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The despicable rape jokes in ‘Horrible Bosses 2’ are everyone’s problem
The Internet is supposed to act as a gatekeeper of public opinion. It failed this time.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Horrible Bosses—not because the movie was all that good but because it was my first time being drunk on a plane. I was on my way to Paris from Istanbul after deciding the 12-hour layover was worth the $500 discount in plane fare (it was), and Turkish airlines accidentally upgraded me to first class. In this case, that meant being plunked in the only empty seat in a sea of WNBA players, all of whom were too tall to even notice I existed. I did what anyone in the situation would do: throw back a couple Dramamine and enjoy the airline’s array of cocktails, which kept flowing up in front. It pays to be accidentally wealthy.
With two motion-sickness pills and more than my share of booze in my system, Horrible Bosses was one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. I laughed so hard that I was confused years later when I rewatched it with a friend. Was this really the movie I consented to laughing at? It was the same question I had for the film’s reviewers: Horrible Bosses received a cool 69 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, en route to banking $117 million at the domestic box office. The film proved such a sleeper hit that New Line even found a way to greenlight a sequel, even though that would make no sense for the narrative. What’s a surer sign of success than that a franchise no one asked for?
One of the most celebrated parts of the 2011 original was Jennifer Aniston, the one-time Friends star and America’s sweetheart who, in films like The Good Girl and Friends With Money, had long been desperate to show she could do more. In Horrible Bosses, Aniston goes balls to the wall as Dr. Julia Harris, a sexy dentist who sexually harasses her assistant (Dale, played by Charlie Day) with unabashed glee. In one scene, Julia sprays Dale’s pelvic area with water, excitedly exclaiming, “Well, Shabbat Shalom, somebody’s circumcised!” In another, Julia shows Dale pictures of what she had done with his unconscious body while he was knocked out during a dental procedure. If there was any question as to whether the film is aware of what’s going on, Dale clears it up: “Rape! That’s a rape.”
In a post for Feministing, Kate remarks that the audience she saw Horrible Bosses with laughed hysterically, even as Dale insists that he would prefer to work in a “rape-free environment.” The movie’s characters seem to think its not that big of a deal either. “The guy saddled with the rapist as a boss is constantly mocked by his friends,” she writes. “According to them, his continual sexual harassment by a superior is nothing to complain about compared to, say, being told off for being two minutes late or having to fire someone when you don’t want to. In fact, one character implies that he should be grateful to be sexually harassed—after all, he’s getting some action from a hot chick, what’s the problem?”
Here, the author notes that this would play very differently if the roles were genderswapped. “Would a young, female dental hygienist being stripped and molested by her middle-aged, male superior while under anaesthetic be played for comedy?” she asks. “Probably not. In fact, definitely not. Because male on female rape is serious, dramatic, tragic, a trigger for ruggedly handsome male heroes to go off on murdering sprees or broken female waifs to do the same. Female on male rape? Unlikely. Impossible. Hilarious. Well, according to Hollywood.”
Aside from a couple blog posts on the subject, the movie’s sexual assault politics largely escaped scorn from reviewers. I’m of the opinion that what we like can also be problematic (I liked Gone Girl and saw it twice, while still finding much to critique), but ignoring a film’s obvious problematic content isn’t just a disservice to rape victims everywhere, 1 in 10 of whom are male; it also allows those who profit off of rape humor to continue to make more of it. Because her role received such acclaim last time around, Jennifer Aniston had one rule for the writers of Horrible Bosses 2: “I said take it as far as you want.”
When Aniston asks, she doth receive. If you were concerned that Horrible Bosses 2 might be filled with more of the same, the movie lets you know right up front: In a scene where Dale is having a conversation with his friends (played by Jason Sudeikis and Jason Bateman), one of them off-handedly asks him about that time Julia raped him, as if it’s worthy of polite table conversation. Dale doesn’t seem to have a problem with that, nor does he have an issue when Bateman’s character, Nick, sleeps with her, falls in love with her, and then romantically pursues her. It’s such a non-issue that his friends consider it somewhat appropriate to propose an orgy with her.
This actually isn’t even close to the most screwed-up thing that happens. For those wondering why Julia is so taken with Dale, she explains that the reason is that he’s her “White Whale,” the one man who would never sleep with her. She only wants him because she can’t have him. The movie rectifies that by letting her re-rape him, as if the previous assaults and sexual harassment incidents weren’t conquest enough. After Dale awakes from a coma, Julia tells him that she had sex with him while he was under. She then promises that she’s going to have her way with his wife next.
The line is meant to be a threat aimed at Dale, but it feels more like a warning to the audience. By paying for Horrible Bosses again, we’ve consented to Dale being raped all over again by his assailant, paying for his abuse. And just as the public acts as a Hollywood gatekeeper through the power of the consumer dollar, the Internet can help guide discussion on film by calling out important issues. The role of a film critic isn’t just to tell you what movies are good but how to watch movies; they help train our eyes and ears by telling us what to look out for. Critics, at their best, make us a better public by making us more informed. When they fail to do so, they fail us.
Three years after the original Horrible Bosses hit theatres, Internet thinkpieces have finally made it to the party. Forbes’ Mark Hughes warns that Horrible Bosses 2 “treats rape as a punchline,” and Slant’s Eric Henderson argues that the film is particularly ill-timed, considering the recent allegations against Bill Cosby. “If your answer to the question ‘When are rape jokes funny?’ is anything aside from ‘never,’ the good news is that you may still find a lot to hoot over throughout Horrible Bosses 2,” Henderson writes. “The bad news? Well, it’ll catch up to you when find yourself defending Bill Cosby in mixed company this holiday season.”
Even though the Washington Post, USA Today, and the L.A. Times have all gotten around to briefly pointing out what was there all along, it’s a case of too little, too late. The film has inspired a myriad of negative reviews, scoring only a 34 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, but their overall problem doesn’t seem to be that the movie’s politics are bad, just that the movie is really, really, really bad. In the Dissolve, Nathan Rabin puts it best, “Ribald yet frantically unfunny, [Horrible Bosses 2] wears out its welcome within the first five minutes, and never comes close to gaining it back. It feels like an alternately flat and flailing television pilot for a bro-comedy no one in their right mind would ever pick up.” But If the sexual assault humor were in a better movie, would it be worthy of mention—or would we not want to spoil the fun?
Of course, it’s both an issue of quality and of how we talk about rape itself. While the Bill Cosby allegations have reminded us of the reality of rape culture, one that shames women into silence while providing support networks for powerful men to continue their abuse, we still haven’t had an analogous conversation about male survivors. The easy point here is to simply remind the reader at home that “Hey, men are raped, too” and let that be it. That’s true, but there’s more to the story. In addition to the overwhelming stigma that faces rape victims, men stay silent about sexual abuse because they’re worried about being made fun of by their peers, like Dale. Men stay silent because they think they’ll be seen as weak or less powerful. Men stay silent, frankly, because they’re worried about being seen as less of a man.
Thus, the through line in both cases is often about gender: When we make it easier for anyone to be abused, we make it easier for everyone to be abused—by promoting victim-blaming and denial. Why do you think that the 20 women (and counting) who have come forward accusing Bill Cosby of sexual assault are only being heard right now? Because years ago, somebody heard their story and didn’t think it was worth talking about; even Cosby’s biographer didn’t believe the claims were worthy of mention. You don’t create a culture of silence when victims stay quiet. You create a culture of silence when you uphold a society that encourages them to do so, simply because you don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun.
Photo via Horrible Bosses 2/Trailer
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.