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On Fox’s TV Adaptation of Lucifer, Free Will and Radical Consent

lucifer

When Fox announced their plans for a TV adaptation of DC Comics’ Lucifer, the American Family Association started a petition in an attempt to prevent the show from ever airing. This isn’t the first time that this has happened to the character. Lucifer hails from the Sandman universe, and his source material inspired similar ire from conservative organizations at the time of its publication in the 90s.

But why would the AFA be worried about Lucifer going on TV? The show seems pro-Christianity on its face, since it presents a world in which angels and demons definitely exist, and sinners go to Hell, the redeemed go to Heaven, and that God forgives … but also that God can be a bit of a stick-in-the-mud sometimes. I’ve only taken one class on the Bible, but from what I remember, this depiction of God isn’t that far off the mark. Sure, there are some embellishments—at no point in the Old or New Testament does Lucifer get bored of Hell, go to Earth, open up a nightclub called Lux, invite his demoness partner Mazikeen to tend the bar, and then meet a cop named Chloe Decker and decide to start solving mysteries with her. (Most of that doesn’t happen in the comic books, either … this show might actually bear more resemblance to the Bible’s version of Lucifer than it does to the comic books.)

The main beef that the petition authors have with the show is that it portrays Lucifer as “a caring, likable person” (in their words). They also say that the show “misrepresents the Bible,” and while it’s true that the Devil doesn’t solve mysteries in the Bible, the show’s depiction of Lucifer as “likable” seems about on par with what one would expect. After all, the master of temptation has got to be charismatic!

Jokes aside, I simply don’t agree that Lucifer is a bad influence. For one, the show introduces some novel theories about the notion of free will and consent. For another, it’s reminding agnostic ol’ me about the aspects of Biblical study that I actually liked (no, I’m not converting any time soon, sorry AFA). I mean, Lucifer‘s no John Milton; it’s got problems and has all the nuance of an anvil most of the time. But I still think it’s worth a look, particularly if you like to consider philosophy while occasionally seeing Tom Ellis take his shirt off.

Lucifer just wrapped up its first season this week, and it has already gotten renewed for a second season. Mild spoilers to follow, but I’ll stay away from the major plot points and I definitely won’t reveal whodunnit for any of the show’s overarching mysteries.

Even if you haven’t read the Bible or any of the scholarship surrounding it, you’re probably familiar with Lucifer’s backstory: he started out as an angel, he was Daddy’s Favorite, and then he started questioning power structures and Heaven’s patriarchy (does that need a capital P?). He then became a “fallen angel” and now rules over Hell. There’s some intellectual debate as to why Lucifer might have “fallen” from grace. Did he take issue with the problem of free will? Is it his own pride and individualism, his refusal to be told what to do by his dear ol’ Dad? Is he jealous of humans, made in God’s image and seemingly taking up all of God’s time?

In the TV version of Lucifer, it’s all of the above, which results in a refreshingly complex character who both loves and resents humans in turns. Lucifer isn’t evil; he punishes evil. He believes in free will, and that’s not the same thing as being evil in the black-and-white sense. Evil wouldn’t be evil if it weren’t something you choose to do. Without the choice, then it wouldn’t be your fault, and you wouldn’t deserve any negative consequence.

But does free will exist in any meaningful way if God already knows what you’re going to do before you do it? This is the question around which Lucifer revolves, which is pretty high-minded stuff, considering that it’s also a procedural mystery show with lots of hot sex scenes and largely forgettable plots and characters. In between all the campy garbage, there are fun philosophical moments, like the episode in which Lucifer confronts a group of devil-worshipping teens who’ve thoroughly misunderstood the point of it all. Lucifer confronts the kids and tells them to be individuals and reject the system (of course, they react by wanting to worship him).

What Lucifer wants, at least in the TV show’s characterization of him, is for humans to do what they want to do. That doesn’t always mean people will end up doing good. But they will do what they want. It’s a very individualist philosophy, and it can definitely be used for “evil,” but that’s exactly what makes Lucifer interesting as a character.

It also means that, by and large, Lucifer as a character puts consent about all else. There’s at least one episode that makes a weird joke about this, and I’ll get to that, but first, I’ll start with the praise. Lucifer, and his bartender partner Mazikeen, is pansexual and has a voracious sexual appetite. The fact that the only two queer characters on the show are also demons doesn’t necessarily qualify as “good representation” on its face, but considering that Lucifer and Maze are also by far the most well-liked characters on the show, and also undeniably part of the “heroes” of the show’s narrative, well … let’s just say, it’s complicated. The other complicated bit is that they’re both very into having tons of sex with multiple partners, which is fun to watch, but also yet another stereotype about bi/pan characters.

The overarching plot of the show also revolves around the redemption of these two super-sexy Hell-leaders. Lucifer experiences a sudden and unexpected fascination with a human woman named Chloe Decker, who plays the “straight man” no-nonsense cop. That fascination is definitely sexual in nature, but it’s also an emotional connection that they both share. The show definitely sets up a will-they-won’t-they romance between the two – but it’s not exactly typical, because I have a feeling that the show isn’t actually going to push Chloe into Lucifer’s arms.

Although Chloe rebuffs Lucifer’s advances at first, it doesn’t quite come off as Lucifer harassing a disinterested woman. Instead, the show seems to be giving us the impression that Chloe does have a thing for Lucifer, and that’s why she keeps him around. The main reason she’s not interested in consummating any sexual attraction for him is that she perceives him as an unstable, unhappy person who literally thinks that he is Lucifer. She seems to think that once Lucifer lets go of his obsession with the devil persona, he might make for a better partner and healthier person. (Also, Lucifer regularly sees a therapist on the show, which is one of the more fun and also unexpectedly heart-warming plot-lines on the show. Lucifer‘s approach to the importance of caring for one’s mental health is just as worthy of celebration as any of the rest of the elements I’ve listed here.)

I don’t want to give away too much about Mazikeen’s plot, in case anybody wants to check out the entire first season, but much like Lucifer, she also gets set up for the possibility of redemption and the possibility of “settling down” in a relationship. In other words, both of the pansexual and happily promiscuous characters on the show get set up in committed, heterosexual pairings. This does present a narrow-minded – perhaps even Biblical – view of how healthy relationships “should” look, and what one “should” do in order to achieve stability and happiness.

On that score, the show is downright conservative, especially since it seems as though Chloe is getting set up to rekindle her marriage with her ex-husband. We all know that Lucifer is going to end up back in Hell by the time this show ends, because he’s friggin’ Lucifer and that’s his destiny (although he’d be very upset about my using the term “destiny”)! Where will Chloe end up, then? Back in a heterosexual relationship, of course—ideally to the guy she originally married, who’s also in the midst of his own emotional redemption arc.

So why am I even recommending this show? It sounds pretty boring when I lay out all the plot points like that. I swear I’m not just telling people to watch it because there are so many shirtless scenes with Tom Ellis (but seriously, if that’s your thing, go forth and enjoy). I think the most interesting parts of the show are the philosophical quandaries that Lucifer gets into with regard to free will and the idea of punishment and whether or not it’s “fair.” But I also think the show’s approach to consent, particularly with regard to sex, is one of its more interesting aspects.

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Lucifer posits that its titular character has the superpower to get humans to confess to their deepest, darkest desires. That is the only superpower that Lucifer has, along with invulnerability (well, sometimes – his invulnerability doesn’t always work properly, which is an ongoing mystery that the show hasn’t yet explained in full, but it has to do with how much time Lucifer’s been spending on Earth and how “human” he’s becoming as a result of it). Whenever Lucifer asks a human their darkest desire, they feel compelled to respond to him – they “want” to. This superpower doesn’t always work; sometimes, Lucifer explains, a person’s desire is “complicated” and they can’t express it. Lucifer isn’t all-knowing, but he does have the power to figure out what people really want, most of the time.

This makes for some interesting dynamics sexually, because Lucifer is also presented as a character that humans cannot help but want … like, in the sexual sense. The reasoning is a bit shaky here; does the “wanting” only apply to characters who are already attracted to men? Presumably yes, but the show’s somewhat uncertain on this point; the magic isn’t that well-defined, and also Lucifer’s magic seems a little unreliable on the Earthly plane anyway. It’s also implied that angels and demons could be able to change their physical appearance if they wanted to, up to a point. Although the show doesn’t clarify this, I think it makes a lot of sense that Lucifer would choose to present himself on Earth as a thin, white, conventionally attractive British man. Hell of privilege, there! Nothing would stand in the guy’s way. His “true form” on the show is shown to be a lot more demonic looking: red face, red eyes, horns, and definitely not conventionally attractive by our human standards.

Because of his superpowers of determining what humans truly “want,” and also because humans genuinely “want” to be with him, Lucifer can therefore have sex with anybody, in theory. Everyone would consent to him and genuinely want to do the act with him. The only person who doesn’t want to have sex with him is Chloe. Why? Because her desires are “complicated” – too complicated for Lucifer to figure out, at least at first.

In one late-season episode, Chloe gets extremely drunk and attempts to initiate sex with Lucifer. He refuses to have sex with her, or even kiss her or touch her at all. After she wakes up the next morning, he brags to her about the “good” he did by resisting her advances. She finds this annoying as hell, since this isn’t a particularly “good” action. Not being a rapist is a pretty low bar to clear. But also, according to the rules of magic set forth in the show, it makes sense that Lucifer wouldn’t be a rapist, because his entire ethos surrounds the idea of consent. His entire persona revolves around encouraging people to do whatever it is they truly want to do … and to eschew whatever it is that they don’t want to do.

That said, the episode about Chloe getting drunk could have been handled a lot better and more clearly, and done a better job at teaching an important lesson about consent. In the show itself, it’s presented more as a throwaway joke than anything else, which seemed concerning to me because it was a good opportunity to spell out the problem for the viewer. Still, in comparison to other shows that I watch in the gritty fantasy genre, Lucifer does okay. That’s depressing, but hey, like I said. It’s a pretty low bar to clear.

The TV comparison that I’ve seen coming up again and again in the Lucifer fandom is Supernatural. You’ve probably been thinking about Supernatural‘s portrayal of the character Lucifer throughout this entire piece, if you’ve seen any of the show at all. And indeed, Supernatural has a very different portrayal of demons and “evil,” and it’s one that eventually led me to give up on watching that show.

Now, there are plenty of elements of Supernatural that I do like. But the show portrays its version of Lucifer, and the other demonic entities, as rapists. That’s part of the canon of the show, and the fandom agrees pretty firmly on it, although the show never comes out and directly says that Satan is a rapist. He’s not the only demonic entity who’d do that, either! As one example that set the tone very early on in the show, the demon Meg kidnaps our heroes and climbs on top of them, in a sexual way, while they’re tied down. She also makes sexual innuendo about her ability to possess them and potentially rape them. This is a running theme when it comes to demons on that show; I think it’s something that is pardoned because male rape is often presented as a joke, but it shouldn’t be. This is an aspect of the show that always made me feel very uncomfortable about Supernatural and, ultimately, that’s what caused me to jump ship on watching the show, because the demons are so often characterized in this way.

The portrayal of good and evil as black-and-white options just isn’t very interesting to me as a viewer. The idea that demons would embody punishment and torture and a complete lack of care for humans … well, that characterization doesn’t make it possible for them to ever be redeemed, although Supernatural has certainly tried, such as with Meg’s character and many others. Ultimately though, I just don’t think this is a very interesting portrayal of “evil.”

Although I don’t necessarily think that Lucifer has done a great job with the topic, the show has definitely come up with a more interesting set of parameters for its angelic and demonic characters to follow. Of course, that’s exactly why the AFA doesn’t like the show: because Lucifer is “caring.” But how do you tell a story about a character who doesn’t care about anything? Lucifer is interesting because he reminds characters that they have a choice in how they behave, how they treat others, how they live their lives. You can choose to be “caring,” or not. Without that choice, would your actions even matter?

Lucifer‘s first season just wrapped up this week, and I’m happy to say it’ll return for a second season. It’ll probably continue to cause controversy, but compared to other shows of its ilk, I don’t think Lucifer is a bad influence. You should check it out … if you want to.

(Images via Fox and Giphy)

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