Media messages about consent are super problematic.
I recently went to an event and my friend saw a guy she knew, so we went over to greet him. After they finished hugging, she introduced me, and I extended my hand for what I view as the most common and casual greeting upon meeting a new human. As I went in for a handshake, he gestured for a hug.
“No,” I said, and motioned my hand for the shake.
“We can hug! It’s ok!” He said as he went in for the hug again.
“NoIdon’twantto!” I replied in one breath, completely shocking myself.
I had always complained about people who want to hug even though we just met, but I never consciously instructed myself to reject a hug the next time this occurred. In this tiny unexpected moment, I felt SO proud of myself. “Remember that time I told him I didn’t want a hug?!” I giddily asked my friend two seconds after we finished talking to him. She, too, was excited for and proud of me.
This instance, countless conversations with my tabú colleagues, and the #metoo campaign have made me reflect on the messages we receive about consent. Given that over $2 billion has gone toward abstinence-only sex education programs over the last 35 years, we can hardly rely on educational institutions to teach our youth about consent. Then where do they learn? Television and movies. While media’s purpose is entertainment, creators too often ignore the significance of harmful messages being sent to viewers.
Will & Grace
Take Will & Grace for example, a show I have been streaming in chronological order from the beginning and used to watch as reruns in my teenage years. It’s a hilarious show with lovable characters that brought a lot of positive attention to the gay community (note, the original series primarily focused on two cis white men, leaving out diverse portrayals of the larger LGBTQIA+ community). However, the show consistently sneaks in comments about lack of consent, and the audience roars! When the audience roars do we roar, too? I don’t anymore.
In one episode of the series, Grace returns from the doctor and comments on the doctor touching her breasts for non-medical reasons. Unfortunately, this was not a WTF kind of moment pointing out the gross violation that had occurred, but rather one intended for comic relief. In another episode, Grace meets Will’s therapist, who calls her cute and asks her out. It’s clear that Grace likes him too, so they start dating. In Will’s next session, the therapist is clearly agitated about the lack of sexual contact he is having with his new partner, and instead of communicating this with her, he asks Will “how to get Grace in bed.” This is wildly inappropriate on many levels and one of many media examples that teaches young boys and men that you’re supposed to trick or coerce a girl into having sex with you.
Seinfeld, my next sitcom binge, is full of terrible dating advice from clueless, ridiculous men. A lot of it is intentional humor and a way to mock themselves, but they regularly focus on the physical contact that women “owe” them based on society’s rules of dating. In Jerry’s intro stand-up bit for an episode called The Shoes, he jokes about the “sexual rulebook” that needs to be created when a man and woman start dating.
The basic problem with the beginning of the relationship, I think, is that each person has their own sexual timetable of what should happen when, that the other person knows nothing about. That’s why I really think we need some sort of sexual rulebook, where it’s written down and agreed upon - sexual, standard, dating procedure. Know what I mean? So if there’s any problems, you can go ‘look, honey, I’m very sorry, but we’ve been out three times and according to Article 7, Section 5, there’s gotta be physical contact, as you can see. Otherwise, I will report you to the board, and they can put out a warrant for embrace.
The problem with this “sexual standard” is that it leaves out the principle that consent is changeable. This means that even if a woman said at 7pm that she would have sex at 10pm, she is not obligated to do so. If she decides she doesn't want to have sex when 10pm rolls around, she should not be forced or guilted into having sex based on the previous “agreement.” While this bit is meant for a laugh, the implications behind it are anything but funny. Rather than a rigid rulebook, we should more actively communicate with our partners to discuss sexual preferences (including frequency), remaining mindful that things can change and being respectful of that. How else can you keep things exciting?
Another show with problematic messages that comes to mind is Friends. While I have not recently watched the hit show, I would be remiss not to mention it. In The One With Ross' New Girlfriend, Joey recommends Chandler get his pants fixed at his family’s tailor who he has been using for 12 years. Chandler comes back distraught saying “your tailor is a very bad man” and describes how he measured his inseam and then “there was definite cupping.” Joey thinks this is standard practice, exclaiming, “that’s how they do pants!” and when Ross and Chandler finally convince him that it is certainly not standard practice, he sits down to process the fact that he was sexually molested as a child. Meanwhile, this whole scene is accompanied by a hysterical audience, rather than more appropriate sounds of dramatic music that reveal how serious of an issue this is. As we know from the devastating Larry Nassar case and countless others like it, people in positions of authority abuse their power/position by assaulting vulnerable individuals under the guise of performing their employment duties.
The pervasive messages surrounding sexual assault have been consistent across time periods — that women are objects playing hard to get so you have to keep pushing, that survivors who report just want attention, that men can only be perpetrators of sexual violence and never victims, that sexual assault is just “regret.” These messages are reinforced through comedic television plot lines that make harassment and assault the butt of the joke, never of course acknowledging the actions as such (because sexual trauma isn’t great for laughs).
We often disregard the inappropriate jokes made on older television shows like the ones mentioned above saying they are simply outdated and a “reflection of the time.” Yet, these themes still exist across modern-day television shows and many of these older shows are now available for streaming. No matter how many reboots we have, no one is going back to the original episodes to change the messages about sexual assault that are played off with a laugh track.
So, what can we do?
In my ideal world, old sitcoms would be like “pop-up Brady,” which was when Nick@Nite aired episodes of the Brady Bunch with the Pop-Up Video treatment, with fun trivia facts. In Pop-Up Consent (working title), shows would air on their regular channels and schedules, or streaming platform, but with pop-ups that call out inappropriate statements and why they’re wrong. Netflix and Hulu, we can help you out!
In the meantime, we can actively call out examples of harassment and assault while watching with friends and family (or randos in your dorm). You might not want to be “that person,” but isn’t it better to possibly prevent real-life assault by helping someone understand that certain “funny” behaviors are unacceptable? I would rather be annoying than complicit.
Social media is another place we can make a change. We need more geniuses like the humans who have blessed us with #WokeCharlotte, which takes scenes from Sex and the City that use problematic language and replace it with Charlotte responding in a politically correct manner, effectively schooling everyone.
Perhaps it’s time for some #ElaineSplains…
Header image edited by Marcy Gooberman