Friday, May 02, 2008

Trouble in Comedy-Land

What a day - Mayday protests, an election and now I discover my own profession is being brought in to disrepute with those who care about women's rights (and lets hope that's pretty much everyone).

I'm talking about Johnny Vegas's behaviour towards an audience member during the show hosted by Stewart Lee at the Bloomsbury Theatre last Friday. I wasn't at the show myself so I can only comment on reports from those who were. One audience member James Williams, posting on the NOTBBC forums said the following - and I apologise for the long quote but it is quite hard to locate the original post on the forums so easier to read it here, also I don't want to quote pieces out of context without the disclaimers James himself includes:

"It was pretty contentious, so I'm slightly concerned about misrepresenting what happened if you didn't see it with your own eyes. I can't give you the complete context without recounting the whole set, and that would take forever and I'd probably get it wrong anyway. With that in mind, I'll try to explain what happened, but please take what I say with a pinch of salt and bear in mind that it's my intepretation.

Anyway, fairly early on in his set, he stated that he had no material, and that he was there mostly to get laid; it came across as quite possibly the truth spoken in jest. He started chatting up girls in the front row in an exaggerated, slightly cartoonish way, and quickly focused on a girl who was about 18 or 19 and was very obviously unnerved by it. To cut a long story short, he fairly insistently press-ganged her into getting carried onto stage by six members of the audience, while pretending to be dead. The premise was that they would then lay her down on the stage and he would bring her back to life with a kiss, and he warned her that there probably would be tongues. Honestly, you couldn't have found a nervier or more passive girl if you'd scoured all of London - she was like a rabbit in the headlights, but she was giggling and clearly somewhat enjoying the attention, so it just sort of went ahead without so much as a yes or no from her.

Once she was on the stage with the 6 'bearers' lined up at the back, he told her to lie very still and he turned back to the audience for a bit. She couldn't stop her nervous giggling, so he told her to shut up and look more dead or he'd kick her in the ribs. There was a menacing tone to his whole set, so I have to admit it didn't come across to me entirely as a joke. There wasn't anything funny about it anyway, unless you find that funny in itself.

Eventually he got down next to her and started stroking her breasts. That hadn't been mentioned before, and in the light of of the repeated refrain of "don't fucking move" it seemed like an abuse of power. She could have got up and walked away, but it would have taken a lot of courage to do that in front of a large room full of people, against the explicit orders of the famous guy with the microphone. Then he started running his hand up her leg and pulling her skirt up. Every time he looked up to address the audience, she'd reach down and pull her skirt back down, but he kept pulling it back up and ended up fingering her through her clothes for a second or two. Then he straddled her, completely pinning her to the floor, and kissed her quite full-on for quite a while. Then he asked if they could bring the curtain down, which they couldn't, so there was an awkward minute until Simon Munnery came out and brought down an improvised curtain consisting of his coat.

It was pretty hard to know what to make of the whole thing. I came away with the distinct impression that she was given very little chance to say no, if at all. The six 'bearers' made it even more grim, as it seemed their sole purpose was to make it look more acceptable - more endorsed, if you will. If it had just been him and her on the stage, I think it would have been rather harder for the half of the room who laughed through it to do so.

I say half, as my impression at the time was that people were going along with it and broadly enjoying the set, but on leaving, I heard nothing but "that was disgusting", "that was practically assault", and so on. My girlfriend was quite upset that she'd sat through it and not done anything, but I'm not sure what she could have done - walk out, I suppose. I was just fucking confused by trying to find a way in which it was acceptable. I don't like to think that any area is out-of-bounds for comedy, even if the comedy is lazy nonsense (which on this occasion, I think it mostly was) - but that really only applies when you're talking about words and ideas. Once you've got someone pinned down on the stage, it becomes a rather different matter."

Alternatively there is an eyewitness account of what happened on the Guardian blog website.

Two other eyewitness accounts, the reviews posted by the Evening Standard and Chortle make much less mention of the incident.

Now here are my points:

1) Why has no-one used the word "rape"? William's account says she was held down forcibly and Vegas was "fingering her through her clothes". If that's true the word for the situation is "rape". "Sexual assault" is a term for assault that does not include any penetration. Trying to soften the language used to describe violence against women is one of the all-too-common ways in which people trivialise and normalise it, we should fight it at every turn.

2) Why has no-one been to the police? Surely with several hundred eye witnesses, someone has the decency to contact the police.

3) Why is anyone asking what the boundaries of comedy are? Yes, it's ok for comics to say offensive things - that's because we all have freedom of speech. We all have the right to say offensive things if we want to. Personally I think we shouldn't reward comics who make sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic or ableist jokes, and in some cases there may be a case to be made against them for inciting hatred or crime, but that's a totally separate issue. None of us, including comedians, have the right to rape or sexually assault. That's nothing to do with comedy, that's everything to do with the laws of this country. Would we be having this "discussion" if a comedian had injured someone physically on stage? Of course not.

4) Most frightening of all are some of the comments on the various websites. Of course these aren't necessarily representative of what the public at large think, but they are representative of what the people who posted them think. Comments suggesting that the woman's nervous giggles indicate that she was "having a great time" throughout suggest to me that people don't understand what rape is - giggling is not consent, and without consent penetration of any kind is rape. This brings me back to a point I have been banging on about for a very long time: We need education about women's issues and women's rights to be compulsory on the national curriculum. Now.


Anna said...

I don't know if this is good or bad - but I just read about this on two other feminist blogs. On the one hand it gives this man publicity (hopefully all bad)- but on the other hand it is shining a HUGE spotlight on his absolutely reprehensible behavior.

As for the "comic license" argument - I agree with you - that's utterly ridiculous. Are we going to next argue about the artistic merit of so-called "snuf" films? Any attempt to excuse rape is almost as bad as rape itself.

Cruella said...

It is difficult when people do something awful and gain fame (which we assume to be desirable) from it. Mark Chapman shot John Lennon so that people would remember his name - and I do! Argh! Wish I didn't in many ways.

Typically there are two types of notoriety however. There is notoriety for doing something that isn't really all that bad - "it" girls going out with no knickers on, hugh grant throwing baked beans at a photographer, etc, which simply boosts your career. and then there's real notoriety, which means you more or less never work again. Hopefully if we keep the pressure up this is what will happen. One thing you can do is write to PG tips - he is currently the star of their advertising - and ask them to drop him.

Anna said...

This reminds me of another infamously controversial American comedian - A. D. Clay. Remember him & the rage he inspired about & from women? Another major headline-grabber. He also claimed he was just "playing a part."

Cruella said...

The debate on this one seems to have shifted over to

(where this was reposted).

But feel free to comment here too if you prefer, I respond here more frequently than on repostings. cru

Depresso said...

Reading the account of what happened, it occured to me that the woman's giggles were likely entirely borne of nerves. I couldn't tell you how many times I've got the giggles at really unfunny moments. To me, that she was giggling means that she was uncomfortable and didn't want to be there.

Anyway, I'm off to watch a bit of Bill Bailey on YouTube partly because he's a feminist and (more importantly) he's actually funny...

M said...

The idea about PG Tips is a good one. There's nothing like a kick in the finances to let someone know what's unacceptable.

I've just e-mailed Unilever, and I'd encourage as many people as possible to do so.

Great f-word blogging by the way.

Hesperis said...

Hi. I'm fairly new to blogland - an old white Canadian feminist! - and I just found your blog. Love it.
The very first thing that strikes me when I read the first hand witness acount of this hateful scene is how unsure the writer seems to be about how to describe what has been seen. How to interpret it? When I read it, I don't have any trouble knowing what I am hearing about, that is, the rape of a young woman on a stage. But I have a lot of sympathy for the person who wrote the post. When we see something shocking, when we're witnesses to a crime, our brains sometimes get overloaded and we look to others to help us interpret. I don't suppose it helps that person at all that there is controversy, not over what happened, factually, but also about how it should be interpreted.
Now transpose that thought over to the behaviour of the young woman. Very likely, the same thing happened to her. From my own experience, it might go something like this: Ah, what's happening, I don't think I like it, I feel uncomfortable. Oh well, I'm in public, I must be safe. He's a celebrity, he wouldn't do anything to hurt me. No one is objecting so it must be ok, they wouldn't let me get hurt, I'm probably overreacting. And so on.
One doesn't have to be a silly, vulnerable rabbit in the headlights to have that reaction. People react differently in these kinds of situations, and this is quite a common response.