Thursday, March 13, 2014

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s mind control sex scene and rape culture

Oy. I know I'm wading into a topic here that's likely to provoke some strong reactions, but I think this is a conversation that needs to happen.

I've been watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and if I'm being totally honest, I've stuck with it mostly out of potential for what the show could be rather than any significant enjoyment of the stories and characters. As I'd rather not derail this into a "what S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to improve post, I'll merely note that this week's episode largely represented an upswing from the usual quality. It's probably not a coincidence that it's one of the few episodes to make a significant effort to tie into the wider Marvel Universe.

 In a nutshell, an Asgardian named Lorelei escapes to Earth following a jailbreak from Asgard (as shown in Thor: The Dark World.) As Lorelei has the ability to mind-control men, making them enamored with her and willing to do anything for her, Lady Sif (Jamie Alexander, reprising her role from the Thor movies) is sent to bring her back and crosses paths with Agent Coulson's team. You'd think that the men on Coulson's team would be made to sit this one out considering a touch from Lorelei is all that it would take to get them to betray their friends and their country. Oddly this doesn't happen, and predictably, Lorelei ensnares Agent Ward with her mind control.

On its face, it opens up an interesting conflict, as our heroes are faced with the possibility that they'll have to kill Ward in order to stop them. Lorelei is an especially nasty manipulator and it's pretty clear she'd get off on ordering Ward to his death against his comrades, especially for the angst it will cause them. It's pretty standard mind-control stuff. The problem is that during said enchantment, Ward and Lorelei head off to Vegas and spend a passionate night in a suite together.

What unsettled me was that this moment was played as a "hot" scene - not what it really was: a woman forcing sex on a man who is not in a mental state to give consent. Sure, in his mind, Ward has been convinced that this is what he wants, but that's only because he's been given a magic roofie. I don't think it's a stretch to call this a rape scene.

The problem is that the show seems blithely unaware of this subtext. If anything, there's a leering "Awesome, Ward had hot sex with a babe!" feeling floating over the moment in question and then beyond that, there's zero follow-up. He's not even the one who ends up taking down Lorelei.

Pretend for a moment that the genders were reversed. Let's say it was Skye or Simmons who got the mental whammie on her and suddenly she can't get enough of Loki. The two of them get to a suite and she can't tear her clothes off fast enough for some steamy action. (A) Do you think this scene would even make it to screen? (B) If it did make the final cut, how much do you want to bet Loki would be explicitly punished for this, with Skye or Simmons mortified or even traumatized by their own behavior and (C) If so, is there anyway that scene gets made without it being called out as rape?

(If such a scene with Skye or Simmons DID make it to air in a fashion as tone-deaf as the Ward scene, I have no doubt there'd already be a couple dozen blog posts and "think-pieces" about how abbhorant S.H.I.E.L.D. was to do that and how it plays into rape culture. And the writers of such scenes would be right to call it out for that.)

If a woman was the victim here, I have little doubt that the non-consensual sex would been treated as wrong. It probably would have been portrayed in a similar tone to another mind-control near-rape done on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer called "Dead Things." In that episode, the Nerd Trio finally invents a mind control device to get the hot sex slave they always wanted. When the subject is first raised, it's through the lens of the juvenile teenage boy who thinks it would be pretty cool to have a hot chick at his whim. Unfortunately for them, their intended victim comes to her senses and calls it out for what it is - rape.

There's no similar lamp-shading of what was done to Ward. When I raised the issue on Twitter, Emily Blake correctly drew an analogy to how we as a society perceive cases of teacher-student sex. If a teenage girl has sex with her older male teacher, then he's a pervert and the worst kind of sex offender. She's a victim who was taken advantage of. When a teenage boy has sex with his hot teacher, he's lionized and practically given a high five. He's not a victim, he's a "lucky dog."

I think that does a great disservice to the young men who are victims of non-consensual sex. The message they're given in society is that they're supposed to want it, that they should feel excited whenever they get it, that if their victimizer is "hot" then there's no reason to get upset. And maybe I'm making too much of a few minutes of a TV show. Had they treated this moment maturely, it still probably wouldn't change anything in society. But it sure as hell reflects society and it's not doing anything to make someone question the wrongness of this message.

Think of how many 80s movies feel kinda "rapey" now, viewed through today's mores. I ran across an article that is an excellent examination of that culture, including a good take on 16 CANDLES:

16 Candles is not only rife with cheap racism, it’s cavalier about sexual assault. Worse, Jake Ryan - the beau hunk himself - is the one who orchestrates it. In exchange for information about Sam, he offers The Geek the opportunity to drive his girlfriend Caroline home and basically gives him permission to do whatever he likes as long as he doesn’t leave her abandoned in a parking lot somewhere. (This is after he tells The Geek that if he were interested in her anymore, he could go into his bedroom where she’s passed out cold and ‘violate her ten different ways’. ‘What are you waiting for?’ The Geek splutters.) But worst of all is when The Geek and Caroline wake up in the car the next morning. Despite neither of them really remembering the previous night’s ‘activities’, The Geek asks Caroline if she enjoyed herself. ‘You know,’ she replies, ‘I have this weird feeling I did!’ 

80s movies. Encouraging hilariously rapey ‘sexcapades’ enjoyed by beta males, and making it an extra triumph for them because the girl really enjoyed it. (See also: Revenge of the Nerds.) 

One day, the Ward/Lorelei hotel romp is going to be just as repugnant to more progressive eyes. Trust me.

Don't let that happen to your writing. Be aware of what you're putting into the culture and what your scene is really saying.


  1. This brings up an interesting question; does this mean that almost every "Siren" esque character is guilty of sexual assault? There have been sooooo many female characters who have sexually enticed male characters via magic/super powers.

    I believe the TV series called "The Misfits" handled this idea pretty well. One of the characters (Alisha) had the ability to kick one's sex drive into high gear via skin to skin contact. In Episode 3, she uses the power on one of the other main characters (Curtis). After they had sex, Curtis "woke up" and was disgusted by what she did. It didn't scar him for life or anything, but there was a negative reaction. And the episode was ultimately used to teach Alisha that using her power like that is wrong.

    1. I loved Misfits, so Im glad you are bringing it up, and I did like the fact that Curtis did have a negative reaction to Alishias actions, even though he liked her. But in the end I did feel that whole sex-power-thing could also be interpreted as women should be ashamed for their sexual desires. I dont know, something about it (during the whole season) left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

    2. I loved Misfits as well! Well, until season 2, at least. That's when I started to slowly lose interest.

      I don't think it was saying that sexual desire is a bad thing. I think it was saying that people should strive for more than just sexual gratification; that people should strive for actual relationships.

      Alisha's desire for large amounts of consequence free sex lead her down a destructive path. She became a rapist and saw no problem with it. Until her "roofie" (if you will) caused the people around her to go crazy. After that ordeal, she finally learned that actual relationships are better than just sex.

  2. Brilliantly summed up!

  3. I know you didn't want to go down the road of this being just another "this show sucks" article, but...this is why the show sucks.

    All of the agents were made explicitly aware of what the villain was capable of, yet zero precautions were taken, and Ward (who is supposedly one of SHIELD's "best and brightest") stands there like a gobsmacked idiot with high Night-Night gun trained on her. There were six of us watching Tuesday night, and we were ALL literally shouting at him to pull the damn trigger, to at least TRY and drop her with the weapon he's got pointed right at her for at least 10 seconds.

    But no, instead we got magical roofie rape. And yes, Ward seemingly shrugs it off as no big deal. It's never mentioned. I wouldn't be surprised if it's never mentioned again.

    In fact, one thing you didn't mention was that the biggest emotional impact of the whole "rape" was May's feelings (despite the fact that she acts like she doesn't have any) getting hurt by his sexual "betrayal". So it's not just a rape scene, it's a rape scene followed by oblique rape-shaming.

    THIS is why the show sucks. Because every time they try and give us something good, something cool to chew on, WHAM, we get punched in the groin by something completely idiotic. A completely unbelievable non-action by a supposedly competent character for the sole purpose of setting up a hackneyed conflict that ultimately carries no real dramatic weight, and in fact the only weight it does carry is distasteful.

    That someone wasn't there to point this rather obvious issue out and say "hey, we're a major network TV show, do we really want to do this"? is sad. And, furthermore, incidents like this have happened a number of times in comics and are viciously torn apart by savvy readers these days. So why are we repeating the offenses of the past source material? Or do the showrunners not realize how offensive they actually are? Googling "rape in comic books" will mean falling into an almost endless rabbit hole of ick.

    All right, rant concluded.

    1. To be fair, May's feelings of betrayal were not in reaction to the rape sequence, rather the revelation that Loreleu peered into Ward's mind and revealed that the woman he desired before her was NOT May. (Implying Skye.)

      Not defending the ep, just clarifying that point.

    2. To be fair, May's feelings of betrayal were not in reaction to the rape sequence, rather the revelation that Loreleu peered into Ward's mind and revealed that the woman he desired before her was NOT May. (Implying Skye.)

      Not defending the ep, just clarifying that point.

    3. Ah, thanks for clarifying that Nick. Although even then, it's all drama centered around other baggage, separate from the rape, which I'm betting will never be addressed.

  4. That's exactly why I hate Sixteen Candles.

    Very good post. (not just because you mentioned me) This is something we need to think about more when we write.

  5. Thank you for this post! I really appreciate your clear take in this area in movies and shows. I really think we need to demonstrate consent in sex every time we write, to make it a part of the "act". The more the viewers are fed with some images of sex the more it becomes normal for them, and we should give them an alternative, which is not "magical roophies" but consent.

  6. Hear, hear, BSR, and thank you for raising the issue. Doesn't matter whether it's male, female, alien or god-like entity who's doing the deed, there should never be any justification for the violation of any person's (or animal's, for that matter) physical integrity on tv or cinema for the message it sends to those inclined to grasp at straws that appear to condone their own abhorrent behaviour. The psychological consequences haunt the victim for life. We have a duty of care not to exacerbate their suffering.

  7. Whedon (and other SHIELD writers) were responsible for a show called "Dollhouse" which had this problem at the core of its premise - all of the dolls had their minds wiped and none of them could consent to anything that was happening to them. Some of those missions included sex and seduction.

    So I agree that this episode is problematic - and I worry that it's a weird trend in these writers' work.

    1. Whedon also did Buffy though, which (as far as I remember) always called out rape out for what it was and had it lead to appropriate negative consequences for the perpetrators. Although when Faith starts to rape/try to kill Xander, I suppose that didn't get as much focus on Xander's trauma -- it was just another horrible attack of the girl gone bad. The Dead Girl and Seeing Red scene with Spike were a lot more upfront about it.

    2. The Seeing Red scene is actually a case where the writer of the ep - Marti Noxon - actually wasn't trying to make any sort of statement about rape. In fact, per an interview I read with her over a decade ago, she was shocked that the fans read the scene that way!

      If you've viewed the scene in question, you'll likely find that claim hard to swallow because EVERYTHING about it screams "rape." Noxon's story is that she based this on an actual incident in her life (she was the "Spike" of that relationship.) She had been having an intense sexual relationship that was not unlike the Buffy/Spike relationship and when the man began to lose interest, she apparently came on strong with him as a way of trying to win him back.

      I tried finding Noxon's explanation of this, but the best I could do was James Marsters (Spike) discussing the matter in an interview:

      "One of the writers, a female writer, had a situation in her life where she was and her boyfriend were breaking up and she decided if she just made love to him one more time, that they wouldn't break up. She ended up trying to force herself on him and decided to write about that. The thing is, if you flip it and make it a man forcing himself on a woman, I believe it becomes a whole different thing.

      "Even though Buffy is super strong, even though she kicks him through a wall at the end of it, how it plays to the audience changes when you change the sex that way. It worked out and everything but I'm not really sure it expressed what the author was intending and on that score it was not successful. I think it was a big risk for everybody but I think if she could have found a female character to express that with it would have gotten closer to what she was trying to say, and I'm not really sure that we got there with that episode."

      I'm with Marsters. I don't think the writers as a group thought enough about how that scene played. I think it was in-character for Spike, but the problem is since the writers we're prepared for the way it came across, it became an issue they had to tiptoe around until they did their best to negate it without actually dealing with what they put out there.

  8. I gave Agents of SHIELD a real shot (because of the Whedon attachment), but it was consistently disappointing in all the ways I'm sure you could have written about. Then I accidentally erased my DVR recordings and when reprogramming it, I never felt the need to reprogram SHIELD. That was my sign. Reading this ep recap just makes me more sure I made the right call. I hope more people call this out. The double standard is as much the problem with rape culture as anything.