Kick-Ass 2 Isn't Afraid to Tackle Any Subject, Except Rape

The new movie tries to laugh away a jarring topic with a shrug and gag akin to a fart joke.
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Universal Pictures

Spoilers ahead.

It's no secret that Kick-Ass 2, the sequel to 2010's dark superhero action comedy, is unabashedly crude, offensive, sometimes funny, and gleefully violent. What's interesting is that the writers deemed some events too disturbing to adapt from the original comic book, including a rape scene between "The Mother Fucker," the film's awkward villain, and "Night-Bitch," a civilian hero and Kick-Ass's girlfriend. After storming the heroes' headquarters, the Mother Fucker learns Night-Bitch's civilian identity and home address. He breaks in, has a henchman hold her down, and starts to undress. However, just as the Mother Fucker is about to go through with it, he loses his erection and isn't able to pump himself back up. Unfunnily, he tries.

I get the significance, character-wise, of the Mother Fucker's rape attempt. Everything about him, from his oedipal name to his BDSM-inspired get-up, shows that he's more of a wannabe villain than a hardened criminal. A rape scene would, arguably, have indicated that he truly is capable of committing a violent act, rather than paying others to do it. Still, the moment doesn't earn its laughs or justify its inclusion in the film. Watching that scene, I guess I was supposed to laugh at an awkward dude's impotence and think, "Phew, that's a relief! He's not going to rape her--because he can't!" Instead, I was hyper-aware that the scene played out like any cheap sexual assault in a thriller or horror movie (the stair chase, the clothes-grabbing), and that it tried to laugh away a jarring topic with a shrug and gag akin to a fart joke.

As several writers and comics have discussed, rape can be clever and funny depending on the crux of the joke. Lindy West noted that the specificity of rape and the way it is discussed in society places it in different territory from other kinds of violence. By and large, non-sexual violence is about getting the job done with, perhaps, varying degrees of intensity and viciousness. But sexual violence is so closely tied to humiliation, degradation, and skewed power dynamics that depicting it without any of that context feels sophomoric. The conceit of the Kick-Ass 2 rape scene is that it's funny because nothing actually happens; the humor is totally dependent on the absence of a physical violation. If you disagree, consider whether anyone would laugh if the Mother Fucker masturbated for a bit, regained his erection, and then went through with it as the audience sat watching.

By contrast, truly funny rape jokes can make an audience laugh even when there is an understanding that something bad will happen. These jokes convey an understanding that rape isn't just a physical act, but a psychological one--and the mindset behind the physical act is turned on its head. Take Ever Mainard's "Here's your rape!" bit or Wanda Sykes's seriously hilarious "Detachable Pussy" act. In neither of those examples is the humor dependent on its teller getting raped; in fact, that is beside the point. What is funny is the context of each: For Mainard, that context centers on women going through their lives wondering when they will meet the rape that so many people tell them they ought to watch out for. Sykes places a similar concept on an even higher register of absurdity: If is simply having a vagina makes one more susceptible to stranger-danger rape on the street, rape should, theoretically, be avoidable by leaving one's vagina at home for the night. Although Kick-Ass 2 has an in-your-face ethos, these two stand-up routines address a difficult topic more bluntly and directly by acknowledging that rape alone isn't a problem; the rationale behind rape and other kinds of sexual assaults is.

A film that builds upon that idea is Teeth (2007), a dark, horror-comedy that includes scene after scene of terrible, graphic acts of sexual assault on the same person. Dawn, the protagonist, is teenage girl who was born with vagina dentata--small, sharp teeth that line her vagina and clamp down whenever she is threatened. We learn that the teeth first appeared when Dawn was little, after her stepbrother fondled her in a kiddie pool. The small nip she gives him then draws blood, but is nothing compared to the jaw-dropping bites Dawn's teeth take out of a boy who date rapes her, or a gynecologist who violates her during an examination. I watched Teeth one quiet Halloween with a college roommate. About 30 minutes in, we frantically paused the video stream, screaming and covering our eyes, unsure if we could continue or not. After a breather, we decided to press on, and by the third assault or so we actually started laughing, sometimes uproariously (probably me more than my friend), often nervously, and usually in disbelief. My shock at the horrific, repeated incidents became less dependent on whether or not Dawn could learn to tell who would hurt her and avoid them, or learn to control the teeth, than on why in god's name this kept happening at all. Her problem isn't that she just can't seem to avoid getting raped, but that her trust in people is relentlessly broken, by person after person. And after Dawn learns to control the teeth at will, the joke is on the people who would harm her. Watching these repeated transgressions happen eventually struck me as absurd, but kind of relatable, and hilarious. I'm sure some people would argue that the movie unfairly focuses on a female victim, and is cynical in its treatment of men, and far too graphic--but it is no more obscene than Kick-Ass 2, which relishes in dazzling violence. The key difference is that it doesn't purport to be interested in protecting its viewers when depicting sexual assault, as Kick-Ass 2 does, by setting rape down on a cinematic whoopee cushion.

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Judith Ohikuare is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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