The Problem with The Boys is the Girls

November 11, 2019

 

 

(This article, while primarily about Amazon's The Boys, does contain a major spoiler for the finale of HBO's Game of Thrones. This small section has been labelled.)

 

Satire has to be earned. You have to work for it. In the new Amazon Original series, The Boys, (adapted from the DC/Dynamite-published comics of the same name) the satire is heavy-handed and over-the-top. In fairness, it has to be. If it’s not spelled out onscreen, there will always be people who will assume the sincerity of the work. In this way, at least, The Boys is a successful satire of the superhero genre and American militarism. 

 

In the show, Vought Industries, is a megacorp that controls (and creates) superheroes, turning vigilante justice into a multi-million dollar business, packaging heroes into consumables. It’s all for sale and used to drive profits to shareholders via comic books, goodwill public service stunts, movies, TV shows, action figures, late-night talk show appearances, the works. Imagine if Chris Evans actually did run around in a star-spangled onesie, fought crime, and still had the publicity schedule Infinity War demanded. That’s the world we’re introduced to, and honestly, it works.

 

So that part is good. The work that The Boys does to convince us of a justice system that is both centered around individual narratives and a capitalist economy of resources, is an excellent critique of both the superhero genre and the state of our current justice system. The superheroes and Vought Industries are shown to be easily corruptible and inclined towards self-preservation at the expense of others’ lives and ideals. In a world where ratings are the only thing that matters to the corporation, no superhero on the Vought roster can be shown to be anything but just, ethical, and full of screen appeal. In the show this leads to cover-ups, public appearances at religious tent revivals, and a whole team of spin doctors, creating a narrative full of tension and distrust, where no one is a hero.

 

The social critiques inherent in fictional systems of vigilante justice are easy to follow. Idolizing heroes who have powers allow those heroes to act in a way that exploits people without power. The main superhero is named Homelander (played by Antony Starr), has Superman’s powers but none of his morals, and is walking around with the stars and stripes on his back as a cape; it’s a pretty obvious satire of Captain America, the American justice system, and the military in all of its forms. 

 

Unfortunately, the clear cut critique of society’s hero narratives (both fictional and actual) does not apply to women. 

 

I caught on early that women in The Boys were being treated differently than men. Within the first few episodes, women were killed off, sexed up, and sexually assaulted, simply for existing within the same sphere as men. I was willing to give this angle a pass for a while, as it looked like they were still being critical of the source material. There was a pretty clear punch at the male-gaze driven costume designs that women have lamented about for years when after rescuing a woman from a sexual assault, Starlight (Erin Moriarty), is given a ‘makeover’ by Vought, putting her into a skintight bathing suit, a far cry from the more modest costume she had designed for herself. 

 

As the episodes went on, however, it became more and more obvious that The Boys wasn’t doing enough to critique these imbalanced hierarchies. The absurdity and satire applied to men and the larger structures of power did not apply to women and their sexuality. Over and over again, women were shown to be valued within the narrative almost exclusively for their sex appeal, their relationships to men, and who they had sex with. Every time a woman entered the story or was given any significant agency within the narrative she was consistently assigned value based on how sexy she was, or who she was having sex with. There is no woman who is safe from a man’s desire, and it’s almost exclusively this desire that drives the men in the story. 

 

 

While it is hard, almost impossible, to define what is and what isn't satire, it’s easy to identify when the male gaze drives narratives around the satirical treatment of women and women’s issues. Often this version of satire is an exaggerated demonstration of a woman’s dangerous sexuality. These narratives can come out in a lot of ways. Some examples are plot points that center around birth control and family planning, consent and relationships, objectification, and using women in pain as growth points for men in the narrative. 

 

Dangerous sexuality is based on the implication that women are threatening to men when men feel emotionally compromised by women or entitled to them. The satire in The Boys often tries to engage with this absurdity, but falls well short of elevating the horrific nature of this reality. Simply adding in these elements does not constitute an effective critical look at the issues of sexual abuse or control, as The Boys usually stops well short of the ridiculous and settles for a passing moment of increased tension with no real payoff for the abuses suffered by women. 

 

The two prominent examples of an absurdly satirical dangerous sexuality in the show are when Popclaw, a retired ex-hero, seduces her landlord in exchange for rent. She proceeds to dress up in her old uniform, and while graphically getting head from her landlord, literally drives his head into the floor, flattening his skull. The second instance takes place at a superhero collateral damage support group, where a man recounts the time when he was having sex with a woman who could turn into ice, and as she climaxed, she froze his dick off. While both of these examples are absolutely ridiculous, both women are seen as a danger to men because of their sexuality. Instead of punching up at the patriarchal standards of these absurdist situations, The Boys instead enforces the dominant culture’s point of view that women and their sex drives are dangerous, and men should be afraid of women when they experience desire. The satire fails because we are not able to separate the exploitation of female desire from the commentary of men.

 

The larger problem here is that these moments are played for laughs while underscoring the prevailing notions that already exist within our current society. There is no critical look into the ways that men view women, and we only see examples of the idea that a women’s pleasure is dangerous. Works like The Handmaid’s Tale, Vox, and The Power all do a great job of showcasing women-driven satire of sexual assault and patriarchal control narratives that have fueled this trope of dangerous sexuality. These books underscore the problem of redistribution of power within traditional hierarchies and clearly show the reactions of previously powerful groups when authority is given to a formerly marginalized group. 

 

 

Knowing all this, and also (again) recognizing that defining satire is a difficult thing to do, the satirical failures of The Boys still shine through clearly when viewed through a feminist lens. Whenever a woman was sexualized or shown to enact agency in any kind of situation where her desire is at the forefront of her decision-making, The Boys treated her as a threat to men’s power, and almost immediately punished her within the narrative. This usually happened in specifically sexual or sexual-adjacent ways, as if to re-emphasize the lack of power women hold. Starlight and Maeve were the two women that were directly punished for their sexuality, rather than becoming outright victims of it. 

 

Starlight in particular was poorly rendered by the narrative, in which many traumatic events during her story were treated as standard plot points rather than truly absurdist satire. In order: she was sexually assaulted after revealing that she “used to have a crush on [The Deep],” she was spied on in the bathroom by Translucent, she was put into an objectifying outfit and turned into a caricature for the televangelist hero-worshipers, gaslit and lied to by Hughie after opening up to him, and finally, she was morally strong-armed into helping the Boys after they used her to get information on the rest of the Seven. It’s a lot to handle, and all of this is related to sexual objectification or another iteration of dangerous sexuality. 

 

Starlight only gets a few moments where she can react to these incidents of abuse. While some of her agency has girl-power elements, they pale in comparison to some of the absolute no-holds-barred power scenes from Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel. All of her moments of agency come out of situations where she has been abused or gaslit into a different reality. Starlight is constantly on the defensive, and she never really gets to make her own choices, instead, she is constantly working within the boundaries that others have set up for her. Even when she helps Hughie and attacks A-Train, Starlight is still working within a moral coda that she was basically tricked into agreeing with. This was just another situation where she was forced to choose the lesser of two evils. Although shown to be powerful and exceptionally strong, Starlight never quite reaches the sheer Big Dick Energy of Carol Danver’s “I don’t need to prove myself to you,” and we never quite reach a level of critique of the systems she’s working in, making Starlight another victim of The Boys’ misguided attempts at a Strong Female Character. 

 

With Maeve, there’s not as much to explain, as she wasn’t nearly the main character that Starlight was. However, it’s implied that she is a lesbian, or at least was in a long term lesbian relationship that ended when she entered the Seven. There’s a suggestion that Maeve’s previous intimate relationship with Homelander was produced, much like the rest of the Seven’s stories, as a PR campaign. The fact that The Boys closeted a lesbian and portrayed her as straight to the audience and the world is a clear sign that women’s sexuality is only beneficial when it serves men, and not when it serves women. This is written off as normal and justified, reflecting the tropes and real world examples where powerful, gay women attach themselves intimately to powerful men to make themselves seem safer, tamed, and less likely to be dangerous to other men. 

 

While they could have explored the repression of sexuality and what this says about queer people in the world of The Boys, there’s no critical analysis of this in the text. The Boys instead presents closeting as necessary in a world where the public would never accept a gay woman as a hero. They instead dig themselves in deeper, with Maeve’s personal justifications acting as a plot point rather than pursuing the satire they had clearly lined themselves up for. This story could have been another fantastic opportunity for critique, but it’s played so straight (literally) that the absurdity and terror of the situation never occurs. 

 

In addition to these narratives, both Maeve and Starlight were shown to be the only two members of The Seven with any moral compunctions or ethical compass. While Homelander, A-Train, and Translucent all objectively use their powers for personal gain and to fulfill their own desires, the two women on the team are the ones that question motives, attempt to change the work culture, and save innocent lives even at the risk of endangering their public image or the image of Vought. All of the burden of humanity lies on them, another dangerous trope wherein women are expected to be the moral compass for men, who are often portrayed as violent, trigger-happy, or impulsive.

 

 

While these two women were abused during the narrative, most of the time an exhibition of dangerous sexuality meant that women died, or were perceived to be dead, in order to cause emotional trauma to their romantic male partners in their lives. Both Popclaw and Madelyn were killed by their romantic partners after being strung along, gaslit, and lied to by A-Train and Homelander, respectively. Both were killed while in a romantic/semi-romantic embrace, a terrible trope that sees women time and time again betrayed by the people they trust, often while in a vulnerable or abused state. 

 

(Spoiler) Game of Thrones came under fire for showcasing a version of this trope when Jon killed Dany in the finale, kissing her just before murdering her. (Spoiler) I shouldn’t have to explain how this kind of abuse is not satirical, but is a pretty direct one-to-one comparison of real-world abuse and trauma. Women should not be portrayed as disposable to add to the emotional trauma of men. This is a sobering reminder of the ways that women are vulnerable in our society, and there’s nothing ridiculous or satirical about men killing women they are intimate partners with. Women entering into a romantic relationship with a man is one of the most dangerous things they can do, as over half of all convicted female homicides are perpetrated by current or former romantic partners

 

The only time The Boys attempts to showcase the sheer horror of the way that women exist in the real world is when Homelander kills Madelyn. Her death was particularly brutal, but she was shown throughout the series to use her sexuality to manipulate and control Homelander, creating a justification for her death in the minds of the audience. While Madelyn’s death is certainly absurd, (Homelander uses his heat vision to melt her face and brain) the gore does nothing to distract from the fact that she was already tied up, helpless, and going to die; Homelander just wanted to make sure that he was the one to do it. It’s not a good look for a show that has repeatedly prioritized the power men have over women, and the dangers that women evoke when they use their sexuality to seek their own pleasure or create their own agenda. The warning is clear: if a woman ever has emotional power over a man, expect her to die. 

 

The other aspect of this is women who die (or are perceived dead), only to serve the plot by adding to the emotional trauma of a man. One example of this is when Robin is killed by A-Train in front of Hughie, which prompts him to join up with the anti-supe vigilante group, the Boys. Robin evokes the typical fridged trope of comic narratives, and nothing is really done to make her more of a person, as she instead only exists in Hughie’s memory as a constant pain point and guilt machine. Frenchie watches the girl he loves, enigmatically named the Female, die by way of a brutal attack from Black Noir. While the Female does recover, it’s very clear that Frenchie was emotionally compromised because of his feelings for her, rather than the value she has as a human being. As the Female doesn’t speak at all during the show, she is the token female in the worst possible way, and never ceases to exist outside of her relationship to Frenchie. I wish I could get behind the satire of the token female in the group, but in this case she never actually does anything except act as a target. 

 

The third time this trope turns up is when Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) reveals that he believes Homelander raped and murdered his wife, which has fueled his life of vigilantism for the past several years. He doesn’t even have proof, just a gut feeling. In addition, we never learn anything about his wife, and like Robin, she only exists as a pressure point for Billy’s trauma. In every instance, women are used as motivators to drive men into an emotionally vulnerable state, and none of these three women are truly given agency, a voice, or even a storyline of their own. They exist, quite literally, only to further the storyline and development of men, and to exist in their heads as an idealized object of desire. 

 

There was really only one woman who was truly allowed to reclaim her narrative throughout the series. Starlight repeatedly tried to raise her voice, make her opinions heard, and use her narrative and physical power to establish her authority, agency, and agenda. While The Boys does allow for moments when Starlight exhibits strength of character and agency within the series, the overwhelming abuse that she suffers is never fully accounted for. I will admit, the sexual assault storyline for Starlight was relatively well handled, and the subplot between Starlight and The Deep remains one of the strongest arguments for a successful satire of the female experience in The Boys

 

 

 

It’s upsetting, however, that this exception proves the rule. Women are undermined, killed, abused, and almost exclusively used for men’s pleasure or character development throughout the entire show. Although every character had their ups and downs with agency (as any good story will showcase), women in particular suffered a lack of agency at the hands of men, often in direct contact with their intimate partner. It was rarely reversed, and even when The Deep performed his apology video and subsequent exile to Ohio, instead of allowing him to fade into obscurity, we’re forced to watch his own abuse by way of an intimate partner, bringing us back to the dangerous sexuality exhibited by any woman who appears in The Boys. The cycle of intimate abuse, a lack of critical thinking, and the positioning of power dynamics consistently shows women in a bad light, and always reinforces the patriarchal nature of the world without holding it up to critique in the same way that vigilantes and modern justice systems are analyzed within the narrative. 

 

These are huge issues. There are good moments that satirically showcase the abuse of women’s sexuality, but ultimately women are disposable, tossed aside, and killed for the furtherance of men’s emotions and storyline. Some of the satire is great, but The Boys still needs to be critical of the work that they are critiquing, and deliberately look at the difference in the way that they have portrayed women’s pain and men’s pain. The difference is the most absurd part, but instead of calling into question the ways in which the system allows women to feel and experience pain, the narrative treats this as status quo, continually emphasizing through repetitive use of tropes and emotionally stunted men that this isn’t a part of the satire, and is simply the best way to move the plot along. 

 

The ways in which women are the source of men’s pain, and utilized to that extent, is also played straight. While it’s ridiculous in retrospect to list out all of the ways in which dead women motivate living men, in the show this absurdity was played straight, with this emotional connection to non-characters motivating the main characters of the show to pursue an aggressive antiauthoritarian form of justice, enacting a power fantasy that women are not a part of. This emotional attachment is justified, only subverted, (and just barely) at the end when we realize that Billy’s wife, Rebecca, is alive after all. To this end, his actions were justified, as he now has access once again to the woman he loves. 

 

 

Satire is difficult. It’s going to occasionally fail. The burdens of the superhero/fantasy genre and the ways in which The Boys approach superheroes and justice systems is fairly nuanced and critical, but the struggles of women seem to be an afterthought, paraded out only when necessary, and ignored by the larger narrative. Women are constantly seen as dangerous because of their sexuality and sexual ownership. In addition, every single female character with agency is an object of desire at some point during the series. If it was just a danger because of their inherent power, we might have a different conversation, but it’s actually their sexuality that is seen as a threat to men, power structures, and authority. They should only be desired, but not passionate. Women in emotional pain are either killed or told to get over it. 

 

At the end of The Boys, all I could do was reflect on the constant abuses against women in the show, and the ways in which men and women were treated differently by the narrative. The brutal critique of justice and power never allows women to fight for themselves or change the systems of control around them, because doing so would remove agency from men like Billy, Homelander, and Hughie. While Starlight comes closest out of any female character, she is still manipulated and utilized by men for their own purposes. 

 

To sate my own curiosity, I quickly dug into the behind-the-camera crew, and I wish I were surprised, but there are twelve executive producers listed, and none of them are women. In addition, there were only four women writing or behind the camera alongside the nine men with director or writing credits. This disparity is harrowing, and it immediately became obvious that nobody looked critically at the way women were treated in the show. It’s absolutely no surprise that Erik Kripke, who has come under scrutiny before for disposable women in his long-running show Supernatural, has floundered once again when it comes to writing women.

 

The satire of The Boys starts out strong but never moves into subversion, and it rarely questions the way in which women are treated. The lack of empathy for female characters makes this show hard to watch and impossible to recommend without warning people about the rampant sexism, homophobia, and abuse. The Boys wanted to be The Authority but ended up as a pale imitation of Watchmen, writing many of the storylines too earnestly to be satire, and never questioning the underlying systems of patriarchal control that are inundated and reinforced throughout the entire series. 

 

Give Starlight her own series, hire Anne Cofell Saunders and Rebecca Sonnenshine, and maybe we’ll see a superhero satire that actually values women.

 

 

Linda Codega

 

Linda is a twenty-something millennial living and working in the Hudson Valley who loves fandom, pop culture, sailing, tarot cards, and crying in movie theaters. If you want to listen to them talk about pop culture, the repeating cycles of media, and those stories that we can’t get out of our heads, you can listen to their podcast, Retronym, on iTunes.

 

 

 

 

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