A 17th Century Comedy Addressing Rape

Giueseppe Bonito, "Masked Revelers"

Giueseppe Bonito, “Masked Revelers”

If women voted overwhelmingly Democratic in the last election, it was in part because of the extreme positions that different rightwing GOP candidates took on women’s issues, whether through stupidly theorizing about rape, taking hardline stances against all abortions (including those for rape and incest), bashing Planned Parenthood, or complaining about Obamacare paying for birth control. Women felt, rightly in my view, that men were engaged in an age-old power play over women’s bodies.

The salience of the issue was reflected in the fact that many of my students chose to write about rape and male power in my Couples Comedy class. Aphra Behn’s 1677 play The Rover was the subject of over half the essays submitted.

Behn’s comedy is a remarkable blend of women’s anxiety and women’s wish fulfillment.  Florinda and Hellena are set to be victimized by patriarchal oppression, with Florinda contracted to be married against her will to an old, ugly, and wealthy man and Hellena destined for a convent. They persuade their lax chaperone to let them attend the carnival, however, at which point Florinda makes plans to escape with the man she loves (Belvile) and Hellena sets her eyes on and determines to marry the rakish Wilmore, even though he is notoriously inconstant in his affairs with women. Wilmore is the rover of the title although it could be argued that Hellena is a rover as well.

Of course, all ends happily with the two women paired with the men of their choosing, but before it does, Florinda is nearly raped twice. This does not occur in male comedies of the time period. On top of that, Angelica, a high priced courtesan who falls in love with the Rover and waives her fee, becomes angry when he switches to Hellena and goes after him with a pistol. These discordant moments, which could only have been written by a woman, make the play particularly interesting. Certainly my students found that to be the case. Their different takes provide a fascinating window into what young people are thinking these days.

For Erica, the play captured her uncertainty about leaving the sheltered world of family and college and entering the real world. The freedom that women now have may be nice, but if women then run up against brutal power plays, then the protection doesn’t look so bad. Erica seemed genuinely conflicted.

Michael argued that it is the very fact that Florinda and Hellena are exercising their freedom that sets off the rape scenes. The danger of rape, he said, is the way that men signal to women that they should stay obedient and remain at home.

Ruya, focusing on Florinda’s fairy tale relationship with Belvile (they first meet when he saves her from marauding soldiers), argued that the play is Behn’s rejection of the female fantasy of being rescued by a prince. Belvile, she said, is not so much in love with Florinda as in love with his idealization of her. It’s a gentler way than rape of dominating her but in both instances the men insist on control. That’s why the play shows Florinda both being put on a pedestal and nearly getting raped.

Hellena, Ruya went on to say, models an egalitarian relationship that was centuries ahead of its time. By going head to head with the Rover, she wins his respect and his love. Men may not know that they want a strong and assertive woman, Behn is saying, but once they see what one looks like, they will be won over. At least if she adds to it a sense of humor.

A number of students focused in on the power of wit. Daisy, noting that women don’t have much leverage in this society, marveled at how Hellena employs witty banter to hold her own. Witty banter is more powerful than the romance story, Daisy said, echoing Ruya.

Meg likewise charted the intricate way that Hellena uses wit to negotiate the difficult male-female power dynamics and noted how wit can provide women with a way to be assert themselves without threatening the man. Her essay pointed to how feminists could use humor today as they seek for equality.

Also looking at humor, Tamara, less sanguine than Meg, noted that it disguises real anger at the plight of women. That anger, she said, shows up directly in the figure of the castoff courtesan Angelica, who almost shoots the Rover until figuring that he is simply not worth it (a kind of put-down in its own way). Tamara also was easier on Florinda than Ruya and Daisy, noting that Florinda orchestrates her planned escape with Belvile, even though Belvile in the end must be the one who carries her off.

Tamara brought the play around to a recent firestorm set off by the stand-up comedian Tosh and then exacerbated by comedian Louis C.K. I’ll let Tamara take it over from here:

In the summer of 2012,…Tosh raised a good deal of controversy for asking a comedy club audience after he was heckled by a female audience member, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now… like right now?”

Behn might have asked herself that same question when she was writing the scene where Florinda is nearly raped by Blunt, Frederick, Wilmore and Pedro. Although both Behn and Tosh have put rape in a comic context, there is a huge difference… Behn is trying to correct a social fault and Tosh was condoning it; Behn would answer Tosh’s question with a resounding “no,” Tosh with a “yes.” [T]he reason for this difference may be none other than the fact that the two of them are, after all, looking at the situation from two different, ever-conflicting perspectives—one is a woman and one a man.

Another comedian, Louis C.K., added more fuel to the fire for allegedly showing support for Tosh with a comment he posted on a social networking site that he later claimed was misconstrued. In an interview, Louis said, “Comedy and feminists are natural enemies” because “feminists can’t take a joke and comedians can’t take criticism.” He was harshly criticized for his comment.

In their efforts to try and vilify female empowerment, it becomes obvious that men still aim to overpower and subdue women like they did at the time of The Rover’s publication…

The power struggle between men and women is an issue that not only still exists, but will probably be around forever. But who is winning this struggle? If we consider The Rover to be a comic satire, then Molly Ivins, a Texas feminist, might have explained it all when she said, “Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful.”

To summarize, my students see men talking of rape as a way of reminding women who’s in charge. The threat of male violence always lurks in the background when women seek to assert themselves. Wit is one way of fighting back.

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