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Confronting trauma with humour

by Maggie Hope October 3, 2017
Confronting trauma with humour

Concordia hosted Rape is Real & Everywhere, a comedy show featuring survivors of sexual assault

“We have to engage. And what better way to engage with a discourse in which you are constantly being painted as the humourless snowflake […] than by getting up there and actually joking about the thing.” This was professor Emer O’Toole’s take on Rape is Real & Everywhere (RIR&E), a comedy show put on by survivors of sexual assault that was held at Concordia on Sept. 29.

O’Toole is a professor of performance studies at Concordia’s School of Irish Studies, as well as a founding member of the university’s Feminism and Controversial Humour Working Group. She formed the group alongside fellow professors Gada Mahrouse of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute and Danielle Bobker from the English department.

“I think we had shared interests in those intersections in feminism and comedy where the subjects are controversial—where stuff like sexual assault and race and gender and all of those things that, if you joke about them, create some tension,” O’Toole said.

At the working group’s symposium last year, the three professors got the chance to converse with like minded-individuals, such as the comedians from the RIR&E show. “We just had the most mind-blowing discussions,” O’Toole said earnestly. “I thought, ‘Wow, I want my students to see this.’”

When comedians Heather Jordan Ross and Emma Cooper, the creators of RIR&E, suggested bringing the show to Concordia, O’Toole and Mahrouse were immediately on board.

Ross and Cooper are two standup comedians based out of Vancouver. In 2015, they came up with the idea of hosting a comedy show about rape and sexual assault because Ross wanted to find a way to talk about her experience of sexual assault. According to O’Toole, by only featuring survivors of sexual assault in their show, Ross and Cooper wanted to steer the conversation towards something more up front and less shameful.

“There’s so much power in using comedy,” O’Toole said. “Your activism can do a lot of work under a subterfuge of performance.”

O’Toole, Ross and Cooper have come to be very familiar with the argument that “there are just some things that shouldn’t be joked about”, especially while promoting the RIR&E show. Although she understands that some people will not agree with what they are doing, O’Toole said: “I’m skeptical of anyone who tries to tell someone else how they can deal with their trauma.”

She explained that, as comedians, Ross and Cooper began the comedy show as a way for Ross to cope with the pain caused by her assault. According to a promotional email describing the show, while some people cope in a solemn way, “other people need to laugh. Making jokes about life—sour parts, sweet parts—is, for some, the best mode of communicating what they’re going through.”

In addition to using comedy as a coping mechanism, O’Toole said the show is meant to “reclaim the narrative of rape” on a cultural level. Instead of believing “rape myths,” which define sexual assault within a rigid framework, telling real-life stories to a crowd of people “completely changes that narrative,” the professor said.

“It’s the chance to take control of one’s own story, but also to take back that narrative of what rape is from a dominant culture that wants to make it something that only evil men do, and [make it] something that is so real and everywhere.”

According to the show’s description, “RIR&E has played across Canada, made national and international news and even been the subject of a CBC radio documentary.” Following a run of sold-out shows, RIR&E is now touring university campuses across Canada in hopes of offering an alternative way for students to confront and learn about sexual assault and consent.

Concordia was the first stop on RIR&E’s university tour. The event was in collaboration with the Concordia Student Union, the Fine Arts Student Alliance, the Graduate Students’ Association and the Feminism and Controversial Humour Working Group. During the show, Cooper told the sold-out audience that it was the largest crowd they had ever performed for.

To learn more about the Feminism and Controversial Humour Working Group, visit the group’s page on Concordia’s website. For information about upcoming RIR&E shows and events, visit their website.

Photo by Alex Hutchins

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