How Melissa McCarthy Made Sexual Harassment Funny


On this week’s Saturday Night Live, we watched someone blatantly sexually harass a coworker. And yes, it was funny.

I’m referring, of course, to the sketch wherein Melissa McCarthy portrays Arlene, a lady who repeatedly invades her coworker Tim’s personal space despite his protestations that he does not want to help her relieve her “ladyboner.” Much discussion of the sketch has focused on whether or not it’s a fat joke, and that’s certainly a fair question. While Kristen Wiig has portrayed somewhat similar characters on SNL in the past, Arlene’s closest relative is probably Megan, McCarthy’s character in Bridesmaids. Whether or not that character was meant to poke fun at fat people, that’s certainly how some audiences understood her. But she and Arlene share another trait beyond body type: they’re women who are sexually aggressive.

Arlene does things to Tim that are probably legally actionable, a fact that hasn’t escaped Tim himself — he says, “if I did this to you, I’d get in so much trouble.” He’s right that claims of female-on-male sexual harassment tend to be taken less seriously than the opposite, which is a shame. And it’s also part of why the skit is funny. We’re used to seeing men harass women in pop culture — TV, movies, and commercials generally frequently treat men as oversexed goons driven to chase tail at all costs, no matter the consequences. Sexual harassment starts to seem like just a fact of life when the men we see onscreen are senseless dickbrains who can’t control themselves. In this climate, a woman thinking with her ladyboner is transgressive.

McCarthy is, as many have noted, a skilled physical comedian, and part of the hilarity of her Arlene sketch is the sheer bizarreness of her seduction routine. But part of it is the shoe-is-on-the-other-foot feeling of watching a woman do what we’re accustomed to seeing men do. The humor works because it’s incongruous, but it’s also giving us an image we didn’t have before — that of the female sleaze. And the more we see that, the less it’s possible to see sexual harassment as something that’s hardwired into the Y chromosome, something we’re supposed to accept because that’s how men are. Arlene’s over-the-top, of course, but seeing her is actually good for men and women — even if her antics aren’t necessarily good for the men around her.

Image courtesy of NBC/SNL.

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