Two years ago, film critic Sara Stewart sat down to re-watch “Sixteen Candles,” one of her favorite 1980s John Hughes comedies. She was mortified. One scene, played for laughs — the ostensible hero gifting his drunk girlfriend to another boy — seemed like a manual for rape. Stewart wrote a column about the offensive aspects of the movie, and was met with vitriol. Readers accused her of being humorless, of ruining something beloved.
“But if I wrote that column now,” she speculates, “I feel like people might be in agreement with me.”
In the four months since the watershed Harvey Weinstein sexual-harassment scandal, the culture has wrestled with whether to separate art from the artist. Actors debate whether to work with Woody Allen; viewers, whether to stream Kevin Spacey. But what Stewart describes — being made queasy by movies she once loved — is an extreme version of a companion issue.
Which I have come to think of as the Donna Problem.
Donna Moss and Josh Lyman are characters in Aaron Sorkin’s long-running, deeply beloved political fantasy, “The West Wing.” He’s the White House deputy chief of staff, played by Bradley Whitford. She’s his assistant, played by Janel Moloney. By the seventh and final season they’re dating. For the first six seasons they are — well, what are they doing?
Millions of swooning fans prior to 2017 would have said they were flirting. In a post-#MeToo viewing of the show, though, parts of the Donna-Josh relationship look different.
In one early episode, a friend asks Josh how he feels about Donna going on dates. “I don’t like it,” he replies. “And I usually do everything within my considerable capabilities to sabotage it.”
Is romantic sabotage appropriate behavior for a boss? Or is it creepy?
Later in the series, when Donna is frustrated with her mundane duties — and Josh has asked a male intern, instead of her, to brief the president — she insists to a female colleague that it’s not his fault: “Josh has given me every opportunity to grow in my job. He has.”
“If he was giving you every opportunity,” her dubious friend replies, “you would have grown out of this job three years ago.”
Has Josh harassed Donna? Not really, by legal definition. But has Josh’s possessive sexual interest in his underling held back her career? Probably: When she finally quits, she quickly rises through the ranks of another political campaign.
More important, is Josh’s behavior an example of what we’re currently trying to educate men not to do in the workplace? Yes. Absolutely. Don’t be Josh. Josh’s behavior used to be considered cute. It’s not cute anymore.
The Donna Problem is that the rest of “The West Wing,” which ended its run in 2006, is still a really good show. But our culture has undergone a seismic shift. And Donna and Josh haven’t.
“I was just re-watching the series ‘Mad About You,’ which I love,” says Julia Lippman, a teaching fellow in the University of Michigan’s communications department. “There’s a flashback episode to how Jamie and Paul got together. And the answer to that is, he basically stalked her.”
Played by Paul Reiser, the male lead woos his future wife by wheedling her address from the dry cleaners, stealing her clothes and going to every floor of her building until he finds her and cajoles her into dating him.
In the 1990s, this was romance. In 2018, this is a man ignoring boundaries and not realizing that a stranger appearing at your office with your laundry is more scary than adorable.
Lippman compares the belated viewing experience to getting a new pair of glasses: “You’re watching the same thing — the thing hasn’t changed — but all of a sudden you’re noticing aspects you haven’t noticed before.”
“Love Actually”: Is it the story of a prime minister falling in love with his assistant, or a prime minister reassigning the assistant because he was jealous that the U.S. president got to sexually harass her and he didn’t?
“There’s Something About Mary”: Is it a screwball rom-com, in which no man can help but fall in love with Cameron Diaz, or a bizarre movie about stalkers?
Once you have new glasses on, you see the problems everywhere. I recently re-watched “Sliding Doors,” an underappreciated 1998 comedy, and was, for the first time, irritated when the romantic hero ignores Gwyneth Paltrow’s protests that she isn’t ready to date. He insists she needs someone to cheer her up: “And in your case, it’s my job.” No matter that she didn’t hire him for it.
It’s just a movie. They’re all just movies. But they’re movies that reflect either what the filmmakers think should be normal behavior, or what unfortunately already is.
In graduate school, Lippman studied how stalking depicted in a romantic-comedy setting (a la “Something About Mary”) vs. a dark setting (a la “Sleeping With the Enemy”) might affect viewers’ perceptions of stalking in general. People assigned to watch romantic comedies were more likely to buy into stalking myths, such as “women secretly like the attention” or “if a man goes overboard, it just means he really loves her.”
Women have spent years begging for “chick flicks” to get the same respect as male-centric action movies. But rom-coms are also the movies that often now seem distasteful. They’re still funny. Still escapist. They still have some of the strongest female roles available in Hollywood. They’re also just . . . distasteful.
Chloe Angyal wrote her doctoral dissertation on rom-coms from 2005 to 2011. A theme emerged: “Heroines had lots of power. But were then being made miserable by the power they had.” Feminism hadn’t served them well; they needed a persistent man to fix them.
Angyal, now a HuffPost editor, points to “The Ugly Truth,” in which Katherine Heigl plays a TV personality given a misogynist co-host to improve her ratings — but also, it turns out, to wear her down until she dates him. In the movie, this is made palatable via contrived character-development devices: Look, the misogynist has a nephew he loves, so his jerk behavior is just a facade! Look, Heigl is happier when she listens to him, so he must’ve been right all along!
“Romantic comedies are the only genre written for, by and about women,” Angyal says. “It matters that the only genre we get is terrible.”
She’s immune to their tricks by now but wonders about viewers who are just learning to navigate the workforce and complex adult relationships. In real life, the handsome jerk may be just a jerk, even if he has a cute nephew.
In real life, you probably shouldn’t tell your female colleague, “That dress is enough to make a good dog break its leash.” (“The West Wing,” Season 3, Episode 13.)
Of course, the Donna Problem is just a subset of pop culture’s larger quandary: the “Problematic Fave,” which encompasses any book or screen experience that is good, but with dire caveats.
Maybe it’s a sitcom set in New York but featuring only straight, white characters. Or a movie using terms for intellectual disabilities that would now be considered slurs. Any media that, if you want to recommend it to a friend, “you feel you need a disclaimer,” says writer Lara Elena Donnelly, who held forth on the topic at a panel at last year’s New York Comic Con.
These days, almost everything made before 2018 feels as if it needs some kind of disclaimer. Granted, as far as messed-up gender interactions go, Donna and Josh are fairly tame. Donna comes to work in office-appropriate attire, as opposed to the miniskirted lawyers of the contemporaneous “Ally McBeal.” She works in a White House where the press secretary is a woman and the first lady is a surgeon.
The Donna Problem is that it would be easy to excuse her interactions with Josh because he’s a lovable goof who doesn’t mean any harm. Their relationship is played as sweet. We’re supposed to root for him.
Except that excusing powerful men because they didn’t mean any harm is exactly how we got in this situation. Realizing that powerful men were getting away with things — getting our new glasses prescription, to use Lippman’s metaphor — is exactly why we have a Donna Problem.
Nothing in the Donna-Josh relationship is overtly bad. But it’s a little bad. We can no longer ignore that a lot of little-bad things together are what normalize a toxic culture.
“And it’s not like there’s a violent content warning for the things we’re talking about,” Lippman says.
Lippman and I ponder a retroactive rating system for movies with the Donna Problem: This film is rated #MeToo, for a man making three sexual innuendos on a sales conference call, and for a woman laughing them off because she didn’t want to lose the account.
So, here we are. Decades of slightly-off male and female interactions, in movies and shows made with the best of intentions, before we knew better. And now they’re regularly popping up on our televisions.
“For me, it hasn’t been a black-and-white thing,” says Bekah Nutt, who works for a Los Angeles ad agency. “But all of this has caused me to think — how when I go to watch something I’ve watched a hundred times, it’s different now.”
Nutt is a co-creator of Rotten Apples, a new site that allows you to type in any movie or TV show and learn whether a main player has been accused of harassment. Type “Shakespeare in Love” and get links to articles written about Harvey Weinstein, the movie’s producer, and Ben Affleck, one of the stars. There have been 4 million searches conducted on the site.
But type in “The West Wing” and the message comes back “Fresh Apples: This movie has no known affiliation to anyone with allegations of sexual misconduct against them.” “The Ugly Truth” comes up as fresh, too, and so does “Sixteen Candles,” the movie that caused Sara Stewart the headache two years ago.
Is it better to watch a good movie made by bad people? Or to watch a movie made by good people that turns out to include a date rape played for laughs? (“Sixteen Candles” also features one of the most unfortunate racial stereotypes of the modern era, Asian exchange student Long Duk Dong.)
Maybe one solution is this: Watch the movies, but with eyes wide open to the problems.
Enjoy “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” but recognize the issues with Ferris’s scowly sister blossoming only once she receives a proper kissing from Charlie Sheen.
Acknowledge that it’s actually terrifying in “Back to the Future” when Lea Thompson’s character is nearly raped in a car; it’s not a moment of triumph because Crispin Glover’s underdog character rallies to save her.
“Gilmore Girls” — great show, but can you see now that it’s not cute how Tristan tells everyone he’s dating Rory, just pushy and entitled?
Janel Moloney, who plays Donna in “The West Wing,” declined an interview request for this article. I wish she hadn’t; I’ve interviewed her before and she was smart and thoughtful.
I would have liked to know how she felt about Donna now, if the role meant anything different to her than it once did. As for me, I’m up to Season 6 in my re-watching of “The West Wing.” This means that Donna is about to go get a better job, with more responsibility, and the respect she’s spent the past six years trying to earn. I’m really looking forward to it.