Over the weekend I spent some time catching up on my DVR. One of the shows I love to watch is 30 Rock. Did anyone catch last week’s episode? It starts out with Liz experiencing street harassment! While I think it is great when primetime television shows work street harassment into the storyline, I think that 30 Rock could have done a much better job.
Watch the full episode on Hulu but here’s a quick recap of what happened:
Liz then gets whistled at by a male in the office and Tracey tells her he wants to put his feet in her mouth. Liz decides to use her new “charm” to get something they needed from a guy in editing, which leads to rumors that she is sleeping with the editor. She gets called a slut and when she says she is going to go talk to the the editor who is spreading the rumors, she is told to “take one for the team” so she doesn’t make everyone’s life hell. In the end she talks to the editor. He explains that he started the rumors as a way to gain the attention of another woman.
The one thing I like about this sequence was that Liz stood up to her first harasser even when she thinks he is catcalling Jenna instead of her. I also like that she decided to talk to the editor about the rumors he started even after her co-workers discouraged her. However, there were many things that I did not like. This episode of 30 Rock reinforces many of the negative and victim blaming attitudes that our society has about sexual harassment – that women enjoy street harassment, it makes them feel good, and that a woman deserves it based on her attitude, how she acts, or what she is wearing.
When we were at the National Sexual Assault Conference in Hollywood a month ago, I attended a fascinating panel on how Hollywood writers are working to get valid, accurate, and reliable information about sexual assault out to the public. Writers from Law and Order SVU, 90210, and Grey’s Anatomy all discussed how they are working with Hollywood Health and Society to create storylines that educate audiences about sexual assault.
We know how many millions of people are watching these primetime television shows. We also know that the key to addressing many problems, like street harassment and sexual assault, is to change the way our society views gender-based violence. Media can be a great tool for doing this. On the flip side, we’ve seen many examples of how media can reinforce the harmful attitudes that help perpetuate sexual harassment and assault.
A powerful example given on the panel was how one soap had a week long storyline revolving around a character finding out that they were HIV positive. The storyline followed the character from going to get tested, to finding out they tested positive, to learning how to live with HIV. During that one week period, the number of calls to the CDC’s HIV/AIDS hotline SIGNIFICANTLY increased. Another example that really struck home with me was when one of the writers from Law and Order SVU shared some of the letters they received from viewers. Many of the letters were from individuals writing about their own sexual assaults. Some of these people had never told anyone what happened to them.
Imagine the positive affect a show like 30 Rock could have in changing our cultural norms and attitudes surrounding street harassment if they had not shown it as something that gave Liz a new found confidence, or if Jenna had a different response to Liz getting harassed, or even if they simply placed a message or PSA at the end (like shows often do when they have domestic violence storylines) that states that sexually harassing someone is NEVER okay.
I’ve always loved 30 Rock and will continue to watch it. I would even like to see more writers take on the issue of street harassment. My only hope is that when they do, they do not portray it as something that 1) women like, 2) gives people confidence, and 3) something that happens because of what you wear, do, or say.
What are your thoughts? What other shows have you seen street harassment on? How do you think writers, especially primetime writers, can work street harassment into their storylines in a way that educates the auidiance?