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An Open Letter to Jim Norton

I know I'm fairly behind the times on this topic, but I've had this nagging at the back of my mind since seeing the debate between Lindy and Jim, and I decided to write it down. Probably only a couple of people on GT are going to read this, but if you guys think it's good, I'll email it to him. He may not read it, but it'll make me feel better anyway. Bear with me here; it's long.

Dear Jim,

I wanted to write to you after seeing your debate with Lindy West. I like Lindy and find her funny, though I disagree with her viewpoint on some things. I'm not a huge fan of your comedy, as I find it fairly abrasive and frequently offensive, but that's just my taste. I will say that one of my best friends, who also identifies as a feminist, loves your comedy and has seen you live. So again, different tastes.


So with all that, I watched the debate with certain expectations. I was surprised to find myself agreeing with you on some points. Meanwhile, Lindy seemed nervous and a bit scattered, and I think didn't make her point as well as she has in the past online. As you said later on Opie and Anthony, she would have been better served making her argument anti-bad comedy. Making rape jokes is often lazy bad comedy, but there's a way to do it that's not so bad.

On O&A, you kept mentioning her open letter to white male comedians. But the one you should have read is her "How to Make a Rape Joke". (Seriously, if you haven't read it, please do. It discusses most of the points you brought up in the debate.) In it, she expresses the same sentiment you expressed in the debate, that jokes about terrible or uncomfortable topics can help us to process them (and she missed an opportunity there to discuss your common ground). But a well thought-out joke makes fun of the terrible thing, rather than making fun of the victim. The latter feels like playground bullying, which most people haven't found funny since they were five years old. Louis CK is a frequent example given of how to do it right. Feminists generally love Louis CK, but no one would call him inoffensive, or say that he doesn't joke about terrible things. Alyssa Rosenberg wrote a piece expanding on this idea: "Louis C.K. reads as funnier to those of us who understand rape as a weapon, and Tosh’s to those who understand rape as a tool or a complement. We can’t get on the same page about what’s funny, and what’s hurtful, until we arrive at the same understanding of rape."

Her point in that article is that comedians are welcome to say whatever they want, but if they say awful offensive shit, lots of people will (and should) stop supporting their work. If you produce a shitty product, people won't (and shouldn't) buy it. That's how it works. It's not censorship. If a comedian make shitty rape jokes, I'm likely to believe they're a misogynist. And I'm not going to support them. They're free to make the joke, and I'm free to complain.


The main reason I wanted to write this letter is to address the way that you, Opie, and Anthony scoffed at the phrase "rape culture." You then hedged and said maybe you'd feel differently if it were explained to you. I agree. You seem to think it means that people all think rape is great and are toasting to it at parties. That's obviously ridiculous; no one believes that. (Though maybe that happened at Steubenville*.)

Rape culture is the way in which rape victims are questioned and disbelieved. When a woman says she was raped, everyone starts wondering if she's just full of shit. Maybe she had sex with the guy and just regretted it later. Maybe she was leading him on, teasing him until he just couldn't help himself. Did she fight hard enough? Did she say "no" forcefully enough? Maybe he thought she was saying "no" but meant "yes", cause women sure do that all the time, amirite?? How can guys be expected to know the difference?? Rape culture is a rape victim being told by the police not to press charges, since she probably won't win the case. It's a male rape victim getting laughed out of the police station, because men can't be raped. It's laughing at prison rape, cause who cares about criminals raping other criminals? It's thinking all rapes look the same way, with a stranger jumping out of the bushes to assault some poor attractive runner. It's not realizing that in most rapes, the victim knows their attacker. It's thinking that that somehow makes it less serious, because it's just date rape. And if the woman chose to go on a date with the guy, chose to go home with the guy, then that's consent isn't it? What did she think would happen? It's really all her fault. She was sending mixed messages. Rape culture is hearing a woman complain about rape jokes, and deciding that the best way to respond is by saying how funny it would be if she were raped, how she's just jealous that no one will rape her, etc. Rape culture is not realizing how hurtful, threatening, and all-around horrible it is to say shit like that.


Let me add a caveat here. We are all complicit in rape culture. Rape culture is not one person's fault, nor is it men's fault. It is all of us, because it is a culture. We all need to do better, and no one is blameless (though some people definitely get a heavier burden of blame, like, for example, rapists). This part may be controversial to say, but that is my belief. When a woman says "no" but means "yes", and expects the guy she's with to understand that, she's playing into rape culture (though SSC BDSM is a different story). If the guy she's with doesn't want to play into rape culture, he needs to respect her voiced "no", and she needs to grow the fuck up and say what she means.

If you read more of Lindy's writing, I think you'll find you have more in common than not. Your main difference is whether you believe comedy can influence society, or if it is merely a reflection. I can see both sides of that one, and don't have a strong opinion one way or the other. Alex Alvarez did an interesting piece on this particular aspect of the debate, and I largely agree with her. Her stance is that comedy is just a reflection of culture, so the point is not to tell people not to make shitty rape jokes, but rather to support those who make intelligent subversive jokes about these shitty aspects of our culture.


What I do know is that Lindy's "How to Make a Rape Joke" pretty perfectly expresses the type of comedy I enjoy or find cathartic, versus what I find to be irritating, immature, and offensive. That's just taste. But I'm happy that she's expressing her opinion loudly, because so many women have felt and do feel silenced on the topic. We've been taught that our opinions on the matter don't count, because we're just being frigid bitches with no sense of humor. But the fact is that Lindy got a ton of positive response from that article, from women who have sat uncomfortably through comedy sets and didn't tell anyone how they felt. And we need to start making our voices heard.

*I feel the need to add that Steubenville is not some fucked-up anomaly that can be completely dismissed. Steubenville is not special, except in the fact that what happened got posted on the internet and went viral, and people couldn't hide from the facts. Awful shit like that happens, and is swept under the rug. Rape is not rare as people would like to believe, and covering up rape is not as rare as people would like to believe. Those beliefs are also what we're talking about when we talk about rape culture.

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