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TelevIsm: The Office's Problematic Construction of Rape

Though The Office is not a rhetorically anti-oppression show, it's a show that I think has some strong instincts about how to portray oppression in a critical light. But one thing that's always stuck in my feminist craw is its depiction of rape.

The Office is a show about an everyday office and the romances therein. There are a lot of fairly responsible portrayals of verbal violence and references to sexuality, but there are few opportunities to portray rape. But on the rare instance that rape does enter the narrative, The Office whiffs it by playing into tired patriarchal tropes about false rape allegations and making a mockery of male rape victims.

In the scene depicted above from season five's "Customer Survey", Kelly is accused (rightfully) of submitting a false report of her co-workers Jim and Dwight's customer service survey. In an attempt to deflect, she compliments their boss Michael on his tie. He begins to get distracted, and then gets her back on topic. She says, immediately, "I was raped." In reply, Michael says, "You cannot say 'I was raped' and expect all of your problems to go away, Kelly. Not again. Don't keep doing that."

Let me say that I am a big fan of Kelly Kapoor and Mindy Kaling. Both are hilarious. However, this is a fucked up way to show rape allegations and women.

This is an episode about Kelly being deceptive. Kelly lies about her coworkers throughout the episode, and this is further evidence of that. Her lie about an extremely serious topic is equated with a false compliment about a tie and a false report about her co-workers. These are not the same thing. Rape allegations are in this way framed as destructive and trivializing.

Michael's reaction to her is equally problematic. Instead of taking it seriously or offering her comfort, he assumes that the claim is false. This is saying that because it comes from an unreliable source, because it comes from someone who makes things up, it's not worthy of any consideration. It's not countered, so it stands as a valid way to react to a rape victim, which it's just not.

Now. Kelly is an unreliable character. And there are instances in which people make rape accusations up. But much more frequently, women who are raped are accused of making it up or are shamed into silence. Rape victims are constantly blamed and undermined, and accusations of rape are at this point almost necessarily questioned and seen as potentially false.

This joke is not countering her false accusation under my conditions for a critical joke. It's not saying that it's wrong to make false allegations because it hurts other women. There's no direct contradiction of the idea that "rape allegations are totally worth questioning!" Unlike their discussion of race or of fatness or occasionally of sexism, there's no clear explanation from another character of why this isn't appropriate. It's using rape as a throwaway joke, reinforcing that it's okay to make jokes about rape and okay to assume that women lie about it.

It's just saying "Oh, whatever, rape. Whatever, Kelly lies all the time. Women lie about that all the time anyway, so it's totally funny, right?" This reinforces and contributes to a popular and very harmful cultural perception that women make rape up for advancement or revenge or to avoid responsibility. Jokes of this sort contribute to and reflect rape culture.

An earlier depiction of sexual assault came in the episode "Women's Appreciation Day." The episode starts out strong: Phyllis is flashed in the parking lot. Employees respond with appropriate disgust, and when Michael makes fun of the incident, he is strongly rebuked.

But shortly after, we shoot to Michael being interviewed in his office (shown in the image above). He says that women need to feel safe, then goes into his own experience: "Jan and I have a safe word. If one of us thinks things are going to far, they say that word, and the other person has to stop. Although last time, she pretended she didn't hear me."

Michael is describing rape. Sexual things happen to Michael that he does not want. But it's not describing rape in the sense that it's critiquing Jan or pointing out that she is a rapist (though it does contribute to his characterization of her as abusive later on in the episode). It's making fun of Michael's rape, of the idea that men can be raped. It's again using rape as a cheap joke.

Michael's assault experience is not even recognized as sexual assault or rape. As always when men are raped, his experience is erased. Cara Kulwicki wrote about this at Racialicious and The Curvature:

[In] cases where a man is the victim of a woman's violence, rape apologism is strongly rooted in the denial that women's actions can count as violence at all — and especially that their actions can count as sexual violence against men, who are routinely construed as incapable of being victims.

I'm not saying that there can never be jokes about rape (though I haven't heard a successful one). I'm saying that rape victims and survivors are a very vulnerable, very unprotected, very often silenced or erased class of people. And jokes like these, that turn rape into a joke, that contribute to the conception that rape victims lie about their experiences, that rape of men is hilarious, aren't helping. In these instances, The Office makes a joke about rape at the expense of rape victims, not at the expense of rapist or of rape culture.

If you were looking forward to a post on South Park…that's coming up on Tuesday!

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Comments

24 comments have been made. Post a comment.

When I saw these two

When I saw these two episodes I was so disappointed. They crossed a line. I don't know where anyone got the idea that rape was funny in the first place, but I thought the Office was somehow above that. I know there's sexism and juvenile humor. I do laugh almost every time they say "that's what she said." For me, rape is not and will never be funny, and its unfortunate that the patriarchal system we live in makes rape easier to make fun of than prosecute.

Ugh, the Office... why?

It's really disappointing

It's really disappointing because they're often REALLY CAREFUL about sensitive jokes - it's one of the things I appreciate about The Office.

what?? No they are not

The Office is NEVER sensitive about serious issues. They make light of EVERYTHING, all the time. Or rather, they make the serious issues less difficult to talk about. Such as Meridith's alcohol problem (hahahahaha-funny episode, though I wondered when someone was going to notice this man chasing a woman around in the dark parking lot and trying to subdue her). The office is rarely ever serious, and even if they attempt to be serious, they hardly pull it off.

Perhaps you should check out...

Perhaps you should check out some of my previous articles for Bitch, in which I articulate specifically how they take things seriously:

http://bitchmagazine.org/post/televism-how-can-jokes-both-show-and-fight...
http://bitchmagazine.org/post/televism-the-offices-subversive-messages-a...

Educate me

It’s not saying that it’s wrong to make false allegations because it hurts other women. There’s no direct contradiction of the idea that “rape allegations are totally worth questioning!”

Im confused by that series of statements. False allegations definitely happen, though rare, but Im under the impression that being accused of rape(when innoncent) is nearly as damaging as being raped. (caveat: nether have happened directly to me, so I dont really know). Since false accusations do happen, what makes the idea that "rape allegations are totally worth questioning" contradictable? (though perhaps when you say 'questioning' you mean 'assume allegation is untrue' vs 'assume allegation may or may not be true')

This reinforces and contributes to a popular and very harmful cultural perception that women make rape up for advancement or revenge or to avoid responsibility.

It's definitely harmful to have a cultural perception that women tend to make up rape, when it rarely happens. But until we reach a point where the cultural perception is that women never make up rape, isnt it reasonable to question a rape allegation? (and by question I mean investigate, get all the facts, hear both sides of the story without prejudgement or making assumptions.)

Would it be possible to construct a system such that there were no perceived advantage to be gained in reporting a rape and making an accusation (other than seeking justice for a crime committed)? If there were no perceived advantage, wouldn't it drastically diminish the occurance of 'false accusations'? If this were the case, would there be any doubt as to somebodies motives in reporting the crime, thus causing every report would be taken much more seriously?

The only idea I have is one of oath of secrecy for everyone involved, which of course breaks down when a lot of people are involved, but.. well.. what other ideas do we have?

I feel that as long as we have the cultural perception that making up rape can be used for advancement or revenge, rape accusations will always be questioned. (avoiding responsibility OTOH, is what makes the scenario presented in the office so absurd to be funny).

Demanding education is not really cool, by the way.

Yeah, okay, I included a BUNCH of links to outside reading in the OP specifically for this purpose. In the paragraph beginning "Now, Kelly is an unreliable character", there are a bunch of links which specifically speak to your questions. Please go read up on that. You seem to be pretty unfamiliar with some 101 stuff about rape and rape culture, so I'm going to suggest that you poke around those sites a bit and educate yourself.

False rape accusations: pretty rare. Actual rape: an epidemic. Here's a quote from one of the links that you did not follow:

Rape culture is pervasive insistence that false reports are common, although they are less common (1.6%) than false reports of auto theft (2.6%). Rape culture is pervasive claims that women make rape accusations willy-nilly, when 61% of rapes remain unreported.

On the contrary

I apologize if my 'educate me' came across as a demand, it was merely meant to frame my questions as coming from a place of not necessarily having been exposed to any of the 101 stuff about rape - I really just wanted to express that Im coming from a place of privilege in nearly every way describable. That being said, I was pretty unfamiliar with rape culture, and I did go through and read each and every article you linked to in this story, prior to my post, including the link that I *did* follow.
I wasn't denying that rape is an epidemic, nor did I suggest that false reports are common. I was suggesting that the real issue isnt the frequency of its occurance, but that there is a perception that there is a motivation for making a false report.

I was actually hoping to see if there were some possibile way of changing the way a rape report happens such that there would be no motivation for somebody to make a false claim. Im postulating that as long as it is perceived by society that there is a motivation behind making a false accusation, society will continue to question the validity of all reports. The commonality of its actual frequency is moot, as all it takes is one high profile false report to perpetuate the perception that its common enough to warrant questioning. Im suggesting that if we attempt to solve this problem from another angle, by diminishing the likelyhood that false accusation are made, we would thereby diminish the likelyhood that real accusations will be questioned. Diminished questioning of validity would hopefully lead to increased reporting, which would hopefully lead to increased frequency of consequences for rapists, and hopefully lead to less rape.

Again, Im coming from a place of naivety, and there may not be any real way to remove the motivation for making a false accusation, but Im curious if this avenue has been approached.

Not the place.

This is a derail that I'm stopping here. None of this has very much to do with The Office. I am writing very specifically about rape jokes in television shows. I am writing about television, not the justice system.

Critiquing an instance in which rape is trivialized and cast as necessarily false does not give you free reign to talk about false allegations and why they happen; these allegations are extremely rare, and that is not moot. As I said in the post, over-focusing on these few and far between instances casts suspicion on the stories of rape victims and continues the cycle of victimization.

If you're looking for more answers about rape and the justice system, I suggest you take your education into your own hands and start doing some reading on the sites linked above. I also suggest, since you by your own admission have a ton of privilege and not even 101-level knowledge, you do a lot of reading and processing before asking distressing questions (like this) to people who may be survivors (like me).

Please keep on topic and consider the content of the post.

Seconding....

I'm just backing up RMJ to say keep the conversation focused on the original post, not on rape allegations. RMJ has already made it clear why this is not an okay subject and has linked to many places for you to learn more. But most of all, that is not the topic at hand.

Any more comments on this subject will be moderated or deleted.

Kjerstin Johnson
Web Content Manager

____________
Kjerstin Johnson, editor-in-chief
Did someone say "Comments Policy"?

Apologies

I apologize for my lack of understanding on these issues and the subsequent derail. Your point about this not being the place is well taken. I sincerely meant no harm, and intend to further my knowledge to avoid clumsily distressing others.

And this post by RMJ is why

And this post by RMJ is why feminists aren't taken seriously. Instead of helping someone understand, you realize they make a good point and run from the debate under the guise of derailment. Cowardly. You are doing nothing to help our cause, you just want to regurgitate terrible rhetoric. Also, false rape allegations happen way more than your terrible link suggests, you just choose to ignore it to push your agenda. I bet you use phrases like, "check your privilege" don't you?

Anyone who has any knowledge

Anyone who has any knowledge of the current cultural climate and medical and legal institutions that a rape survivor must navigate knows that there is rarely an advantage to reporting an experience of sexual assault through "official" channels. Rapists are rarely arrested and almost never prosecuted. Of sexual assault charges that make it all the way to a criminal trial, only 8% of offenders are convicted of any crime due to the difficulties in obtaining physical proof of a sexual assault and an antiquated criminal justice system that puts the victim on trial, and not perpetrators, by demanding that victims prove that consent was never granted, rather than by requiring that defendants prove that consent was actually obtained. These crimes often result in misdemeanor records and minimal sentencing. Yet for a victim, reporting a rape opens oneself up to the hostility and disbelief of professionals, friends, even family sometimes, as well as further humiliation, loss of control over bodily integrity and privacy, and revictimization at the hands of police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, juries, and even doctors. For example, in order to procure evidence for a sexual assault charge, victims must consent to a "rape kit" while at the hospital, which is an extremely invasive and painful examination designed to collect physical evidence. Up until as recently as 2007, some states required that rape survivors *pay* for their own rape kits, which cost as much as $2000 and are usually not covered by insurance. Sexual assault is the only crime in which the victims have had to pay for their own evidence collection. Furthermore, the victim is vilified at every step of the process: her or his integrity is questioned by judgments made regarding her or his race, gender, sexuality, age, ability, sexual history, clothing, behavior, and actions preceding, during, and following an assault.

This does not even begin to cover the emotional and physical healing a survivor must face. Nor the reality that, since conventional justice is almost never granted to victims, many survivors must continue to live their lives in the same environment as their rapist - attending the same schools, churches, work places, even living in the same homes - or attempt to change their entire lives in order to avoid their perpetrators.

I believe that your comments were made with the best of intentions, but that's what troubles me so deeply about them. If this is what our best intentions as a society equate to - casting doubt and assigning blame - then imagine what we do at our worst. We deny that sexual violence is a reality, we minimize victims' experiences, we blame survivors, we find ways to justify the actions of perpetrators. Rape is a social problem, and we are all responsible for providing support to the victims, holding perpetrators accountable, and challenging the belief systems that encourage sexual violence. Considering that only a very small fraction of reports are false allegations - and even more experiences of sexual violence and exploitation go unreported - the vast majority of claims are true. The reality is that all survivors of sexual violence live with the aftermath of that experience for the rest of their lives. The only people avoiding responsibility for the devastation that sexual assault causes are the perpetrators of this form of violence and the people and institutions who deny its existence. I, for one, am taking responsibility. What about you?

I can only offer you my

I can only offer you my opinion on the matter. The point of this article was not, 'we should never question rape allegations.' It was that the questioning of rape allegations is a strong trend. When you've been raped, the cards seem so stacked against you. On top of the blatant physical and sexual abuse that rape entails, there is the shame. Female victims are often shamed for having worn something in particular (say, a short skirt), or maybe having drunk too much, or some other factor to construe her as the guilty party in what was so obviously an attack on her person. While men are not the victims of rape as often, it does happen, and it may be even harder for men to cope in our society than for women. Any cultural norm that makes it 'acceptable' to, without any prompt at all, doubt women and men who are victims of rape is really just a sign of the tools of oppression at work (I'm talking about societal trends here, not a court of law). Basically, the article has nothing to do with being innocent until proven guilty, which is, in fact, the question that you're posing in your well-meant but very misguided attempt to play devil's advocate. Rather, it concerns itself with how The Office, normally a pretty liberal show (while at times overly crowd-pleasing and unoffensive to the point of walking on eggshells), has dealt so poorly with an issue about which no one has any business making jokes.

I love The Office but I find

I love The Office but I find this to be a continuing theme. Michael's entire relationship with Jan is of her being abusive and it is again considered a joke. One episode that I found particularly offensive was when she came back to him and he was trying to leave her again because of her abuse and he decided to stay because she had gotten breast implants.

Yes.

Yeah, the whole relationship with Jan was extremely problematic, from Michael at first (sexual harrassment hello!) and then Jan's abuse.

Something I've definitely

Something I've definitely noticed is that I hear WAY MORE about false rape allegations than actual rape. False rape accusation stories in the news get a lot of outrage and attention, but I think rape is seen as being so "inevitable" that it becomes completely invisible. When it is reported on, a lot of the responses I see are basically scrutinizing the story of the victim. I rarely hear the same sort of outrage over stories of rape that I hear over false rape allegations.

Another issue is that people are far more likely to share stories of their experiences with someone falsely accusing them of rape or another form of sexual abuse, than a person is to come forward with their stories of being raped. This isn't surprising at all, because stories of rape are automatically questioned and scrutinized, and that is something no rape victim wants to go through. There's so much unquestioning support for those who share stories about narrowly avoiding a false rape conviction, but actual stories of rape are treated with so much skepticism. They are both serious issues, but the unbalanced exposure causes a lot of ignorant & generally messed up attitudes toward rape. I've gotten into a lot of conversations where people assert that women lie about being raped more than are actually raped.

It seems to me that "she probably was drunk & regretted it later & is lying about it" is the new "she was asking for it". The same aspects of a story can be used for both "explanations" (she's sexually promiscuous, she was drunk, she was seen flirting with the same man earlier that night). Instead of wearing a skimpy outfit & being drunk pointing to the conclusion that "she was asking for it", now people take this same information and assume that she probably did consent originally and is now lying about it.

I hate this "trend", and I hate that I now see discussions of rape constantly derailed into a discussion of whether or not false rape allegations are more harmful that actual rape, how often women lie about being raped vs. are actually raped, etc. etc. False rape allegations and actual rape are completely separate issues. People lie about all sorts of crimes. These are separate issues which need to be discussed separately. I don't mean to sound like false rape accusations are not damaging, but I do think it's often used to derail conversations on rape (which is a separate issue, and an EPIDEMIC).

Having the character Kelly make a false rape accusation as a joke on the Office just sucks and doesn't help the issue. She's seen as being a sort of "stereotypical unbalanced girl" character, and associating her with a false rape accusation, as if it's just an inevitable thing "crazy chicks" do, is just...not okay.

I don't mean to sound like

I don't mean to sound like false rape accusations are not damaging, but I do think it's often used to derail conversations on rape (which is a separate issue, and an EPIDEMIC).

Not at all. This is an intelligent demonstration of just why jokes about false rape suck: because it perpetuates the branch of rape culture that distorts the epidemic of rape into necessarily deceptive. Thank you for contributing.

More scenes

Your analysis is spot-on, RMJ. I actually had forgotten about both the scenes you discuss, but they're definitely (and sadly) in line with the poor way The Office deals with rape/sexual assault.

Like a lot of the commenters, I was troubled by the whole of Michael's relationship with Jan. I did remember a scene later in the "Women's Appreciation Day" episode where Michael talks about how Jan, despite his refusal, videotapes them having sex and shows it to her therapist. It's clearly meant to be funny there, too, if also sad. I get that (for some reason) they wanted to set Jan up as unequivocally bad for him, and maybe it's supposed to be ironic that someone as offensive as Michael is a victim, but the powerful woman = rapist message is kind of hard to ignore. (See also: Glee's "Hell-o.")

Then there's "Gay Witch Hunt." I ranted about that one a bit already at http://bitchmagazine.org/post/televism-how-can-jokes-both-show-and-fight... . A gay person being forcibly kissed is totes hilarious, right? *face/palm*

I hadn't considered the

I hadn't considered the forcible kiss! Good point. I just read your thoughts over there, and I actually had a different reading of the episode (just from my memory though). I saw it as critical, but I guess I will have to re-watch.

Halfway agree with you here...

I agree that Kelly's outburst is a throwaway rape joke that perpetuates dangerous assumptions about rape in our culture. But I disagree with your evaluation of Michael's comment as mocking male rape victims.

Jan's abuse during their relationship is a recurring "joke," yes. But the plotline is much more complicated than just a throwaway joke. The character of Michael Scott is enigmatic because of his ability to simultaneously make us cringe and make us empathize. His vulnerability engages the audience's affection despite his politically incorrect comments and pathetic management style. Jan's abuse (and Michael's inability to recognize it as such) further bonds the audience to his character.

I don't think it's meant to be a "hee-hee, ha--ha, men can't get raped" kind of comment. Rather it's an "oh, geez, Michael, you've gotta get out of there" comment. Because ultimately we don't want Michael to be victimized. We want him to excel and find happiness (often despite himself). It's humor laced with sympathy, which is what The Office does best.

The problem with Michael's

The problem with Michael's scene: Michael is seen as inherently ridiculous, and there is no one commenting on his individual interviews, reinforcing that this is not okay. It's kind of a problem with the individual interviews in The Office - there is no one to comment and indicate to the audience "no."

Male rape is seen as impossible, and it particularly must be handled with very great care. I think this revelation would have had the effect you describe had he mentioned it while talking with Pam & Karen, etc. Then it could have been shown to be not only wrong, but rape.

I find the whole topic in

I find the whole topic in relation to The Office specifically very problematic. I have followed Gervais for a long time and while taken aback by all of the scenes described in this commentary and the subsequent responses. I also think of The Office as more intelligent than blatant dismissal of rape allegations. I go back and forth on this- sometimes I agree wholeheartedly with this discussion & am upset with The Office. Other times, I wonder if there is a more intelligent social commentary on sexism, rape and domestic violence. Unfortunately, some of these scenes do depict real situations in that rape, sexism and dating violence are all often discounted, ignored, made fun of or condoned. The Office is not necessarily portraying an inaccuracy here. The fact that it has sparked this article and this conversation is a good thing- there is not enough education or discussion in these areas. The problem I see is not necessarily the skits themselves but that the show is unable to resolve or educate after putting the problem out there. I find that this is where the show gets lost in the American version. All of Ricky's British shows deal with sensitive issues in a horrifyingly in-your-face kind of way yet you are left feeling that the protagonist is wrong & always unlikeable. This aspect of his work has been lost in the American characters, making it more difficult for the masses to distinguish between a right and a wrong. This discussion is a perfect example of this.

Its a fucking comedy you

This comment has been deleted by the administration. Since we left the title intact, you probably don't have to guess why. Keep it together, people.

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This was a really interesting

This was a really interesting read...I don't know a ton about "traditional" country (more of an Alt-country fan, myself), but your post series has been quite enlightening for this newb! I look forward to reading your post on gender farm mapping