thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Where The Mindy Project’s “Slipped” Went Wrong

In feminism, rape culture, sexism on October 21, 2014 at 9:42 am

Phoebe B.

The Mindy Project’s recent episode “Slipped” had potential—potential to tackle rape culture and issues of consent, even with humor thrown into the mix. It seemed perfectly timed with California’s recent “Yes Means Yes” legislation and the ongoing federal investigation into rape on college campuses. Sadly, the episode failed to treat a difficult topic with the warmth and empathy exemplified by films like Obvious Child, which was able to find humor in the sensitive issue of abortion without sacrificing compassion. Instead, “Slipped” just felt lazy: the episode engaged rape culture in a cursory way that ultimately disregarded and did a disservice to the very real violence of rape.

“Slipped” begins as Danny and Mindy are having sex. Danny—without asking—attempts to slip his penis into Mindy’s butt. The problem is not that Danny wants to try anal sex so much as the fact that he doesn’t ask. While he immediately pulls out and apologizes, he then lies repeatedly about his rationale: his aim was off, his eyes are bad, etc. Most damningly of all, Danny eventually reveals that he did it because he thought Mindy had had anal sex before, because she watches porn. His assumption, then, is that because Mindy has dated a lot and watches porn, that she is already and always sexually willing and able.

Consent matters both in relationships and outside of them. It’s always better to ask, and neither party should assume that various sex positions will be okay. What’s more, just because a person has done something once—had anal sex, watched porn, the list goes on—does not mean that their partner now has unfettered access or that they have a willingness or desire to do it again, a topic Sarah Todd tackled beautifully in her essay on teen sex, consent, and Switched at Birth.

Ultimately, Mindy decides—after a botched sex-ed session with her fellow doctor Peter—that she will give anal sex with Danny a shot. That’s all well and good, but her reasons are upsetting and also misguided. She believes Danny has ample sexual experience and so worries that she will bore him with her limited bedroom knowledge. Danny ultimately corrects this misconception, but the episode allows this sensibility to sit for far too long. So Mindy then procures the help of a sedative because she “has to do something she can’t be awake for, but legally can’t be a asleep for.”

This is a rape joke and it’s not funny at all. Instead of doing what she’s comfortable with in bed, Mindy’s decision is to cater to Danny’s desires and roofie herself in the process. When Mindy passes out, it’s played for laughs as she attempts to maintain some cool while her world literally spins. Here, the show makes a joke of the serious issue of non-consensual sex, eliding the very real danger and trauma that comes with being roofied.

Luckily, Mindy is ultimately safe because Danny does the right thing and takes her to the hospital. Most women are not so lucky, as news reports about Steubenville, rape on college campuses and far beyond reveal.

When Mindy wakes up in the hospital, a terse female cop with short hair, a stocky build, and a deep voice confronts her. The show uses these stereotypically butch traits as shorthand, to quickly and problematically position the policewoman as a man-hater. This leads to yet another upsetting moment, wherein the policewoman’s suspicions of Danny (not unreasonable, given the scenario) are played as ridiculous. “You make me sick,” the cop tells Danny. “It’s scum like you that make me drink myself to sleep.”

The cop’s misplaced aggression is meant to be funny, making light of any real accusation and mocking the difficult process that many rape victims face in coming forward and being heard and believed. The above exchange also reinforces victim-blaming rhetoric: after all, we know Mindy drugged herself; so not only is she the victim but she is also at fault. And in a media landscape that of late has paid altogether too much attention to how rape accusations affect men while still accusing and shaming rape victims, this scene seems strangely in support of that line of reasoning.

The episode ends on one last joke about consent. Danny delivers a speech about how the United States was built on trying new things, including, but not limited to Manifest Destiny—a historical act he doesn’t name but certainly invokes as he talks about the country’s westward expansion. The pioneers just tried it out, Danny says, and sometimes guys just have to try things out. The equation he makes is unintentionally revealing and devastating: Manifest Destiny was a horrifyingly violent project enacted on Native American tribes against their will.

The underlying violence of Danny’s comment, again played here for ahistorical and decontextualized laughs, underscores the problem with this episode’s humor. The episode’s writers failed to engage with either history or contemporary politics that might hone a clear and more compassionate message, not to mention help avoid any positive references to or jokes about Manifest Destiny. Rather, “Slipped” feels like the writers read some headlines and decided to include this whole hot-topic rape thing without educating themselves first.

Nonetheless, the show suggests, guys who want to try things out ought to seek permission. As Mindy says, “If you want to try something freaky, just ask me first.” A good idea, I think. Danny agrees, promptly asking her to have sex in a hospital bed. But when Mindy responds with a no, due to the public nature of hospitals, a frustrated Danny says he just should have started kissing her. “Asking sucks,” he says. “Damn it, you’re right,” Mindy replies. Any work that Danny’s eventual show of support for consent did is upended by the quick turnaround in these final moments.

A couple months ago—just as Obvious Child hit theaters—Mindy Kaling found herself in hot water after she suggested that abortion was not a good topic for her primetime sitcom. She worried, though she later recanted, that discussing abortion in a sitcom would “demean” the issue—that is, she felt humor could not and would not be able to approach abortion’s complexity. It seems an odd line to draw in the wake of Obvious Child, where humor was used to discuss abortion in a way that was empathetic, complex, and ultimately human.

Certainly, rape is a difficult and complicated topic to tackle with or without humor. The major failing in “Slipped” is not the topic but that the episode’s humor was grounded in mocking Mindy and mocking the very real issues of sexual consent. The episode’s lack of historical context and surface treatment of rape culture did exactly what Mindy Kaling feared: demean the issues of consent and sexual violence. Ultimately, the episode suggests that consent is not sexy. And that takeaway is a major problem and huge missed opportunity.

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  1. Reblogged this on Phoebe Bronstein and commented:

    New post on GLG now up!

  2. This is so thoughtful and well done, Phoebs. I watched that episode and laughed some and felt terrible a lot and mostly just walked away feeling confused. You said so many smart things about it and are totally, totally spot-on in your critique.

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