On last night’s episode of SMILF — Frankie Shaw’s semi-autobiographical dramedy about a broke single mother in South Boston — our protagonist Bridgette (Shaw) is groped during a date with a man she meets via a Craigslist personal ad. As Shaw told me, the episode was inspired directly by her own experiences as a younger woman. And while SMILF has its share of light moments, the show’s first three episodes have also been an exploration of the lasting effects of sexual trauma — which, Shaw says, was always her intention. “It’s kind of like a Trojan horse — the show feels like this light sex comedy, but underneath what I’m doing is talking about stuff I care about,” she explains.
We talked about the episode, as well as working with co-star Rosie O’Donnell (who plays Bridgette mom) during Trump’s attacks on her, reacting to the allegations about Louis C.K., and how SMILF’s approach to sexual harassment and ingrained misogyny takes on new resonance in a post-Weinstein world.
How did this story line come about?
The seedling for the story was this experience I had where I was really young and really broke in NYC and looking on Craigslist for work. I started looking into this “Sugar Daddy” kind of thing, and I saw one that [offered to pay] however much money for dinner and I was like, okay, maybe I could do that. So I went to my waitressing job — it was really hard to stay afloat — and the woman there said You can’t go, you will not come back from that, our culture does not support women in that way with any sort of sex as commodity, you can not return socially and emotionally from that. So I texted the guy and said never mind — which is like what happens in the show. So he was like, Okay I’ll just give you $250 to come see me in a public place. It was outside the Kmart in Astor Place and he was seemingly a Westchester dad in a minivan with a trunk full of Ugg boots — it was Christmastime. I convinced myself it was worth it, because I had no money, if it was for Christmas presents for my brother and my mom. So I put my hood on and he handed me the money and he said, You’re prettier than you know, and I went home.
The idea for this episode was: what if I had actually had dinner with him? It was also inspired by this sort of debate about: what is prostitution? On one hand, people joke about it; just today I texted my personal trainer to say “oh I have your check” and he’s said “good, I need to buy cocaine and hookers” — like, as a joke. Because the term “hooker” is like you’re not a real person; it takes the humanity out. So then I just started talking to people who have been prostitutes. And I have this fantasy idea of it, which is sort of represented in the pussy temple scene [Bridgette’s sexual fantasy, also depicted in the episode, of men lining up to worship her vagina], like where it’s about my body — but it’s actually obviously not about sex at all, it’s a man jerking off inside of you, and there’s nothing mutual about it.
Initially, her attacker seems like such a nice guy — they have what appears to be this really meaningful conversation.
That’s sort of what I wanted to show too. He’s also someone who is kind and has his own point of view about it. It’s not that you don’t blame him, because we’re all culpable for our actions, but he’s sort of also this victim of rape culture. I feel bad. Like Al Franken or Louis or whoever — they were told in a way it was okay.
When the assault takes place, he literally grabs her vagina. How much was this a response to Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” remarks — as well as those people who said, at the time, that this was just a figure of speech and not something that actually happens?
One-hundred percent — it was completely a response to it. Just the cavalier way he talked about it. And now that he is also an alleged rapist as the leader of the free world, all that stuff is coming up again, because if Harvey can go down, why can’t he go down? The term itself is very strange, “grab ’em by the pussy” — it just shows that oftentimes sexual harassment is about sex and power, not just about sex. But it’s so shocking because I thought that was the end of him and then he got elected. Someone said to me recently, Is your son a feminist? And I just said, yeah, of course; if he’s, not what is he? I think people are finally getting exposed to the fact that if you’re not a feminist, you’re a misogynist; you can’t really exist in between those things.
Why did you choose to have Bridgette respond by punching her attacker in the face?
On one hand, it’s wish fulfillment and fantasy. Most often in sexual assault you freeze and you don’t do anything because your body goes into shock, or you dissociate because it’s trauma. So it’s revenge. It’s powerful to fight back. Though if you go to any sort of rape defense class, they’ll say, Scream, fight back, yell no no no and get people’s attention, but most of the time you don’t do that, so it was kind of like: How can she stand up for herself? I wrote like four different possible endings. I wrote one where she just started crying and they were frozen there.
When you wrote this episode, none of the Harvey Weinstein stuff had happened yet. Now, sexual harassment and assault are the biggest issue in the news.
It’s so incredible to have all these voices coming out saying, Me too. Everyone is carrying these secrets — it was sort of like an accepted part of being a woman. I was talking to someone last night and I was like, imagine walking around in a world where you don’t have this layer of fear of expectation where you can be victimized? That would be so different for everyone, because it’s so embedded and ingrained that we can be used in that way or thought of in that way. This episode was written in July, before all of this happened, so it’s pretty incredible that now we’re talking about it — though it also existed when we weren’t talking about it. I think this show has this undercurrent of sexual abuse and trauma maybe because it’s a woman writing it, and [that experience] is so common.
I know in the past you’ve said Louie was an influence on the show. What has it been like for you watching these allegations come out?
He still was an influence when I was starting to write and I appreciated his show. I think his apology was bullshit at the same time. There was no culpability — you can’t really even call it an apology. There’s this whole thing, separate the artist from the art, but I don’t think I can watch his stuff anymore, just like I don’t watch Woody Allen’s stuff and I don’t watch Mel Gibson. Unless I’m trying to learn inside the mind of a predator. My son’s piano teacher was telling us that Mozart or Mendehlsson or someone had an equally talented sister, but their talent wasn’t cultivated because they were female, so we’re missing that music they could have created. So [now] there’s room for other people to create. Maybe we’ll find the female Louie.
Earlier in the episode, we see Bridgette shooting a shower scene for a role she is doing, and the directors and crew are so horribly objectifying. Was that inspired by your own experiences in the entertainment industry?
Definitely. Early in my career, I was on a show where the point of it was to objectify women, and I had to wear chicken cutlets in my bra, and I remember one time in the middle of it the costume designer running up to me and saying, You forgot to put these in! But also, I’m complicit in it. Many parts you have to be sexualized when you’re playing a 20-something love interest. The things one does to make oneself more appealing are definitely part of the game, and part of the industry.
What was it like working with Rosie O’Donnell during this period that she was being directly targeted by Trump?
The thing that was most surprising to me was just how hurt she was by his insults. I think he has portrayed her and maybe the media has portrayed her as someone who’s as gruff as he is and they go tit for tat, but it was really painful for her. She felt like people didn’t stand up for her. It was a hard time. The first day of shooting the pilot was the day he was elected. Whenever I’m on a tweet with her on it, the amount of vitriol and hate people spew at us — it’s a lot.
I think people have forgotten how smart and thoughtful she really is, because of this image this feud provided for everyone. She’s one of the most generous people I’ve ever encountered, she’s always donating her money and putting people in need through school. She’s constantly giving financially which is so interesting because she’s pitted against one of the most greedy people. And she’s using her voice. She’s just really passionate and she’s outspoken and she’s a feminist and she’s an ally for the black community and a lot of different communities. It was fun to work with someone who you can just get into it and learn from and with whom you share the same politics.
It seems like this is all coming from a very personal place. Have you had any desire to share your personal experiences with assault or harassment, or do you prefer to let your work speak for itself?
I’m someone who definitely wants to hide behind their art. I don’t think it’s a big mystery that I’ve had my own experiences, given that that’s what I talk about a lot in my art. I was thinking maybe I should write a piece and call people out, but then my husband suggested I just call these people directly about my experiences with them. So I’m still sort of thinking about it. A lot of times there’s a cognitive dissonance where men don’t see their behavior [as wrong]. At least until this moment in our culture.