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Perspective | Below Deck is a raunchy mess, but it can still tell right from wrong

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In the early and lonely days of the pandemic, a good friend of mine, The Washington Post’s television critic, prescribed me an antidepressant in the form of Below Deck, a Bravo franchise following the hard-working, horny crewmates who staff luxury charter yachts and the rich, tacky guests who spend their vacations aboard. Vicariously, the show had everything — scenery, sex, dance parties, close quarters — at a time when we had nothing. Below Deck’s activities would never have been Fauci-approved. (No wonder it became a ratings stalwart.)

I’m not fully caught up on the most recent season of “Below Deck Sailing Yacht” (one of five series in the franchise), but in the last episode I streamed, boat-bro Gary was dazzling the guests of the Parsifal III while making his fellow crew members seethe. “Let’s invite Gary!” suggested the teenage son of one millionaire upon learning there was an extra place setting for dinner. “Gary has charisma!” the boy’s dad enthused, horfing up the first officer’s particular brand of smarm-charm — so the ship’s stewards and deckhands all had to serve fancy dinner to the guy who’d bossed them, bedded them and done God knows what else with them in the ship’s biohazardous hot tub. “I feel I can speak for the entire crew,” chief stewardess Daisy told the camera: “Gary, go f— yourself.”

It was, for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of a Below Deck marathon, a pretty typical episode.

Late last month, news broke that the real drama had happened off-screen. A member of the show’s production team told Rolling Stone that, during a quarantined break in filming, Gary had cornered her in his hotel room, where she’d been sent to deliver snacks. According to Rolling Stone’s account, he “came up behind her, grabbed her, pressed her against his body, and refused to let go of her even though she says she tried to kick and elbow him.” Gary denied the allegations — “So far from the truth” — in an Instagram comment that he later deleted. Bravo issued a statement saying that the alleged incident had been reported and investigated at the time and that “action was taken based on the findings.”

Why two crew members were fired from ‘Below Deck Down Under’

Whatever had happened in that hotel room, this was the third report of sexual misconduct to come out of the Below Deck franchise in the same month. Earlier in August, an episode of “Below Deck Down Under” showed the crew of the Northern Sun getting rowdy on a night off (which is also typical) and returning to the boat smashfaced. Luke Jones, the ship’s boatswain, then crept into steward Margot Sisson’s room, naked, after other crew members had pointed out that she was obviously too drunk to consent. While she mumbled incoherently, he climbed into bed with her. One of the show’s producers forced the door open and finally got Luke to leave.

Meanwhile, down the hall, another steward, Laura Bileskalne, was inviting herself into bed with Adam Kodra, an affable Brooklynite who had repeatedly told her that he wasn’t interested. As she tried to give him an unwanted massage, the production crew again saved the day. The next day, both Luke and Laura were fired by the captain, who told them he had no choice. There were “boundaries,” he said, and they had crossed them.

Boundaries? On Below Deck? This is a franchise that always felt as if it had left its HR manual back on the dock, a franchise whose success depends on crewmates getting sloppy with each other, hooking up with each other, cheating on each other, then rising the next morning to squeegee the windows and fix a broken anchor. In one episode I watched recently, the crew stood at attention while a new round of guests boarded, and one stewardess turned to the male deckhand behind her. “Is my a– showing?” she asked, inviting him to eyeball the tiny skort that passed as her uniform. When he nodded, she instructed him, “Put it away, then!”

Again, these are shows about colleagues. Picture the above scene happening at any other workplace. Picture an insurance agency where a claims representative wanders over to her cubicle mate, tells him there’s a new workflow system for online filing, then asks him to tuck her butt back into her skirt. You cannot picture this, not without the scene ending as building security tells the claims representative to pack up her ficus and go.

Producers did the upstanding thing when they intervened in the cases of Luke and Laura, but the franchise generally permits (encourages?) an expectation of debauchery. On all versions of Below Deck, cameras are stationed in the crew members’ private cabins, and it’s not because we love watching them snore.

And yet, I’m telling you: This is good television. It’s masterful at portraying class differences: the oblivious guests upstairs who demand unceasing espresso martinis, and the crew members below deck who have no choice but to obey because their livelihoods depend on good tips.

But also, they want to do well at their jobs. They care about hospital corners, clean bathrooms, competence and good service. They want to achieve professional success, even when the barometers of this success (will a cancan dress be delivered in time for a stewardess to dance as the guests have demanded?) are absurd. These people are all dating each other because they are living exhausting lives on a boat, in cramped quarters, catching catnaps when they can, with no time or opportunity to date anyone else. Their personal lives are their professional lives. Boundaries aren’t crossed; they are obliterated.

But not assault. That seemed to be the lesson gleaned from the past month in the Below Deck universe. The crew members might never be employable in a traditional industry — the kind of office where you have to watch a sexual harassment training video every year — but most of them immediately know the difference between flirting and harassment, between sex and assault.

The morning after Luke crawled into Margot’s bed, she had to be told by her co-workers what had happened, because she had been too inebriated to remember herself. Her first reaction was to express guilt, wondering whether she’d been drunkenly flirting and was therefore to blame. The other crew members immediately reassured her: No. She should be able to flirt and drink if she wants to. If Luke is worried that he might accidentally assault someone while under the influence of alcohol, then maybe he’s the one who should stop drinking. And Laura got no passes for being a petite, pretty woman. It didn’t matter if most guys would love for her to appear in their beds; Adam made it clear that he didn’t want that, and no means no.

In the post-#MeToo era, one common response to changing expectations and workplace dynamics is for people to throw their hands up and complain that you just can’t do anything anymore. People are too uptight! They have no senses of humor! There was some of this in the reaction to Spain’s recent soccer scandal, when Luis Rubiales, the president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation, was suspended after grabbing a female player’s face and forcing a kiss on her after the World Cup. The profession of sports has historically been a land of attaboy butt-slaps, so, jeez, give the guy a break!

But in that case, the issue wasn’t the kiss; the issue was consent. Rubiales claimed he had consent to kiss Jennifer Hermoso; she later made it clear that, no, he most certainly did not. It’s one thing to have a job in an unusual industry that plays by its own rules. It’s another thing to trespass on someone’s bodily autonomy without their permission.

Below Deck — some of the most libidinous, raucous shows on television — ended up revealing that, actually, none of this is that hard to understand. None of these rules are that hard to follow. You can flirt with people who want you to flirt with them. Permitting it doesn’t go against the employee handbook, you can make out with people who want you to make out with them. You can do all of this and still behave like professionals when you’re on the clock.

What you can’t do is make out with people who don’t want you to make out with them. Who have made it clear that your jokes aren’t funny, that your massages feel creepy and that what they want is “water and bed,” as Margot had slurred, climbing into her bunk the night of her near-assault. “No, Luke.”

A few days after Luke’s and Laura’s departures, new deckhands and stewards arrived. They, too, were young and pretty and sexually charged. They, too, immediately began assessing their fellow colleagues for hookup potential, toeing the line of their permissive industry with innuendoes and hot-tub parties. But everyone seemed to be having a good time. New episodes air each Monday. For now, everything is as it should be, below deck and at sea.



POST AUTHOR: Monica Hesse

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