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On Rape Jokes and Normalizing Assault

A few people have commented on this part of yesterday’s blog post about sexual assault and excuses:

And then you have the guys who say they’ve never heard such things. Really? Never? As common as sexual assault is in this country, you’ve never heard anyone boasting about a problematic encounter? Never heard anyone glorifying assault, talking about what they could do, what they could get away with? Never heard the jokes about getting women drunk in order to get them into bed rape them?

I have no problem accepting that most people aren’t as blunt, vulgar, and obvious about such remarks as Trump was in that video clip. And I’m obviously not in any position to point out examples in people’s real lives. So instead, I figured I’d list some examples of this kind of boasting, glorification, and normalization from shows most of us are probably familiar with.

Let’s start with Avengers: Age of Ultron, wherein Tony Stark jokes, “I will be reinstituting prima nocta.” For those unfamiliar, prima nocta is the historical right of a lord to have sex with rape any woman he chooses on her wedding night. But it’s not like Tony’s actually boasting about sexually assaulting women, right? It’s just a gross, sexist joke, isn’t it?

So how about the Big Bang Theory, where we see this “hilarious” scene of Howard using a remote control car with a video camera to look up Penny’s skirt. (This is one of many, many problematic examples from that particular show.)

Going back a little further to Friends, there’s an episode where Joey realizes his tailor has been sexually abusing him for years. Laugh track is included to make sure you know how hilarious this is. (There are plenty of other messed-up bits in this show as well, including the “Taking care of a drunk naked woman sounds like a job for Joey” line, followed by Joey starting off to do just that, only to be stopped by Chandler.)

The Harry Potter films never question the fact that Fred and George are selling what are, in essence, a magical date rape drug. When Ron is drugged by a love potion, it’s once again played for laughs, and never challenged or confronted.

How I Met Your Mother had Barney struggling with a Very Serious Problem: “How Can I Have Sex With Robin Again?” His solution? To get her drunk at Ted’s wedding. (This is one of many shows where, if you’ve watched it, then yes, you have heard the jokes about getting people drunk in order to get past their unwillingness to have sex rape them.)

None of these are as blunt and vulgar as Trump’s quote. All of them normalize and minimize sexual harassment and/or assault. They suggest it’s normal for guys to not worry about pesky things like consent. They teach that the proper response to being sexually harassed is laughter and maybe mild, quickly-forgotten annoyance.

I can’t say what people see and hear — or don’t — in their day to day interactions with other people. Some of us are less social and outgoing than others, and hopefully we’ve mostly tried to surround ourselves with decent human beings. But as common and prevalent as this stuff is in our media and our culture, it’s hard for me to imagine never hearing any of it in real life.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.



( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 14th, 2016 05:02 pm (UTC)
I'm a big fan of Aaron Sorkin's work, but re-watches of his shows the past few years since discussion of consent has grown on the internet demonstrated almost all of his TV shows show stalker behavior. One party will say to another: "Leave me alone--I'm not interested," or "I'm not interested anymore" and the other party refuses to stop approaching them, saying over and over again, "You'll change your mind." In the Sports Night there's both a woman refusing to do this with a man, and a man with a woman. In West Wing Charlie "respectfully" refuses to stop trying to be with Zoey. Toby constantly and seriously asks his former wife to marry him again, and tells her he thought she was playing hard to get when she said no. In Studio 60 it's Brad Whitfield chasing his producer despite her repeated "no's". In Newsroom (his most recent, I think) it's not quite as blatant, but as in other shows, characters encourage their co-workers to try to win someone away from their present (apparently) monogamous partner. And in all the instances I named, it worked. The other person gives in and realizes how much they love their stalker, to the obvious delight of their co-workers. As with other examples you gave, non-consent is laughed about and normalized.
Oct. 14th, 2016 05:13 pm (UTC)
I was bothered by all of those interactions on The West Wing, too. I was also appalled by Toby's ex-wife deciding to get pregnant with Toby's children without asking him or even telling him in advance. It's not as if she accidentally stumbled into the fertility clinic and ended up pregnant. Nobody ever mentioned that as an issue, though.
Oct. 14th, 2016 05:18 pm (UTC)
Actually there are a number of episodes where the show explores their ongoing discussion to have children and parent together even though they are no longer married. My understanding is that it was done fully with Toby's consent.

Edited to correct typo.

Edited at 2016-10-14 05:19 pm (UTC)
Oct. 18th, 2016 01:58 am (UTC)
Cosigned. (See also: Sam and Laurie ending in any way other than her kicking him in the nads. Fuck you, Sam.) Sorkin is great with many things, but the beginning stages of romantic relationships are not any of them.
Oct. 14th, 2016 05:07 pm (UTC)
Even Disney channel sitcoms aimed at tweens do this sort of thing. It's a layer deeper because the jokes are all about wanting to date someone unwilling with sex, even kissing, nowhere on the horizon.

And it's not any funnier when the harasser is a girl going after a guy. That happened in only one series that we watched. The rest were all guys going after girls. Generally, the targets were the main characters with the harassers supporting characters who appeared occasionally.

We don't have Disney XD, so I haven't seen much of any of their sitcoms aimed at boys. My impression is that the main characters in Mighty Med do some harassing, but, as I said, I haven't seen much of it.
Oct. 14th, 2016 05:24 pm (UTC)
GOD, I've noticed this. Like, A LOT. My kid loves those sitcoms, and I've had to place a moratorium on some shows, sometimes for their treatment of girls in general, and sometimes because no, harassment isn't any more funny when you're using to make a female character look pathetic (which is so often the case for girl-on-boy harassment), and it's really NOT funny when the message so often is, "keep at it. You can have that girl if just push her hard enough." It makes me long for Babrbie movies, which so seldom have romance as the main plot, or even at all.
Oct. 14th, 2016 05:28 pm (UTC)
Also, in Mighty Med, now Lab Rats Elite Force, it has moved from little-guy-trying-to-get-girl (who is totally out of his league) to actually playing the creep factor for laughs. The boy films the girl without her knowledge, and excuses it with, "I'm a weird guy; we've been over this." The one bright spot is when the girl crushes is phone and says, "I find you creepy; we've been over this." Alas, the predictable happens, and she starts to like him, too. Barf.
Oct. 14th, 2016 08:34 pm (UTC)
I've seen it in at least three Disney tweens sitcoms: Two in ANT Farm (both attracted to the guy who's interested in the main character); one in Austin & Ally (the girl who's interested in the guy is also fat and otherwise "unfeminine"); and at least one in Jessie, which itself is basically "Let's throw a bunch of negative stereotypes in a high-rise apartment in Manhattan and see what happens!" (The character in question is outright referred to as "Creepy Connie".) Conclusion: I watch trash.

On the plus(?) side, Disney also has Gravity Falls, which plays Li'l Gideon's "crush" on Mabel exactly as creepy and manipulative it actually would be in real life*, and blatantly compares twelve-year-old Dipper's crush on sixteen-year-old Wendy to a six-year-old girl's crush on Dipper.

* I'm considerably less comfortable with Mabel's insistence that she owed Gideon an "honest breakup", since what he was trying with her wasn't even close to an honest relationship in the first place, but her turning him down flat when he tried to go for "at least friends" after trying to murder her brother was balm for my soul.
Oct. 14th, 2016 07:35 pm (UTC)
If Trump has done anything good at all (hard to imagine, I know) at least he has made this topic come front and center. That's something, I suppose.
Oct. 14th, 2016 09:44 pm (UTC)
There is a modern working model for things that if some one talks about their experiences in something that appears tangental it's trying to appropriate or derail a conversation. Knowing how this'll look (gay white male speaking in a thread about women), I ask for patience. I normally attempt to connect with things I'm not directly affected by, by way of similar / paraphrasing events in my own life.

When coming out, back in about 94, there were informal polls and studies being done about violence to gay men in Vancouver. In one I remember that close to 89% of gay men under the age of 25 believed that they would be victims of violence. If they had not already been one.

It was common to know, KNOW, that if you entered a bathroom with urinals in a straight space, you needed to be careful. To this day I have mental spasms when I'm in public restrooms. It was known, understood that if I looked sideways, even by accident, straight men had the right to beat me to the point of hospitalization.

How I dressed, knowing that I was going to be out late, knowing which streets to avoid after certain times, always always ALWAYS having taxi money and a ride lined up so I never had to be outside of specific, small safe spaces.

Being asked "who's the wife?" at work. People thinking that "I think he's cute" about a random stranger on the street was transgressive and getting lectures at work about those four words. While people discussed who they fucked and how over the weekend.

The idea that there is a pervasive culture of abuse that we all just ... seep in. And women are inured to, trained by family and society and experience to overlook or minimize or deal with in isolation because anything else is a fault?

Yeah. I have seen it. I've also had tastes of it. Not 1:1, obviously. But enough that I recognize it and am constantly astonished by the number of men who refuse to see.

We've normalized the belief that one set of people have the right to abuse another set of people and the "problem" is if the abused MENTION it. They're ruining the fun.

I genuinely don't know how women do it.
Oct. 15th, 2016 12:49 am (UTC)
I'm so sorry you had to deal with this. And also thank you, thank you, thank you for thinking about how it relates to violence against women.
Susan Bell
Oct. 14th, 2016 09:55 pm (UTC)
Real life bleeding over
My 14 year old son has a friend that has taken all these to heart, and is trying to get a classmate to "date him" and is objectifying her immensely. My guy is creeped out and trying to get him to knock it off, but is just flabbergasted and at a loss for what to say besides repeating over and over "not cool, no matter what you see on TV, you're creeping her out, stop it"

So in case someone is going to read this and say "not a big deal, it doesn't really affect people, is just tv," - it does.

(And I'm just proud to bursting about my 14 year old's behavior)
Oct. 18th, 2016 02:48 am (UTC)
Re: Real life bleeding over
Your son is awesome. :)
Oct. 15th, 2016 12:20 am (UTC)
Yeah, the "love potion" motif is one I've started to side-eye really hard. It's such an ingrained part of folklore, the fact that it amounts to magical roofies tends to slide under the radar -- but when you stop to think about the idea, it gets super-creepy, super-fast.
Oct. 15th, 2016 01:20 am (UTC)
This reminds me of the "classic" television show, All In the Family, which had two separate episodes about rape/attempted rape. The first episode concerning attempted rape involved the character Gloria, the second one was the character Edith the second one occurred on Edith's 50th birthday iirc.

I think you can find the second episode that I'm talking about on YouTube, but it didn't treat rape/attempted rape as lightly as the episode when Gloria was attacked.
Oct. 15th, 2016 04:39 am (UTC)

Rape is a serious thing, it scars you for life and for people to take it lightly or joke about it, is wrong coz it encourages offenders and oppresses the victims

Oct. 16th, 2016 05:25 am (UTC)
I didn't know prima nocta was an actual historical right. I thought it was a story told to explain why a lord had to be paid off whenever someone got married, and also something to accuse one's enemies of practicing, but I might only be thinking of the Middle Ages.
Oct. 17th, 2016 12:10 am (UTC)
I believe the jury's still out on whether prima nocta (aka droit du seigneur) was ever actually practiced anywhere. I think there was at least one country where a law permitting it was technically on the books, but as I recall the current consensus is that it was rarely to never done on grounds of it being a bad idea to tick off the lower classes as badly as that. (Also I suspect that the church would have objected if it were common or overt anywhere in Europe, because that was exactly the sort of thing that the church tended to make a point of objecting to.)

That said, however, whether it was ever actually practiced or not, it definitely exists as a cultural meme that refers to an act of rape, since the whole point is that the woman a) just made marriage vows to someone else whom she might possibly want to be faithful to, and b) doesn't have the power to say no either way.
Oct. 21st, 2016 02:26 am (UTC)
Yeah I was only nitpicking on him calling it a "historical right." I understand that whether it was practiced or not the idea was there because of the culture of exploitation of women and lower classes.
Oct. 17th, 2016 12:19 pm (UTC)
I don't think it's *accurate* history. I'm sure nobles took advantage of people in most ways you could imagine, but I don't imagine it was that specific and codified. (Though it may have been somewhere, but maybe more of a symptom of the problem than a cause.) But that doesn't make any difference to Tony saying it.
Oct. 21st, 2016 02:37 am (UTC)
Oh I know, I don't think it makes a difference either regarding what Tony said either, I was only questioning whether it should be called "historical" when it's so vague and there are plenty of concrete examples of injustices towards women to talk about. (In this case I mainly remember when prima nocta was in discussions about historical inaccuracies in Braveheart, that it's a myth that just won't die because it's so useful in defaming one's enemies.)
Oct. 21st, 2016 12:45 pm (UTC)
Oops, sorry, yes, what you said.
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )


Jim C. Hines


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