November 21, 2018

There’s no way out of rape culture but through it: Women, comedy, and internet justice

Women are naming their rapist and abusers on the internet, and it’s not a simple issue. I feel nothing but support for the individual victims sharing their stories. Being victimized is wretched, and seeing abusers go about their lives unscathed is… There are no words. That said, I’m not just a feminist. I’m someone who cares about issues around wrongful convictions, and I extend those concerns to the court of public opinion.

So this is complicated. I’m going to look at both sides.

In the last year, in Los Angeles alone, at least five men in comedy paid a big price when they were outed online as accused rapists, abusers, and harassers. In each case, there was more than one accuser; in most, there were more than two. The result was that these men lost jobs, gigs, and their standing in the community. For the first time, comedy venues came to victim’s support. This has been a huge moment in comedy’s little world of dusty black stages and desperate giggles.

Like entertainment in general, the world of comedy is largely uncodified, which makes controlling injustice difficult. Comedy is a male-dominated environment rife with iobs and favors given to male buddies, blatant exclusion of women in bookings and castings, and jokes made at women’s expense. Comedians succeed by pressing boundaries of acceptability. Based on discussions I’ve seen online, many men find being funny while still being respectful to women an overwhelming challenge.

It never gets old, those hilarious jokes about how crazy, angry, hard-to-read, sensitive, moody, deceitful, ugly, fat, and unfunny we are. Women! Am I right? 

Women have jokes too, which, if a man told them, would be funny. Ba-dum-ching! 

Failing the power of humor to right wrongs, some women are publicly sharing the names of their abusers. This tool is especially effective in the comedy world, where everyone wants to be liked. Women are hopeful that the fear of shame will force men to monitor their behavior. The decades of laws against rape have not.

Sexism and abuse in comedy is not happening five times a year, by the way. It’s happening all of the time. Almost all women in comedy have paid their proverbial and unfair “dues,” trying to make it in uncomfortable or dangerous environments and too often giving up.

Men! Am I right? So dramatic, annoying, deceitful, sensitive, moody, ugly, fat, oppressive, frightening, violent…I’m here all week, folks! (Or I would be if they ever booked women.)

Trying to understand this issue, I think of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ stages of human development. Within their framework, capitalism is considered a necessary evil, emerging after the violent overthrow of the feudal monarchies. Capitalism is followed by socialism, in which the workers take over the means of production and wealth, culminating in a communist utopia in which the state is no longer necessary.

By analogy, women’s online resistance can be seen as a disruptive necessary evil. Yet, women are not moving from capitalism to socialism yet. In fact, we are taking on a feudal system of patriarchy. It is feudal because it is determined by birth, not wealth or talents.

There are many people in comedy (mostly men) who have been pushing back against the trend of women naming names online. They are concerned with theaters banning performers or firing instructors based on unproven accusations. They are concerned with people jumping on the “he is guilty” bandwagon with no knowledge of the crimes.

I am also concerned with these issues, so I want to consider this point-of-view. I start by accepting two premises as valid and important: First, the court of public opinion is not innocuous and can ruin lives; one Facebook post, even in a seemingly private setting, can do enormous damage, especially to fledgling careers. Second, the possibility that someone could be wrongfully accused in the court of law is a worst-case scenario.

People are wrongly accused of sex crimes too. Jesse Friedman, of Capturing the Friedmans, spent most of his young adult life in prison for molesting children. The accusers all recanted; they were pressured by prosecutors and the hysterical culture around child sex abuse at the time. We know that most victims are telling the truth about rape and harassment. The statistics support this, and the statistics are but a shadow of the truth. Still, if we are talking about the actual criminal justice system, as here, then the imprisonment of an innocent person is a worst-case scenario.

If we are talking about the court of public opinion, the distinction is not as sharp to me, but it still matters. A great book has been written about a viral moment ruining a person’s career unfairly, over a misunderstanding. It could happen to any of us.

“I believe victims” is what a lot of people say now when women come forward. It’s a powerful political statement, because the systems that didn’t believe women, or even listen to them, have been oppressive for centuries. But it’s also a statement that is sometimes made before the facts are available.

Unfortunately, concerns about women outing their abusers are rarely addressed thoughtfully. 

Take, Kurt Metzger. PLEASE!

He is a comedian that has gotten a lot of recent attention for a manic, angry flurry of Facebook posts against the banning of another male comedian from a prominent comedy theater in New York based on rape accusations. Metzger’s posts were filled with hateful language against women, like “c-nt.”

Metzger swore that he supported actual proven victims, but he must not have heard that victims don’t like such language repeated like a bad sitcom catchphrase. A week later, Metzger issued a weak apology to a reporter. I hate to give him any more attention by dignifying it. But I want to consider a few of Metzger’s points seriously for second, unwrapped from all of their hatred and ignorance.

Metzger argued that women who are truly victims should go to the police. Where the crime is applicable, that makes sense. Not because I think the police will necessarily help; it is well documented that they mostly don’t. But we cannot change the system without at least trying. Reporting also gives us more ammunition and better statistics.

That said, women are not always able to go to the police, for a host of reasons ranging from debilitating PTSD to fear of retraumatization to their abuser being a police officer. We should never fault a victim for avoiding that step. Also, the crime is not always applicable. Sexual harassment in the workplace is not always a crime, but it can rightfully lead to termination. A comedy theater is a workplace.

Still, let’s say a victim is actually able to press charges and have her day in court. The same exact demonization of her for naming her rapist will happen regardless. Long before the internet, the Metzgers of the world were angry at women who came forward within the justice system. We have been called unreliable narrators and blamed for “ruining a good man’s life” forever. The court of law has not done much to legitimize our claims with the public. So the idea that Metzger et al. would back off if we just took it to court doesn’t hold.

Now, let’s assume the accused man Metzger defends is innocent for a moment – that the multiple women who came forward with detailed accounts were lying. If so, it’s definitely terrible that he has been banned from prominent venues. It’s not a complete blacklist though. There are still piles of managers and producers who could care less about what people are saying on Facebook. Look at Metzger…

Please don’t.

His history of misogynistic talk and behavior was well documented before he got a job writing for Amy Schumer, of all feminists. He continued to have this job even after admitting publicly that he abused a girlfriend. And Cosby still has a pile of money, Roger Aisles still has Republicans, James Deen still does porn

The bigger problem for this accused man is that Metzger got a ton of press for his Facebook vomit-spiel, including from mainstream media. Because of Metzger, this man’s Google search results will suggest that he is a rapist for a long, long time. In other words, what did Metzger achieve? Besides triggering people with his awful language, he made it worse for the man he was defending.

So one thing men who are worried about internet outing can do is not contribute to it. You would do more good by working to change the feudal system that has led to it.

There’s no way out of rape culture but through it. The entire system of protections for women is imperfect, disruptive, sometimes unhelpful, and often backfires. Rape victims are called “special victims,” like children; abuse at home is called “domestic.” This language is patronizing and has sometimes led to fewer charges not more. In Colorado, for one, therapy is mandated for domestic violence but not for traditional battery. Once a case goes through various motions, therapy can comprise the entire sentence. That seems more like a reward than a punishment.

There are perhaps unintended consequences to our “special” protections. Rape victims aren’t named, to protect them, and yet that same shame contributes to reduced reporting. There’s so much shame around rape, we have no idea how many men are raped. I’m saying that our special protections are product of the same patriarchal system that hurts us. There’s no way past all of this yet; we have to work through it, like stages of development.

The steps taken by women lately to claim some dignity continues to be disruptive and sometimes unfair, like capitalism. The feudal lords are not giving up their power freely. We don’t have a criminal justice system that works for us, arrests our perpetrators, and protects us. Mostly, we have the internet and the power of public opinion. It’s a level playing field: men can defend themselves and attack their accusers online equally.

Marx and Engels had less to say about utopian communism than the systems preceding it; it’s impossible from our unequal world to imagine one so perfect. Likewise, it’s impossible, from within patriarchy, to imagine how rape, abuse, and harassment could be addressed in a post-patriarchal world. It shouldn’t be the responsibility of victims to figure it all out.