Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sweet Mystery of Life - eh, not quite

[Trigger warning - rape]

A friend of mine recently posted a Facebook link to an excellent article on Huffington Post (yeah, they still occasionally get one right). The piece, A "Rape Culture" Tutorial for Naysayers, by Toula Drimonis provides an excellent outline of the history and pervasiveness of rape culture. She opens her article with a description of the kind of replies she inevitably gets from well-meaning (mostly male) rape culture deniers any time she posts an article showing that rape culture is alive and showing no sign of weakening. She calls such replies "mansplaining" (not her coinage, but certainly appropriate to these circumstances). I call them the knee-jerk defense of the privileged.

I guess it should come as no surprise that the first response my friend received to posting the link came from a well-meaning rape-culture denier. Said denier (who, yes, denies being a denier) made it clearl he had not read all of the article by suggesting replacing the term "rape culture" with "street harassment culture." His objection to "rape culture," he said, is that the phrase is misandry and therefore politically unwise in terms of garnering support from male allies. When I pointed out that he was engaging in precisely the behavior described in the article, he accused me of delivering an ad hominem attack. My first thought upon reading his claim was, "O shit! He can read my mind!" I promise, I did not call him any of the things I was thinking—not even dumbass.

(*Sigh* Okay, I admit. I actually did call him a dumbass. Repeatedly. But I erased every use of that and similar terms before I published any of my comments. I double-checked.)

In part, I have to admit that I get it. I understand the sourfaced response some men throw back every time they hear "rape culture." Some of it. Not all of it. Certainly not all of it.

I don't get the jackass judges who recently allowed rapists in the US and Canada to walk basically because they thought the victims in question, in words they carefully avoided making explicit, were asking for it. I don't get Congress allowing the rape culture within our own military to run rampant. I don't get Candy Crowley of CNN lamenting that the Steubenville rapists are "poor boys" whose "lives are over" because of the notoriety of the Steubenville rape trial. I don't get the assholes who respond to every woman who complains of sexual harassment by posting suggestions that they just need to be raped. I don't get the guys who feel they have a right to treat women (verbally, physically, and legally) like subhuman sex toys.

I DO get that no man wants to feel he's being held accountable for a crime he didn't commit and wouldn't think of committing. More specifically, when I first heard them, some of the claims about rape culture seemed a bit far-fetched. One such claim was the repeated reference to the pervasiveness of  "rape jokes."

Now, please don't mistake my position. I fully understood that such a pervasive presence would be poisonous. If men (women too, really) learn to think of rape as something comical, it makes it very difficult to take rape accusations seriously. If rape is something laughable, why should anyone ever want to prosecute?

No. My problem with claims about rape humor was something different. I couldn't believe it existed. I am at a loss to explain my own blindness, but I just couldn't think of any examples of anything you could call a rape joke.

Rape jokes. It hurts just saying it. I get a sour, nauseated pain in the pit of my stomach at the thought of laughing at a rape victim. How the hell could anyone tell a rape joke? To hell with the joke teller. How could an audience sit still for a joke, a story that ends with someone being raped, and laugh? Sure, I know humor can be pretty damned brutal at times, (Q - How many men does it take to tile a bathroom? A- Depends how thick you slice them.) but rape humor? I know lots of insensitive jokes. I had no difficulty digging around in my memory and dredging up jokes belittling women, men, queers, transgender people, various races and creeds. Blond jokes. Pollack jokes. Aggie jokes. But rape jokes? Really? I had some vague notion that we might be talking about variations on the dumb blonde joke, in which some mentally defective woman perhaps gives herself up sexually but erroneously believes she's done something clever. But, no, I couldn't even come up with anything like that.

Finally, I remembered one. A blatant rape joke. And I was devastated.

The joke in question is one of the principal set-pieces in a major motion picture. I've seen that movie dozens of times. It's generally a very funny movie, and one of the biggest jokes in the movie—established near the film's beginning but only realized near its climax (seriously, no pun intended)—is a rape. The movie?

Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein.

I'm sure anyone familiar with the movie knows the joke (although it now feels pretty uncomfortable calling it that). The set up for the joke begins with Madeleine Kahn's first appearance as Dr. Frankenstein's fiancĂ©e, Elizabeth. She's shown to be controlling and touch-averse, a bit of an ice princess. They part, touching elbows in farewell because Elizabeth won't let Frankenstein touch her hair, her face, or her dress.

Jump ahead to Transylvannia, Dr. Frankenstein decides to build the creature according to his father's specifications. In accordance with those specs, the creature has to be oversized. Frankenstein's assistant Inga (Teri Garr) notes: "His shvann-shstucker will be enormous." Shvann-shtucker (sorry if that's not the right spelling) is a bastardized scrap of language, combining a Yiddish slang word for vagina (shvann) with a bit of faux-German tacked on to mean sticker.

Later, when Elizabeth arrives in Transylvannia to spend some time with Dr. Frankenstein, she talks of their coming nuptials, but she still refuses to allow the young doctor any kind of intimacy. Soon thereafter, the monster kidnaps Elizabeth and carries her off to a cave where, when she regains consciousness, he rapes her. We don't see much of the actual rape. The monster leers. The damsel cringes and threatens. The monster begins unbuttoning his pants. The camera turns to Elizabeth's face. As the pants come down (or so the shadows suggest) she sees the monster's legendary shvann-shtucker, to which her first response is "Woof." She struggles and tells him to stop, but the monster falls on her. A couple of grunts later, Madeleine Kahn belts out the chorus line of a Jeannette MacDonald standard, singing a full-throated "O, sweet mystery of life at last I've found you."

Afterwords, following what Elizabeth describes as "six or seven quickies," the monster runs off, and Elizabeth tells us she's in love. It's supposed to be funny—ironic in that the frigid cocktease just needed to get raped to solve her sexual problems and make her realize that what's really important in life is a big dick and a man willing to wield it liberally.

Now, I realize that explaining a joke kills it, but I don't think I could possibly do enough to deliver the death this particular joke deserves. I'm going to miss Young Frankenstein, but I don't think I'll ever be able to sit through that movie again.

This so-called joke is just one small example of rape culture. Like Rhett Butler's rape of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939), like Howard Roark's rape of Dominique Francon in Fountainhead (1949), like the Mysterious Stranger's rape of Callie Travers in Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter (1973), the monster's rape of Elizabeth in Young Frankenstein (1974) serves to normalize rape (O, and as to that claim of  misandry, it might be useful to remember that Gone with the Wind and Fountainhead were written by women). What's worse, these examples show rape to be a useful tool for correcting and controlling petulant, unruly women. As long as audiences continue to watch and accept movies like this, to laugh at Elizabeth's afterglow, to smile knowingly at Scarlett's cheerful morning-after demeanor, even to smirk at Callie's comeuppance, rape culture will continue to thrive.

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