The Rape Joke Hollywood Was Always Weirdly Okay With
Progress means that some of what we laugh at today will be judged very harshly by our grandchildren. It'll be like how today we watch old WWII-era cartoons and cringe at the racism -- not just because they existed, but because we know that a lot of people were OK with it at the time. You imagine little children pumping their fists and screaming, "YEAH! BATHE IN THEIR BLOOD, BUGS!"
Well, one joke that was a comedy staple until very, very recently, but which will make the future recoil in horror, has to be "Oh, she doesn't want to sleep with me now, but wait until she gets a couple of drinks in her!"
For an example, I could grab probably any random sex comedy, or any sitcom that features the "lovable amoral horndog" character. Like this scene from Superbad.
Jonah Hill (he used to be in comedies!) tells Michael Cera (he used to be in ... movies!) that they need to get alcohol for Emma Stone's graduation party. Their endgame? Getting their crushes drunk so they'll sleep with them. "You know when you hear a girl saying like, 'Oh, I was so shitfaced last night, I shouldn't have fucked that guy?' We could be that mistake!" His plan falls apart, of course, but in the end, it's portrayed as misguided, not criminal.
This might be the single biggest, most obvious blind spot in the whole conversation around consent, simply because it's so incredibly common. The fact that people are less resistant to sex when drunk is a phenomenon that was presumably discovered within hours of the invention of alcohol. As a story trope, you can find it in the Book of Genesis. Most people drink, and presumably all of them know it lowers their inhibitions (that is, in fact, most of the allure), so somewhere along the way, we decided that anything that happens while drunk is fair game.
But then we'll see regular scare headlines about "date rape drugs," because the idea of slipping someone a substance to inhibit their ability to resist sex is terrifying. Meanwhile, police statistics indicate that this happens so rarely in date rape cases that it could almost be considered an urban legend. In most cases, the "date rape drug" in question was plain old alcohol. Which, by the way, is probably involved in half, if not more, of all sexual assault cases (experts often refer to it as the "number one date rape drug").
Now think about how differently we'd react if the entire plot of Superbad had been a pair of wacky teens trying to acquire roofies, and their slapstick attempts to slip them to some girls.
And as I said, Superbad was just one randomly chosen example. That was from the olden days of 2007. In 2012's American Reunion, Kara, a character whom protagonist Jim used to babysit, celebrates her 18th birthday by getting drunk and trying to seduce him. Jim manages to carry her into bed after she passes out (but doesn't make much of an attempt to hide her topless body from his friends while doing so), only for Stifler to hop in bed with her and ask for a look at the "goodies."
All you'd have had to do to make audiences uncomfortable with that joke is change the substance that put her in that condition. The unspoken difference is that a pill slipped into her drink would be consumed unwillingly, while the alcohol was consumed intentionally. Which by sex comedy rules means she chose to be incapacitated and thus chose to be assaulted.
That was the underlying assumption beneath thousands of prime-time jokes met with uproarious laugh tracks. How I Met Your Mother is a charming sitcom about four good friends and Barney Stinson, a sociopath who repeatedly targets drunk women when looking for new sexual conquests throughout the series. The show only ended in 2014, after nine seasons, and nowhere in those nine seasons did anyone in the series stop to say, "And meet our friend Barney. He's thiiiis close to being, like, an actual rapist."
In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Romany Malco tries to help Steve Carell have sex by telling him to focus on drunk women at the club. He even claims there's an evolutionary "code" in every man that programs him to "tackle drunk bitches," the way a lion's instincts tell it to tackle a gazelle. You know, guy talk.
And sure, a moral of both How I Met Your Mother and 40-Year-Old Virgin is that sex comes best when there's a wonderful (and consensual) connection between two people. But the fact that they treat these awful side characters as funny scamps instead of abandoning them in the middle of a lake somewhere is the problem. The easy take is that these jokes are just no longer kosher in the #MeToo era, but as with the racist old cartoons, it's weird that it was ever considered OK.
Some of you grew up with "sure seemed squeaky clean at the time" comedies like Sixteen Candles. Watch it today and you'll see Caroline get so drunk that she ends up passing out at Jake's party, whereupon he says that he could "violate her ten different ways if I wanted to." Instead Jake lets the Geek drive her home. She wakes up the next morning saying she can't remember what happened, but she feels like she enjoyed it. You know, because by drinking, she chose to let herself be used, and the script made the character just come out and say she was fine with it.
Did you feel that? That weird feeling in the pit of your stomach? Yeah, so did I. But apparently, nobody did in 1984?
I mean, it's not like we didn't always know it was wrong on some level. In 1978, Animal House showed the character Larry caught between an angel and a devil on his shoulders (literally) when a young woman he's in bed with passes out. The Devil relies on the same kind of logic actual date rapists use, like "You know she wants it" and "I mean, come on, when am I gonna get the chance with someone this hot again?" But Larry eventually decides against it.
And the movie implies that we're supposed to be proud of him. Good on him for, you know, deciding NOT to sexually assault an unconscious person. When Monica and Chandler hooked up on Friends a couple of decades later, they had this exchange:
Chandler: "How drunk are you?"
Monica: "Drunk enough that I wanna do this. Not so drunk you should feel guilty for taking advantage."
So ... she's clear-headed enough to know that she's impaired enough to know that she wouldn't want to do this if she were clear-headed? At least the joke acknowledges the moral complexity instead of assuming that "sex while too drunk to say no" is automatically a knee-slapper.
It's clear there are conversations happening today at the script stage that apparently didn't happen just a few years ago. Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, for example, focuses on young women who are forced to attend frat parties, instead of the young dudes throwing them. Revisiting the party scenes depicted in the original and showing them through the eyes of women apparently gives the filmmakers the chance to reflect and say, "Yeah, OK, rape is very, very bad." In Blockers, the female characters are allowed to actually want sex without being drunk, and their male counterparts actually understand how consent works.
If we've finally gotten there as a culture, well, better late than never. It's coming after, oh, several thousand years of reinforcing the behavior. Is it any surprise that many college students often don't recognize acquaintance rape as being rape if alcohol was involved? Other studies show that male college students, in particular, consider women who drink in bars to be better "targets" when they're looking for sexual partners.
But if Hollywood has in fact moved on from the easiest and oldest rape joke out there, it'll probably be a long, long time before the rest of the culture catches up. If it ever does.
When Joe Oliveto isn't writing about real-life horrors, he publishes scary story books inspired by childhood classics. You can tell him he's an SJW on Twitter. He will ignore you. Also, if you're the victim of sexual assault (or want to help those who are), learn more about support resources and how you can get involved with RAINN.
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For more, check out 4 Questions People Debate Rape Jokes Should Ask Themselves and 4 Jokes No One Should Tell (For Good Reason).
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