Attacking Rape Culture with Gallows Humor

TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of rape and rape culture …

When Jessie Kahnweiler started talking about making a comedic short film called Meet My Rapist about her personal experience with rape, everyone from friends and family to Hollywood insiders to feminists wary of offending victims urged her to rethink the idea. A P.R. consultant urged her to at least change the title to something less alienating, but Kahnweiler, who attributes her chutzpah and sense of humor to her Jewish heritage, told Ms. she wouldn’t budge:

That’s the problem, that we’re scared to say the word rape in the title of a film. That’s why I had to do it. We should talk about it. It needs to be a conversation. We’re not going to be able to make any progress if we don’t open up a conversation.

Meet My Rapist, available on YouTube (and embedded below), does not actually tell the story of Kahnweiler’s rape, which occurred eight years ago. It deals with the aftermath—her ongoing attempt to process and move on from the experience. She plays herself, while her rapist—a red-hooded and bearded fellow whose face the audience never entirely sees—hovers in the background of several scenes, in one distracting her during a job interview, in another watching as she tells a friend what happened. At one point he even joins her family at the dinner table. In the course of the film we see her experience dismissed by everyone from the friend, who doesn’t take the news very well, to her own therapist, who tells her “to get the fuck over your shit.”

Clearly, eight years later, Kahnweiler’s rapist still haunts her. Yet a trope which could easily be the center of a horror movie manifests in this film as a humorous device, essentially making rape culture the butt of the joke. Kahnweiler says this is part of a conscious effort to complicate rape narratives:

The way that we deal with rape now is so simple; it’s either victimhood or blaming or anger, or it’s like ‘Yeah, totally, rape is bad. I don’t really need to see it or talk about it or learn about it because rape is bad.’ Well, duh.

The matter-of-fact nature of each scenario and of Kahnweiler’s dealings with the people around her, who simplify and co-opt her experience to the point of absurdity, imbues the piece with an irony that not everybody understands. But response to the film has been overwhelmingly positive:

I’ve gotten a lot of emails from people saying, ‘I didn’t want to have anything to do with this movie and then I decided to watch it.’ They say, ‘I don’t know how to feel but I’m feeling something. It’s just doing something to me.’ They like that it’s complicated.

Asked how she feels now that her personal life has been made public, Kahnweiler, who communicates as much with gestures as words, said,

I have had to talk about it a lot more, but it’s also made me go in a lot more and realize I don’t have to justify every point of the story. It feels super real, it feels really scary, it feels really illuminating, it feels really intense, it feels really sad and it is kind of all those things at once. Some days it totally makes sense and other days it totally doesn’t make sense. So I’m kind of just allowing myself to be in it rather than judging it. Which is hard for a Jew [she laughs].

Preeminent Jewish comedian Mel Brooks has said that he made it his lifelong mission to make the world laugh at Hitler because “there’s only one way to get even. You have to bring him down with ridicule.” Kahnweiler’s film aims as high–to rob rape culture of its power by making us laugh at it. She may have a hard time not analyzing herself, but clearly turning tragedy into comedy is in her blood.

Photos of Jessie Kahnweiler by Eduardo Mayen



Holly L. Derr is the Head of Graduate Directing at the University of Memphis and a feminist media critic who uses the analytical tools of theater to reflect upon broader issues of culture, race and gender. Follow her @hld6oddblend.