Two actor friends of mine made a rape joke. Well, not a rape joke per se. More like a rape scenario. I’m not at all certain which is worse…
Here’s the scenario: imagine you’re auditioning for a role in a major motion picture. In the audition, the director asks you to improvise a scene where you’re being anally raped by Idris Elba. Act out that scene.
To be clear, there’s a lot of context here. We were all at a rehearsal, and the two actors shared this as an exercise that they tried to encourage their friends to act out. We all know each other fairly well, and we’re all Thespians. Part of the territory is not just flexing our performance muscles, but trying to pull one over on another performer in the space, so my first impression was that the entire exercise was to put someone in an embarrassing improv and get a few laughs.
But there’s an important question here – how exactly is it that we can perform rape with a certain level of comfort and detachment? Without mindfulness, sensitivity, or some other emotional byproduct?
Okay, more context – there were about 8 of us, only two of which were women. One of the women was a young girl and the other an older woman that was already of the impression that all of us were jokers. The rest of us have basically all gone to school with each other, with the exception of the director who taught most of us.The guys who initiated the conversation were both the clowns of the group, one a lot more perverted than the other, so we could’ve seen it coming if we thought about it. But that’s hardly an excuse. According to statistics from the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service website, there are on average 45 reported rapes a month. An even larger amount doesn’t get reported, especially rapes against men. It gets more and more likely that these young men could’ve been saying this in front of a rape survivor. That wasn’t taken into consideration when this conversation happened.
I suppose it’s not fair to say that absolutely no one shows mindfulness when these things happen. For the most part, no one besides one younger actor participated in their little social experiment. The rest of us, myself included, were too largely bothered by the idea of such a challenge to go through the trouble. But then that could be easily read as an embarrassment to risk getting the scene wrong, not a genuine sensitivity to get such a scene right and under a more meaningful context.
Next to that, though, is the response that one of the actors said in response to being asked to play out the rape scene – “that is faggot man ting”. Ultimately, three young men performed a scene where they were raped by another man. And an educated young man’s first response to that was not sympathetic of someone’s victimhood, but critical of it. Remember what I said about male victims not being likely to report? One of the things that informs that is the stigma attached to being a victim and the questions about one’s sexuality that comes with it. In a very patriarchal society like ours, a man’s masculinity is social capital, and anything that puts that at risk is a definite no-no.
But then…is it not sort of interesting that three young men could comfortably cross that boundary and perform that without fear? Does that mean that we’re much better equipped to respond to that stigma fearlessly? Probably not… The performance was, for the most part, all about the laughs that it could get from those looking on. At how ridiculous a rapist-less rape would look, or the imagined responses of someone you know being raped, or the fact that they would even do it in the first place. It is a trivializing of an event that is traumatic for all that experience it, by allowing us to spot spaces for ridicule there.
Jokes are ultimately a tool to cope with circumstance, event and reality. It skews the real – and often negative – by revealing its absurdity or expanding its reality to the point of incredulity. It may almost always step on the boundary, but it is not about ridiculing the thing itself. It’s fundamentally the reason for the uproar about Daniel Tosh ‘s rape joke in 2012. It wasn’t about revealing some absurd truth about rape, or making rapists and their actions seem irrational. It was about making their actions seem acceptable, even inherently funny. And so was this victim role-play. Here, it was about humorously delivering the suffering of so many people.
But now there’s yet another question – what is safe for the performer?
As a stage director, I’ve directed a couple rape scenes before. To be honest, how I direct those things take their tolls, on the performers and even myself. And I always thank them for their effort, apologize for the emotional effect it takes on folks, and acknowledge the effects it would have on an audience and accept those risks where they are appropriate. I’ve worked towards the reality of rape in the times I’ve done it, because I believe there is a chance to engender Compassion in those who have no experience with those things…but I’m also always afraid of what would happen if they experienced that in their lives. I’ve also gotten mad at folks laughing at characters getting raped on stage. Mad to the point that I’ve actively called out audience members on it. Even for plays that weren’t mine. Acknowledging that the ‘person’ being raped ‘isn’t real’. Because they are real. They represent someone who exists ideologically in our own broken world.
But, in a few instances, I understand why they laugh – in Trinidad, there’s this little saying, “If you don’t laugh, you will cry…” With that in mind, can actors perform rape given the fact that there’s someone out there who’d be traumatized by that? If the actor or director decided to not play that with realness and rawness, is that trivializing the trauma? Is there a safe space to perform this at all? And, likewise, what about other topics, like racism or mental illness? The truth is, while you’re laughing, someone else is most likely crying…and how do you mitigate that?
There’s this one video I found that kind of sums up my internal dilemma, so I might as well share it. If you’ve got any answers for any of the questions, feel free to comment and share them.