A Post-MeToo Novel About the False Promise of Female Empowerment

Isabel Kaplan's novel "NSFW" raises crucial questions about what we are willing to do—or overlook—to get ahead

Screenshot from "The Assistant"
Screenshot from “The Assistant”

The unnamed narrator of NSFW begins her story by telling us she’s in a toxic relationship with the city of Los Angeles. She hates it; she loves it; she never wants to leave. This opening confession sets the scene for a riveting workplace drama in which the narrator attempts to climb Hollywood’s unforgiving ranks at a well-known television network. A fresh college graduate, she initially holds tight to the feminist ideals her mother instilled in her from a young age. But as rumors of sexual misconduct begin to swirl, the narrator realizes that maintaining those boundaries may not be as easy as she once thought. When her trust is broken and familial loyalties are tested, the narrator will be forced to redefine her understanding of success and decide once and for all what she is willing to sacrifice in pursuit of empowerment.

Throughout NSFW’s incisive and painfully resonant narrative, Isabel Kaplan raises crucial questions about the nature of complicity and what we are willing to do—or overlook—to get ahead. It’s also an unexpectedly funny book, given the subject matter, and features frustrating, complex, and profoundly human characters who’ll crack you up one moment and make you want to hurl the book across the room the next.

I spoke with Kaplan over Zoom about the trap of toxic relationships, the suffusive anonymity of temp work, and the slippery definition of empowerment in the era of #MeToo.


Abigail Oswald: There are a few references that ground the early pages of NSFW in late 2012—notably before the fall of men like Harvey Weinstein and Roger Ailes. What led you to set the story in that timeframe, and how did the #MeToo timeline factor in?

Isabel Kaplan: I started writing it in early 2017, and at that point it seemed to me that Trump’s election was a fundamental shift, in the sense that faith in institutions, and the ability to make change from within flawed institutions—that faith was shattered. I started questioning institutions, and also my own complicity in systems that I had thought I was fighting. #MeToo broke as I was writing the book, and I finished it, you know, “after” #MeToo, in whatever we’re calling it—the post-#MeToo era. 

I worked as a TV assistant in those years, so those were years I knew well. Broadcast networks had such dominance over the market, and this was a moment when streamers were encroaching. The idea of what is a broadcast network? An old, creaky institution? Is this the Titanic, and we’re all looking for big, exciting dramas in the middle of a collapsing system? Or is there something that can be changed and rejuvenated? And to me, that felt like a good parallel to the idea of other institutions and larger systems and longevity. And whether things can be changed, or if broken-down institutions need to just be destroyed.

AO: One of the overarching themes of NSFW is the choice (or lack thereof) to stay in negative situations. This applies not just to the narrator’s workplace, but also her codependent relationship with her mother, an unfulfilling romance. She even opens the book describing her love/hate relationship with the city of Los Angeles itself. Can you speak to why the narrator remains in these environments that increasingly take a toll as the narrative progresses?

IK: In the immediacy of living through any experience, no matter how complicated or messy it is, for lack of any other clear alternatives, it’s hard to extricate yourself.

I think of the frog in boiling water analogy—the idea that if you put a live frog in a pot of cold water, and then slowly raise the heat, it won’t jump out. I thought a lot about that, this idea that you can think that you’re doing okay, and you can think that things are better than they could be, and that you have it all under control, and that because things are better right now than they have been in the past, that means it’s okay. I wanted to play with, you know, how far can you push it until you crack? And then what? Once you crack, what are the alternatives? 

I was interested in exploring that claustrophobia and the way that claustrophobia descends, in that she’s not seeing alternative models of other ways to be. I think it’s really hard to hold onto the theory that you can have a fulfilling romantic relationship, for example, or a work life with boundaries, or an adult relationship with a parent who doesn’t recognize any boundaries. You can intellectually want that, and think that you are pursuing something intellectually, but in your actual lived experience, it is much harder to assert any of the needs you have. I wanted to really dig into the idea that we walk around doing things that are bad for us all the time, telling ourselves, “It’s not gonna hurt, I’m strong enough, I can do this.”

AO: There’s that bit about how she doesn’t like needles, but she thinks adults aren’t “supposed” to be afraid of needles, and then she starts sticking herself with needles as part of a weight-loss injection treatment. This idea that not only can you adjust to something that initially made you uncomfortable, but it can even become routine.

We walk around doing things that are bad for us all the time, telling ourselves, ‘It’s not gonna hurt, I’m strong enough, I can do this.’

IK: I think it’s an illusion of control. If she’s piercing herself with needles, she’s doing it, and she’s in control. There’s this illusion—delusion—that as long as you’re the one doing it and you’re the one making those decisions, that it’s not being done to you, you are not being oppressed or circumscribed in any way. She so deeply wants to believe that she’s claiming agency in every aspect of her life. That she’s pursuing a career, and it’s independent—even though she knows that she got her foot in the door with her mother’s help. That she’s pursuing a romantic relationship, and that’s what she’s doing as an adult—even though she doesn’t really like the guy. She’s pursuing agency, and she thinks that the injections, the workout classes, all of the things she deals with at work are in pursuit of empowerment. I really wanted to explore that idea: What does empowerment look like? Does that just trap us all? 

AO: The narrator’s mother is an interesting, complicated character. She’s a prominent feminist attorney who’s taught the narrator much about sex and consent, but sometimes in practice, her actions can be contradictory to her maternal guidance. She also arranges the narrator’s job at the network. Would you say the narrator’s mother and her influence ultimately help or hinder the narrator as she tries to make her own way in the world?

IK: What was interesting to me is that it’s both. There is no good or bad or who has the right values or the wrong values. She both helps the narrator a lot and hurts her a lot, and that’s what makes it so complicated. Because if anyone were ever only good or only bad, it would be really easy to navigate relationships. You would draw the line against anyone who’s terrible, and keep in your life anyone good. It’s really hard when the person who’s loved you so much and supported you so much is also causing a great deal of pain, and when that love feels deeply conditional in a lot of ways. 

I was interested in exploring the different generational approaches to gender and power. We’ve seen a lot written about that recently, especially as there are so many women of my mother’s generation who fought hard and made incredible progress. The question is, was it a circle? Did we just travel in a loop? And with the erosion of women’s reproductive rights, and everything horrible happening in America today, it’s increasingly clear what endures.

I wanted to show two different sides of the age and power and career-stage experience. On the one side you’ve got the narrator, who is young and in her first job, and on the other side is her mother, who’s been at this for decades and is facing different concerns about whether her best work is behind her, whether she’s still relevant, whether there’s a place for her. And I think both of those are two different ways of responding to a situation. [The mother] wants to stay in the game, and the narrator is trying to get in the game. So there’s the question of what you’re willing to do in order to play the game.

AO: There’s that moment where the narrator is recounting an overheard conversation, and she says the female network president’s sexist comments actually hit her harder than those of the male chairman. What’s at the core of the narrator’s feelings in that scene?

IK: When you’re raised to have such low expectations of men—like, the bar is on the floor for good behavior—it means that the barest courtesies read as acts of respect, and that’s really problematic. In that same scene, she hears her boss not make a sexist comment and is inclined to think, “Oh, what a good guy,” as opposed to, “That’s really the absolute least.” He didn’t call out anyone else for saying anything bad—he chuckled and said nothing—and that counts as good, because there are so many worse things he could have said.

I’ve always expected more of women. And the baseline behavior that I think of as decent—or did think, I’m trying to shift my mindset as well—for men is just so much lower, because so many of them were doing and saying such outrageous things, that just refraining from saying outrageous things comes to seem like “What a good boss! What a great boss, he hasn’t commented on your appearance! You’ve got a great boss!” 

There’s this illusion—delusion—that as long as you’re the one doing it, that it’s not being done to you, you are not being oppressed or circumscribed in any way.

And that’s terrible, and that allows a bunch of shitty men to just keep climbing up the ladder because none of them are doing things that are so bad that they seem worth calling out, and I think that’s the other problem. We’ve come up with a lexicon for discussing really bad, heinous things, but in this day and age I think it’s easier to address the issue of your boss grabbing your ass than it is to address the issue of your boss just making you a little uncomfortable all the time, but not in a specific way. And I think until we can figure out how to talk about those people, too, we’re not gonna have real change, because it’s not just the people who are actively groping you. 

I think #MeToo has affected the number of men who think they can forcibly kiss young employees in the office—I do think it’s changed that. But I think there are still plenty of male bosses who are making their subordinates feel very uncomfortable in sort of harder-to-identify ways that none of them are going to come forward about, because what would be the benefit? 

AO: There’s a running theme threaded throughout NSFW about the ways in which girls are often taught about sexual violence before sexual pleasure. The narrator notes that she understood what rape was before she even really understood sex; she also recalls taking self-defense as an elective in school. What sort of lasting effects does that have? Was your own experience of girlhood similar?

IK: The self-defense stuff is something I thought about a lot over the years, because I went to an all-girls school that prided itself on empowerment and feminism. Self-defense was the most popular P.E. class and you couldn’t take it until ninth grade, which seemed at the time like, “Oh, you’ve got to wait till you’re an older student.” And now, looking back, like, those are 14-year-olds. These are 14-year-old all-girls school girls, many of whom have not even been kissed. We did have the men who came in the padded suits, and we were videotaped every week. I found one of my self-defense DVDs and watched as I did this weird roleplay simulation of an attack in front of the parents. At the time I knew it was weird, but only now that I’m further out can I see just how wild that is, that all of the parents came to watch us be attacked, mock-attacked. It’s so strange. 

But at the same time, I don’t think it gave me any delusion of safety out on the street, you know, in dark corners and alleys. It didn’t lead me to take any other risks. I never felt safe. It did probably give me help dealing with an innocuous drunk person on the sidewalk who’s making sketchy comments, knowing what to do then. But I think what was easy about those situations is that it was always a “bad” guy, and it was always someone you didn’t care about hurting, because you were told to hurt them. You were told to throw them off you, and you were told not to worry about how much damage you caused, because they were your assailant.

I think there’s a false message being given that it’s easy if you know the moves and you know what to do, then you’ll do it, as opposed to acknowledging that, if it’s someone you know, you may not wanna heel palm them, or knee them in the groin, or grab and pull their balls, for fear of, you know, what’s gonna happen next? Is it gonna be way worse than whatever I’ve started? Or there’s a sense of, like, you don’t know how far this person is going to go, so it’d be easier to just not inflame the situation. In those classes, you’re supposed to attack right away. But in real life, you wouldn’t put your fist in someone’s eye socket right when they get a little too close to you, because then you’re the violent one. 

I think that was where the interest in that came from. It makes you hyper-aware of weird power dynamics in a way that’s not necessarily helpful. I don’t know that it was harmful, but I think if you tell girls that they’re empowered enough, they’ll think, “This is what empowerment looks like.” And it becomes much harder to untangle that really knotted ball of string where they realize, like, “This is not empowerment. I am acting exactly in the way that I was told to act within a specific set of expectations that I was told is what empowerment looks like.” And that’s just a different, kind of slightly less oppressive cage. But still a cage. 

AO: I thought it was interesting that we never learn the narrator’s name. It feels like her anonymity takes on an additional layer of meaning in a story like this—one that deals so much in rumors and whisper networks. It also speaks to the transience of temp work, which is how the narrator begins at the network—that perpetual hope that people will begin to learn who you are. Can you talk more about why you made that choice?

IK: The point you make about temp work is very, very apt. Temp and assisting, you’re not a whole person. The very definition of the job is you’re reaching out from the office of someone else, and your individual identity doesn’t matter. Any individuality or specificity to you gets subsumed and you only matter because of your boss. But also, you could be replaced immediately. It really affects the mindsets of people emerging from industry. You’re not encouraged to be a person. You’re somebody’s extra limb, and you’re supposed to be watching out for their every need, but nobody is making sure any of your needs are met. 

[Temping and assisting,] you’re not encouraged to be a person. You’re supposed to be watching out for their every need, but nobody is making sure any of your needs are met. 

I think that mirrored the experience that the narrator is having in so many different other spheres. Also, that’s not specific to her—that’s specific to anyone who has a boss and feels like less of a human. And I think the longer you do it, the more it seeps in. You can start off thinking, “I’m not gonna let my individual autonomy be compromised by this.” But if it’s what you’re doing day in, day out, it does. It becomes who you are, and I think your ability to see outside gets warped and distorted. 

Beyond that, I wanted to make it feel very intimate. I wanted to keep the reader inside her head, seeing it from the inside. The mother’s not named either—no one in the family is—and I think that gave it a sort of intimacy, hopefully. I wanted to explore who she is inside versus who she’s projecting, and who she’s trying to be, and the fact that she’s floating on different desks and so needs to be different people at any given moment, and therefore is constantly unprepared, because you can’t be. 

But we’ve designed all these institutions in a way where you’re supposed to be able to sit down and it’s, “Suddenly I’m this person today.” That’s what it means to temp, to just be someone else. And so much of what it means to temp is you’re not doing a great job—you definitionally cannot do a great job. You have no resources or knowledge that you’re coming in with, and the goal is to just not mess anything up. It limits how much you can do on your own, and you get seen differently just based on who you work for. Over the course of the book she climbs up, and she sees the difference in treatment, and I think it’s hard to navigate that without internalizing it and without taking it personally, even though it’s not personal at all. 

It sounds contradictory, but I wanted to write a funny book, and I wanted to write a funny book about sexual harassment, because I think that the line between what’s funny and what’s horrible can be fine, can be a very blurry line, and I think that humor is also a really great coping mechanism. And the fact that if you can turn something into a joke, can you make it not have power anymore? And how does that come back to bite you later? 

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