Just a note on comedy before I begin – although I love to laugh as much as the next person, I hesitate to say that I enjoy “comedies” when describing my taste in movies, because so many of them lately are, to put it bluntly, god-awful. Cheap laughs aimed at a junior-high mentality have become ubiquitous, and truly intelligent, quality comedies are a vanishing breed. After sitting through enough Adam Sandler and Kevin James flicks, I reach the point where I hesitate to bother giving any comedy a chance. The odds highly favor that it will end with lamentations that I will never get those two hours back again.
But I’m glad that I put my hesitations aside this weekend to go see “Horrible Bosses”. It was delightful and genuinely funny without relying on too many stupid gags and cheap shots. And rather than focusing on just one or two funny roles, they crafted an entire cast full of hilarious, offbeat, and uniquely funny characters.
However, there was one aspect of the movie which absolutely blew me away. And that was, their portrayal of an employee dealing with rape and sexual harassment in the workplace.
For those who aren’t familiar, the movie is about three friends whose bosses are so vile and despicable that they decide to murder their bosses. The movie merges these three plotlines involving each of their three bosses, as the friends work together to plan a triple murder.
And, one of those three scenarios is that of a boss who rapes her employee while he is sedated by anasthesia, then attempts to blackmail him into sleeping with her again.
That’s right – her employee while he is unconscious. I didn’t mix up my pronouns.
There are so many stereotypes and fallacies which this movie could have perpetuated through its handling of this situation. And, it deftly dodges every one of these traps. Although this is a comedy, and it deals with a man raped by a woman, this female-attacker-male-victim rape is never treated as a joke. Rather, it is treated as so serious, and so terrible, that it justifies murder. The joke is the hilarious and outrageous situations that they get themselves into as they try to carry out the murders.
The simple fact that it is a woman who abuses her position of power to rape and sexually assault her male employee, in and of itself is fairly groundbreaking. In fact, I’m not sure I can remember any other mainstream portrayal of a male rape victim which takes the topic seriously.
But even more than that, his boss is attractive. Rather than casting an overweight, aging, or ugly woman in the role and going for cheap laughs at how revolting her sexuality is, or implying that sexual desperation is the only reason a woman would rape, they instead cast Jennifer Aniston for the part. And although Jennifer Aniston is typically very attractive, she looked especially appealing in this role. They played up her attractiveness rather than playing it down.
Of course, this creates another likely trap – they could have treated him dismissively, “congratulating” him on his supposed “good-fortune” to be assaulted by an attractive woman. As South Park would have said, “Niceeeee, niceeeee.” Yet they avoided that one as well, and instead they vividly portrayed exactly how humiliated, frightened, infuriated, and powerless he felt as her victim – in fact, to such an extreme level that the audience is guided into believing that this is, in fact, a justifiable reason for murder. Now of course I am not endorsing vigilante justice, and without revealing any spoilers I will say that the movie also avoids being too controversial in this regard, but his pain and suffering is fully expressed and taken seriously. And it is taken seriously even when the rapist is attractive.
Of course, the opposite side of the “Unattractive Boss” trap, is the “Attractive Employee” trap. They could have made him especially attractive and charismatic, and they could have suggested that a man with fewer options might be grateful for the sex. They sidestepped this one as well. Charlie Day plays the assaulted employee, and although his character is frequently mocked for being bumbling and clueless, they never once crack a joke that he should be pleased or grateful for the attentions of a woman as hot as his boss, and they never once laugh at him for getting raped.
Another moment in the movie which had me inwardly cheering, was the point where they called it for what it is – rape. (MINOR SPOILER ALERT) When Charlie Day’s boss shows him photos depicting her sexually assaulting him while under, he sputters out, “You’re a raper, you raped me, that’s a rape!” And when she repeats that oft-heard rationalization than men can’t be raped without getting “hard”, he calls her out that this doesn’t make it any better. Then towards the end, and I will repeat this line without context so that it doesn’t spoil anything, Charlie Day’s character demands a “rape-free workplace”. So often, we hear of victims who hesitate to use a strong word like rape, and we see a public reaction where nobody will believe it was truly rape. This movie helped to empower victims by fully acknowledging the reality that men can be victims, and yes this is actual rape, not some softer form of “inappropriate” behavior.
Of course, there were ways they could have done better. (ANOTHER MINOR SPOILER ALERT) I wish we could have seen his boss brought to justice, and made to stand before a court of law to be convicted of her crime. It’s really sad that this didn’t happen. In addition, there is a scene where two other characters talk about going to jail, and argue about which one of them would be more likely to get raped. The joke isn’t that rape itself is funny, instead the joke was about the implication that one of them is less attractive. However, this still implies that being “rape-able” has something to do with being attractive, which is a very harmful stereotype. And I’m still not sure what to make of the (I am being as vague as possible) consensual sex that was depicted between Jennifer Aniston’s character and another character during a different part of the movie.
But overall, the strengths of this movie far outshine any weaknesses. Although it is a comedy, rape is not the joke. Quite to the contrary, rape is set up as something so horrible and so vile that it justifies murder. The joke instead, is all the trouble they get into trying to carry out those murders. Not once did the victim’s buddies ever crack a joke about how he’s lucky that she wants him, and not once did they urge him to give in to the blackmail and have sex with her. And not once did they laugh about how he got raped, or the repeated harassment he’s enduring at work. Rape is treated as a problem that is always deeply damaging and worth taking seriously, no matter the genders of the attacker or the victim, and no matter how attractive each of them might be.
On any level, this is highly praiseworthy. For a comedy, it is absolutely outstanding. Comedy has long been a field which perpetuates hurtful stereotypes for cheap laughs, but with this movie, not only did they treat a serious subject with sensitivity and awareness, but they did it in a way which didn’t feel heavyhanded or preachy, and it didn’t detract even slightly from how hilarious and very funny the whole movie succeeded at being.
*Author’s Note = I wrote this entry before I even realized that others on this blog have already posted about this movie. Obviously, my interpretation and opinion is quite the opposite of theirs. However, that’s the beauty of this blog – we welcome a diversity of opinions and feelings on the issues, and I am glad that the editors have chosen to publish my opposing argument.