Roseanne Barr and Lindy West: Can’t we all just get along?

by Debbie Stoller

Recently, there’s been an all-out Twitter war between two of our favorite feminist women: Jezebel writer and comedian Lindy West, and BUST columnist and comedian Roseanne Barr.

The debate focuses on the subject of rape jokes—when it’s appropriate to tell them, and what the appropriate response to them should be.  

The flames started after Lindy posted a story on Jezebel, called, If Comedy Has No Lady Problem, Why Am I Getting So Many Rape Threats?” It was about the response she received after appearing on a talk show and speaking about how she feels about rape jokes. Her argument is that people can make rape jokes, but that if someone tells a horribly offensive rape joke, their audience has the right to call them out on it.  
As a result, she received rape threats and other cruel commentary.
Now, who would disagree with her opinion? Who would disagree with her anger about this response? Nobody, of course. But Roseanne Tweeted the following:



And then:

what to do if u do not like rape jokes: attack comics who advocate for free speech. #thatwillhelp

Given that Roseanne is a smart, feminist lady, who one can assume is very anti-rape, that doesn’t make any sense. Why would she tweet something like that? Does she think that Lindy West should have received rape threats?  

I can think of only one reason: she didn’t actually read Lindy’s post.
In fact, this writer on Jezebel came to the same conclusion: that Roseanne most likely didn’t read the post.
The initial Tweet was heard ’round the world, however, and set off a flurry of angry response-Tweets, from people who had read Lindy’s story and were understandably upset at Roseanne’s insensitive response.  And there were A LOT of angry Tweets.
Somehow the entire argument went off the rails, and at this point, the conversation has devolved into two polarized camps: outraged feminists arguing that “rape jokes are never funny,” and defensive comics wailing about how the “thought police” is “silencing” them. Here’s the problem: everybody is wrong.

See how I put that last part into italics? That’s because it’s Lindy’s own quote; one she wrote in a really important post she wrote for Jezebel in the wake of last year’s Daniel Tosh debacle, called “How to Make a Rape Joke.

In Lindy’s post she includes some rape jokes that she thinks were well-done, from sources including Borat, Louis C.K., John Mulaney, and Ever Mainard. The main thing, she points out, is that none of those jokes have the victim as the butt of the joke.
It takes a very similar position to the post Roseanne eventually wrote for The Daily Beast, called “Why it’s Okay to Tell Rape Jokes.” In it, she states that she agrees with a lot of what Lindy said, applauds her bravery in the wake of all the awful attacks on her, and says that she’d like to debate her on the subject.  

The fact is, if you read all of what these women have written, you’ll see that there is very little that they disagree on. Roseanne does think comedians should be able to try out shitty rape jokes on an audience, and based on crowd reaction, either make their jokes better or face the consequences (cancelled gigs, backlash). And Lindy would prefer that comedians not tell rape jokes that feature victims as the butt of the joke at all. As far as I can tell, these are the only points at which their opinions diverge.

So. This sounds like something that could have lead to a really smart, interesting discussion, between two really smart, interesting feminist ladies.
But unfortunately, it didn’t. Instead, the argument pretty much stayed on Twitter, which is probably THE WORST PLACE EVER to have a debate. I mean, if you think it’s easy for people to misunderstand your emails, just think about what can happen in only 140 characters.
Sadly, since then, things have only continued to become more heated.
One camp is accusing the other of bullying, and vice versa. It’s exhausting, frustrating, and not really going anywhere.
Now people have started asking us to fire Roseanne as our advice columnist; they want us to take sides in this argument. But really, there’s no reason for us to take sides, because we agree with the main facts of this issue that both women have already stated that they, too, agree on:
1. There are funny rape jokes.
2. Comedians should be allowed to make jokes about controversial subjects.

Everything else being said surrounding this controversy just strikes us as a bad game of “telephone” gone haywire in the Internet age. One person states an opinion, another person posts a hasty reaction based on a misheard fragment of the first opinion, a million bystanders suddenly have opinions on the misheard reaction, and by now I’m too frustrated to even keep writing this sentence. But suffice it to say, none of this has given us a real reason to fire Roseanne, or, for that matter, to hold Lindy West in anything other than our normal high esteem.

Now go enjoy a sunny summer weekend, wherever you are. Maybe leave your Twitter feed alone for a couple of days. I think that would do us all a lot of good.

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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