Television as courtroom, caution, catharsis, and a means to ask the question; how many women?
With the news currently boiling over with stories of sexual assault, rape, and abuse by people in power across industries, be it entertainment, religious institutions, or politics, safe spaces in media consumption are of prime importance in order for individual and collective healing to be possible. Cavalier treatments towards victims of abuse have for decades, created cultural echo chambers where (mostly) powerful men are given passes and platforms, furthering the trauma of survivors, both directly and indirectly affected.
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Be it screentime, paychecks, or credit, the public eye has been manipulated into accepting gender disparity, but it is behind the curtains, the big screen, and the box office that the most sinister manifestation of this power imbalance lies. What #MeToo did, as a movement was bring about national — and even to this day — international discourse surrounding consent, male privilege, representation, power, and success.
Granted, there are various debates on where the movement stands on the ethics of judgment, traditional senses of legality, and the need for intersectional representation. #MeToo made a courtroom of the Internet. The legal process for sexual assault in lots of cases can enter into a grey area that questions victims on subjects like clothing, inebriation, and a blurred line of consent. For some women, social media seemed to provide them more justice than any ruling possibly would. It became a platform for survivors to name and shame their abusers, some of whom were falsely accused. Many men, over the years since the movement’s path-breaking start have been held accountable online and offline, sending shockwaves through all leading industries and demanding a call to action.
It is in this fraught context that small screens and OTT platforms offer Hollywood a shot at redemption.
Before the #MeToo movement, most depictions of sexual assault, its trials, and tribulations, were either inaccurate or triggering, and victims were oftentimes denied all agency from narratives surrounding their experiences. The last few years, however, have seen an increase in more nuanced, tender, and compassionate storytelling of sexual assault. The removal of graphic violence from these narratives, after years of male writers like Dan Weiss and David Benioff of Game of Thrones; subjecting audiences to rape scenes, was central to this transformation, as were the women behind the camera. More female casts, writers, and directors have begun to occupy space and sometimes even tell their own stories. The entertainment space has become a mosaic of personal accounts and memoirs of sexuality, just as the #MeToo movement had been for women demanding justice.
From shows like I May Destroy You to The Morning Show, here are some ways Hollywood television and streaming platforms have reconfigured its treatment of women, sex and sexual abuse, post #MeToo.
The Morning Show
Despite its shortcomings, The Morning Show accurately portrays the complex dynamics of sexual relationships at the workplace. It upholds years of feminist research that proves how sexual harassment has never had anything to do with love or lust, but everything to do with the iteration of establishing power over another. The co-host of The Morning Show is Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell). Kessler is fired on grounds of sexual misconduct.
The series provides an insight into Kessler’s thoughts; he cannot think of himself as a predator, but rather, sees himself as a victim of the movement, “since the dawn of time, men have used their power to attract women, and now let’s bust Mitch Kessler’s head over it!” he remarks. In another instance, he says, “when they fixate on us, they lose sight of the issues”. However, when Dick (Martin Short) recounts the horrific acts he committed against women, casually remarking that “there is nothing sexy about consent”, Kessler is disgusted and believes that he belongs to the “second wave” of accused – the less severe, the ‘non-rapist’ as if there exists some kind of hierarchy.
In one of the show’s episodes, Charlie Black (Mark Duplass) states, “I’ll say it – we’re being too fast to judge men in the court of public opinion. I agree with you. The whole #MeToo movement is probably an overcorrection for centuries of bad behaviour that more enlightened men like you and me had nothing to do with.” Critics have slammed the series for being glossy and superficial, but its telling portrayal of the #MeToo milieu is refreshing in that it does not glorify or rationalise. Granted, the show’s dispassionate treatment of its characters, with a better vantage point of the accused than that of the victim, is questionable. However, its verisimilitude invites the audience to understand the complexities of sexual misconduct at the workplace.
In a similar vein, BoJack Horseman, challenges its audience to plumb the depths of a wrongdoer’s psyche. BoJack (Will Arnett), a has-been sitcom star who suffered emotional abuse as a child, is seen drunk and high, making terrible decisions and retroactively evading any responsibility. This show too explores power dynamics in the entertainment industry, where BoJack’s relationship with women, reveals an undeniable pattern of abuse. He may not have violently forced himself on women, but he used the power of his fame to establish superiority. The Hollywood system betrays him and leaves him with dire consequences.
The final episode suggests that BoJack can pay penance, if not achieve true redemption—an interesting outcome, considering celebrity perpetrators being forced onto the brink of cancellation. “BoJack Horseman” does not employ a sympathetic lens but offers a look into a moment of comeuppance.
Uber-young and uber-talented Joe Swanberg’s anthology series Easy, follows the lives of diverse Chicago characters navigating the complex maze of sex and love in the culturally heightened and hyperaware reality of the modern moment. With episodes under 30 minutes, the show is structured as a series of vignettes and despite noteworthy competition, it takes the cake as one of the most sex-positive shows on television, featuring some of the biggest names in Hollywood – Orlando Bloom, Malin Akerman, Jake Johnson, Marc Maron, Dave Franco, Hannibal Buress and Emily Ratajkowski, to name a few. Even if some episodes don’t explicitly show it, every story ties back to sex in the most general sense of the word; sex as awkward, sex as transitory, sex as intimacy, sex as transcendental connections between people.
Escaping the ‘steamy’ category on Netflix, the show succeeds in its ability to draw connections between the theme of sex and those of conflict (like in ‘Lady Cha Cha’), power (like in ‘Side Hustle’) and resolution (like in ‘Open Marriage’) in a manner that is gentle and thoughtful, allowing each character monopoly over their own story with zero judgement in matters of sex, autonomy and self-discovery. The refrain across ‘Easy’s’ seasons also marks the tone of the show – people express themselves sexually in different ways and so long as there is consent, novelty and freedom, that’s okay. In Easy, the characters aren’t variables in a story about threesomes. They’re just people trying to figure it out.
Shows like Fleabag, Insecure, Derry Girls, Big Little Lies and Chewing Gum, with either strong female leads or primarily female casts, explore sex, sexuality, and sexual agency outside of their character development, in quiet moments, frenzied rage and explosive ecstasies. Relationships, be it between spouses, at the workplace, one-night-stands, or old lovers, are all treated with humour, complexity, and the kind of nuance that makes these stories credible. Intimacy has been rediscovered, re-evaluated, and reconfigured, no longer being molded to satiate the male gaze.
Normal People and Euphoria are also shows that explore physical and emotional intimacy in a way that comes closest to the real thing. Sex is real – messy, uncomfortable and if the stars are somehow aligned, great, but the camera has shifted in its ability to capture more than just the physical and more than just the naked female body.
Big Mouth is a raunchy comedy about the perils of puberty erupts with dirty jokes and inappropriate humour. Its careful treatment of bourgeoning sexuality and heterosexual coming-of-age, however, is applaudable. It is tender and less about changing bodies, than about learning that there is no right path towards healthy sexuality, most things about sex are confusing, toxic and oftentimes, politically erroneous. Centred around teenagers Nick Birch (played by Nick Kroll), Andrew Glouberman (played by John Mulaney), and Jessi Glaser (Jessi Klein), as they navigate sex, puberty, and growing pains, the show humours conversations that cut to the core of teenage angst and what it means to be “tangled in knots sexually.” (Spoiler alert; blue balls? Fake news).
Big Mouth is one such show that proves how a comedy about sex does not require violence or the excusing of it. What the small screen success does, is approach sex jokes in a way that is educational.
Without being preachy, politically correct or high-handish, the show sheds much-needed light on consent, communication and sexual well-being. With episodes on Planned Parenthood, sex misconceptions, and body positivity, Big Mouth captures every moment of squeamish discomfort and turns it into something great.
Too much media has been wasted on ‘adult’ shows that reinforce rape culture, make a mockery of real conversations to be had about sex, be it among younger or older audiences. There is enough humour in the nuances of sex to be able to make a comedy out of it and this show is evidence that there is room for sex education in explicit content.
Tuca and Bertie
Stories of sexual assault never required rape scenes and Tuca and Bertie, a show created by Lisa Hanawalt, that pioneered smart survivor-centric storytelling, got the memo. The series unpacks social anxiety, the male gaze, smaller triggers, being a woman in the workplace, and being a woman at all, in a way that is quirky, relatable, and completely out of the ordinary. This animated comedy sitcom follows the friendship between two 30-year-old bird women – the free-spirited toucan Tuca (Tiffany Haddish) and the anxious song thrush Bertie (Ali Wong), who live in the same apartment building in Bird Town.
In an episode, Bertie tells Tuca about having been sexually assaulted as a child by her lifeguard, stopping her from ever swimming again because of the trauma. This storyline says much more than it shows. It does not find the need for a depiction of the assault, or even a name to identify the lifeguard. Not a single male was included in the episode. Bertie is given agency. Her experience is not simply a badge in her character arc or one bludgeoned by shock factors and graphic violence. It is personal and silent and centres the survivor – a great template for future attempts at sexual assault storytelling.
The show never idealises the aftermath of assault either. It leaves its audience with the message that most men can and will get away with it. Justice is seldom served. Pastry Pete does not suffer from his actions, he will continue to sell his pastries, keep his reputation and his bank account. However, the ending is not dismal. Flying overhead, Bertie and Tuca laugh and revel in the deliciousness of the moment. Somethings won’t change. This is the simple and disappointing reality of the moment. However, some things do, and sometimes, that’s all you have to hold on to.
Netflix’s Unbelievable is a story about the nature of justice and truth. The show is an adaptation of a Pulitzer-winning article about a young woman from Lynnwood, Washington, who claimed she had been raped before retracting the allegation. The series could easily have adopted a voyeuristic lens and been pumped full of gratuitous violence or taken the drab procedural route, heavy on cliches and men talking over women. It, however, wades in the grey area of its title.
The show is not about whether Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) was telling the truth. It’s about trauma, class, power, and justice – the hierarchy of truths and the faults of the criminal justice system and social structures at large.
Sex Education is another sex-positive comedy about a teenage boy, Otis (Asa Butterfield), and his sex therapist mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson). The eclectic ensemble of lovable characters makes this show of two seasons, with a third on the way, one of the best UK teen comedy series since Skins. More than living up to its title in practical terms, despite its periodic mentions of genitalia, dirty talk, and post-sex paranoia, the show’s success lies in its seamless ability to destigmatize sexual communication. The show is more about therapy than anything else.
Sex Education may imagine a world that is more colourful and loving with its array of races, bodies, religions, and ethnicities, but its message of sex-positivity and natural queerness is full of heart. Its writing is quirky, funny, and charming, but it understands the aches of growing up, the complexities of consent, mental health, racial stereotyping, gender and the underrated exploitation of the female anatomy by the media, in public spaces, on empty streets and behind closed doors.
I May Destroy You; Promising Young Woman
Entertainment like HBO’s I May Destroy You (following Michaela Coel as Arabella) and the film Promising Young Woman deal with the emotional violence of sexual trauma long after the act itself. The former is a survivor-centric account of an author as she navigates London life after a sexual assault at a bar that she struggles to remember. The latter is a playfully provocative and ingenious rape-revenge satire about a society that thinks what a shame it would be if the career of a promising young man were ruined over some alleged incident. This directorial début of Emerald Fennell is steeped in the ubiquity of sexual violence. The word “rape” does not appear once in the film and like in I May Destroy You, the scene is never shown.
Fennell and Coel resist the rape-revenge genre’s tendency to revel in horrifying depictions of the act. It is not dark comedy or thriller content but self-immolation. Rape does not go away if you refuse to say it. Rape revenge is understanding the impossibility of attaining wholeness without destruction, it is seeing addressed and unaddressed sexual violence as an annihilating force. That is to say, it is not catharsis, but simply a means to ask the question; how many women?