Rhetoric, #MeToo and Television

Sarah Kornfield, Ph.D. | Associate Professor of Communication and Affiliated Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies

Dr. Sarah Kornfield likens the cultural effects of television to a distorted reflection from a funhouse mirror, and she doesn’t mean it in an amusing way. When she thinks about TV’s reflective light, she does so as a rhetorician who studies the portrayals of gender in mass media.

Using that lens to look closely at the “magic box,” Kornfield and student researcher Hannah Jones ’21 recently analyzed the rhetorical techniques — plot, script, characterizations and camerawork — of 30 TV episodes that presented #MeToo narratives since 2018, episodes of shows including Law and Order: SVU, the Murphy Brown reboot, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Fight and Madam Secretary, to name a few. Popularized in late 2017 by actress Alyssa Milano, “MeToo” is the work of activist Tarana Burke. Burke uses the phrase “me too” in her Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity organization as a way of comforting other survivors of sexual violence and to demonstrate the widespread nature of sexual violence in U.S. culture.

Funded by a Hope College Jacob E. Nyenhuis Faculty Development grant, in 2020 Kornfield identified the episodes through keyword searches of news reporting. She and Jones watched and re-watched the shows, transcribing dialogue and taking notes on other research-related content, “which is the slowest possible way to watch something,” Kornfield quips.

She knows that calling TV “America’s storyteller” falls short. According to a 2019 Nielsen study, American adults spend an average of four and a half hours a day watching television — even more than the additional three hours a day they spend on their smartphones. “Television is America’s pastime,” she says.

For all the ways that the glow of flat screens sheds light on American society, it can also distort real issues in surreal ways. At times, though, if it strikes the right pose, television can be a source of positive change as its stories impact watching audiences.

“People’s sense of ‘normal,’ and thus ‘real,’ are significantly derived from the images and narratives they see in media entertainment,” Kornfield says. “Essentially, the time people spend watching television each day matters. It shapes our thinking, assumptions and expectations.”

“So, yes, television is like a funhouse mirror,” she adds. “When it reflects a story back at us, what does it show us? What sort of agreements, what assumptions, what sense of the narrative is it reflecting to us? And what does it give us to agree upon?”

Exploring those questions is the work of rhetorical criticism — using analytic methods to evaluate persuasion in public culture.

Rhetoric is tied to the history of Western democracies, Kornfield explains. The discipline emerged in ancient Athens, spread to Rome and Europe, and then to England and the Americas. “When people have to reason together, what is the process in which we can get people to agree? Rhetoricians think about persuasion in terms of public discourse,” she says.

Not much is more public than television — and, as Kornfield states, “to bring healing, U.S. culture needs to reach new public agreements about what constitutes sexual violence and how to end sexual violence.”

Kornfield’s #MeToo research builds on the work of prior media scholars, such as Dr. Lisa Cuklanz, who in the late 1970s analyzed how a number of TV episodes of that era represented feminist activism.

“Her findings were deeply pessimistic — what she found was a funhouse mirror that hindered social change,” Kornfield elaborates. “Rather than supporting feminist activism, those 1970s episodes tapped into and contributed to the public conversation with a steady stream of rape myths — ideas about rape and sexual violence that are not supported by statistics. For example, ideas that people claiming to be rape victims are often lying. That victims were asking for it. That the perpetrator didn’t mean to. That rape is an extremely unusual and rare occurrence, and so on.”

Kornfield’s findings four decades later during the #MeToo era are a bit more optimistic. She and Jones concluded that a third of the episodes they viewed do a very good job of addressing responses to sexual violence. They gave another third a middling grade, and found that in the final third, storytelling still leans on the same frustrating rape myths.

A major goal of the project was to identify and analyze rhetorical techniques in the TV episodes that could make a significant positive impact. Kornfield was particularly interested in their likely impact on viewers who’ve experienced sexual violence or gender discrimination. She and Jones found clear modeling in some TV episodes of “three strategies that feminist scholars advocate as ways to shift culture on sexual violence to reduce harm and promote healing,” she says.

The first strategy is to portray the pervasive and structural nature of sexual violence. By showing how pervasive sexual violence is, Kornfield says, television can help viewers realize that the problem isn’t an occasional “bad apple” but rather a whole system that turns a blind eye to violence and discrimination, and operates as if harassment is normal. “An episode on the reboot of Murphy Brown did this very well” she says. “The news anchor — Corky — says every woman has had a #MeToo experience. And then she begins to tell one story after another of the times it has happened to her throughout the entirety of the episode. When a colleague she’s speaking to stops her, Corky replies, ‘I haven’t even made it to my 20s.’”

The second way TV can shift culture, Kornfield continues, comes when characters serve as role models of how disclosures can lead to social change. For example, in a season 2 episode of Jane the Virgin, Jane dates her grad school professor and advisor (“massively inappropriate,” Kornfield says, but not uncommon). In a season 4 follow-up episode, well after they break up she finds out he has dated multiple graduate students and is now dating one of his current students. Jane discloses her former relationship to his current “girlfriend” as an act of solidarity that empowers the current girlfriend to make an informed decision about her relationship.

“Disclosure isn’t individualistic,” Kornfield asserts. “It has to be outward focused because when it is, it helps change things.”

Finally, she says, television can strategically portray how bystanders have an active role in shifting culture. “When a person discloses their #MeToo experience to a friend who says, ‘Oh, that’s serious, let me go with you to the police,’ that’s a fantastic role model. Way to go, bystander! — especially when the alternative that is also on television questions, or doubts, or laughs it off.”

Kornfield tracked the diversity among the characters in the episodes she studied. The vast majority of victims in them are female and heterosexual. And while there is some diversity in the victims’ ethnicity, she found that although these episodes often make it clear that sexual assault is about power, “they don’t show how racism is also about power,” Kornfield notes. “As such, the race of the survivor appears as a ‘flat line’ in these episodes, rather than showing the vertical lines of oppression that work in both gendered and raced ways.”

Additionally, sexual violence or misconduct perpetrated against men — “the Other #MeToo” — rarely is portrayed, though Center for Disease Control and Prevention statistics indicate one in six men experience unwanted sexual contact. Kornfield found just three of the episodes she viewed have storylines that show men as victims — and in two of them, the situations are treated as jokes.

This is just one of Kornfield’s recent research projects with a feminist theory theme. Her paper with Lindsey Hayes ’21 about Jesus Feminist author Sarah Bessey and women’s preaching styles appeared in 2020 in the Journal of Communication and Religion. She and Sage Mikkelsen ’21 completed another paper in 2020, on fundamentalist women’s ministries, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Women’s Studies in Communication.

Her new textbook, Contemporary Rhetorical Criticism, will be released by Strata Publishing this spring.

Kornfield and Jones’ report on their 2020 survey of television episodes, “Lights, Camera, #MeToo: Strategies for Televisual Feminist Activism,” has also been submitted to a journal. “It is our hope,” Kornfield says, “that our analysis might ultimately help media producers, directors, screenwriters and others in the industry to identify and incorporate narrative strategies that work to reduce harm and increase healing in the world.”

See for Yourself

Dr. Sarah Kornfield recommends these TV show episodes for their ability to demonstrate the pervasive nature of sexual violence, their ability to feature “MeToo” disclosures in ways that help others, and their ability to feature bystanders who positively intervene in the midst of trauma.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine. “He Said, She Said.” Season 6, episode 8. NBC. First aired February 28, 2019.
Grey’s Anatomy. “Silent All These Years.” Season 15, episode 19. ABC. March 28, 2019
Jane the Virgin. “Chapter Seventy-Five.” Season 4, episode 11. The CW. March 2, 2018.
Murphy Brown. “#MurphyToo.” Season 11, episode 3. CBS. October 11, 2018.
Sex Education. “Episode 3” and “Episode 7.” Season 2, episodes 3 and 7. Netflix. January 17, 2020.
Younger. “#LizaToo.” Season 5, episode 1. TV Land. June 5, 2018.