The Office’s Rape Joke

I got a bunch of emails from readers about a recent episode of The Office that contained what all agreed was a non-funny joke about rape (though there’s never really a funny rape joke, is there?). I hadn’t seen the episode and couldn’t find it anywhere – luckily, one of my students at Rutgers was kind enough to send it my way.
I generally really love The Office and think that its jokes – even on subjects like race and sexuality – are generally pretty smart and progressive. But I hated this. Thoughts?
Thanks to Alissa for the vid.

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62 Comments

  1. loraxaeon
    Posted November 11, 2008 at 3:02 am | Permalink

    As an enormous “Office” fan I’ll try to play devils advocate here, and agree with some of the sentiment above. Incidentally when I saw the episode and heard that line the first thing I thought of was Feministing. But, like a recent episode of The Simpsons where Nelson told Millhouse he was “super gay”, the characters are so established at this point, that the context is in place for a line like that be obviously satirical. Of what? In this instance, it’s Kelly’s complete lack of a moral compass, or any kind of adult way of dealing with problems or getting what she wants. In an earlier episode Kelly said that Princess Diana’s funeral was the saddest funeral ever…that and her sister’s. I don’t think the rape line looks too good if you’re not an avid viewer of the show, and certainly rape is not something that should be bandied about lightly or used for a laugh, but again I think it was merely a line to further illuminate Kelly’s willingness to say anything to get what she wants (albeit an extreme one), as deplorable as it may be. Even within the context of the episode it serves that purpose, (Spoiler) as Kelly falsifies customer surveys as revenge for those who didn’t show up to her America’s Got Talent party (End Spoiler).
    It’s definitely going to thud for some people, and it’s incredibly difficult to say that anyone not liking the line is wrong, but I don’t think the writers intended for the joke to be about rape, but rather about Kelly’s lack of conscience, which even the least self aware character on the show, Michael, finds abhorrent.

  2. Emily
    Posted November 11, 2008 at 4:20 am | Permalink

    A few comments have said that the show portrays Kelly as a “slut” and I just wanted to clear that up with my take. I just want to quickly point out that the show doesn’t “slut-shame” and doesn’t really label Kelly as a “slut”, but rightly criticizes her for her lack of morality (not linked to her sexual behavior). Regardless of how this joke was taken or meant, it had nothing to do with sexual promiscuity or any judgment on sexual behavior.

  3. tinfoil hattie
    Posted November 11, 2008 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    No, the15th, you’re not missing a damn thing. You’re spot-on.

  4. Gnatalby
    Posted November 11, 2008 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    I *really* did not like this joke.
    The characters on The Office are supposed to be normal people, like exist in your life, only a little bit more so.
    Which means that the office thinks there are women out there who chronically cry rape to get out uncomfortable situations. Now before anyone gets all “Duke!!!!1!!” at me, I’m sure there has been a woman or two like this, but everyone who’s paying attention knows that rape is an underreported crime, not an overreported one.
    Comparisons to the fat jokes on the office don’t apply, since those invite you to laugh at Michael, who is being a jerk. This joke invites you to laugh at rape victims, if they’re people you already think are silly.

  5. Sleepy
    Posted November 11, 2008 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    I think this joke could be funny (in the context of “The Office”) IF we lived in a society where rape was always taken seriously, and the victims are not doubted by default.
    I can see why people are defending it as a joke, because they probably DO take rape seriously and it works for them the same way it would if Kelly said something like “I was kidnapped”.
    But the defenders should keep in mind that when others get offended by this, it’s not just because they’re oversensitive. This “joke” reinforces the idea that women who have dealt with multiple abuses are probably “kooks” who are mostly making it up. It adds to the silencing effect. This may be a “small” thing, but the many “small” jokes like this are like single drops in the tsunami of anti-woman sentiment out there.

  6. NicoleG
    Posted November 11, 2008 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    loraxaeon, I agree with this comment. The joke was pretty weak and I didn’t laugh at it personally, but I can see what they were going for. I think it’s exactly like an earlier joke this season, when Ryan (Kelly’s equally shameless ex) tried to defend his toolish behavior by saying he “never really processed 9/11.” It’s not the usual type of humor for this show, but in both cases they were relying on the audience to be a little shocked. It reveals how vapid Ryan and Kelly are that they would use “excuses” like that so casually.

  7. GS
    Posted November 11, 2008 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    I think the purpose of the joke is not Kelly’s statement but Michael’s response: “You can’t expect all your problems to go away just because you say you were raped. Not again.” Michael is an extreme narcissist who has a lot of confusion about political correctness. He believes that black people are fun and sassy and that Mexican is a derogatory word. Just as he saw being temporarily “disabled” in The Injury episode as a means for everyone to help him and give him whatever he wanted, he believes that rape, even if it is real, solves all your other problems. Suffering means that people pay attention to you and feel sorry for you. The Office is not making fun of rape victims, but of a real societal view that people claim rape just to get attention. Michael is supposed to be stupid, so his idea that being a victim of a crime is somehow a good thing is the object of the joke here, I think.
    I think it’s worth noting that this episode aired just after an election in which one of the candidates repeatedly responded to criticism by bringing up his time as a POW. The show is making fun not of the experience of being victimized, but the ludicrous idea that it “solves your problems.”

  8. GS
    Posted November 11, 2008 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    I understand why the scene is offensive to some, but I think the purpose of the joke is not Kelly’s lie but Michael’s reaction: “You can’t expect all your problems to go away just because you say you were raped. Not again.” Michael believes (and, from “Not again” clearly believed at least once in the past) that your problems go away if you’re the victim of a trauma. He’s stupid and has a confused relationship with political correctness, so I think it’s his reaction, not rape victims, that we’re supposed to see as idiotic.
    Michael once burned his foot and pretended to be disabled on the theory that people would be nicer to him. He’s a narcissist; he thinks suffering is good because people give you attention. That’s what we’re supposed to be laughing at, not Kelly.
    It’s worth noting that the episode aired just after an election during which one candidate repeatedly responded to criticism by pointing to his experience as a POW. Clearly, McCain’s campaign, and many commentators too, thought that his totally unrelated campaign “problems would go away” if he talked about his horrific experiences. People making fun of that were not making fun of his experience as a torture victim, but of the wrongheaded exploitation of it.

  9. Nikirena
    Posted November 11, 2008 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    I am a big fan of the office but for the first time I was not amused AT ALL. Both my mother and I were deeply offended by this “joke”

  10. Velderia
    Posted November 12, 2008 at 2:29 am | Permalink

    Now I know why people love the British version better…

  11. jjgirl23
    Posted November 13, 2008 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    I don’t think they were trying to make fun of rape victims.. or that women use rape as an excuse. I thought they were making fun of Kelly (because she’s always a bit dim). Not women in general. And Michael is an idiot too so it gave him an opportunity for an idiotic response.

  12. stitchinbitch
    Posted April 9, 2009 at 3:45 am | Permalink

    I actually thought this joke was brilliant social commentary. Kelly is the embodiment of everything wrong the patriarchy does to young women – she has taken on every trait that society, consciously or not, expects of women. As a young, impressionable woman she has become exactly what our society wants her to be – an infantalised, shallow, manipulative whiner who only cares about celebrity gossip and getting a man. She is the classic victim of gender roles, of the beauty myth, of all the bullshit the media feeds us – she represents everything that’s wrong with society’s attitude towards women! She’s fallen for every vapid little distraction that’s been socialised into her and it’s worked perfectly because no-one takes her seriously, not even herself. And to have someone like that, such an extreme archetype of the current societal “ideal femininity”, take such a laissez-faire attitude subject to rape, speaks volumes! Kelly’s self-respect has been lowered so much by patriarchal society that she would casually lie about being raped to get her way. She conforms so much to gender stereotyping that she sees no way to get out of this situation other than faking the ultimate damsel-in-distress scenario. This scene demonstrates brilliantly how a woman can be manipulated into serving the patriarchal agenda. I could write a fucking thesis on it.
    Of course, I understand why people are angry about this joke. Rape is a sensitive subject, and justifiably so. That’s part of why it’s so funny though, because it has such a stigma attached and it causes such discomfort for the viewer. And because obviously Kelly lives in a twisted, sugar-coated fantasy world where rape isn’t very serious or perhaps doesn’t even exist. And because patriarchal society constructed this fantasy world for her. It’s a very dark joke, and I don’t expect everyone to find it funny, but I did.

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