each case the emails I got started with something like “I’ve been a long time fan” or “Been reading the comic for years…” and then they go into how this particular comic really bothered them.
I just don’t understand that. Did the comics about bestiality, suicide, murder, pedophilia, and torture not bother them? Or how about the fruit fucker? I mean, we have a character who is a literal rapist. What comic strip have they been reading all these years?
For the most part I think that people are perfectly happy to laugh at offensive jokes until the joke offends them. Then it’s not funny anymore. There is no way we can know what each and every person who reads the comic has decided to find offensive.
In the end I just disagree with these people about what’s funny and that’s perfectly okay.
The apology actually managed to tick off some people who had been defending them earlier, like Amanda Marotte of Pandagon.
I found the blog post an annoying rationalization for disliking humor in general, which the blogger admits she does. I find the “but rape is real!” argument against jokes of this nature to be a disingenuous one. Slavery is also real, as is murder and general violence. But there’s no way that the blogger would have gotten mad about jokes in those veins, but a joke about a form of torture that is supposed to sound over the top and mystical got her into offended mode.
I also didn’t like the post because I object to people who use survivors as a rhetorical device to shield their arguments from criticism. I feel, as a rape survivor, way more dehumanized by this post that purports to speak for survivors than I ever could by the Penny Arcade comic. I reject and resent the suggestion that having been sexually assaulted in my past makes me unable to see that this joke for what it was.
That said, the guys at Penny Arcade responded in officially the worst possible way to respond. As Melissa correctly notes, they attacked strawmen, and this time they really did make light of rape. Jokes where you condemn rape in a sardonic tone really do imply that rape isn’t a big deal. In the time it took them to write the response, there were probably like 10 rapes in the U.S. alone. The cartoon implied that rape is less common than it is, that rape culture isn’t real, and that the whole subject is beneath you. This was tone deaf, sexist, and stupid.
Both sides have legitimate arguments, I think, and I strongly agree with Amanda that the PA guys handled this badly. It’s also a sign that popularity is a double-edged sword. In part, webcomics got to where they are today because they could get away with being “edgier” than the mainstream. But you’ve got to brace for the backlash when, all of the sudden, you’re the mainstream.