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22 September 2017updated 05 Aug 2021 10:35am

How TV comedies are exposing the rape culture in their own industry

From Master of None to Girls to One Mississippi, TV comedies have become the best place to go for nuanced, victim-first discussions of abusers in entertainment.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

In the first episode of the second season of Tig Notaro’s semi-autobiographical comedy One Mississippi, released on Amazon Video this month, the conversation turns unexpectedly heavy. It’s “Great Americans Day” in Biloxi, and radio host Tig (Notaro) and her producer Kate (Stephanie Allynne) are having a meandering on-air chat that turns to discussions of being “almost molested”.

Kate recounts memories of inappropriate attention and touching from hockey coaches, camp counsellors and high school teachers as though it is simply par for the course for any adolescent girl. “I just thought of them as gross people,” she shrugs. “And they are!” Tig insists. “They’re gross people. They’re not Great Americans, that’s for sure.”

But what happens when Great Americans, or society’s most celebrated, are also the gross people? Accusations of sexual misconduct have been levelled at an astonishing number of Great Americans: from Woody Allen to Bill Cosby to Casey Affleck to R Kelly. And the entertainment industry seems to have a particular problem with sexual harassment: celebrities including Zoe Kazan, Rose McGowen, Kesha, Ashley Judd, Taylor Swift have all come forward with allegations of sexual assault from senior industry professionals.

Just last week, Amber Tamblyn wrote an op ed for the New York Times about her multiple experiences of harassment over a 20 year period by various prominent men, from television producers to other actors. “What I have experienced as an actress working in a business whose business is to objectify women is frightening,” she writes. “It is a famous man telling you that you are a liar for what you have remembered.”

Though women are increasingly taking brave steps to come forward about their experiences, the nexus of power, fame and rape culture makes sexual harassment in Hollywood particularly difficult to talk about – as Tamblyn herself notes, writing, “I have been afraid of speaking out or asking things of men in positions of power for years.”

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Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that so many creators are turning to semi-autobiographical dramas in order to fictionalise their experiences into something more general. But the unexpected result is that TV comedies have become the best place to go for nuanced, victim-first discussions of how threatening men in the entertainment industry use their power and prestige to manipulate and humiliate the women they work with, and to push their misdemeanours under the carpet.

Sexual harassment becomes an ongoing theme in the second season of One Mississippi after Kate is assaulted again. This time it’s by her boss, Jack (Timm Sharp), who masturbates during a private meeting with her. It’s a plotline that’s caused particular media interest thanks to its similarities to allegations against a real high-profile man in comedy: Louis CK. CK has been accused of masturbating in front of non-consenting women, and Tig Notaro herself has publicly called on him to address the accusations. To add another layer of difficulty, CK is also an executive producer on One Mississippi, though Notaro claims “he’s never been involved” with the show.

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Even putting this context aside, the One Mississippi plotline makes for disturbing viewing. Jack appears early on in the second series, fawning over Kate and Tig’s show from the start. He seems nice enough, if displaying creeping body language towards Kate at bars. When Tig asks if there’s a vibe between them, Kate insists she’s not interested: “He’s just… very male.” When the scene in question actually happens, Jack asks Kate to close the door and has a brief 30 second conversation with her about a pitch, making off comments about potentially travelling with her to New Zealand, before masturbating under the desk. Kate realises slowly what’s happening, stumbling over her words and looking at the floor.

Filmed from behind her shoulder, the back of Kate’s head and her lowered eyelashes are in focus, while Jack’s embarrassing fumbling is blurred – centring the action firmly on Kate’s discomfort. It’s a deeply upsetting scene, one that leaves no doubt about the reality of what’s happened to Kate, but is far from sensationalised or titillating. It’s just four bland office walls, a door slid shut, and a pathetic loser in a blue polo shirt furiously masturbating beneath a desk. Somehow, it leaves you with a burning sense of shame.

The rest of the episode sees Kate and Tig struggle to deal with what’s happened. When they confront Jack himself, he denies it. “I don’t know what you think you saw, but you definitely didn’t see me masturbating,” he says. “I was probably just scratching myself. Shoot me, I have jock itch!”

When they turn to Jack’s own boss, hoping Jack will be fired, he makes vague promises of an internal discussion with HR and weakly says, “There were rumours. I just thought, ‘They can’t be – he’s so progressive!’” (Ding ding ding!) Jack isn’t fired, and Tig stops just short of naming and shaming him on air, but simply says, “I am really mad at a co-worker for doing something. I guess I can’t really go in to it. But I hate not being able to talk to about this kind of situation.”

When asked if her scene was based on real life, Notaro told The Hollywood Reporter, “it’s not not happening”. She added that Jack’s actions coming as surprise are “what’s common with these predators”: “It’s not just some weird person walking around naked under a trenchcoat, hiding in your bushes. It’s not a cartoon. This is real life.”

CK has tackled sexual assault in his own semi-autobiographical comedy, Louie, but here it feels less victim-focused, and less honest about the kind of trauma such incidents leave behind. In the episode “Pamela 1”, Louie assaults and seemingly attempts to rape his long-term friend Pamela. It’s a violent, deeply uncomfortable scene. Before the act is even over, the script begins to retrospectively downplay it. “This would be rape if you weren’t so stupid,” Pamela insists. But Louie explains that he knows she wants it really: “You said you wanted to do something with me, and I don’t believe that the ship has sailed. For some reason you can’t, so I’m going to take control and I’m gonna make something happen.” She mutters, “Maybe, I dunno.”

As the season continues, the assault is glossed over as another stepping stone to their romance. As Emily Nussbaum at The New Yorker puts it, “that queasy, barely acknowledged incident becomes just one step in their sadomasochistic tango, a flirtation that ends with the two cranky lovers in an overflowing bathtub, committing to love.” CK is also about to release his own project about celebrity sexual assault: a Woody Allen-referencing film vomit-inducingly named I Love You Daddy.

Notaro’s not alone in tackling the issue in this way. Earlier this summer, the second season of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None surprised its audience with a dramatic reveal about a friendly character’s sordid actions. Dev (Ansari) first meets the Great American TV Personality Chef Jeff (Bobby Cannavale) in a gorgeous Italian with blue velvet sofas. Jeff flatters him with delicious complimentary food, hilarious anecdotes, and a bottle of expensive champagne. He invites him to a swanky dinner party, where they’re serenaded by John Legend on piano.

Jeff and Dev soon become friends, and start production on a show together on “FoodTV”: BFFs (Best Food Friends). He’s polite and charming. There are few warning signs, other than a couple of comments about women that are less than 100 per cent respectful. He warns Dev to “be careful” around his beautiful friend Francesca, who he mistakes as “your cute girlfriend”. Of Lisa, a make-up artist he says simply, “You need to get with that.”

It’s not until Dev meets up with a friend for a drink that he learns there’s something off about Jeff. “I’d be careful with that guy,” the friend tells him. “I’ve heard through the grapevine that Chef Jeff is, uh, a little bit of a creep”. Dev then hears from Lisa that Jeff has intimidated her and stalked her, to the point where she “didn’t feel safe working with him any more”. When she tried to alert FoodTV bosses, she was told, “He’s a flirty touchy-feely guy, that’s just the way he is.”

Lisa explains clearly that the inaction of others and their failure to support her is part of the problem: “He’s probably doing fucked up shit to other people too, but what am I gonna do? Sue FoodTV? Have it take over my entire life?” Dev does nothing, and continues working with Jeff. It soon blows up after Lisa comes forward to a blog, and 13 other women follow suit. #ChefJeffIsAPerv trends on Twitter, and the whole thing culminates in an excruciating scene on live TV. Jeff staunchly denies the allegations, accusing the women as after “15 minutes” and “money”.

Master of None’s portrayal, based on a personal experience of Ansari’s, feels nuanced in its attention to the way prominent harassers can charm everyone around them to create a culture of silence – even, shock horror, among nice, empathetic people. It feels significant that Dev, who is in many ways the moral heart of the show, fails to act, and is complicit in covering up Jeff’s actions; continuing his career at the expense of others, like Lisa’s.

“It’s really shitty for Dev to do nothing,” co-writer Alan Yang notes of the plotline, “but we also didn’t want him to be a white knight and swoop in and save Lisa and report it, and he’s a hero. That seemed so wrong to us.”

BoJack Horseman’s 2015 episode “Hank After Dark” has its own Chef Jeff: Hank Hippopopalous, or “Uncle Hanky”. Like Jeff, he’s a beloved and much-awarded TV personality that no one wants to believe could be capable of harassing female members of his staff. We never know exactly what crime he’s meant to have committed, but it has the whiff of the Cosby allegations or the Letterman scandal (“all of his former assistants have made the same allegation”) and a whole series of similar celebrities are name-checked as emerging unscathed from similar claims: “Mike Tyson, or Sean Penn, or Josh Brolin, or Christian Slater, Woody Allen, Bill Murray…”

There’s a culture of disbelief around what Hank’s accused of – after BoJack’s ghostwriter Diane Nguyen brings the allegations into the public eye, a series of journalists and other TV personalities scrutinise and belittle her claims. High-profile editors fail to look into the allegations properly because “these kinds of stories… they don’t sell magazines.” Even Diane’s husband (who, like Dev with Chef Jeff, is just starting to star on TV show alongside Hank – they even do a similar back-to-back photoshoot) encourages her to stop publicly discussing the allegations. Hank himself never takes responsibility for what he’s done, and escapes punishment.

“American Bitch” is Girls’s claustrophobic and clammy exploration of celebrity sexual assault accusations that aired this February. Hannah (Lena Dunham) goes to the plush New York home of what is clearly a very famous writer – a Great American Novelist, even – named “Chuck Palmer” (Matthew Rhys). “I had no idea novelists could make this much money,” she says, taking in his apartment.

She’s there because she’s written a blog amplifying the voices of four different women who have accused Palmer of taking advantage of them sexually. Chuck denies doing anything other than having consensual sex with some women he met on his book tour.

For the full half-hour episode, Hannah and Chuck debate. Chuck clearly sees himself as a victim: his personal life has been invaded, everyone is wrongly certain of his guilt, he can’t sleep, he has nightmares about his daughter discovering the allegations online. Meanwhile, Hannah stands up for the girls who claim Chuck assaulted them, adding her own experience as a victim of sexual assault to the discussion to try and help him to understand.

Chuck repeatedly interrupts Hannah to ask sarcastic, aggressive questions like, “Did I put a gun to her head? Did I offer her a job?” and, even, “How does one give a non-consensual blowjob?” His understanding of the complexities of consent is, clearly, minimal at best. But he charms Hannah by complimenting her intelligence, her wit, and her writing. At several points Hannah seems persuaded by his arguments. She clearly admires his work and his status, and they bond over Philip Roth.

Chuck eventually asks Hannah to lie down on the bed with and when she does, he unzips his fly, rolls towards Hannah, and flops his dick onto her thigh. Like in One Mississippi, it’s hardly a titillating sight, merely pathetic and embarrassing. Still, Hannah surprises even herself when she touches it, panics, and tries to leave.

It’s a subtle build of an episode that explores how easy it is to be drawn into the lies of the powerful and charismatic, and to find yourself doing things you’re uncomfortable with – like touching a stranger’s penis and five minutes later watching his daughter play the flute like nothing even happened. The episode, with its stories of women being disbelieved in different accounts of assault, is as much about the culture of silence as it is the assaults themselves. Again, it feels like a story drawing on the real world of celebrity rape culture.

Judd Apatow’s 2016 Netflix comedy Love also skirts near the topic when Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) has a run-in with her boss, therapist-cum-radio host known to all as “Dr Greg” (Brett Gelman). He’s unlikeable right off the bat – overly sincere and too interested in Mickey: laughing too hard at her jokes, dropping in comments like “We have fun together, don’t we?” and “Wow, life is so crazy right? You’re not dating anyone, I’m not dating anyone… Maybe we should both quit!”

Mickey is immediately convinced it won’t end well, citing earlier experiences. “If he flirts with me and I don’t flirt back, in like eight weeks, I’m going to spill a coffee in a meeting and he’s gonna fire me. It’s happened before.”

Dr Greg turns out to be less of a creep than originally expected. But he is, of course, still guilty of the crime of making a woman employee uncomfortable at work by hitting on her and telling her how much he likes sex in the middle of their office. “Let me tell you something,” he says, utterly aghast at Mickey’s assumptions about him. “I am just a man.”

All of these comedies form part of a long tradition of insider-y, meta work from Hollywood professionals, from Singin’ In The Rain, to A Star Is Born to La La Land. But while films like this explore the hypocrisy and ruthlessness of the movie industry, these TV shows turn their critical eye specifically towards Hollywood’s “gross people”. By focusing on women’s experiences of the entertainment industry they are able to investigate a different, universal harsh reality: a world where women are assaulted, humiliated and disbelieved by powerful men, simply because they can.

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