With the first season over, let’s take a look at the worst tropes pushed in this mess of a show. Such blatant sexism has no place in modern storytelling, but at least The Orville can serve as a cautionary tale for what we shouldn’t be doing.
Spoilers: The first season of The Orville
Content Warning: Misogyny and sexual assault
1. Mediocre Men Are Better Than Talented Women
In the first episode, we find out that protagonist Ed Mercer’s career is on the rocks. Since his divorce, he’s done bad work, been insubordinate, and shown up to work drunk several times. Despite his record, the Planetary Union is so desperate for captains that they’re willing to give him a chance at command, so he’s promoted to captain and put on the titular USS Orville. He proceeds to do a mediocre job at best, bumbling about like someone with no experience of leadership. He’s barely on the ship for five minutes before he starts badgering his officers with inappropriate questions, and his command decisions can be mostly summed up by bewilderment at whatever is happening.
Meanwhile, we also meet Mercer’s XO and ex-wife, Commander Grayson. She is everything he isn’t: professional, commanding, and cool under fire. They were even the same rank before Mercer was promoted and given the Orville. So why wasn’t Grayson put in command? Even if she doesn’t have a lot of experience, her name should still be ahead of an officer with a history of being intoxicated at work.
Grayson isn’t the only officer on the ship better qualified than Mercer. That honor extends to Security Chief Kitan, Second Officer Bortus, and even the ship’s doctor. All of them display greater competence than Mercer and more ability to get other people to do what they say. But none of them are white men.
Believe it or not, the show does offer an explanation, but it doesn’t make any sense. At the end of the first episode, it’s revealed that Mercer was put in command because Grayson lobbied for him. She felt guilty about the circumstances of their divorce and thought he deserved another chance. Grayson’s superior should have refused outright. When someone shows they can’t handle responsibility, you don’t give them a second chance by putting them in a position of even greater responsibility, especially not in a military organization. That’s not a second chance; that’s failing up.
In real life, women are often passed over for professional opportunities, despite equal or superior qualifications. The same is true for people of color and queer folk. This sort of discrimination contributes to wage gaps and pushes people out of their chosen profession. It also harms society as a whole by holding back talented people from making the most of their skills. One hopes that by the time we send explorers out to the stars, they’ll be lead by people who know what they’re doing.
2. Strong Women Are Scary
Chief Kitan is one of the show’s more interesting characters. Her species is much stronger than humans, and she’s been promoted to head of security despite her inexperience. She has difficulty with confidence, and she often wonders if she really deserves her position.
Unfortunately, another aspect of her character is how difficult it is for her to get a boyfriend because of her strength. This gets brought up several times in the first season, to the amusement of her fellow officers. The joke is that guys are intimidated by her – cue laughter.
Quick: raise your hand if you’ve ever seen this trope applied to a man. If you can’t remember the Next Generation episode where Worf couldn’t get a date because of his enormous muscles, that’s because this joke is actually a form of gender policing. Men are expected to be physically strong, but that same trait is scary in women.
A common defense of this trope is to claim that it’s realistic, and that’s technically true. Plenty of sexist men do indeed find women scary, physically strong or otherwise. The problem is that The Orville treats this as something Kitan will just have to deal with until she can find that one-in-a-million guy. Not only is this insulting to men – plenty of us would love a partner who can bend steel bars – but it also implies that this is somehow a flaw that Kitan will have to overcome.
Tropes and jokes that depend on rigid definitions of gender are harmful because they prescribe what people are allowed to be. This is the same thinking that leads to female athletes being insulted because they’re “too muscular.” If we’re lucky, The Orville will forget about this storyline in season two. Otherwise, we can look forward to an episode were Kitan has to prove how feminine she is to get a guy.
3. Harassment Is Funny
Dr. Finn, the ship’s chief medical officer, is easily the show’s best character. A lot of that comes from Penny Johnson Jerald’s acting, but the character is also well written. She’s competent in a story where competence is in short supply, she’s supportive of her crew mates, and she doesn’t take guff from anyone. She even has a story about being a badass mom. What’s not to like?
Unfortunately, many of Finn’s scenes are ruined by a slime ball named Yaphit. That’s not a joke; he’s actually a ball of slime. I’m sure the writers thought that was funny. You see, Yaphit is into Finn, which is fine. But he continues to make overtures long after she’s told him she’s not interested, which is not fine.
This is a classic example of the persistent suitor trope, the idea that it’s romantic for a man to keep propositioning a woman even after she’s said no. Supposedly this demonstrates how devoted he is to her. It’s creepy at the best of times, but The Orville takes it one step further. Yaphit goes beyond not taking a hint. His advances are so blatantly sexual, they wouldn’t be appropriate in the workplace even if Finn accepted them.
This is obviously sexual harassment. You don’t need a degree in feminist theory to understand why saying “I wanna have sex with you” to someone over and over again isn’t okay. And yet, these scenes are played for laughs. It’s funny how Yaphit won’t take no for an answer, interrupting Finn while she works, and possibly making her feel unsafe. We’re even supposed to feel a little sorry for Yaphit, because Finn keeps turning him down.
To add some extra ugliness to this storyline, Finn does eventually have sex with Yaphit, but only under the influence of alien sex pheromones. Yaphit didn’t know Finn was dosed, but it’s still incredibly gross to write a story about a woman being forced into sex with a man* she’s repeatedly turned down. The only light at the end of this awful tunnel is that Yaphit at least seems to back off after Finn threatens to report him, so maybe they’ve dropped this misogynistic excuse for a storyline.
4. Cheating Justifies Abuse
In The Orville’s backstory, Captain Mercer and Commander Grayson used to be married. They split up when she cheated on him. Even though their relationship was already in trouble, Mercer was deeply hurt by Grayson violating his trust, as one might expect. Fast forward to the present, where they’re serving on the same ship, and all sympathy you might have for Mercer quickly dries up.
From the moment Grayson comes on board, Mercer and his friend Malloy do everything they can to make her life hell. First they talk about how awful she is to the rest of the bridge crew as her shuttle is docking. These are people she’ll have to work with, and now their relationship is sabotaged before she even arrives. From there, they needle her about the affair every chance they get. Grayson can’t get a word in without Mercer or his lackey berating her about the time she cheated.
Coming from a coworker, this would be mere harassment, but Mercer is Grayson’s superior officer, which pushes this over the edge into abuse. It’s reasonable for Mercer to be hurt by what Grayson did, and it’s reasonable for him to want someone else as his XO. But it’s not reasonable for him to use his position of power to exact revenge.
Worse, Grayson is written to believe she deserves this treatment. In private, she talks about how bad she feels and says that having an affair is the worst thing a person can do. That’s ridiculous. There are way worse things a person can do within the confines of a romantic relationship. Pretending that cheating is somehow worse than domestic violence plays directly into deeply misogynistic ideas about men owning women’s sexuality.
Grayson’s dialogue in these scenes is painful. It’s hard to imagine a real person excusing such blatant hostility. Instead, Grayson’s words are obviously contrived, crafted by writers who wanted a female character to excuse their male characters’ bad behavior.
5. It’s Okay to Do Nothing
When Mercer and Malloy aren’t teaming up to make Grayson’s life miserable, they have a different dynamic: the jerk and his disapproving friend. Malloy is constantly acting in ways unbecoming of an officer, with everything from rudeness to drinking on duty. On more than one occasion, his behavior crosses the line from simple rudeness into open sexism.
Mercer’s reaction to Malloy’s antics is to cringe and occasionally offer a weak rebuke but never actually do anything to prevent it. From a meta perspective, Malloy is a vehicle for the show’s Family Guy-style humor, and so the writers can’t have him restrained. This puts Mercer in a position of allowing bad behavior, even though he knows it’s wrong, because calling his friend out would be too awkward.
This attitude is a huge problem in real life. Too often, people in positions of privilege ignore their peers’ bad behavior because it’s the easy thing to do. They chuckle awkwardly at a coworker’s sexist joke or stare down at their plate when a relative talks about the evils of immigration. Such silence emboldens bad actors and puts all the burden of stopping them on underprivileged groups.
Mercer is a candied protagonist. Despite what we actually see on screen, the other characters constantly talk up what a good captain he is. The audience is supposed to like him and approve of his actions unless given a specific reason not to. When Mercer ignores Malloy’s bad behavior, the show endorses his choice, intentionally or otherwise.
Anyone who’s called out a peer in real life knows how hard it is. The last thing we need is a popular character like Mercer telling us that we don’t actually have to. The show tells us it’s no big deal when people like Malloy make others feel uncomfortable or unsafe; it’s all a harmless joke. The worst part is that Mercer is Malloy’s superior officer. It is literally Mercer’s job to keep his crew from acting inappropriately. He has a position of power that few people in real life will ever have, and he does nothing with it.
6. Rape Is Funny
Remember that bit about Finn having sex with her harasser because of some alien pheromones? It turns out that was part of a bigger plot, which I take as proof against a loving God. In the episode “Cupid’s Dagger,” an alien named Darulio comes on board to do some scientific work. Everything seems normal until both Mercer and Grayson start longing for sex with Darulio, despite both professing to dislike him. Even in a ship where dick jokes are the norm, the other officers realize something is wrong with this picture.
After some investigating, Kitan discovers that once a year, Darulio’s species goes into heat. At this time, they emit pheromones so powerful that anyone who touches their skin wants to have sex with them for days. This gross violation of a person’s free will is played for laughs, because isn’t it hilarious when people are victimized?
If this sounds familiar, it’s because Deep Space Nine did a similar plot in the episode “Fascination.” That story wasn’t great, but at least the alien involved didn’t know what they were doing and agreed to treatment when it was discovered. Darulio is perfectly aware of his actions, and when he’s confronted about it, he just shrugs and says it’s no big deal.
Wow. So Darulio is unquestionably a rapist, using a mind-affecting substance to get sex out of people who’d otherwise say no. Naturally, when the Orville’s crew finds out about this, they throw him in the brig and bring him up on trial… Oh wait, no, they do nothing of the sort. Darulio faces no consequences whatsoever.
If that wasn’t enough, they actually use Darulio’s date rape pheromones to solve the episode’s other plot by dosing the leaders of two hostile alien fleets so they won’t fight. That results in a “humorous” scene where the leaders confess their love for each other, never mind how they’re going to feel in a few weeks when the pheromone wears off.
The episode ends with Darulio being congratulated as a hero, even by Mercer and Grayson. He says a few more pithy lines and then leaves, showered in praise. It’s sickening to watch. This is far worse than surprise kisses or persistent suitors; the episode unironically glorifies rape. I doubt that was the intent, but it’s what happened.
Even without the misogyny, The Orville’s first season isn’t great. But the blatant sexism pushes it over the line into nearly unwatchable territory. The only glimmer of hope is that at least some of these problems got less extreme as the season went forward. Mercer mostly stops making cracks about Grayson’s affair after the third episode, and Malloy gets significantly less screen time after the halfway point. Maybe the second season will grow out of these problems. However, the rape pheromone story was only three episodes from the season’s end. I wouldn’t get my hopes up.
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