What The Carmichael Show Got Right About Consent & Sexual Assault

Photo: Chris Haston/NBC.
As promised, The Carmichael Show dedicated its season 3 premiere to addressing sexual assault. The NBC sitcom is no stranger to social issues, and often addresses them using its brand of family humor. Along with the announcement that it would be addressing sexual assault, the show also promised to take on the n-word, assisted suicide, and the controversies plaguing Trump since he took office. But sexual assault is a particularly sensitive topic that is tough to talk about regardless of the platform. That struggle was definitely on display in last night’s season opener, “Yes Means Yes.”
The episode starts at the dining table, with Maxine sharing with the family that a friend of hers was raped. The family is immediately supportive of the woman, until Maxine reads her word-for-word account. The woman detailed that she met a friend at a party, went back to his place, expressed that she didn’t want to have sex but only make out, and “before [she] knew it sex was happening.” These details change the hearts of Jerrod and his parents. Suddenly, they aren’t convinced that anything wrong happened at all. Jerrod is more empathetic to the man accused of raping Sarah because the accusation could ruin his life.
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Rape and sexual assault are never funny. But The Carmichael Show managed to pull off some puns, not by making light of a serious situation but by shedding light on ridiculous oppositions to verbal, enthusiastic consent. Cynthia thinks that a woman giving verbal consent when a man wants sex makes her a “dirty whore.” Jerrod disagrees that a verbal yes is part of “the rules” for sex, as it is “the rules for emergency exit seating.” These jokes are awkward, clumsy, and feel like they were copy-pasted from the Facebook comments on a Bill Cosby think piece directly into the script. But they frame the conversations that need to be had around sexual assault and why we need to have them.
My favorite part of the episode is how this conversation opens up Bobby — Jerrod’s dimwitted brother — to the possibility that he may have sexually assaulted a woman the night before. A huge chunk of “Yes Means Yes” is dedicated to Bobby not trying to absolve himself of guilt, but hold himself accountable, even if recklessly (he insists on a face-to-face conversation with the woman he thinks he sexually assaulted, which I think is a horrible idea in his case). Too often, dialogue about sexual assault happens exclusively in the theoretical realm, absolving people of the responsibility of questioning their own practices around consent. For showing Bobby turn inward in this way, The Carmichael Show hit the nail right on the head.
In case you were wondering, Bobby didn’t actually rape the woman he hooked up with. He was just really bad at sex, and she wanted to avoid him at all costs. But that’s a theoretical conversation for another day.
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