It's no secret that romance in the fictional worlds of movies and television tends to lean to the extreme. As proven by hundreds of films, there is a
fine line between a romantic chase and stalking. Plenty of borderline inappropriate behavior is romanticized on screen, and these 17 times men "tripped" into sexual harassment in movies and TV are just the tip of the iceberg. These are instances in which a male character or protagonist appears to accidentally commit sexual harassment — but come on, we know that's not how it works.
myth of the accidental predator is a common one. In fact, the idea that men seem to accidentally cross a line has been frequently pandered to in the recent wave of allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct against powerful men in the US government and in Hollywood. Louis C.K., for example, in a statement confirming allegations that he had exposed himself and masturbated in front of women without their consent, told The New York Times, "At the time, I said to myself that what I did was O.K. because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first, which is also true." Former CBS newsman Charlie Rose, meanwhile, addressing allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace, released a statement to The Washington Post saying, "I always felt that I was pursuing shared feelings, even though I now realize I was mistaken."
The myth here is that these men felt that what they were doing was completely appropriate, suggesting that they simply didn't know that their behavior was bad (despite so much evidence to the contrary). And unfortunately, that myth has been perpetuated by movies and television. To be an accidental predator on the screen, characters must have a few things: they must be presented as protagonists, or people the audience is meant to root for, and their transgressions must be either forced by circumstance or with a pure-ish motive. In other words, the facts of the case are enough to have many outsiders conclude that it isn't the perpetrator's fault.
In each of the below movies and TV shows, the male character is depicted as having somehow "tripped" into sexual harassment, making it somehow excusable. And it's time for that to end.
'Pretty Little Liars' — Ezra
Ezra's relationship with Aria on
Pretty Little Liars was sketchy from the get go, what with him being her high school English teacher. But, that form of sexual misconduct was definitely treated as "accidental" in the world of the show — they met outside of the classroom first and were supposed to be genuinely in love. Then things took a turn a few seasons later when it was revealed that Ezra's relationship with Aria was actually more calculated, and that he knew she was a high school student from the moment he met her. Despite all this creepiness, Ezria was one of the main ships of the show, and the couple ended up getting their happily ever after in the series finale.
'Tootsie' — Michael Dorsey
Michael Dorsey dresses up as a woman to get a lucrative acting role in
Tootsie, and while it's played for comedy, the set up of a white man taking a job from a woman in Hollywood is already vile. It gets worse when Michael uses his position as an actor and his disguise as a woman to get close to Julie, a young actor. Again, the entire relationship is played off as totally fine because it's "true love."
'True Blood' — Bill Compton & Eric Northman
Both Bill and Eric publicly claim Sookie over the course of
True Blood — aggressive behavior rationalized by love and good intentions (saving her from being eaten by other vampires, for example). It might be love, but claiming her as "mine" turns that love into a danger zone pretty quick. Add to that the insane imbalance of power between Sookie (a human) and Bill (a centuries old vampire) and you've got yourself a prime breeding ground for sexual assault.
Marnie is a basically a movie about sexual and psychological abuse — all in the name of love. In the film, Mark forces Marnie to marry him, then forces himself on her, and then manipulates her into reliving her psychological trauma. But it's OK, because he's positioned as her savior. Rocky features what is essentially textbook sexual assault and harassment in its main couple — Rocky and Adrian. On their first date, Rocky sweet talks her into coming up to his apartment and then forces her to stay, ignoring her pleas to leave and even physically blocking the door. All this is rationalized in the film, however, because she's supposedly just saying no because she's insecure. OK, sure.
Mark isn't as much of an accidental predator as other characters on this list, but the way he hits on Juno is certainly not OK. One could interpret Mark as just a man not ready to be a father and grasping at his youth by hitting on a pregnant teenager, giving him enough benefit of the doubt to be an accidental sexual harasser.
'21 Jump Street' — Schmidt
21 Jump Street is a comedy, so a lot of the outrageous behavior in the film is really done for a laugh. One thing that isn't so funny, however, is Schmidt's budding romance with a high school student. Once again: that's a grown man undercover at a high school falling for a high school senior. In another world, he would have been fired and banned from school property.
'Mad Men' — Don Draper, Roger Sterling & Every Male Character
Mad Men is basically a show about sexual harassment in the workplace, and the characters mostly walk the line between protagonists and anti-heroes. Still, the men of Mad Men aren't exactly portrayed as serial predators (which they are), something that romanticizes their womanizing behavior to audiences.
'Westworld' — William / Man in Black
Westworld's William and Man in Black provides a fascinating look at how a seemingly innocent man can become a ruthless predator. Over the course of the series' first season, William falls in love with Delores and his love becomes obsession. It's a story that might suggest to viewers that love could drive any man to become a rapist (aka the Man in Black), but it's worth noting that's not actually how it works. Fear's David McCall is another lover-turned-obsessive threat. David is definitely a more realistic predator than others on the list — he's trouble from day one. Still, his possessiveness is sort of glossed over in favor of sex appeal, which is questionable.
'Blade Runner' — Rick Deckard
Blade Runner's hero Rick Deckard has a pretty inappropriate relationship with Rachael. Their story has been retconned as a love affair by Blade Runner 2049, but the power dynamics in their original relationship tell a different story.
Ted is portrayed as a harmless geek just in need of love in
16 Candles, but his aggressive behavior towards Sam on the bus (encroaching on her personal space) and the bet he makes to get her panties is everything but good, clean fun. And then there's his behavior with a super drunk Caroline. When tasked to get her home safely, he takes a few detours, including one to his friend's house to take photos with the woman passed out drunk in his car.
'The Ides Of March' — Mike Morris
Governor Mike Morris is running for president, and while at first he seems like the one upstanding guy in politics, it's later revealed he's sleazy, sleeping with an intern. Yes, she's over 18, but even when consensual, the power imbalance between a governor and an intern are so stark, it's impossible not to question the legitimacy of her consent.
'Everyone Says I Love You' — Joe
In Woody Allen's musical comedy
Everyone Says I Love You, Joe's obsession with Von is said to be true love, but it's really just a creepy old man using his access to Von's private therapy sessions to start a relationship with her. Romantic, it is not, which is why it's strange that Joe's actions are depicted as those of a hopeless romantic.
'Overboard' — Dean Proffitt
Overboard, the romantic comedy that poses the question: is it really sexual harassment or assault if a man tricks a woman with amnesia into being his wife, but they end up actually falling in love? The answer: yes, yes it is. Palo Alto features a few sexual abusers, but the most unassuming is Fred, a teenage boy who starts a sexual relationship with his classmate, Emily. Fred and Emily's relationship begins as consensual, but it quickly spirals out of control, with him being more aggressive and demanding when it comes to sex. Later, he admits to, essentially, pimping her out to his friends at school. It's shocking and awful to hear, but it's also portrayed in such a way that minimizes his responsibility and his actions. He's not an sexual assaulter, the movie is saying — he's a teenage boy who's a little too obsessed with sex. Um, no.
At this moment in time, many of us are having to grapple with the ugly truth that behavior some women and men consider to be normal is sometimes, in fact, sexual harassment. Exposing films who lean into that misunderstanding and deconstructing the myth of the accidental predator is crucial if we want to move forward and create a safer society for men and women.