Sacha Baron Cohen's The Dictator is the picture of an equal-opportunity offender, but don't expect it to be taken as such. Racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, anti-American sentiment, anti-Arab sentiment, anti-celebrity sentiment — they're all key to the film's ruthless humor, but there is one breed of jokes that may affect delicate sensibilities above all the others: the rape joke.
And the uproarious The Dictator, a Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker-esque take on post-9/11 culture directed by Larry Charles and co-written by Baron Cohen, is brimming with rape jokes.
At one point, a sign in the grocery store Baron Cohen's fallen dictator character, General Admiral Haffaz Aladeen, must work in reads, "Shoplifters will be prosecuted and male members of their family will be raped." Later, Aladeen helps birth a child while repeatedly sticking his fist up the ass of the woman he's supposedly helping. There's the suggestion that Aladeen raped members in Menudo, leading to their suicides. This is really the extent of the joke, although it does comment on Menudo's revolving-door policy for its members as they aged. So, in case you were waiting 30 years for a joke in which Menudo's unceremonious firings were explained with ass rape, there it is.
Recently, pop culture has experienced something of a rise of the rape joke, as documented in a helpful montage by Vulture earlier this year, and in a longer piece by Tricia Romano on The Daily Beast, which was pegged to Rainn Wilson's much-hissed-at tweet about wanting to get date-raped while "Whole Lotta Love" played.
Rape is a topic so sensitive that its mere invocation as imagery or a metaphor is enough to elicit perturbed responses. The backlash can feel like a demand that one group's holy ground be adopted by everyone, but that group ultimately comes from the pragmatic belief that rape, which often goes unreported and/or ignored, isn't being taken seriously enough as it is. Joking about it, then, can only damage the already fragile discourse. It's hard to argue with anyone who treats rape as an untouchable topic. If a person feels this way, he or she probably has a good reason, and that reason gives him or her more entitlement to the issue than someone who doesn't. And, really, abuse is everyone's problem.
Of course, it being such a sensitive topic makes it that much more enticing to comedians. People want what they can't have, and so they want to joke about the taboo. The jokes in The Dictator often work as absurdity-exposing meditations on diseased points of view. These things are so funny not because they are true, but because they aren't. No one actually believes that Katy Perry and Megan Fox are whores with varying policies regarding facials, just like no one believes that rape is something anyone should do (no one of sound mind, at least).
Perhaps in a preemptive defense from the type of particularly sensitive people from whom he expects the most grief, Baron Cohen has written an over-the-top liberal feminist character named Zoey ("I took a feminist clown workshop once"), played by the delightful Anna Farris. As a result of her hippy-ish hairiness, Aladeen refers to her as a "lesbian Hobbit," a "hairy-titted yeti," "Wolverina," and "Justin Bieber's chubby double." He is merciless in his treatment of her until he comes around on how great she is. Really, while this character is a little spacey, she's basically portrayed as an angel whose ability to provoke sympathy extends way beyond that of Aladeen.
This mea culpa may not be enough for some people, but The Dictator is a good reminder that if you are the type to get offended, you should avoid consciously offensive movies. Save yourself the trouble. If you want to risk it, heed some words that Simon Doonan told me earlier this year, when I talked to him about his repeated use of the word "fag" in his book Gay Men Don't Get Fat: "To be unoffendable is like an incredible position of power… To not care, to not even be interested in people's ill-informed opinions." It's not a final solution, but it is one way to break a cycle.