9.24.2017

the strange case of the barney miller rape episode

Watching Barney Miller as my comedy-before-bed sleep aid, I was stunned and amazed by an episode called "Rape" -- Season 4, Episode 15.

A woman comes to the station house, agitated and distressed. Captain Miller, with his usual calm and professional demeanour, leads her to sit down. When he hears "rape," Barney says, "Oh boy" -- as in, oh my, this is serious. He says, "Do you think you can give us a description of the man?"

She pulls from her bag a photograph. There's a brief sight-gag, as the photograph is in a small frame. She says about the photo, "That man is an animal. A degenerate. That man is... my husband." The laugh track booms. Barney rolls his eyes and says, "Oh boy" -- as in "we have a fruitcake."

Barney: "Mrs. Lindsay, are you sure?"

Woman: "What do you mean, am I sure?"

Barney: "I mean, I know you're sure this is your husband. But-- Nick, would you get Mrs. Lindsay a cup of coffee?"

Another crime victim who happens to be in the station house at the time says, "Kind of weird, isn't it? Raped by her husband?"

The woman defends her case to the detectives, and for a while it seems like the show is a lesson about the legitimacy of marital rape -- that the audience is going to learn about marital rape along with the detectives of the 12th Precinct.

"I have some rights, don't I?"
Barney says, "Mrs. Lindsay, we're in kind of a gray area."

She replies through gritted teeth: "What's gray about it? I didn't want to, and he made me."

Eventually, Barney is persuaded to treat the incident as a crime. Detectives bring in the rapist-husband for questioning, and an assistant district attorney appears.

The ADA is a woman, and a feminist. The rapist-husband's defense lawyer acts as if he's never seen a female attorney before. Even Barney is surprised. In 1978 New York City, I don't think the presence of a female ADA would have been shocking.

The ADA says to the victim, "I want you to know we're going to do everything in our power to see that your rights as a human being are preserved."

The woman says with feeling, "That's all I want."

Barney tells the ADA that the law is unclear, and questions why she wants to treat this as a "test-case". The ADA stands strong, and the live audience applauds and cheers -- a little. Dietrich (Steve Landesberg) speculates to the husband that in the future, "Rape will be known as committing a Marvin Lindsay" -- a statement that acknowledges that rape has been committed.

Up to now I have found the episode creepy and uncomfortable, because I'm not sure whose point of view the show is condoning. Then it goes off the rails.

Barney appeals to the woman in one of his famous heart-to-hearts. These little chats -- usually used in minor, personal issues -- often persuade complainants to give the other person another chance. The woman, formerly so angry and self-assured that she marched into a police station, says to her husband, "You want to know how to treat a woman? Ask him," pointing to Barney. "Go ahead," she says to Barney, "tell him how to treat a woman."

Barney has a heart-to-heart with the husband. The couple reconciles. He's going to take her out to dinner and buy her flowers. Suddenly she doesn't care that she was forced to have sex against her will. She'll be more willing if he buys her dinner first. The end.

* * * *

The episode aired in 1978, when marital rape was still considered a "private matter" -- a "domestic disturbance", if that. Kind of makes your head explode, doesn't it? It was all in keeping with the legal view of women and children as property. By the way, this is why second-wave feminists said "the personal is political".

Barney Miller, the sitcom, is a man's world. In the first few seasons, there is a rotating spot used for a female police officer, played first by Linda Lavin. The female cops are always very emotional and highly strung, but they are also good detectives, and discrimination against them is often acknowledged. Those characters fade away after a few seasons, and never return. Barney's wife Liz, played by Barbara Barrie, also fades away. The recurring character of Bernice (usually Florence Stanley), Fish's wife, disappears when Fish (Abe Vigoda) retires. And other than that, female characters are either crime victims or criminals, and the female criminals are usually sex workers.

Looking online for references to this episode, I found this discussion on Democratic Underground, from February 2010. Some commenters claim the episode was groundbreaking, airing the issue of marital rape for the first time; others think it's fine except for the laugh track.

But it isn't just the laugh track, and it isn't just the eye-rolling. The worst part of the episode by far is the positive-outcome rape scenario. That's when a victim decides the rape was OK or not really rape -- in this case, because hubby promised to wine and dine her next time. (Incidentally, I expected to find a definition of "positive-outcome rape scenario" online, but did not. Maybe it's called something else now? TV Tropes calls it "when victim falls for rapist".)

A writer on Critics at Large examines the live audience's response, and sees the episode as a watershed -- and as feminist.
For the first half of the episode the fact that the husband is accused of rape is a laugh line, but the raucousness of the audience track is at odds with the script and characters who are responding more with questioning looks (and genuine questions of law) than comical disbelief. And by episode's end – even though the accuser herself has walked back her charge – the audience forcibly applauds the young female Assistant DA's personal conviction to push established legal boundaries forward.
The same writer references another Barney Miller episode that was strongly feminist, which (for me) makes the rape episode all the more strange.
An earlier episode exposes the same, disconcerting dichotomy. Even more restrained in its scripting, in season two's "Heat Wave" a wife (played by Janet Ward) comes to the 12th to report her husband's physical abuse and struggles visibly with signing the papers. The centrepiece of the episode is a comedic but psychologically nuanced monologue where she oscillates between loving memories of courtship and righteous anger and fear, leading to her walking out without signing – throughout all of which the 1975 audience laughs with distressing nonchalance. But in the final scene, after a long beat, the door opens again and with wordless determination she signs the paper that will send her husband to jail.
When the actor Ron Glass died, HuffPo ran a piece arguing that Barney Miller is largely a show about empathy. The value and the challenge of empathy is indeed a constant theme of Barney Miller -- and the writer points to the rape episode as a strange exception.
Barney Miller aired from 1975-1982, so the social mores of the time are obviously much different than they are today. You’ll occasionally see notable examples of this, like an episode where the detectives are flabbergasted at the idea of a woman accusing her husband of rape (marital rape was still not a crime for years after it was a plot point on Barney Miller). However, besides a few exceptions here and there (like the aforementioned marital rape plot, which paid some lip service to the fact that it was, indeed, an actual issue in some cases, but mostly treated the wife’s complaint as frivolous - the wife turned out to just want her husband to be more romantic during sex), the show somehow manages to not really seem all that out of date on most issues when you watch it today.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the ever-awesome TV Tropes puts it in perspective, listing the Barney Miller rape episode under both "Black Comedy Rape" and "Marital Rape License".

I'd be shocked if any sitcoms today used marital rape as a punchline. Wingnuts would say this is an example of censorship through political correctness. I'd say it's an example of the power of feminism to change our world.

8 comments:

The Mound of Sound said...


It's amazing how far we've come in forty years. We've become enlightened in some areas but in others we've steadily declined. I'm working my way through a tome entitled, "Modern Life, Forty Lectures," representative of many of the leading minds in progressive thought in 1907. I managed to score a first edition in very good condition for $15. It's eye-opening to read progressive thought from over a century ago before the era of world wars, the Depression, the rise of our once vibrant and robust Middle Class and the age of neoliberalism. There is much in it that speaks to our current tribulations. It's a beacon illuminating the path out of the mess we're in today. It's also very inspiring.

When Barney Miller aired the rape episode I'm sure it was cutting edge and controversial. It was probably something of a taboo subject that they chose to explore. I wonder if you could judge it from the perspective of 1978 rather than 2017 you might have viewed it a bit differently.

laura k said...

I wonder if you could judge it from the perspective of 1978 rather than 2017 you might have viewed it a bit differently.

Maybe -- but maybe not. A commenter on the Democratic Underground convo linked in this post said the producers took a lot of heat from women's groups about it. Feminists of that era wouldn't have appreciated the ending any more than I did, I believe. (Especially since I was a young feminist in 1978!)

I agree it was probably cutting edge and controversial when it was aired. But the ending really botched it.

laura k said...

My friend who is a federal prosecutor says: "In a nutshell, female ADAs would have been extremely rare back then because: 1) law school admissions; 2) tracking of females to gentle practice; 3) no litigation experience because not seen as rough enough for the courtroom; and 4) law enforcement in particular a man's world. Still vestiges of that. I am routinely told (with surprised approval) that I'm a "badass" prosecutor."

allan said...

Wingnuts would say this is an example of censorship through political correctness. I'd say it's an example of the power of feminism to change our world.

And of basic human decency and common sense. ...

When you first told me about this episode, it really made no sense. How tone deaf could the producers of the show be on this one issue, especially considering their general progressive stance otherwise? I can't see them cranking up the laff track for wisecracks about pedophilia, so why this blind spot?

allan said...

You can watch the episode here.

This website also mentions "Heat Wave" and says that episode "showed a flaw in Barney's approach that was of its time. He assumed that a situation like that could best be resolved within the confines of the home, that a husband and wife would always know best how to reconcile, and that it was always best to do so over divorce."

The "Rape" episode is "a similar situation ... with even higher stakes. ... This episode raises a very serious issue, but resolves it as though it was a typical marital squabble."

Then the writer mentions Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman:

"In the very first episode, airdate Mary Hartman comes on to her husband, Tom, and he rebuffs her. ... He explains to a sexually frustrated Mary that he doesn't like it when she initiates. His actual words are "Because every time I feel like doing something you do it first, that's why...it kills everything. It makes me feel like not doing anything...that's not the way it's supposed to be."

"“What am I supposed to do when I feel like making love to my husband?" she asks.

"Nothing," he counters, trapping both of them for the next several weeks.

On the flip side, on episode 178, which aired on December 8, 1976, over a year before this episode, Tom actually does force himself on Mary. She frantically calls him out on it, as it's happening and desperately manages to talk him down. To Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, it's clear that rape within marriage happens.

Part of the problem is that the thesis of Barney Miller as a whole is one where Barney goes by-the-book when possible, yet urges complainants to settle things outside the justice system. In most cases this is a perfectly good approach, but when abuse has occurred, there needs to be the support of the system."

***

laura k said...

Good find! Barney does always encourage people to kiss and make up. In the context of the show, that's a strength. But not always!

impudent strumpet said...

Another crime victim who happens to be in the station house at the time says, "Kind of weird, isn't it? Raped by her husband?"

So they're interviewing crime victims within earshot of each other?! #LeastImportantThing

laura k said...

So they're interviewing crime victims within earshot of each other?!

All the time! There are no private interview rooms.