Everyone seems to love Ugly Betty. It is fun. It’s bright, bold, and shiny: so much so that many of the liberal themes—from immigration to homosexuality and transsexualism—are made palatable even to conservative audiences. There’s something to be said for that, it’s no mean feat, but Leftist issues are only marketable when they’re liberal issues, no capital letter to be found. After all, ABC attempted to give the show a shot in the arm by creating a “Be Ugly” campaign, daring women to be themselves, just like their precocious Betty.

Of course, ABC didn’t invent that sort of pseudo-feminism, the kind where a mammoth broadcaster can act like an equal partner to a nonprofit like Girls Inc., they were just following the lead of Dove and their “Campaign for Real Beauty.” As a male, it’s perhaps too easy for me to dismiss that sort of thing as insipid; I do understand that to even see something like that is a welcome bit of respite for many women, even if the capitalism behind it is amongst the worst sort of crass: clumsy, obvious crass.

The show centers around Betty, the unflappable assistant to a young publishing scion, Daniel Meade—a playboy trying to make something of himself in the family business, only to have the rug pulled out from underneath him at every turn, like an oversexed Charlie Brown. Betty guides him through his various crises and teaches him valuable lessons between his relapses into superficiality.

His latest crisis is having committed rape.

Of course, the show is quick to point out that it is only statutory rape.

Not real rape.

More like rape on paper; paper rape.

The story goes something like this: Two fashion models, ostensibly from Eastern Europe, claim to be sisters when they show up at his office for no discernable reason. Somehow hours pass, day becomes night, evidently they just talked for six hours, and a set change is needed. They show up at a club. He takes one home with him and as she showers after sex, the other barges in and starts making demands: it was her 16 year old daughter he slept with and she will ruin him if he doesn’t give her child the desired cover shot. A key part of the crisis is that, thanks to his brother-now-sister’s machinations, he no longer has the power to deliver that cover to his blackmailers.

I don’t know how the story will turn out. Not exactly anyway. But I do know the broad strokes: Betty will save him. Somehow she will placate or shame the mother into submission. She’ll restore him as editor-in-chief of the magazine and he’ll be able to sweep everything under the rug. Maybe Betty will get them deported and they will all pontificate on how ironic and tragic that is, with Betty’s own father facing a similar fate. Maybe she’ll tell Daniel to piss off and he will learn his important life lesson and tackle the situation himself. There will be a surprise twist. Maybe the girl is actually older and both she and her mother are really from Kansas and are faking the accents.

Whatever happens, it will be in an episode called “Petra Gate” (after the name of the underage model), the “gate” nomenclature now standing for scandals that, well, really aren’t all that scandalous. They’re silly things, based on technicalities. You know, just like statutory rape.

One of the Desperate Housewives people likes to tell a story about how “The Network” objected to him showing a character smoking after sex with her under-aged partner; he questioned their priorities if they had a problem the smoking but not the “statutory rape, ” the punch line to his anecdote.

Certainly, it plays out differently across various configurations of gender—and antifeminist men certainly do like to joke on their Fark.coms about hot female teachers getting away with molesting their male pupils, and how unfair it is that male teachers are punished more harshly—but Ugly Betty seems to be wading into especially dangerous territory.

It wasn’t lust that sent that 16 year old girl into Daniel Meade’s bed. That was made quite clear. Because she was complicit in her mother’s blackmail scheme, viewers are expected to think the worst of her: and thinking the worst means that she consented to sex, even if that consent was ultimately as a high-end prostitute.

And many viewers do think the worst.

One fan’s reaction on her blog:

“Totally uncalled for from the guy who runs to her at all hours of the day and night with every little problem, but I guess that’s Daniel for you, and he really starts to regret it when he finds out he’s been trapped into a statutory rape situation and his only choice is to put a (rather unattractive) underage Russian model on the next cover. As if Wilhelmina and Alex(is) didn’t have enough ammo.”

“Rather unattractive?”

I guess only good people are invited to “Be Ugly” in the world of ABC.

Much more sympathy abounds for Daniel.

TelevisionWithoutPity.com’s write up is plain about it (Tracie Potochnik):

“And what is meant to be a fun night for Daniel also turns into a nightmare, as he inadvertently sleeps with a sixteen-year-old model whose mother is angling to get her on the cover of Mode.”

He accidentally raped a girl.

It just kind of happened, like tripping on the sidewalk.

Inadvertently. Inadvertently is a word that obviates against consent, it makes it irrelevant: Daniel himself didn’t consent to sex, it just happened, like the grass growing or the wind blowing. As such, he was the victim in all of this, even though his life as a philanderer is predicated on the idea that he is a wealthy and powerful figure while his conquests, by definition, are not. (While the show reversed that paradigm once, with Daniel being taken advantage of by a character played by Selma Hayek, her character, while powerful, was presented as a gold-digger, much like the young model, in order to keep Daniel the sympathetic party.)

And despite him existing in some sort of parallel world to the very idea of consent, the villainy of the girl assures audiences of hers. Of course she wanted it, she has to want that sex, if she also wants the money and fame that she doesn’t deserve—not as an “unattractive model, ” anyway.

Thank you ABC and Ugly Betty for showing us once again that rape is funny.

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