• Entertainment
  • Television

Pop Culture Reckoned With #MeToo in Radical New Ways in 2020—Even as It Receded From Headlines

13 minute read

Pop culture dissections of #MeToo may feel like a relic of pre-pandemic living, before concerns about public health dominated headlines and anything that wasn’t a life-or-death issue seemed to lose its hold on the conversation. But films and television shows take years to produce, and audiences only really began to see the 2017 movement manifest onscreen last year, with movies like Bombshell and series like The Morning Show. These relatively straightforward stories of women banding together to take down monsters felt a bit simplistic, particularly the third-act turns of antiheroes like Charlize Theron’s Megyn Kelly or Jennifer Aniston’s Alex from complicit bystanders to crusading survivors. But perhaps we shouldn’t have expected anything revolutionary so quickly. Those projects were, after all, pop culture’s first steps into a new era’s debate around consent, harassment and agency.

This year, onscreen explorations of #MeToo evolved even as the issue lost its front-page standing. Artists found new angles and delved deeper into gray areas. Survivors were allowed to be flawed humans, not just one-dimensional heroes, and assailants were not just boogeymen but men and women with their own traumatic pasts. This made for more interesting art, but also, crucially, a more human reflection of the long-term trauma survivors suffer, which is rarely resolved in those triumphant moments, so beloved by Hollywood, in which a villain is exposed and a victim vindicated.

Three of the buzziest movies out of early film festivals in 2020—The Assistant, Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Promising Young Woman—and four of the best-reviewed seasons of television to hit the small screen—BoJack Horseman, Normal People, A Teacher and I May Destroy You—dispensed with the typical hero vs. villain structure of these narratives and thoughtfully explored the emotional and psychological fallout of abuse.

Read more: Bombshell Is the Latest Example of Pop Culture Reckoning With the Complicated Reality of #MeToo at Work

Delving deeper into the psyches of assailants and accomplices

BoJack Horseman, the phenomenal final season of which aired on Netflix at the beginning of this year, challenged its audience to plumb the depths of a wrongdoer’s psyche. For six seasons, BoJack (Will Arnett), a washed-up sitcom star who himself suffered emotional abuse as a child, got drunk and high, made terrible decisions and retroactively evaded responsibility for them, often with the help of his affable friends. Even his feminist crusader friend Diane cast BoJack’s questionable choices as regrettable but not irredeemable. The show itself sprinkles these acts into episodes that are largely aimed at skewering the cult of celebrity and the vanity of its stars. Between laughs, it’s easy for both BoJack’s friends and the audience to forget the people that BoJack hurt. Only in the last few episodes do things turn truly dour.

BoJack Horseman Season 6
A still from Season 6 of Netflix's 'Bojack Horseman.'Netflix

A reporter meticulously sequences BoJack’s meandering missteps into an orderly story—romancing his manager’s young assistant, taking a high school girl to her prom, sleeping with the young woman who used to play his adolescent daughter on TV before offering her the drugs that led to her overdose, among other misdeeds. A clear and undeniable pattern of abuse emerges. He did not force himself on these women, but he did use the power of his celebrity to serve his own selfish ends. It’s only then that the Hollywood system that has so long protected BoJack and egomaniacs like him abandons the actor, leaving BoJack to reckon with the consequences of his toxicity. The penultimate episode sends him on a bender during which he encounters the ghosts of his past and contemplates suicide. The final episode suggests that BoJack can pay penance, if not achieve true redemption—an interesting outcome to watch play out, considering how many real-life alleged celebrity perpetrators teeter on the brink of permanent cancellation versus a comeback tour. Far from a sympathetic portrayal of a wrongdoer, the show offers a look into a moment of comeuppance.

The Assistant also takes an innovative approach to the exploration of those complicit in protecting Hollywood royalty from real consequences. The film is shot entirely from the perspective of an assistant to a Harvey Weinstein-esque producer. The recent college graduate (Julia Garner) cleans the questionable stains off her boss’ office couch and sends aspiring actresses to meetings in hotel rooms. The abuser himself is a mere shadow, only heard shouting over the phone receiver or seen through menacing all-caps emails. The assistant weighs her moral culpability with the stresses of her job working under a tyrant and the promise of career advancement. She tip-toes through the film, petrified, trying to bolster her own resolve. Unlike, say, The Morning Show’s clear redemptive arc for Jennifer Aniston’s Alex, The Assistant remains ambivalent toward its protagonist’s actions. The audience is permitted to view her choices both sympathetically and skeptically as the movie builds a picture of the psychological toll of abuse on those in its broader orbit.

Julia Garner endures the anxiety behind a seemingly glamorous job in The Assistant.
Julia Garner endures the anxiety behind a seemingly glamorous job in The Assistant.Bleecker Street

Read more: The Assistant Is a Movie for the #MeToo Era—But It Also Captures the Insults of Workplace Exploitation

Meanwhile, on the small screen, A Teacher depicts a relationship between a female teacher (Kate Mara) and her 18-year-old male student (Nick Robinson) from both of their perspectives. Each believes at the beginning of the romance that they are engaging in a consensual affair. The FX on Hulu show, adapted by Hannah Fidell from her 2013 movie of the same name, spends too long on that illusion and too few episodes on how the encounter fundamentally changes the course of the characters’ lives. It’s at its best in an episode that centers on student Eric’s struggles after the abuse is reported and he leaves for college. He abuses alcohol and struggles with loneliness even as his frat-bro buddies embrace him as a god for, as they would phrase it, bedding a cougar. But instead of following Eric’s journey, the show offers up monologues that verge into after-school special territory, in which characters explain that the abuse was not, in fact, Eric’s fault. That the teacher who groomed him acted as a parental figure to gain his trust and then manipulate him. Perhaps it’s necessary to hit hard on this point given that TV shows have been telling audiences for decades that a male teenager pursuing his hot teacher is some sort of rite of passage rather than the prelude to a crime. (See: Dawson’s Creek, Friends, Skins, Gossip Girl, Riverdale, that Pete Davidson sketch on Saturday Night Live.)

A TEACHER "Episode 1” (Airs Tuesday, November 10) - - Pictured: (l-r) Kate Mara as Claire Walker, Nick Robinson as Eric Walker. CR: Chris Large/FX
Kate Mara and Nick Robinson in 'A Teacher'Chris Large/FX

While these projects vary in quality, they share one notable commonality: they’re all named after the wrongdoers, or at least those in a more questionable moral position. The stories center on the perpetrators and their accomplices, not their victims. The value of such a perspective is hotly debated, and has been since Lolita hit bookshelves. What separates good art about this topic from bad usually depends on whether the survivors in these stories have full emotional lives and are presented as flesh-and-blood humans, not just totems of heroism and victimhood.

Moving beyond the one-dimensional victim

Promising Young Woman, which hits theaters on Christmas, stars Carey Mulligan as an avenging angel and presents a familiar narrative: the revenge thriller. Cassandra, an unsubtly named med school dropout who is all too familiar with trauma but can’t seem to raise the alarm with the proper authorities, dedicates her free time to hunting men. Her modus operandi is to pretend to black out at a bar and wait for a man to offer to walk her home. Invariably, these self-styled “nice guys” try to take advantage of her, at which point she straightens her posture, reveals that she’s sober and scares the hell out of her would-be assailant. (In a clever casting move, some of these misogynists masquerading as good guys are played by the same actors who played familiar good guys from beloved TV shows, like Adam Brody of The O.C. and Max Greenfield of New Girl.)

Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham in Promising Young WomanFocus Features

The candy-colored movie offers many delights as we accompany the sardonic Cassie on her vigilante missions. But as she stumbles into the arms of unsuspecting men over and over again, the ploy offers diminishing satisfaction to the audience and, presumably, the movie’s hero. Her anger, while righteous, threatens to burn her alive. The film never really answers whether that fate—self-implosion—is preferable to a more measured and typical quest for catharsis (via, say, the legal system, or therapy). It’s an admittedly tricky question that has occasionally been explored in other tales of rape and vengeance, from Veronica Mars’ investigation into her date rape to Sansa Stark feeding her rapist to his own pack of wild dogs.

Several projects that debuted this year took a more nuanced view of the emotional fallout from trauma. The first was Normal People, an adaptation of Sally Rooney’s fantastic novel of the same name. Both halves of the show’s romantic couple suffer some sort of abuse—Marianne physically at the hands of her brother, and later a boyfriend, and Connell sexually when a teacher who always seemed to favor him in high school takes advantage of him while he’s drunk visiting home from college. The two respond in radically different ways. Marianne begins to believe she deserves to be hurt. She even seeks out pain in the bedroom, as the show plumbs murky territory: does Marianne desire pain because she was hurt, or would she regardless? And is it good or bad if she does? Connell, already plagued by social anxiety, tips over into the pit of depression. The two characters hurt and help each other in their struggles to find the unachievable benchmark of “normalcy” following these incidents.

Normal People Connell
Paul Mescal as Connell in 'Normal People'Hulu/Everett Collection

Read more: Sex and Money Clash in Sally Rooney’s Modern Romance Normal People

The abuse they suffer is never quite the center of the story—issues of class, popularity and miscommunication keep the couple apart and bring them together as much as their mutual suffering—but it’s essential to understanding their growth as characters. The show found a way to acknowledge how abuse can at once touch every aspect of a person’s life and yet not be the focal point of their story. Similarly, the movie Never Rarely Sometimes Always casts abuse as incidental to a teenage girl’s larger quest to attain an abortion. Past abuse of the main character is only implied when she fills out medical paperwork that asks questions about her sexual history. But the character’s determined silence in the face of seemingly insurmountable roadblocks reflects a history of endurance that wrenches the heart.

But the most brilliant new take on the conversation around consent comes from the singular Michaela Coel and her earth-shattering HBO show I May Destroy You. The series, at once funny and devastating, challenges the audience’s often inflexible views on what constitutes a victim and how a victim ought to behave. The show begins with a stranger drugging the main character, Arabella (Coel), and raping her in the bathroom of a bar. It’s a clear-cut case of assault, and both Arabella and the London police deem it as such. But then the show proceeds to present a series of situations involving Arabella and her friends that are fuzzier moral quandaries—a seemingly spontaneous threesome that turned out to be planned by two parties beforehand; a man removing a condom midway through sex and gaslighting his partner about the reason for doing so; a gay man who lies about his sexuality in order to sleep with a woman.

Michaela Coel (left) and Weruche Opia in 'I May Destroy You'Natalie Seery/HBO

The show doesn’t necessarily arrive at any conclusions about these encounters and their place on a spectrum of horrific sexual encounters. Coel seems to suggest that, as a society, our understanding tends to be of two poles—rape as violent assault at one end and everything else on the other end as a “bad hook-up.” But perhaps we might move toward a more nuanced approach, one that accounts for the reality that betrayals of trust always constitute a violation, no matter the legal or social implications.

In the final episode, Arabella stakes out the bar where she was date raped. The police have failed to apprehend a suspect, and Arabella imagines finding and confronting the man who raped her. In three different fantasy conclusions, Coel works through the various ways this story could end, examining and rejecting several common tropes of rape stories—like revenge and absolution—as insufficient endings to a story about a survivor spinning out in her search for closure.

Read more: I May Destroy You’s Extraordinary Finale Makes Good on the Show’s Cryptic Title

In one scenario, Coel’s Arabella murders her rapist and hides him under her bed, a resolution akin to the revenge fantasy in movies like Promising Young Woman that often plays out as a cliché—one which Coel said in interviews she specifically wanted to avoid. This resolution is anything but tidy, as blood literally seeps out from under the bed, a reminder of her own misdeeds. In the second imagined scenario, Arabella empathizes with her attacker and imbues him with humanity as she suggests that he, himself, was a victim of abuse, which in reality is quite common. But it’s the reaction of a saint, not a human. Shows like BoJack Horseman or The Assistant or A Teacher might make the excellent point that hurt people hurt people, but they often ignore the perpetuation of that cycle by relegating survivors to supporting roles.

In the final fantasy, Arabella imagines having a consensual, intimate night with her rapist. The encounter plays out like a welcome dream because Arabella holds the power in this situation. Just as other characters in the show lied or hid information hidden from sexual partners, Arabella keeps something from her assailant—the fact that she is the woman he raped so many months ago—and thus retains control. This, too, might be a morally dubious act.

Snapping out of her daydream and back into reality, Arabella decides to give up her investigation and just stay home with her friends. Her story is complete, or as complete as a story like this can get, but she leaves the door open for more complicated and unsettling explorations of rape in the future. Coel does what tidier explorations of intrinsically untidy subjects have often stopped short of doing: as she wraps up her own narrative, she plants the seed for new ones, thornier and stranger and more confusing than any we’ve seen before, that will play out on screens for years to come.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com