Trigger Warning: Sexual Harassment
#ThatsHarassment is a series of short films by Cosmopolitan that explore the different ways women get harassed but don’t get talked about. There are five parts to the series, showing different incidents and the different ways harassment can happen, based on real incidents. The series feature mundane, every-day interactions and highlight the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in daily life.
The series are shot through the viewpoint of someone who’s looking through a window, or a door. The viewer thus assumes the role of the third person in the story – the silent and passive observer. The covertly shot scenes also reinforce the larger problem – the way these incidents are negated, silenced, and flipped in such a way that the perpetrator is sympathized with. It also tells us that many women don’t speak up because of their concerns being dismissed as overreactions and for the fear of not being believed. Here is a look at the episodes with the excuses that people are likely to make up for situations like the ones covered in the episodes.
1. The Doctor: Just Doing His Job
One of the most striking things about the series are the basic interactions that are portrayed – and a visit to doctor is one of them. The episode starts off quite normally. The patient, played by Cynthia Nixon, is at the doctor’s office to check if she has sinusitis. Initially, the interaction starts off professionally enough – he presses on her forehead and face to detect signs of sinusitis.
But then, things start getting extremely uncomfortable. You begin to notice how intrusive his body language is – how he places his hands on her legs, how he lifts up her shirt without giving notice, and most shockingly, how he doesn’t even ask for her consent before examining her breasts. He coerces her into it easily, making her believe that this is part of his job, but at the same time you can see the reeling confusion and disconcertment on her face. It all happens so fast that she can barely gather herself and her thoughts.
We cannot ignore our discomfort. It means something.
And that’s the moment when it hits you – what defines normal? What is it that’s really part of someone’s job? The doctor in the episode tries his best to guide her into thinking that whatever he’s doing is completely acceptable, that this is what is supposed to happen. Except, it’s not.
At no point does he ask her before moving on to the next step, and making it easier for him to just get away with doing what he likes, his veneer of professionalism and “respectability” aiding his sinister intentions. This is exactly what we need to remind ourselves of – we cannot ignore our discomfort, for it means something.
2. The Boss: Just Being Friendly
David Schwimmer stars in this video as the boss. He calls in his junior employee for help, and while the conversation starts off as an amicable discussion between boss and employee, it escalates to a dangerous level where he abruptly leans in to kiss her.
Upon being told that she has a boyfriend, he tells her that he’s married too, and that this was just a way to show his “appreciation” for her. In that one line, lies a very important message – that women in the workplace need to be sexualized in order to validate their worth in the workplace.
One of the most important things in the video is also how unexpected this kind of behaviour was, from the boss. The character is portrayed as a “sweet” and “nice” guy, someone who is understanding, polite and respectable. It brings to our attention that nice guys can be just as dangerous as the “bad” ones. One can almost here the detractors going – “But he’s just not the kind of guy that would do something like that!” That is why this video series is so powerful – it highlights that anyone can be guilty of sexual harassment, even if he doesn’t fit in the stereotypical image of a lecherous creep.
At the end of the video, we are also shown how he forces her to hug him to make her “feel better”, to defuse the situation, remove awkwardness, and possibly ensure his innocence and “nice guy” credentials. But then again, the video shows that the perpetrator doesn’t actually recognise that he has violated her space and sexually harassed her – underscoring the necessity for greater awareness about what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace.
Women in the workplace ARE sexualized IN ORDER to validate their worth.
3. The Photographer: Just Encouraging Her
This story revolves around a model on a photo-shoot. It starts off with the male photographer prodding her, telling her to look sexier, and gradually escalates as he instructs her to pleasure herself in order to look more sensual. In the end, we are shown how an entire team is just silently watching her being forced to pose in ways she is clearly uncomfortable with, and ignoring the fact that a line has been crossed.
The excuse that we hide behind for this kind of harassment is the notion that the photographer was just encouraging her to do her job. As a model, her job “requires” her to be sexy – all that he is doing is guiding her to do her job better. We must remember that professionalism needs to be maintained even in jobs that sexualize women. The same professional distance between coworkers needs to be maintained even in situations such as these.
The entire concept of consent is brutally ignored in this scenario. He forces her to touch herself, ignores her evident discomfort, and attempts to “motivate” her further by talking about his arousal. Nobody cares whether or not she wants to see his hard-on, and it’s easily forgotten that coercion isn’t consent.
One of the most hard-hitting parts in the video is the shot at the end, where everyone passively watches the sexual harassment happen. It reminds us of the normalization of sexual violence against women to the point that it becomes, well, ordinary.
4. The Coworker: Just Flirting
This episode is my personal favourite. It tackles just how important it is to stop ignoring how intrusive and sexist our friends can be when we end up making excuses for their behaviours. The episode shows how two coworkers are talking about other guys that come into their bar, and repeatedly, the male co-worker is hitting on the female co-worker to tell her that she should be careful of the kind of customers they get. He abruptly grabs her from behind to “show” her how she could be harassed by others, and upon seeing her uncomfortable he tells her not to go on a “feminist rant”.
The male coworker leverages his position as the one that’s showing his new colleague around in order to sexually harass her. And in the bitterest of ironies, tells her to complain to him if customers at the bar get handsy with her. This is not too different from asking women to call their harassers “bhaiyya“ to avoid rape – men are positioned as saviours in order to absolve them of all criminal intent.
She tries to tell him that what he did was inappropriate, and when he shows hostility, she lets it go. In the end, he kisses and licks her ear and leaves the scene, showing us how violated she feels afterward.
Men are positioned as saviours in order to absolve them of all criminal intent.
The important part in this is to note that it does not occur to him that he’s doing something wrong, for him it’s probably just playful flirting. He mistakes her friendliness as a sign of interest and attraction, and he doesn’t at all bother to ask before making a sexual move on her. And this is the excuse most of us make when incidences like these come up – we brush away invasive remarks, moves disguised as friendliness or flirting, and if we speak up we are expected to ignore our discomfort because we could be exaggerating or overplaying the issue.
5. The Actor: Just Offering
The video-short revolves around a woman who is personal shopper for a client who is a famous actor. The actor is down to his underwear in the episode as he keeps trying on new clothes. The woman turns around to find that the actor has whipped out his penis. She’s embarrassed and tells him to cover up while laughing sheepishly, but her expression gradually changes into fear as he tells her that he is attracted to her and wants her, so he’s showing how much this “turns him on”.
After several no-nos and him haughtily saying that this offer will never come again, he puts his pants on. He also undermines her self-confidence in the same breath, by saying that he knows she doesn’t think much of herself, but that ought to change because he is attracted to her. He then acts as if nothing happened, and continues mindless conversation as she is quiet.
It subtly puts across how men often mistake their desire for a woman’s consent.
The video discusses male entitlement extremely articulately – how pride and ego come in the way of decency, simply because some men believe they deserve what they want, always. It subtly puts across how men often mistake their desire for a woman’s consent. The actor is extremely offended when she refuses. He felt that showing her his penis without her consent was a flattering indication of his attraction to her, without realizing that in the process he oversteps his bounds. It’s the same idea behind unsolicited dick-pics, the need for men to assert their masculinity without comprehending someone else’s desire for the same.
The message is clear – even if you think it’s just an offer, and nothing harmful, it is harassment because of how violated someone feels.
6. The Politician: Just Getting Comfortable
This episode shows us how easy it is for extremely powerful men to take advantages of the women they encounter, and not have to deal with the repercussions. We are shown an interview between a politician and a female interviewer, where the politician starts to get too comfortable with the interviewer – he calls her attractive (not to mention the very patronizing “young lady”) and starts touching her shoulder.
Clearly annoyed, she skirts away from him, and tries to point out that she has a husband, which he ignores as he starts caressing her thigh. Firmly but maintaining her calm, she tells him she just wants to resume the interview and that he knows what she means. The politician backs off – but not quite so – but the interview process begins again.
The reporter has to resort to telling him that she has a husband and therefore he should maintain his limits. You can also see the reporter’s strategy to finish the interview in a public place, reducing chances of assault. Women are constantly strategizing on how to best avoid sexual assault, while also not threatening the harasser with an overt accusation as that might escalate the situation. The reporter has to remain calm throughout the inappropriate gestures made by him, to avoid creating trouble for herself because she is aware of the power this man holds.
It points another big reason that women don’t come out and complain, because they know it is going to boil down to their word against his. In interactions like these, society chooses to defend the perpetrator for want of ‘political correctness’ and notions of his character. In the end, women have started accepting that they just have to “deal” with it and not make it a bigger problem.
It’s crucial to understand that not all sexual assaulters are the ones who jump out at us from behind a dark alley, that sexual assault can occur amongst acquaintances, friends, colleagues, and even families. Sexual assault is not just one colour, one experience, but can exist in different spectrums and the series creates an awareness about that.
All of these video shorts in #ThatsHarassment show men in positions of power – boss, doctor, photographer, old colleague, actor – exploiting their senior positions to harass women. The women in these situations are often unsure about how to respond, or whether this is even harassment. They often respond by giggling uncertainly, despite expressions of extreme discomfort. Already occupying a lower position in the power hierarchy, they are further disadvantaged by a society that normalizes sexual violence, disbelieves survivors, and propagates a thriving rape culture. We need to remember that their responses are coloured by this power dynamic that is weighted against them, and that passive submission and a lack of a strong defence still does not mean consent.
This piece was written with inputs from Asmita Ghosh.