One of television’s most disappointingly resilient punchlines is the post-assault feminine slap. You’ve seen it before. A man, worked up into a lather for some reason or another, makes advances on a woman, pulling her into a kiss. If it’s requited, congratulations: It’s time for a new chapter in the show’s will-they-won’t-they drama. If it’s not, often you can count on two things happening. The woman, once out of the passionate embrace, will pull back her hand, slap the man, perhaps make some kind of a harrumphing noise, turn on her heels, and stalk off, her body language screaming, “The impudence!”. The man will put his hand up to his face where he’s been slapped, massage the area, and respond with either confusion or some combination of, “I guess I deserved that” and “Worth it!”. This is supposed to be funny. And maybe it was, back in the ‘70s, when such moments were common on shows like M*A*S*H (Did a doctor leave the 4077th without some form of sexual advance towards Hot Lips?). But at this point, any comedic power this ploy ever had has long since vanished.
Audiences today are more likely to sympathize with the put-upon woman, or at least recognize her as a person rather than a sexual object, unlike the man in the scenario. Breaking it down, the laugh is intended to come not at the kiss, but at the slap. The slap is what makes the assault okay, what frees the audience to move on and not think about the forceful invasion of one character’s space and manipulation of their body by the other. A slap is enough of a reaction that the man should feel admonished, but it’s not extreme enough of one that the viewers need to examine the issue and decide how they feel about it. It’s a superficial solution to a larger societal problem, viewers’ comfortableness with depictions of “minor” assault (sexual and otherwise- TV’s “Women hitting men is funny” double standard is annoyingly common as well). It’s what we often want from our television, going for the punchline without asking us to think about why we’re laughing.
Various series have had differing levels of success with this trope. It’s presented straightforwardly on some, M*A*S*H being one example. It’s tweaked for others, as on The X-Files when ‘40s Scully straight up decks Mulder (“Triangle”). Comparatively recently, Audi set the internet abuzz with its, “Buy an Audi, nonconsensually kiss the prom queen, get punched by her date, and walk away smiling” 2013 Super Bowl ad. A few months later, Doctor Who and Steven Moffat specifically were criticized for having the Doctor, up to this point a beacon of non-threatening respectfulness, force Jenny into a kiss in last season’s “The Crimson Horror”, and then do it again to Tasha Lem in “The Time of the Doctor”, though only the former featured the punchline slap; the latter had the victim respond with a stern line of dialogue, similarly played for laughs. The Doctor, for 50 years a safe, calming figure, is now a repeat sex offender, and apparently that’s hilarious.
The frustratingly timeless quality of this TV go-to made one particular moment stand out earlier this week. On Tuesday’s episode of The Mindy Project, Danny, who is still working out his feelings for Mindy, attempted to relive their out-of-the-blue first kiss by grabbing her after finding out she has a date with someone new. While the series has not been a paragon of feminist values this season, what it did next was surprising, refreshing, and incredibly encouraging. Rather than adhere to the trope and respond to an unwanted advance with an unexplored slap, Mindy stopped Danny, forced him to consider his action, and talked it out with him, explaining exactly why it was not an okay thing to do. It’s a quick scene, one that could be easy to miss. But for viewers used to seeing shows at best remain neutral in such an interaction, the exchange speaks volumes. Mindy recoils, demanding an explanation. Danny’s response? “I was just gonna… I don’t know, I just wanted to.” From there, the scene moves into a conversation about Danny’s motivations and the series’ larger Mindy/Danny arc, but the point remains. Danny’s upset that Mindy’s moving on, out of his control, he decides he wants to kiss her, and so he goes to do just that. Her feelings never enter the equation. Mindy chastises him, “I get to decide”, and it’s shocking how progressive this simple, basic statement feels.
The scene benefits from much more than honest dialogue. Leading to the attempted kiss, Chris Messina makes Danny increasingly agitated, as his attempts to discourage Mindy from her date go unheeded. When her back is turned, he moves towards her and the scoring comes up, but rather than sweep into a flourish of strings or other romantic motif, as it did for Mindy and Danny’s first kiss in the midseason finale, the crescendoing note is undercut by a few simple, dry hits. The camera stays behind Danny, his body blocking out Mindy from the frame, hulking over her until she pushes him away a moment later. As soon as he pulls back, the music cuts out and Mindy Kaling’s body language reads as defensive, with Kaling holding a bottle of detergent tight in front of her, Mindy keeping her distance from Danny and breaking eye contact repeatedly. It may be for a matter of seconds, but Mindy doesn’t feel safe with Danny, and that’s the first time this has happened. Messina shrinks back and is immediately unsure; Danny knows he screwed up, even if he hasn’t fully thought it out yet.
Then we get their exchange. The music returns, but as pizzicato (plucked strings), and only once Mindy feels secure again and starts to assert herself. When Danny apologizes, bowed strings softly come in to support the pizzicato, Mindy hands over the detergent, and some normalcy returns to the relationship. Notably, Mindy’s arms remained crossed for the remainder of the scene and she looks less than thrilled as Danny tries, pathetically, to laugh it off. The music fades out again, sitting in Mindy’s discomfort as Danny continues, “I can’t help it if you didn’t get the joke…” and leaves. Mindy is left with a lot to think about, but fortunately she doesn’t let it ruin her date. The entire exchange, from Danny’s decision to kiss Mindy, timed with the held note in the underscoring, to Danny leaving, is one minute, and what a fantastic minute it is.
This is the kind of scene we need more of in our sitcoms and dramas. This is the kind of exploration, thought, and care sexual harassment and assault deserve. Not every moment needs to be an after school special or a soap box. Not every interaction needs a label or continual in-show discussion. But how we as a society interact with media matters and so do the lessons we perpetuate and turn into norms. This scene shows how an unthinking mistake can turn a good friend into a predator, even for a few moments, and it does it without betraying either character, weighing down the entire episode, or putting the show on a path it can’t return from. The Mindy Project deserves a lot of praise for tackling such a potentially ugly moment and doing so gracefully, as do the episode’s writers, Tracey Wigfield and Alina Mankin, and its director, Michael Weaver. It’s doubtful the post-assault feminine slap is going anywhere any time soon; it’s still too firmly entrenched as comedic shorthand. But scenes like this one help move the needle, getting us closer to a place where a woman’s discomfort at being manhandled isn’t automatically a joke.