Not quite the rapier wit

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
The Conversation /
April 12, 2013 /

Click here to view original /


Aside from seeing it at the drive-in – in bad weather albeit with good company – I only remember two things about The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, a fortnight on:

  1. The use of the song Abracadabra (“I wanna reach out and grab ya” [insert predatatory clawing motion]
  2. The repeated use of the phrase “mind rape” [as in, “this magic show will rape your mind”].

While I’ve finally shaken off that Steve Miller Band earworm, “mind rape” is still plaguing me.

I’m not often offended by words. Pussy and panties might make me cringe a little, but there’s only a handful I find truly offensive. Cunt tops that list. Douche comes in at second. (Afterall, if a vagina reference is an acceptable insult, hell, why not also deploy an apparatus used to clean one?)

The word rape however, is a difficult one. While nobody is doubting the egregiousness of the act, is the word that big a deal?

I recently wrote a chapter on euphemism. I discussed how rape victims often use hedging phrases like “he had his way with me” to moderate the impact of what happened to them. Historically newspapers have similarly dodged the linguistic bullet, instead opting for phrases like “attacked” and “assaulted”.

In my chapter I quoted from Anthony Neal’s book Unburdened by Conscience (2009) where he recounted an interesting story:

A revered historian of American slavery once asked me, “Do we need to be told again that white men took sexual advantage of black women during American slavery?” I replied, “Not exactly. Depending upon how we interpret the phrase ‘took sexual advantage of,’ it could mean anything from a euphemism for rape to a misleading mischaracterization of it.”

Sure, politeness, avoiding offence and political correctness might explain the appeal of euphemism, but in avoiding the word what actually happened becomes fuzzy.

Rape has impact, it has punch, and for these reasons I think it needs to be used with pinpoint precision.

So when Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) in Wonderstone promised to “rape your mind” with his Criss Angel-type schlock – or, for that matter, when climate change blatherers bleat on about raping the planet or raping the soil – the feminist in me bristles.

In common parlance, rape is about forced sexual intercourse. Sure, the dictionary will also list definitions pertaining to plundering or seizing, but in popular usage, the violent sexual connotations aren’t ever forgotten: mind rape still has unwanted penetration connotations; Steve’s promise to mind rape was intended to be gratuitous – that’s the point. The chracter was supposed to be a moron. But does that make everything okay?

While I was unsettled by the use of rape in Wonderstone I realised, there’s limits to my high-and-mightiness: I can’t even apply my reasoning universally.

In a scene from one of my favourite television shows – Arrested Development – Tobias (David Cross) reminded his wife about his short-lived career as an analyst-therapist:

I laugh at this scene every time I see it.

So is the idea of an analrapist any less offensive than a mind rape?

Are there credit points available for laughing at something like an analrapist if we simultaneously acknowledge that we’re doing so while standing on very treacherous political terrain? Is this, in fact, part of the appeal?

Am I simply willing to cut David Cross slack simply because I find him hilarious while Jim Carrey’s sole redeeming feature was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotlight Mind?

Language is tricky and offense – like humour – is thoroughly subjective. I would however, question the funniness of a gag that is exclusively predicated on referencing sexual violence as compared, say, to wordplay.

© Lauren Rosewarne