Friday, May 17, 2024

Sexual Manipulation of Children and Female Villains

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Sexual manipulation of children sounds like a serious topic. It is a serious topic. One would expect that when it appears in fiction, films, and shows, it will be treated with due gravity. The tendency of different media to ignore their own problematic implications is well-known, of course, but still, surely not something this serious?

No, okay, we all know that most media is absolutely capable of ignoring even something of this magnitude. We all know they do, unbelievable as it might be. What I find even more curious, though, are those cases when the storytellers seem to sort of realize that what is happening in their tale is not entirely above-board. Then, however, they appear to bat the thought away because it would be too much bother to think it through, I suppose.

For some reason, that is something that happens quite often when it comes to older women abusing and sexually manipulating underage boys. Let me present you with three case studies:

‘Delphi Diggory’ from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (major spoilers for the play)

I’ve complained about the disaster that is happening there in my review of the play already, but let’s just look at it in more detail. In some ways, this is the mildest of the three cases I’ll be exploring, because while we don’t know exactly how far the relationship between Delphi and Albus went, I’m pretty confident they were not meant to have sex, or really go much beyond kissing. So, you know, it could have been even more horrifying. Still, let’s go over the basics:

Delphi, who is twenty-two years old, sets out to charm Albus, who is fourteen, in order to manipulate him into changing the fate of the world so that all of his family is dead and he no longer exists, and also the world is plunged into darkness of Voldemort’s rule. As far as the intention of her manipulation goes, it doesn’t really get much worse than this.

Now, the play hardly pretends what she did was okay, but the aspect of sexual manipulation is also never addressed. I understand that Cursed Child is intended to be for children as well, and so they cannot afford to discuss everything quite openly, but there is one basic rule about this: if you can include some level of sexual manipulation in your plot, then you can also include some level of exploring the consequences and implications.

You want to see the level of exploration of consequences that happens in this play?

ALBUS I honestly thought I’d be the first of us to get a girlfriend.
SCORPIUS Oh, you will, undoubtedly, probably that new smoky-eyed Potions professor – she’s old enough for you, right?
ALBUS I don’t have a thing about older women!
SCORPIUS And you’ve got time – a lot of time – to seduce her.

This is just plainly disgusting. Not only is the sexual manipulation never acknowledged, but it’s even made light of. And with a joke about students seducing their teachers, no less! Tasteful. Throwing in a joke like that directly after a story the plot of which happened as a direct result of sexual manipulation of a child by an adult is just a whole new level of wrong.

And it would have been so easy to make it a little better. After all, Albus and Scorpius’ relationship is meant to be so great and open now, after what they went through together during Cursed Child, so wouldn’t it be nice if Albus, instead of his light defence, said something along the lines of ‘look, Scorpius, sorry, but I really don’t find that funny at all. Delphi tricked me and I trusted her and I thought I was in love with her and she did something like this.’ Then Scorpius could have said a few words about how he was sorry and how he didn’t realize. It would have been mostly lip-service, yes, but at least it would have been something, some kind of acknowledgement. Not making light of a grave matter like that, one that would leave psychological scars for a long time. Delphi was Albus’s first crush, and she wanted to kill everyone he knew. How do you make light of that?

Margaery Tyrell from Game of Thrones (spoilers for season 5, I guess)

This story is different from Delphi’s in that Margaery’s plans were not so nefarious by far, and that she herself was in a vulnerable position. Also, the world Game of Thrones is set in probably does not truly realize the possibility of a woman raping a man. So looking at it from an in-universe point of view, she is much less of a villain that Delphi. On the other hand, looking at it as a story scripted in the 21st century, there is no less problematic stuff to be had here.

One of the reasons for this is that out of my three case studies, this is the one where the problematic nature of the relationship is the least recognized. We do get the idea that Margaery is a manipulator. The scenes with her and Tommen in bed are clearly scripted to indicate she’s sexually manipulating him: she implies she is as excited and innocent as he is, feigns not having any sexual experience, and so on. But she is also, rather consistently, being framed in a positive light. Honestly, that right there is something I’d never expect to have to write before knowing Game of Thrones, because…again, let’s look at the facts:

We don’t know how old exactly she or Tommen are meant to be, but I think we can agree on her being over twenty. She looks over twenty, she acts over twenty, and we’re never told otherwise, so I’m going to stick with that. Tommen, on the other hand, I would place somewhere around thirteen. He would be twelve based on the information from season 1. That was probably meant to be retconned by his recasting, but then the actor explicitly said that he played him like he was twelve. He did that well, I have to say. It shows. Tommen acts like a twelve-year old, or maybe thirteen of fourteen. He acts like a child, out of his depth and constantly confused by everything. So whatever his actual age, his mental stage is clearly that of a child still.

So we have a fully adult woman purposefully manipulating a child by pretending to have all this naive affection for him, and actually using him to hurt his mother, as well as further her own personal and political goals.

Now, like I said, to a degree that’s excusable because she needs him to like her to keep herself safe, being his wife, but Margaery goes way beyond that. The way she torments Cersei clearly indicates she has very little regard for Tommen’s feelings. And she is still framed as a mostly good character. I find that…difficult to stomach. I suppose that as honour gets you killed in this universe, child abuse is suddenly a legit coping strategy?

Let me just remind you, book!Margaery manages to get on Tommen’s good side without sexual manipulation.

Kate Argent from Teen Wolf (spoilers for season 1)

This is the most brutal case to my mind, even though the child that was the victim in this case was older than the previous two cases. A little older. Derek was sixteen, and Kate, his rapist, was probably in her early twenties when it happened.

The story goes like this: she seduced him to gather information about his entire family, and when she did, she used it to burn them all alive.

See what I meant by brutal?

Kate_ArgentIt has the purposeful seduction of Delphi, and all the murder, too, but Kate actually succeeded in her attempt, so that takes it to levels unseen in Cursed Child.

As for the show’s exploration of the matter, again, we don’t get anything much. It’s unequivocally said that Kate is a terrible person and a villain, but this particular aspect of what she did to Derek is not really dwelt on. In fact, it’s revealed in an almost offhand manner. As part of her sexually charged taunting of him as she tortures him (yeah, she’s a charmer) six years later, there is this exchange:

Kate: Oh, sweetie, I don’t – I don’t wanna torture you. I just – wanna catch up. Remember all the fun we had together?
Derek: Like the time you burned my family alive?
Kate: No, I was thinking more about the hot, crazy sex we had. But the fire thing. Yeah, that was fun too. I love how much you hate me. Remember how this felt?

So, yeah, that’s all you need about Kate Argent right there, but it’s also basically the extent to which this is addressed, as least in season 1. Three seasons later, we sort of come back to it and it’s dwelt on a little more, but the true gruesomeness of it is hardly discussed.

It makes me consider the question of what exactly does exploring a topic mean. Do I need someone to spell out that what she did was rape and it was Wrong? That’s probably excessive, right? After all, as I said, Kate’s sexually charged taunting is present from the start, so it’s not like the creators pretend this dimension is absent in the dynamic between the characters. But then again, we see Delphi flirting with Albus pretty much from the start, too. It’s addressing the matter outside of the direct interaction, giving it a degree of ‘objectivity’, that I missed there – or, well, addressing it in a matter that doesn’t make light of it.

That got me thinking about why I feel it needs to be addressed extra. At least in case of Teen Wolf. I mean, Cursed Child makes light of it, and Game of Thrones paints Maragery in a positive light, so it’s clearer why I feel something is lacking there, but Teen Wolf has neither of these problems. What, then?

So What’s Up With This?

Part of it is that the extent of abuse that happened there is only implied. We hear that the fire happened six years ago and that Derek is ‘only a few years older’ that the protagonists of the story, who are 16 at that point. That actually makes it sound Derek was somewhere like 13 or 14 when it happened, and you can only get to number 16 when you pause the frame with Derek’s driving license.

That obviously isn’t what a casual fan does, and neither do they do the math required to realize Derek was definitely underage what that relationship with Kate happened. It’s not exactly in the forefront of one’s mind when one watches the scene in which the fact of the relationship is revealed. On their first watch, most people won’t realize what exactly happened there, and the dialogue makes it sound as if it was regular, consensual sex. That’s because Kate’s warping the perception, of course, but that is also why I think it’s a problem we never see it discussed from the outside. That’s what I meant by adding objectivity.  Just one line from a character expressing their horror when they found out would have made me happier. Or at least Derek could have called Kate out on being a child rapist when she brought it up six years later. I hate to put the responsibility on the victim, but in terms of writing, it would have been a better choice than not mentioning it at all. Just like Albus should have protested Scorpoius’s cavalier treatment of the matter. Tommen really had no chance to realize what was going on, the way his character is written, but Cersei could have certainly mentioned it explicitly when she complained about Margaery. She might be prevented from realizing it’s rape by the patriarchy she lives in, but she could still see that her gullible young son was being sexually manipulated and his lack of experience was being used against him, and she could have discussed it with Jaime. It would have certainly been more interesting that their dialogues from season 6.

Another part of why I am bothered by this lack of explicitly addressing the problem in Teen Wolf, however, is precisely because Game of Thrones and Cursed Child openly treat it with such a cavalier attitude. It’s indicative of a wider trend, a wider approach in popculture. If the genders were switched – if a 22-year-old man was manipulating a fourteen year old girl and sleeping with her to get her to do what he wanted – do you honestly believe it would be brushed off that easily?

The irony, of course, is that it wouldn’t need that much explicit calling out in such a case. Suddenly everyone would know it was wrong, and what kind of wrong it was. Still, I bet we would get at least a little in terms of reflection, the girl sobbing that he betrayed her or something like that. But boys aren’t allowed to give vent to their feelings in this manner, so no, no reflection from either the victims of abuse or their friends. What it comes down to is that I do, in fact, believe that it needs to be spelled out, because apparently we’re all so unclear on sexual manipulation when it’s a woman manipulating a boy that we even have trouble telling it’s wrong.

Another interesting thing is that from looking at all three of these cases, I feel like there is this strange discrepancy where sexual abuse of children by men is treated as a special kind of evil apart from the general villainous make-up, whereas with the women, it’s often treated weirdly as part of the package.

In my opinion, the root of this is gender stereotyping, and not just the obvious bit about the nonsensical belief that ‘all rapists are male.’ Specifically, it comes down to a popular type of female villain, or should I say the popular kind: the evil seductress. It’s by far the most common kind of female antagonist, and even those female villains whose primary MO is not sexual manipulation frequently have at least overtones of this.

Using sex as a tool seems to be par for the course for female villain, or even just morally grey characters if we’re talking about Margaery. Including it becomes natural, it’s the trope writers automatically go for. Eventually, it crops up even when we’re dealing with underage characters, and no one really thinks about it properly because this is where ‘all rapists are male’ comes into play. The creators don’t realize what is happening in their writing because they don’t expect to see female rapists. So the sexual manipulation just becomes part of the evil woman agenda, and no one considers that male villains usually manage without.

Not that I want to make excuses for the creators who don’t think things through. I just find the way the different gender stereotypes and prejudices interact to create this clusterf-ck of a problem fascinating in a rather morbid way. It’s also worth pointing out that sexual manipulation is a big deal even when it concerns adults. Using children just takes it to whole another level.

So, no. No, sexual manipulation of boys shouldn’t be par for the course, not even in fiction. In fact, I am rather willing to bet that many very unscrupulous women would never sink to that particular level. Then again, who knows? If TV and other media will keep insisting that it’s no big deal…maybe more will start to consider it. Let’s not test that hypothesis, shall we?

Images courtesy of HBO and MTV

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