The Doubt: What I Learned From Rape Jokes, And When I Wonder If It’s Foolish To Assume The Best

I used to think I understood rape jokes—then I moved in with someone who laughed at his own. F was young, white and angry at the world, and I met him after he advertised a room. The two of us talked for an hour or two, during which time he spoke more than I did, with the eagerness of a child desperate to make friends but unsure how. Like me F was addicted to TV: the fourth season of Game of Thrones had been the best, I said, except one character being raped despite her pleas and attempts to break free. ‘Come on,’ he said, all jocular. ‘She deserves it.’

It didn’t take my flatmate’s views long to become clear. His favourite authors included Charles Bukowski, who he told me ‘treated women like shit’ (there was no ‘but’), and I once spied Russell Brand’s Booky Wook on his table. My last landlady, he declared, had been a ‘nasty fucking dry old cunt’, and our female flatmate (a ‘silly little girl’) was acting ‘like a total bitch’ when they fell out. He hadn’t had a problem coming onto her—‘I only let girls move in because I want to fuck them,’ F told me once. He was a misogynist, he agreed, but felt he treated his women well.

I took the room looking on the bright side. The flat was comfy, the location neat, the prospect of searching elsewhere uninviting, and F’s response hadn’t been bad when I mentioned I blogged on a feminist site. Living with him wouldn’t, I thought, be the end of the world, and for me it wasn’t. Still, there were doubts. F laughed about his excitement when women online had rape fantasies, not quite sounding as if he knew where fantasy ended. Was rape so bad, he asked another time, quickly assuring me he was kidding. I’m not certain he’d have said so had I shaken my head.

I don’t know if I lived with a rapist, or someone who’d have liked to be. None of these incidents proves anything, but what if that was the idea? Was F, I wonder now, scoping me out the way queer kids scope out their mum and dad, as I’d scoped him out with mention of feminists? Did he laugh about rape because it amused him, or because what might be a joke is always plausibly deniable, like a sexual advance veiled as an invitation for coffee? One’s instinct is to award the benefit of the doubt, but maybe that’s the point.

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Belief and doubt after the Charleston church shootings

There’s a Carole King song I first heard as a child, which tells of a deranged man’s arrest and now makes difficult listening. Smackwater Jack, he bought a shotgun, ‘cause he was in the mood for a little confrontation. He just let it all hang loose, he didn’t think about the noose. He couldn’t take no more abuse, so he shot down the congregation.

You can see why Jon Stewart had nothing. In a kinder and saner world, the Emanuel AME massacre would be a joke: satirists like Stewart would ask, incensed, what racists in the US had to do for their motives not to be whitewashed. Demand apartheid? Mourn the Klan? Shoot black people in church? Even then, they’d maintain, someone like Dylann Roof would be labelled ‘unbalanced’ and ‘disturbed’. Audiences would cheer, knowing the punchline to be true – and now it is. The joke has sprung itself, and nothing about it is funny any more, just forcefully, sickeningly absurd.

Unlike the subject of King’s song, Roof was not just deranged. With Charleston now home to that collision of US anxieties, a racist gun crime in a church, small wonder conservatives are scared to discuss it honestly, but nothing Roof did was random. It’s one thing to attack a church, another to assault a black church in the USA – another still to shoot worshippers at Emanuel AME, known for its role in civil rights struggles. ‘I chose Charleston because it is [the] most historic city in my state,’ writes Roof in a summary of his views, and you can be sure equal thought went into selecting Emanuel.

At its most radical, black Christianity in the US has always seemed to me more drawn to the second coming than the resurrection, songs promising that come the day, the oppressor will have nowhere to hide. If tacitly materialist, it’s a liberation theology, suggesting that until chained or handcuffed bodies are free, the soul’s release is meaningless. Perhaps this helped make pastors so crucial in Ferguson and Baltimore, and perhaps it’s what Clementa Pinckney, murdered this week, preached after Walter Scott was killed – certainly it was this promise of ultimate justice, as well as Emanuel’s congregants, on which Roof opened fire.

The whole thing is a nightmare of belief and doubt. Judging by his statement, Roof believes white people are the real oppressed – otherwise, perhaps he’d have sensed that after the last year, black Americans (Christian or not) didn’t need another shooting for belief in salvation to be challenging. The right refuses to believe racism deserves to be talked about after a neonazi gunned down black people he sees as animals, thinking instead that he must just be the unbalanced sort, while like Jon Stewart, those of watching from far off feel it’s ventured beyond a joke. Charleston presents an unbelievable atrocity, yet I can believe every word.

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I wouldn’t usually do this, but…

…in light of current events, it strikes me as necessary to quote my own comment policy, aspects of which were modelled on Pharyngula‘s.

I’m a firm believer in culture war and punching up alike: shade-throwing can comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Anger is not the same as abuse. Being vicious is not the same as being a bully. Hatred is not the same as bigotry. For me and many readers of this blog, just as it was for countless historical activists, striking a strident tone is part of confronting injustice and overcoming abuse. If you dispute the content of things people here say – if you think they’re being unfair, inaccurate or irresponsible or doing harm – say so, but don’t ever tone-police them just because you don’t like their manners: manners have never been the friend of the downtrodden.

And then there’s this. We good?

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Cucumber’s “radical approach to sexuality”, and its normalisation of rape and relationship abuse

I hoped Cucumber and its partner shows would be as good as Queer as Folk. I feared they’d be nothing like as good. As it turns out, Cucumber is a show you need to watch – at least, that is, if you thought Looking‘s characters were unlikeable, Vicious was the nadir of queer TV or having your molars slowly drilled without anaesthesia was excruciating.

For its entire 45-minute running time, I cringed. Episode one of Cucumber was so non-stop wince-inducing that by the time its credits rolled, I found myself feeling the weight of my own face. I knew there and then that I’d pay a considerable sum never to see another episode – yet also that I’d rewatch it this morning, cataloguing every last thing I hated about it.

Because Cucumber isn’t merely crap. It’s a well written, well-produced, well-executed show that achieves its apparent aims. The trouble is, its aims are fucking regressive – at times even outright dangerous. [Read more…]

Snow in Berlin 26.12.14

It’s very nearly been a year
Since snow fell and I landed here
Citing at yours that night my lack
Of a coat for the journey back.
Next morning I face the outdoors
To lumber home in one of yours,
The mark left by its owner’s face
Proving a challenge to erase
Even as a fresh fall fills in
The trail where my feet’ve been.
Outside my window now the snow
Has come back for another go.
Almost a year on I can tell
This snow’ll bury you as well.

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I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse. Are you sorry your religion has?

I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse.

Specifically, I’m sorry some of its ideas inspire abuse. To name a few things:

I don’t feel personally responsible for these things – I’m not sorry in the same way as when I step on someone’s foot or guess a Canadian’s from the US – but I’m sorry it’s the case today’s atheist movement has inspired them. Simply being atheists isn’t these people’s motivation – atheism by itself prompts no more action than theism by itself – but the particular atheist school of thought we share, which came to prominence roughly in the last ten years, produced the ideas that inspire this abuse just as particular religions produce their own. [Read more…]

Some more of Aslan’s greatest mistakes

After last week’s post, a friend of a friend commented on the bit in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when supposedly beneficent Aslan intimidates a twelve year old girl.

Adding in a child’s perspective here (as told to me by my own child): Aslan is a lion. Not a cute, cuddly kitty. A full-grown, giant lion. And he doesn’t just frown. He growls. My daughter was more frightened of Aslan than she was of Jadis. I don’t think she’s the only child who would have felt that way.

It raises one problem I have with Aslan’s behaviour that isn’t directly to do with him being allegorical. Of all the ways he could stop the Witch (with or without being killed by her), why does he choose the plan that rests on putting four children in mortal danger whose ages range between 8 and 13 – one of whom, aged 10, is intimidated, imprisoned, starved, physically abused, threatened with execution twice and later stabbed to almost-death?

Come to that: why does Aslan continuously threaten prepubescent children’s lives throughout the series, summoning them from a parallel dimension specifically to place them in mortal danger? Why does this, too, go totally unremarked upon? Either his followers are as recklessly dim as he is or they’re too frightened of him to bring it up, and there’s textual support for both.

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“Death in Heaven”: when Steven Moffat listened to his critics

Spoilers follow.

About a week ago I said Doctor Who‘s Missy was another Moffat clone: a femme fatale adventuress totally indistinct on paper from River Song, Irene Adler and many of his other women. That post’s done well – embarrassingly well in fact, because this is the one where I eat my words.

Alright, not where I eat my words: my criticisms of her past appearances stand, as do my general comments on Steven Moffat, but having now seen ‘Death in Heaven’, Saturday’s follow-up to ‘Dark Water’, I’m won over. As of two days ago, Missy is in every way the Master… on top of which, this was NuWho’s best finale yet, one of Moffat’s best episodes and – just possibly – the one where he listened to viewers like me. [Read more…]

Narnia’s Aslan isn’t good. He’s a pious, tyrannical bully

Based on a Facebook status.

There’s a scene in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where Jadis (the Witch) explains to Aslan and three of the Pevensies why, according to ancient, mysterious laws laid down by Aslan’s father, she’s entitled to murder their ten-year-old brother Edmund, as well as anyone in Narnia who commits an act of betrayal. ‘Tell us of this Deep Magic’, Aslan says.

‘Tell you?’ Jadis replies. ‘Tell you what is written on that very Table of Stone which stands beside us? Tell you what is written in letters deep as a spear is long on the firestones on the Secret Hill? Tell you what is engraved on the sceptre of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea? You at least know the Magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill.’

‘You were the Emperor’s hangman’ responds Mr Beaver, one of the talking animals, which goes entirely uncontradicted.

Twelve-year-old Susan, the older Pevensie girl who by later books is ‘no longer a friend of Narnia’ because she’s ‘interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations’, asks Aslan, quite reasonably and especially so under the circumstances, ‘Can’t we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn’t there something you can work against it?’ Here, from the book, is what happens next.

‘Work against the Emperor’s Magic?’ said Aslan, turning to her with something like a frown on his face. And nobody ever made that suggestion to him again.

I haven’t seen much discussion of this scene in criticism of the Narnia books, but allegory aside, several things it shows about Aslan strike me as disturbing.

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And Doctor Who’s Missy is… one more of Steven Moffat’s interchangeable women

Doctor Who Series 8

If like me you watch Doctor Who, you may have seen last night’s episode ‘Dark Water’, which revealed who series eight’s villain Missy (above) is. Actually, it revealed her back story – it was clear who she was the moment photos of Michelle Gomez in character emerged.

Missy, as fans have guessed all series, is River Song: a feisty, morally ambiguous adventuress and femme fatale with a murky past who flirts with everything and controls men through sexuality, boasting a hands-on relationship with the Doctor. [Read more…]