Two years ago, film critic Sara Stewart rewatched Sixteen Candles, one of her favourite 1980s John Hughes comedies. She was mortified. One scene, played for laughs - the hero gifting his drunk girlfriend to another boy - seemed like a manual for rape. Stewart wrote about the offensive aspects of the movie, and was met with vitriol, accused of being humourless, of ruining something beloved.

"But if I wrote that column now," she speculates, "I feel like people might be in agreement with me."

In four months since the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal, the culture has wrestled with whether to separate art from the artist. Actors debate whether to work with Woody Allen; viewers, whether to stream Kevin Spacey. But what Stewart describes - being made queasy by movies she loved - is an extreme version of a companion issue, which I have come to think of as the Donna Problem.

Donna Moss and Josh Lyman are characters in Aaron Sorkin's loved political fantasy The West Wing. He's the White House deputy chief of staff, played by Bradley Whitford. She's his assistant, played by Janel Moloney. By the final season they're dating. For the first six seasons they are - well, what are they doing? Millions of fans before 2017 would have said they were flirting. In a post-#MeToo viewing, though, parts of the relationship look different.


In an early episode, a friend asks Josh how he feels about Donna going on dates. "I don't like it," he replies, "and I usually do everything within my considerable capabilities to sabotage it." Is romantic sabotage appropriate for a boss? Or is it creepy?

Later in the series, when Donna is frustrated with her mundane duties, she insists to a female colleague that it's not Josh's fault: "Josh has given me every opportunity to grow in my job. He has." Her sceptical friend replies: "If he was giving you every opportunity, you would have grown out of this job three years ago."

Has Josh harassed Donna? Not by legal definition. But has his possessive sexual interest held back her career? Probably: when she finally quits, she quickly rises in her new post. More important, is Josh's behaviour an example of what we're trying to educate men not to do in the workplace? Absolutely. Josh's behaviour used to be considered cute. It's not any more.

The Donna Problem is that the rest of The West Wing, which ended in 2006, is still a really good show. But culture has undergone a seismic shift, and Donna and Josh haven't.

"I was just re-watching the series Mad About You, which I love," says Julia Lippman, from the University of Michigan's communications department. "There's a flashback episode to how Jamie and Paul got together. And the answer to that is, he basically stalked her."

Played by Paul Reiser, the male lead woos his future wife by wheedling her address from the dry cleaners, stealing her clothes and going to every floor of her building until he finds her and cajoles her into dating. In the 1990s, this was romance. In 2018, it's a man ignoring boundaries and not realising a stranger appearing at your office with your laundry is more scary than adorable.

Lippman compares the experience to getting a new pair of glasses: "You're watching the same thing - the thing hasn't changed - but all of a sudden you're noticing aspects you haven't noticed before."

Once you have new glasses on, you see the problems everywhere. I recently re-watched Sliding Doors, an underappreciated 1998 comedy, and was, for the first time, irritated when the hero ignores Gwyneth Paltrow's protests that she isn't ready to date.

It's just a movie. They're all just movies. But they're movies that reflect either what the filmmakers think should be normal behaviour, or what unfortunately already is.

Lippman once studied how stalking depicted in a romantic-comedy setting (a la Something About Mary) versus a dark setting (a la Sleeping With the Enemy) might affect viewers' perceptions of stalking in general. People watching the romantic comedies were more likely to buy into myths, such as "women secretly like the attention" or "if a man goes overboard, it means he really loves her".

Women have spent years begging for so-called chick flicks to get the same respect as male-centric action movies. But rom-coms are also the movies that often now seem icky. They're still funny. They still have some of the strongest female roles available. They're also just ... icky.

Now almost everything made before 2018 feels like it needs some kind of disclaimer. Granted, as far as messed-up gender interactions go, Donna and Josh are fairly tame.

The Donna Problem is that it would be easy to excuse her interactions with Josh because he's a lovable goof who means no harm. Except that excusing powerful men because they meant no harm is how we got here.

Nothing in the Donna-Josh relationship is overtly bad. But it's a little bad. We can no longer ignore that a lot of little-bad things together are what normalise a toxic culture.