Do Marvel Teen Shows Send the Right Messages About Consent?
As a sexual violence prevention educator, I’ve watched the Marvel Comics-based, teen-centered TV shows with added interest. Hulu’s Runaways, Fox’s The Gifted, and Freeform’s Cloak & Dagger all feature teenage protagonists, and the storylines were already very compelling to me, but seeing the three series deal with issues of consent and the violation of sexual boundaries gave me another strong reason to tune in.
That’s especially true because I’ve worked mostly with teens and young adults, two groups that form a large portion of these shows’ audiences. It’s important in my work to keep up with the messages that pop culture sends to young people about sexual harassment, assault, and rape. Did these series do a good job with that? Here’s what I found.
Hulu’s Runaways addresses consent very directly, depicting the near rape of one of the main characters. There are several other instances of sexual interaction among the show’s teenage leads, but whether it’s on-screen kisses or off-screen intercourse, all seem to have the willing consent of both partners.
The attempted rape obviously does not. The horrible act takes place at a big house party, which has the stereotypical elements: a crowd of young people dancing, loud music pumping, alcohol flowing, and drugs changing hands.
As the sweet and innocent Karolina arrives, a male stranger gives her a pill, saying it will “set you free.” It’s a roofie, a drug used to render a victim unconscious so she or he can be raped. After she collapses on the dance floor, two men drag her limp body upstairs to a bedroom, closing the door behind them.
Karolina’s friend Chase sees this and recognizes right away what is happening. The two guys are his school lacrosse teammates, and as he bursts into the room, he sees that they’ve begun to take off her clothes. He physically intervenes, and even starts throwing punches. The would-be rapists bolt, and after Karolina returns to a foggy consciousness, he helps her back down the stairs.
Chase’s actions form a mostly positive example of what violence prevention educators call bystander intervention. That happens when a person notices behavior among others that appears to presage an assault or rape, and she or he intervenes to keep the situation from further deteriorating.
Yet Chase’s intervention isn’t wholly positive. Punching his teammates in order to protect Karolina makes for dramatic TV, but in real life, where the escalation of violence makes a situation much more dangerous, it would have been smarter for Chase to have tried something else. For example, he could have threatened to call 911 on his teammates, and then done it if they blew him off. He could also have called people in the hallway over for help, yelling, “Rape!” Both courses of action could have been effective.
I’m not saying that physical violence is never an option to stop someone else from getting hurt, but because it significantly escalates the danger for both the bystander and the originally intended victim, it has to be a truly last resort.
If you’ve seen the episode, you know that, as Chase drives Karolina from the party, she throws away the roofie. It turns out that she hadn’t collapsed because the pill knocked her out; she had become physically overwhelmed by the new experience of her alien powers!
So Runaways could have shown a wiser method of bystander intervention, but it sends the right messages about sexual boundaries.
In contrast to Runaways, The Gifted addresses sexual violence in a very indirect manner. In fact, there aren’t any instances in its first season in which one character tries to sexually force himself or herself onto another, but four of the show’s characters frequently use their powers of mind manipulation to get other characters to do what they want. There are strong, unmistakable parallels to real-world sexual consent, or the lack thereof.
One example concerns the three villainous Frost sisters. At one point, they exert mind control on an entire group of law enforcement agents and military personnel, causing them to kill each other and themselves. It’s horrifying to watch.
The more complicated example of boundary violation involves Sonya Simonson, a.k.a. Dreamer, a member of the heroic Mutant Underground. Her power is the ability to manipulate the memories of others, enabling her to see what they saw and to even implant false memories. At one point, she’s forced to abort her reading of a federal agent’s memories, causing him to forget the last several years of his life. Her mutant ability is controversial even among her fellow mutants.
Her conflict with new Mutant Underground member Clarice Fong (also called Blink) builds up over several episodes. Early in the series, in order to help Clarice use her power to save mutant leader John Proudstar (nicknamed Thunderbird), Sonya implants a false memory in her mind without asking for permission. Specifically, Sonya causes Clarice to “remember” her passionate kisses with John—kisses that actually took place between John and Sonya.
John’s life is saved, but Clarice has all kinds of mental and emotional difficulties afterward. Her sleep is greatly disturbed, and she feels a strong disconnect between what she “remembers” of John and his actual aloofness from her.
Eventually, Clarice confronts Sonya:
CLARICE: (angrily) I can’t go ten minutes without this memory of John coming back to me. I’m asking you straight up, did you mess with my head?
SONYA: (defensively) You couldn’t use your abilities. Johnny was in trouble, and if you were gonna help, you—you needed a connection to him.
CLARICE: You had no right! Were you ever gonna tell me?
SONYA: Look, I know that you’re angry, but you have to understand, people’s lives were at stake.
CLARICE: (furious) I don’t have to understand anything! What you do is wrong! You decided that you needed to fix me, and now I get to live with the memory of loving someone I barely know. Someone who doesn’t love me!
Nothing Sonya says can convince Clarice that what she did was justifiable, even to preserve lives.
Ironically, Clarice later asks Sonya to help a young mutant girl, Norah, to forget a particularly traumatic memory. Norah is unable to sleep because she witnessed the brutal murder of her foster parents, who were attacked when the authorities learned they were once Clarice’s own foster parents. Clarice feels responsible, and Sonya obliges.
To the extent that Sonya’s mind manipulation has an unwanted effect on others, the story clearly demonstrates the great harm her actions cause. Similar to acts of sexual violence, Sonya’s power enables her to enter the intimate space of another person uninvited, to devastating effect.
Of course, the analogy between mind manipulation and sexual violence breaks down because Sonya’s power can also help another person, as it does for Norah. Sexual violence, on the other hand, never has anything but negative consequences for everyone involved.
So, The Gifted addresses consent indirectly, and it does well to show that violating personal boundaries causes great damage, but the differences between fictional mind manipulation and real-world sexual consent mean we can only take the comparison so far.
CLOAK & DAGGER
The most recent of the three series, Cloak & Dagger, does examine sexual consent through the direct approach of Runaways, portraying sexual encounters, but it also employs the indirect tack of The Gifted, using psychic powers as a roundabout means of addressing boundary issues. Let’s look at its direct approach first.
The series’ dramatization of sexual boundaries mostly shows positive encounters in which both partners seem to be fully assenting. In fact, in one scene, consent is explicitly asked for and given.
In that interaction, Tyrone (a.k.a. Cloak) and his girlfriend, Evita, are kissing, and as it’s becoming more intense, she giggles. Tyrone stops and asks if she wants him to slow down. She says she doesn’t, explicitly saying, “Green light.”
Because of the work I do, I’m so glad for this dialogue! It models the kind of communication about boundaries that we want people to use.
The show also dramatizes a clear act of sexual violence. Tandy (the Dagger of the series’ title) is attacked by a man whom she had previously met at a party. As he overpowers her and unbuckles his pants, her panic causes her very first dagger of light to form in her hand. When it does, it stabs him, wounding him seriously and enabling her to escape.
The story then takes a real-life turn, when the detective working the attempted rape case tells Tandy that the man has been released and that she won’t be able to press charges. It’s consistent with what we know about sexual assault and rape—that such crimes are hugely underreported, and only a fraction of those go to trial. Justice is served much less than it should be.
Addressing consent indirectly, Cloak & Dagger shows Tyrone and Tandy gaining powers reminiscent of mind manipulation. For most of the first season, they’re only able to see into the psyches of people that they physically touch. Tyrone is able to see people’s fears; Tandy sees their hopes.
The two of them actually talk multiple times about the ethics of using these abilities without consent. Tandy feels like she needs to use whatever she can to her advantage. Tyrone is more reluctant, wondering if they’re violating others’ boundaries. More than once, he discourages Tandy from intentionally employing this power.
As their abilities grow, they learn not only can they see others’ hopes and fears, but they can also interact with them. On one occasion, they use that ability to heal a man who has been in a catatonic state for eight years, but Tandy also uses these powers to negative effect. She begins entering the hopes of others and “taking” those hopes for herself, getting an emotional and physical high in the process. The other person is left angry and even somewhat violent.
Tandy’s willingness to violate personal boundaries is actually a consistent theme in her life. Living on her own in an abandoned church, she provides for herself mostly through theft. Her modus operandi: She will frequently get rich young men to take her back to their homes, where she’ll slip roofies into their drinks. Once they’re unconscious, she will, in her words, “jack them of their rich kid stuff” and sell it for cash.
It’s ironic that drugs so often used to sexually victimize young women become Tandy’s own weapons against men. The storyline of season one shows that she’s trying to leave that life behind, but struggling to do so. Overall, the series portrays her violations of consent, both through her mental power and roofies, in a negative light. It’s the right message for the show to convey.
And using the direct approach of dramatizing sexual boundaries, Cloak & Dagger does a good job of modeling consent in several scenes, especially Tyrone’s and Evita’s makeout session. It also illustrates, through the investigation into Tandy’s attacker, that assault survivors frequently don’t get justice through the courts.
So do Runaways, The Gifted, and Cloak & Dagger send the right messages to their audiences about consent? By and large, they do, both directly and indirectly. So whether you’re binge-watching to catch up, or you’re seeing each episode as it’s released, take the opportunity to discuss with other viewers how the shows deal with personal boundaries, especially in a sexual context. In our age of #MeToo, the three teen-centric TV series based on Marvel comics give us an abundance of material to promote relationships built on the communication of consent and a mutual respect for one another.
(featured image: Hulu & Freeform)
Eugene Hung has worked in nonprofit and higher education as a women’s rights activist and a violence prevention educator. He currently speaks around the country on those same issues, as well as on matters of racial justice. In addition to The Mary Sue, he has also written for HuffPost, Sojourners, and Christians for Biblical Equality, and he blogs at FeministAsianDad.com.
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