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“You should smile”: TV comedy takes on everyday harassment

Walking alone at night can be terrifying if you’re a woman. You can slip your keys through your fingers like a makeshift Wolverine claw or grip a can of pepper spray, ready to pull the trigger, but you’re never safe, not really. You can be physically overpowered at any moment. Any unsolicited advances or suggestions that “you should smile” are only an extension of that. Sexual harassment masquerading as “compliments” are a nagging reminder that you exist for male consumption, and there’s little preventing you from being consumed.

The possibility of sexual assault is an automatic extension of being a woman, and yet we see little of that female experience reflected back to us on screen. Perhaps counter-intuitively, it’s in comedy that rape culture is best understood.

Aziz Ansari and Noël Wells in Master Of None

One of the strongest examples comes in the “Ladies And Gentlemen” episode of Master Of None. The narrative deftly flips between the male and female point of view of a night out, poignantly juxtaposing what happens after the characters leave the bar. The newly introduced Diana (Condola Rashad) heads home as horror music swells to a pulse. Meanwhile, Dev (Aziz Ansari) and Arnold (Eric Wareheim) walk a similar path to the tune of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” They talk about the weather and all but skip while holding hands.


The guys decide “it’s faster to cut through the park” as Diana spots a hooded figure lingering on the sidewalk. She walks into the middle of the street and dials 911, prepared to hit send. When she gets close to her apartment, a man who hit on her at the bar tries to catch up. He slips into the building behind her and bangs on her door demanding she “give a nice guy a shot.” She calls the police to ask for assistance, and it’s all too clear she’s done this before.

The brilliance of this depiction is that it’s treated as terrifying (see: the horror-movie soundtrack), while also routine and inconclusive. Diana sensed danger—in the simple exercise of walking home alone, and the stranger she spotted on the street—before a potential threat was fully realized. Her fears are definitively well established and unspecific to this particular night. There’s a multitude of nightmarish potentials in each of her worried glances, and those possibilities become even more disturbing once they are revealed as unremarkable.


In addition to Master Of None, Inside Amy Schumer and Broad City have also taken on the subject. In the sketch “Swanks,” Schumer features street harassment in an infomercial for pants that elicit catcalling. (The fake commercial ends as a son and husband accidentally catcall their mother/wife.) In Broad City’s second season finale, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer respond to a man’s request for them to smile by pushing the corners of their mouths up with their middle fingers. Both are smart takes that condemn catcalling and its implications of control. They send up subversive responses to men’s unsolicited advances, refusing to accept them as some unavoidable fact of life.

The foundation of rape culture is built through these seemingly mundane experiences. Individual acts of catcalling, even when they try to squeeze by on the excuse of benevolent sexism, are still part of what perpetuates an environment where it’s unsafe for a woman to walk home alone. They cement the idea that being aesthetically pleasing in public is a solicitation, that simply by not wearing a turtleneck under a nun’s habit, you’re inviting bad news.


The constancy of this is unclear in pop culture and, probably, to most men. Street harassment isn’t a viral video or trending topic; it’s woven into the reality of being a woman. It changes behavior, it makes you walk a different way or wear a different outfit, and it never really ever goes away. That’s the thing about rape culture. Rape is not some rare, horrific thing that happens only under the absolute worst circumstances. It’s an ever-present possibility, and the world we live in makes that impossible for women to forget.

Of course, most of the time, rape doesn’t involve hooded villains lurking in the dark. More often it’s on dates, in well-established relationships or after a few drinks, and that’s what we’re most likely to see on screen. There have been many high-profile examples of sexual assault on TV in recent years: Mellie on Scandal, Anna on Downton Abbey, Claire on House Of Cards, Elizabeth on The Americans, Pennsatucky on Orange Is The New Black, and, more recently, Hope and Jessica on Jessica Jones. None of these rapes are shocking acts of violence committed by a stranger—instead, the victims know their rapists, who use the power structures within their relationships to take malicious advantage.


On some level, these TV depictions only make sense. National statistics from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network indicate that the majority of women know their attackers, in approximately four out of five cases. But that fact does little to diminish the fear of what might happen when you’re on the street by yourself. The statistics don’t make you bigger, brawnier, or any less susceptible.

To be clear, rape culture doesn’t always manifest itself in pure horror. There’s a spectrum ranging from annoying to gruesome. But even the trivial things do their part to enforce the broader threat, and it’s unfortunate that they’re only given air time in the realm of comedy. Maybe we don’t see those lesser instances reflected back in drama, because they don’t have enough pull. In comedy, things are set up, explained, and broken down so that they can be effectively mocked. There’s far more room to explicitly investigate the intricacies of interiority when it’s studied through the art of joke-making. Meanwhile, there’s not enough dramatic tension in a woman feeling uneasy during her walk home, unless it mounts to the equivalent of a Law & Order plotline.


That inexpressibility is part of what is so frustrating, not only in the lack of artistic depiction, but in real-life iterations of the experience. Later on in “Ladies And Gentlemen,” the episode tackles what makes the unspeakable so hard to talk about. When Dev hears what happened to Diana, he’s shocked. For the women in his life, it’s just another incident to add to an ever-growing set of examples. “If you’re born with a vagina, everybody knows, creepy dudes are part of the deal,” his friend Denise explains. “Yeah, there are a million things that guys have no clue about that are so annoying,” his girlfriend Rachel adds. “I don’t tell anyone about half of it.”

The unworthiness of “half” of what women experience reveals the silencing of their stories both on screen and in real life. Does it count as a “story” when a strange man comments “I want to fuck your face” on Rachel’s Instagram of a frittata? Diana being followed all the way home is an anecdote worth sharing with Dev, but what about all the other times horror music played in her head and amounted to nothing? There’s a disturbing takeaway embedded in the lack of representation: that a woman feeling the threat of rape is so typical, it usually gets ignored by the culture at large. Maybe “Hey, I walked home last night and worried the entire time I might be raped,” doesn’t (usually) have quite enough of an arc to be deemed worthy of an episode of television or even basic conversation—but the reality is, it happens all the time.


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