Do some jokes and TV story lines contribute to rape culture?

Couple laughing at a café
Couple laughing at a café

An interesting episode on the popular SABC one show Uzalo which aired last month caught my attention. The last few minutes of the show were dedicated to two characters Nkunzi and MaMlambo who were said to be resisting the attraction between them. Nkunzi visits the home of MaMlambo under the pretense of being a client. He says he needs advice and speaks of a hypothetical attraction between him and an unnamed woman. 

MaMlambo eventually asks Nkunzi to leave as it is late. He then says he will leave if that is what she wants but not before removing her ancestral garment and then kissing her. 

The story line does not seem problematic from the onset because the slow music and his soft mannered voice do not raise red flags. But he did enter her home under false pretenses and did not leave when he asked to.

Charming or complicit?

You have probably heard a friend say a joke that did not sound right. Or heard someone explain a TV storyline and found yourself asking "Isn't that rape?" Or watched a Kevin Hart special where he says, "I wish Batman raped my son," as a joke.  

At times the messages, jokes and storylines are so subliminal that without thinking we find ourselves laughing or subconsciously guilty of accepting the problematic language that was used.

They are embedded in the media we consume that we sometimes do not recognise how damaging they are and how they continue to perpetuate rape culture. 

What is rape culture? 

The Southern Connecticut State University defines it as "an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence is normalised and excused in the media and popular culture. " 

READ MORE: 3 people share their sexual harassment stories - but what does the law say? (TRIGGER WARNING)

The university furthermore states that "Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorisation of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety."

In essence, rape culture has to do with the normalisation of rape by society and this can be explored by looking at how language contributes to this ongoing culture. 

Feminist writer and researcher Jen Thorpe says that "language is incredibly important." She explains that it allows us to define what is acceptable and what is not in our social circles. 

Dr Lindsay Kelland from the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics at Rhodes explains that language is especially important when it comes to reinforcing a culture that supports rape and other forms of sexual violence. 

She adds that in her experience, she has heard students on her campus saying things like, "that exam raped me" or so and so "is rapey". 

It struck her how the reference to rape and sexual violence can be used in such a throwaway manner. She believes that such language belittles the harm rape survivors experience. 

Rape is never funny.
Jen Thorpe, feminist writer and researcher

As mentioned earlier some people find rape jokes funny and acceptable but Thorpe reminds us that rape jokes do the following when we make or laugh at them:

  • They minimise or ignore the pain and trauma suffered by survivors of rape. They also ignore the number of deaths linked to sexual violence.
  • They make it more difficult for people to discuss rape in a serious way by making rape seem like something people should 'just get over'.
  • They normalise rape, by making it seem to be 'just part of the way things are.'

READ MORE: You might think it's kinky, but it could be sexual assault

"All these three factors make it more difficult to discuss rape as an abnormal and violent abuse of power. Rape is never funny," she says. 

In an article titled Rape is not your plaything - how TV contributes to rape culture, the article brings to light how some of the storylines we see on TV cause harm by contributing to rape culture. For example, "stories have a really bad habit of suggesting that an aggressive man who takes what he wants is sexy or hot." Storylines like this one, in particular, may make women viewers believe that this kind of behaviour is normal and acceptable. 

In some cases, the man does not have to be aggressive but he can simply come across as a well-mannered man who does not take no for an answer. Constantly pushing until he gets the required 'consent'.

READ MORE: Katy Perry kissed a boy and he didn't mind it - why it was important for her to ask anyway 

If we see something enough times we can begin to think of that it is natural, normal, inevitable.
Dr Lindsay Kelland from the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics at Rhodes University

Some storylines have given the male characters the sole purpose of pursuing women sexually. Thorpe thinks that shows that encourage men to see women as a conquest are damaging in two ways. "They ignore women's own sexual desire and pleasure." They do so by centering the narrative around men's fulfilment. Making it a man's sole purpose in life to achieve sexual pleasure by any means necessary. 

"Secondly, they can encourage men to 'just keep trying' which might result in situations where a woman's disinterest/rejection is seen as another conquest rather than something that should be accepted," she explains. 

If we think about it carefully, we are influenced by the people around us, the shows we watch and listen to as well. Dr Kelland emphasises this by explaining that so many of the things around us allow us to continue to live with an unjust status quo.  

"If we see something enough times we can begin to think of that it is natural, normal, inevitable."  The shows we watch are expressive of the culture we are in and continuing to have damaging shows will maintain that particular culture. 

READ MORE: The Weinstein Effect: how powerful men across the globe are being confronted about sexual harassment

There is a long road ahead of us when it comes to eradicating rape and rape culture. Dr Kelland acknowledges that educating people about rape culture is one be the hardest things she has had to do in her life, "and when we acquiesce to hearing about it, we hold it at arm's length - 'not all men', 'not me'," she explains.

Thorpe believes that we can always start by explaining to people the harms that are caused by silencing rape survivors by using language that is damaging. The normalisation of rape needs to stop and shows that encourage men to see sex in a predatory way also need to come to an end. 

We need to find ways to continue to debunking rape myths, call out language that is harmful as well as stop laughing at rape jokes - they will never be funny. 

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