Friday, March 9, 2018, marks the release of season two of Netflix’s landmark show, Jessica Jones. The central storylines of Season One focus on the titular character Jones, brilliantly portrayed by Krysten Ritter, as she dealt with the fallout, recovery, and the reemergence of her captor, Kilgrave, in a bone-chilling portrayal by David Tennant. As we count down the days to the Season Two release, Super Heroines, Etc. is featuring a series on the #MeToo movement and pop-culture characters we love.
Our goal is to spark discussions by offering a unique look at stories and characters people might see themselves in and to provide resources and guides for talking about and healing from assault and harassment in its many forms. For this post, we will look at quid pro quo sexual harassment as seen in Golden Girls and Legally Blonde. While the stories are slightly different, the outcomes are sadly the same as the folks who commit the harassment do not face consequences for their actions, whether in 1986 or 2001.
Trigger Warning: the following post deals heavily with themes of sexual trauma and assault.
What is Quid Pro Quo?
If you have seen the media reports on Hollywood’s #MeToo stories, then it’s likely you already have a good sense of quid pro quo harassment. Quid pro quo essentially translates to “something for something” and is committed by folks who hold power over another person, like bosses. According to The Advocates for Human Rights, quid pro quo harassment “occurs when (1) job benefits, including employment, promotion, salary increases, shift or work assignments, performance expectations and other conditions of employment, are made contingent on the provision of sexual favors, usually to an employer, supervisor or agent of the employer who has the authority to make decisions about employment actions, or (2) the rejection of a sexual advance or request for sexual favors results in a tangible employment detriment, a loss of a job benefit of the kind described above.”
A prime example of this type of harassment is Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct in his role as an A-list producer in Hollywood. Weinstein would frequnetly use his power to manipulate women into sexual acts. Due to his power over their future careers – whether through casting in his own company or his influence throughout Hollywood – his sexual abuse is considered quid pro quo harassment.
In 1986, Blanche Deveraux, portrayed by Rue McClanahan, worked toward her college degree on the television show Golden Girls. In that same year, the United States Supreme Court recognized sexual harassment as a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This landmark 9-0 decision redefined sexual harassment in the workplace and for the first time, made sexual harassment an illegal form of discrimination. This was great progress for our legal system, but women were still facing this kind of harassment daily and did not always feel comfortable speaking up.
In the episode, Adult Education, Blanche’s professor offers up his home phone number (with a wink and a nod) as the only way she might pass a class. When she goes to the school’s administration, the Dean believes her, but he does nothing because no one else was around to witness the interaction. Blanche leaves the office humiliated, but determined to ace the class on her own, which she does. Unfortunately, the professor never faces any consequences. Since this episode aired and the Supreme Court decision was made, many institutions have improved their processes for sexual harassment reporting. Title IX offices at colleges and universities across the country provide support to victims of sexual harassment.
Fast-forwarding to 2001, Elle Woods arrives at Harvard Law determind to win back her boyfriend. While this is by no means the most feminist start to a movie, the storyline quickly turns that trope on its head by showing Elle becoming determined to succeed because she is amazingly smart and fierce. Toward the end of the film, Elle’s professor sexually harasses her as we can see in the clip below:
In the scene, Elle’s professor touches her without her consent and he implies that he only hired her for her looks. Elle rejects his advances, but is later victim shamed by her friend who believed Elle had essentially used sex to gain the position in the first place. Elle’s first instinct is to leave Harvard and return home, but another professor encourages her to stay. At the end Elle graduates top of her class, but there seems to be no repercussions for the professor who harassed her. Despite the 15 year difference between Golden Girls and Legally Blonde, the endings are nearly identical.
Quid Pro No
Unfortunately, the quid pro quo trope is prevelant in our media and is sometimes even played for laughs in comedies. While art often imitates life, we need to ask more of our media. Sexual harassment is never funny and characters who harass should face consequences. Perhaps now that folks in Hollywood are facing consequences for their actions, characters on screen will as well.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault or rape, it is important to know you are not alone. The #MeToo movement has shown us just how widespread sexual harassment and assault is and how many people have kept it a secret for so long. Trust your instincts, if it feels like assault it is assault. Find a trusted friend, family member and don’t be afraid of your own voice. If a friend or family member trusts you with their story, believe them. There are many resources available to help you or your loved one in reporting and healing:
9 to 5: National Association of Working Women
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
Equal Rights Advocates
24 hr line: 415-621-0505
American Association of University Women
Lean In Sexual Harassment Resources
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Great post, Carolyn! In my experience, the implications haven’t been so pronounced and direct, but I always got a sense well before what direction they were headed. 🙁
I am struggling through an issue at work after being first bitten on the ear against my wishes and then repeatedly made sexual gestures to. Initially, my work place dealt with it in part. I still had to work with him, but he was not allowed to talk to me. He took it to an unprofessional extreme and wouldn’t talk to me even when required by our job. He black balled me to other people in control of my position and generally made life miserable until he left last year. Unfortunately, the company allowed him back. They tell me they have no record of there ever being an issue. They assigned me to work with him when other people were available and when I complained I was told I was allowing him to ruin my career and I should get help through the EAP (presumably for my emotional issues). I appreciate the women who have spoken up before me. You at least make me feel less alone, though I don’t know how this will end up.