Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Comic Where Mary Marvel Got Sexually Harassed

The Comic Where Mary Marvel Got Sexually Harassed

A recent commenter on this blog asks, to paraphrase: "what exactly consititutes sexual harassment? If I tell my co-worker she is wearing a nice blouse, will that be interpreted as sexual harassment?"

I turn now to "Perceptions," a story written by Peter David that was published in "Supergirl Plus #1." In it, Mary Marvel gets sexually harassed by middle-aged divorcee cop Lenny O'Hara. However, the way David presents the story, things are open for interpretation, like the old optical illusion that could be seen as either an old lady or a baby.

Of course, during the course of the story Mary (this is before her "stupidification" by my otherwise fave writer Keith Giffen in "Formerly Known As the JLA") has a jones to kick this guy in the nuts, with Supergirl having to talk her out of it. The story ends with everybody deciding to take the case through the proper channels, and O'Hara pleading innocence right up to the very last scene, where he kind of gets shaky and says something like "I couldn't have done that...c-could I?"

Unlike robbery or murder or other crimes, it's very hard, unless you have witnesses, to present a clear-cut case for sexual harassment. It all boils down to the situation in "Perceptions," with Mary saying he did it, and O'Hara saying he didn't do it. The ultimate answer may lie with either party or (as presented in the story) somewhere between the panels. Only God and the two parties know for sure -- the rest of us can only choose a side or make inferences based on indirect data.

I feel the person who has gone through this or other traumas definitely has the right to tell her (or his) story -- that it's part of the healing process and provides people going through similar situations with perspective & hope. Further, I think the topic of sexual harassment itself should be debated and examined thoroughly on message boards and forums everywhere.

But one thing that gets lost in the internet debate and gossip is just how goddamn sad sexual harassment situations are for everybody involved. They're fucking sad. There are no winners and losers. Everybody is a loser. Feelings on both sides are filled with agony and resentment and hurt. You have one side saying "nothing happened and you're liar" and the other side saying "I'm really really hurt" and it's like Iraq, there's no immediate clean way to resolve it. And then you have people caught in the middle who are pressured to take sides and it's shitty for them too.

But what are the solutions? How do we define "sexual harassment"? What precautions need to be in place in order to nip it in the bud before it festers into a civic Hiroshima?

I always thought I had a pretty thick skin about these matters. I gave my co-workers a "get out of jail free" card to say something stupid. It was my observation that about 30% of these men, even the nicest ones, even married ones, would say once and only once some really inappropriate thing. They would just blurt it out something like "I'll bet you'd look good in those Black Canary fishnets." Then I would just blink a couple of times like I didn't know what they were talking about, they never brought it up again, and a harmonious working relationship followed. I'm serious, this worked like 90% of the time.

I'm not here to "sell" the "get out of jail free card" approach to all of this. Some women would laugh off the Black Canary comment, and some would sue -- there's a spectrum.

On the other hand, clear guidelines set by management might have even precluded the need for the "get out of jail free card" scenario. Such guidelines protect not only the target but the aggressor, providing boundaries.

But then other people would say such strict guidelines would take all the "spontenaiety" out of the workplace, that it creates an antiseptic PC "fantasy world."

And then what about the guy who wonders if complimenting a blouse is sexual harassment? Is "nice hair" okay and "nice legs" forbidden?

What about a situation where co-workers are having sex with each other and things go south? Or a boss and an employee? Or an artist and an editor? How are those cases judged differently?

How about women who sexually harass men? Or men who sexually harass men, or women who sexually harass women?

What about a Britney Spears photo-manip on a work screensaver?

What about the drunk co-worker who humps your leg at a company function? Is this a case for the courts? Or should one simply get "Mary Marvel" on his ass?

Hey, if everybody would just respect everybody else and follow the rules we learned in Star Trek:

Spock: "Sexual harassment is not logical."
Kirk: "Uh..."
Sulu: "Do my actions while under the influence of alien viral LSD or conducted by my mirror persona count?"
Data: "I am not programmed to sexually harass."
Riker: "Baby, there's no need for me to sexually harass anyone -- I'm HOT."
Worf: "In our mating rituals the males stalk the females on horses and try to subdue them with long, clublike instruments...I believe you humans have a similar ritual, called 'polo.'"
O'Brien: "Well...why do you think I was really transferred to 'Deep Space Nine?'"

Anyhow, I'm not here to give any hard-and-fast answers -- I'm just throwing questions out on the table. I heartily encourage debate and dialogue on the subject, on the "comments" section of ths blog and anyplace else.

And I was kidding about O'Brien. I don't really know why he was transferred to Deep Space Nine.


  1. I thought the transfer was to keep him away from indie UK-based movies inevitably starring Pete Postlethwait, but of course that didn't work.

    I still don't get why we can't treat everyone in a workplace with equal respect no matter what their gender or appearance, until such time as they prove themselves to be jerks. But then, I'm apparently the low person on the totem pole in my office of four, where all three coworkers (including the building custodian) treat me like I work for them in addition to working for the head honcho.

  2. Here is my comment as a guy: sexual harrasment comes from not knowing where the boundary is with someone. I know lots of people who don't have a problem with sexual tinted jokes, suggestive comments, and whatnot at the workplace (not at my workplace, at my wife's). But they have made thier boundries clear. Its a matter of what is found offensive by some people, and them communicating it effectively.

    And women aren't the only people to get harrassed.

  3. I don’t believe that we have a right not to be offended, and I don’t believe that an offensive comment from someone with no power over you constitutes sexual harassment. Ha, some people (e.g., ultra-religious conservatives, limousine liberals) need to be offended at times. No one should feel afraid that a casual comment will be condemned. However, no one should feel afraid to speak out when offended, and anyone who continues to offend co-workers when asked to stop should be shown the door. An oppressive workplace environment is nobody’s friend; even a cold-hearted greedy boss should recognize that it is an inefficient workplace.

    I don’t like the rush to sue or pass legislation at the drop of a hat, but businesses do need to have common-sense policies, equally enforced. I’m right there with Elayne in that my policy is to treat every individual with respect until they prove they’re a jerk.


  4. Very thoughtful post. I always try to err on the side of caution when complimenting and flirting with women co-workers--at least until I'm pretty sure what the limits are. Even then it's probably best to err on the side of propriety, or at least fairly opaque innuendo, though I imagine it's earned me quite the reputation ("He's such a nerd!").

    Without wanting to come off like a total pig I think it's worth pointing out that the spectrum of responses to the Black Canary comment might even range from genuinely complimented to lawsuit, which is why men will never get the message that it might be an inappropriate comment. Sometimes it isn't.

  5. I'll say any comment whose intention could be interpreted as to relay sexual desire for another person may be called "sexual harrasment" depending on the crassness of the comment and the sensitivity of the person receiving the comment.


    "I bet you'd look good in those fishnets"

    Very very crass, the guy is either too sure of himself and his attractiveness or a hopeless dweeb who can only think of that to get closer to another person.

    "I bet I'd look good in those fishnets"

    If the guy is a 50 year old WASP, it's almost a no-brainer that it's a comment designed to get you to laugh. Unless he just stares unblinkingly into your eyes afterwards for a minute after the comment. So who knows really.

    My suggestion would be for everybody to do what humans have been doing during all this "civilization" business, speak out, communicate.

    It would be more effective to tell that dweeb "Jesus man, that comment made me really uncomfortable" right there on the spot, than having some internal struggle that no one would know about until higher-ups get involved.

  6. It is really hard to define. A lot depends on the personalities involved. I have worked with some individuals who were total flirts, and it was just understood that that's how they were, and we didn't take them seriously.

    I, on the other hand, was always very careful not to say anyting inappropriate, and, with retrospect, I'm 99% sure I missed out on at least one opportunity for a relationship (or at least a date).

    I've worked with a couple of women who would make comments to me that made me uncomfortable, but I didn't really consider it harassment, it was just awkward now and then. It didn't seem aggressive or offensive.

    Then again, I've worked with other guys who talked so much about sex that it made me queasy. There was one guy I would avoid working with b/c I knew that a good two-thirds of our conversation would be gynecological details about whatever girl(s) he'd had sex with the night before.

    I guess honesty is the ideal. If you are honestly interested in a coworker, you should be able to express that honestly, and they should be able to accept or reject that with equal honesty and then you both go on about your work. But we have so many other things tied up in it. The individuals involved become part of the sociological tug-of-war, and stop being people and start being metaphors for some bigger Issue.