I Was Left Speechless by Speechless

How can a TV show about sensitivity be so insensitive to women?

Last week, I finally found time to tune into the new ABC comedy Speechless. The show has been positively praised by just about every TV critic as being one of the best, if not the best comedy of the year. If you scan the reviews you’ll find words such as: aspirational, offbeat, genuinely funny, compelling, irreverent, nimble, quirky, and heartfelt. The show is hailed for showing the complexity of living with a disability, while not becoming overly-sentimental or sappy. One reviewer said: “Speechless exemplifies simple human decency without emphasizing it. Its world exists as ours should; unembellished. And in that, its powerful message could become extraordinary.”

It’s rare for a TV show to be described as extraordinary, so I was curious, and had high expectations going in. However, I happened to watch this pilot several weeks late and in a cultural landscape where one nominee for President of the United States is heard on tape bragging about sexual assault, while the other nominee is the wife of a man who was accused of sexual misconduct decades ago. It is with this mindset, my hyper-awareness of the gender issues portrayed on our television, that I watched.

I could tell immediately, that yes, this show was going to handle disability with sensitivity, and that meant it was going to find jokes in the predicament, but take care not to cross the line of decency. Unfortunately, that same care wasn’t applied when it came to jokes about gender, sex, and relationships.

First we see the teen from next door telling his friend Ray (the protagonist), “I’m going to miss you bro. You’re leaving a lot of ass on the table.” Then he calls Ray his wingman, and brags about hooking up with a girl at last week’s party. To emphasize his point, the teen mimes making out with a sloppy tongue. As if that’s not bad enough, he then gyrates his hips back and forth in an obscene manner, while groaning sexually. This “harmless” locker room banter is all happening outside, and in broad daylight, and not in the locker room.

Let me back up a minute and just say, Minnie Driver is excellent in this pilot. I know the writers of Speechless are trying to communicate something big about how we treat people who are different. But I lost track of that important stuff as soon as I watched this scene. It was that awful and repugnant. In trying to provide irreverent humor, the writers missed the boat with this loathsome, intolerable neighbor who exists in the pilot merely as a way to wring maximum cheap laughs out of toxic, lewd, locker room banter.

It’s just a joke, right? Why am I being so sensitive?

According to statistics, one in five women will be sexually assaulted at college. In a world where “boys will be boys” is still an excuse for sexual harassment and worse, it’s inexcusable for a network comedy to allow this type of insensitivity to play out.

In the last couple of weeks, women have shed light on the secret world we live in. It is a world men rarely see, unless they themselves are the recipients of harassment or assault. It is a world where women are the butts of sexist, misogynist jokes, not only at work and at school, but on the streets, and online while safely in their homes. It is a hostile world that wants to keep women small and afraid, so they won’t speak out (and calls them Nasty if they do). It tells them they are too sensitive, and that they can’t take a joke, ignoring the very real, demeaning, and humiliating things that happen to women daily, as part of that “joke.”

It would be one thing if this creepy neighbor character were punished or lectured for his sexist behavior. Instead, he’s dismissed as crude and awful, but only after we’ve all had our belly laughs.

As written, Minnie Driver’s mom is defiant, passionate, and tough, especially when it comes to defending her disabled son, JJ. She pitches a fit when another character uses the word “cripple”. This is a word she finds extremely demeaning and insulting, and rightly so. And yet, this same mother watches a neighbor boy sexually grind his hips in front of her entire family and doesn’t take two minutes to get out of the van and set this little creep straight. It’s a bit inconsistent that this champion of human rights would tolerate such offensive, lewd behavior.

We are clued into the inconsistency of the writers’ sensitivity early in the pilot. The uber-friendly, open-minded, affluent school is mocked by the writers for the school’s decision to replace the offensive school mascot of a Viking (which represents raping and pillaging) with that of a sea slug (a creature with both male and female body parts). Get it? The writers are telling us that some people — i.e. those ridiculous politically-correct folks — take themselves way too seriously. It’s okay to laugh at their sensitivities, which obviously are not nearly as important as the one Minnie Driver is defending.

On the plus side, Ray doesn’t partake in the locker room banter. Still, I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable by the arc his story was taking. After complaining about moving to a new town and starting at a new school, the geeky Ray suddenly wants to stay because he met a cute girl who likes astronomy. It’s a perfect match in Ray’s mind, even if he doesn’t even know this girl. To him, and the writers, it doesn’t matter what SHE wants or who she is. This show is about the boy, dammit. And the boy WANTS this girl!!!

Hmmm…maybe it’s time we talk about the way teenage boys are portrayed on network sitcoms.

The nice nerdy guys are generally portrayed as awkward, shy, brilliant, sweet, and misunderstood. How sweet and awkward is Ray? When the girl from the Astronomy Club introduces herself as Jillian, he says “thank you” instead of introducing himself. He’s just grateful a girl has spoken to him kindly, because that’s how insecure this guy is around the opposite sex. We are meant to identify with his pain, and want to see him succeed. He’s one of the “good guys.”

Only I have a hard time cheering for a sweet character who, emboldened by his mother’s apology to him, and inspired by his disabled brother’s courage, takes it upon himself to do something bold without considering how that action may be perceived by the girl in this equation. In the episode’s climax, Ray determinedly marches up to Jillian, the girl of his dreams, taps her on the shoulder, and then KISSES HER ON THE LIPS WITHOUT ASKING PERMISSION.

And in TV land it’s all okay, because that’s what heroes do, right? They get the girl. They kiss the girl. They bike off into the sunset together.

Are we really letting this kind of thing still fly?

How can we teach our boys about consent, when television and movies consistently show it’s not only okay for a nice boy to kiss a girl without asking, but it also makes him bold, strong and heroic?

Some people will say I’m overreacting (because I obviously can’t take a joke) and I’m making a big deal out of a sweet, wholesome kiss. This wasn’t groping or assault. It was harmless, right? No big deal.

Except this is exactly the kind of thing that sends mixed and inconsistent messages to the kids. If boys kiss, touch, or hug girls on TV without permission, then why can’t they? Isn’t this what a man is expected to do in the mating dance?

The simple answer is, and will always be — NO. It’s never okay for a boy to kiss a girl he barely knows, just because he wants to.

Ray’s kiss on Speechless is especially inappropriate because the romance is all in the boy’s mind. Ray JUST MET Jillian a couple hours earlier, and thinks that because they both like Astronomy Club, and she was NICE TO HIM, that she MUST LIKE HIM TOO. And then, because she consents to go on a ride with him at the school carnival, he takes this as an invitation to kiss her, even though to her, Ray is basically a stranger.

There are a lot of assumptions being made here on Ray’s part, and even more confusion on the writer’s part. The writers make it appear as if Ray is brave for kissing Jillian, even after they wrote the earlier scene where she clearly tells Ray she has a boyfriend, and sees him as a friend.

What kind of message is this sending young men and young women?

It’s telling them that girls want to be aggressively pursued by men, and boys feel manly and victorious when they do the pursuing. This myth has been perpetuated in pop culture for a long time. But I think if you ask real girls how they like being ambushed with a kiss, you might hear a different story. You might hear how they feel shocked, confused, and violated by such actions. It’s not at all the romantic gesture Hollywood seems to think it is.

In real life, Ray’s actions don’t make him cool or brave. He’s the creepy boy that girls avoid at school because he doesn’t understand boundaries. After all, Jillian already stopped him when he tried to kiss her the first time. She clearly stated her boundaries, and he knew she had a boyfriend.

So how should this subplot have played out?

Jillian should have either slapped Ray, or pushed him away, and made it clear the kiss was inappropriate (for so many reasons). He should have been set straight by an adult who knows better; someone, like his hard-c0re, opinionated, take-no-prisoners mama. Minnie should have lectured her son about communication, respect and consent. She should have told him girls have feelings and rights too.

This disregard (or lack of awareness) for the way women feel in these situations is what happens when Hollywood writing rooms remain filled mostly with men. We will continue to see just one side of the coming-of-age experience, generally told from the male’s perspective, until the day women are equally represented in our storytelling.

In the meantime, our kids are watching TV, and for better or for worse, they are learning about gender roles and relationships from what they see portrayed there. The writers, therefore, have a responsibility to depict these relationships with integrity, respect, and SENSITIVITY.

If we want boys to understand consent, then we need to model what consent looks like for them. And we need to tell them clearly that “No, means no.”

Speechless may be a wonderfully sensitive show when it comes to depicting disabilities, but it gets an F for gender politics. While others may have seen Ray’s subplot as a tender love story, I saw it as yet another tired story about a young man whose wants, needs, and desires are more important than the young woman he lusts after. And there is nothing exemplary or extraordinary about that.