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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