Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Robot Chicken and the Normalization of Rape

Like any nerd who went to college in the 2000's, I've watched a lot of Robot Chicken. It was a thing, just as Adult Swim was getting going, and we would all crowd into my dorm room (my roommate and I were the only ones with a good TV) to watch episodes of Robot Chicken, Lucy - Daughter of the Devil, Drawn Together, and other such quality entertainments. It was funny. I have good memories of that.

So obviously when I got a notification saying that season two of Robot Chicken has fiiiiiinally been added to Netflix, I popped right over there for some nostalgia and laughs while I cleaned.

Only, come to realize, this show is not the show I remember. I mean, it's clearly the same show I was watching - even the same season. I remember the episodes and their jokes and all that, I just...I didn't remember it being so obsessed with rape. And so mean. And kind of really horrible.

What I remembered about the show was the sketches that I did (and still do) find absolutely hilarious. Like the one about Optimus Prime getting checked for prostate cancer. Or the one where Emperor Palpatine yells at Darth Vader over the phone, then orders a sandwich. Any number of other sketches they've done that highlighted the absurd in our favorite nostalgic pop culture vehicles. Those are great.

But what I'd forgotten was that the sketches I love are in the fierce minority. Much more common are sketches about sex and rape and justifications of racism and gratuitous sexual violence. It was pretty awful. I had to stop what I was doing and sit down to take a minute and wonder why I ever thought this was funny. Because it isn't. I don't find rape funny. But apparently I used to?

The thing is, it's been a while since I was in college. About seven years since these particular episodes aired and I was finishing my sophomore year. I've obviously grown and matured in that time, because that's how people work. You grow up. But I have a hard time dealing with the idea that seven years ago, I was the kind of person who laughed at a comedy sketch about Snuggle the fabric softener bear being raped repeatedly because he's "so soft". 

I actually got kind of nauseous during that one when I watched it recently. It's played for laughs, but you're sitting there watching a stuffed bear talk about feeling dirty and used and it's just...he's voiced to sound like a kid. How the hell is that funny?

So, obviously, I thought about it. A lot. How did I not notice all of this the first time I was watching? Or, if I did notice it, why didn't I remember it, and why didn't I seem to mind? I wasn't exactly uneducated at the time. I'd already been a volunteer for Amnesty International, worked with homeless ministries and women's shelters and stuff, so it wasn't like I was unaware of the problems. I just...didn't see it?

After much contemplation, here's my best guess. No, I didn't see it as horrible and wrong, precisely because I wasn't supposed to. Or rather, I did see it as horrible and wrong, but I saw it as just recognizable enough to my cultural understanding of the world that it was funny. It was bad funny. Transgressive. I was cool for thinking it was funny and not getting all offended like those annoying killjoys.

And then, in the years since, I have become more educated on the importance of media towards self and cultural perception, and I have in fact become one of those "killjoys". Proudly.

But the point I'm making is that it didn't really strike me as humor that had gone too far because by the very act of showing us horrible things all the time, the show was normalizing them. By pretending to be transgressive and "gritty", the show was giving images of rape that suggest that it's a totally normal thing that happens. That it's no big deal. Like, whatever, that super horny guy raped a stuffed bear. No big deal, it's just a stuffed bear.

Those Barbie figures were totally asking for it. That's the whole point of the sketch, after all. That one where the kids get sort of conned into taking off their clothes? Hilarious.

It's not exactly that I think that the writers and creators of Robot Chicken think child abuse and sexual assault are funny. Not quite. I think it's that over time they have become desensitized to the issues inherent in them. That by making sketches and jokes about it, and seeing other people's jokes, they've forgotten that rape affects real people. That it's not just a joke to tag on, it's a real thing that affects real live human beings with hearts and minds and television sets.

When we view media like this, it desensitizes us to the problem, because it dehumanizes the participants. The guy raping that teddy bear has no larger motivation. He's just there for the joke. And the clearly traumatized bear? No other narrative aside from existing in the sketch to get raped. Neither of them are characters, they're just a joke. And that means that by extension, rapists and rape victims are just part of the joke too. They're not "real people". "Real" people don't have to deal with that.

It's sort of like when comedian Daniel Tosh makes a joke about how funny it would be if five guys just came up and gangraped a woman in his audience. It's not (I hope) that Tosh really thinks that would be funny, but that he's lost all sense of why that wouldn't be funny. He's lost the outrage, the frustration, the sense of violation. He's lost a very real part of what makes us human: his empathy.

Jokes about rape aren't funny, because there are real people who really experience this. It's the same reason why jokes about genocide or school shootings or suicide aren't funny. You can only laugh if you've numbed yourself to the reality of what those things are. It's only funny if the people involved aren't really human. You can't laugh if you have empathy for the people in pain. So comedy like this works by shutting off your empathy. It forces you to dehumanize the victims. It feeds on your dissociation.

That's seriously messed up.

And it's really disturbing to look back and realize that, yeah, in 2007, I was like that. I was exposed to so much rape culture comedy, jokes about death and sexual abuse, and forced to listen as my friends hurled insults by calling each other different words for female genitalia... It was the background radiation of my life, and I got sick. I came down with a bad case of the dehumanizations. It took me years to recover. All the time I was volunteering at soup kitchens and counseling victims of sexual abuse, I would go home and watch television shows where those things were played for laughs. And I would laugh, because it wasn't real. Even though I absolutely knew it was.

I'm pretty horrified by what I used to find funny. But I'm more horrified by the fact that stuff like this exists at all. Look, I'm a firm believer that media affects us deeply and profoundly. And if I believe (which I do) that even freaking fairy tale movies that don't properly humanize their female characters are damaging to the culture, what the hell do you think comedy like this is doing?

This kind of comedy had a very deep and profound effect on how I viewed myself and my right to my own body. And that had real world consequences. I'm not going to be all sensationalist and say that "Robot Chicken is the reason I got raped!" or anything, because that's not true. The truth is more complex.

But basically, when I was in college, I made bad choices about my body. I did not value it or myself, because nothing I saw in popular culture suggested that I ought to, and none of my friends really valued their bodies either. I mean, there were a couple of outliers, but no one really speaking up. And that had devastating consequences for my life. I watched shows that made rape seem like a thing that happens every day, that was no big deal, and that it was a sign you were sexually appealing. 

I think you can figure out where I'm going with this. A whole host of my current baggage, things that I am trying desperately to work through, came about in my life precisely because I didn't see my body as something that had value and that belonged to me alone. Now, some of that garbage is from other places in my life, and some of that never had anything to do with me. But a lot of it, a lot of it, came from watching crap like this. From watching shows that laughed it off and that made it all fun and games. Just a thing that happens.


And now that I'm slightly older and mildly wiser, I would love to travel back in time and give past-me a hug and a pep-talk. Tell her to turn off the TV and spend more time in prayer or at the very least watch something more feminist. But I can't do that. What I can do is tell all of you the simple truth:

Humor that relies on dehumanization for the punchline is wrong. It's just plain wrong. It's not funny, and it's not right. I don't care if that makes me a killjoy. There are real world consequences for this. Any joke that depends on the audience releasing their empathy is a bad joke.

It's as simple as that.


  1. There's another aspect to this that's worth talking about here. The early 2000s were the absolute high water mark for this type of humor. Between Robot Chicken, Family Guy, Drawn Together, and the original Adult Swim line-up, this kind of 'edgy' humor was hitting mainstream TV for the first time. We all watched it and laughed not because it was accepted as part of the fabric of our lives, but because it was so incredibly audacious. A big part of the joke was, holy shit, they can get away with this? On TV in a cartoon?? Up until that point, animation for adults was pretty much limited to Fox Sunday Nights, and that was the tamer era of The Simpsons and King of the Hill. McFarlane owes his career to this sea change.

    We're ten years on now, and the rush of energy that came with that shock is long gone. All that's left in some of those sketches are the cheap rape jokes, which no longer pack a punch because, well, we're used to seeing edgy things in animated programs on TV now. These days, being edgy isn't enough - the jokes actually have to be funny. So instead of making us laugh, those early rape sketches on robot chicken just end up feeling cheap and exploitative and wrong.

    I don't think this contradicts your point, and I am a firm believer that all good comedy comes from empathy, but I think it helps explain why we all laughed and gave those jokes a pass when the show originally aired. Not only did we grow up, but TV did as well.

    1. I think that's a very good point. It's always a bit of a shocked, "I can laugh at this? They're making jokes about it!" that accompanies it. And it's exciting and cool, because transgressive! But you're right, that's faded, and all we're left with is the realization that all those jokes about rape happened, and we laughed.

      Which totally blows.


  2. Another thing to keep in mind is - it's toys. I mean literally, that's the point. Think of Robot Chicken, in the terms of Lord Helmet playing with his action figures in Spaceballs. How many boys and girls, at some phase in their life, made their figurines have sex? Especially in the 80s - which the show pays special homage to - when Skinemax and the Playboy channel first started appearing in people's homes. Some of the stuff we all acted out, playing Buck Rogers or Justice League, would probably be seen as rape scenarios by adults today. But back then, we just played out psychosexual dramas, based on the characters we saw on TV, and what we found in our toy boxes.

    Most of the jokes in this show, even the Snuggle rape, are literally appealing to our most adolescent memories of humor, of a combination of what we found funny at the time, and how dopey we were - back when we played with toys. It's making fun of ourselves, as adults, and that's the humor of it. If Snuggle dolls had been more wildly distributed - as we all wished they would back then - I would bet you they'd been used in masterbatory ways.

    The mutilations of characters on Robot Chicken, hasn't normalized mutilation - movies like Hostel have accomplished that. And soap operas have been normalizing rape for decades before Robot Chicken ever aired. If your view of it has changed so much, perhaps it's that you no longer feel connected, to what made you laugh when you were 8? That can be a good or a bad thing. But mostly I think it's an inevitable thing. While I don't find as much of it funny as I used to, I don't find any of the content of the show morally distasteful - not any more so than Drawn Together or South Park, both of which have used rape as a source of humor. And even if you don't see it, there CAN be humor found in the most horrible of acts. Humor is how we cope with some of the most gruesome parts of our universe. There is a reason the crying clown is an iconic comedy symbol, and Steve Allen's said "Tragedy plus time equals comedy."

    I'm a two time victim of sexual abuse - both as a child and as an adult - and yes I do find the Cuddles scene a bit cringe-inducing. But it's hard to call it the normalization of anything, when it's surrounded by the likes of gummy bears cannibalizing themselves, the pegs from the Game of Life actually alive, and Brainy Smurf going down on Smurfette. Absolutely nothing normal or rational is happening on this show - if any of it resembled real life, it wouldn't be funny.

    Allen also said, “Tragedy plus time plus the will to be amused equals comedy. If you don’t have the will to laugh, you won’t be amused—whether it’s by a Chaplin or anyone like him.” If you lost the will to laugh at toys being played with in obscene ways, I'd say that's a normal progression of life. Me, I'm not quite there yet. :)