After Heather Jordan Ross reported her sexual assault, she felt conflicted about mixing it into her standup comedy. She hated rape jokes, but she wanted to talk about her experience. Over beers, her friend Emma Cooper jokingly suggested they put together a comedy night that featured only survivors.
The first show went up in Vancouver three weeks later. It sold out, and so did the next two. Rape is Real and Everywhere (RIR&E) was born.
RIR&E has since played across Canada, made national and international news and even been the subject of a CBC radio documentary.
Now it’s hitting universities for shows and workshops.
As a member of Concordia University’s Feminism and Controversial Humour Working Group (FACH), I have been been working with the RIR&E team to bring the show to Montreal and to my university.
Should we joke about rape?
We meet several times a semester to talk about comedy that addresses topics like race, sexual assault, abortion and disability. We think about why humour is often so divisive. We ask: When and how are jokes about difficult or traumatic experiences productive and healing?
Comedy can invite meaningful, pleasurable engagements with issues of privilege, power and difference. FACH explores the possibilities and pitfalls of using laughter in feminist teaching and performance.
Our conversations often revolve around how established theories of humour — for example, superiority theory, relief theory, or incongruity theory — can contribute to an interdisciplinary feminist analysis of comedy about violence and racial, ethnic, religious, gender, and sexual difference.
But we’re also committed to keeping our academic theorizing rooted in real life, real issues, and — of course — real funny jokes.
Some of the RIR&E comedians performed and spoke at our feminism and humour symposium last spring. The discussions were so intellectually exciting, so enriching, and so much fun that when Cooper and Ross started talking about bringing the show to our university in the fall, we knew our students could benefit hugely from experiencing it.
Needless to say, we are extremely excited to help bring RIR&E to our academic community.
But plenty of folks will still ask: Should we joke about rape at all?
Healing power of art and comedy
Rape jokes are among the most controversial that comedians can tell. In response to the ugly “har-har roofies” genre of gags we’re used to hearing, many feminists take the position that rape is something you just can’t laugh about.
While that conviction comes from a valid place, it’s also misguided. It plays into the silence, shame and secrecy surrounding rape and sexual assault — and these things are a big part of what keeps rape culture in place.
Emma Sulkowicz, a former Columbia University visual arts student, also challenged the silence. She famously carried a mattress around campus with her to represent the weight of her sexual assault. Her classmates helped her move it — up stairs, into lectures, classrooms, and dorm rooms.
The RIR&E performers are skilled standup comics, telling smart-as-sh*t and funny-as-f*ck jokes about their experiences. Laughing with them at the absurdity of a world that silences survivors and protects perpetrators is also an act of support and solidarity.
As Ross explains, not everyone grieves the same way. Some folks want to listen to a particular album or do slam poetry or stand silently in the rain. Other people need to laugh. Making jokes about life — sour parts, sweet parts — is, for some, the best way to communicate what they are going through. RIR&E is about helping survivors process.
Ross knows this from experience. Before she started the show, she was hiding a part of herself, pushing what happened to her pretty far down.
Suddenly it was bubbling up and she didn’t know what to do with it. She was mean, drank a lot and axed friendships. In September 2015, she called the suicide hotline. Soon after, she got a therapist. In December, she reported her assault to authorities.
After that, there was really only one thing left to do: Make it funny.
Support and solidarity
Once Ross was able to turn her story into something she could share and, as it turns out, something that could help others heal, she started to process.
Soon after she started performing, audiences told her and Cooper how helpful the show was to them. One woman messaged her to say that after attending the performance she stopped hanging out with the rapist with whom she had previously played nice.
For many individuals of a variety of ages and genders, the RIR&E team were the first people they had ever confided in about their sexual assault.
The show tackles rape myths in hilarious and heartbreaking ways, really illustrating how cultural perceptions of rape affect survivors. One comic has a hard-hitting joke about feeling guilty she wasn’t “raped enough.” There was no stranger down a dark alley, no assailant hiding in the bushes. If only she’d been a little more raped, she said, then she’d feel like she had a right to talk about it. Part of the power of the show is that it exposes just how ridiculous rape myths like this are, and begins to create a new narrative.
Complaints about the show haven’t tended to come from survivors, but from people worried on their behalf. These worries are clearly rooted in care and compassion. But so too is the show. RIR&E is about processing and helping others to do the same. The atmosphere is one of solidarity and support.
“I found it 100 per cent more funny than being raped,” one audience member said.
This said, RIR&E and the FACH working group are deeply conscious that the material is sensitive. The show’s title is a blatant sexual assault content warning.
This week, Concordia will present the RIR&E show. It aims to be a night in which rape myths are busted, shame and silence are blown out of the water, and the strength of Concordia’s academic community — united against rape and sexual assault — is revealed.
I hope that audiences leave feeling impressed at the talent and bravery of the RIR&E comedians, uplifted at the warm and supportive spirit of their audience, and utterly convinced that rape culture really is a f*cking joke.