Is Mad Men a Period Piece? Not If You Work in Comedy... Part Three

24/10/2012 16:54 BST | Updated 24/12/2012 10:12 GMT

In Season 4 of Mad Men a freelance artist draws a cartoon of Joan, the office manager, giving fellatio to a senior partner. The young men in the office find it hilarious, but Joan doesn't. Peggy, who belongs to a new guard of women and has fought her way into a creative role, fires the artist because she believes his joke has contributed to a hostile work environment. But Joan, who's used to negotiating the constant harassment in her working life without rocking the boat, castigates her -

"All you've done is proved to them that I'm a meaningless secretary and you're another humourless bitch."

There is a serious trend for rape jokes in comedy clubs. On an average night, you'll hear the word "rape" more often than "David Cameron", "the NHS" or "Mitt Romney". There are usually two schools of furious argument made about these jokes: "It's only a joke" versus "It's not funny."

Team "It's only a joke" often seems more fun, more genuinely part of the comedy establishment, more pro-free speech - and looks like it wears a Bill Hicks T-shirt. Team "It's not funny" can come across as humourless, censorial and angry - and is accused of favouring a Mary Whitehouse cardigan.

This raises an issue for comedians who want equality in their workplace. Caitlin Moran (in her wonderful book How to Be a Woman) brands these men and women "the guys". I can't thank her enough for coining this useful phrase to describe men and women who are on the same team, when it comes to gender equality and general fairness in our society. I don't think "the guys" are on Team "It's only a joke" or Team "It's not funny". Neither of those viewpoints really get to the heart of what makes "the guys" feel that certain sorts of rape jokes make comedy clubs hostile environments for comics and audiences.

The phrase "only a joke" is deceptive. Comedians often argue that offense is harmless - that you're entitled to your offense as much as they're entitled to their free speech. I think, in the main, "the guys" couldn't give a toss about offense. I know I couldn't. Offense is an irritation you can shrug off. It's unlikely to do much damage. But offense isn't the only consequence of shocking jokes.

A joke can be whimsical, silly and ephemeral, but a gag is also one of the most powerful ways of disseminating an idea, which is why dictators invariably ban satire. When Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert held the political Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington DC in 2010, over 200, 000 people turned up, compared to popular radio host Glenn Beck's joke-free parallel rally which only motivated 87, 000 people to leave their houses. Comedy can politicise, it can erode social taboos, undermine respect and change the zeitgeist.

Comedy is viral. Long before the internet, topical jokes made their way around the world in an afternoon. Jokes are powerful - especially if they're about potent subject matter. Most comedians wouldn't bother to do the job, if they thought what they did was so superficial it couldn't occasionally provoke thought or change the way their audience looked at things - even those on Team "It's only a joke".

The common claim - "It's not funny" - is effectively meaningless. Funny is subjective. You might not find my joke funny, or my boyfriend sexy - so don't laugh or go to bed with him. If no one finds a joke funny, then it's not a joke - it's just an incongruous, meaningless statement. The truth is, jokes that undermine rape victims are funny - to lots of people. That's why they're powerful. And, in truth, Team "It's not funny" wouldn't be kicking off if they thought no one was laughing.

Most rape jokes fall into the category of what Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves call in their excellent book The Naked Jape - meta-bigotry - an idea that is so self-evidently part of an archaic or appalling world view, it's funny. It's comedy of the absurd - it's funny because it's not true. These jokes aren't always as blatant as Daniel Tosh's (now famous) crass, spontaneous response to a heckle. Take for example Frankie Boyle's joke:

"They're always saying - 'Don't deal with terrorists.' Let's deal with them. What's Allah offering you boys, 100 virgins? We'll give you 50 slags."

Do we think Frankie Boyle would really offer young women (judged by him to be promiscuous) as an incentive to potential terrorists? No. We think it's ridiculous. A shocking idea. We're meant to laugh at the comic's daring and many people do. It's ostensibly about Islam (let's not even get into the implications there), but this kind of joke also carries with it a number of implied assumptions: that promiscuous women deserve pejorative names and that those women have sex indiscriminately or worse, it's okay to force them to have sex without their consent.

Where's the power in these kind of jokes? A blogger called Time Machine on Tumblr, pointed out recently that when rapists are profiled, they nearly always maintain that all men are rapists, some of them are just better at getting away with it. A cool guy on the stage with a microphone making rape victims the butt of his joke and an audience laughing at the comic's daring, reinforces that view for them. Six percent of university-aged men (about one in twenty) will admit to raping someone in an anonymous survey, as long as the word "rape" isn't explicitly used. So one in twenty guys in the comedy club are laughing along to that meta-bigotry - except to them it's not the laughter of the absurd. It's the laughter of recognition.

I'd like to add a further observation to that sobering argument. The 2010 British Wake Up to Rape Survey found that 71% of women and 57% of men believed that rape victims should sometimes share responsibility for the rape. 71% of women thought that a rape victim was partly responsible for the attack if, for example, they'd got into bed with the rapist. This effectively means that 71% of women believe that if you have platonically shared a friend's bed at the end of a party, it is at least partly your fault if you are forced to have sex that night.

Further, they think that if you don't wish to have sex with your partner, it is somewhat understandable if it is violently forced upon you. A third blamed victims who had dressed "provocatively" or gone into the attackers house for a drink. That's Britain. That's now. And that's no joke. I was surprised to discover that an Amnesty International report five years prior found that many fewer British people held these views - around 30% in total. The BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw said that the difference between these two surveys suggested that attitudes may have hardened, which could help explain why some juries are reluctant to convict rapists.

Jokes about women asking for it, wanting it, not having the guts to call the police and the like, contribute to a worrying trend in thinking and not just amongst rapists - amongst victims, support networks and jurors. According to the same 2010 survey, 23% of women and 20% of men have been forced to have sex at some point in their life. This issue is not about women versus men, or feminists versus comedians - it's "the guys" versus the status quo. Chances are there are rapists, rape victims and rape apologists in the audience of every comedy club and theatre in the country. Any rape joke any comedian makes is powerful in that landscape - so it's important to know the point it is making, whether it is skewering the rapist or the victim and the impact it is having.

I wonder why any comedian who thinks his or her jokes don't have the power to provoke thought or alter attitudes would approach this dangerous ground. If they're just trying to entertain with playful, forgettable banter - then rape isn't their most obvious subject matter. If they believe that their microphone is at least as mighty as the sword, then they have to accept that their jokes, even those meant in irony, may be minimising the seriousness of violent crime to their audience. Rape jokes are funny - it's just not always clear why the audience are laughing, what kind of power they're wielding or how they might change the world.

So what do "the guys" do now? Do we do nothing like Joan for fear of being seen as humourless bitches? Or do we get tough like Peggy and do something about it? I went to see Bridget Christie's hilarious stand up show War Donkey and she asked her audience not to be "silent tutters" on these issues. To speak up. And do something. The next blog in this series will look at action that can be taken without calling for censorship or looking like the Mary Whitehouse brigade. Complaining hasn't done much good so far and it's no fun. What can we do to change the fashion for meta-bigotry so often indistinguishable from actual bigotry? As Don Draper tells Peggy in Mad Men - "You want some respect? Go out there and get it for yourself." Let's do that.