The Creepy Dude: how sit-com culture justifies sexual assault / Clara Gallay
Sexual assault and rape happens. Thankfully, this has finally become common knowledge, after the blowing up of various scandals which have been in the front of debate for about a year now. We were all well aware of the terrifying statistics about sexual misconduct towards women; but now they have been proven to be true by the resurgence of a grass-root feminist movement where they are being encouraged to share their individual experiences. Feminism has entered the public sphere, and it is no longer seen as a misandrist movement only made up of men-hating lesbians.
I now see people all around me standing up for women, which is great. But there are still a number of men who behave in disrespectful ways.
Now, I’m not talking about denunciating the Harvey Weinsteins of this world, in which case the power dynamic acts as a threat to any whistle-blower. I’m talking about that ‘creepy guy’. The one who has never done anything wrong, yet any girl feels uncomfortable being in a room alone with them. He’s not a bad person, but he’ll always try and give one too many drinks to the girl he’s met in a club. For sure, he’s shady, but it’s only rumours.
I think it’s safe to say we all know one.
They aren’t your obvious sex offender, and often hide behind fake principles, in an attempt to put themselves in a good light. Unfortunately, most of them aren’t even aware of their bad conduct, as they see themselves as ‘a normal guy’, therefore unable to see that they do anything wrong.
Although everyone around them knows about their behaviour, it is not rare for the creepy guy to live his best life. He is surrounded by friends who are well aware of the problem but will never say anything.
I encounter this situation a lot, but I’ve recently been wondering why it’s such a common occurrence. I wondered how it can be so hard to let the creepy guy know that he’s creepy, but I ended up spotting a very similar pattern in American sitcoms.
Fiction has a primordial role when it comes to defining social norms and the roles we ought to embody. In the same way that fairytales are supposed to form morals in children, TV shows offer a set of values for a receptive audience.
A few months ago, I decided to watch the iconic ‘Friends’ for the first time (shocker, I know). The show is an absolute classic, and has become an all-time favourite in American sitcoms. It recently came back into the spotlight when it was added to Netflix, but with mixed feelings. It was heavily scrutinised by many new viewers who immediately spot the lack of diversity in the cast, as well as the sexist behaviours and internalised misogyny demonstrated by the main characters. Although it was one of the first sitcoms to portray strong, career-focused women, the show clearly still wasn’t quite there in terms of gender equality.
While we can all agree that Ross is the worst, let us focus on Joey.
He is the glue holding the group together. He is caring, generous (except with his food), and would do anything for the group. However, the way he treats women is just gross: he picked a hot roommate in order to have sex with her, he removes the bathroom’s lock in his flat to sneak a peek, he goes hunting for a woman he has seen through his apartment window, he strips naked the first time he meets Monica while she goes to get lemonade, and also uses his position as a leading actor in order to sleep with the interns of 'Days Of Our Lives'. The list goes on.
I should also mention the repeated comments of a sexual nature he makes about his female best friends, never missing an opportunity to tell them that he likes to picture them kissing and having sex. What a great friend.
But no matter how far he goes, his friends never really tell him off, because it’s ‘Joey’. This is where the problem lies and how sexual misconduct is repeatedly justified with humour. More often than not, his friends will not even react to the way he treats girls; and when they do, they do it to infantilise him which takes away the gravity of the situation. In addition to this, the show uses an effect of ‘deindividuation’ to get the audience on board with the action. By presenting the girls he chases as pretty faces without substantial backstory, the audience cannot empathize with them and therefore objectifies them in the same way he does.
As we can see, this pattern is very similar to the one the creepy guy shows: he’s not an utterly detestable person, and has human qualities which allow him to thrive in his friendship groups (he’ll often refer to them as ‘the boys’). His target of choice are random ‘pretty faces’ he picks up in a club, therefore unknown to his social group. This technique, added to the infamous “locker room talk”, is a very effective way of deinviduating any of his hook-ups and therefore not getting too much scrutiny on the nature of his actions.
However, those creepy guys, unlike Joey, tend not to be at the heart of their group of friends. Although they may have a lot of acquaintances, they are not especially missed when gone.
That brings us to the second, more recent example I wish to bring up: How I Met Your Mother.
Some might say that it was shamelessly copied from Friends and I kind of agree. But, to be fair, there is a limited choice in terms of narrative when you portray the life of middle class white Americans.
Evidently, the character we must bring up is Barney. Like our creepy guy, Barney isn’t the glue tying the group together. Eternal bachelor, he is the one constantly nagging the others to follow him on his ‘legen – wait for it – dary’ activities, which often consist in going to strip clubs or playing laser tag. Sure, he’s friends with the group, but he’s not the go-to confidante.
Being a little more recent, the show brings a different light to the Casanova stereotype by being less forgiving regarding the wrongful nature of Barney’s actions. Whereas Joey has likeable qualities in Friends, Barney does not seem to have a personality outside the obsession he has with getting with as many girls as possible. Although some kind of backstory is given to explain why Barney has become such a twat, it’s very fleeting and carries so many clichés that it’s hard to feel sorry for him.
HIMYM compensates for the Casanova’s wrongdoings with a technique called ‘lamp shading’. This designates situations when a show takes responsibility for its short-comings by implicitly pointing them out, therefore keeping the audience as an accomplice. In practice, it supposedly goes without saying that what Barney does is bad, because it is so over the top. The Playbook suffices as an example: a collection of techniques meant to pick up girls, each being more abusive and manipulative than the previous one. We witness Barney trying to pick up girls pretending he’s a secret agent, an old man coming from the future, or just fully undressing when invited back to a girl’s place while she’s out of the room. The fact that he consistently flirts back and forth between sexual misconduct and full on assault should be pretty clear by the way he lies, manipulates, and shamelessly coerces girls into having sex with him thanks to ‘spectacular’ tricks.
However, Barney’s friends do not reprimand him. In my opinion, their reactions are even worse than Joey’s ‘friends’ in their respective show, because they often join in on the fun, and are very entertained by their friend’s performance. At most, they’ll roll their eyes and let out an exasperated sigh, because that’s ‘typical Barney’.
Once again, the gravity of the act is being taken away for the sake of comedy. Because he bears a label of group comic relief, everything that Barney does is just for a laugh.
The phenomenon of deindividuation is also used and abused by HIMYM: the girls Barney targets are all supposed to be seen as your stereotypical bimbo: always Hollywood-like hot and, more often than not, stupid. By being portrayed as vain and gullible enough to fall into Barney’s obvious traps, the show almost insinuates that they deserve to be mistreated by him. This, paired with the lack of backstory, once again explains why the audience cannot feel sorry for these girls. Another element which adds to this is that a lot of Barney’s conquests are ‘challenges’, sometimes given by his friends, but that he mostly gives to himself. This objectifies the girls even more: they are seen as prizes to be taken, goals to be achieved, and not actual human beings.
Now, Barney’s behaviour is much like our infamous creepy guy. Every element is there: his place in his friendship group, his choice of target, the shady techniques he’ll use to get with them, and even the capacity he has to treat girls as objects (unsurprisingly, Barney seems to be the idol of quite a lot of creepy dudes I know).
While it can be argued that this is ‘just fiction’ and the shows make it more or less obvious that this behaviour is unacceptable, the influence it has over its watchers is primordial. By seeing that no one stops their actions, it validates the Joeys and Barneys of this world to keep on doing what they do. In hand with this, witnesses of the creepy dude’s actions will be less inclined to do anything, as it does not seem to fit the norm presented in popular culture.
Now, here are the things I think we can take away from this. While both the shows mentioned in this article are remembered fondly by most, especially Friends, it is good to see that a new perspective has been offered on the characters’ in recent times. As much as Joey is supposed to be portrayed in a very good light, the new reading of his actions show a lot of actions as legally punishable, and even though Barney’s main role is to be the womaniser cliché, the same holds for him as his attempts to get girls range from sexual misconduct to assault. In both cases, none of their friends take any action against this troubling behaviour.
This is another effect these shows have on us: we believe that our disgust is outside the norm, and that we are odd and weird to be revolted by this behaviour. However, it’s very unlikely to be the only one to think that way and, more often than not, everyone might be thinking the same thing.
I am in no better position than anyone else to give advice; I haven’t yet found the courage to speak up about local creepy guys, and have even witnessed one of them being brought to court by two girls accusing him of rape. But I believe that describing and explaining the mechanisms behind a common occurrence comes before finding the solution. Next time you’re confronted with a person of this type, don’t assume that you’re the only one who finds their actions reprehensible. If your interrogations are met with people saying that ‘it’s just banter, they’re actually a decent guy’, ask them if it would still be ‘banter’ if his target was their sister, mother or daughter.
Let’s not justify sexual assault with humour.
Words by Clara Gallay
Edited by Hannah Crosbie