Sexual harassment on sitcoms not so funny, researcher says

Sexual jokes, suggestive glances, and other forms of gender and sexual harassment may be funny to writers, producers and viewers of workplace-based situation comedies, but Penn State researcher Beth Montemurro says they are far from a laughing matter.

Montemurro, assistant professor of sociology, studied five such programs on the NBC television network – Veronica’s Closet, News Radio, Working, Just Shoot Me and Suddenly Susan – during 1997 and 1998 to see just how prevalent gender and sexual harassment were on these programs, and how these incidences were treated. She is a faculty member at Penn State’s Abington Campus outside of Philadelphia.

What she found was a high rate of gender harassment – defined as jokes, glances, etc. which contributes to a hostile work environment – and a lower but still troubling rate of sexual harassment – which involves touching, requests for dates, and other activities that imply sex for favors. While not linking these shows directly with sexual harassment in the workplace, she thinks the wrong message is being transmitted to viewers via television.

“The images presented on situation comedies suggest that it is appropriate to make jokes based on women’s appearance and sexuality,” she said, noting that television sitcoms today still seem all too willing to make light of sexual harassment. “As long as we continue to make jokes about harassment, suggest that women should put up with sexual teasing, and treat it as humorous, the impact and seriousness of sexual harassment will continue to be minimized in society. Furthermore, when our televised workplaces contain these images, acceptance of harassment is promoted both implicitly and explicitly.”

Montemurro studied a total of 56 episodes of the five sitcoms for her study, titled, “Sexual Harassment as ’Material’ on Workplace-Based Situation Comedies.” The research was published in the May issue of the journal, Sex Roles.

Three things about these incidences of harassment were especially troubling for the Penn State sociologist. In instances where laugh tracks were employed, they often encouraged audience members to laugh at jokes based around gender/sexual harassment; in scenes where bosses were present, they often turned the other cheek or participated in the harassment along with their employees; and it was practically unheard of for the words “sexual harassment” to be broached on the programs, because that may call too much attention to the seriousness of the incident.

Perhaps the only positive note for the sitcoms is that they rarely displayed and laughed about the most serious forms of sexual harassment, as defined by Montemurro above. The sitcoms generated an average of roughly four incidences of gender/sexual harassment per episode, with more than 90 percent being in the gender harassment category. But even that’s damning with faint praise. When the writers did convey images of sexual harassment, they tended to reverse roles so that a female character was making an obvious advance on a male character, typically in an attempt at humor, the sociologist said.

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