Russell Crowe picked one of the worst possible times to make a sex joke

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Humour can be an important tool when it comes to taking down powerful figures, says Daisy Buchanan – but not if your punchline trivialises the experience of the abused

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By Daisy Buchanan on

It’s said that the secret of comedy lies in the timing, and Russell Crowe has picked one of the worst possible times to make a sex joke. During the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts awards, Crowe said “I was sodomising Jacqueline McKenzie on the set of Romper Stomper. I didn’t actually intend to do that. I was trying to keep my bits away from her bits… it wasn’t until the opening night of the film that it was pointed out by none other than Jackie McKenzie's beautiful late mother that we were in fact, in her mind, engaged in sodomy.” Crowe concluded by telling the silent, baffled audience, ”Anyway that was just a story about sensitivity!”

To be clear, this isn’t about any allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour on Crowe’s part, and McKenzie herself posted on Facebook “there were no blurry lines on that awkward day’s filming back in 1991!!!” This is an issue because right now, at this point in 2017, our cultural landscape has shifted and altered, and our jokes and stories must be considered under a brighter, starker light. What seemed funny to a small group of people 16 years ago isn’t necessarily an appropriate story for a much bigger audience, now. Crowe’s joke was crass, and in the wake of Weinstein and #MeToo, we need to seriously consider the subject and object of our funny stories. Humour can be an important tool when it comes to poking fun at the powerful, but if your joke trivialises the experience of the abused, it simply isn’t helpful.

This October, James Corden came under fire for making a series of jokes about the allegations against Weinstein during the amfAR gala. Corden claimed he was trying “to shame him, the abuser, not his victims” but was met with a storm of social media criticism led by the actors Rose McGowan and Asia Argento. Why didn’t those jokes land? I think it was because Corden (or his gag-writing team) sought to mock Weinstein by making his acts of abuse seem trivial and ludicrous, meaning that his victims were trivialised too. Similarly, clothes label Meg may have missed the point with it’s “Knockin’ em down tour” sweatshirt, the back of which is printed with a list of high-profile male harassers and abusers, alongside the dates that allegations against them became public. I can understand its intention, but it leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. No matter how angry we might feel, and how much we might want to shame these men, do we really want an item of clothing that commemorates their crimes? Imagine how someone might feel if they saw the name of their rapist emblazoned on your shirt? It’s humour that punches down, and fails in its intention. It might make the formerly powerful abuser feel bad, but it’s bound to make the abused and powerless feel worse.

No matter how angry we might feel, and how much we might want to shame these men, do we really want an item of clothing that commemorates their crimes?

There is a long and inglorious history of using comedy to hurt women, and then doubling down on the attack by claiming that women are too earnest, humourless and boring to get the joke. It’s undignified, playground stuff – I imagine most women are painfully familiar with the act of responding negatively to something objectionable, and then further belittled by the phrase “Ooooh, can’t take a joke?!” However, when used thoughtfully, humour can be an incredibly powerful tool for the good, and it’s largely women who are using it to hold the harassers to account. Comedian Tracee Ellis Ross appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! to share her cautionary tale The Handsy Man with viewers. Ross channelled the simplistic rhyming style of Dr Seuss after saying “treating people with respect isn’t complicated, but it is confusing for some men out there.” Ellis is able to perform comedy for three minutes which is funny, informative and punches up. She’s targeting abusers and harassers without demeaning their victims. The line “Even if you’re stoned or drunk/Do not expose me to your junk,” isn’t just hilarious, it’s so catchy that there’s no excuse for any viewer not to remember it.

Comedy can be complicated. Many of the jokes that make us laugh do so because they’re subversive, and come with an element of shock or surprise. However, there’s nothing subversive about a gag that demeans women, even if you’re trying to target an abuser, because your words simply compound the effect of their behaviour. More importantly, we’ve been abused and objectified for hundreds and thousands of years. The joke is getting stale and boring. For humour to have an impact, it needs to startle us by disrupting an established power balance. A joke about sodomising a female colleague will only reinforce that power balance, whatever Crowe’s intention was. Let’s hope he watches Ross’s work and learns how to be positively provocative.


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