I forgot to laugh
The awkward moment when I decided to enrol in an acting course at CREA, and ended up crying on the bathroom floor mid-second lesson because we had to act out rape jokes.
-TRIGGER WARNING: SA-
One of the first things you’ll notice about me is that I’m quite shy. Not in a very obvious wallflowery way - I’m pretty easy to talk to and you’ll usually find me chatting to strangers and making the new people in the room feel comfy - but I get insecure easily. Last summer, to combat this shyness and gain some self-confidence in situations that aren’t my natural habitat, I decided to participate in an acting class hosted by the cultural student association, CREA. I had never acted before and figured this might be a cool way to engage in the subject I’m analysing all day (aka film), while also confronting my insecurities and meeting creative people. Little did I know that, fast forward into the present, I feel sorry for then-me thinking it was going to be a fun venture out of my comfort zone.
On this fine Wednesday evening, we were practising line delivery. The instructor, a Dutch white presumably cishet man, handed out some scenes from a lesser known British sitcom which aired in the year 2000, and I immediately had a not-so-great gut feeling about it. To put it blandly, the scenes were peak misogynistic and bigoted from the get-go. The sitcom, which revolved around a group of straight people having straight people problems, started off with some of the “men are like this and women are like that” crap that our parents’ generation loves to regurgitate. The general tone of the show was painted by binary notions and stereotypes, which is subpar, yet not really surprising for the 2000-something comedy landscape. The scenes then proceeded to make some very bizarre remarks about the male brain and its inherent differences from the female brain (don’t we love pseudoscience that has been debunked countless times), specifically about the blood apparently flowing from a man’s brain into his dick when he sees a woman who is in tune with her own sexuality and embraces that by wearing revealing clothing, and how men just cannot help but lose every trace of the self-control they typically possess. So obviously, he has no other choice than to sexually assault her. It’s biology, it’s just how it goes, can’t argue with science. Two other characters in the scenes, both men, then proceeded to have a locker-room-style talk that objectified women in the most disgusting way possible, claiming that not wearing underwear is “a woman’s way to communicate she wants it”, implying that consent is obviously not a thing in relationships, how boyfriends are entitled to their girlfriends bodies using the analogy of a party stamp that grants access at all times, and the indisputable fact that women just exist to please men. Oh and the scenes were homophobic, too. This one woman cheats on her boyfriend with another woman, which sparks a major discussion among the cast as to whether that counts as infidelity or not, considering that two women can’t sleep with each other. But at the same time, how is Steve okay with this considering he didn’t get to watch? It gets worse, but I’ll spare you that. I didn’t want to get into the nitty-gritty of it at all, but over the last few years, I have noticed that people only start empathising with you once you share your experience in all its ugliness. You tell them exactly what happened, how it happened, the way it made you feel, and you better don't spare a tiny detail. Then maybe they end up caring, but other than that, your trauma remains too hilarious to not make it the butt of the joke. Because the point is, all of this was written in a light-hearted comedic tone, and wow did our instructor seem to have a good time teaching us how to deliver these lines in a fun quirky way. More emotion, Bram, it’s comedy! Don’t forget to laugh. It’s a joke. Every now and then he added context to the brilliancy of the dialogue, which - even after I poured the last drop of my benefit-of-the-doubt cup - seemingly voiced agreement with the content of the scenes.
I went from feeling uncomfortable, to out of place, to violated, to unsafe. I noticed a pinch in my stomach, one that reminded me how, yeah, this is widely considered something laughable, and how from everybody’s POV, I was the odd one out for not laughing. They laughed, all of them, and I swallowed down my disgust mixed with fear, which felt like reverse-birthing a hedgehog through my throat. At some point, as a classic coping mechanism of mine, I started to dissociate, and that’s when I grabbed my stuff and left. Without saying a word, I just ran out of the room and officially became the weird girl, the one who sits on the bathroom floor ugly-crying, because she takes it all way too seriously.
In that moment, right then and there as this shitshow went down, I would have loved to not be shy. My quietness is something I’m usually very in tune with and wouldn’t ever want to change about myself, yet in that moment, goddess did I hate it. I can’t count how often I revisited that Wednesday night in my head and daydreamt myself into a more confident and outspoken badass version of myself who stepped up right then and there to call out injustice and the gross, careless exercise that we had to undertake. This thought kept nagging me on the subway home; it haunted me to think that these scenes have probably been part of the program for quite some time, and I was about to be another student who let it slip under the radar because she was shy. So eventually, I stepped as far as I could out of my comfort zone and wrote a five-page-long email to CREA, in which I reflected on the events that happened, my thoughts surrounding the chosen scenes and the feelings it provoked in me. Mostly though, I tried to sketch a bigger picture for them to comprehend how deeply and thoroughly fucked up this was. Writing this actually makes me realise now that it’s paradoxical how stepping out of my comfort zone was my main motivation for starting this course in the first place.
I’m upset. I’m upset that the instructor chose to handle this subject with so little sensitivity or caution, let alone bother to give a disclaimer or content warning upfront. I’m upset that these scenes imitated a particular scenario, a very real scenario happening in the real world, that is all too familiar for too many of us - the idea that being in a relationship with a man means sacrificing ownership over our bodies and he gains unconditional entitlement, whenever, however, wherever. And that this doesn’t classify as rape. Because they’re in a relationship, and he owns her, and it’s funny. I’m upset that something of such traumatic value to a significant part of the population is still the punchline of a gag, thrown into a room left for unaware people to be amused about while pulling other people’s wounds wide open once again. I’m upset that not tolerating this behaviour directs all eyes on me because I am what’s wrong here, not the scenes, not the instructor. And if I try hard, very hard, perhaps one day I will have buried my trauma deep enough to make room for a little chuckle. And just blend in and take it and laugh. Or maybe not, Jan.
Because what left the bitterest taste in my mouth was not merely the problematic scene choice, but the larger issue at hand. I kept asking myself how this situation came to be, why these lines were chosen, and why on Earth everybody laughed. And it once again opened my eyes to the screwed up reality that too many people still live in the false narrative that rapists are invisible monsters hidden somewhere in sketchy side corners of the shady side alley, lurking around at night ready to assault women. And I’m not excluding this scenario, sadly, but what sends chills down my spine is to acknowledge how our society in the 21st century still thinks about SA, namely how plenty of people - men especially - could never ever imagine the ranges and nuances it encompasses. Coercion, manipulation, guilt-tripping, gaslighting, and the list continues. And maybe that’s why barely any man I’ve spoken to could ever imagine the existence of somebody who commits sexual assault, since the bros could never, while too many female presenting people I know have been sexually assaulted.
I am doing a Masters in Film Studies. One of the subjects that intrigues me the most is the intersection of arts and morals, how entertainment value and political correctness coexist and occasionally clash. Are we allowed to laugh at dark humour? Depends on who is telling the jokes and who you are, I’d say. Also, safe to say, I’m not one of the ‘separate art from the artist’ kind of people because that seems downright dismissive of power dynamics and ugly realities to me. And while I’m not a professional and this is a huge topic to tackle within one paragraph, what I’m saying is that I do think about it. I question why it is that people like Stanley Kubrick got away with being abusive maniacs for the sake of the glory of the art they produce. Or why a borderline sexist sitcom seems like a good pick to throw into an acting class due to the simplicity of its characters. Ironically, as I did my research on the scenes while in rage after sending the email at 3am post-bathroom crying, I found out that back in the early 2000s, the show was cancelled after a four-year run following mixed reactions among audiences due to its misogynistic tone. Eventually, it was discontinued because of its “problematic nature of its treatment of women” - in the year 2004. 2004! Doesn’t it seem like a dazzling idea to throw these scenes into a room full of students almost two decades later? The characters are mere stereotypes, especially the women in the show who quite literally do not have any other character traits than being pretty, stupid and ‘easy’, and yes, I understand that playing flat characters as a beginner is the way to go. That being said, you can’t tell me that there aren’t any non-rape-joke scenes he could have chosen to have us act? And just in case you want to play this card: of course the teacher didn’t know whether there was somebody in this group for whom this was a sensitive subject. So he assumed that there wasn’t. But my counter question is, for whom is this NOT a sensitive subject? Do people really possess this little amount of empathy that they cannot fathom SA to be a topic that should be treated with caution because they can only get the idea of what survivors have gone through if it fits within the scope of their own lived experience? In fact, it doesn’t matter whether or not this situation specifically triggered me. I’m not even excluding the thought that my co-students' laughter ended up getting stuck in their throats, too. Because I know I laugh, sometimes, to not cry. To cope, to keep my shit together, to not have all the eyes on me, to not be the girl who can’t take a joke.
I’m going to say this on an awarding-room-for-growth note, though. Upon my email, both CREA as well as the instructor himself were apologetic. They did hold themselves accountable and self-reflected on their contribution to the events. They didn’t try to prove me wrong or convince me that I’m at fault or irrational, or fueled the fire by suggesting that I’m one of the snowflakes who tries to adjust the world to her personal needs, but instead, they took note. They did erase the scenes from the curriculum, and they did have an internal staff meeting to discuss this particular case. They did listen and learn, and I do acknowledge that. That being said, I’m a firm believer that if you break it, you fix it, and the tendency to over-appreciate the bare minimum is real. I am glad that they reacted the way they did, while also acknowledging that there is a larger body of work to be done, conversations to be had and sensitivities to be considered, which goes far beyond this one moment in this one room hosted by this one organisation.
Nobody is perfect and mishaps are human. But if you don’t see the issue in what happened and get into defence mode because your comfort zone feels threatened, take many seats. What if after all I’m not the girl who can’t take a joke, but you're just not fucking funny.