Thursday, November 19, 2009

Slut-Shaming Pop Culture Moment: A 90201 Halloween

The other day I caught a rerun of an old Halloween episode of Beverly Hills, 90210. I remembered the basic premise - Kelly wears a sexy costume to the big Halloween house party and is almost raped by a creepy guy, but her friends save the day - but I had forgotten just how slut-shamey this episode was. I'm only going to talk about the Kelly storyline, but if you want to really take a walk down cheesy memory lane, the full episode is available on YouTube.

First, there's the scene where the whole gang goes to the costume shop to pick out outfits for the party. Kelly and Donna were supposed to do a group costume with their dates, but the guys blow them off at the last minute, so they need something new. Kelly tries to pressure Donna into a sexy costume, but Donna's not into it so Kelly tries it on herself, and this exchange with Brenda follows:

Brenda: Kelly...don't you think it's a bit much?

Kelly: Brenda, I don't have a date for tonight. If I am going to this party stag, I want to make a splash. [When was the last time you heard someone say they were "going stag"?]

Brenda: Well, you're more likely to start a fire in that thing.

Kelly: Brenda, come on. It's Halloween. It's the one night of the year when we get to dress up and act a little crazy.

Kelly ends up rejecting that first costume for not being Halloweenish enough, but don't worry, she shows up at the party in something even sexier. The reaction when she enters the party is so over the top, it's hilarious. Everyone stares and points and gasps, including her friends. (If you can't watch the video with sound or just don't want to torture yourself that much, just skip ahead to about the 1:30 mark to see Kelly's grand entrance.)

Okay, so is it the most age-appropriate costume I've ever seen on someone who's supposed to be in high school? No, of course not. If a parent or teacher or other adult had flipped out over it, I would have gotten it, but the way her friends and other people her own age at the party reacted, you'd think she had walked in wearing a g-string and pasties.

I also thought it was funny that from the waist up, Donna's costume is plenty revealing too, but since her ridiculous mermaid outfit is being played for laughs (and she's acting awkward and uncomfortable instead of "slutty"), it's apparently not a big deal to anyone.

If you didn't watch the whole thing, Kelly's entrance immediately earns her another lecture from Brenda. The highlights include: "Did your mom see you like this?", "Do you want guys staring at you like that all night long?", and "I'm warning you, you're looking for trouble." Kelly calls Brenda a "goody-goody", says that she thinks she looks great, she just wants to meet guys, and she can wear whatever she wants. She ends by saying that she knows how to take care of herself, which we all know on shows like this is foreshadowing for 'this character is about to be thrown into a situation where she can't take care of herself'.

In case we haven't gotten the message yet, along comes Steve with his opinion:

Steve: Wow. Kelly, you look...

Kelly: Don't I?

Steve: What is this supposed to be? Some kind of gownless evening strap? [Oh Steve, you're so witty.]

Kelly: It's a witch's costume.

Steve: Yeah, well I thought those witches wore those big things, like a cloak.

Kelly: I'm sorry if you have a problem with it.

Steve: I have no problem with it, it just leaves nothing up to the imagination.

Kelly: Steve, with you and me it's all imagination.

Kelly finally gets a break for about five seconds when Brenda overhears her blowing off a sleazy guy and tells her "I guess you do know what you're doing". (Remember that foreshadowing thing? Guess they wanted to make sure we didn't miss it.) Then they review all of the cute guy options at the party and Kelly settles on Cowboy Guy, soon to become Creepy Cowboy Guy. She's determined to get to know him. They do some cringeworthy flirting that I can't bring myself to transcribe and like, OMG, he's totally a college guy! She calls him an obnoxious frat boy and he calls her feisty, so you know it's not love. He wants to throw her over his saddle and ride off into the sunset, but she doesn't "ride on the first date". (Yes, this is the actual dialogue.) They continue to banter; I continue to cringe.

They dance. He can't believe she's into David Letterman because she doesn't "seem like the type". (I have no idea what this means.) She likes to stay up late. He asks if they've met in another life and she says yes, they were ancient Egyptians. (Yes, this is the actual dialogue.) They decide to get something to eat and have a pointless debate about whether she should eat a chicken wing or a quesadilla. (Apparently his insistence on the quesadilla is supposed to be a red flag that he's a potential rapist.) Someone bumps into her and she says, "I wish there was someplace we could go that wasn't so crowded", because it's more than halfway through the episode so they have to get the storyline moving somehow.

Of course he takes her up to a bedroom, and then immediately shuts down her small talk about the house by sitting on the bed and saying that he's not into architecture and wants to know about her history instead. (Smooth.) She starts off with where she was born and raised, as if that's what he's getting at. And that's the problem with this whole thing - in about ten minutes they've taken Kelly from street smart to totally naive just to make the story work. She saw right through the first sleazy guy's attempt to hit on her, and suddenly she's clueless about what Creepy Cowboy's intentions are? I don't really buy it.

So he immediately goes into supercreepy mode, advancing on her while asking if she has a boyfriend or if she's looking for one, and blocking the door when she tries to get him to go back to the party.
Kelly: Look, I don't want to be up here anymore, I want to go back to the party.

Creepy Cowboy: Well I don't think you do.

Kelly: How do you know what I want?

Creepy Cowboy: By your actions. I mean, if you didn't want to be up here, why'd you come?

Kelly: I wanted to be up here, and now I don't, okay?

Creepy Cowboy: I thought we were gonna play make-believe.

Kelly: This isn't the kind of make-believe that I had in mind.

Creepy Cowboy: I'm looking and what you're wearing, and I'm thinking this is exactly the kind of make-believe you have in mind.

Kelly: The answer is no, okay?

But of course it's not okay. Because even though she hasn't so much as kissed this guy and says no to him right away, she was wearing a slutty costume so clearly she was asking for it. For a second he pretends to back off and apologizes, says he respects her, and asks her to forgive him...and then he pins her down on the bed and won't let her up. Have we gotten the message yet, audience? Luckily Brenda and Donna show up and interrupt, and Creepy Cowboy explains that he was "kidding". Yeah, attempted rape is hilarious.

Brenda summons Dylan and Steve, and the Cowboy digs a little deeper by saying, "Hey, we were both into it, and then suddenly she started lying. You guys know what I mean, right?" Steve's response to this is, "How dare you lay a hand on her, I love that girl!" Oh, okay Steve, so would it be cool with you if he just went back to the party and found a girl that you don't love to force himself on?

The guys kick Creepy Cowboy out of the party, and he tries to take one more shot at defending himself. "Guys, you got this all wrong. I mean, when a girl dresses like a slut..." Steve shuts him up by punching him, and I'm okay with that. And now it's back to the bedroom to put the slut-shaming cherry on top of this cautionary tale.
Kelly: I'm such an idiot. I thought I was being all sexy dressing like this, you know? Look where it got me.

Brenda: Kelly, I tried to tell you that the dress was a little too much.

Wow. Really, Brenda? Your best friend is trying to deal with the fact that she was just almost raped, and you can't save the "I told you so" for later?

She does redeem herself a little bit after that horrible start:

Kelly: It wasn't the dress though, it was me, and what I did.

Brenda: Kelly, you said no. He should have listened, period.

Kelly: I should have listened to you. You tried to warn me, you tried to tell me what I was walking into. [Again we see that without Kelly magical sudden onset of cluelessness, this storyline wouldn't have worked.]

Brenda: Kelly, you said no.

Kelly: I said no too late. Might as well have been saying yes, you know? [Um, no actually, I don't know. And it wasn't "too late".] I was trying to act all cool and everything, talking sexy. I was leading him on.

Donna: Well then he should go take a cold shower, or whatever they do. [Oh Donna, we love you. And since Donna's character was actually portrayed as kinda clueless and less experienced with guys, I think a storyline like this centered on her would have been more believable.]

Dylan asks if he can say something, and since he's Dylan McKay and everyone loves him, of course it's okay: "I know the last thing you need right now is another guy telling you what to do or what to think...You're blaming yourself for leading that guy on, but I want you to know, as a guy, it doesn't matter how much of a magnet a girl turns on. A guy always has a choice, of not making her do something she doesn't want to do." At this point Brenda looks over at him, kinda like 'crap, maybe that's what I should have said instead of my weird mixed message about how it wasn't her fault cause she said no but she still shouldn't have worn that slutty dress'. So now she's firmly on board Team No Means No.
Kelly: I didn't make that choice very easy, now did I?

Dylan: Yeah, you did. You said now.

Brenda. And after that, what happened isn't your fault. [That should have been your opener, Brenda.]
I'm not sure how to feel about the end of this conversation.

Kelly: The weird part is that before we came up here he seemed like such a nice guy, you know?

Brenda: Kelly, it doesn't matter if he's cute, or smart, or Prince Charming.

Donna: He was a rapist!

Kelly: Donna, I don't think...

Donna: What the hell else can you call it? Kelly, what would have happened if we hadn't come in here?

I get that they want to make it clear that the Creepy Cowboy wasn't just being creepy, or pushy, or aggressive, or whatever, he was committing a sexual assault. But it's kinda weird that the conversation ends on that note, with Kelly looking more freaked out than ever, instead of on the 'it wasn't your fault' note. It almost seems to bring it back around to 'look what you got yourself into with your slutty behavior, young lady'.

So what's the lesson? That the Creepy Cowboy was a jerk and a rapist...but you wouldn't attract jerky rapists if you didn't wear slutty costumes? Overall, the episode is a mixed bag, because there are good messages mixed in with the bad ones. I think the problem is how many people might watch it and end up summarizing it the way a blogger at did:
Things got really scary, though, for Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth), when she was nearly raped by a guy dressed as a cowboy due to her provocative, bewitching costume. Luckily, her friends Brenda Walsh (Shannen Doherty) and Donna Martin (Tori Spelling) came into the room and called for help.
No. Kelly was nearly raped due to the fact that a sleazy douchebag chose to try to rape her. She was the victim and she wasn't to blame for what happened. And that's a message that we need to hear a lot more often, on TV and in real life.

Have you noticed a slut-shaming pop culture moment recently? Let us know!