Five Social Justice Fails That Angered Fans

We advocate for socially just stories because it’s the right thing to do, and that won’t change. But sometimes this purpose can feed false ideas about the supposed costs of social justice in our tales, as though we must choose between social justice and good storytelling or social justice and popularity. Neither of those are true. As a reminder that we are not alone in calling for justice in a world of entrenched oppression, let’s look at some stories that not only did the wrong thing but also alienated some of their most loyal fans in the process.

Spoiler Notice: Game of Thrones Seasons 4 and 5, The 100 Season 3, Avengers: Age of Ultron

1. Added Rape Scenes, Game of Thrones

Sansa in her wedding gown, led by Theon

Based on George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire book series, the Game of Thrones TV series takes place in a gritty, medieval setting. Whereas many other epic fantasies are still sidelining female characters, Martin includes a diversity of proactive women who each deal with their patriarchal society in their own way. Because forced marriages are part of the setting, there is rape in the books, but the creators of the TV show added more.

The first blow up happened over a scene with Jaime and Cersei Lannister. In both the book and the show, they have sex next to the body of their dead son, but in the book that sex was consensual. In the TV show, Cersei says “no” and “stop” over and over again as Jaime forces himself on her. Fans became angry not only because the rape felt unnecessary but also because the scene introduced a strangely dark turn for Jaime’s character. Jaime had just become sympathetic; why make him a rapist?

Then in interviews with the cast and director, the truth came out: none of them thought it was rape. The director said, “in the end it was consensual,” as though if a man just forces himself on a unwilling woman, at some point she’s bound to change her mind and retroactively make it okay. This made an already problematic scene much worse, because the show was directly contributing to myths that encourage rape in the first place.

The controversy of the Lannister rape eventually died down, but then it happened again. The show included a scene of Ramsay Bolton raping Sansa Stark. Ramsay also rapes someone in the books, but the victim is a minor character. In tidying up the plot, the show creators decided to give the character’s role to Sansa, including the rape scene. While the creators at least understood it was rape this time, it’s still terrible.

The foremost reason is that it ditches the empowerment of an important female character to motivate a male character. Sansa had already escaped a situation where she was abused and helpless. Since then, fans had eagerly watched her become wiser and more powerful. Her role as a rape victim just takes her back to square one of her character arc. Meanwhile, the character Theon Greyjoy is forced to to watch the rape as a means of motivating him to finally rebel against Ramsay. Sansa’s rape scene is more about Theon than it is about her.

At that point, many troubled fans who stuck around after the Lannister scene left for good. The Mary Sue, an entertainment site for female geeks, decided to stop promoting the show. Discussions in the fan community focused on whether or not they should boycott the series.

What Storytellers Can Learn From This

The most obvious takeaway is that when fans are unhappy about something, you don’t have to double down on it. Dismissing responses with “some people will always be unhappy about rape scenes” or “it’s a violent and gritty show” not only ignores the reason those people are unhappy but also dodges any discussion about whether making them unhappy was necessary or if the scene provided a net benefit to the show.

I have yet to hear someone argue that sexual assault should never appear in stories. However, adding a rape scene creates a terrible experience for real-life survivors and makes the act of rape feel more normal to us as a society – even if our stories clearly send the message that’s it’s bad.* In nearly all stories, a rape scene can be swapped with a different conflict to preserve the plot. There’s only one reason to include rape despite its costs: your story is about rape in some way.

Even then, you may not need a rape scene. Mad Max: Fury Road is about the way people are turned into things; rape adds to the story’s purpose. The plot centers on rape victims struggling for freedom, but the audience doesn’t watch them get raped in the movie. Fury Road is just as gritty and violent as Games of Thrones, and it easily avoided alienating fans.

2. Seven of Nine’s Catsuit, Star Trek: Voyager

Seven posing in sexy position in tight silver catsuit

Star Trek: Voyager was the first, and is still the only, Star Trek series to star a female captain. While this choice was a great step forward, the minds behind the show seemed to think it was a large accomplishment instead of an overdue milestone. If they hadn’t been resting on their laurels, they might have thought twice about how they introduced a new cast member.

Seven of Nine was added to improve ratings on the show, and from the moment she entered, she was an exceptional character. Brought to life by actress Jeri Ryan, the character’s well-developed arc follows the legacy of Spock and Data, both incredibly popular characters. Like them, Seven is a cool and logical person that analyzes the foibles of the human race as she becomes more human herself. The writers also cultivated a deep relationship between her and Captain Janeway. Seven of Nine’s character arc is used to highlight Janeway’s knowledge and wisdom.

But the showrunners packaged this strong female character in a catsuit and high heels. The costumers went so far as to ensure her breasts stood out separately, something Ryan called “a real feat in engineering” in an interview. This outfit is clearly impractical for everyday wear, and it looks nothing like the Star Fleet uniform that so many characters are shown cherishing across the franchise. Not only that, but Seven of Nine has no agency in choosing this skin-tight outfit. Instead it’s designed by a male character – The Doctor. Seven of Nine displays no desire for the male ogling clearly intended by the showrunners.

To many Star Trek fans, her costume was a sign that the philosophical and forward-looking franchise was selling out. For those who admired Voyager as a feminist show, the obvious pandering toward a male audience felt like a slap in the face. The behind-the-scenes details have only made this insult worse. Jeri Ryan blacked out several times on the set because her costumes cut off blood or air flow. Her first outfit as a human, shown above, had to be retired because she couldn’t move well and she had trouble breathing. Even after her outfit was replaced with a version that wasn’t so tight, it took twenty minutes of assistance from a costumer so she could use the restroom. During some episodes she stopped drinking while they filmed so she wouldn’t have to go to the bathroom at all.

In the end, Jeri Ryan’s excellent performance won over many of the fans that had been alienated by her costume. In addition, the chemistry between Janeway and Seven attracted many of the femslashers who had cheered for a romance between Xena and Gabrielle. The introduction of Seven of Nine was widely credited with raising the show’s ratings.

What Storytellers Can Learn From This

The team behind Voyager all operated off the same assumption: Seven of Nine’s sex appeal was essential to her popularity. But a comparison of Star Trek characters defies this assessment: Troi and T’Pol were put in tight outfits in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Enterprise, but neither were particularly popular characters. Whereas Data and Spock, characters that followed the same personality archetype as Seven, were both widely popular.* By assuming men wouldn’t be invested in a female character without overwhelming sex appeal, the show creators both insulted male intelligence and forwarded the notion that women must adapt to accommodate the desires of men. Plus, it’s simply a wrong assumption. Well-written characters will earn a following regardless of whether or not they feature in wet dreams.

For storytellers who decide sex appeal is important, it can be created without disregarding the agency of the character or the welfare of the person behind the character. Consider featuring a character like Jadzia Dax from Star Trek: Deep Space 9, who is unapologetically sexual. She vacations on the pleasure planet of Risa for her own satisfaction, not because she needs validation from men. This is very different from a character who is packaged as virginal and then unwillingly paraded before male eyes.

3. Death of Lexa, The 100

Lexa lies back in bed, blood dripping from the corner of her mouth

The TV show the 100 was once popular with femslashers, a community of queer women who write fanfic and support romantic pairings between women. Fanfic communities are never given much respect, and femslashers are a minority in fanfic communities. They have few shows with lesbian romances to represent them, so they frequently ship characters that are canonically straight. Just by providing a wealth of engaging, female characters, The 100 became one of their favorites.

Then in season two, the show introduced a strong, attractive lesbian character, Lexa, and gave her a brewing romance with the show’s lead, Clarke. The femslasher community became passionate enthusiasts of the “Clexa” romance, fighting vicious battles online with straight shippers. The minds behind the show responded positively to Clexa shippers, promising more of Lexa in the next season even though the actress had other commitments. The showrunner, Jason Rothenberg, even hinted she’d appear at the end of season three.

The first half of season three focuses heavily on the Clexa romance, until Lexa and Clarke finally make it official and go to bed together. Immediately after, Lexa is mistakenly shot by her own servant and dies.

This would enrage any fanbase. I haven’t seen any fans more angry than those who are severely disappointed, particularly when they are disappointed by storytellers they trusted. The 100 built up the community’s expectations before harshly tearing them down. But for femslashers in particular, this was much worse, not only because they have so few canon romances to represent them but also because this has happened to them countless times before.

The storytelling trope is called “bury your gays“; it refers to the incredible frequency of queer deaths in popular stories. The femslasher community has watched their favorites die over and over again, leading to a general feeling that lesbians aren’t allowed to be happy on screen. In fact, Lexa’s death had remarkable similarity to another upsetting death for the femslasher community: the death of Tara in the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Like Lexa, Tara died from a stray bullet meant for someone else, and it was immediately after getting back together with her girlfriend. In both cases, the love interests were present to watch the death helplessly. This was a strange and demeaning demise for Lexa. She was a leader and a warrior who was willing to die for her people, yet she had a completely pointless death.

The retaliation from the fan community was strong and immediate. Femslashers got the hashtag #LGBTFansDeserveBetter trending on twitter and caused ratings to dive. More recently, they’ve even persuaded some sponsors to pull their support. While The CW is moving forward with another season of the show, it’s unclear whether it will fully recover.

What Storytellers Can Learn From This

I honestly believe that Rothenberg tried hard to appease fans despite a departing actress. Season three rushed into the Clexa romance quickly and dwelt heavily on it while Lexa was on the show. Her death was foreshadowed extensively, and even after she died, she was important to the plot. She even made a glorious post-death appearance at the end of the season. If I were to make a generic checklist for mitigating the impact of a hero’s death, The 100 would probably have covered every item.

But that doesn’t matter. Not one bit.

That’s because Rothenberg didn’t do his homework. The first step in depicting people who are different from you is research, always. Every marginalized group has stereotypes and harmful tropes that must be avoided when writing about them. It doesn’t matter how much sense those patterns make in the context of the story or its production, because fans are tired of hearing excuses. Every showrunner tries to say their show is a unique snowflake that should get a pass. Fans don’t care anymore.

While Rothenberg was in a tough position, he could have handled it much better if he’d been more aware of the needs of his fans. Giving Clarke and Lexa some time to be a happy couple* or sending Lexa off into the sunset without killing her would have made the departure better. And while a gay couple was introduced in season three, an additional lesbian romance wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Edit 8/21/16: This section was edited to reflect survey data showing that straight fans are not a majority in fanfic communities.

4. Racebending, The Last Airbender

Four primary characters from Avatar: The Last Airbender lined up, both with original animation and actor. All heroes have been lightened in the movie, only the villain got a darker skin tone.

An animated series with a strong cult following, Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of few popular fantasy stories to pull its setting from outside of the Western world. In the series, everything from the clothes people wear to the utensils they use is clearly inspired by Asian or Inuit cultures. While the skin shades of characters vary, with cultural context it’s pretty easy to conclude all of the characters are people of color. No blond characters appear in the series, and according to the Animatic Editor, some of the characters were even modeled off of Asian members of the show’s crew.

Then M. Night Shyamalan made a movie based on the series and decided to cast white actors in the top four roles.* The Chinese calligraphy that featured heavily in the animated series was removed and replaced with invented symbols. Even so, the story wasn’t transplanted to a Western location. Casting calls encouraged extras to wear ethnic Asian costumes, and one of the white actors said he’d need a tan for the movie. While the animated series had carefully depicted its Asian-inspired settings with authenticity and respect, Shyamalan exploited Asian cultures without recognizing actors of Asian descent or even giving those cultures the credit they deserved.

Fans revolted. They organized massive boycotts and protests, prompting quite a few of the people behind the original series to condemn the new film. A group of well-known comic artists created a sketch book in protest of the movie’s casting, and Roger Ebert lambasted it. Several Asian arts and advocacy groups sent official protest letters to Paramount, asking them to reconsider the movie’s casting.

Paramount and Shyamalan weakly defended their decision as “adding diversity” to the setting. However, when the actor playing the character of Zuko dropped out due to a scheduling conflict, they replaced him with a POC. Clearly they were hoping to appease fans, but they should have known better because of the four most central characters only Zuko is a villain. In the series he is a complex character that eventually switches sides, but the movie only depicts the first season, where he is bent on kidnapping the hero.

The movie was a terrible flop. The fervent boycotting it earned certainly contributed to its failure, but it was also just a horrific movie. However, the fans that united against the film are still active. They founded, an advocacy group devoted to fair representation in media. The term “racebending” was coined in likeness to the world’s elemental magic use: waterbending, airbending, etc. They have supporters in 50 countries around the world.

What Storytellers Can Learn From This

Hollywood often favors adaptations over original screenplays because it allows them to capitalize on an existing fan base. So why anyone would then alienate that fanbase is truly baffling. It could be because 1) they assume their potential white audience is racist and 2) they don’t think fans will care if the characters are whitewashed. If this incident shows anything, it’s that neither of those assumptions are true. If white people hated characters of color, how did the animated series become so popular in the first place?

Any story that features white characters – or white actors – in a foreign setting is navigating dangerous waters. In these cases, it’s too easy to send the message that other cultures exist for the benefit of white people. But foreign countries don’t exist to be an exotic vacation spot or to give life lessons to white travelers. To demonstrate respect, stories should center around empowered characters local to the setting and use authentic representations of their culture.

5. Stereotyping of Black Widow, Age of Ultron

Black Widow tending bar for the male heroes

Black Widow is the most prominent female character in Marvel’s movie franchise. Played by superstar Scarlett Johansson, Marvel fans have grown increasingly agitated as, movie after movie, she’s played a support role to a male lead. All the male characters of her caliber have featured in movies of their own, yet she hasn’t gotten one, and there isn’t any plan for one in the works.

Then Age of Ultron came out. Directed by Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, fans naturally expected Black Widow would at least get a good part in the movie. Instead, they were treated to a feast of female stereotypes. Black Widow’s arc is about how she’s barren but would really like to have a baby. When discussing her infertility, she refers to herself as a “monster.” The movie also has a weird scene where she serves bar for all the superhero guys, and Captain America takes a shot at her for flirting with many of them in the past.

The context surrounding the movie made it much worse. In an interview promoting the film, two of the male actors called Black Widow a “slut” and a “whore.” Despite being a major character, Black Widow is featured in very few toys for the movie. There’s even a toy that depicts one of her scenes from the movie but features Captain America instead of her.

The explosion on Twitter was so huge that Joss Whedon exited the platform. The arguments between fans became extreme on both sides, with death threats exchanged. Saturday Night Live, adding some humor to the controversy, made a skit mocking Marvel for their poor judgment regarding female superheroes.

While the battle around this particular movie may have died down a bit, the war is still ongoing. Marvel is showing no signs of changing their ways, and many of their fans are still unhappy.

What Storytellers Can Learn From This

Joss Whedon may have written Black Widow’s arc with a desire to focus on a women’s issue that is usually neglected in popular stories. But doing this in a work with so few female characters means singling out that one woman further. Female fans want to see a female superhero saving the world just like her male counterparts, not fretting over pregnancy. Those kinds of stories are best left to women writers or directors. Even so, if the Avengers were half women, this storyline would have been much better received, because other female characters would be present to show that not all women are obsessed with family and babies.

As for Marvel and its parent company, Disney, their motivation appears to be a desire to gender segregate all of their products. As far as Disney is concerned, they’ve got women covered with their princess products, and they want Marvel to focus on male viewers. Marketers are notoriously risk adverse, and this divide-and-conquer strategy has worked in the past. But Disney will have to change their tune, because this kind of heavy gendering is falling behind modern values. They’ve already learned that girls don’t want to watch damsels waiting for a love interest anymore. Sooner or later, they’ll find that people respond better when their products are not segregated by gender.

None of these incidents are unique; flare-ups over the same issues happen continuously. Yet too often, large production companies only think of the risk involved in more diverse stories. The assumption is that if they push boundaries, their audience will react badly. This can be true, but it ignores both the fans that will react positively and the fans who are tired of outdated and harmful depictions. People admire stories that do the right thing.

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  1. Disgruntled

    I’d say the social justice twitter harassment campaign against Josh Whedon was another Social Justice fail that will likely lead to Black Widow getting pushed more into the background. If Josh was a woman and the harassers were men there would be a ton of articles about misogyny dominating twitter or some such nonsense

    It’s hard not for Disney or whoever is involved with future avenger films to look at that and go “whelp we gave Black Widow a scene expanding her character and this happened, we’re not touching that again”.

    Otherwise a pretty good article

    • Cay Reet

      Wrong. He took one of the few female characters who are not about caring and staying in the background (Black Widow is an agent and obviously was also trained as an assassin at some point) and tried to forcefully make her more feminine by giving her a wish for a family. That is the good old prejudice ‘all women want to be mothers and will give up whatever they had before just to become one.’ And by having her call herself a ‘monster’ for being barren, he also played on the idea that having children is actually a woman’s role in life and not being able to take on that role makes her something bad that needs to be removed (as a monster usually is slain, isn’t it?)

      Also short correction for something I spotted while reading this good article: it’s Xena, not Zena.

      • Chris Winkle

        Whoops! Can’t believe none of us caught that. Thanks, it’s been corrected now.

      • SunlessNick

        And you could have more or less the same scene with Nat describing her assassin training in the Red Room, and how many people she’s killed, and how she was still in control of herself when she killed them.

        • Cay Reet

          And in this context, describing herself as having been a monster then would have made perfect sense, too.

  2. Sam Beringer

    Similar to 3, another Social Justice Fail would be the death of Abbie Mills from Sleepy Hollow. When that happened the fanbase exploded and I have yet to find someone who was okay with Abbie’s death (though most of the people I’ve found who were critical were black and it’s completely reasonable that they’d be outraged). While the actress was planning to leave the show after season 3 (though that was because she was fed up with getting very poor treatment from the writers and constantly getting shafted in the show she starred in), as you said there were other ways her departure could’ve been handled. But the writers apparently thought that the fans were watching for Ichabod and not him and Abbie (even though they got a crap ton of hints like people protesting Abbie’s treatment in the show with #AbbieMillsDeservesBetter).

    So yeah. With one move, the writers turned a fanbase from fighting for the show’s survival for calling for its cancellation.

    • SunlessNick

      Hell yes. And Abbie was more unique than Ichabid. It might not seem that way, man out of time and all, but white men displaced from their native time somehow are more common protagonists in the genre than black women anything. Abbie was what the show had going for it, and her relationship with Ichabod was not one that could be replaced with an interchangeable sidekick.

      (It doesn’t help that we also lost a very good sister relationship at the same time).

    • Cay Reet

      I haven’t seen the third season so far, but I really liked Abbie. She was an interesting character. I like Ichabod, but that whole ‘man out of time’ scenario has been done oodles of times before.

      Having her next to him, fighting with the disbelief (especially at the beginning), fighting with the supernatural threats she wasn’t really born to deal with, seeing her relationship with her sister, all that made her a very interesting character. I thought she had a great potential. Unfortunately, she did get the usual ‘female lead we keep for the will they-won’t they element’ treatment and was often portrayed as if only her connection to Ichabod mattered.

  3. JackbeThimble

    While I fully understand and share people’s problem with the Jaime/Cersei scene I’ve never understood why the Social Justice crowd is so outraged over Sansa’s rape scene. For one thing the claims that it disempowers Sansa and that the rape is about motivating Theon rather than her seem to be the diametric opposite of what actually happens. Sansa until that point had been an almost entirely passive character. She had never shown any particular wisdom or power on the show, in fact her growing cynicism had led her to make pretty clearly unwise decisions, like rejecting Brienne’s help. Sansa’s development into a wise and powerful character starts when she realizes that there is no one who will help her and that she needs to protect herself, which is a result of her being given to the Boltons. As for the rape being about motivating Theon this talking point seems to ignore the fact that the rape DIDN’T motivate Theon: Even after being forced to watch and after her begging him for help he still betrays her. It isn’t until she attempts escape herself and almost succeeds on her own, which is itself a result of her finally coming to the realization that she cannot rely on someone else (in this case Brienne) and that she must save herself, that he finds the will to turn against the Boltons, but that is much later. As for changing the rape victim from a minor character into a character we know well, it seems that in addition to tidying up the narrative mess that is Dance with Dragons this is actually better from a social justice perspective. In the books the rape scene actually was entirely about theon because Jeyne Poole was a character that we hardly knew or cared about and the only POV character who observed it was Theon/Reek. By changing the victim from what is essentially a disposable female who provides another dog for Ramsay to kick into a character that the audience is actually invested in it makes the event more about the effect on the victim. The Game of thrones book series has dozens of rapes (mostly off-screen) but the others have almost all been played as kick the dog scenes for various villains or drive in the War Is Hell message for various villains. This is actually the first case in which the effect on the victim is played up.

    • Cip

      I’m late to this but just wanted to say I fully agree, but also wanted to add:
      What else did the audience expect to happen to her? There was no way they could marry her to Ramsey and then…what? Assume this vicious animal we’ve seen brutalising so many others suddenly becomes chaste around his wife? It was a realistic thing to happen given the marriage plotline.

      • Cay Reet

        Not exchanging her for the side character in the first place?

        • Cip

          True, but the show is so full of characters anyone there would be no point in setting up a main bad guy with some side girl no ones heard about or cares about. At least with Sansa being there the plot is simpler and ties up nicely. And the audience has an emotional connection to her.

          • Cay Reet

            But they used one main character to drive another main character’s arch, thereby destroying the first character’s arch. Had they left the minor character in – or just taken the scene away completely and given him another motivation – they would have done better.

    • Andi

      I totally agree here. The Jaime and Cersei scene clearly showed she did not consent so I don’t really understand how the writers didn’t see that as rape, but as far as Sansa and Ramsey goes, I don’t think her being a victim of rape diminishes her character at all. I think she absolutely uses it to empower herself to action.

    • Cannoli

      The problem was that Sansa had belatedly started acting with agency at the end of the previous season, in putting her own spin on Littlefinger’s plot to gain an advantage over him. This might have even been seen as an improvement on the books, where at that point in the story, Littlefinger was still grooming her sexually and keeping her under his control. They radically changed the direction of her story and broke the plot to get her in that position. Sansa even asks why marry her to the Boltons and Littlefinger can’t even come up with an answer. The marriage gets Sansa & the Stark cause nothing, and it empowers the family that murdered her brother & mother. Littlefinger’s best piece in the game is left in a castle that’s about to be attacked by Stannis. Then they had him go all the way back to court to answer ONE QUESTION from Cersei, just so Sansa can be alone. Sansa in the books didn’t need to be raped to learn not to trust people, and she didn’t spend most of four seasons being passive. She had limited agency, because she was a prisoner and a juvenile female, but she made choices, she acted when and where she could. More than once, she actually mitigated Joffrey’s abuse of others, and spoke up for doing the right thing whenever she could. When she married Tyrion she refused to kneel to make it clear she was not submitting to this stuff, but on the show it was all about how mean Joffrey was to Tyrion and how bad Tyrion felt and how it wasn’t fair to saddle him with a sexless marriage. In the books, the whole thing was seen from Sansa’s point of view, and throughout their marriage, she is adamant in her refusal to be gaslighted by Tyrion’s kindness, and she adheres to the perception that she is still a prisoner and being held at court and in her marriage against her will, that she will never be a Lannister, no matter how they try to make her one.

      The show got rid of all that, in favor of making Tyrion look nice. And once she was finally away from the writers’ favorite character, and started growing and learning and showing agency, they ditched all that to make her passive again and a victim. So they could highlight how dangerous and evil Ramsey was.

  4. Cay Reet

    Another thing which annoys me about the almost inflational use of rape in recent years is that it goes hand in hand with more and more female victims in thrillers or crime stories. I see it in German television, too. We have long-running crime series (twenty, thirty, or even more years of running continuously) and recently the number of female victims has gone up – as has the number of victims who were sexually violated before they were killed. That doesn’t mean there weren’t any dead women on screen before, but in the past they usually were shot, stabbled, poisoned, or strangled just like their male counterparts.
    These days, the violence against women is often even more brutal than that against men (brutality has gone up as a whole, too, but that is another topic). Yes, crime can be brutal, murder certainly is usually very brutal. But when you have a series supposed to depict a crime which could theoretically be happening and basically every female victim is first raped and then gruesomely murdered, things start to go awry.

    I often suspect the main use for rape in TV series is not to claim ‘it’s horrible’ or to show how bad it is for the victim. It’s to draw more viewers by a) showing sexual content, even though the content is non-consentual and b) relying on the outrage to promote the show. Using a crime like rape for that, however, does the victims a huge disservice and often plays into the stereotypes about rape victims who ‘brought this upon themselves’ by not acting the right way. Also arguing that despite looking differently it was consentual means people might in real life see a woman be sexually harrassed but also think ‘it might be consentual’ and not step in.
    I have to admit, however, that Game of Thrones certainly doesn’t need point a) to show sexual content.

    • SunlessNick

      Something I once said about Orphan Black, comparing it to Game of Thrones and Law and Order SVU:

      “While the clones aren’t raped, exactly, they are subjected to almost every other sort of bodily violation. But these violations aren’t there just to foster a general sense of brutality – though they do. They aren’t there to tell us that the perpetrators are bad – though they do that too. Instead, it’s all about the clones themselves: how they react and how they resist, why they resist or why they don’t, what it means to them and where they draw the strength to keep going.”

      For another example, about which I could say something similar, Jessica Jones. Rape is only an interesting plot element inasmuch as it shows us things about the *victims*.

      I can’t recall who it was who cointed the phrase “rape as wallpaper” for Game of Thrones, but the phrase itself has stayed in my mind ever since.

      • Cay Reet

        Yes, using rape as a means to say something about the victim, about the way they deal with it and about the way they overcome it – or fail to – is a possible reason to use it. A show which does that is doing it right, I’d say.

  5. SunlessNick

    The behind-the-scenes details have only made this insult worse. Jeri Ryan blacked out several times on the set because her costumes cut off blood or air flow.

    What? Holy crap. And it happening once wasn’t enough that they’d do something about it?

    • Cay Reet

      Obviously not. They could easily have designed something less problematic for her to wear which was still skin-tight … if they wanted to keep that look. Besides, most Star Trek uniforms for women are pretty tight anyway, so that catsuit technically was neither necessary no logical. Why would a former Borg wear something like that instead of something more useful in life and battle?

    • Chris Winkle

      Apparently not, although I don’t know the full details of the situation, just that these problems happened, and that the silver outfit was eventually retired because of them. The brown, blue, and purple outfits were slightly looser to avoid issues related to breathing and movement.

    • Dvärghundspossen

      If I remember correctly, it was vaguely implied when the Doctor first showed her in her suit that he had to make this skintight weird thing to keep her body together after most of the cyborg parts had been removed. That was a flimsy-as-hell justification, and as I said, super vague, but there was still SOME kind of in-universe explanation for the fan service.
      Later, however, they completely throw that out of the window by showing that she can dress any way she likes, but she inexplicably opts for the catsuit rather than a normal uniform.

      I loved Voyager overall (yeah it has huge flaws but I got really attached to the characters, I loved that they had a cool female captain who wasn’t traditionally hot, and it was my intro to the world of Star Trek) and I mostly loved Seven as a character (although I whish they’d let her keep more of her peculiarities, instead of going so hard for making her “normal” in the end), but that was hella stupid.

  6. Skull Bearer

    A quick point on fic writers being ‘mostly straight’. Survey after survey of most ficcing sites show that more writers are gay or bisexual than straight. It’s a misleading false stereotype that erases the majority of the writers in our community.

    These are the results of an Ao3 survey, if you want to investigate further:

  7. Bess Marvin

    It’s more of a trope than a big social justice fail but there’s often times when heroic characters get evil doppelgangers of themselves or some magic briefly turns the hero dark. With these situations, the evil self is depicted as more promiscuous or sexually overt in dialogue and their outfits. These character interpretations may be going for “lack of inhibition” or “don’t give a f*ck for social niceties anymore” but it often comes off as if the authors are saying “having adventurous sexual agency is a mark of evil” instead – especially with female characters.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes … and that is especially annoying, because it carries the underlying message that being sexually active or just (gasp) interested in sex is bad, if you’re a woman. Making the promiscuous woman evil is an old trope, going back right to mythology.

    • SunlessNick

      Not just more promiscuous, but often also (again, especially in female characters) sudden bisexual leanings.

  8. Bess Marvin

    I haven’t seen a lot of outrage over it, but there’s an issue in Once Upon a Time’s second half of season four that I will never get over.

    The first half of the season puts one of the main couples’ relationships in trouble. Regina has finally found happiness in her love with Robin Hood and he’s moving on from the death of Maid Marion. Surprise! Time travel and Marion’s back in the picture. Regina pushes Robin away so he can be a good husband, but Robin isn’t in love with Marion anymore since he thought she was dead all these years. Dire circumstances occur when Marion is put under a curse that can only be broken with true love’s kiss – which Robin can’t bestow anymore. We’re supposed to care about Marion’s life in the balance and how that half of the season concludes with Robin finally willing to try and be happy with Marion while Regina copes without Robin.

    Second half of the season gets underway and whoops it turns out that Marion’s been dead all along after all! It was just the Wicked Witch of the West, Zelena, wearing a magic glamour of Maid Marion so she could break up Regina and Robin to ruin Regina’s happiness! When this is revealed to Robin, Regina expects him to run away with her, but he’s resigned to be with Zelena because he got her pregnant. Whoa! This lady impersonated your dead wife to trick you into sex – RAPE – and the writers think you’re obligated to stay with her because she got pregnant from raping you?! Oh did I mention that Robin and the real Marion had a son together who never questions why his dead mom came back to life only to disappear again? I know he’s 3 years old, but come on!

    They have Zelena under arrest for murder for most of the season but when she gets free again her actions lead to the death of Robin as well. But because it was an unintentional death, she’s allowed to go free to raise her new baby – nevermind it hasn’t even been years of serving her first sentence. PLUS she gets to raise Robin’s first kid! I am not okay with Zelena getting to have daily contact with the child whose parents she straight up murdered! Whose father she raped! She’s just allowed to roam free in town among the other characters and live her life with Robin’s kids! Like what the actual fuck, Once Upon a Time?!

    (I guess similarly in season one, Regina was mind-controlling Graham and when he refused to continue their sexual relationship because he was breaking her influence over his cursed mind, she murdered him. This seems less severe to me because it’s not canonically shown that Regina’s mind-control extended to coercing Graham into sex, just that as sheriff and mayor they were an influential duo with side benefits. But yeah… this show likes to have the witchy women get away with rape and murder.)

    • Cay Reet

      Magic is a reasonable explanation for why a woman can force herself on a man … and witches are supposed to be both promiscuous and evil.

      Given how many men leave a pregant woman behind for less understandable reasons, there is really no point why Robin should stay in this case. He can care for his child, but he doesn’t have to be with the mother.

    • Phoebe Wickliffe

      Graham was absolutely raped by Regina. He was under mind control and he had no agency. That’s really clear in the story when he starts becoming interested in Emma. It put me off the show knowing what Regina did to Graham and that there were no consequences for her. Men are raped by women and it’s always treated as a joke or a phenomenon. It’s neither. It’s as horrific and damaging as every other rape and it’s never excusable.

  9. Dave L

    No mention of Ghost in the Shell or Lucy, both starring Scarlett Johansson?

  10. Tumblingxelian/Vazak

    Fantastic article, kudos.

  11. Janet

    Interesting you say that Troi and T’Pol weren’t particularly popular yet their romances with Riker and Trip have a lot of shippers. One needs to like both characters in order to ship them. The more precise word is controversial. Troi and T’Pol do have a lot of fans but T’Pol still gets a lot of backlash for being “unlikable.”

    • Cay Reet

      They need to be liked, but don’t have to be very popular.

      The comparison in the article is between the ‘sexy women in tight clothes’ and the ’emotionless being’ tropes. Seven of Nine fits into both tropes, so the writers assumed her popularity was based on her tight clothes, not on her alieness, which was wrong. They could have put her into a more regular uniform, which would have been a relief for the actress.

      However, Troi is older than Seven (TNG was before Voyager), so she was not modelled on Seven, rather the other way around. Troi was liked, but she was not as popular as the overwhelmingly male core crew (to which her love interest Riker belonged). One could also suspect that her very sensuous and sexually active mother might have something to do with the shippers liking the Troi/Riker pairing. And the fact that the TNG core crew wasn’t that full of women.

      Between this post and another, however, I think you’re mostly here to protect T’Pol, because you like the character and don’t see why others don’t.

      • Janet

        I was defending T’Pol in Oren’s article but I was just pointing out what other people were thinking when I brought up shippers. We fundamentally disagree on what “particularly popular” means. Until Chris herself explains, we’ll be going in circles with this.

        I can think of 2 reasons some people don’t like T’Pol. The first is that she’s weak (which is related to her being emotional). Much of it stems from the drug addiction subplot. I thought it was badly written because to “explore emotions” is a lame reason to use (not to mention she can already feel Trip’s emotions through neuropressure). The bomb drop approach to explain this was the worst. How much to separate a character’s flaws/mistakes from writing is an age-old question that no one will agree on. The second reason is unconscious sexism. Women in positions of authority are perceived as less likable by both genders. Then add being Vulcan which involves not showing emotion (warmth) as women are expected to do. So there are some situations where some people see her as a bitch but wouldn’t give Spock as much grief if he did the same thing.

        • Cay Reet

          Personally, I’d rather see it as bad writing to write a member of a very logical and stoic race (as Vulcans are) and make her highly emotional and then put her in a position of power. It would have made perfectly logical sense to put a Vulcan into the position T’Pol has (as humans are still new to that whole ‘spacetravel’ thing and someone needs to babysit them). And as Vulcans generally rely more on logic than on feelings, that would have made her a good leader, too. I would rather have seen not being good with the emotional part of being a leader (not giving emotional support easily, because it’s pretty alien to her) as a better flaw to explore. It might have made her more similar to Spock (who will, for all Star Trek writers, always be something of a blueprint for his race), but it could have had a lot of interesting consequences.

          I wonder, though, if they’ve ever explained whether or not Vulcan women also go through Pon Farr. It doesn’t really make sense to me, because then all couples would have to be either the same age or 7 years (or multiples of 7) apart. Not having that for women would, of course, give T’Pol more chances to find a relationship outside her own race. I do not hate T’Pol, I just don’t agree with your arguments.

  12. Janet

    There was a forum discussion about why she was chosen for Enterprise. The Broken Bow novel’s said that she was a guinea pig for being bombarded with human emotions (which I don’t agree with). Some have said that if T’Pol wasn’t drawn to emotion, she would not have stayed on a human ship but I can’t find that discussion.

    But was she really that good at emotional support? She struggled socially around humans and I doubt she was much better around Vulcans. Since I always struggled with the same thing, she’s the ENT character I related to the most (yes, I’m biased). Like her I’m very introverted and I have a hard time opening up. I see her as a functional disabled (if you can call being emotional that) person with imposter syndrome. By functional, I mean being good at school and holding down a job. In my headcanon, being emotional made her a target for bullies in school. So the message she got from her peers and mom was that she couldn’t be herself. Without dad as a confidant, it’s no wonder she was less secure than Spock. It seems like Vulcans of the ENT era were in our equivalent of the 50’s which emphasized conformity so shame would play a bigger role in society. Studies show that body shaming actually makes fat people gain more weight (they eat for comfort) and puts them in a vicious cycle. I can easily see T’Pol falling into the same cycle when it comes to her emotions. Also, why would Vulcans study psychiatry or psychology if no one needed emotional support?

    Spock was the Vulcan with the most screentime so I can see why many people think of him as a blueprint. I haven’t read the novels but I’m not sure if he should be since he was trying to be more Vulcan than Vulcan. I read an interview where Brannon Braga said he was using other Vulcans in TOS as his blueprint for ENT. People seem to forget that T’Pau and Sarek were racist and T’Pring was as devious as the High Command. That’s why I don’t see any canon issues with ENT Vulcans. I don’t know what Pon Farr has to do with the topic but I don’t see how women having it would making couples have to be the same age or 7 years apart. If anything, siblings would have less age gap if a man’s cycle isn’t the same. Plus having Pon Farr when you’re not around any Vulcans would make an interspecies relationship more likely (which happened in the Mirror Universe episodes).

    • SunlessNick

      I haven’t read the novels but I’m not sure if he should be since he was trying to be more Vulcan than Vulcan.

      You see that with Tuvok from Voyager, when he’s written well (and from Tim Russ’s acting). He’s as controlled as Spock, but far more ok with the emotions he does have, and those of the people around him.

      Another defence of Enterprise’s Vulcans is that we see in the fourth season that Vulcan undergoes something of a cultural shift.

    • Cay Reet

      The Pon Farr is the mating time on Vulcan and every male (as we know) goes through it every seven years, which makes this the only time he feels the need to engage in sex. Well, ‘feels the need’ is a little weak, goes mad without either mating or dying in a fight for a mating partner is more like it. Married Vulcans have no reason to challenge anyone, so they can just do it and be done with it afterwards. They might, of course, have sex in between, but the question is if they would. They don’t really feel a need or an urge.
      Therefore, if the women have it, too, the cycles would have to be on the same time frame or one of them would want to mate and the other one would not. And siblings would always be seven or more years apart, because bonded (married) Vulcans would not engage in sex with another partner and had no need for sex with their bond mate between Pon Farr cycles.
      Vulcans apparently were very violent before they found a peaceful way in Surak’s philosophy of eschewing their emotions, but even he accepted that at certain times, emotional outbursts might occur. To understand their original character, you might want to look to the Romulans who have the same roots.

      I’m not sure whether a man who actually married a woman from another species and went through a lot to have a child with her should be called racist, even though T’Pau definitely has something against non-Vulcans, at least in the TV episode. T’Pring was being logical about not being logical: by choosing Kirk as her ‘champion’ against her promised mate Spock, she protected the man she really wanted to be with. No matter who won the battle, she’d be safe. A human wouldn’t want her (she obviously wasn’t around Kirk before) and Spock would most likely not really try to kill his superior, even in his mating madness.

      To understand her situation, you should keep in mind that she and Spock were spoken for as children – it was an arranged marriage. They felt nothing for each other and he didn’t even get anything through their bond, according to his own words in “The Vulcan Academy Murders.” She never accepted him as a partner.

  13. Janet

    Sarek is a complicated dude. He was in love with a human woman but the human side of Spock is what caused them to clash.

    On Wikipedia, you can see DC Fontana’s take on pon farr.

    “Vulcans mate normally any time they want to. However, every seven years you do the ritual, the ceremony, the whole thing. The biological urge. You must, but any other time is any other emotion—humanoid emotion—when you’re in love. When you want to, you know when the urge is there, you do it. This every-seven-years business was taken too literally by too many people who don’t stop and understand. We didn’t mean it only every seven years. I mean, every seven years would be a little bad, and it would not explain the Vulcans of many different ages which are not seven years apart.”

    • Cay Reet

      Thanks for the Pon Farr explanation. Of course, nothing is stopping a Vulcan from having sex between two rituals, but I thought it was a bit more unlikely. The different ages could, of course, still be a remainder of the time before Surak, before the Vulcans ‘tamed’ their emotions.

      If you want to have a closer look at Sarek’s relationship with his son (or at his thoughts about Spock), I’d suggest giving the ‘Vulcan Academy Murders’ a try one of these days (I know it’s out as an ebook by now, because that’s how I rebought it a little while ago). There are quite some scenes which give a voice to Sarek’s thoughts and he seems to be rather fond of both his wife and his son. Amanda knows, of course, since she has a mental bond with him.

      • Cay Reet

        A little update for actual reasons: With the start of ST: Discovery we might soon get a good look at ‘learned behaviour’ vs. ‘behaviour born with’ when it comes to Vulcans. The main character is, after all a human who grew up on Vulcan.

  14. Kobayashi

    >I have yet to hear someone argue that sexual assault should never appear in stories. However, adding a rape scene creates a terrible experience for real-life survivors and makes the act of rape feel more normal to us as a society – even if our stories clearly send the message that’s it’s bad.* In nearly all stories, a rape scene can be swapped with a different conflict to preserve the plot.

    Okay, i don’t understand what you’re trying to say here. Are you saying that rape should never appear in stories? Are you saying that depicting assault, depicting bullying, depicting racism, depicting anything bad in media doesn’t create a terrible experience for real-life survivors, but depicting rape is? Or are you implying that being murdered, abused, discriminated is better than being raped? Rape exists just as everything else, stories shouldn’t glorify or excuse rape but they shouldn’t pretend that rape doesn’t exist.

    • Cay Reet

      I do agree with you on the whole, but there’s one thing about rape as a story device which sets it apart from bullying, racism, murder, or assault. It’s used a lot to motivate either female characters (because, apparently, you can’t become a STRONG WOMAN without having been sexually assaulted or raped at least once) or it’s used to motivate male characters via a female character who gets raped. There is a lot more rape going on in stories as a motivational force than other bad things which might happen to someone. If we had the same amount of female characters motivated by murder, assault, bullying, or racism, things would look differently.

      For TV shows, another thing which seems to come in is that it’s an excuse for sex and violence in the same scene, which draws a lot of interest, even if a lot of it is outrage. So for a while, it would be nice, if the writers didn’t use rape in those cases, but some of the other bad experiences you’ve listed.

      • Kobayashi

        I agree with you here, just felt that the article said “rape shouldn’t be depicted”.
        Two movies instantly came to mind that illustrate both your points:
        “Death Wish” and “The Brave One”(SPOILERS!!!)

        “Death Wish” is just an egregious example of this. In the beginning, a group of thugs breaks into main character’s apartment, rape his daughter and kill his wife. He responds by becoming a vigilante and killing a lot of criminals but never gets his revenge. In the sequel he tries to live a normal life in another city and guess what happens: His daughter is raped AGAIN and commits suicide. He goes on another killing spree.

        In “The Brave One”, which is pretty similar to “Death Wish” in some aspects, main character and her boyfriend are assaulted while they’re walking in the park. She isn’t raped, just viciously beaten and her boyfriend dies from his injuries. This causes her to become a vigilante.

        • Cay Reet

          Late, I know, but “John Wick” shows that killing the main character’s dog can be just as effective in making them go for revenge.

  15. Cannoli

    I think people take some stuff wrong with Black Widow. Her line about being sterilized was not intended to be a comparison with Bruce’s Hulk issue, just a counter to his concerns about having children and passing on his thing. The parallel is that she was made into a killer, a dangerous person who killed without thinking, just like Hulk, that she understands his issue as well as any non-irradiated person could, and the infertility is a further parallel, in that both have that choice effectively taken from them.

    Bruce basically just said “We can’t have a normal relationship, because what if I got you pregnant?” (you might not actually be able to abort a Hulk fetus, for one thing) and Natasha was arguing in favor of a relationship by pointing out that it was not an issue. SHE WAS QUASHING HIS MANSPLAINING. She was telling him “Don’t assume you’re a bad partner for me. Don’t assume you know everything about me.”

    Natasha in Avengers 2 is a total refutation of all of Bruce’s whining and brooding. Her close relationship with Clint’s family shows that a traumatized and brainwashed person can forming loving connections. Her heroism shows that she, at least, can control the monster and that she is more than what was done to her. And since Bruce is reintegrated back into the MCU when Thor finds him, it kind of proves that he was just being whiny.

    The only problematic issue with her in that movie was her being kidnapped, but to be fair, it was her or Hawkeye, since just about anyone else would not have to stay with Ultron, and Clint’s thing was bonding with the creepy twins.

  16. V

    Good article.
    Some of the “what writers can learn from this” helped me with a few things. I may have only found this site recently but you, and the other writers like Oren Ashkenazi, have already been immensely helpful from the years of articles here that I’ve been binging the last few days.
    Thank you.

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