Rape Jokes and The Oatmeal

5 Dec

Yesterday, Matthew Inman from The Oatmeal wrote a comic about the “delicate relationship” that he has with his keyboard.  This was the final panel of the comic:


The comic in its entirety was about how he feels and behaves towards the various keys in his keyboard. This panel specifically was about trying to get a webpage to load when you have a slow connection, with the joke centering around Matt “raping” his F5 key in order to make the page load faster. Yes, it’s a rape joke. No, I’m not surprised. Yes, it’s supposed to be funny. No, no one would ever  actually “rape” a computer key. Yes, in spite of all that, I’m still grossed out. Now that all that is out of the way, can we talk about how terrible this is? Because it’s terrible. Really, really terrible.

The panel above is the type of joke that normalizes and trivializes rape. Instead of showing rape as an act of sexual violence that will haunt someone for the rest of their life, it’s hilariously portrayed as pushing your F5 key one too many times. What it tells readers is that rape is no big deal, that it’s just this thing that happens. It tells readers that rape is not a powerful word, but instead is a term you can use to describe any kind of forceful action. It tells readers that rape is normal, and even worse it tells rapists that rape is normal. The problem with jokes like this is that not only do they make rape victims deeply uncomfortable, they make rapists feel comfortable.

And I mean, you know what? As far as rape jokes go, this one isn’t that bad. I mean, not really. It’s not graphic, and it’s not even describing a plausible situation since, again, computer keys can’t be raped. If we didn’t live and participate in rape culture, this joke on its own wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But you know what? If we didn’t live in a culture where rape was constantly aided and abetted, a culture where rape is so normalized that we think nothing of making light of it, a culture where rape victims are frequently hushed up, dismissed or outright disbelieved, this comic would never have been made. This comic is a product of rape culture and it perpetuates rape culture. The message that this comment sent out to The Oatmeal’s nearly 800,000 Facebook fans (and the myriad other readers who follow the comic on Twitter or directly on The Oatmeal’s website) is that rape is no big deal.

It is a big deal, though. And when some readers of the Oatmeal told Matt Inman that rape jokes are a big deal, this was his response:


I mean, first of all, it seems bizarre to blame Daniel Tosh for this backlash. Just because Daniel Tosh was called out for making a rape joke doesn’t mean that he was the first to do so, or that he invented rape culture. This joke wouldn’t have been funny before Daniel Tosh, and it sure as hell isn’t funny now.

Second of all, it’s really great that Matt Inman donated money to a battered women’s group. But that doesn’t give him license to say whatever he wants. It’s not like making a one-time donation gives him some kind of immunity to ever being called out on misogynistic shit that promotes rape culture. That’s not how it works.

Third of all, this isn’t censorship, and I hope that Matt Inman never lives in a place where true censorship exists. Freedom of speech means that you can say whatever you want, sure, but it also means that I get to call you out when you’re being a dick. You get to make jokes, and I get to tell you when they’re offensive. We are both afforded the privilege of freedom of speech. And you know what? I’m not even offended by this comic; I’m not going to give anyone that satisfaction. See, Matt Inman wants to believe that he’s done something so cool, so edgy, that regular, Family Circus-reading folk will be “offended”. Well, I’m not. I’m contemptuous of this comic, and I’m contemptuous of you, Matt Inman. Every time you make a joke like this, I think less and less of you. So no, you’re not being censored; you’re just hearing the reactions of people who aren’t on board with what you did.

I’m sure that there are people who will accuse me of being so wrapped up in feminism, so focussed on seeing misogyny wherever I look, that I’m just not able to recognize humour anymore. There are people who probably want to tell me that nothing is so sacred that you can’t joke about it, that “censoring” comics is the worst possible thing you can do, and that if I don’t “let” people make rape jokes then I’m some kind of fascist.

First of all, anyone who would think that should look up the definition of “fascist”.

Second of all, I don’t think that all rape jokes are bad. In fact, I even think that some of them are funny. The thing is, in order for a rape joke to be funny, it needs to do two things:

1. Not make rape victims the butt of the joke

2. Challenge the status quo, i.e. rape culture

Below is a video by Louis C.K. in which he makes a joke about rape that’s funny. If you are a comic, or aspire to be one, you might want to take notes:

See, what he’s doing in this joke is challenging the idea that rape is sexy or desirable. He’s challenging the idea that some men would leap at the chance to take a woman without her consent, while she is repeatedly telling them no, just because she’s giving out some kind of vibe. He’s challenging a culture that persistently insists that women don’t know what they want, that they play hard to get, that they lie and manipulate and shouldn’t be taken at their word.

That is a joke that challenges the way we think in a humourous way. That is what comedy should do.

Matt Inman did, thankfully, end up removing the rape joke panel, and tweeted the following earlier today:

It’s not the greatest apology, but at least it’s an apology, you know? I wish that he hadn’t included the “if”, because obviously people were upset, no ifs about it; it would have been better had he just flat-out apologized for the fact that people were hurt and upset. However, this apology is better than nothing, and it’s waaaay better than artists who continue to defend themselves after they’ve been called out for inappropriate behaviour. So I guess there’s that.

Sometimes stuff like this feels so relentless, like there’s no way to fight against it because you’ll just never win. Working to bring down rape culture feels overwhelming, because it’s literally everywhere. How do you fight nearly every movie you’ve ever seen, every book you’ve read, every casually misogynistic word that’s ever been spoken to you? Where do you even start?

Every once in a while, though, you do get someone who reconsiders what they’ve done and issues an apology, and that feels like it’s maybe the beginning of something. And like I said, maybe it’s not a great apology, but hopefully it will start people thinking. Maybe this will get fans of The Oatmeal really considering what that rape joke really meant, and why it wasn’t funny.

I think that if even one person who laughed at that comic sits back, thinks hard and changes his opinion, then this fight is worth it. If this post gets even one person to change their minds about how they view rape, and especially rape jokes, then I’ll be happy. Hell, even if this post does nothing more than get people who agree with me to start a conversation about this, then I’m good. The fact is that talking about this stuff, getting it out into the open and engaging people about it, is a huge first step to changing the status quo.

And I really, really want to change the status quo.

17 Responses to “Rape Jokes and The Oatmeal”

  1. Ilene (BinkyBecky) December 5, 2012 at 6:05 am #

    Thanks for this post. Your arguments were well written, and using the LCK comedy clip was ingenious and your analysis of it, spot on. I will never be able to look at my F5 key the same.

    • bellejarblog December 5, 2012 at 6:58 pm #

      Thanks! And yeah, I love Louis C.K., he is super great. I’m glad he made this joke so that I can use it as an example of how to use humour to criticize rape culture.

  2. sarahdaigen December 5, 2012 at 6:38 am #

    The one sort-of kind-of point the author had was that he makes provocative/offensive jokes all the time (ie about genocide, starvation, infanticide etc.) – now one could make the case, and I certainly would, that NONE of these issues should be trivialized and none should be made into jokes simply for being ‘edgy’ (aside from your example of challenging norms through humour, a la Louis CK above), and honestly there’s nothing funny about any of it when we get down to brass tacks. I DO find myself wondering why he’s getting called out on this but not the others though (although admittedly I don’t follow The Oatmeal so it’s entirely possible everyone has their own fights to fight and I simply know more feminists calling this issue out on the carpet than I do people who campaign on behalf of victims of genocide or starvation who are mad at him for making light of those plights).

    That said, the reality is at the end of the day it truly is possible to be (justifiably!) upset and offended by so much in this damn world it’s exhausting and depressing, and one must pick their battles. You’ve certainly picked a large and important one in challenging rape culture, and I think your point about free speech entitling him to say these things, but also entitling you/others to challenge him on it is probably the most salient part; he is absolutely allowed to say rotten things on topics from killing the elderly to rape jokes – his readership is also entirely entitled to call him on the carpet for any of it, and/or stop reading, or what have you.

    And as a PS to this super-long comment I’ve left (almost a blog-length post in itself lol), it DOES bug me when people assume free speech means entitlement to say what they want without disagreement or reproach, or else cry censorship. I’ve said before, Free Speech means just that – you are allowed to say what you want. But it doesn’t entitle you to anything else – not agreement, not a job if your statements interfere with your ability to carry it out, not a huge audience for your views, etc. It just means the government will not punish you legally for something you say. That is all. End of rambling comment lol.

    • bellejarblog December 5, 2012 at 7:22 pm #

      He has been called out on stuff before, but maybe not on the same level as this? I’m not sure. I know that he typically has a policy of just ignoring people who disagree with him. I also think that there’s a difference between all of the things he mentioned and rape; we don’t live in a culture that normalizes infanticide, for example, but we do live in one that normalizes rape, if that makes sense.

      But yeah, I totally agree that there is just so much awful shit going on in the world that you kind of have to pick your battles. Mine tend to be feminist battles, because those issues tend to be the ones that I know the most about, and are closest to my heart. Now, that’s not to say that I’ll never speak out against other social injustices (I’ve written on here about racism and colonialism, for example), but yeah, feminist issues tend to kind of dominate my blog. To the point where I’m sure that there are people who are like, oh God, Anne is on her abortion/rape culture/feminist high horse again.

      And PS, I love your rambling comments. SO THERE.

  3. MABSOOTa December 6, 2012 at 9:17 pm #

    I was aghast at the harshness of the FB comments. Almost all of them written by males. The worst was a few of the females who seemed as though they were trying too hard to be “one of the cool girls who doesn’t get easily offended” types, although I feel like they were missing the point.

    Really well-written summary of the whole episode. I like Inman and I wonder if it was his girlfriend or mom or other female loved one that made him see the light.

  4. dan December 7, 2012 at 7:21 am #

    Yeah, the “How dare you censor my speech with your speech” defense is tired and obnoxious at its best; when it’s deployed from a place of passive-aggressive victimization, like Inman did, it’s even harder to take. You said everything that needs be said, of course, I’m just here to agree with you. I guess he gets some credit for eventually just acknowledging that he was being stupid and letting it go? That is legitimately hard to do, especially when you’ve got a whole corner of the Internet treating you like a freedom fighter for making a joke that a lot of people found hurtful. That’s a low bar to set, obviously, but I’m glad to see that he didn’t double-down on this.

  5. Lilith December 8, 2012 at 4:33 am #

    Thanks for sharing. I feel the same way when people make Rihana jokes – I find it disturbing that someone would make fun of a domestic abuse victim and thinks it’s funny.

  6. Manfist McStoneslab December 27, 2012 at 7:36 am #

    Just so you know, he means its a button that he uses, mashes, and beats on. Much how a rapist would rape a rape victim.

    It’s not a button to initiate rape.

    I never took feminists seriously. Finding you and your blogs has assured that I never will.

    Congratulations. You AREN’T making the world a “better” place.

    • bellejarblog December 27, 2012 at 4:49 pm #

      Oh but the feminists always had such nice things to say about YOU, Manfist McStoneslab.

      And it’s adorable how you seem to think that I care about your opinions on me or my blog.

      • Manfist McStoneslab January 2, 2013 at 4:34 am #

        You should care. Because clearly I’m the only one here with the amazing power of “common sense.”

        I’d like to paraphrase something from the blog post that initially brought me here: “I think jokes about bowel movements are hilarious.”

        Then, right after providing us an excellent clip of Louie CK, you go on to basically say: “Comedy in all forms should be mentally and socially challenging and engaging.”

        Yeah no, you’re right. Comedy shouldn’t be a device used to make people laugh or anything, you know, being as how comedy is defined and all. It should be totally thought provoking at all times.

        Are you saying you find poop jokes challenging and engaging? Because if you are, that explains a whooooooooole lot.

        There there’s the fact, that in 4 bullet points, you specifically explained to us that you know he’s trying to be funny, that he’s not serious, and that you even think you might be overreacting.


        Also, it’s still not a button to initiate rape. I just thought I should reiterate that.

    • KWadsworth January 21, 2015 at 5:40 am #

      “Just so you know, he means its a button that he uses, mashes, and beats on.”

      To all future men reading this comment who may be about to nod your head and agree – ask yourself that if this is the case, why didn’t he just SAY “beats on” rather than “rapes”?

      Then again, I’m arguing against the logic of someone who called hmself “Manfist McStoneslab” so I probably shouldn’t be expecting much.

  7. It's a damn joke... January 8, 2013 at 6:45 pm #

    Manfist McStoneslab:

    • hipslikecinderella February 8, 2013 at 2:27 am #

      MM… I’m confused. Do you actually think us girly feminist types thought that a keyboard button could initiate rape? You seem to have mis-understood the article. Like the “censorship of free speech” rubbish that people come out with I’m getting sick and tired of people like MM with their “you’re all just a bunch of silly angry women who can’t get a joke” knee-jerk reactions. It’s barely an argument. WHY shouldn’t a group of people get angry about jokes being made about violence happening to them as if it’s normal or even good?

      • don't drop the soap May 21, 2013 at 8:22 am #

        Everyone knows rape is only funny in prison.

  8. ducksandbooks May 6, 2015 at 8:37 pm #

    Reblogged this on Ducksandbooks: A Newly Mawwied Lady's Blog and commented:
    Just sharing a well written critique of current humor threads (PS- I usually like The Oatmeal, but it does toe the line of funny and raunchy)


  1. Dear Wil Wheaton – Only YOU Can Stop Mansplaining « The Belle Jar - February 5, 2013

    […] lot. Maybe not here, on my personal blog, but on posts that I write for other sites. My post about that rape joke on The Oatmeal that went viral? You better believe I got mansplained to hell and back on that one, both on BlogHer […]

  2. Jokes and Privilege | I'm Not Infectious - April 29, 2013

    […] read this post the other day and it argued that because a large percentage of women in this country are raped and […]

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