How TV is Navigating the #MeToo Movement

Episodes tackling sexual assault and harassment have officially become a thing.

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Mar 27 2019, 12:59pm

Screencaps courtesy 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine' and 'High Maintenance

As society continues to peel back the layers of misogyny that have been preventing gender justice since the dawn of time (or at least since the emergence of the patriarchy, roughly 12,000 years ago), we’re starting to see more and more of our favourite TV-shows weigh-in on sexual harassment and misconduct, specifically in the workplace. In other words, #MeToo episodes have become a thing.

Typically I am wary of things that become things because when something gets inflated to the point of trend, there’s often a great deal of bandwagoning that happens, which can distance the thing from its integrity and original importance. So when I began to see #MeToo storylines teased for upcoming seasons of my favourite TV shows, I was worried. Not because I didn’t want to see #MeToo talked about on screen—that type of silence can be poisonous, and TV writers have, I believe, a degree of social responsibility to comment on these issues—but I just didn’t know if they would get it right. I was nervous that TV would package messy, difficult stories into tidy narrative arcs, stripping them of necessary weight and nuance.

But for the most part, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, High Maintenance, Jane the Virgin, and The Bachelor (oh, yes) have been tackling the #MeToo movement relatively effectively, bringing together their seemingly disparate viewerships ( The Bachelor’s target demo is painfully conservative; High Maintenance’s is anything but) for the sake of an important, global dialogue. And as much as pointing out every little flaw would have given me a fat ego rush, I just couldn’t do it. So instead, I’ve compiled a list of common missteps people make when discussing #MeToo, followed by how these TV shows have skillfully avoided said missteps.

Portraying Women as a Completely United Force Incapable of Disagreement

Women supporting women is good stuff. But sameness of gender doesn’t equal sameness of opinion, and assuming that women are part of some monolithic Woman Consciousness that operates smoothly and without conflict, steadfast in its determination to fell the patriarchy once and for all, is a gross oversight. Women are diverse, and we think in diverse and often dissimilar ways (just like any other population of people) which is why I was delighted to see detectives Amy Santiago and Rosa Diaz disagree over the proceedings of a sexual assault case in a recent Brooklyn Nine-Nine episode.

After hearing both sides of a “he said, she said” involving a broken-dicked finance bro, Seth, and his co-worker, Keri (Seth claims that Keri bludgeoned his penis with a golf club over a work disagreement; Keri says the act was done in self-defense), Amy encourages Keri to press charges, even though Keri has been offered $2.5 million by the finance company to stay quiet. When Rosa hears that Amy is pressuring Keri to refuse the hush-money and “pursue justice,” Rosa takes a minute to remind Amy what is personally at stake for Keri.

“Let’s just say, best case scenario you do find evidence [against Seth],” says Rosa. “She’s still going to have to go through a very public trial where they drag her name through the mud. Even if she wins, she loses. It’s two steps forward, one step back.”

“Yeah, but when one person comes forward it inspires others to speak up…” Amy argues.

The crux of their argument is that even though there might be a clear right course of action in a societal context, right becomes a lot murkier when taking into account what’s personally at stake for a victim. Chances are she won’t be believed, and she’ll probably lose her job, some friends, her “good” reputation, etc. It’s easy—but problematic—to get on your soapbox and say, “just do what’s right” when you’ve nothing to lose personally, and that’s what this episode demonstrates so well.

And in case you’re wondering, Keri did decide to press charges, and she won her case. (An unlikely outcome, but this is a sitcom and we love happy endings.) She also quit her job—on her own terms, though, and after realizing the company was full of toxic bros and she could do better.

Exploiting Trauma for the Sake of ‘Good TV’

ABC’s Bachelor franchise has a troublesome tradition of conflating vulnerability with trauma-disclosure. It seems that no contestant can have a meaningful relationship with the lead unless they have “opened up” on camera, which usually boils down to a confession of divorced parents or an ex who cheated on them—the type of stuff conservative folks may view as “serious baggage.” But every now and then a contestant chooses (or is prompted by the production team) to discuss something seriously tragic or dark from their past. The problem with this? On the heels of these trauma-disclosures may very well be a bikini skiing contest or a K-pop concert in which contestants must perform as back-up dancers. Having these emotionally heavy moments next to gimmicky group dates or drunken yell-offs always feels...off.

And so when this season’s Caelynn Miller-Keyes decided to tell Bachelor Colton Underwood about the time she was drugged and sexually assaulted in college, I felt my stomach drop. I feared that Caelynn’s brutal story (two men had sex with her and her friends while they were unconscious) would be reduced to a dramatic plot point, played off like, “aw, that’s too bad, now let’s go bungee jumping!” Surprisingly this is not what happened. Caelynn’s honest discussion of the assault, victim-blaming, self-loathing, and the difficulties of seeking justice afterward made for the most nuanced, culturally-relevant discussion I have ever seen on a show that often feels frozen in time.

“[That night] is something that will always be a part of me.” Caelynn said to Colton. “It’s the most difficult thing in the world. It’s so painful and it screws up every ounce of you.” In a later episode she added, “It's not one episode on The Bachelor, it's not a hashtag. It truly is a movement."

After Caelynn’s initial discussion of the incident, the show cut to a PSA for RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) in what felt like an appropriate show of support for survivors. Thanks for not screwing this up, ABC. More importantly, thanks to Caelynn for bringing the #MeToo conversation to fluffy, conservative television, a space where sexual assault is rarely discussed.

Villainizing All Relationships With Authority Figures

People are going to date their professors and sleep with their bosses. And while I’m certainly not arguing in favour of more TV involving turbid love affairs between doe-eyed high schoolers and teachers who love literature, because gross, I also don’t want to see relationships with embedded power imbalances be universally condemned without nuance.

“Chapter Seventy-Five” of Jane the Virgin nicely demonstrates the complexities of dating a so-called superior. In the episode, Jane visits the university where she attended grad school, only to catch sight of her former prof, also her former lover, kissing a young woman who is clearly a student. The sighting causes Jane to rethink her fling with the prof, which, although completely consensual, now suddenly seems “skeezy” in light of the fact that this guy has a type: students.

“It’s weird,” Jane tells her boyfriend/baby daddy, Raphael, afterwards. “I didn’t think he took advantage of me at the time—I had a huge crush on him, and I went after him—but knowing that he’s slept with all these grad students, it just reframes everything.”

Raphael agrees that the situation feels icky and that student-teacher relationships are full of “intense power dynamics.”

“But we dated when I was your employee,” Jane counters.

“You were accidentally inseminated with my child!” Raphael justifies. (Long story.)

“So was I the only employee you ever dated?”

“No,” Raphael confesses. “I took advantage of [my position], but I’m a different person now.”

“I know,” Jane says, and fans of the show will know it’s true: Raphael has changed. He’s a good dude and a supportive partner to Jane. So in addition to blurring the lines between what’s OK and what’s creepy in relationships that contain (or used to contain) a power imbalance, Jane the Virgin also makes a point about the redemption of former power-mishandlers. As in, redemption is possible, but under what circumstances? And what is the difference between a misguided action—committed out of ignorance as opposed to malintent—and outright cruelty? Does that difference even matter? I’d argue that it does, but only to a point. As our understanding of consent deepens, “I just didn’t know” becomes a weaker and weaker excuse. But how liberally can we apply this excuse to our past selves, or to the past selves of men we love(d)? The answer is circumstantial, individual, and never easy to parse.

Tearing Down People Who Don’t Hate the Accused

When all the Louis C.K. shit went down, I was both surprised and moved to see Sarah Silverman stand up on her TV show, “I Love You America,” and say, “I love Louis. But Louis did these things. Both of these statements are true.” As in, it is possible to love someone who fucked up. Sarah wasn’t defending Louis; she was saying there’s a difference between a person who commits monstrous acts, and a person who’s a monster. It’s much easier to hate someone when you don’t know them personally.

The most recent season of HBO’s High Maintenance—the best show on TV, in my opinion—grapples with how tricky it can be to pass judgement on somebody who has aligned themselves with the offender in a sexual assault case. Consider the following conversation, in which The Guy and his ex-wife, known as Scromple, discuss how they feel about the ex-wife of a recently-disgraced actor:

“I’m not saying that I don’t like [his ex-wife],” says Scromple. “I think it’s a little weird that she defended him. That’s all I’m saying.”

“Yeah, but you and I both know that’s a tricky situation,” says The Guy.

“Absolutely. No one’s saying anything to the contrary.”

“She left him.”

“After she made excuses for his behavior. That’s all I’m saying.”

“The heart wants what it wants. Oh, that’s a Woody Allen quote. Whoops.”

If you don’t know whose side you’re on in this conversation, that’s a good thing. This conversation is full of grey area and asks us to consider the (potential) difference between defending an abuser and condoning their actions. What if, for example, the ex-wife was manipulated into defending her husband to the press? We just don’t know. And I think it’s a testament to the show’s writing staff that they don’t reveal all the specifics of the situation. Because in real life, we often don’t get a clear picture, either.

Pigeonholing the Range of Behaviors We Understand as Harmful

Most of us understand that rape is a heinous crime worthy of punishment. But the #MeToo movement is about more than outright sexual violence; it’s about our culture’s continued tolerance of a range of behaviors that make women feel unsafe or, at the very least, uncomfortable. Once again I’ll tip my hat to the writers of Brooklyn Nine-Nine for addressing this aspect of the movement so well, in a montage that demonstrates, quite hilariously, how Jake and Amy are treated differently in identical public scenarios. For example, when Jake picks up his coffee from a street vendor, the vendor tells him to “have a great day.” When Amy picks up her coffee from the same vendor, he says, “You have a beautiful mouth. Have a great day.” This bizarre non-compliment causes me to ponder: why do some men think that, in straying from a more direct “you’re hot,” they are somehow subverting the “guy who hits on woman and makes her uncomfortable” trope? Creativity doesn’t absolve creepery.

Failing to Make a ‘BoJack Horseman’ Reference

I have reached the end of my list and so you may be wondering, “where is the part about the brilliance of BoJack Horseman on #MeToo?” Well, the truth is I have yet to watch this show and I didn’t want to write about it under false pretenses. And yes, I have already been labelled by friends as “not totally a person yet” for failing to BoJack binge, and so don’t worry about sliding into my Twitter DMs to tell me that. I’m aware. I’ll watch it. Can’t wait.

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