The Forgotten Rape in the Marvel Cinematic Universe


In its first season, Marvel’s Jessica Jones thoroughly and thoughtfully explored the concept of abuse. It delved into the feelings of guilt, isolation, and the unavoidable sense of violation that weigh on victims of rape and others traumas. And it used Kilgrave, the show’s mind-controlling central villain who manipulates and dehumanizes his victims, along with Jessica’s road to recovery after suffering under his control, as a lens to explore the messy, disquieting aftermath of abuse of all kinds. Jessica Jones was hailed, quite deservedly, for the way it addressed these topics–including both metaphorical and literal rape–and their effects.

And yet another Marvel property, albeit one much lighter in tone, told a surprisingly similar story years before Jessica Jones did. But rather than taking the issues involved seriously, or using it as a chance for commentary or catharsis, that show simply threw in the incident as a single-episode plot point without ever genuinely addressing the implications of the story.

In “Yes Men”, the fifteenth episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s first season, an Asgardian named Lorelei comes to Earth after the events of Thor: The Dark World and wreaks all manner of havoc. She, like Kilgrave, has the power of psychic suggestion, and can command the loyalty of men using only her voice. Lorelei employs these powers to force a newlywed to abandon his bride in order to ferry this Asgardian troublemaker across the desert. She orders a biker named Rooster to strangle his own wife for making too much noise. And finally, she hypnotizes S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Grant Ward, using him to help her escape an ambush, compelling him to attack his fellow agents and friends, and eventually sleeping with him while he’s still under her spell.

Unlike Jessica Jones, “Yes Men” never really addresses the horror of these actions, either within the episode or in the rest of the show’s first season. Instead, it focuses on Thor’s Lady Sif and her hunt for Lorelei, and on the standard comic book peril of a superpowered, mind-controlling baddie on the loose.

Thematically, “Yes Men” is first and foremost focused on contrasting Lady Sif (with an emphasis on how her sense of duty as an Asgardian Warrior compels her to pursue Lorelei regardless of her personal feelings), with Agent Phil Coulson, who is struggling with his own sense of duty to S.H.I.E.L.D. as he finds his trust and loyalty wavering after learning some important details that the organization had kept from him.

 

Originally, the episode was meant to be set at a combination car show/renaissance fair.

 

With that focus, the only real import of Ward’s brainwashing and victimization within the episode–or beyond it for that matter–centers around Lorelei’s discovery that Ward, who has been sleeping with Agent Melinda May, actually harbors feelings for Skye, another of his teammates. Lorelei reveals this information to May in an attempt to taunt her during a standoff, and it’s treated as the big deal for Ward in the aftermath of this experience. In the end, Ward having his bodily autonomy violated and being forced to hurt and endanger his friends amounts to little more than some interpersonal drama within the team. Ward even apologizes to May for what transpired after it’s all over.

And that is the sum total of the issue as far as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is concerned. Ward has been literally and figuratively raped. He was in a position where he could not possibly consent to sleeping with Lorelei and forced to commit both violent and sexual acts without regard for his will. After an event of this magnitude, the show was silent; the fans were silent, and the entire plot point has since been all but forgotten.

It’s a striking omission because, to Marvel’s credit, the properties within the MCU have been fairly good about at least addressing the difficulties that emerge after a person, even a hero, has their autonomy overcome like that. While it was brief in both instances, both The Avengers and Thor: The Dark World spent time examining the impact that being controlled by Loki had on Hawkeye and Dr. Selvig. And again, the core of Jessica Jones’s entire first season was the concept of mind control as a metaphor for abuse, and its best episode featured Jessica confronting the villain about the fact that he had raped her in ways both literal and figurative. But Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. essentially never mentions these events again.

 

Not so thoroughly explored, but not forgotten either.

 

There are certain explanations for why this issue was neglected in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., some of which are more satisfying than others. The first and the simplest is that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. just isn’t that type of show. Especially at this point in in the series, prior to the game-changing events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a popcorn-focused, villain-of-the-week affair, more concerned with mystery box storytelling and whiz-bang action than real character development or mastering a tone serious enough to address this type of story with any grace.

And, in fairness, not everything has to be deconstruction. While other entries in the MCU canon like Jessica Jones and Iron Man 3 earned their stripes from examining the damaging after-effects of being a hero, there’s nothing wrong with other shows taking a less serious tack and asking the audience to go with the flow when it comes a lighter, action-oriented superhero show.

But the problem is that if the shoe were on the other foot, if Loki had come down from Asgard, brainwashed Skye, and slept with her while she was under his control, and then the show never brought that up that fact again or explored the effect that this type of violation would have on her, the show’s fans and the media would have, quite rightfully, raked Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. over the coals for it.

It’s fine, in principle, to commit to a certain weightlessness in a series like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., where the show features a collection of flashy adventures that leave our heroes essentially back where they started by the end of the episode. But if the roles were reversed, and it were Loki instead of Lorelei, and Skye instead of Ward, there would be a serious problem with, at a minimum, the optics of portraying a man having sex with a woman without her genuine consent and depicting her, not to mention the show itself, as moving on as though it were an act without any real consequences. It’s troubling that there’s not an equivalent level of concern when the victim is a burly man and the rapist is an attractive woman.

At this point, I feel it’s important to offer the disclaimer that I’m not some MRA-wannabe railing against the dangers of feminism. I applauded how Jessica Jones addressed the disturbing implications of Kilgrave’s powers and the way it showed Jessica and others trying to recover from their traumas. Estimates vary, but experts agree that rape is one of the United States’ most underreported crimes, and television shows that explore the consequences of victims of this crime and normalize open discussion about these problems are a godsend.

 

The episode “AKA WWJD?” in particular was a raw and frank exploration of these ideas, and the peak of the show's first season.

 

Jessica Jones’s greatest success in its first season was how it explored the myriad of traumas visited upon innocent people by its antagonist in an unflinching way, while giving agency and empathy to those who had been abused and endeavored to go on. It’s just frustrating that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t even sniff that type of storytelling and thematic exploration, and faced little, if any, backlash when it stumbled into similar territory in terms of its plot.

There are, arguably, some in-universe justifications for the differences in how the two shows handled these uncomfortably similar events. For one thing, no one beyond Ward himself appears to know the extent of what happened between him and Lorelei, so it’s not as though the other characters in the show are fully aware of what took place and chose to ignore it. What’s more, the show was two episodes away from revealing that Ward wasn’t exactly a good guy to begin with, leaving little runway for it to delve into the consequences of what had happened to him in “Yes Men”.

And over many subsequent episodes, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. did explore how Ward was part of a cycle of abuse in his home life while he was growing up. To that end, it does tackle how that abuse had a profound effect on him. There’s an argument–albeit not a very convincing one–that because Ward had already been a victim of and perpetrator of abuse, and because he was already hiding his true feelings and loyalties from the rest of the team, it was possible for him to have a more staid response to the events of “Yes Men”.

 

Not all that he seems to be.

 

By the same token, there’s a decent enough explanation for why fans and critics alike seemed largely nonplussed by this development, in contrast to the praise and attention heaped on Jessica Jones’s handling of these issues (not to mention the equal and opposite degree of outrage leveled at Game of Thrones and similar shows in recent years) — few individuals were really paying attention to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. at this point in its run.

“Yes Men” aired long after the series’s first few episodes when the show still had the buzz of being the first post-Avengers Marvel project. And it aired before the events of “Turn Turn Turn” the episode that proved to be a game-changer for the series, reigniting some interest among Marvel fans after Winter Soldier. Ward’s interactions with Lorelei occurred in that lumpy middle of the show’s first season when, not unreasonably, most folks had tuned out.

But it’s still frustrating that the show could treat what is clearly a rape so blithely and with so little pushback. It’s not as though Marvel has managed to avoid touching off recriminations and debates over how its properties have handled similar issues. It’s disappointing, to say the least, that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was effectively given a pass, either due to the tone of the show, or fan indifference, or the fact that what happened to Ward doesn’t fit the typical narrative for how movies and television shows mishandle issues of rape and autonomy.

*  *  *

The question then becomes what should Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have done instead? I’m not sure I would have wanted the show to try to address the topic in the same way that Jessica Jones did, even, and perhaps especially, in an abbreviated fashion. Frankly, I don’t think Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was equipped to handle the topic, particularly during its uneven-at-best first season.

The best option may have been to, at a minimum, simply leave the sexual part of Lorelei’s control of Ward out of the story. That element of the narrative didn’t add much, if anything, to the stakes of the episode, and frankly, the sequence felt like a fairly thin attempt to increase the show’s sizzle factor, which is a can of worms all its own. There would still be something uncomfortable about the way that “Yes Men” breezes over an individual being forced to hurt and possibly even kill their loved ones, all under the power of someone using them for her own selfish ends, but it would be less jarring within the show’s lighter tone than the series attempting to gloss over a rape.

 

A scene founded on the logic that rape is sexy as long as it involves two attractive people.

 

But more than that, I want films and television shows to take issues of consent, and the instances where it’s clearly lacking, seriously. That’s not to say that the topic can never be examined through the catharsis that comes from well-crafted humor, or that every show has to explore the issue with the same depth and commitment that Jessica Jones did. There are gray areas–between comedy and drama, and between a tone of stark realism versus one of light adventure–that matter. Obviously there’s no one with mind control powers ordering people to commit deeds against their will in real life, which creates a certain distance between the incidents that take place within the four-color world of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the horrible acts committed in the real one.

Nonetheless, certain ideas–the absence of consent and a sense of entitlement to override another human being’s autonomy being significant ones–feel too important to be tossed off as minor, single-episode plot points, never to be addressed with any real seriousness or sincerity. For all the praise that Marvel has earned for its commitment and earnestness in tackling these subjects in Jessica Jones, the company deserves an equal amount of criticism for the way that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. so wantonly glossed over them.


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7 Responses to The Forgotten Rape in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

  1. Mike says:

    “At this point, I feel it’s important to offer the disclaimer that I’m not some MRA-wannabe railing against the dangers of feminism.”

    Nice article, but I would point out that it’s actually a very feminist stance to put just as much weight/scrutiny on a man being raped by a woman as the other way around. Rape is rape, and everybody’s trauma is valid, my man.

    • Andrew Bloom says:

      I appreciate the point, and I agree. Unfortunately, there are folks out there who try to use the fact that men are raped to try to minimize rapes committed against women, and I thought it was important to distinguish myself from these individuals.

  2. Alex says:

    Nice article, I really enjoyed it.

  3. Sean says:

    It could be argued that Ward wasn’t raped because he was really Hydra and would have done anything to help bring down SHIELD, but we’ll never know, like you said it was never brought up again. He was a complex character and it would have been interested if they had brought it up again, even in passing to Agent 33 about what he put up with as a SHIELD Agent, like “I was shot, I was raped by an alien, I watched the only person who took care of me die” something like that.

  4. Aisha says:

    This was an amazing article and it really represented everything so well. thank you.

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