'The Mindy Project' and the Trouble With 'Gray Area Rape'


After the premiere of Season 2 of The Mindy Project, I wrote a piece on "All the Reasons We Love Mindy" one of which was that the show is "already feminist and hopefully will become more so." Unfortunately, after last week’s episode it’s been difficult to stand by that statement.

As you may know, the show and Mindy Kaling herself (via Instagram) have received serious criticism for its inclusion of a scene in which James Franco’s character, Dr. Leotard, has sex with Chloe Sevigny’s character, Christina, while he is nearly unconsciously intoxicated.

It is clear that the storyline was included to put an end to James Franco’s guest spot on the show and to allow for Mindy’s character, Dr. L, to reclaim a central role within the office after her return from her short-lived mission to Haiti. The scene was successful in doing so as after Dr. Leotard confesses his "sexual indiscretion" to Danny, Christina’s ex-husband and current doctor at the practice, it is clear that the two can no longer work together, forcing Franco’s character to resign. 

Given the feminist fan base, it’s not surprising that fans have taken such issue with their choice to display, and in some ways make light of, non-consensual sex. There’s no question that if the gender roles we’re reversed the scene would be immediately viewed as rape by most, so much so that it hopefully would’ve never made it into the show. The problem with this casual display of rape is, that as Hannah Strom suggests, "Our society perpetuates the myth that men always want sex, so much so that a woman having sex with a blackout drunk man is supposed to be funny."

While this undoubtedly "ignores the fact that men can be raped" I would argue that there is much more to be said about this than an outraged "shame on you."

I’m sure there are many people who watched the same scene and would never have interpreted what had happened as rape. Not only because Dr. Leotard was male and his assailant was a woman, but because the next day he clearly states repeatedly that he had sex with her. Initially, when Danny thinks that Mindy and Dr. Leotard had sex with each other, he immediately blames Mindy. "You took him to the bar, you got him drunk, his inhibitions went down and you had sex with him" – implying that Mindy was to blame. He doesn’t go as far to accuse her of assaulting him, but he does call her a sexually "loose" woman, and it is in coming to her defense that Dr. Leotard finally admits that he had actually had sex with Christina.

While Dr. Leotard claims Mindy is an "accessory to sex" attributing the blame to her for getting him so drunk, he in no way appears to be victimized by what happened. In fact he later refers to the sex as "extraordinary." This raises larger and highly uncomfortable questions about what constitutes consent and what factors need to be considered in order to consider a sexual act rape.

Legally, no matter what the person may verbalize, someone cannot consent to sex if they are "severely intoxicated or unconscious as a result of alcohol or drugs." While I want to be extremely clear that I agree with that definition, it brings up even more complex questions. How drunk is too drunk? If both parties are very drunk are you technically raping each other? If you are drunk but not too drunk, and drunkenly agree to sex and genuinely don’t regret doing so after the fact, is it still rape? As feminists and people who never want to be viewed as condoning rape (which should really be all of us) our instinct is to say yes, if it not possible to give consent while intoxicated, then sex while intoxicated is always rape.

But in reality some of us get drunk, sometimes really drunk, and have sex with people. Sometimes we drunkenly consent to sex,  say yes and mean yes, enjoy it and genuinely don't feel victimized or taken advantage of after the fact.

As Amy Schumer suggests, some people feel there is a gray area when it comes to rape (or as she refers to it "grape"), and if we really think about what consent is and how it is defined, those of us who have had sex while intoxicated have "all been a little raped."

This in no way is to make light of rape. If you are intoxicated to the point where you cannot consent, if you drunkenly consent and have no recollection of it, or even if you do but in your sober state know that your words did not match your desires, if you feel violated or taken advantage of in any way, you were raped. But unfortunately there is no breathalyzer for sex and in a society where getting drunk and having sex often go hand in hand, it can be difficult to decipher between the two.

What is most disappointing about the incident displayed by The Mindy Project was that it only served to blur these lines further. The incident took place between a clearly sober female and a clearly intoxicated male. Did he regret it in the morning? Yes. Did he appear to feel violated by it? No. Does that change the fact that he was raped? No.

Given the societal confusion regarding consent and the normalcy of sex while intoxicated it is possible to understand how the scene was written into the show. Regardless that doesn’t make it okay. And while as a fan I’d love to believe, that it was intended to be "satire; showing how trivialized rape usually is and how much blame is placed on the victim" I have to agree with Julie Mitchell that "on this one, it’s just not there."

The safest definition of rape, then, remains the broadest. And even if the writers on The Mindy Project didn't get the memo, that doesn't make it right.