Why rape jokes are killing South Park

Fourteen years after it first started, South Park remains one of the funniest comedy shows in the world. I am a massive fan, I’ve watched every single one all the way back to the start. Some of them are among the most powerful satirical statements of our time, like the way they absolutely nailed Mel Gibson’s obsession with torture to the one where they managed to make every single person involved in the Terri Schiavo sitation look evil.

I wanted to say all that to make it clear at least part of the reason I’m writing this is concern for the future of a show I love. Because although the most recent series still have hilarious episodes, there are more and more crap ones as well. And a big part of the reason is that South Park is increasingly depending on the “shock value” of rape jokes.

The absolute low point came a couple of years ago in season 12, with an episode about the newest Indiana Jones movie. In it, there were repeated scenes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg raping Indy, as a comment on how crappy the 4th installment of his adventures was. Before we see this we see the boys having flashbacks, traumatised and crying, as they come to admit that “one of our friends was raped.” But then, da dum tsh, the joke turns out that the rape is of Indiana Jones. Ha ha, you never saw that coming did you?!

This episode was widely criticised for being insensitive, unpleasant and unfunny. As if to rub in our faces what they were doing, they didn’t make this joke once, but kept coming back throughout the episode to graphic and pretty horrible rape scenes that aped movies like ‘Deliverance.’

Since then the word rape crops up week after week. In this week’s episode, school councillor Mr Mackey comes out with “Don’t touch that or I will rape you in the mouth!” out of nowhere, before we see a scene of him being abused as a child. Last week they made a character from a US reality TV show into a weird monster which pounced on Cartman with him crying “It’s raping me! It’s raping me!”

Yet again, it seems, we need to go over why it’s not cool to make rape jokes. People who find rape funny are generally men, and generally have no idea just how prevalent it is in our society. The odds are that you know someone who has experienced rape or sexual abuse. A big part of the reason I can’t find these episodes funny is because when they start laughing about rape, I think about my friends and how it has affected their lives. Shows like South Park, Family Guy and The Mighty Boosh use rape so freely, as just another word to shock and get a laugh, that they rob it of how important it is. In their ignorance, they have no idea how many people are going to watch these episodes and suffer from real flashbacks, and genuine trauma, unlike the pretend horror and terror experienced by Stan and Kyle “for a laugh”.

Now, a common response to this is, yes, rape is awful, but so is murder, so why is it being singled out? The problem with that is it ignores the way rape is treated by the justice system throughout the world. Rape is a crime overwhelmingly committed by men against women. In Scotland, only 3% of those tried for rape end up convicted. There are two ways to explain this: either 97% of women who report being raped are crazy liars, or the justice system is systematically sexist and biased against women. These figures of course leave out all those who didn’t even go to the police because they knew at best it would be a waste of time, and at worst it could lead to their public humiliation in court and being branded a liar by the press.

In other words, our society doesn’t take rape seriously. We’ve come a long way from the past in terms of attitudes, but their remains the patriarchal social attitude that women basically deserve it (“What were you wearing? How much had you had to drink? Are you sexually promiscuous?”), and that rape basically performs a function of putting women in their place, and disciplining them for not being sexually available.

In that context, rape jokes help to normalise rape, help to make people feel that it’s not that bad. If rape is only as bad as the latest Indiana Jones movie, then what’s the big deal? When you try and pull someone up for making an unfunny, offensive and hurtful rape joke, inevitably they get defensive, because they find it hard to deal with being challenged. They will tell you that you’re being ridiculous, that it was just a joke, that you should calm down. The fact that big popular shows back them up on rape as comedy scenario is only going to make this worse.

Now, I also want to make clear that I know South Park deliberately sets out to offend. I have been watching it you know. And I understand that Trey Parker and Matt Stone are nobody’s political allies. They are just as happy to mercilessly rip the pish out of anyone from anywhere on the political spectrum. They are not feminists.

But there’s a difference between the rape jokes and, say, Cartman’s constant anti-semitic abuse. And that is that ultimately, you are not meant to respect and admire Cartman. He is ultimately a fat, unbearable spoiled little dick. And many of the targets of the show’s satire are well found – it is funny to laugh at the hypocrisy of liberal Hollywood actors for example. But laughing at the expense of rape survivors just isn’t funny. What South Park does best is forensically take apart why a person or group is hypocritical, full of shit or otherwise worthy of being mocked, and do it mercilessly. The rape jokes aren’t that, they are harnessing the power of rape to shock to produce a cheap laugh from ignorant, uncaring idiots. For the rest of us, it’s JUST NOT FUNNY.

There really isn’t much that’s funny about rape survivors, and they don’t deserve to have their pain mocked, or treated as if it’s the same as seeing a really bad film. Hurting or offending them is something I care about, in a way I don’t, for example, about Scientologists or John Edward. If the show isn’t funny, then it’s failing not just in terms of feminism or decent treatment of fellow human beings, but in terms of COMEDY.

FAO The Mighty Boosh: Changing the rapist to the Donnie Darko bunny doesn't make it funny

So I’m not just saying this because I am pro-feminist. I am saying it because I love South Park. I think it is genuinely one of the greatest and most daring comedies that’s been on in my lifetime. I know it will come to an end one day, but I don’t want it to have a slow death of seasons sprinkled with unfunny episodes. Constantly relying on rape jokes is a sign that the writing is weakening, that they can’t come up with the goods as often as they used to. I’ve seen it happen before, with the latest series of The Mighty Boosh, which was far less funny than the other two, and, not coincidentally, relied heavily on rape jokes.

Another thing that shows that South Park and The Mighty Boosh understand what they’re doing is the reliance on what initally look like cute things that then turn out to be evil. In the latest episode they go on a field trip to the woods, where there’s a mascot called Woodsy Owl that sings a little song encouraging the kids not to litter. As soon as I saw it, the first thing I thought was that it would turn out to be some kind of paedophile. And surprise surprise it turned out I was right. I’ve been trying to see if I can find if there’s a proper term for this phenomenon of the cute turning out to be evil, and couldn’t get any closer than coulrophobia or fear of the ‘evil clown’ (e.g. “Stephen King’s It”). But you’ll know what I mean when I refer to the Woodland Critters of the South Park Christmas special a couple of years ago for example.

Blending horror concepts with comedy can work and be funny, but the fact that I knew what Woodsy Owl was the second I saw him means that this particular trope is being overused and is losing it’s power. To me, it’s appearance was simply about using things that are cute, and therefore associated with childhood and innocence, and violating those expectations to give the eventual shock all the more power. Except it’s getting boring and predictable. But more importantly, the shock and horror of abuse are very real for millions of people, and by laughing at it you’re making them feel humiliated and angry.

I’m not saying that rape is a topic that can never be discussed or treated in TV or other media. Absolutely not. But I would like to see the makers of shows try and do it a bit sympathetically, with at least a token of trying to understand reality rather than sensational patriarchal propaganda that has no care for people’s feelings. Using the word and the act of rape as a cheap shock tactic to get a nervous laugh out of the audience (or, certainly, a big laugh from sexist, ignorant bastards) just isn’t good comedy. And it’s killing the enjoyment of one of my favourite shows for me. So consider this a plea to Trey Parker and Matt Stone to think a little bit more, and come up with more episodes of the show I love.

29 Comments

  1. Greg says:

    “Rape patter” is becoming all too common these days. People use it when they see girls they fancy – e.g. “She’d get raped” and suchlike. Can’t stand it but it seems to be accepted because it’s usually your posh types and that who use it, therefore normalising it. I’ve heard lassies using the it in joking terms as well which is baffling. I haven’t watched much South Park recently but I did notice an episode my brother had on using rape references a lot.

  2. LydiaTee says:

    I’ve actually had to ASK my pals NOT to make rape jokes. It’s fucking ridiculous, when will people understand that it’s not fucking funny when it happens to you? When will people GET that shocking humour =/= wit.

    I like dark comedy, but the minute the word ‘rape’ comes in to play, I can think of nothing but punching the person who said it. I’m sick of having to give these people my reasons for it, it should make sense that rape isn’t a funny concept in the least bit.

    Thank you for writing this, Jack.

  3. Muzza says:

    I have used the term without thinking about it as a metaphor for being beaten or brutalised.

    e.g. ” The Lib Dems are getting raped next year”

    I am not attempting to derive humour and don’t think I am offending anybody when I use this term. I am simply using imagery to describe how badly the Lib Dems are going to do at the mercy of the Scottish electorate.

    What do comrades think?

  4. Sarah says:

    If the Lib Dems lose out at the next Scottish election, are they going to feel abused, violated, degraded, invaded, scarred for life? No. It’s an entirely inappropriate comparison.

    Besides the fact that it’s inappropriate, unpleasant to hear and misogynist in its playing down of something that’s such a huge problem for women day in day out, by far the most compelling argument for me against using rape jokes is that hearing rape be laughed about and seeing rape imagery can be triggering (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trauma_trigger) for rape/sexual abuse survivors. Why would anyone ever want to remind rape survivors of the horrible ordeal they’ve been through and are possibly still going through for a cheap laugh?

  5. James N says:

    You wouldn’t say to an Auschwitz survivor “there’s gonna be an absolute Holocaust of LibDem MPs next year,” would you?

    You don’t think you’re offending anyone, Murray, because you are being completely unthinking and uncaring about the feelings and experience of rape survivors, of which there are unfortunately massive numbers in our society. I dare say you even know some.

    I think you even know it yourself, on some level, and that’s why you’re raising it. I’ll hold my hands up, I’ve said it before as well, in relation to football and also someone hijacking my facebook. But I’ve listened to the arguments against and they’re just too strong. There is a huge historical problem, that rape is not taken seriously by our institutions or often in popular attitudes. Rape jokes and throwing the word ‘rape’ about in inappropriate metaphors, they’re both part of the problem.

    For me, it’s as serious as using the ‘p’ word or the ‘n’ word for me people of other ethnicities. 100% not cool.

  6. James N says:

    I have no idea why the word ‘me’ is in that 2nd-last sentence. Whoops.

  7. Muzza says:

    I am pretty certain that one of the first SSP pamplets that I read back in 2005 contained the phrase “[Africa had been] raped of it’s natural resources”; The imagary was pretty effective as I can still remember it.

    “If the Lib Dems lose out at the next Scottish election, are they going to feel abused, violated, degraded, invaded, scarred for life? No. It’s an entirely inappropriate comparison.”

    Like it or not we tend to use inappropriate comparisons constantly. It is called hyperbole and is not meant to be taken literally, and is not meant as a laugh but as a stark point of comparison.

    How many of us casually use the word “mental” from time to time without stopping to think of the misery and stigma associated with psycological problems? Again i will put my hand up and say that I have. Is saying “the Libs must be mental” supposed to be derogatory towards the Lib Dems or towards those with mental health problems? Obviously noone would mean any offence to anyone except the Libs if they said this, which they most likely have over the past few days.

    I properly cringed at the southpark stuff though, fucking appauling taste throughout the series.

  8. Sarah says:

    I can’t think of anything in the world more violating than rape. It’s not about ‘like it or not’, we’re fighting to change the world aren’t we? Obviously we need to constantly look at the way we use words and the context from which these words are coming, re: the mental thing. If someone asked you to stop using the word mental you would consider it and you’d consider why it’s a common word to use in the first place right? But I can tell you that with the word rape it’s absolutely clear cut – no rape survivor will ever thank you for using the word ‘rape’ to get a point across just because it’s a strong (horrible, violent, triggering?) image, and for that matter neither will the majority of women.

    We don’t stand for people using the word ‘gay’ to mean something other than gay, and that’s not even triggering, why should we accept the word ‘rape’ for meaning anything other than rape, just because some people bizarrely enjoy forcing other people to listen to it because it makes a “striking image” – it’s not a striking image I want to have in my head thanks, and I’m absolutely certain that feeling is intensified infinitely for someone who has survived rape.

    Why would anyone ever need to use the word rape other than when discussing the fact of rape? Why would you want to force the “striking image” of rape onto anyone unnecessarily? Only someone who has never experienced the violation of sexual assault and the fear of it one feels simply from knowing that one is female – i.e. only a man thinking through the prism of male privilege – could seriously attempt to sustain the argument that using the word rape to mean something that is absolutely nothing to do with rape/sexual assault is ok.

  9. Squeak says:

    It’s a lazy, offensive image that equates women’s bodies and experiences with the exploitation of a physical resource that lacks agency, and with the “omg the lib dems are gonnae get raped” stuff FURTHER trivialises rape and sexual assault in a world where conviction rates are tiny, victims aren’t taken seriously and when questioned properly a frightening amount of young men admit to engaging in sexual assault and/or rape.

  10. And? says:

    Rape jokes should be held with as much distain as racist jokes.

  11. mhairi mcalpine says:

    “[Africa had been] raped of it’s natural resources”;

    Rape has an older broader and non-sexual meaning of “to plunder”, and has been used in this manner in a non-sexual sense to indicate that the victim has been left empty and violatated. For those living in certain parts of the world rape is exactly what has happened to their habitat. The lib dem comment *was* inappropriate however as it indicates that the lib-dems would be in some way wronged at the next election, rather than getting exactly what they deserve – a difficult juxtaposition with the term “rape”

    (Oh and gay has been used for years to indicate something colourful or cheerful, only very recently been used almost exclusively to indicate homosexuality)

  12. Jack says:

    Yeah, but everybody knows what’s meant if you say “That’s gay” to mean “That’s shite.”

  13. Sarah says:

    I hate the word rape to mean plundered. It likely comes from the fact that when vikings, conquistadors etc were conquering lands yes they plundered the land but they also raped the women, just another resource to plunder.

    So it’s unpleasant and misogynist enough in its inception as a word in that context, why would we want to cling to it now that it’s an old word and we as feminists understand the consequences of rape more than ever in history, due to the various barriers placed on defining it by law and accepting it as fact in society. I hope that the reasons why men rape and consequences of rape are more widely understood in future, but it’s like moving language along as the civil rights movement makes progress – we have to address language where it’s insensitive, misogynist/racist and unnecessary. Something feminists should be fighting for is to put an end to misogynist language, no matter how many years ago a misogynist thought ‘that’d make a good word to describe this thing that isn’t rape’ or how enshrined in our perception of the language it is. There are (sometimes good, sometimes bad) arguments for reclaiming words, but this should only ever apply to the wronged party who the word has been used against, and not for men to decide what the word rape means or should mean.

    And yeah, I meant when people use ‘gay’ to mean ‘rubbish’, we tell them off for it.

  14. mhairi mcalpine says:

    You’re right in the etimology, however rape was seen less as the exploitation of resources than a tactic of war, designed to stop the enemy regrouping, and regaining power. This older version of rape (sexual) was most recently seen in the west in 90s Bosnia, where women were systematically raped with an explicit aim to disrupt kinship ties and destroy family bonds.

    Although most modern rapes outwith warzones dont have the same motivations (although related ones such as isolation of the victim and demonstrations of power do come into play) its important to bear in mind the history as it plants the term “rape” firmly in the “abuse of power” realm, rather than in the “sexual behaviour” realm.

  15. Squeak says:

    No, it’s important to consider what things mean NOW in our language. Gay used to mainly mean happy but you wouldn’t expect people to read it that way now.

  16. Aidan K says:

    Fuck talking about TV shows, start bashing tories.

  17. Squeak says:

    It is impossible to care about more than one thing. TRU SCIENTIFIC FAX.

  18. Jack says:

    Can we not do both? There are quite a lot of articles on here about the Tories.

  19. Mhairi McAlpine says:

    I guess the thing is that people have different conceptions of what words mean. If I heard an object described as gay, I would probably think it was colourful..possibly camp, kietchy and effeminate, but I wouldnt have thought of “rubbish”.

    The guardian had an interesting article on this issue last month..
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/sep/10/the-rise-of-rape-talk

    To my mind its perfectly valid to discuss, say, the cultural rape of Iraq during the war. However, there is a trivialisation of rape that is coming through both in the way that the term is used and in the way that it is culturally depicted, and its the trivialisation which is the problem (and the references that it makes) rather than the non-sexual use. The classic quote “All men are rapists….They rape us with their eyes, their laws and their codes”, clearly indicates a violation which goes beyond the sexual in well into the institutional and cultural means that men use to hold power.

  20. James N says:

    @Aidan – I say this as part of friendly comradely debate… there’s currently 10 articles on the frontpage of this site, 6 of them Tory-bashing. Our record on this cannot seriously be challenged.

    Do you not think it’s a good idea to have a broad range of articles about different subjects? There are quite a lot of young people with a healthy disdain for official politics, who may not normally read articles about Tory cuts, who could end up on this site due to being curious South Park fans.

    Radical debate and activity should not confine itself to the realms of stalls, petitions, papersales and choreographed demonstrations. We need to engage in a war of ideas, to prove that capitalism as the economic system underpinning society makes us all unhappier and less safe.

    The high levels of rape and responses to to it, at official/legal and personal/cultural level, are really scary. Surely as supporters of social justice and equality we need to take a stand on this issue.

    Personally I’ve found the debate about the use of the word ‘rape’ really interesting and useful.

  21. Kyle says:

    As an American male, I can say I personally worry (like I’m sure many of us do) more about being falsely accused of rape. In my opinion, the US has some serious problems with convicting males with little or no evidence… all in a country where girls tend to cry rape if they are caught by parents, etc. Sexual harassment charges in general are insane here too.

    I’m not saying that rape doesn’t happen, just saying it’s often a very difficult crime to prove, and a lot of innocent people are convicted too.

  22. Jack says:

    Kyle that is absolute shite!

    There is a 13% conviction rate for rape in the US, a wee bit higher than in Britain, but still, the chances are if someone goes to trial for rape there’s very little chance of them being convicted. And then on top of that you want to claim that the few women who have seen some justice and been believed by the system are “crying rape”?!

    Just what does it benefit somebody to make up they were raped? Stop and think for a second about the seriously warped view of women you have – that they are out to get men with made up accusations. What basis has that got in reality?

    If you are afraid about people accusing you of rape, maybe you should think about what about your own behaviour leads you to have that fear?

  23. TheWorstWitch says:

    Kyle, are you INSANE?

    A woman in the USA is raped every 2 minutes, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

    That’s around 262,000 rapes each year.

    And yet in 2008 there were only 22,584 arrests made for rapes in the USA. And only 13% of the men arrested were convicted – that’s 2,935 men convicted for 262,000. Are we seriously meant to believe that every American rapist has repeated his offense nearly 90 times in one year?

    The fact is, even if you were a rapist, you’d probably get away with it.

    And as Jack said, I think it’s really worrying that being accused of rape. Either you need to stop hating the women you sleep or interact with, or change your sexual behaviour big time.

  24. TheWorstWitch says:

    regarding rape analogies…

    There is a big difference between “Africa was raped of its natural resources” and “the Lib Dems are getting raped” or “I got totally raped by my phone bill/computer game/friend who hijacked my facebook”

    In the first usage, at least Africa actually had a wrong committed against them. So I don’t agree with it and it makes me uncomfortable to read – but there is an argument for the use of the word in this context.

    Whereas, the Lib Dems are going to get what they deserve, and the other examples are just …things that happen, not a big deal. And THAT”S when using the word rape crosses the line of disgustingly offensive.

    The Lib Dems one really grates me. A lot. If it is alright to say “The Lib Dems are getting raped in the next election” then does that mean it’s ok to say “Kate Waisel’s getting raped in the next X Factor” or “Dianne Abbot got raped in the Labour leadership contest.” ??? No fucking way.

    There’s a big difference between someone suffering consequences for their actions and threatening them with rape.

  25. Flehmen says:

    I personally abhor rape jokes. I never tell them and I flinch when I hear them. I do think, however, that these types of jokes should never be censored. I get that it may be traumatic for survivors to hear references to such a terrible ordeal, but if we censor this, it opens the door to blanket censorship. I just don’t think that the fact that someone may be offended by something is grounds for censorship. Nothing actually happens to you if you get offended.

  26. James N says:

    Which is why our message is basically ‘gonna stop being an arsehole?’ not ‘send in police to raid Trey Parker & Matt Stone’s houses and throw them in jail’

  27. aBlueMango says:

    me thinks the point of the south park episode went over your head. it’s entire comment was on the rape culture we presently have. and i can certainly tell you, men are very aware of rape. if they’re not within the grace of the state they are threatened with it. daily. if you think otherwise you’re living in an establishment upper middle class white fantasy land.

  28. Jack says:

    aBlueMango, which episode are you talking about? The Indiana Jones one? Because how on Earth can you read that as a critique of rape culture? A critique of Spielberg and Lucas yes, but using rape as a “comic” device, not examining it in any kind of critical way.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “the grace of the state”? Are upper middle class men under constant police protection from their hordes of would-be rapists? Or is it simply the fact that if a man is able to avoid being imprisoned, they are statistically WAAY less likely to experience rape in their lifetime?

    Btw, your blog is a bit . . . out there!

  29. Sarah says:

    In what way on this earth are men threatened with rape daily? That untrue statement really offensively disregards/mocks the real experiences of women who frankly are threatened with the possibility of rape daily.

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