Does Tucker Max think that rape is funny?

Nicole Colson examines the vile "Tucker Max phenomenon"--and what it says about a society where his misogyny is tolerated as "entertainment."

Tucker Max (Rudius Media)

WHEN, EXACTLY, did implications of sexual assault become fair game for an ad campaign to promote a Hollywood movie?

Producers of the much-hyped Tucker Max movie I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell--based on the execrable "memoir" of the same name, on the New York Times best-seller list now for more than 100 weeks--decided to market the film with bus ads reading, "Deaf girls never hear you coming." Equal opportunity offenders, they also had ads referring to "blind girls."

As Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn noted, the ads read "like a helpful hint in a predator's handbook."

If the idea of menacing disabled women wasn't funny enough for you, TV commercials for the movie (which is set largely in a strip club) are one long string of abuse. In one, an announcer says, "Strippers will not tolerate disrespect--just kidding!" while the Tucker Max character can be seen yelling "dance, monkey, dance for your dollar" at a woman.

Two of the bus ads were pulled by the Chicago Transit Authority after complaints (though one referencing strippers remained).

But the "Tucker Max mindset" was on full display in comments attached to a Chicago Reader report on the controversy. "You are fucking retarded! Why are you offended? Was your mom a stripper?" read one. It got worse from there.

Call me a "humorless feminist" (and I'm sure any Tucker Max fans who stumbled on this article would call me a lot worse), but I don't get the joke.

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MAX IS a self-professed "asshole" who takes great pride in his alleged exploits debasing the unlucky women he comes in contact with.

His book and Web site include accounts of leaving a sex partner naked on the street, calling a thin bartender "Karen Carpenter" when she doesn't seem interested in refreshing his drink quickly enough ("Got that, didn't you, bitch?" he writes), and having a buddy hide in his closet to videotape him having sex with an unsuspecting woman (a felony in some states).

The movie Web site includes a rotating series of "facts": "Fat girls are not real people," "Scott Peterson killed his pregnant wife--but not in a funny way," and "Sexism isn't the same as misogyny, you stupid bitch."

His "rating scale" for women has fat women (who he refers to as "common-stock pigs") at the bottom, naturally. The lowest of the low, he writes, is a fat woman with a "loud" personality. This woman is "generally just so annoying that you have to actively restrain yourself from kicking her in the crotch and stomping on her throat until she drowns on her own blood. There is no insult too mean or crude for her, and basic human rights do not apply to her."

Oh, and Max also proudly uses words like "nigga" and makes jokes about Magic Johnson and AIDS.

Sadly, this frat boy, woman-hating schtick isn't the exception in today's culture. The animated show Family Guy, which prides itself in being off-color and filled with non-sequiturs, had an increasing number of disturbing jokes about rape in recent seasons.

One episode had family patriarch Peter asking a waiter if he could have a record played on the jukebox at a restaurant. In exchange, "I'll let you have sex with my daughter," he tells the waiter. "Okay, I'll do her," says the waiter. "But can you tell her to cry and beg me to stop?" Peter replies, "I think that can be arranged."

And earlier this year, the Seth Rogan movie Observe and Report sparked a minor controversy because of a scene in which Rogan's character rapes a woman who's so drunk and drugged that she vomits. But because the woman briefly rouses from a stupor to mumble words to the effect of "don't stop," all is forgiven. As Entertainment Weekly's Karen Valby reported:

In the theater, where I first watched the movie, the tense audience gave a collective sigh of relief, followed by a wheeze of nervous laughter, when [actress Anna] Faris' character rouses and barks at him to keep at it already. "I think people are laughing because I'm not being full on date-raped," says Faris. "I'm not sure it makes things much better," she says, with an earnest grimace, "but we don't need to go down that road."

It seems, however, like we do need to go down "that road." Having sex with a woman who's that intoxicated is rape--and calling it "date rape," as opposed to just plain "rape," doesn't make it any better.

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DEFENDERS OF Max and his ilk say that people are supposed to laugh at what awful scumbags these guys are. But somehow, the jokes always seem to be at the women's expense in the end.

And woe to them who say they're offended by Tucker Max. It becomes a no-win situation: women who take offense are derided as "humorless (ugly, fat, etc.) bitches who can't take a joke," while women who don't--or are uncertain about saying so out loud--get to laugh along with their own debasement.

When students, including those organized by the group Students Active for Ending Rape, protested speaking engagements by Max at some colleges, Max's followers responded in a particularly grotesque way.

Fans were invited to enter a contest to Photoshop pictures of the protesters. One sign that was made to appear in a woman's hands read, "I'm mad cuz no one will rape me." Another fabricated sign said, "1 in 3 N.C. State women are angry black people."

The men who protested Max were equally derided. A Black male protester had his sign changed to read "Where all the white women at?"

Max and his fans seem to find it odd when other men don't see the humor in degrading women--they're scorned as "wimps" or "queers," because in Max's world, a man that doesn't find degrading women amusing is somehow not a "real" man. Yet the reality is that many men find Max and the sexism he promotes repugnant.

Max responded to the pulling of the bus ads in Chicago by saying in a press release that he's the target of "angry anti-male groups" who are "bullying" the media into furthering "their own agenda and shamelessly exploit[ing] the rape and domestic violence issues to get national attention." He went on to claim, "If my art is misogynist and promotes violence against women, then why are half my fans women?"

This isn't new. Shock-jock Howard Stern trotted out the same claim that he shouldn't be considered sexist if some women laugh at his act. Likewise with Joe Francis, purveyor of the "Girls Gone Wild" videos, and Dov Charney, the CEO of American Apparel and mastermind of the brand's "sexy" ads. Charney has been slapped with at least three sexual harassment lawsuits and admits that he sometimes calls female employees "sluts" because, he says, it's an "endearing term."

I wonder how many women in Max's audience really adore sitting through stories about his sexual conquests, and his degradation and abuse of women. Then again, I don't discount the fact that some women--though hardly the number he claims--might find him amusing.

In a society in which women are bombarded daily with the idea that they are objects, only as good as men judge them to be, some may even get a perverse sense of satisfaction at being "chosen"--to pose with Max as he gropes their breasts, for example--or of showing that they are game enough to "take a joke."

This is less a comment on Max's comedy than on the way society tells women they should be grateful for attention, particularly sexual attention, from men. Some women may choose to embrace a bad situation--by adopting the idea that it's liberating to embrace their own objectification. As Jaclyn Friedman wrote in the Washington Post:

Max girls have worked out that sexual purity is a trap--they've even worked out that there's power to be found in proudly claiming their sexual identity. But they seem to have no idea that they can use that power and still demand respect from men.

Instead, they use the language of female empowerment to rise to Max's defense with comments such as this one, posted in response to a recent column by Amanda Hess in the Washington City Paper: "REAL feminists believe that women should be able to make their own choices...It seems to me that the people against Tucker Max are more at fault of degrading [women] than Tucker Max is."

These Max defenders, however, avoid any discussion of actual feminism, which has argued for decades (if not centuries) that women should be afforded some realistic choices between "virgin" and "slut."

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AT HEART, there's also a nasty elitism to Max's brand of "comedy." He may proudly proclaim that he's an "asshole," but he's an upper-crust asshole.

A graduate of University of Chicago and Duke University Law School, Max frequently takes shots at people he deems are not as "smart" or as "attractive" as him, or who went to (gasp!) state schools. You can feel class hatred oozing out of Max's writing.

While Max might pride himself on pushing buttons and supposedly "going where others won't," he's no Lenny Bruce. As the Washington City Paper showed, his humor isn't provocative, it's lazy and predictable. How original can it be to call a woman a "bitch," a "pig" or a "slut"?

All this is a reflection of a society in which institutional sexism remains pervasive, and women are still far from achieving equality with men.

That such misogyny is largely accepted as a valid form of entertainment is a reflection of the pull to the right in U.S. society since the struggles of the 1960s and '70s. When a growing women's liberation movement was fighting for things like abortion rights, child care and equal pay for equal work, millions of men and women stood up and challenged sexist ideas.

Today, the "new sexism" represented by someone like Max--which is really the same old sexism, packaged in new ways--comes at a time when women are still paid less than men, abortion rights have been severely eroded, and a decades-long attack has led to the gutting of affirmative action programs. Witness, for example, the outcry over the idea that access to abortion might be included in any health care reform legislation (and President Obama's rush to calm those fears).

In a society in which women are very often not allowed the fundamental right to control their own bodies, it's no wonder that more blatant forms of sexism flourish.

In fact, Max's audience sees itself as rebels who defy convention and "political correctness." New York magazine blogger Dan Kois recently interviewed one of Max's fans, a 25-year-old graphic designer, who explained that: "[Max] is a hero to me. The coolest person on the planet. He gives you hope: that you don't have to play by the rules, and you can have fun by doing whatever the hell you want."

As Amanda Hess of the Washington City Paper blog The Sexist wrote:

Some of Max's fans have championed his commitment to women's rights because he believes that "women should be able to make their own choices." Yes--Max believes that women should be allowed to choose just as much crazy drunken sex as he does. Except that when those women choose that path, they are publicly embarrassed, reduced to the size of their vaginas, and literally vomited upon for doing so, while Tucker Max is held up as a hero (albeit a hero who admits, jokingly or not, to hate himself).

But at least thin, white, able-bodied women are allowed that one choice: They can choose not to have sex, and be ignored; or they can choose to have as much sex as they want, and be labeled a "whore." As the Photoshop contest shows, fat women and Black men and women aren't afforded that privilege among Max's fans: their size and race is reason enough to bring on the hate.

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THIS KIND of crap isn't necessarily a direct cause of sexual violence against women, but it does add to a culture in which rape and sexual assault occurs all too frequently.

Approximately one in six women will be a victim of a sexual assault in her lifetime. Last year, there were approximately 89,000 reported forcible rapes in the U.S.--although the Justice Department reports that up to 60 percent of rape and sexual assault cases actually go unreported each year.

And despite what the media might have you believe, both the American Prosecutors Research Institute and Department of Justice have found that false rape claims are not rampant, but are statistically on par with the number of false claims of other crimes--somewhere between 2 and 8 percent.

These are the circumstances in which Max fans are reminded by their "hero" at every opportunity exactly what women are "good for."

The Tucker Max "phenomenon" is a reflection of deep-seated sexism and a symptom of the way in which women's sexuality is seen as existing not as their own to determine, but for the consumption of others.

Despite what Max says about his "art," it promotes a culture of hostility toward women--and not only those who might dare to refuse the advances of men like Max or who don't conform to ideas of how a woman "should" look or behave. It's especially disturbing to note the violent and aggressive tone that Max uses when speaking of women--and the sense of entitlement to women's sexuality and bodies he seems to feel.

Luckily, for now, it looks like Tucker Max's dreams of conquering the movies have been squashed--according to the Web site Gawker.com, the film came in at number eight of the nine movies that opened last weekend.

But that's not good enough. It's still important to find ways to challenge the ideas that Max promotes, whatever the piggish response of him and his fans. The misogyny he spews has real-world consequences, even if it just makes it harder for women trying to get by in a society where they're constantly bombarded with sexist imagery.

Part of that response needs to be rebuilding a fighting women's movement that can take on sexist weasels like Tucker Max, but also demand equal pay for equal work and abortion rights without apology--material gains that can make a difference in women's daily lives.