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
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
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
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 lackluster. 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
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.
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.
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