Analysis

Five Good Stories That Turned Creepy

Nancy looking pensive in Stranger Things.
It’s easy to find the creepy elements in bad stories. Often those elements are why a story is bad in the first place. Few people are lining up to defend the invasive underwear shots in Star Trek Into Darkness or the blatant misogyny of Michael Bay’s Transformers films.

A bigger challenge is to recognize creepy elements in stories that are actually good. Not only are these elements harder to find because a good story distracts us from them, but we often don’t want to acknowledge that our darlings could do anything wrong. But if we’re serious about making our stories better, then we need to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Let’s look at some popular favorites that stepped hard in problematic potholes.

Content Warning: Misogyny and Sexual Assault

1. Iron Man

Virginia and Pepper facing each other in Tony's house.

I know it’s hard to imagine, but our ancestors once lived in a world where there was no Marvel Cinematic Universe. Until Iron Man came along, that is. This film launched the MCU and is still one of its better entries. Tony Stark has a strong character arc, from an amoral jerk who only cares about himself to a philanthropist concerned with the suffering of others. There’s even a gentle critique of America’s role as a global arms dealer. What’s not to like?

The slut shaming, mostly. Early in the film, Tony brings home a woman named Christine for a one-night stand. That’s fine, until the next morning, when Christine meets Pepper Potts. After a bit of verbal sniping, Pepper tells Christine that her job includes “taking out the trash.” It’s clear she’s talking about Christine and the other women Tony sleeps with.

The first thing to unpack here is the deliberate use of the word “trash.” Women are often derided by being called “trashy” if they have a lot of sex, which is based on the idea that this somehow lowers their worth. It’s classic slut shaming. Having a female character say it doesn’t make the sexism any better. In fact, it’s arguably worse, since now the scene is also playing into the stereotype of women hating each other for no reason. This scene is probably meant to foreshadow Pepper and Tony’s romance in the next film, with Pepper speaking out of jealousy, but that doesn’t make it any better.

The other problem with this scene is the way it alters Tony and Christine’s relationship. Until now, they were two adults who decided some sex would be fun. After this scene, Christine is framed as the cast-off woman, angry that she didn’t get more out of Tony. This raises two possibilities. One, Tony led Christine to expect more, in which case our hero is way more of an ass than we’re supposed to believe. Two, he didn’t, and Christine is being stereotyped as clingy. Either way, it’s a bad look.

Correction: Originally, Christine was misidentified as “Virginia.”

2. The Golden Compass

Serafina Pekkala from the Golden Compass.

The Golden Compass is a fun adventure story with just enough darkness to give it weight. Protagonist Lyra must travel far from home to rescue her best friend and deal with evil adults who experiment on children while she’s at it. While the story could use more female characters, it does a fairly good job with the ones it has. At least, until the witches show up.

At first, the witches just seem like the sexy race of alien women trope transferred into a fantasy setting. They’re gorgeous, mate with human men, and wear revealing clothes even though they live in the frozen north. They’re magically immune to cold, you see. That’s a little absurd, but it’s nothing overtly terrible, and the witches do give the book a much needed injection of female characters. Everything could have been fine.

Until they let slip that the witches have a literal rape culture. You see, the book features a side character named Perry,* who once “spurned a witch.” That means he didn’t want to have sex with her. Her response was to swear she’d kill him on sight if they ever met again. This is a normal thing that the other witches treat as a little sad because Perry is a cool guy, but it can’t be helped.

This means every sexual overture by a witch is backed by the threat of violence, whether the target knows it or not. That would be bad enough if witches were just normal people, but they’re exceptionally powerful as well, skilled both in magic and the art of war. It’s like if Gandalf had gone around hitting on hobbits and drawing his sword on any who refused.

The book tries to cover up this travesty by implying that witches almost never have to kill anyone, because what man would turn down sex with a witch? Perry is a weird exception because he was married and didn’t want to be unfaithful to his wife. Leaving aside all the other married men a witch might hit on, that only makes things worse. This might be a surprise, but men aren’t mindless sex machines. They can turn down potential partners for any number of reasons. Some of them aren’t interested in sex at all.

3. Stranger Things

Jonathan, Nancy, and Steve from Stranger Things

Ah yes, Stranger Things, that cult classic you might have heard about. We’ve taken this show to task before over its lack of diversity, but at least its existing female characters are good, right? Joyce is the rare example of a mother taking center stage, and Nancy has a strong arc with everything going for her. Well, everything except her romantic interests.

For the first two seasons,* Nancy has herself a good old-fashioned love triangle with Steve and Jonathan. Steve is the school bully who beats up people he doesn’t like, thinks romance is a game he can win, and puts up graffiti calling Nancy a slut when he sees her hanging out with another guy. Meanwhile, Jonathan takes pictures of Nancy through windows and watches her get undressed. But don’t worry, he’s a nice guy and won’t ever act like a jerk for no reason, except when he does.

So… Nancy’s not exactly spoiled for choice here. The show does make some effort to reform the boys, but it’s pretty anemic. Jonathan apologizes for being a stalker, but in a way that makes it clear he doesn’t think it was a big deal, and he gets in a few digs at Nancy while he’s at it. Steve, on the other hand, seems to show real remorse, even trying to make up for what he did by giving up his bullying ways. He still thinks women’s inhibitions can be defeated like some kind of video-game boss though. I see a future in the MRA movement for him.

It’s bad enough that Nancy’s romance options are limited to a bully and a stalker,* but don’t worry, the show can do worse. In season two, Nancy has decided she’s done with Jonathan, even though that’s clearly who the writers want her to end up with. Rather than crafting a plot where Nancy changes her mind on her own, the show introduces a creepy conspiracy theorist who tells Nancy and Jonathan that they belong together and they should just bang already. If the idea of an adult man telling two teenagers to have sex creeps you out, you are not alone.

Of course, everything the creepster says turns out to be right. Nancy gets together with Jonathan just hours after Mr. Creep’s half-baked psychoanalysis session, giving him direct authorial sanction. The second season ends with Nancy dating her stalker.

4. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Cover art from The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

N. K. Jemisin’s debut novel is a story of divine wrath and treacherous family relationships. Protagonist Yeine is called to the capital of a vast empire, where she must play a dangerous political game to prevent her homeland from being crushed like a bug. As if that weren’t enough, she must investigate a coterie of fallen gods and deal with a budding romance at the same time. Exciting stuff.

Sex features heavily in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but Jemisin does a great job of avoiding the creeps until she brings up Yeine’s backstory. Yeine’s homeland is a militaristic matriarchy, which is cool. Spec fic doesn’t have many of those outside the realm of parody. What’s less cool is her homeland’s coming-of-age ceremony, where young women have to fight a man to avoid being raped.

Thankfully, this ritual is never shown in the story, but it’s an important part of Yeine’s backstory. It seems that in most cases, women choose frail opponents, but Yeine had to fight someone who knew what he was doing. It’s not clear to me if this was meant to establish that Yeine is good at fighting, something that never comes up in the story, or to give her backstory more adversity.

Either way, it’s pretty disgusting, and it doesn’t even make sense. Sexual violence has long been used as a weapon to suppress women; it seems unlikely that a matriarchal society would employ it, even if most women rig the fights. But wait, it gets weirder! According to the book, when the woman wins, she then rapes her opponent. That might sound like it’s just a wrestling match before some consensual sex, but the book is very clear that it’s rape either way.

Yeine won her fight, which means the novel’s protagonist is a rapist. That’s never great for a story, and it makes sympathizing with her much harder. On the bright side, this ritual is only featured in one exposition dump and then never brought up again,* so you can mostly pretend it never happened. At the same time, never addressing that elephant in the room removes any greater point the author might have been trying to make with this tidbit, so all we’re left with is a creepy backstory.

5. Runaways

The cast of Marvel's Runaway

The latest addition to Marvel’s TV show lineup* has a strong premise. A diverse group of teenagers discover their parents have formed an evil cult while also discovering they have super powers. By setting teenagers against their parents, the show creates immediate conflict and also sets up compelling moral dilemmas. Even after just a few episodes, it’s clear that Runaways will be a success. If only the camera could stop being so creepy.

This first comes up in a scene where the parents are changing into their cultist robes for the yearly sacrifice.* While the scene contains an equal number of men and women, you can already guess where the camera spends most of its time. It seems that a horrific scene of sacrifice just wouldn’t have worked without long closeups of a woman’s body while she’s changing. Also notable is how the camera only spends time on the women coded as attractive. I say “coded” because this is Hollywood; all the actresses are gorgeous, but two of the women are meant to be less attractive, and so the camera focuses on the bombshells.

The creep reaches new heights of absurdity in episode four, when cultist Leslie checks in on a gross looking, mysterious monster man. It seems the monster man is sick, and making him well is the point of all the sacrifices. In the scene, monster man asks Leslie to “warm me,” so of course Leslie strips down and climbs into bed with him. Presumably all her blankets and heating pads were in the laundry. Leslie’s body language makes it clear this is supposed to be sexy, but sexy for who? Monster man can’t see her, his face is covered by an opaque mask. Instead, Leslie is performing for an unseen audience, almost as if she knows there’s a camera in the room with her.

In case you thought it was only adult women who get the gratuitous nudity treatment, Runaways is happy to exploit teenagers too. In one scene, protagonists Nico and Alex are caught by Nico’s mom in the act of investigating the evil cult. As a cover, Nico pretends Alex was really over for a make-out session. Naturally, she opens up her shirt so the camera can get a good look at her sexy underwear. This is obviously contrived, but it gets worse. After the mom leaves, Nico tells Alex this was all just a trick; she’s not really interested in him. Alex promptly disregards her wishes and acts like he knows what she wants better than she does.

Any viewer can tell the show is building to a romance between Alex and Nico,* but that doesn’t make this okay. The idea that women don’t really mean it when they say “no” has terrible consequences in real life, contributing to everything from harassment to assault. It doesn’t take a PhD in Women’s Studies to know that Alex should have respected Nico’s boundaries. Doing so wouldn’t even have hurt the romance, as it would have shown that Alex cares enough about Nico to value her wishes.


Any story can turn creepy, even really good ones. If we’re serious about stamping out toxic elements, we have to go beyond obviously bigoted stories and see the problems closer to home. This doesn’t mean you have to burn any story with a problematic element, there wouldn’t be any stories left, but you must recognize those elements all the same.

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

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Comments

  1. American Charioteer

    Great article Oren, especially the first two points! The ideas that men always want sex and that only lecherous women like sex have more influence on how we are seen by others than almost any other gender stereotype.

  2. Allie

    I thought Yeine lost her fight, but then killed the guy while he was raping her. So, not a rapist, but a killer. If I recall, that was because she didn’t think her people would respect a leader who had been a victim of rape without killing the perpetrator (which is also disturbing). That whole bit just kind of made me go “WTF?”, so I was glad it never came up in the story again.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I was pretty sure I remembered Yeine winning her fight from when I read the book, and the summery’s I looked up (The library copy I read was out when I was writing this) seemed to back up that memory, but you could be right. I’ll see if I can confirm it.

  3. Cay Reet

    About #5: apparently (I haven’t seen the series, but read about it), Nico doesn’t end up with Alex.

    About #1 and #2: it’s really annoying to see those sexual prejudices (women who like sex are bad, men always want sex) still around. It would be time to finally lay them to rest.

    About #3: it’s alway annoying when it looks as if a character only has the choice between two evils and that whole ‘the right woman can redeem a man’ trope does a lot of damage in real life, too, because it makes women in an abusive or otherwise horrible relationship think they can change their situation – which they can’t.

    About #4: I can’t comment on the story, because I haven’t read it so far, but I find it highly strange that a matriarchal society would actual have such a ritual.

    • NateThePrate

      I’ve read (most) of the comics the show is based on, and he most assuredly DOES NOT. Assuming of course, they keep that particular plot point in the adaptation…

      • NateThePrate

        Whoops, I mean in regards to #5 with Alex and Nico.

      • Cay Reet

        So far, he does not.

  4. Kai Aquila

    Concerning #1: I don’ think the “taking out the trash” comment was meant to slutshame. It was simply a quick-witted reply to an insult the other woman dealt before. I gather this from the fact, that Pepper shows no signs of thinking any less of her before her mean spirited attitude appears. Maybe the word choice was unfortunante, but when coming up with comebacks, you usually don’t pick your words quite as carefully.

    • Cay Reet

      If your comeback is actually scripted, you don’t have that excuse, sorry. In real life, yes, you might simply choose your words badly.

      Besides, in the light of Pepper’s and Tony’s future relationship, there might be some jealousy involved.

  5. Taelor

    My impression was that it was Steve’s jerk friends who took it upon themselves to slander Nancy. When Steve finds out, he stops being friends with them and cleans up the graffiti himself, right?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I re-watched the episode recently, and Steve is certainly in on the graffiti. He’s there with his friends when Nancy and Johnathan discover them tagging the side of the theater after they’ve already done the front sign. Maybe his friends pressured him into it, but he certainly seems enthusiastic when Nancy confronts him. Later he feels guilty and cleans the graffiti off.

  6. Ian

    #3 I would say that Nancy didn’t really change Steve. From what i remember, he pretty much realise by himself he was being a jerk to everyone and decide to leave his “friends” and be nice for a change. Mostly because she was getting distant and his “friends” were a real pain, But in the end he proves his worth. Especially in the second season, since he’s helping the kids more often than not and for no other reason than because he care for them (As oppose to someone who would juste be nice to be with the girl). I think it’s a reasonable character arc. (As for Jonathan, i agree completly. He’s a good character, i like him. But his romance is a bit creepy and they got no chemistry at all).

    #4, maybe she’s secretly a member of a specie of bed bug or Flatworm. Two species known for their mating ritual in wich the two “partners” must fight to know who’s gonna rape who. (In certain case, the loser become de female and must bear the children). That’s seems like a plausible theory.

  7. Tony

    The way Philip Pullman’s witches handle rejection reminded me of how Stephenie Meyer’s werewolves imprint on their soulmates and won’t take no for an answer. (At least Perry was an adult when the witch chose him, unlike the end of Breaking Dawn, when Jacob Black imprinted on Bella’s literal newborn daughter.)

  8. BayleavesMia

    It’s nice to see you pointing out the rape on men–it creeps me out that raped women is bad, but raped men is okay and even enjoyable. That ritual from #4 is pretty strange, though. Why the rape? I can’t see any reason why it should turn out like that. If sexual violence is pretty common in the society, maaaaaaaaaaybe it could happen, but why in front of everyone? I can’t wrap up my mind around it.

  9. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s note: I have removed a comment here for engaging in blatant slut shaming. Disagreeing with us is fine and encouraged, but misogyny is not.

  10. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    Thank you so much for #3; you summed up my feelings on the Stranger Things romance perfectly. While I enjoy the show, it really falls flat in its romance. (Mike and Eleven are too young for me to properly ship them, and Mike first kissed Eleven with a surprise kiss.)

    What really annoyed me about the Nancy/Steve/Johnathan love triangle was that the show couldn’t get a grip on either character. Johnathan is, as you said, doesn’t act like a jerk for no reason except when he does. And Steve was actually justified in breaking Johnathan’s camera, I think – he was breaking a law! (And one day Johnathan tells Will “You’re my best friend” and then the next day “Hey I’m ditching you to go to a party have fun.”) Steve’s character fluctuates near the end of season one, but really, in the end, he seems to change, but then he leaves Nancy drunk at a party… she’s a pretty girl drunk at a high school party. And this isn’t a censor on Steve’s character, it makes Johnathan look like the hero. (And it’s completely out of character for Steve.) The conspiracy theorist guy was funny to watch, but of course realistically creepy. Since Steve changed but Johnathan didn’t I shipped Steve and Nancy, but that’s sunk. Hopefully there’ll be some romance improvements in season three. Hopefully.

  11. Nia

    If we’re talking about the horror in Iron Man, I want to point out that Tony has TERRIBLE friends in the films. I know they have other things to worry about, but the entire franchise is basically Tony is screaming for help while his mental health deteriorates.

    1, of course, he’s kidnapped than betrayed by his father figure.

    2, he has a panic attack.

    3, he’s so scared of losing his the people he loves that he builds hundreds of robots, he’s ridiculously reckless, he wakes up in the middle of the night with flashbacks.

    Avengers 2, the AI he built that had his personality destroys an entire small country. Mutant shows him a possible future where everyone he cares about was killed.

    Civil War, he builds an elaborate hologram to say goodbye to his dead parents. So emotionally compromised he thought it was a good idea to bring a 15 year old to fight war criminals and then ignore him for a year. Also the guy who his dead father was looked up to willingly lied about and protected his murderer.

    Homecoming, ignores a kid for a year, and then tries to helicopter parent. And then yells at him bc the kid tried to do something after the kid realized he was being ignored.

    This is not to say that this excuses his behaviors (he’s still an ass), but, good god, someone get this man a therapist. The sheer trust issues alone…

  12. Robert

    I really enjoy your blog and I appreciate your thoughts on GMing, game design, and writing. However, I have to disagree with your analysis in #3, both in specifics and in your broader appeal to social justice.

    Both Steve and Jonathan make mistakes. (Midway through season two, my wife and I started referring to the show as Stranger Things 2: Mistakes Were Made.) But their mistakes are rooted in immaturity and impulsivity, which makes sense because they are both teenagers. There is little to suggest that Steve is a bully. Both his physical altercation with Jonathan and the graffiti incident were caused by his belief that Nancy was cheating on him with Jonathan. The show makes it clear that Steve cares deeply for Nancy, so his emotions seem justified here. The way in which he chooses to act on those emotions is wrong, but that doesn’t make him a bully.

    Likewise, nothing in the show suggests that Jonathan is a stalker, or that he is stalking Nancy. He was in the woods looking for Will and taking photos when he happened upon the pool party, and he took a couple of inappropriate photographs. It was a mistake, and he showed discomfort and remorse about it later. I do not mean to downplay how inappropriate his behavior was but it is the kind of stupid thing teenagers occasionally do. And when we argues with Nancy in the woods, he does take a few shots at her, too, but she is verbally attacking him and he gets defensive. Real adults do that all the time, to say nothing of teenagers.

    My real issue with your analysis is twofold: first, it labels these two characters based on singular mistakes and, second, treats them as representations of social injustice rather than individual characters. “Bully” and “stalker” are labels that imply habitual and intentional antisocial behavior, and your analysis applies these labels to Steve and Jonathan based on singular instances of misconduct. This suggests that these characters cannot be understood as individuals and that their mistakes cannot be taken at face value. Instead, Steve and Jonathan must be representative of, and morally accountable for, social injustices far larger than their isolated instances of teenage impulsivity. And that bothers me. I would agree with you entirely if Stranger Things was a show about gender inequality, or if it was shown that Nancy was ridiculed, ostracized, or otherwise disempowered by other characters because of the graffiti incident, or if it was shown that other characters (aside from Steve’s former friends, who are portrayed negatively) tacitly approved of Steve’s behavior. But, none of that is the case.

    As for Nancy getting together with Jonathan, it seemed pretty clear to me from the beginning of season two that they had feelings for each other. Her falling out with Steve seemed a bit forced, but not totally unbelievable. Creepy conspiracy theorist was creepy, but I don’t think he represented the controlling hand of the patriarchy forcing her accept her stalker’s love.

  13. Leo

    While we’re all entitled to feel offended by whatever we like (or I suppose dislike in this case), I think you’ve taken #1 completely out of both context and subtext. The exchange went something like (to paraphrase)…

    Pepper, amiably: “I’ve taken the liberty of having your clothes dry cleaned and there’s a car out front ready to take you anywhere you want.”

    Christine, superciliously: “You must be the famous, Pepper Potts. After all these years Tony still has you PICKING UP THE DRY CLEANING. – This is both an unprompted insult to Pepper’s profession (doing Tony’s chores) and an implication that she is either too flawed for the lecherous Tony Stark, or possibly sleeping with him AND still doing his chores.

    Pepper, remaining professional: “Yes, my job entails that I do many different things for Mr. Stark. Including (Lists duties) and TAKING OUT THE TRASH. – This is not only a reciprocation of Christine’s blatant errand-girl insult, it one ups her in being a quick-witted double entendre that maintains Pepper’s professionalism throughout her entire interaction with someone being intentionally antagonistic. Pepper’s implication is that Christine is not special and Pepper has had this conversation numerous times.

    Most importantly this is our first introduction to Pepper Potts. In a few lines of dialogue it’s clearly established what Pepper does, who she is to Tony, and how intelligent and professional she is. Not to mention the next scene makes it clear Tony deliberately sent Pepper to get rid of Christine so her trash line is also a reference to having to clean up Tony’s messes.

    It seemed to me more of a response to the cattiness Pepper has to deal with from Tony’s conquests (honestly, he doesn’t even remember Christine’s name when they next meet) than Pepper insulting her lifestyle choices. It’s a well written scene IMO.

  14. Kit

    Ackkk….the one-night-stand in Iron Man is named Christine (Virginia or “Pepper” is his love interest) and she was called trash only after saying something demeaning and offensive to Pepper. Pepper was perfectly decent toward her until she tried to put Pepper lower than herself.

    Sure, Pepper has a low viewpoint of the women Tony brings home, but she only calls her trash after dealing with her trashy personality. It’s not the willingness to have sex with random men that makes her trash, it’s her attitude, one probably shared by the other thousand women Pepper’s had to deal with.

    You paid about 10% attention to this scene and then wrote an article about it. If you feel like nitpicking, pick on Iron Man 2 it’s an easy target.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      You’re certainly right that it’s Christine who gets slut shamed, not Virginia. Thanks for catching that, the names in these Marvel movies can be hard to keep track of.

  15. Kit

    I’ll agree with just about any slam on Stranger Things because it had so many problems particularly with the female characters. But you annoyed me, Oren, so I’m “calling you out” (not really) on your use of the term “cult classic” for Stranger Things. It’s not one. It’s a phenomenal nightmare I can’t get away from. Cult classic implies its popularity was slowburn when in fact it was overnight. The stuff it ripped off are cult classics. It is not.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Well, “cult classic” was mainly intended to be an ironic joke because Stranger Things is a wildly popular juggernaut of a franchise that nearly everyone has watched by now, but it’s filmed in the style of works that are often considered cult classics. Sorry the joke wasn’t clearer.

      • Kit

        Yeah, I thought it might be because you did sound sarcastic. Juggernaut is the perfect term. Thanks for replying.

    • Kit

      Actually finished reading the Iron Man section. You…missed a lot of what was going on.

      Christine’s definitely got some good character traits, but she ain’t no sweetheart. She returns in the second film once again using her charms to interview another powerful guy, Justin Hammer. However she immediately (and blatantly) abandons Hammer when she sees a chance to get something out of Tony again. However, her pursuits in this film do not involve sex. She is not motivated to have sex with anyone. She’s simply cutthroat for “the perfect story.”

      Do Tony and Pepper make rude comments about her past antics? Yep. I hate that scene. You should’ve talked about that scene as it actually proves your point. Like, please do, it was uncomfortable to watch.

      Hammer himself (as an antagonist) is obviously misogynistic and condescending, while Tony just likes sexy ladies waay too much (Pepper warns him to stop ogling an employee or there will be a “very expensive sexual harassment suit”). Hammer and Stark are two shades on a sexist spectrum really. At least Tony trusts women to save his life and run his company. Hammer only sees them as pretty distractions (“sweetheart”) until they don’t give him what he wants (“bitches”). His depiction of a chauvinist is unfortunately dead accurate.

      Oh, Happy does a couple sexist/creepy things in Iron Man 2 as well, so you might use him as an example. He and Tony both, however, show much more respectful attitudes towards women by Iron Man 3.

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