Actually Breaking It Down: Penny Arcade’s Rape Comic

Trigger Warning: This post contains both triggers of rape and using it as a device for humor.

The cover (all text) of Yes Means Yes! : Visions of Female Sexual Power & a World Without Rape, edited by Jaclyn Friedman & Jessiva Valenti with a foreword by Margaret Cho.
The cover (all text) of Yes Means Yes! : Visions of Female Sexual Power & a World Without Rape, edited by Jaclyn Friedman & Jessica Valenti with a foreword by Margaret Cho.

While playing Mass Effect 2 and going to the prison station, a prisoner confides in you that he is under both physical and mental duress–the former indicating, with a quick shift of the eyes and bashful motion of his head, that he is being raped. My hand froze on the mouse as I took a deep breath and walked away.

In the middle of reading Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, I happened across Latoya Peterson’s excellent “The Not-Rape Epidemic,” about the concept of being raped twice: the physical act and then the proceeding legal trial. I ran short of breath, closed the book, and focused on breathing.

While posting these, I am aware I am posting to a sympathetic audience who understands what I say when I mention that these were triggering moments for me. Both were fairly innocuous, hardly graphic, and were allusive but vague. This can happen very easily to someone who has lived through rape or sexual assault.

So, what’s my point?

It started as these things usually do:

  1. A joke was told.
  2. A person stood out and commented that the joke wasn’t really funny–offensive even.
  3. Another joke was told.
  4. An explanation was made pointing out the flaw in the ‘witty’ riposte.
  5. Some people don’t get it (scroll down to Gabe’s post).

For those who do not wish to click links: 1. Penny Arcade posted a comic with a joke that utilized rape. 2. Shaker Milli A wrote a post explicating the joke, breaking down its MMO components, and explaining how the rape part of it failed to amuse. 3. PA posted another comic with the authors’ personae making a joke of a straw argument (rape jokes create rapists). 4. Melissa McEwan very succinctly deconstructs that statement and levels two legitimate arguments (it’s about triggers and rape culture, not creating rapists, there being a difference). 5. Gabe partway quotes a Mel Brooks line, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger, comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die,” and avoids the topic at hand.

As for myself, I discovered this through Twitter early in the AM, while perusing game press releases. As I opened the enclosed link (I don’t read PA unless linked to it these days), I just sighed. I was not angry, really, but was hardly surprised either–this is par for the course. Here’s the thing, Gabe’s argument in his last post was, “Did the comics about bestiality, suicide, murder, pedophilia, and torture not bother them? Or how about the fruit fucker? I mean, we have a character who is a literal rapist. What comic strip have they been reading all these years?”

This seems a rather half-hearted argument to distract from actually addressing the issue. While I can certainly understand being irreverent at times, I check myself when it comes to certain topics, and I set my own boundaries. Rape jokes tend to be among those boundaries.

As McEwan states:

A survivor of sexual violence who experiences a trigger is experiencing the same thing as a soldier who experiences a trigger, potentially even including flashbacks. Like many soldiers who return from war, many survivors of sexual violence are left with post-traumatic stress disorder.


I will never understand why anyone wants to be the total jerk who evokes someone’s memories of being assaulted by blindsiding hir with a rape joke (or image, or metaphor, or whatever), in the guise of “humor.” No “joke” is worth triggering someone. Not if you understand what triggering someone really means.

Which sums it up pretty succinctly.

A teaspoon over a blue body of water, liquid dropping off it. In text above the body of water, it states 'Teaspoon by teaspoon.'

A teaspoon over a blue body of water, liquid dropping off it. In text above the body of water, it states 'Teaspoon by teaspoon.'

Personally, I did not find the comic triggering (and thank unicorns for that–all I would need at six in the morning). That does not mean I do not understand how it could be.

The issue at hand is not that nobody has voiced opinions over these other heinous acts, but that the concern about this one, when brought up, is so easily dismissed. Personally, among the reasons I find rape jokes much more problematic than murder jokes (and I don’t necessarily let off the hook the latter), is that this is the response to rape in the real world. Murder, unless sanctioned by a government, is quite often condemned. Rape is often more murky, even if we theoretically believe it wrong.

Once more veering into the personal, what made me raise an eyebrow even more is that the victim of the rape in the PA strip is a male. There exists within me a personal rage when I consider that the only other male rape victims I tend to meet are the ones who furtively tell me their own story after sharing mine. This is indicative of the larger rape culture–victims rarely speak, and when they do, they are asked to either be silent or blamed (often by way of grilling them with questions to ascertain whose ‘fault’ it was), creating an environment where they wish to remain silent.

Do not get me wrong, I don’t hold high standards for the PA comic. It can be funny. It can not be. While I appreciate what Gabe and Tycho have done for the gaming community at large, I do not feel the need to give them a pass over issues like these. The excuse Gabe later gave of all the other horrible things they’d written that never got as large a response only serves to highlight in my memory other times I have closed my browser tab in disgust, and decided it was not worth my mental reserve at the time to raise my voice (I have raised concerns to webcomic authors in the past with little effect). However, I am glad more people are able to do so, and only feel ashamed for not having done so earlier.

This is not to say I plan on never again attending PAX East or one day heading to PAX (I do), or never again reading their comic (likely will, if linked), but that I wish to add to the voices of dissent and hopefully educate one more person, give one more perspective, add one more voice. This comic was a raindrop in the milieu that is rape culture, and hopefully this post and others I have read create a milieu of voices seeking to stop, slow, or even give temporary reprieve from said culture. As McEwan from Shakesville would state, teaspoon by teaspoon.

N.B. Long-time TBH reader TheFreman is auctioning off his PA merchandise, being rather fed up with the comic. The focus is less on the merchandise and more toward the proceeds, which are being donated to Men Can Stop Rape.

Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape

34 thoughts on “Actually Breaking It Down: Penny Arcade’s Rape Comic”

  1. It is just sickening, the whole ordeal, especially the fact they just didn’t get it. They’re completely clueless and have no interest in getting a clue. The comic itsself was problematic and bothered me, I expected that the next chance they got there would be an apology forthcoming, and instead, as you said, they were insulting and hostile.

    You know, at least BP cleaned up their oil spill (eventually). They may even learn from it in the future. Mike and Jerry will likely continue to not give a shit. I suppose at the very least PAX has that whole “no groping” policy.

    Oh and thanks for the mention. :)

  2. Thank you for writing this, Denis.

    I have been following the pandagon thread with much frustration. Not just from the people bashing Shakesville as a home of “humorless, sex-negative, second-wave” feminists (what the fuck??), but the people saying that you fail at reading comprehension if you’re offended by the original strip.

    No. Not at all. I really agree with CBrachyrhynchos’s comments in the thread; she points out that the joke is being made in the context of 1. fantasy and sci fi and video games all having a history of using rape as problematic shorthand to show that someone is really, really evil, and 2. gaming culture, where the word is used to describe anything and everything even slightly negative happening to someone. You very nearly cannot play an online game with other people without hearing about how someone’s been “raped” or they are “raping” the other team or whatever. I’m not sure what the gaming habits of the people defending the comic are (Amanda herself admits she basically just plays Rock Band and Mario, I’m sure she doesn’t read Kotaku), but it makes me suspect they aren’t as immersed in the culture as, for example, we are.

    Some people also seem to be ignoring the context of men being raped as inherently funny, which, thank you for talking about that, Denis. Men being raped is still a punchline that is widespread and used even by people who should fucking know better. Wasn’t there an entire SNL skit about a guy “scaring straight” boys by threatening them with prison rape if they commit a crime? That was the entire fucking joke. It was horrendous. The point of the joke there was that rape is horrible, too, but it was still fucking offensive. (ETA: Obviously prison rape is only one type of male rape, I apologize for conflating the two here.)

    Saying “But the joke is that rape is a horrible thing!” doesn’t sway me. The phrase “raped to sleep by dickwolves” is supposed to be inherently funny, and not just because of the image of a “dickwolf”. One of the things that makes Tycho’s writing stands out is how he coins some outrageous turns of phrase. The joke–which I, like CBrachyrhynchos, fully understand–could have easily worked with some other over-the-top form of torture that doesn’t happen (being dipped in molten lava, someone suggests). I think we should be careful about joking about torture because, at least in the US, we DO make light of it and excuse it and ignore it, but the point is, in these sorts of situations guys (it’s almost always guys) jump to “rape” as a sort of go-to over-the-top awful thing that is at the same time distant and inconceivable.

    I mean, I know a guy who loves Penny Arcade and jokes about rape all. The. Fucking. Time. It is something inherently hilarious to him. He loves using rape as a stand-in for “something horrible”. He threatens people with it, he jokes about it, he uses it to describe any little bad thing that happens to him. And he is a very fucking typical straight white cis male gamer. It’s not PA’s fault he’s that way, but these sorts of jokes enforce that mindset. To say it doesn’t is really kind of silly if you know anything at all about gaming culture.

  3. Denis, thank you for this post. people need to read it, understand it, and try to learn and change.

    thefremen, fwiw, i like you

    alex, i share your sentiments. as i was saying before, it is such a tragedy that this online gamer rape culture results in part from pop attempts at raising awareness. i wonder what kurt cobain or brad nowell would say today. it makes me wonder if there is no hope for change, and wish that feminist (or any socially conscious) hulk was real.

    also, i think it’s safe to say PA *weren’t thinking* about the possibility of triggering someone. and when someone writes something and they don’t think about these things, they are going to hurt people. it didn’t occur to them: in other words, they messed up. there’s no excuse, defense, explanation acceptable. it’s like saying “we didn’t think about that, but you shouldn’t be upset anyway because . . .” sorry PA, it doesn’t work that way. if you didn’t think about it, you didn’t think about it, end of story.

  4. I tend to go without reading Penny Arcade for a while and then binge on the comics to catch up so I hadn’t seen these comics yet. While the first comic isn’t in that great of taste, it is their response that is particularly and willfully ignorant and dismissive. It is one thing to make an offensive joke but it is another thing to mock someone for not finding it funny.

  5. The thread at Pandagon is a fucking train wreck of privilege and hipster dumbshittery. For those who don’t feel like slogging through 200-something posts, lemme sum up.

    1. Because I’m not triggered, trigger warnings are stupid and no one should really need them.

    2. Rape victims aren’t a monolithic entity (except when I say that none of them should need trigger warnings and that they should be like me and lighten up about this whole rape thing).

    3. The PA writers are feminist allies and should be cut some slack.

    4. The PA writers didn’t REALLY mean it like that and should be cut some slack.

    5. The PA writers are nihilists and therefore COULDN’T have meant it like that so they should be cut some slack.

    6. If you didn’t find the first comic funny, it’s because you’re either too dull to get it or you’re just a humorless scold.

    7. It’s edgy! That makes it funny!

    Think of just about every tired argument you’ve ever seen from apologists about humor that’s supposedly “edgy” where the word “edgy” stands in for racist/sexist/homophobic/et cetera. You’ll find all of them and more in that thread. It’s really pretty disappointing.

  6. Alex H. : FWIW, thanks, you do good as well.

    MertvayaRuka:
    Thanks for that, going through the gamasutra comments last week (or two weeks ago?) was bad enough. I actually went to the cesspool of the PA forum and wow that was steeped in privilege, I just couldn’t take it for many posts.

  7. Thefremen: You’re welcome, but you’re doing far more than I am right now and good on you for it. I’m only an occasional poster at Shakesville but I do spend a lot of time there and I used to be a reader at Pandagon but not after this. The whole smug “We’re cooler than they are, we get it, they’re just a bunch of humorless radfems who think all sex is rape” routine is not only nauseating but incredibly far off the mark.

    But I think the really ridiculous part is the “rape victims aren’t a monolith” thing paired up with “nobody should need trigger warnings” thing. I love the hypocrisy of “stop treating us all like we’re the same person” followed by “but I’m the model for what we should all be like”.

  8. Thanks, Denis. I found this recent Penny Arcade brouhaha kind of fascinating, and it’s good to hear your perspective.

    I actually just spent the better part of an hour reconstructing a conversation Gabe had with a fan on Twitter, in which he comes of as, well, a complete asshole. It’s the most recent post on my blog, if you’re interested — click on my name above.

  9. Were Penny Arcade someone I was willing to give the benefit of the doubt I would have been surprised and appalled by their second comic. After the whole Pick Up Artist debacle, however, I am not the least bit surprised. When challenged, PA jump straight to dismissive, defensive mockery. I particularly appreciated the way Gabe couldn’t believe the people who were objecting were “his people”; they must be interlopers who didn’t really *understand* their humor. Othering galore!

    PA is definitely not feminist, though they are closer to feminist than some. They may be in the “vaguely acknowledge women’s existence, and maybe on a good day humanity, without actually dealing with any specific women we aren’t sleeping with” camp rather than the “leer creepily at any woman who doesn’t run away fast enough” camp, but that doesn’t really make them feminist. Not that being a feminist gets you a free pass. I mean, I do appreciate that they think that rape is bad (as sadly low as that bar is), but that doesn’t absolve them of responsibility for listening to and considering actual rape victims.

    The original joke I did find funny, while simultaneously cringing. I have been in the real-life situation of leaving someone behind in an abusive situation, and the video game solution of doing something I found appalling and illogical and arbitrary but the game made necessary. Personally, I am at a place now where I could read this as “they were choosing the worst thing they could possibly think of, and yeah, rape is that horrendous, but that means it’s not yours to harness in service to hyperbole” but in reading it I could also identify with the slave-character and so anticipate how it would possibly affect some other people more deeply. I don’t think the PA guys ever considered that their reader would identify with the slave-character instead of the rescuer-character. It’s simply not part of their world. (There’s a larger post in there that I should write up: “I don’t think this character means what you thought it would mean…”) Plus, I was already cringing over the likely response; I knew how PA responded to such failures of empathy in the past, and it was not going to be a rewarding exchange.

    They simply seem to have no desire to empathize with that perspective, or even offer basic respect to the readers who reacted to the content they had put in the comic. All they see is a swell of emotion-laden criticism and can’t step back and recognize the betrayal these people feel is real (incidentally, the same reason I stopped reading Shakesville a while ago.) The PA guys have created the world they want to inhabit, and never mind the people who don’t fit. I wish I could sit down and explain it in person; I find offensive conduct/complaint to be one of the places electronic communication fails very easily. It is too easy to reinterpret it in a way that fits our existing world views.

    It makes me sad, because I’d like to have a place where I could indulge my nerd side and not have to worry about getting broadsided with how I’m not actually part of the intended audience. (Yay TBH!) PA, however, is never going to be that space.

  10. There’s this music video/PSA by those industry people who made the “Don’t Copy that Floppy” anti-piracy ad, which was released a couple of years ago as an update to the old classic.

    The video says that the penalty for piracy is prison, and they depict a teenager in prison, drawing anime tattoos on his fellow in-mates who flip out and, I suspect, rape him. It’s all depicted as being very humorous and the creators of the PSA are using the threat of rape as a penalty to burning a CD. That’s real classy.

  11. I was “surprised” that Gabe noted that the people emailing him state they are longtime readers, and he totally dismisses that. Which made me sad. I dont think PA is the epitome of … well anything, but i felt like i do when i come across rape in comics, sort of betrayed, like my safe house has been invaded or people i thought were friends were saying terrible things.
    And now i dont want to read them any more.

  12. I’m reminded of their hyper-defensive response to the pickup-artist brouhaha, which is also when I stopped reading PA. It seem the authors are fundamentally unable to grasp any perception that is different than their own and because it is so incomprehensible to them, it must be illogical. It’s a shame because when they are on, they are really on, but I can’t support them.

  13. Hey Doug, next time you think “it’s probably wrong”, DON’T POST IT. It violates the tenets of the safe space this blog strives to be if you think you shouldn’t post something and then go ahead and do it anyway. In order to keep the blog as safe a space as possible, it’s important to stay on the cautious side and play it safe when you’re not sure if something is appropriate, not say “Oh, to hell with it!”

    If you “just can’t stop [your]self”, step away from the goddamn keyboard. Seriously, that is a really disrespectful thing to do, particularly on a post where someone shares their personal experiences of being triggered by something.

  14. God this is depressing. Their reaction to it is what really gets me down. I don’t know why I keep expecting nerds to be less offensively ignorant than everyone else.

  15. I’ve been losely following this whole situation and I’m still very torn about what my opinion actually is. But I just want to thank you for writing this. It really helps me to understand hearing a real personal story about someone rather than “what if” scenarios.

  16. RE: PAPUA (harf narf gundams reference :V) links (and actually the main article)

    Ha ha ha ha ha. Oh wow, I’d be surprised that the creators of Penny Arcade number among the legions of the sad but…I’m not, at all. They’ve pretty much always made it obvious their target demographic was the stereotypical sadnerd, perhaps not as clear as say CAD but still…

  17. @Doug:

    Y’know, I could probably write a freaking essay picking apart not only the massive holes in the logic behind that routine, but also the ways in which it directly contradicts statements that Carlin makes during the VERY SAME PERFORMANCE from which that routine is extracted.

  18. Well done. Thanks for writing this. As a panelist at the upcoming PAX Prime, this has weighed heavily on my mind since the first comic ran. If this issue comes up at our panel, I hope the discussion is as reasonable and thoughtful as what you’ve written here.

  19. I am not going to PAX but before this I had wanted to. Now I don’t know if I would go if I had the chance. I really hope that at least a couple panelists at PAX do bring it up.

  20. If you are easily offended, perhaps you should not read this comment:

    I do not mean to be offensive when I ask this. I am openly and honestly curious, and I admit my ignorance.

    I am confused about why those people who have experienced sexual assault seem to have such severe reactions. Is there any literature your community would recommend as a primer on this subject?

    I recall my grandmother: a holocaust survivor whose sister died before her eyes, but who uses humor to interpret the tragic events that occurred to her and her loved ones freely. (In fact, as a Jew, comedy is the way I interpret most tragedies to myself as, possibly, a matter of acculturation.)

    I apologize deeply if this question seems to belittle the certainly genuine and spontaneous response of the author to triggering content. That is not my intention. I am merely curious as to what literature (if any) this community might think of which could help me have a greater understanding of this phenomenon.

    Thank you. (A Slovaj)

  21. Hi A Slovaj,

    This post may help with your question about being triggered by jokes, from the perspective of a rape survivor: http://fugitivus.wordpress.com/2009/06/24/a-woman-walks-into-a-rape-uh-bar/

    One of the things the author addresses in the comments is situations like that with your grandmother: survivors using (often dark) humor to talk about tragedies *that they experienced* is beneficial, does not make light of those tragedies, and is not what Denis and others are criticizing here.

    The problem with the comic is that it’s written by people who have not experienced sexual assault themselves, and the butt of the joke (in that panel) is the character who has been raped–the phrase “raped to sleep by the dickwolves” is intended to elicit a giggle. Thus, it is an entirely different thing than a Holocaust survivor or rape survivor using dark humor to talk about their own experiences.

    Thanks for commenting, and I hope this helps.

  22. Quick question about the whole “triggering” argument for why rape jokes are indefensible (note that I in no way think they are defensible, I just don’t quite understand this particular objection). If the idea is that it’s not okay to write something that’s likely to trigger a rape victim, what makes NON-joking mentions of rape okay? Is there any reliable data that shows that rape victims are more likely to be triggered by mentions of rape in a humorous context than by realistic mentions of actual rape events? What exactly makes one okay but not the other? After all, a very large percentage of matter-of-fact mentions of rape could probably be written out of the articles/stories/etc. that they appear in, if absolutely necessary. So why aren’t those authors taken to task too?

  23. ^ Because when you read something about rape of your own volition, you sort of expect it. You don’t expect it out of the blue in a comedy webcomic.

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