The American version of The Office is a much lighter, goofier show than its BBC counterpart. Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant’s original show is cynical and essentially misanthropic, such a pure distillation of cringe comedy that it’s uncomfortable to watch. Although the NBC version started as an almost beat-for-beat remake, it quickly became a radically different show: warm and pleasant, with characters who seem like nice people. The BBC show is painful, exquisitely so; the American remake is a go-to comfort show for many.
So it’s kind of weird that it’s in the American version that the main character gets raped.
Michael Scott (Steve Carell) is the American Office’s bumbling buffoon of an office manager. He’s the Peter principle personified: a talented salesman promoted into a management position at which he is incompetent. Despite the litany of inappropriate things Michael does at work, there’s an innocence to him that makes him sympathetic, like all he wants is for people to think he’s funny and cool. All he wants if for people to like him.
And Michael is a rape victim. Jan – his sometime boss, sometime girlfriend – frequently forces him into sexual situations he doesn’t want. His innocence and his desperate need to be liked are the very qualities Jan exploits to abuse him. This is not a serious dramatic departure or anything. Michael tells us about it directly, in the same saying-more-than-he-realises style of all his talking head interviews, and it is, fundamentally, a gag:
Women can’t have fun if they don’t feel safe. For example, Jan and I have a safe word in case things go too far. Foliage. And if one of us says that word, the other one has to stop. Although last time, she pretended she didn’t hear me.
I always thought this was obvious, but nobody ever seems to talk about it. Michael and Jan’s relationship is described euphemistically as crazy or turbulent or mismatched. Retrospectives specifically focused on watching The Office in the #MeToo era don’t mention it, looking instead at Michael’s inappropriate behaviour. There was a contemporary article in Bitch specifically about rape jokes in The Office, but it only mentions Michael’s rape briefly.
This isn’t a callout post. I very much believe good rape jokes are possible, if extremely difficult to pull off, and am not convinced there’s anything that categorically cannot be joked about. But Michael’s rape on The Office is right on the line between the kind of rape joke I like and the kind I find unconscionable, and the near-total non-engagement with it only seems to tip it more into the bad category.
The main differences between a good rape joke and a bad one are the underlying assumptions that animate the joke, and what or who the punchline is “on”. Like any piece of art, jokes can’t be reduced to a straightforward political or social function, and so the distinction is always messy and inexact and ultimately subjective. It’s also important to bear in mind that there are lots of great jokes that refer to rape but aren’t really “about” rape in any meaningful sense – like this excellent tweet about a necrophiliac bear. But as an obviously insufficient rule of thumb, a bad rape joke reinforces society’s worst ideas about sexual assault, its perpetrators and its victims. A good rape joke deconstructs and critiques these ideas, exposes the lies we internalise about sexual assault and points the finger at rapists and rape culture.
Rape of men in particular is a basically a comedy staple. There’s a whole Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart movie that, as far as I understand it, is just a succession of jokes about men getting raped in prison. Prison rape jokes are so ubiquitous that “don’t drop the soap” has filtered all the way down into Spongebob Squarepants, somehow. There are often racist or homophobic implications, too: the aggressor is almost always a big hulking black guy in prison or, in other settings, an effeminate gay man, as in Wedding Crashers. These jokes are generally lazy and gross, leaning on the taboo of rape to crank a nervous laugh out of the audience. The punchline is the rape itself. I’d call it shock humour, but at this point, they’re recycled so often that I can’t imagine finding them shocking.
Family Guy is built in large part on rape jokes, exclusively of the bad kind. The amount of rape in Family Guy is sort of staggering, and it appears in all kinds of places in all kinds of ways: rape of women by men, rape of men by other men, rape of men by women, rape of people by animals, in jokes where the punchline is basically just “RAPE!” and in jokes so gratuitous that you could just swap the rape for something else, like murder, and it wouldn’t change a thing. Family Guy relies heavily on cutaway jokes – where a character will say “this is worse than the time that some unrelated sketch happened” and then it cuts to the unrelated sketch – and a lot of them are about rape. In the main narrative of the show, Peter gets raped a lot, often by women, including by his daughter, Meg, and his wife, Lois. Lois raping Peter might be my least favourite rape joke of all time, because the episode is making a fairly serious point about the failure of abstinence-only sex education, but when it comes time for Peter to learn the error of abstinence-only sex ed., they have him learn that lesson by being violently raped by his wife while he screams for her to stop. He ends up enjoying it. This plays into the worst ideas people have about sexual assault, and particularly the sexual assault of men by women: that no matter how much he protests, men “always want it”.
Like jokes about men being raped by other men, jokes about men being raped by women frequently hinge on emasculation. But unlike jokes about men being raped by other men, jokes about rape by women treat that emasculation as absurd. Way back in 1985, two women raped Monroe on Too Close for Comfort, of all things. This episode was at least kind of an attempt at a Very Special Episode about how male rape victims aren’t taken seriously, but the rhythm of the dialogue and the full-blast laugh track make it just part of the problem. It’s like watching one of those “inappropriate laugh track” edit videos on YouTube. The other characters debate if it’s even possible for Monroe (or any man) to be raped, and the police officer tells Monroe that there’s no point taking it to court because no-one would believe he wasn’t a willing participant.
Twenty-five years later, on $h*! My Dad Says – a CBS sitcom that aired one season in 2010-11 – a woman rapes the main character. I honestly cannot describe how disturbing the whole scene is: he arrives home with his clothes torn, a tooth missing, and a limp, and says he’s going to go cry in the shower. And the whole time, the studio audience is laughing. The punchline is always what has happened to the character. The punchline is that it’s such a wacky, silly sitcom situation, rather than a scary, violent one. I don’t think the show even conceives of what happened as rape – the characters dismiss the rapist as “crazy” – which is all the more disturbing because it’s such a clear-cut, violent case. I don’t think they expect the audience to conceive of it as rape, either. There’s a controversy section on the Wikipedia page for $h*! My Dad Says, and it’s exclusively about the curse word in the title.
The Office isn’t Family Guy: it’s got a big heart, and it expects us to be invested in the emotional lives if its characters. But, like $h*! My Dad Says, I’m not sure if The Office knows what it’s depicting is rape. Like Too Close for Comfort, I’m not sure quite who the joke is on.
The episode ‘Women’s Appreciation’ opens with Phyllis coming into the office, telling everyone she’s just been flashed. She’s clearly shaken, and everyone immediately takes it seriously, attempting to comfort her or, in Dwight’s case, catch the perpetrator. (Except for Angela, who scolds Phyllis that she’s “a married woman.”) Michael comes in and makes a bunch of inappropriate jokes – asking why the flasher would target Phyllis instead of young, attractive Pam, and doing a “poking your finger out your fly” bit at the worst possible time – until he all at once realises this isn’t a good way to react. This is when it cuts to the talking head where he talks about Jan raping him: “In all the excitement, I forgot that my primary goal is to keep people safe,” he says, then talks about Jan ignoring his safe word.
From there, Michael spends most of the episode on predictably disastrous attempts to make the women of the office feel safe, happy and appreciated. He takes them to the mall, and in the food court, he asks them for advice about Jan:
MICHAEL: Well, Jan has this schoolgirl fantasy. I just – I feel uncomfortable wearing the dress.
PAM: Michael, you shouldn’t do anything that you’re uncomfortable with.
MICHAEL: Jan says anything that doesn’t scare us is not worth doing. I don’t know. Maybe we’re different people. I like cuddling and spooning and she likes videotaping us during sex… And then, watching it back right afterward to improve my form.
The thing is, when I watch this scene, it feels like The Office recognises Jan’s abuse of Michael, and takes it seriously. The other characters in the scene react with concern, with Karen saying that this is unhealthy and Pam repeatedly encouraging Michael to get out of this relationship. The joke, as in the earlier safe word talking head, is a dark one about Michael’s inability to recognise what is being done to him, and the laugh is at the expense of a society that teaches men that they cannot be raped because should always be happy to get sex. Michael, like many men assaulted by women, doesn’t understand what has happened to him as abuse, even as he describes unambiguously abusive dynamics, and it’s from this incongruity comes the humour.
But that’s not a common reading. In a typical review, The AV Club describe this scene as Michael “hijack[ing] something horrible that happened to Phyllis, making it all about him instead.” I guess it’s a little rude of him to take the focus off Phyllis, but it seems pretty human and understandable to use the moment as an opening to talk about how he is trapped in an abusive relationship where his partner sexually assaults him. Just as Michael doesn’t recognise his sexual assault, neither do many of the show’s viewers. And the more I watch ‘Women’s Appreciation’, the more I think the show doesn’t recognise it either.
The Office definitely understands that Jan and Michael’s relationship is bad. That Jan is manipulative and cruel and makes Michael deeply unhappy. But even as it has Pam tell Michael he needs to leave her, it has Karen say, “Most relationships have their rough patches. You just have to push through it sometimes.” And, sure, Pam is the audience surrogate and Karen is her antagonist, and they’re both really talking about their own love triangle with Jim. But talking through Michael and Jan’s relationship to point to something else further minimises Jan’s abuse (even as it adds layers of meaning to the scene). It puts Jim/Karen and Michael/Jan under the same heading of “bad relationships”, even though one pairing is abusive and other is not.
And I know that this kind of joke – where a man doesn’t recognise he’s been raped – can work, because it worked on Peep Show. Jeremy’s mother and her new boyfriend, as well as the boyfriend’s daughter Natalie, are visiting. Natalie passes out on Mark’s bed, and he sleeps on the floor. He wakes up with Natalie having sex with him. He repeatedly tells her to stop, but she continues until he orgasms. “She’s stolen sex from me,” he says in his internal monologue.
When Mark describes what happened to Jeremy the next morning, Jeremy immediately identifies it as rape. “Mark. It sounds like you’ve been raped,” he says, “…You said no, you said ‘stop having sex with me please,’ but she didn’t listen. You, my friend, are a rape victim.” Mark resists this framing, saying it’s “more complicated than that,” even though it’s not really at all.
Just putting the words on what happened to Mark makes a huge difference. The show recognises it as rape, and tells the audience that we should recognise it as rape, too. But even at this point, it would be possible for the audience to dismiss what happened to Mark, especially because Jeremy is being kind of a dick about it and Mark says that it’s not accurate. But then Super Hans comes in, and Jeremy tells him Mark’s been raped.
“A woman just continued to have sex with me after I’d asked her to stop, that’s all,” Mark says.
“Sounds like you were raped to me, Mark,” Super Hans says, “Classic case.”
Mark’s denial requires more and more clutching at straws. He says that it wasn’t rape, “just a minor sexual assault,” and then says it wasn’t rape because no-one put anything up his bum. (“Well, it’s not bum rape, no,” Jeremy says.)
I love this whole scene. It’s extremely funny, but it rightly never makes the rape seem any less serious or horrible. The juxtaposition of Jeremy and Super Hans both being very serious about the fact that Mark was raped, but also making weird jokes about it because of their own immaturity (in Jeremy’s case) or general weirdness (Super Hans), is brilliant. It allows for character-derived humour without ever making the rape itself the punchline.
This kind of joke feels more extreme or edgy than The Office’s version, in no small part because it uses the word “rape” so much. But it’s the use of the actual word that makes it so much better. The joke here is unquestionably the gap between what happened to Mark – an unambiguous rape – and his denial of that fact. Mark can’t conceive of being raped by a woman because it’s a kind of rape rendered largely invisible, that we are thought not to think of as possible. In 1985, the ladies on Too Close for Comfort thought Monroe couldn’t be raped because an erection implies consent, and we’ve moved precious little forward. But Peep Show understands that Mark was raped, and goes out of its way to make sure that the audience understand that Mark was raped: a “classic case.” The joke is at the expense of a society that could somehow convince itself that what happened to Mark wasn’t rape, and if you are someone inclined to believe that, it rubs the obvious fact in your face.
On The Office, they don’t use the word rape to describe what Jan does to Michael. Or the word abuse. The show never frames their relationship as anything worse than “bad”. It frames Michael getting back together with Jan as a foolish pattern Michael repeatedly falls into, not an abusive situation he keeps failing to escape. But that doesn’t make what we see and hear about on-screen not rape or abuse; it just makes it easier not to think about it. It makes it easier to pretend it’s not rape or abuse at all.
And if there’s one rule to writing a good rape joke, it’s that you should know that you’re writing a rape joke.