hen Frankie Shaw set out to write “SMILF,” the Golden Globe-nominated TV show about a single mother from a working-class Boston neighborhood, she wanted it to be a naturalistic representation of everyday female experiences.
The women in Shaw’s show grapple with motherhood, friendship, financial concerns and romantic relationships. They dream of happiness. They yearn for love.
The show doesn’t shy away from what some might consider to be impolite representations of women. Shaw’s characters discuss eating disorders. One undergoes plastic surgery. They have sex and masturbate. And, like so many of us, they deal with sexual assault and harassment.
For the women of “SMILF,” sexual harassment and assault are a part of life. The show barely pauses, and sometimes doesn’t at all, when one of its female characters is harassed or assaulted. When Nelson, the budding sports reporter, is hit on by an athlete while on live television, she struggles to continue the interview. But after that, the incident isn’t mentioned.
In a different plotline, the show’s protagonist Bridgette Bird, played by Shaw, answers a man’s Craigslist ad for company so that she can pay her rent. The man says he just wants to have dinner. They eat junk food at a supermarket and the conversation flows. And then, when it seems like the evening is winding down, the man reaches under the table and grabs Bridgette’s crotch. She punches him and walks away. In the next episode, she tells a friend: “I just wish I didn’t have a pussy to grab.” Not too much more is said.
The characters in “SMILF” “are not talking about [sexual harassment and assault] as if it’s a shocking thing,” Shaw adds, because sexual assault and harassment are a part of life for many women. “It’s woven into their experience.”
The show’s depictions of harassment and assault feel important, but that’s because, unlike the show’s characters, American women today are insisting that when they talk about their negative experiences with gender-based harassment, they are taken seriously.
Now, men are dropping left and right: congressmen, Hollywood executives, news anchors. Companies are acting quickly to suspend or remove those accused of assault and harassment. Politicians are stepping down, and the Congressional compliance office has released information about sexual harassment settlements: between 2008 to 2012,$174,000 from a US Treasury fund was used to settle lawsuits against members of the House of Representatives.
The public treatment of this year’s revelatory accounts of sexual assault and harassment is breathtakingly different than that of another important moment in the history of assault and harassment allegations: in 1991, when Anita Hill accused her former boss, then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, she became a target for the American public’s scorn.
Conservative journalists such as David Brock, who wrote the bestselling book “The Real Anita Hill,” reported allegations condemning Hill’s character. (Brock, 10 years later, said that he did his best to “ruin Hill’s credibility,’’ employing “virtually every derogatory and often contradictory allegation I had collected on Hill into the vituperative mix.’’He has since recanted his accusations.) And, in another remarkable moment of the Thomas-Hill case, then-Senator Joe Biden elected not to haveAngela Wright, a former employee of Thomas’s who also claimed Thomas had sexually harassed her, testify publicly. In this case, women’s accounts weren’t heard or taken seriously.
But because 2017 saw positive developments in the handling of harassment and assault, the representations of sexual assault and harassment in SMILF’s first season sometimes feels out of place in this moment.
This is especially true in the first season’s final episode, which aired on Dec. 31. In that episode, Bridgette matches her sexually abusive father, whom she hasn’t seen for many years, on Tinder.
It’s a ridiculous situation, and Bridgette hatches an equally absurd plan: she agrees to meet her father for dinner so that she can tape his confession and use it to launch a civil lawsuit against him. Bridgette’s two friends and mother Tutu, wonderfully played by Rosie O’Donnell, come with Bridgette to the restaurant as moral support. Bridgette’s father arrives and Bridgette is (understandably) a nervy mess. She sits down at the table with her father and begins to read a letter she wrote about her abuse while undergoing psychiatric treatment. Bridgette then looks up. The man seems confused. Tutu realizes Bridgette has mistaken this man’s identity. She coaxes sobbing Bridgette back to the bar and then the four women proceed to get blindingly drunk together. In short, Bridgette attempts to speak out against her sexual abuse are for naught.
But that the season one finale seems to belong more to past years’ narratives of sexual assault and harassment is a good thing. It’s better to watch a show that reminds you more of what it was like before the investigative reports and the resignations and suspensions.
But this isn’t to say that the work toward ending sexual harassment and assault is over. We must institute and enforce new policies to prevent harassment and assault, especially in the workplace. Too many women still aren’t being heard. It took celebrities speaking up for normal women to be listened to. But it does feel good to be able to say that it seems like the old narrative about women and abuse — the female victim does not see justice served to the male perpetrator — might finally become an artifact of a less feminist past.