HW 2/26

I took notes (below) on a journal article about depictions of sexual harassment on sitcoms. I think it will be very relevant to my thesis; I’m glad I took very thorough notes. In terms of the note-taking, I don’t feel as though I did anything very different from how I usually take notes. I usually try to include page numbers and citations. I usually include the content of the article as well as my own thoughts and questions. However, I don’t always type up my notes so thoroughly. I’m worried that I will be too thorough with every source I read. What I need to work on is reading more aggressively, only focusing on the relevant information, or else I will never finish this project.


“Not a Laughing Matter: Sexual Harassment as ‘Material’ on Workplace-Based Situation Comedies”

Montemurro, Beth. “Not a Laughing Matter: Sexual Harassment as “Material” on Workplace-Based Situation Comedies.” Sex Roles 48, no. 9/10 (2003): 433-445.

Abstract: “In her book Sexual Harassment of Working Women Catherine MacKinnon (1979) suggested that ‘Trivialization of sexual harassment has been a major means through which its invisibility has been enforced. Humor, which may reflect unconscious hostility, has been a major form of that trivialization’ (p. 52). In other words, making jokes at women’s expense and treating sexual harassment as not serious have contributed to its persistence. Situation comedies can be seen as gauges for what is considered humorous in American culture. To explore the tone of and mood toward sexual harassment in contemporary American society, themes and content of ‘humorous’ material on 56 episodes of five workplace-based situation comedies were examined. Results showed that although sexual harassment is rarely discussed on situation comedies, gender harassment is frequently used as ‘material,’ which leads to further trivialization of a serious social problem.”


  • Main idea: Sexual harassment as “humorous material” on situation comedies contributes to the trivialization of sexual harassment in American society.
  • Questions:
    • What is the difference between “gender harassment” and “sexual harassment”? (Montemurro, 433)
    • What does MacKinnon mean when she says that humor “‘may reflect unconscious hostility’”? (MacKinnon, 52, cited in Montemurro, 433)


Reading Notes



  • Television has a profound impact on Americans’ “perceptions of gender roles and other social issues” (Montemurro, 433).
    • She cites several studies that have shown this
    • Justifying the study of television (its profound sociological impact is undeniable, p. 433)
  • In making jokes about social issues, sitcoms trivialize the problems (Montemurro, 433 (citing Grauerholtz and King))
  • Sitcoms also reinforce “stereotypes and negative images/perceptions of serious topics” (Montemurro, 434 (citing Fouts and Burggraf)
  • Problems with making jokes about sexual harassment:
    • Definition of sexual harassment becomes “clouded” (434)
    • Sexual harassment not seen as a serious issue (434)
  • Why does it matter?
    • Sexual harassment in the workplace perpetuates women’s status as “subordinate workers and second class citizens” (434)
    • Women not employees, but “objects/bodies” (434, citing Acker)
    • When we see sitcoms portray instances of sexual harassment in a humorous way time and time again, this maintains women’s “subordinate status” (434, citing Grauerholz and King, hooks, and Jhally)
      • QUESTION: Does this have to do with the content specifically, or the repeated viewing of that content and subsequent internalization of the message?
    • Also, “portrayals of women and work on prime-time programs depict women as less serious workers” (434, citing Vande Berg and Streckfuss)
    • The effect on children
      • Young boys less likely to interpret material of sexual harassment as negative (434, citing Murnen and Smolak)
      • Children learn this behavior, contributing to the maintenance of the issue
        • QUESTION: How much do I want to focus on the child/early socialization aspect? I feel as though it might be a rabbit hole I could easily fall down.
      • Ford’s study (cited on page 436)
    • Montemurro’s Purpose and Methods of Inquiry:
      • Wants to determine “whether sexual harassment is present, prevalent, and/or trivialized” (434)
      • Wants to question “whether sexual harassment is being used as humorous material on situation comedies”
        • Hypothesis: it is. (based on previous studies: Dow, Fouts and Burggraf, Grauerholz and King, Signorielli)
      • Addresses the following issues
        • Frequency of sexual harassment as material in sitcoms
        • In what form is sexual harassment depicted? Is it explicit or implicit?
        • Does the “gender composition of the televised workplace” affect how sexual harassment is treated on the show?
          • My question is similar, but focuses on female leadership in particular
        • How does the workplace environment affect the frequency of sexual harassment?
          • This is a question I could ask as well. There is more “opportunity” for sexual harassment on the set of a TV show (a la 30 Rock) than there is in a paper company office (The Office) (Although plenty of sexual harassment seems to happen on both shows)


“Defining Sexual Harassment”

  • Sexual harassment is prevalent; women experience more sexual harassment than men
    • She cites several studies here. I could refer to those as well, but most of them were published in the 90s. I think I can definitely find more recent studies that also state that sexual harassment is still prevalent (obviously).
    • I can also use more “popular” sources here, referring to highly publicized instances of sexual harassment (Weinstein, Fox News, etc.)
  • QUESTION: She states why sexual harassment is problematic – is this something I need to do? Can I just assume that in 2018, my audience will know that sexual harassment is problematic?
  • Different types of sexual harassment (feminist scholars)
    • “Sexual harassment” – “Quid pro quo” – “clear demand of sexual favors in return for work related benefits” (435), “’turning a professional relationship into a sexual relationship that is not wanted by one of the people involved that is coercive because the initiator has some power over the other person’” (435, quoting Lorber, p. 250)
    • “Gender harassment” – “condition of work/hostile environment” (435), “’inappropriately calling attention to women’s or men’s bodies, sexuality or marital status” (435, quoting Lorber, p. 250)
      • Using person’s gender to point out “the individual’s capabilities or career commitment” (434, quoting Lorber, p. 250)
    • Important to know the difference between the two in order to properly discuss the issue
      • It is a complex and often ambiguous issue; using it as humorous material perpetuatues this ambiguity (435)
      • QUESTION: what do I want to focus on?

“Women on Television”

  • Important to study audience reactions because “television… often functions to connect individuals to the larger social world” (435, citing Press)
    • QUESTION: How much do I want to focus on audience reactions/perceptions? I think I might want to focus more on the content of the shows… but I also think it is important to analyze the effect of the content on the viewers.
  • Correlation between acceptance of “feminist” TV characters and “general societal attitudes toward feminism and the women’s movement” (435, citing Dow)
    • QUESTION: Can some shows be ahead of their time (i.e. too “progressive” for mainstream societal standards) and still succeed?
  • Montemurro cites a 2000 study that analyzed images of women in sitcoms in terms of their weight. The study found that heavier women were treated more negatively than thinner women (and that the laugh tracks used reinforced these “stereotypic values” (436, quoting Fouts and Burggraf)
    • Interesting idea, but I’m not sure it’s relevant because of its outdated-ness. Perhaps I can find a more recent study that touches on this idea? I can certainly think of a lot of instances in my TV shows that portray heavier women in a negative way for laughs.
  • Montemurro looking in depth at five different programs, watching them first to gain an understanding of the characters’ relationship and context
    • Context is crucial – two characters might already have “an established flirting pattern” that makes what could be interpreted as sexual harassment tolerable in context (436)
  • Looking at both sexual harassment (SH) and gender harassment (GH), making the distinction between the two
    • Montemurro points out that Grauerholz and King did not distinguish between the two, resulting in misleading data
  • Why no dramas?
    • Montemurro interested in how “images of sexual harassment are trivialized.” Dramas provide much more context, often dealing with the issue far more seriously than comedies (436).
    • Comedies are “focused on making the viewer laugh and on the simple restoration of order” (436, citing Marc)
      • We talked about the same thing in Shakespeare class – interesting that the basic formula of the comedy has not changed
    • Montemurro talks a lot about the effects of the laugh tracks. The shows I’m interested in do not have a laugh track. From what I know about television in general, it seems that laugh tracks were once more popular than they are now. Perhaps this is relevant to my thesis in terms of how television is evolving?
      • QUESTION: Additionally, in terms of form, although all three shows are workplace-based, The Office and Parks and Recreation are “mockumentaries.” What impact could this have on the content, if any?
    • Claims that comedies have “specific motivations, one of which is to assert superiority” (436, citing Giles, Bourhis, Gadfield, Davies, and Davies).
      • Humor used to “maintain boundaries between men and women in the workplace” (Kanter)


“Operational Definitions”

  • Definition of sexual harassment, combined from two sources:
    • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC): legal definition of workplace sexual harassment, defining “who can and can’t be harassed”
      • “Harasser can be of either sex” 438
      • “Harasser can be a coworker, a supervisor, a client, or other person not employed by the organization” 438
      • “Victims not only include those who are directly harassed but also those who are adversely affected by sexual harassment” 438
      • “Harasser’s conduct must be unwelcome” 438
    • United States Merit System Protection Board (USMSPB): measured sexual harassment using following categories:
      • “Jokes: uninviting sexual teasing, jokes, remarks or questions”
      • “Looks: uninvited sexually suggestive looks or gestures”
      • “Dates: uninvited pressure for dates”
      • “Calls: uninvited letters, phone calls, or material of a sexual nature”
      • “Touches: uninvited and deliberate touching, leaning over, cornering or pinching”
      • “Favors: Uninvited pressure for sexual favors”
      • (Horan and Semora, p. 12)
    • Montemurro uses these definitions as guidelines for her study.
      • “Jokes, looks, calls” “classified as hostile environment/gender harassment” 438
      • “Touches, favors, dates” “quid pro quo sexual harassment” 438
    • Every incident of harassment – sexual and gender – recorded
      • Any “relevant verbal, nonverbal, or physical exchange” 438
      • Incidents not mutually exclusive: one incident could be both a “look” and a “joke” for example 438
    • Incidents also coded by two research assistants


“The Presence and Frequency of Harassment”

  • I don’t think it’s necessary to closely analyze her findings here. I am not interested in the shows she discusses. However, it could be helpful to use her methods as a basis for my own study.
    • This is the part I’m bad at. Data. I have no idea what her tables really mean. I understand what she’s doing here, but once she turns it into numbers, I’m lost.
  • Gender Harassment
    • She presents the data in paragraph form. Then she gives a few examples.
    • Finds that “jokes” were most prevalent. Provides explanation for this:
      • “Humor has specific motivations and goals in interaction. One of these goals is to establish in-group and out-group boundaries (Francis, 1994; Giles et al., 1976/1996). Humor or joke-telling can be used as a way for members of an in-group to acknowledge and strengthen bonds while at the same time excluding the out-group, those who are the subjects or objects of the joke” 441 (also citing Francis, 1994)
      • In this case, the in-group is men and the out-group is women.
    • Sexual Harassment
      • Again, presents data, gives examples
      • Sexual harassment occurred a lot less than gender harassment
    • “Gender Composition of the Workplace”
      • In “real life,” harassment “is initiated by someone in a position of power, and more often by a man than a woman” (citing Matchen and DeSouza, Renzetti and Curran)
      • Statistics from Montemurro’s study show that “jokes” occurred far more often in workplaces where men were in positions of authority (443)
      • Men in positions of authority tolerated harassment (443)
        • Reflecting societal attitudes toward gender and harassment
      • “Workplace Atmosphere”
        • Discussing the fact that some workplaces are more “sexualized” than others
        • Not sure this is relevant to me




Further reading (cited in article):

  • MacKinnon, Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination
  • Dow, Prime-time feminism: Television, media culture, and the women’s movement since 1970
  • Fouts and Burggraf, “Television situation comedies: Female weight, male negative comments, and audience reactions”
  • Press, Women watching television: Class, gender, and generation in the American television experience
  • Grauerholz and King, “Prime time sexual harassment”
  • Acker, “Hierarchies, jobs, bodies: A theory of gendered organizations”
  • Hooks, Cultural criticism and transformation
  • Vande Berg and Streckfuss, “Prime-time television’s portrayal of women and the world of work”
  • Murnen and Smolak, “The experience of sexual harassment among grade school students: Early socialization of female subordination?”
  • Signorielli, “Television and consequences about sex roles: Maintaining conventionality and the status quo”
  • Lorber, Paradoxes of gender
  • Ford, “Effects of sexist humor on tolerance of sexist events”
  • Kanter, Men and women of the corporation
  • Horan and Semora, Sexual harassment in the workplace: What can sociological research contribute?
  • Giles et al., “Cognitive aspects of humor in social interaction”
  • Francis, Laughter, the best medication