Runaways’ Refreshingly Judgment-Free Depiction of Female Sexuality
One of the well-established tropes of genre high school stories is the danger of sex. From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Vampire Diaries to Teen Wolf, exploring and expressing your sexuality is often fraught with magical danger on genre TV.
And on some level, the metaphor makes sense. Discovering things about yourself and your sexual partners is a huge part of growing up, and it can be all sorts of frightening, stressful, or shocking. Marrying the real-life problems of high school to supernatural or sci-fi evils is part-and-parcel of these shows, so having at least some scary-magic sex makes sense.
But it’s also a metaphor that reinforces antiquated ideas about the dangers of sexuality, especially female sexuality.
In a healthy media landscape, we’d get both: sexual exploration that’s dangerous, and sexual exploration that’s casual and fun. Runaways is one of the rare teen genre shows that gives us the latter, and it was incredibly refreshing to see Gert, Nico, and Karolina explore their sexuality without judgment, pain, and danger.
With, of course, one irritating exception.
Gert: The Creeper Nerd Who Eventually Gets It Right and Gets the Guy
Unlike so many women on TV, Gert gets to play the problematically creepy nerd. She has a very clear, very unrequited crush on Chase from the first episode, and she’s constantly shooting glances at him. She weasels her way into a coffee date with him by promising to help him with her homework. She finagles her way into solo missions with him.
She even blatantly objectifies him. In Episode 3, she dons the X-Ray goggles and impishly peeks over at him. “Hey, were you just checking out my junk?” he cries. She smirks and says it was “a cursory glance, for scientific purposes.” Later, she tells him, “After centuries of patriarchal oppression, me getting to objectify you is just evening the playing field.”
Gert’s crush on Chase also makes her deeply jealous of Karolina, and the show doesn’t shy away from how problematic and ugly that jealousy can be. When she believes that Karolina and Chase are hooking up, as well as Nico and Alex, she sneers at them, “Isn’t this adorbs? You guys planning a big double date?” She also tells everyone that Chase and Karolina hooked up, even though Karolina says, “Can you not tell everyone that?”
However, Gert also learns to grow outside of her insecurities. During the Pride Gala, she’s initially helpless when Nico and Alex ask her to distract the security guard by flirting. “Yes, but how?” she asks, flustered.
“Just be yourself,” Nico advises. Gert then takes her advice and flirts in very characteristic fashion, talking about Kafka’s use of cockroaches, the industrial revolution, and the plight of the worker. It 100% works, and we see Gert looking at once shocked and delighted by her own power. And because this is Runaways and they like to keep things obvious, the show literally has a male character tell her, “You could probably have any guy you wanted.”
Gert also learns to be vulnerable, especially with Chase. When he says she used to think he was an idiot, she doesn’t smirk and agree. Instead, she tells him the truth: “I never thought that. I might’ve said that—often, and loudly—but it was a defense mechanism, because I felt ignored.”
And when she opens up and tells the truth, she doesn’t get rejected or mocked. She and Chase are finally able to share a real connection, and they have their maybe-end-of-the-world hookup.
And although Gert grows, she doesn’t have to change who she is fundamentally. Her caustic behavior is part of what Chase likes about her. He even tells his mother that “dates are so heteronormative … That’s what Gert says. Most of the time, I don’t even know what the hell she’s talking about. Apparently, there are a lot of ways to offend someone. But once in a while, she does make a good point.”
Nico: The Witch Who Gets to Be Angry and Stay That Way
Nico is allowed to reject a man who’s broken her trust and turn instead to explore her queerness—without the rest of the group turning on her or slut-shaming her. She is allowed to rage at Alex and move on without being ostracized by the rest of the team, urged to forgive him, or treated like “a bitch.”
At the beginning of the series, she and Alex form a genuine bond. They first connect over their shared history with her sister, Amy. They go to the cops together to report Amy’s suicide as a murder and their parents’ role in Destiny’s death; they look into the Ultra encrypted files from the Church of Gibborim; they sneak into the Wizard servers together.
At one point, they even pretend to hook up to throw Nico’s mother off their trail. While Nico tells Alex it “was an act” afterwards, we see her grinning to herself after he waves goodbye. She finally seems to acknowledge her feelings for him after he’s abducted. “I’m just glad we got you back,” she says once they’ve rescued him. “I was so worried about you.” Then, she leans in for the kiss.
However, in Episode 8, she realizes that Alex has kept the circumstances of her sister Amy’s “suicide” from her. She’s furious at this betrayal by someone she thought she was getting close to. He tries to explain himself, saying that she shut down after Amy’s death, and he didn’t know what to do. “Alex, you can’t keep the circumstances of my sister’s suicide a secret and then blame my lipstick,” she snaps.
And though he apologizes multiple times over the next few episodes, though he says was “scared that you would never forgive me,” and terrified of “losing you forever,” she does not forgive him. She works with him to figure out what happened to Amy, but she stays mad. When he tells her she looks “really, really nice” the night of the school dance, she snaps, “Too bad I don’t give a shit anymore … This doesn’t change anything.”
And the rest of the team accepts it. Molly teases Alex, telling him he’s in the doghouse, but nobody urges Nico to get over it. Everyone accepts that she’s allowed to dump him.
Having cut off her relationship with Alex, Nico begins to realize her feelings for Karolina. When Karolina pulls back from their first kiss, which Karolina initiated, Nico looks cautious, questioning. After a pause, she decides to lean back in for a second, longer kiss. “Woah,” she finally says, and the audience can’t tell who she’s more surprised at: Karolina or herself.
Nico takes the rest of that episode and the next to figure her feelings out. Karolina doesn’t insist on having an answer now; she doesn’t push her. Nico gets space to suss her own sexuality out, even in a show that’s built on drama and confrontation. After nearly losing Karolina, however, she realizes the nature and depth of her feelings. They share a moment by the escape van, where Nico admits that some of the group wanted to leave her behind. “Not you,” Karolina says with a smile.
Looking awkward and anxious, Nico breathes out, “Nope. Not me.” She girds herself and then leans in for a long kiss.
Karolina: The All-American Girl Who Gets to Say “No” to a Boy and “Yes” to her Queerness
Like Nico, Karolina is allowed to reject a male character without dealing with toxic fallout. She forms a real emotional bond with Chase, confiding in him and choosing him as the first person to reveal her powers to. When she takes off her bracelets in front of him, the moment is incredibly intimate, with her barefoot and the two of them standing palm-to-palm. “You are the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Chase tells her afterwards, tucking her hair behind her ear.
Chase is very clearly into Karolina, calling her beautiful, following her around, and saying, “Hey, maybe I’m replacing lacrosse with something better.” However, Karolina isn’t that into Chase romantically. She gives him quick, uncomfortable smiles when he gets sappy. Gert constantly mentions that Karolina seems into Nico instead, and she tells her, “Just know you’re not being honest about who you really like.”
When Chase and Karolina finally kiss, after she nearly dies chugging vodka on the rooftop of the Pride gala, we see her start to realize that maybe this isn’t what she wants. As Chase hugs her post-kiss, the camera zeroes in on the disappointment and confusion in her face.
And even though they’ve had intimate moments together, even though they’ve kissed, there is never any mention of Karolina “leading him on.” In part, Karolina’s arc works so well because Chase’s does, too. He doesn’t lash out at Karolina for rejecting him. He doesn’t hate her. He just respects her autonomy and moves on. “The more time I spend with [Karolina],” he tells his mom, “the less I think she wants to spend with me.” He sounds disappointed, but not furious or wounded. He takes her right to reject him as a given. As an Oh, well.
We never hear a complaint about the friendzone, and Karolina doesn’t have to sacrifice her friendships for her romantic life. In a show where the kids otherwise have to make a lot of tough moral choices, getting to choose your partners is a given. Women getting to be friends with men is a given.
Finally, after a season of longing and confusion, Karolina goes for the kiss with Nico. She doesn’t push her for answers or demand to know if Nico’s into her. She gives Nico space, satisfied that she at least understands herself now. And then, as they’re hiding out in the woods, Nico comes back to her. Nico’s the one who initiates that kiss. They end up spooning in the van that night.
And The One Exception
The attempted rape scene from the pilot annoyed the shit out of me when I first saw it, and I’ve only gotten more irritated as time went on. I didn’t like at the time for a number of reasons, but having seen the whole first season, I like it even less. It doesn’t fit with the whole tone of the show. Only this one scene is so weird and frightening and punishing. Only this scene is so uninterested in Karolina’s choices and autonomy.
However, the season overall was so refreshingly gentle and affirming of young girls’ right to choose their partners, explore their sexuality, and form emotional attachments that aren’t romantic ones. The teens on Runaways have to ask a lot of tough questions, but “Am I allowed to do what I want with my body and my heart?” isn’t one of them. Because the show says that the answer is always YES.
(Image: Paul Sarkis/Hulu)
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