We as moviegoers consume and laugh at sexual harassment without even noticing it — in this sampling of 11 films, all hugely popular, not one deals with the ramifications of the sexual harassment that’s been turned into a punch line. The harassment here functions as part of the scenery, more or less unaddressed. Whether the harasser or the harassed is the butt of the joke is beside the point; these moments are unimportant, accepted, and almost instantly forgotten by the film and its characters. The sexual harassment is purely atmospheric.
Although I don’t think that there needs to be a scale for “how bad” an instance of sexual harassment is, I acknowledge that some of the moments below seem far more damaging than others. The thread linking all 11 is both their comedic intent and how unimportant they are to the respective films — sometimes the moment shows the “badness” of a male character, sometimes it shows how “strong” the female character is, and sometimes it’s nothing but a meaningless joke. But the moment is always there because no one had the imagination to think of how to achieve these things in a way that didn’t involve a woman being somehow violated. In none of the instances below does the sexual harassment itself directly affect the plot of the movie.
I wrestled with including images in this piece, but I think they illustrate the foul nature of these “funny” moments.
Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) doesn’t know that “Daphne” (Jack Lemmon) is actually a man. She climbs into his bed compartment to have a drink with “Daphne.”
“This may even turn out to be a surprise party!” he says.
“What’s the surprise?” she asks.
“Better have a drink first,” he says, as he hands her whiskey.
He tells her to have a drink first because the surprise is his penis.
What we’re laughing at: A sexual predator who’s lied to a woman about his intentions and is getting her drunk in his bed.
2. Grease, 1978: highest-grossing film of the year.
In a totally throwaway moment on the bleachers of Rydell High, Putzie (Kelly Ward) is just looking up the skirts of some female classmates, who walk away in disgust when they notice the man looking up their skirts without their permission. Then Doody (Barry Pearl) says, “You’re a sick man, Putz,” and comically sprays him with a squirt gun.
What we’re laughing at: A man who feels entitled to violate women’s privacy.
Later, at the nationally televised high school dance, a boy runs up to Patty Simcox (Susan Buckner) and lifts up her skirt while she’s on TV. She starts crying and runs off.
What we’re laughing at: A woman who is upset when her underwear are exposed on TV.
Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson) is propositioning his neighbor Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) for sex when he touches her arm with his finger. He does it a second time, even though she flinches and pulls her sweater more tightly around her. He proceeds to rub his chest. Aurora isn’t into it because she’s so uptight! It’s actually unclear whether this is supposed to be funny in the moment, but my bet’s on “yes” because later in the movie, Aurora loosens up and has sex with him. Character development.
What we’re laughing at: A woman who doesn’t want to be touched by a man who keeps touching her.
4. Tootsie, 1982: second highest-grossing movie of the year.
Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) is a struggling actor who masquerades as “Dorothy Michaels” to get a part. Dorothy Michaels’ co-star, John Van Horn (George Gaynes) forcibly kisses Dorothy in the workplace. Later in the movie, he goes to her apartment and tries to physically force her to have sex with him as she struggles and says she doesn’t want to. He releases Dorothy when her roommate walks into the apartment. “Nothing happened here tonight,” John says apologetically to the roommate as he leaves.
What we’re laughing at: John tries to rape Dorothy, but John doesn’t know Dorothy is a man. Presumably, he wouldn’t want to rape her if he knew.
5. Clue, 1985: beloved by a generation.
This movie is full of sexual harassment jokes from start to finish. The sexual harassment joke pictured above occurs less than 10 minutes in (it’s not the first, though!). Miss Scarlet (Lesley Ann Warren) has just met Professor Plum (Christopher Lloyd), and he proceeds to touch her butt without her permission. She is clearly uncomfortable, and shrugs him off.
What we’re laughing at: A woman is forced to shrug off the uninvited physical advances of a man she’s just met.
As Cher (Alicia Silverstone) is walking on campus, she is ogled by her male classmates.
Then a man comes out of nowhere and puts his arm around her without her permission. She pushes him away and says, “Ew! As if!”
What we’re laughing at: A man treats a woman’s body as though it is public property. She is forced to shove him away.
7. Men in Black II, 2002: eighth highest-grossing movie in 2002.
Agent J (Will Smith) decides Laura Vasquez (Rosario Dawson) will be safest with his buglike alien friends. They make insinuating comments to her, and she tells Agent J that she’s “dated worse.” As he leaves, he tells her that she’s safe, but adds that she should not fall asleep.
What we’re laughing at: A woman is left in a room full of creatures making thinly veiled sexual comments. The woman is somewhat uncomfortable, but admits that she’s been treated with still less respect in the past.
Colin (Kris Marshall) is working as waitstaff at a wedding when he zeroes in on Nancy (Julia Davis) standing alone. He offers her an hors d’oeuvre, which she turns down. She’s barely making eye contact with him and clearly wants him to leave, but he holds a piece of food near her mouth anyway. After their interaction, he immediately concludes that English girls are too stuck up and that’s why he’s single.
What we’re laughing at: A man tries to feed a woman he’s just met an hors d’oeuvre, and she does not want it. It appears that the man is the butt of the joke, but then later the film shows he was right about English girls being “too stuck up.”
9. Superbad, 2007: made $121 million in theaters.
Jules (Emma Stone) and Shirley (Laura Seay) ask Seth (Jonah Hill) if he can get alcohol for them. Jules say that if he scratches their backs, they’ll scratch his. “Well, Jules, the funny thing about my back is, is that it’s located on my cock,” he says. He laughs. Jules laughs nervously; Shirley gives a disgusted smile.
What we’re laughing at: In a public place, a man invites two women to pay him for his help in sexual favors. They are uncomfortable.
10. Ted, 2012: ninth highest-grossing movie in 2012.
Ted, the eponymous talking bear, sees a new co-worker he thinks is cute and begins pantomiming sex acts in the workplace. She laughs.
When Ted acts out his co-worker getting semen all over her face, she stops laughing and looks upset; Ted realizes at this point, and at this point only, that he’s gone too far.
What we’re laughing at: A male bear pantomimes the sex acts he would like to perform with a new woman colleague in her place of work. She is uncomfortable.
After a night full of drugs, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) learns that he forcibly humped a flight attendant, licked her face, then forcibly kissed another flight attendant. It could be argued that this moment is not intended as a joke but rather to demonstrate what a monster Jordan Belfort is. However, the flashback to the sexual assault is set to an up-tempo punk rock cover of “Sloop John B,” which contrasts humorously with the music-free, serious light-of-day tone in which his friend Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) relays the story. When I saw it in a theater, people laughed at that contrast, and at the exaggerated motions of his unwanted humping. The feelings of the victims is never touched on.
What we’re laughing at: A man physically assaults two women while they are at work, set to funny music. The women are visibly upset.
Movies routinely push the boundaries of realism, but no matter how otherwise farcical these 11 movies are, the filmmakers behind them decided a world without sexual harassment would be too implausible. In a sense, they’re right, but I wonder how much turning sexual harassment into a throwaway joke in movies contributes to the banality of sexual harassment in real life.
The Grease character on the bleachers is actually Doody, portrayed by Barry Pearl. An earlier version of this article misidentified him.
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