In October 2017, the #MeToo hashtag took over Twitter in response to the sexual abuse charges against Harvey Weinstein. The phrase was popularised to encourage people to tweet about their own experiences in order to highlight the magnitude of the problem. Although there is still a lot left to achieve, the #MeToo movement has been a major step forward in raising awareness for sexual harassment – especially in the workplace – and educating people on their behaviour. The movement has also been tackled in modern sitcoms to further draw attention to what (mostly) women experience every day, usually in silence. Whilst many shows have tackled it in some way, two in particular stand out as great examples.
Since its premiere in 2013, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been praised for its portrayal of serious issues, which are often explored with care through quick nuanced remarks. It follows a group of diverse characters who work for the NYPD in Brooklyn’s 99th Precinct. It has a very talented ensemble cast which is led by Andy Samberg’s character Jake Peralta – an immature but gifted detective. In their 2019 episode ‘He Said, She Said’, the series examines the difficulties women face when trying to bring an abuser to justice. It involves a sexual assault case that is brought to the attention of Jake and his Police Sergeant wife Amy (Melissa Fumero). Seth comes in with a “broken” penis at the hands of his female co-worker Carrie, who was defending herself when Seth sexually assaulted her.
The company eventually offer Carrie a 2.5 million dollar settlement to keep her quiet. She thinks this is a good idea as “This is a ‘he said, she said’ situation; I know how that goes down.” However, understanding the unfairness of circumstances, Amy convinces her not to take the money. She says it’s more important to bring an abuser to justice, especially as it could encourage others to speak out. Detective Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz), who thinks Carrie should just take the money, tells Amy of her doubts: “There’s a very real woman here whose career and life are going to be affected by you pursuing this case.” Through these three characters, the series reflects the very real problems women have to consider when speaking up about the sexual assault they’ve suffered.
In the end, it’s a win for Carrie, but quite a complicated one as she stills suffers a loss for speaking out. Even though Seth is arrested, Carrie had to quit her job anyway. She explained that her colleagues saw her differently now: no more invitations to parties also means no more promotions either. Amy feels deflated, but Carrie ensures her she feels content with her decision as she’s thankful Seth was arrested. Rosa tells Amy that even though she was right that Carrie’s career would be affected, she was right in that it could inspire other women to come forward. Rosa says one of Carrie’s colleagues came into the Precinct to report sexual assault. Rosa says, “Two steps forward, one step back, is still one step forward” which makes Amy feel better. There’s no telling what might come out of a sexual assault case, so it’s very rewarding that there were some wins, but it’s also very realistic to depict losses for victims, which is entirely unfair but is ultimately a reflection of real life.
It’s a very emotional episode to watch, mostly for women who can relate to Carrie’s situation. Even Amy has a story, showing just how common these incidents are. She tells Jake that she experienced sexual assault when she was moving up in the ranks as a detective. She also tells him about the sexism she deals with in her everyday life. When wondering how that’s possible, Jake realises that he never noticed it because it doesn’t affect him. He feels bad that his wife has to go through that, especially considering she’s still victimised as a woman whilst wearing her police uniform. Amy’s response to Jake’s concern is a sad term that most women have uttered more than once: “It’s ok, I’m used to it.”
Another modern sitcom which tackled the #MeToo movement this year is Netflix’s One Day at a Time, which follows the lives of a Cuban-American family living in Los Angeles. Much like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, this also has a very talented and diverse ensemble cast. In their episode ‘Outside’, Penelope (Justina Machado) is shocked to find that her son Alex (Marcel Ruiz) has been posting sexist images on his private Instagram account. Whilst Alex thinks everyone is overreacting at first, he sits down to listen to Penelope and his sister Elena’s (Isabella Gomez) stories of consent and sexual harassment. Penelope shares a time when she was in the Army and her mentor forced her to touch his genitals. This further went onto highlight sexual assault in the Army which often goes unrecognised. Elena, who is in a gay relationship, talks about when she and Syd were harassed on a bus by a group of boys who saw them holding hands and taunted them to kiss for their own entertainment. This is a teachable moment for Alex who isn’t afraid to say he’s sorry and learn from his mistakes. It’s also another emotional episode as many people can relate to the characters’ experiences and to Alex’s frustration after hearing what women face.
The way Brooklyn Nine-Nine highlights social issues such as sexual assault – alongside making jokes about a broken penis – makes it a very important show. It’s surprising that it was cancelled by Fox in 2018 after five seasons, but fortunately it was rescued a day later by NBC after a powerful Twitter campaign. One Day at a Time has also faced trouble and was recently cancelled by Netflix after three seasons. It’s currently being shopped around and will hopefully be saved too, but it’s not looking good. Both shows also have excellent Latinx representation as well as using their voice to examine important social issues. It is heart-breaking when two of the most progressive and inclusive shows of our time are not safe from cancellation.
Hopefully this kind of representation in modern television will continue to grow and will help get the message across, even if it’s just letting people know they are not alone. It also helps men understand that some of their behaviour isn’t ok and that most of the women they know will have experienced some form of sexual harassment. Brooklyn Nine-Nine and One Day at a Time both show men reacting in a positive way, which is incredibly important: Jake and Alex both realise the reality that women face and they don’t try to deflect or justify their own or anyone else’s behaviour. If anything, they’re mad that women have to go through this. Brooklyn Nine-Nine tackles the #MeToo movement from a law perspective, whilst One Day at a Time tackles it from more of a personal one. However, both cover sexual assault in the workplace and address how there are consequences to women coming forward, regardless of whether or not justice is served. They know how to portray these sensitive subjects with care, which is why it’s vitally important that these types of shows remain on air. In an interview, Melissa Fumero said: “Every woman shouldn’t have a story, [but] unfortunately they do.”
by Toni Stanger
Toni Stanger is a film and screenwriting graduate with a passion for cats, horror films and middle-aged actresses. Her favourite films include Gone Girl, Heathers, Scream and Excision. You can find her on Twitter and Letterboxd.