SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched “Half a Sheet Cake and a Blue-Raspberry Slushie,” the Nov. 19 episode of “SMILF.”
“SMILF’s” latest episode puts its protagonist Bridgette (Frankie Shaw) through a tragic series of events: A desperate stab for extra cash leads her to respond to a Craigslist ad from a man looking for company, but the moment that she feels a spark of connection, he pushes his hand against her crotch, without her consent. It’s particularly painful because Bridgette was sexually abused by her own father, and the twisted re-enactment of her abuse does not escape the audience’s notice.
That storyline is just one part of the show’s exploration of what Shaw calls “making yourself a commodity,” specifically for its female characters trying to make it in a man’s world.
Shaw spoke to Variety about the themes of the episode, which touch on Shaw’s views about prostitution and complicity of everyone trying to succeed in a flawed world. She also related her own story of inappropriate conduct from a producer, someone who has not been named publicly yet.
Are you excited for people to see this episode?
I really am. I’m proud of this episode. Each episode will have one scene idea — with the last one, I was like what if Bridgette gets into Connie’s bathwater? That jumpstarts the whole thing. This one came from an experience I had in my life, when I had just graduated Barnard and was extremely struggling, financially and in general. I started fantasizing by going on Craigslist, with those ads like, “I’ll pay you to go to dinner,” “I’ll buy you lingerie if I can watch you.” That kind of thing. Not selling yourself for sex, but almost.
I responded to one: “Go to dinner for money.” Then I go to my waitressing job, and I tell a friend of mine. She goes, “You cannot go. You will not return from that yourself. You cannot recover.” So I canceled. I texted this guy, I’m just kidding, I’m not gonna go. He said, Well, I’ll give you $300 to just come so I can see your face. It was at Christmastime. I didn’t tell anyone. It was a secret. And I went. In this minivan outside of the St. Marks Place K-Mart. It was daylight. He had all of these UGG boots in his car, because he had come from Westchester, and he was bringing back UGG boots for his kids and his wife. He stuck his hand out the window and gives me cash and says, “You’re prettier than you know.” I kept walking. I took the money and I kept walking. I felt so strange. I kind of blocked it out. Didn’t tell anyone. Well, now I can buy some Christmas presents. It was so strange.
I always remember him saying that: As if him telling me that I was pretty was what he thought I wanted to hear. Or would make me stay.
I brought it up in the writers’ room. Like: What if I had gone? What could have happened? That’s how it started. And then on top of that, or next to that, is that I’m very interested in the idea of prostitution. My point of view is it should be abolished. It’s not something that can exist in our society, right? It’s not sex. It’s like men jerking off inside women.
I’ve talked to a lot of people who were prostitutes. We had a writer in our room who had an experience in a minivan. This duality — the fantasy of it, that would be maybe “The Girlfriend Experience.” And then the reality for women who do it. For men who participate there is a cognitive dissonance, in the same way that we’re seeing with all the harassment. They didn’t know it was wrong, or they knew, but they blocked it out. You take the humanity out of the woman if she’s selling herself.
So it’s interesting for me to explore both sides. I wanted to show the humanity in the john, and have a real connection. He’s also just doing what he’s told is OK.
Sex work is a progressive cause in many circles — to have it be legal, or less stigmatized.
I’m not an advocate at all. If you’re gonna do it, women should be protected. Some Scandinavian country [Norway and Sweden] has rehabilitation for women who get caught. Rather than it being illegal and they’re put in jail, the johns get put in jail, and the women get to do a program that helps them gain skills to get a different kind of job. That’s the ideal.
One of the things that is so heartbreaking about the end of this scene, when the john touches Bridgette, is that she’s reliving the trauma of her father sexually abusing her. It’s been introduced into the story in a casual, even upbeat way, because Bridgette doesn’t have the luxury of it being a bigger deal.
That’s where we’re building to in the season finale — a big through-line. There’s a lot of shows that I love where we don’t really know where some of the dysfunction comes from. I was interested in exploring Rafi’s (Miguel Gomez) addiction and the root of it. And his pathos. And with Bridgette and her inability to get her s–t together. Food issues being related to sexual trauma. Just connecting some of those dots, without it being, this is what the show is about. Coloring the person, the character, as we go.
When you talk about sexual abuse or sexual violence or harassment, everyone comes out with their story. It’s something we’re seeing now. Because it’s a thing that shows the darkest part of humanity. The thing that for so long no one wanted to talk about.
I made a short a couple of years ago about Congressman Todd Akin’s remarks on “legitimate rape.” It was a satire, and in the short Zoe Kravitz’s character, she’s raped but she gets pregnant. So she goes around asking her rapist and her doctor if it was “legitimate.” Because if it wasn’t legitimate she had to get an abortion.
The point was just people saying the things that are very common, but that we don’t normally say. That was part of the scene of connecting — oh yeah, sexual abuse does give you PTSD.
Bridgette was probably re-enacting her own trauma but really didn’t have the opportunity to understand that more. Which is true for a lot of people who are suffering from PTSD.
Totally. That’s what one does, is recreate your own trauma, because that’s what you know. In this finale, there’s a whole scene — it’s all leading up to facing her dad. You’ll have to wait and see. It’s hard to talk about without giving it away. It ends up being a total disaster, but it does come back. it will be a thread.
Talk about the beginning of the episode, in which Bridgette, Nelson (Samara Weaving), and Eliza (Raven Goodwin) are in different ways catering to the male gaze.
I was interested in, Can you be empowered while selling yourself, while making yourself a commodity? I think the answer is no. Not really. But we believe it when we’re doing it. Eliza’s character, that was just a strange fetish that I found, eater/feeder porn. If you find the YouTube videos of these women being interviewed, it’s so devastating. Mainly you have an eater and then you have a feeder. The men, who are normally thin, feed the women. People watch. A lot of times it’s not sexual. It does go there, veer into porn. But it’s basically these men wanting these women to get so fat that they can’t leave. They’re totally dependent on the man.
With Nelson, that’s actually Brandin Cooks, who’s a Patriots player. He’s the number five wide receiver. He was so cool and so excited to do that, be the butt of that joke. We were mocking Cam Newton. She does know a lot about sports, but she has to look this way for her job.
We’re all conflicted, right? We all do these things to get the job or to be valued or valuable. Because of the culture we live in, we are all sort of complicit in participating. Bridgette being like, thanks for the job opportunity. I can’t tell you how many times I have had to get spray tans. Or fake eyelashes. Or that chicken cutlet thing [silicone cups for breasts]. That happened to me on a job.
A lot of moments in “SMILF” are communicating these uncomfortable things that we know are true and we kind of can’t do anything about.
There’s not any shame or judgment of being turned on by it, too. If I’m sexualizing myself, and I feel hot in a male gaze-y way, and I’m wearing high heels — which I can’t do, because I can’t walk in them — but when I put them on, I’m like, maybe, yeah! That’s hot. There’s no problem with that either. It’s just finding the true for you, I think.
Yeah, but it’s a maze.
It’s a maze. It’s 2017. It’s like anything is really possible. Where do you stand on it all? There was a period of time where I stopped wearing anything feminine, because I was just exploring what it was to just be in my brain. What that is. It’s a whole process to figure that out, I think, for anyone.
It’s ongoing, too. I’ve heard from so many women over the past few weeks, about how differently they’re moving through the world.
There was this guy who [recently] sent me an email, a producer: “Break legs with the show.” And I remembered him from a show I did in 2013 or 2014, being creepy. I forwarded the email to a producer on my show, who worked with that producer on that other show. I just wrote “Harvey Weinstein” as a joke. And then my producer writes back something like, “Whatever, that’s just a typical email.” But then he wrote back, and he’s like: I’m so sorry, did anything happen? I didn’t mean to be cavalier. He’s had trouble with this guy. Then I went back and searched that guy’s emails. And… now, I would register it as harassment. But before, I’m like, Oh here’s a creepy guy hitting on me over email inappropriately, I’m just going to ignore it, just gonna play the nice actress, and be like, “Oh sorry, can’t come to your trailer. Gotta go pick up the son!”
Now I’d be like, Go f—k yourself. I’m reporting you. And before I was like, Oh, please don’t fire me.
Has the rolling wave of revelations reached this person yet?
No. And I bet everyone has stories. I mean, I barely had any contact with him. I was on the show just for a couple days. But I remember at the wrap party seeing him with all these extras. These pretty young extra girls. He told me to come to his trailer, and he sent me a picture of a bottle of champagne. He wrote me an email that said, “Damn you for being so hot.”
Sometimes I’m shocked at how unimaginative these guys are.
I know! Right? Does this actually work for you? He would wield his power in the emails. Talking about how successful he is, or how much money he had. Terrible.
To go back to your show, what we’ve been seeing a lot lately is dynamics of abuse of power in really high-up places, but of course, they happen to people on a much lower level, too.
It’s like, none of the waitresses who get harassed everyday are getting written about. Or minimum wage workers. We have all these white women coming out — rich, successful, white women coming out. Are we paying attention to the people of color? That’s actually how we have to be allies with each other.
We have to be representative of many different stories, because at the end of the day for women, we have this commonality. A black man was elected president before a white woman, because at least everyone with a dick can identify with each other.
Is that one of the reasons Bridgette’s kid is a son and not a daughter?
Yeah, it was important for me at least to show what it’s like to raise a boy. And how you talk to a boy. I’m sure both are important. But I have a nine-year-old son. I’m constantly talking to him about the images he’s seeing and representation. He’ll be drawing army figures, and I’m like, which one’s the woman? That’s important! You can only do so much in one show. I don’t want to use all these trendy words, but there’s definitely an inclusory thing that I’m trying, to be intersectional. Then we can tell the stories that I want to explore. We talk about race in Boston. There’s gonna be black characters.
Boston is very recognizable in the show. As someone who lived there for a bit, I came away thinking “SMILF” is really a show about how Boston is awful.
[Laughs.] Kind of! I mean, it’s terrible. It’s like, my family is terrible. But they can’t do anything about it. I’m kidding. But they’re like, bitter and cold and stuck in this way of thinking. My husband hated Boston, and left BU and went to NYU. Cause he was like, this sucks, this place. But then when we were shooting there, and he was there, he found a new love for it. It is also a very beautiful town if you have it in the right season and right mindset.