Two years ago, film critic Sara Stewart re-watched “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.
“But if I wrote that column now,” she speculated, “I feel like people might be in agreement with me.”
In the 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, 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 before 2017 would have said they were flirting. In a post-#MeToo viewing of the show, though, the Donna-Josh relationship looks 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 sabatoge it.”
Is romantic sabotage appropriate behavior for a boss?
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 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 trying to educate men not to do in the workplace? Yes. Absolutely.
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.
A lot of little-bad things
“I was just re-watching the series ‘Mad About You,’ which I love,” said 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.
Is “Love Actually” the story of a prime minister falling in love with his assistant, or a prime minister reassigning his assistant because he’s jealous the U.S. president got to sexually harass her and he didn’t?
Is “There’s Something About Mary” a screwball rom-com, in which no man can help but fall in love with Cameron Diaz, or a bizarre movie about stalkers?
I recently re-watched “Sliding Doors,” an underappreciated 1998 comedy, and was irritated when the romantic hero ignores Gwyneth Paltrow’s protests she isn’t ready to date.
They’re all just movies. But they’re movies that reflect what the filmmakers think should be normal behavior, or what unfortunately is.
In graduate school, Lippman studied how stalking depicted in a romantic-comedy setting (à la “Something About Mary”) vs. a dark setting (à la “Sleeping With the Enemy”) might affect viewers’ perceptions of stalking in general. People assigned to watch rom-coms were more likely to buy into stalking myths, such as “women secretly like the attention.”
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.”
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.
Angyal is immune to the genre’s 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.
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.
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.
Best of intentions
So, here we are. Decades of slightly off male-female interactions, in movies and shows made with the best of intentions, before we knew better.
“For me, it hasn’t been a black-and-white thing,” said 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 (therottenappl.es), which 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.
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.”
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?
Maybe one solution is this: Watch the movies, but with eyes wide open.
Enjoy “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” but recognize the issues with Ferris’ scowly sister blossoming only once she receives a kiss from Charlie Sheen.
Acknowledge that it’s terrifying in “Back to the Future” when Lea Thompson’s character is nearly raped in a car.
On “Gilmore Girls,” see that Tristan isn’t cute when he tells everyone he’s dating Rory, just pushy and entitled.
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. I’m really looking forward to it.