Violence

Joking about rape: Survivors aim to 'take back the narrative' at comedy show

Performers seek catharsis, solidarity, and laughter
Pictured: Heather Jordan Ross (left) and Emma Cooper (right).

Rape is real and everywhere. This sounds more like a bare fact than a punchline, but two comics in Vancouver have organized a show about this bleak reality. Hailing from Canada’s west coast, Emma Cooper does sketch comedy, improv, and stand-up. She runs two comedy shows, hosting “Blanket Fort” and co-hosting “Exposed,” and has also worked with Shit Harper Did. Heather Jordan Ross, originally from the Maritimes, runs “Comedy Deux Soleils,” a monthly show of stand-up and improv. Tickets for “Rape Is Real and Everywhere: A Comedy Show,” scheduled for Jan. 21, are sold out, and there’s already talk of doing another event. Ricochet met with the two women over tea to ask how rape and comedy fit together.

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Can you briefly describe the show?

Heather: It’s a comedy show about rape, jokes by survivors. We want to take back the narrative.

Emma: As co-producers, our intent is to have multiple narratives, to have catharsis, and to have a really good laugh. To even talk about it is still taboo; that’s part of what’s exciting.

How quickly did tickets sell out?

Emma: Less than three days.

"I want to make rape jokes all the time and I never want to hear a rape joke again. I feel both of those things."

Heather: It seems to be something that people really want. Everyone’s saying, “Do another show.” But this is going to be really hard; it’s going to gut everyone to do this. It’s going to be cathartic, but cathartic things are still hard to do, even if they feel right.

I realized today that I didn’t save a ticket for my therapist, and I’m really sad because she’s super excited. I haven’t seen her for two weeks, and in two weeks, Emma and I concocted the show, booked Hot Art Wet City, got people, and then sold out.

So it’s not something you’ve been talking about for a while?

Heather: No.

Emma: Well, you’ve been talking about your rape for a while.

(laughter)

Heather: We’re officially too comfortable. We’ve cried our cries, and now we’re so ready to laugh, we can’t stop. I got raped two years ago, and I managed to repress it until last spring when the guy started messaging me again. And I realized, “I really don’t want to talk to you, because you raped me.” I went through a big mental crisis. In the fall I started going to therapy.

Emma and I went out for drinks one night, and I was voicing my frustration. I said I want to make rape jokes all the time and I never want to hear a rape joke again. I feel both of those things. One of us said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if there were a show that was all rape survivors joking about rape?” We were kidding, but then we had our notebooks out, we had people to ask, we had a location, we had a mandate.

"People just chalk it up as weird before they process."

Emma: Between comedians who had talked about their experiences on stage or in personal conversations with us, we had a full roster of potential people. Because of this, the lineup is all white folks. This particular night the conversation is not going to be representative of many perspectives, but I think it’s the start of a conversation. Hopefully there will be a show in the spring, and it will be interesting to see who comes forward. I don’t know if the same people will want to do another show of this type. As a performer, you probably want to say this once and then have a warm blanket and tea.

Grafitti in East Vancouver.

It doesn’t necessarily become part of your act.

Heather: Yeah. For me, I want to talk about it over and over, but some people want to say it once and be done.

Emma: My situation is I’m not 100% sure that my experience with bad consent was rape. That’s the exploration for me. I made a series of bad choices after an anonymous person left a note on my bicycle. I was like, “I like whimsy. I’m going to call this number.” We had drinks and went back to my place. Being drunk and a little high, we had sex, and he proceeded to take the condom off. It wasn’t like I was pinned down, and I had a moment to think about it, but then he inserted himself in me.

The question becomes how much responsibility do I take, how much responsibility does he take, and how to factor in messaging from society. It’s not embarrassing for me now, but initially it was weird to sit down and decide what that was.

"As an artist or comedian, you’re responsible to have that conversation. The people who cry free speech are often not willing or mature enough to have that conversation."

Heather: That’s even how mine was. In talking to my therapist, when I finally said what happened — it took me two years to say that was sexual assault. I wasn’t the good girl. I wasn’t the girl next door. We were sleeping together, we were both drunk, but what happened was definitely sexual assault. In a way it felt good to report it to the police and say, “I don’t have the good girl narrative. I wasn’t sparkly clean and then something bad happened.” I’m a complex person, and something bad happened to me, and I still deserve better. Even if I am promiscuous, even if I made bad choices that night, I don’t deserve to be raped. It’s complicated because you’re told as a little girl that he comes from the bushes —

Emma: Or the alley —

Heather: And rapes you. Otherwise, if he was your friend, you say “that was weird” and move on.

Emma: You’ve talked about the word weird being this catch-all term for anything from grey consent to not-good consent or rape. People just chalk it up as weird before they process.

Heather: Absolutely. Since I came out, saying that I got raped, people have said, “I did have a weird situation with a boyfriend” or “There was this weird time with my friend.” That weird time was you got sexually assaulted. And no one’s taught you that you don’t deserve to be treated that way. We need an overhaul of how women are taught about sexual assault, and we definitely need an overhaul of how men get taught.

You’re probably getting this question a lot: What kind of rape joke can be funny?

Heather: My stance is any joke is funny if you bring something new and engaging to a conversation. I think a lot of the most talented comedians can take something that I disagree with and make me think about it. Also, it’s putting the jokes back in the hands of the people who have the most claim to them. Rape jokes have been told, I think, since jokes have been told —

Emma: Largely by people who haven’t experienced rape and largely by people who have no mindfulness about the images and experiences they’re conjuring up for listeners. There’s an open mic event in Vancouver that had to say, “Guys, no more rape jokes,” because an employee at the bar said, “This is not a fair work environment.”

In terms of when rape jokes are funny or not, the best person to reference is Hari Kondabolu. I really like that he talks about — you know, you already interviewed him — punching up or punching down. If any joke punches up at the power structures, great. If it punches down at the people who’ve been hurt or just inflicts bad memories on them and that’s all…. Even if it punches up, you still have to do the cost-benefit analysis — are the images you’re bringing up worth the criticism you’re making? As an artist or comedian, you’re responsible to have that conversation. The people who cry free speech are often not willing or mature enough to have that conversation.

"When nothing is funny, those are the hardest days."

Heather: True. An example of punching down: Louis C.K., who I generally love, has made some really shitty jokes. One is that if you could get away with murder, you’d probably kill at least one person. And then he says, “At least a hooker,” which feeds into the idea that sex workers are less valuable. When they get murdered people don’t investigate, or if they get raped then they were asking for it.

An example of punching up is Wanda Sykes saying she can go out and do all the same things that men do as long as she just leaves her vagina at home.

Emma: The detachable vagina.

Heather: It’s very funny, and it’s a reminder for any guy listening. “By virtue of carrying this, I’m in danger all the time, because apparently there’s a one in three chance that someone’s going to rape me.”

What are you hoping will come out of the show?

Emma: Conversations. Comedy provides a buffer. Now what you’re talking about is a comedy show, rather than the experience of rape. If you want, you can then move to the reality of the situation, your personal experiences. It’s really tough at a family dinner to say, “Let’s talk about rape. Let’s solve it.”

Heather: If we can get a vast number of narratives of what sexual assault is, if we can help anybody in the audience identify that they didn’t deserve what happened to them — we carry a strong narrative that it’s all our fault. I didn’t initially report my rapist, because he seemed like a really nice guy. What a crazy world we live in.

The trouble that people have in identifying something as assault or rape, did that idea feed into the name you chose for the show?

Heather: That name comes from a piece of graffiti from East Van. It’s in super girly cursive and says, “Rape is real and everywhere.” I took a picture of it a year ago, because I thought, “You’re right, little graffiti. Good for you.”

Emma: As a comedian, you’ve purposely severed so many ties in your life so you can say what you want. (laughs) If you get to hit on some truth, people have a real appreciation for that. There’s a privilege to be able to spit out something that’s true, because not everyone is in a position to do that.

If you had used that same title for a talk about rape, I doubt the event would have sold out in days. You’ve made it a comedy show, and people are all over it.

Heather: Comedy is a whole different animal. This is something new and unusual.

"It’s so great that everyone can be on the show, and so terrible that everyone can be on the show."

Emma: The other thing about jokes is if you can make one, you’re not just scraping by. It takes a certain amount of energy, processing, and perspective to make a joke that’s true for you and resonates with people. When nothing is funny, those are the hardest days. There is a celebration in being able to joke. There is triumph in not being beaten down. There’s also an amount of solidarity.

Heather: When you can joke about it, you’re taking the power away from that person. Nice try, motherfucker. Watch this. (laughs)

Have you thought about having support for people at the show?

Emma: We’ll have tissues for everyone and as hosts give people permission to leave anytime. You might go to the show thinking it’ll be a positive experience, and it might be a triggering experience. Everyone needs to take it at their own speed and get air when needed. It will be a room of empathetic people, and we’ll do our best to take care of each other.

Heather: If people want to talk to us, they can. It’s not going to be both of us on stage at once.

Is there anything you want to add?

Emma: We’re so thankful to Chris Bentzen at Hot Art Wet City, and Alicia Tobin, an amazing comedian. They were immediately on board, and we had a venue. Every comedian who said yes put more momentum behind this. Then everyone who bought a ticket and left a positive comment built that momentum.

Heather: This was just a little seed in our head. Because of everyone’s support, it’s coming together to be a really spectacular event. (Emma knocks on the table)

Heather: We all had to get raped for this show to happen. It already happened. We don’t need to knock on wood.

(laughter)

Emma: True, it’s not going to get harder.

(laughter)

Heather: It’s been weird being grateful for the people on the show. It’s so great that everyone can be on the show, and so terrible that everyone can be on the show. It’s the worst and best thing.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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