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February 08, 2013

"Smash," Sexism, and Prejudice

I've been watching the TV show Smash and, although it's really not a big issues show, the latest episode this week -- which features sexual harrassment heavily in the plot -- got me thinking a lot about prejudice.

Smash is a musical drama about a broadway show. Yeah, it's the about the show and everything that goes into making a show, from the creative team coming up with the idea for a musical, through writing it, finding a producer, finding funding, casting, rehearsals, etc.

SPOILERS FOLLOW: The first season got the show -- a bio-musical about Marilyn Monroe called Bombshell -- through its initial run in Boston. Along the way, the two actresses competing for the lead succeed in destroying each others' relationships (and pretty much everything goes wrong for everyone involved as well.)

The director of the show, Derek, initially makes a pass at one of the rivals, the ingenue Karen, during the drawn out casting process. He invites her to a late night audition at his apartment, tells her she needs to be sexier, and then sits on the couch while she gives him what is essentially a lapdance, while "doing" Marilyn. Then she leaves and goes home to her boyfriend. (When the boyfriend finds out about this later, he punches Derek out.)

Then Derek makes a more direct pass at the other rival, the experienced Ivy, and she not only goes for it, but they end up in a serious relationship, where the "L" word gets used.

Throughout most of the season, both characters are up for the role. First one gets chosen, then the other, then a Hollywood actress who can't sing gets cast for a while (and has an affair with Derek while she's doing it, putting a strain on his relationship with Ivy,) then they're both being considered again. Roller coaster. Finally, Derek makes the call and he chooses Karen, i.e. NOT his serious girlfriend.

The second season starts with the reviews coming in and the show getting ready to make its first run on Broadway. But everything is going wrong: the producer is accused of using mob money, the librettist's marriage is falling apart, and ... dunh dunh duuuuuuunnnh ... the Hollywood actress accuses Derek of sexual harrassment.

And this is where things get interesting. In the second episode, apparently emboldened by the Hollywood actress's accusation, six chorus girls from other shows that Derek has done come forward and accuse him of sexual harrassment as well. In many other shows, this would be presented as just another trial of Job to be heaped onto Bombshell, i.e., not something worth exploring for its own sake. And I never would have suspected Smash of having the heart or intelligence to make something more out of this.

But then we get this scene (s2, ep2, starts at 11:20 in the video above) in which Derek seeks out and confronts one of his accusers, a chorus girl named Daisy. He mansplains to her that she doesn't understand the term "sexual harrasment" and says he never touched her. She counters that she never said he did, and then outlines exactly what he DID do, which was hit on her through four callbacks and then refuse to cast her after she definitively turned him down. He insults her talent and says that's why he didn't cast her. Then this:

Derek: Since when is it harrassment to ask someone out on a date?

Daisy: You don't get it. You're a big-shot director. You're in a position of power from the minute you wake up in the morning, and you don't treat that power with respect. Or did you really think women say yes because they actually like you?

Being a decent show and not a great show, Smash goes on to blunt this incredible scene with a cheap musical number ("Would I Lie to You") in which Derek gets pushed around by a bunch of  chorus girls, plus Karen and Ivy, dressed identically:

Although the identically dressed girls could be said to be a comment on Derek's view of women, it looks too much like that's actually the show's viewpoint (and not just Derek's) for that point to come across. It looks too much like this:



So there's that. There's also the rest of the episode, which has Ivy letting a mopey Derek off the hook. But just for a moment, the show's understanding of the world and one of its characters opens up, and you get to see some of the underlying dynamics of this world, and how this fictional world connects to the real one:

  • The Hollywood actress is actually lying. Her sexual relationship with Derek was entirely consensual and welcome, and, in fact, she had the power there, because her star power got her a role that Derek didn't want to give her. In fact, his affair with her was partly intended to boost her confidence so she could sing better, i.e. he was "servicing" her. (Of course he was also just dogging and star-fucking.) Her accusation was made so that she could save face. She quit the show because she couldn't sing, and she wanted to quell the rumors.
  • Even though she nominally has the power, because she's a woman and he's a man, his opinion of her abilities is still important and still has power over her. Note that her attack on him was, in essence, for her to take on the role of victim.
  • This is a common (and largely unwarranted) fear of women: that women will take power over men by falsely accusing them of exercising their power.
  • The show is just good enough that it can't quite make itself depict the Hollywood actress "playing the harrassment card." That whole thing happens offscreen, frankly because we wouldn't believe it if they put it onscreen.
  • Derek is a huge sexual harrasser, although clearly not a sexual assaulter, and his power has prevented anyone from stepping forward before.
  • The Hollywood actress's accusation, although false, is what finally allows Derek's real victims to come forward, because sexual harrassment is entirely about power: who has it and who doesn't. Only the powerful Hollywood actress can make such an accusation without negative repercussions, and the chorus girls require the shelter of her power to do the same.
  • Since the real accusations are enabled by the false one, this lets Derek off the hook in his own mind; the real accusations are just copy-cats of the false one, and equally false.
  • Until Daisy breaks it down for Derek, he genuinely doesn't understand what sexual harrassment is, and genuinely doesn't believe he's doing it. When she says "you didn't really believe all those women liked you?" the look on his face says it all: yes, he did really believe all those women liked him. He really didn't have a clue that it's his power, and not his attractiveness, that makes the women accessible to him. It's equally never occurred to him that his relationships have all been with women who want something that he has the power to give or withhold.

I think it was this last one that really opened something up for me. Yes, it was fiction, but it felt real; rang true, as they say. It was that Derek genuinely believed that he wasn't doing anything wrong that got to me. Because, when it comes to -isms, I always tend to look at things from the oppressed pov, and not from the -ist pov. Or at least to try to.

I understand that privileged white people think that they have a right to a spot in a university that a person of color got "through affirmative action." But I always thought that that was more about the white person thinking that POC can't possibly "deserve" a spot in a university. It had never really gotten through to me that white people think that they DO deserve the spot, have earned it, etc. Although I never thought it through in those terms, I might have thought that, were there no affirmative action, the same white complainer wouldn't complain about not getting into the school of their choice because "their" spot went to another white person. But now I'm wondering if the white complainers wouldn't complain anyway, find other reasons why they were denied their just deserts.

Now, obviously, privilege requires a lack of privilege to be privilege. If there's no lack of privilege, there's no privilege. But privilege is self-referential. It bounces off the Other, but doesn't refer to the Other.

Without the power differential, Derek wouldn't have all these willing chorus girls for his bed. And without all the willing chorus girls, he wouldn't have learned to think so well of his attractiveness. But his view of sexual dynamics is entirely self referential: girls say yes because he's attractive, not because they're afraid to say no. The latter conclusion requires you to refer to the other person, to be aware that the other person has needs and fears and other mechanics. The former conclusion is all about you.

Which leads me to clarifying for myself that prejudice is not just -- and in many cases not even primarily -- prejudice against someone, but rather prejudice for oneself, and by extension, one's own group. This should be obvious, but I've never seen anyone break it down this way (I'm sure others have, I just haven't seen it.) In antiracism we focus so much on the prejudice against, that we never end up talking about the prejudice for. But prejudice for is much more prevalent in the world, simply because the people with the power still control the media, the narrative, and the world's voice.

And this might be why the antiracism/feminist/lgbt/intergenerational/body-positive messages are so often ineffectual: because most people genuinely don't recognize that being prejudiced in favor of you and yours necessarily means that you're prejudiced against others.

That's the end of this thought for now, but I might have more to say about this in the future. Still processing.

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Comments

I don't watch the show, but great post. I like that line, "you don't treat your power with respect." People obtain (or are born with) power, then immediately (and subconsciously) discredit what advantages that power gives them. They're just a "regular guy." They can't see the power structures holding them up.

That was what was so great about this episode from an otherwise somewhat ordinary show. I'm hoping this kind of commentary continues.

Outstanding commentary. The insight about prejudice being *for* one's self/group and not just *against* others really expands my perspective. Thank you!

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