Monday, March 10, 2014

"It Is Usually Too Late"

The first time I heard a rape joke, I laughed.

Pertinent coordinates: Summer, when I was 12, most likely. A red Toyota Corolla, bumping westbound on highway 40, likely in traffic between the Quebec border and Kingston, Ontario. Leaving Montreal that morning with my mother and twin sister, my grandmother gave each of us a perfumed kiss; my grandpa, a sturdy hug; and my uncle passed us two CDs of Michael Flanders and Donald Swann's "At the Drop of a Hat" and its sequel, fittingly titled "At the Drop of Another Hat." These were Cold War era British comedic sketches in song, and a staple of my mother's and uncles' adolescences.

At the point in our car trip where the radio had crackled into rural oblivion and my mother vetoed any suggestion of pre-teen Broadway singalong entertainment, we rigged up our archaic adapter to connect the first Flanders and Swann CD to our tape deck. Amidst zoological gems such as "The Gnu Song" and "The Hippopotamus Song" was "Songs for Our Time," introduced and followed by commentary too middle-aged-academic for my middle-school tastes. One of these short ditties recounts an image - not the only one I now find a problematic colonial representation - of a young man's dream to travel to "Tonga," where "Oh-le-ma-kitty-looka-chee-chee-cheeee" apparently meant "no." Flanders and Swann sing, with appropriate dramatic pauses, that by the time a Tongan maiden says this on a date, "it is usually too late." Cue laughter from the live studio audience, echoed by that of my sister and me, trying to look like we got the joke. Luckily, the Hippopotamus Song entered our musical world a few tracks later, with its "mud, mud, glorious mud" better appealing to my not-quite-adolescent humour.

A decade and a half later, I gleefully sing along to the Gnu and the Hippopotamus, but fast-forward through the Tongan maiden. The soundtrack in my head has filled in the blanks, leaving her just as shadowy, but far less neutral, just one in a chain of exploited women whose pain is the butt of male comedians' jokes. In their day, to speak of the rape of a white woman was unseemly, but that of a Tongan? perfectly normal, really, and the fault of her culture, at that. Cue further studio-audience laughter, now a mockery I can still hear. I've stopped laughing.

A generation later, we have come far and yet gone nowhere: "no" is a joke on even privileged women's bodies (ignoring, of course, the interplay of race and class on the bodies for whom this joke is a reality). Rape culture today is discussed on university campuses and in mass media as a new phenomenon, catalyzed by Facebook and the interplay of sexualities, not as an insidious and slippery element of history that shifts out of grasp. "Songs for Our Time" built a time that was then, that is now. By the time the audience stops chortling, for a woman around the corner or across town, around the world or across the hall, reflected in a mirror or captured in a photograph, whether "no" is a staccato whisper or a siren-like scream, it is usually too late.

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