Patricia Lockwood’s poem “Rape Joke” is equal parts evocative and provocative, humorous and hardened. Published in July, 2013 on the eclectic website “The Awl,” it tells the fragmented story of a sexual assault from the victim’s perspective – and tells what appear to be quite a few jokes along the way. The topic of rape has plagued the news recently, from a Columbia student’s decision to carry her mattress around campus until her rapist is found, to the President’s newly launched “It’s On Us” campaign to combat sexual assault. Now is a perfect opportunity, then, to revisit “Rape Joke,” which is a piece of modern literature and a viral phenomenon – two things that, in an age of listicles and memes, are nearly always mutually exclusive. Lockwood herself defies this norm, boasting a literary-tinged Twitter presence of over forty-seven thousand followers. However, the hybrid identity of Lockwood’s piece in no way undermines its impact; no matter how you categorize it, the piece packs an emotional – and, at times, discombobulating – punch.
Lockwood’s central conceit is “the rape joke,” and through the reiteration of this phrase, she casts it as a sort of authority (“according to the rape joke”). This incessant repetition gives the poem a coercive feel, but what exactly this conceit refers to is ambiguous. “Rape Joke” could literally be an attack on rape jokes themselves, but the fact that the poem appears to make several of these types of jokes suggests otherwise. From the silly “The rape joke is that his best friend was named Peewee” to the scathing “The rape joke is he was a bouncer, and kept people out for a living. / Not you!” Lockwood reclaims the power that the rape joke – and the act itself – takes from the victim. Her incorporation of what appear to be actual rape jokes provokes a kneejerk reaction in the first read-through; the audience is socially conditioned to believe that joking about rape is taboo – and would assume that the poem would agree with this idea. Yet, jokes of different shades of humor are plainly displayed, practically taunting the reader by the poem’s completion: “Come on, that’s a little bit funny. / Admit it.”
If not the rape joke, then, what is Lockwood condemning? The poem’s sinister undertones and emotional grit would appear to point to the violent, unspeakable act itself. The threat is imminent, and builds throughout the vignettes from a mere suggestion of violence “The rape joke is that he carried a knife, and would show it to you, and would turn it over and over in his hands …” to a recalled physical outburst “…he once almost murdered a dude by throwing him through a plate-glass window,” to a full-on description of sexual assault, including sickening detail “… of course there was blood, which in human beings is so close to the surface.” Lockwood puts it succinctly, and with gut-wrenching irony: “This rape joke is practically writing itself.” The rawness of this portrayal suggests that Lockwood’s target is this criminal act, and the actual rape jokes she employs are merely intended to provide darkly sardonic commentary on it, or exemplify a sublimation of the psychological traumas that such an act imprint on the victim.
Just as this work defies classification, so too does Lockwood’s use of this conceit. It is entirely likely that she is both embracing the rape joke – to the extent that it can be embraced (“Can rape jokes be funny at all, is the question”) – and condemning it for the power it takes from the victim, the punch it inflicts at the end of the line. At the same time, Lockwood’s description of the devastating effects of rape are undeniably intended to draw awareness to rape itself, not just the inappropriateness of some of its associated humor. These two purposes, however, do not mesh, and this stark contrast of sophisticated sardonicism with heartrending realism contributes to the overall disconcerting effect.
It is in this disconcerting effect that yet another purpose is suggested. The humor of the rape joke – if humor, as Lockwood notes, therein can be found – is generally one that includes, and is heightened by, a sense of shock at the joke’s courage in veering into taboo territory. Similarly, discussion of rape as an act is considered taboo, but also perplexing. The fundamental question of the nature of this act of violence is part of what makes the topic so compellingly controversial; it is because rape, even more so than other acts of violence, seems senseless. The rape joke, then, can be considered an attempt to make sense of rape by making light of it. Likewise, the poem can be viewed as the author’s attempt to make sense, and nonsense, of the act of rape.
“The rape joke cries out for the right to be told. The rape joke is that this is just how it happened.” The conclusion of Lockwood’s poem, with its single-line statements and repetition of the key phrase, share this pattern with the poem’s beginning, implying that the tale has come full circle. These lines toward the end provide the clearest glimpse of Lockwood’s intentions. Like the rape joke itself, her poem has a right to exist because it represents an attempt to honestly convey, and make sense of, a seemingly senseless act of violence – regardless of whether that attempt is comedic, tragic, or somewhere indefinitely in between.
Lockwood, Patricia. “A Poem by Patricia Lockwood.” Ed. Mark Bibbins. The Awl.
N.p., 25 July 2013. Web. 12 Oct. 2014. <http://www.theawl.com/2013/07/