Harassment of Women Flows From Harvey Weinstein to ‘Rick and Morty’ Trolls (Column)

The contexts are very different, between the Oscar-winning producer and the animated comedy, but the targets are the same: women

Rick and Morty
Courtesy of Adult Swim

In the wake of the industry-wide meltdown that is the Harvey Weinstein scandal, it seems marginal to discuss the meltdown around two episodes of an animated sitcom on Adult Swim. Weinstein was at home in the glitz and glamor of the Academy Awards, while “Rick and Morty” is a show where the main character usually has vomit or drool bubbling out of his mouth. But each story is punctuated by harassment against women, and if we are to understand the widespread nature of this problem, it behooves us to look at both.

In the case of Weinstein, it was a story of harassment from a powerful executive towards far less influential women. In “Rick and Morty’s” case, the harassment flowed upwards — from some fans who felt a sense of disenfranchisement towards women writers who were perceived as “ruining” the show. And yet, strikingly, the approaches overlap: Women, new to the industry, targeted in the space between personal and professional spheres — whether that is a hotel room during a press tour or through interacting with fans on social media.

In retrospect, there were several factors that led to the doxxing of “Rick and Morty” writers Jane Becker and Jessica Gao that had nothing to do with them or their episodes. The show faced complex expectations following a long hiatus, an especially ambitious season, and an effort to diversify its writing staff. Becker and Gao were not the agents of these details, but they became the face of it. After a publicity stunt on April Fool’s Day went awry, Becker’s episode “Rickmancing the Stone” was like chum in shark-infested waters. It was the first episode in the season’s regular time slot. It introduced some of the season’s emphasis on fractured family dynamics. It focused on Summer (Spencer Grammer), the family’s annoying teenage sister. And it was the first episode of “Rick and Morty” written by a woman.

Some fans became very angry — first at Becker, and then at Gao, whose episode “Pickle Rick” aired the following week. Details are hazy, but according to a post published on reddit by a former “Rick and Morty” staffer, “The hacker known as 4chan (of course, who else) published the writers’ personal information, they’ve been receiving threats and hate mail based on the fact that they’re women.” Show creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland both separately lambasted fans who harassed their female writers. But the distrust of Becker, Gao, and fellow writers Erica Rosbe and Sarah Carbiener still simmers underneath the surface of the “Rick and Morty” subreddit.

It should be said that “Rick and Morty” is not a show that trades in even subtle misogyny. It is a weird, uncomfortable, and brilliant animated sitcom, one that uses storytelling about how infinite and pitiless the multiverse is to make a case for the arbitrary, fragile bonds of intimacy. The show’s humor is so ruthless that it sometimes feels that “Rick and Morty,” like Rick himself, despises everything and everyone around him. But to come away from the show with the notion that Rick is to be emulated or admired is like watching “The Sopranos” and concluding that Tony Soprano is a cross-bearing martyr (and, of course, some fans of that show actually did come to that conclusion).

But misinterpretation, if that is what it is, seems like too soft a word. The day after the finale, some fans rioted at McDonald’s locations around the country — because the fast food chain introduced Rick’s beloved Szechwan Sauce in very limited quantities, and found that demand far exceeded their supply. McDonald’s did not partner with Adult Swim or “Rick and Morty” for this promotion, and was so taken aback at the fervor it unleashed that it released a follow-up statement with more details about the sauce.

This sounds like a comedy bit. But videos of these scenes have emerged, and they are not funny. These are chanting mobs, looking to be angry at something. It doesn’t really have anything to do with “Rick and Morty”; the show is just a convenient excuse. But it’s one thing when the target is sauce (and/or a multinational corporation). It’s another when it’s women in the industry — often those who are just starting out in competitive, male-dominated workplaces.

Pop culture speaks to both our most shameful desires and lofty aspirations. It provides us meaning — and therefore, it becomes incredibly important to us, whether you are a fan or an artist or a crew member or an entertainment executive. Crucially, of course, it also makes a lot of money. The stakes are high, between feeling and profit, and a result what is considered “normal” or “acceptable” in this industry is skewed. Just as there are too many women coming forward with stories of harassment by higher-up male executives, there are also too many women with stories of campaigns of furious anger or creepy entitlement unleashed upon them by male fans — sometimes, hordes of them, in coordinated attacks.

This, too, is considered just part of the business; this, too, is unacceptable. The context of Weinstein’s harassment and “Rick and Morty’s” fans may be different, but the monstrous entitlement is the same. These are men who act as if the world should belong to them, and then are angry when they are denied that absurd power.