How Theatre, Film, and TV Can End Sexual Harassment

During Thanksgiving, I was having a conversation with a very liberal family member. He was adamant that he supported and believed women. Then he immediately went on to tell me that women are exaggerating about sexual harassment. We had had this conversation before. I had sent him links with hard data and links with personal stories. “Did you read the links I sent you?” I asked him. “Yes. I still don’t believe it’s as pervasive as women say.” This man says he believes women, then in the next breath says that he knows better than women do what our lives are like.

A very few, very powerful men have been openly accused of sexual harassment by multiple women. A handful have lost their jobs, all of whom were already so fabulously wealthy that they were working for the pleasure of working. After generations of women* having to endure “but is she lying? She’s probably lying” as the men who assaulted them received fabulous power and wealth, we’re just at the very beginning of believing women. 

Yet we’re already seeing the inevitable backlash– men (and a few women) whining about “witch hunts,” the irony of which is jaw-dropping.

We’re already seeing articles worrying about men being fired without “due process,” which, like the first amendment, limits governmental power, not the ability of a company to fire someone. Conservatives have worked hard enough to make every state an “at will” and/or “right to work” state, so they of all people should know that a private company can fire anyone for any reason in most places.

We’re already seeing men hysterically screeching about being “afraid to talk to women at all,” as if you could accidentally grab a woman’s breasts, shove her up against a wall, and stick your tongue down her throat, as if you could accidentally take your penis out in your office.

And we’re already seeing thousands upon thousands of men who, like my relative at Thanksgiving, believe women only in the abstract, but who actually still believe that they know better than women what women’s lives are like, who believe that their opinions about which women’s stories are “real” and which are “exaggerated” should be given more weight than the millions of women saying “this is the truth of our lives.”

How do we make sure this cultural moment doesn’t backslide into the same age-old sexism we’ve endured for centuries?

Like racism, sexism is systemic, and the response must be systemic. We are all complicit in a system that creates and maintains an environment of harassment, and we must all examine both our complicity and the way male privilege works in our lives.

The men in our culture who are not sexually aggressive had to learn that the culture was lying to them, had to learn that the sexual aggression and conquest mentality they saw glorified in every corner of our culture was harmful. They had to learn how to navigate a culture that expected it of them, and that shamed them for not participating.

Those of us who create the various forms of media that have a powerful hand in shaping our culture are uniquely positioned to change that.

In addition to our own individual work examining our own complicity with fearlessness and examining with equal fearlessness the way male privilege works in our lives, we must look at the work we create and the messages we’re sending into the world. 

In no small part, we, as content creators in theatre, film, television, books, advertising, and video games created this.

We produced Oleanna and pretended it was a “balanced view” instead of a sexist takedown. We looked the other way and hired men we knew were harassers, telling women, “Just don’t be alone with him backstage.” We gave those men positions of power and awards. We regularly produced work that showed women as collectible sex objects. We glorified work that shows men pressuring women to have sex, and then shows those women finally giving in and enjoying it, as if caving to relentless pressure is an expression of normal and healthy female sexuality. We used sexual aggression as a joke. We showed women being raped and in the end, enjoying it.

There are countless films, TV shows, plays, and ads that laugh at attempted rape– or actual rape. That show women enjoying rape. Look at old episodes of MASH, where random men literally chasing weeping, frightened women are given laugh tracks, as if it’s hilarious when a woman is fighting off a rapist. Look at Pepé le Pew. Look at Madeleine Kahn’s character in Young Frankenstein. Look at 80s comedy films. And of course it’s not just a thing of the past. Look at this, this, and this.

Look at the much-lauded Stranger Things. Of course the Duffer brothers rewarded Steve’s sexual aggression by depicting Nancy caving and loving it. In these tropes, it’s common for the girl to be shamed if she refuses (“prude”) and shamed if she caves (“slut”). The Duffer Brothers were heralded for “subverting the trope” simply by delaying Steve’s inevitable shaming of Nancy. Of course, Nancy forgives Steve for her public shaming, just as she forgives Jonathan– with a smile– for stalking her. These (now) 33-year-old male writers have a clear message for 16-year-old girls, and it’s “Male sexual aggression should always be rewarded. You secretly like it anyway, so your discomfort isn’t important.” Later, they pressured an underage actress into an unscripted kiss during shooting, then laughed publicly about her discomfort. And we are still rewarding them.

Our culture has relentlessly shown that sexual aggression is rewarded, and that women who complain about it are just humorless killjoys who should relax and enjoy it.

If we want to change the culture, we must stop trivializing sexual assault and rape in the material we create. Of course we can’t do anything about old MASH episodes or Stranger Things. No one is advocating for banning existing properties, although the male hysteria on this topic would make you believe otherwise.

We can effect change by flooding the culture with new work that doesn’t make light of sexual assault, that doesn’t use rape as a way to advance a male narrative, that doesn’t reward men for sexual aggression. We can flood the culture with work that depicts women as human beings with our own stories and motivations, whether we’re the main character or not.

Imagine a romcom that doesn’t frame stalking as romantic. Imagine a horror film that doesn’t objectify women or punish female sexuality. Imagine material that does not require women to always consider male sexual pleasure, even in the midst of a crisis, that does not require women to laugh along when our assault is the butt of the joke, that does not depict sexual aggression as “natural,” “boys being boys,” or what “real men” do.

We must think critically and fearlessly about the work we write and produce. We must refuse to continue supporting work that rewards and valorizes sexual aggression. How many times have you seen two or three young women with no lines, reduced to breasts and asses, draped across a man simply as a marker of his power? How often have you seen a man depicted as exceptionally virtuous and good simply because he didn’t immediately assault a woman he was alone with? How often have you seen rape used to advance a male plotline (NOW HE MUST GET REVENGE), or to transform an “unlikeable” character into a “good” character (HER TRAUMA HAS FOREVER CHANGED HER)? How often have you seen science fiction where all the aliens are visibly male? (And before you say, “But they’re aliens! Those could be females!” they’re all cast with male actors and discussed using male pronouns.) How often have you seen projects where women are shown only as functions of the male characters (as collectibles, prizes, sex objects, impediments)?

Part of the issue is that women directors and writers in TV and film are rare. In theatre, while the numbers are slowly improving, women writers are rarely produced in larger theatres, and women artistic directors in LORTs and producers on Broadway are exceedingly rare. (That’s so well documented, I’m not even bothering to link it.) We have sexist media in large part because you don’t let us in the room, and when you do, we’re shouted down, ignored, and minimized. (And while this particular post focuses on women, these issues are intersectional, and everything I’ve said here is even more egregious for women of color, women with disabilities, women of size, and gender nonconforming people.)

We make culture. We can change it. Let us in the room. Listen to what we have to say. Examine the work you make fearlessly. Don’t cave to nonsense; hold the line against “it’s just a joke,” “she needs to be sexier,” or “she needs to be more likable– soften her character/shorten her skirt/make her younger/give her lines to a man/make her less angry.” Refuse the conventional wisdom that women can’t be more than 2 out of the 5 main characters without losing mainstream appeal and becoming “for women.” Refuse to make sexual assault a cheap plot device or a joke. Refuse to produce work that glorifies or rewards sexual aggression.

As content creators, when we refuse to support the expectation and glorification of sexual aggression, when we create work that shows women as people who are naturally part of the world, not provisionally part of the world as functions of men, we will be changing the messaging of our entire culture. The majority of our cultural messaging is disseminated through the media– through OUR WORK. Change the media, change the culture.

 

*I am using “women” to mean “female-identified people,” not “cisgender women.”

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