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The Questions of Male Consent That Puncture Both Fantasy Worlds of 'Bridgerton' and 'Wonder Woman 1984'

By Roxana Hadadi | Film | December 27, 2020 |

By Roxana Hadadi | Film | December 27, 2020 |


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Spoilers follow for the miniseries A Teacher, the series Bridgerton, and the film Wonder Woman 1984

In Hannah Fidell’s miniseries A Teacher, adapted from her same-named 2013 indie film, high school senior Eric Walker (Nick Robinson) and his English teacher Claire Wilson (Kate Mara) think they’re in love. No matter that Claire is in a position of power over him, or that she is already an adult in her 30s when he’s only 17 years old, or that she engineers situations to bring them together and isolate him from his peers. The first few episodes of A Teacher almost convince us of the OTP nature of their relationship, with an idyllic trip to rural Texas during which Eric and Claire declare their love for each other (between arguments about her marriage), and Claire later gushing to a coworker about her new secret guy.

When the affair is revealed, though, A Teacher pivots in a direction that focuses purely on Eric’s trauma—his increasing drinking at college, his uneasiness with how male students view him as some kind of champion, his shame when he realizes a girl hooked up with him at party just so she could tell her friends she slept with the guy who slept with his teacher—and forces you to reconsider your thoughts about everything he’s gone through up until this point. Eric was a victim, and it’s not his fault, and A Teacher ultimately ends (the final episode airs on Dec. 29) with a very clear demonstration of this point.

I wish I could say the same for Bridgerton (read Mae’s review!) and Wonder Woman 1984 (read Lindsey’s review!), both very buzzy projects that arrive on a wave of “This one’s for the ladies!” goodwill—and both of which utterly mishandle scenes related to male consent. I normally don’t love the reductionist vibe of “Imagine if this character were a woman” thought experiments, but seriously, imagine if the man who tries to stop an act of sex during Bridgerton and is ignored were a woman, or if the man’s body who is commandeered against his will and then used for sexual acts, as in WW84, were a woman. We would, rightfully, be losing our minds, railing against the pervasiveness of rape culture and the shortcomings our society still demonstrates when talking about bodies, sex, and consent. Why aren’t we doing the same when those characters happen to be men?

Let’s talk about Bridgerton first: Shonda Rhimes’s first project as part of her new Netflix deal is an adaptation of Julia Quinn’s eight-novel Bridgerton series of romance novels. (Rhimes is credited as an executive producer, while Chris Van Dusen created it and wrote both the premiere and finale episodes.) Quinn’s first novel The Duke and I is the inspiration for the first season of the show, which focuses on the Bridgerton family and eldest daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), who undergoes her society debut and is expected to secure a well-to-do husband, furthering the family’s security and opening the door for her three younger sisters to marry well, too. After her coming-out doesn’t go exactly as planned, Daphne conspires with self-proclaimed bachelor Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), to make it seem like the two of them are falling for each other—to drive more interest and male suitors for Daphne, while discouraging all the mothers who were bombarding Simon to meet their daughters. Of course, Daphne and Simon end up falling for each other, and when they’re discovered making out—which could ruin Daphne’s reputation—they hastily decide to marry lest any rumors spread.

Going into the marriage, Simon—who swore long ago to his abusive father that he would never have children, effectively ending his familial line, but keeps that tidbit about his family history a secret—tells Daphne that he “can’t” have children. Daphne, who knows nothing about sex aside from what Simon teaches her, takes this to mean that there is something biologically wrong with him. She doesn’t realize that every time Simon pulls out of her while they’re having sex, it’s an active choice on his part. Is this Simon telling a lie? Yes. When Daphne finds out in episode six, “Swish,” that heterosexual sex customarily ends with a man ejaculating inside of a woman, she feels betrayed—but her means of revenge is, I would argue, rape.

Look at the details of the scene: Simon leads Daphne into their bedroom, but she initiates a kiss, disrobes Simon, and takes off her clothes. They get into the bed and start kissing. The camera stays on Daphne’s face under Simon, as her face sets into a look of determination—and, I think, some nefariousness. She flips them around so she’s on top, and Simon is first pleasantly surprised by her forthrightness. But as the scene continues, Simon’s look of pleasure turns into one of concern. He looks worried. He looks not OK with this. He says to Daphne, “Wait, wait.” I will acquiesce to you that he does not directly say “No.” But his body language, his facial expression, and his entire vibe has changed, and haven’t we been for years talking about how consent isn’t only verbal, it’s also physical? Given all that, this no longer reads as consent to me. This is an act of sexual assault. And Daphne knows what she’s doing—and she does it anyway.

After Simon ejaculates and Daphne rolls off him to stride away, the scene shifts into a very sparse analysis of what just happened. (Oh, and please do not try to tell me that this scene cannot be rape because Simon ejaculated; we do not need any Tom Akin methodology around here.) We know Simon is hurt because his stutter, which he’s worked his whole life to control, returns when he asks Daphne what she just did—an emotional tell that only otherwise came out when he confronted his abusive father. And we know Simon feels violated because of his very simple question: “How could you?”

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But Sarah Dollard’s script doesn’t linger very long on Simon’s feelings; in fact, it makes more space for Daphne than it does her husband. Daphne takes about how betrayed she felt when she learned Simon lied to her about his ability to have children. Daphne says she felt trapped into the marriage, although she was the one who pushed the arrangement on Simon in the first place, and the one who willingly went to Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) to try and rush through their ceremony, and the one who so far has been very down with whatever sex Simon wants to have. She makes this grand speech about how betrayal and lies and trickery are not what love is, but … that’s exactly what Daphne just does to Simon, and there’s no self-awareness from the character regarding this. [Contrast this with I May Destroy You earlier this year, which also addressed a similar situation involving Michaela Coel’s Arabella and her hook-up with writing partner Zain Tareen (Karan Gill). Zain secretly breaking Arabella’s request that he wear a condom while they have sex is rightly treated by the show as rape, and Arabella’s confrontation of Zain was a major plot point.]

In the episode’s final moments, “Swish” allows for the narrator, gossip columnist Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews), to wonder, “Can the ends ever justify such wretched means?” We hear this musing after seeing Simon alone in his bed, still looking shocked by what just happened, and Daphne in another bed, her legs drawn up to her chest, her body in a position meant to help her get pregnant. (You might remember Phoebe doing this on Friends, after she agrees to birth her half-brother’s triplets with his older wife; remember that storyline, another one where a male high school student and his female older teacher getting together is presented as a love story?) But Bridgerton shows how profoundly unwilling it is to properly address this act as sexual assault because, guess what, Simon ends up coming around on kids! He forgives Daphne for what she did. He changes his mind on what a happy marriage looks like. He gives up his idea for his own life to appease hers. And Bridgerton, which is a show that has Simon and Daphne initially falling for each other because Simon defends her from another man trying to rape her, ends with that very same man staying with a woman who effectively rapes him. Or, fine, you don’t want to use the word “rape”? She coerces him into the completion of a sexual act that he changes his mind about midway through. It’s fucking weird!

There’s so much wrong here: The immediately terrible optics of a white woman taking what she wants from the body of a Black man, and then longer term, the show’s dedication to still having the pair end up together. This is how Quinn’s novel progresses, too (and Aja Romano at Vox compares this scene with the source text, which is even more problematic), and yet I have really no understanding of how no one involved in the series adaptation was like, “Hey, maybe Daphne and Simon should have a conversation about that act and what it might mean for their sexual relationship moving forward and whether they can ever trust each other again?” But by focusing only on Simon’s obfuscation of his vow, and emphasizing Daphne lecturing Simon about the semantic difference between “can’t” and “won’t,” and ending with Daphne’s love being enough to change Simon’s mind, Bridgerton avoids admitting that its female protagonist—the character we’re supposed to sympathize with most—committed an act of sexual assault to secure her happily ever after.

Something similar is going on in Wonder Woman 1984, which doesn’t even bother giving the male character who is used for his body a choice in the matter. In WW84, the Dreamstone can do practically anything: It can create a “Divine Wall” around Egypt (I’m laughing to keep from screaming, y’all), it can turn Kristen Wiig’s harried and underestimated Barbara Minerva into a half-woman, half-big-cat “apex predator” named Cheetah, it can create hundreds of nuclear weapons out of thin air, it can destroy itself and become absorbed within the body of con man Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), it can do literally fucking anything because this is a fantasy movie made up of nonsense. But figuring out a way to bring back Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor without having his soul occupy another man’s body? Somehow Patty Jenkins and co-writers Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham could not figure out a way for the Dreamstone to do that. Too hard, I guess! As hard as looking up basic historical facts about the Middle East before serving up another movie full of dead-ass racist stereotypes!

Anyway, I digress. Let’s get back to the other offensive thing this movie does. So Diana wishes for Steve to come back, and although she doesn’t take it seriously, wind blows through her hair while she’s making the wish, and all ’80s movies have taught me that such a breeze always portends inexplicable magic shit. At a fundraiser for the Smithsonian, Diana brushes off other guys who keep hitting on her, but one guy in a Members Only jacket says something that stops her in her tracks: “I wish we had more time.” That one line clues her into the fact that this man played by recognizable TV actor and Hallmark Channel favorite Kristoffer Polaha—who never gets a name, and is only credited as “Handsome Man” in the film’s credits—is being inhabited by Steve Trevor’s soul, taken out of heaven (he was somewhere “good,” he tells Diana). Diana never once asks, “Hey, what is this body? Who is this guy?” Instead, we see mostly Pine, as Diana does in the narrative, and the movie never thinks about this man aside from his body and what functionality it provides Diana.

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While Steve is in this anonymous man’s body, he and Diana hug, they kiss, they walk around the Lincoln Memorial, they dance, and then Steve asks Diana, “Would you like to see my futon?” Again: We go to the apartment of a man whose life has been taken over so that Diana can kiss her long-dead boyfriend! And, ultimately, have sex with her long-dead boyfriend! She does what she wants with a body that is not able to give consent! AND NEITHER DIANA NOR STEVE THINKS THIS IS WRONG! They play in this man’s closet, trying on all his clothes. They take this body to Egypt, where Handsome Man is in tons of danger as Steve fights the Egyptian security team alongside Diana—what if this man had died? Does that make Diana complicit in an innocent man’s death? Isn’t that counter to everything she stands for? Note too that when Steve finally convinces Diana to renounce her wish so that he can return to Heaven, neither of them gives a second thought to Handsome Man’s body being left in Washington, D.C., as the city descends into chaos. We follow Diana as she walks away from Steve, crying as she leaves him behind, but she gives no consideration to this man who will come back to consciousness, unaware of where he is or what happened to him. He’s lost time. He’s in a place he might not recognize. His body feels different. And if that doesn’t sound like the aftermath of a rape story, what is?

Don’t worry, though: WW84 does what Bridgerton does, too, in making the assaulted man absolutely fine. When we see this man again during a snowy morning in Georgetown, he’s politely friendly to Diana. He has no memory of ever meeting her. She knows him, though, and compliments him on his outfit—the only one Steve had worn of his that she liked. That is some real icky shit!

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This man was nothing more to Diana, someone who is supposed to care about all people, than a conduit for her sexual desires, and then she tells him how nice he looks after she’s used his body for her whims. It’s gross, and also strange in contrast to how the movie treats Barbara Minerva. Barbara is initially kind but a little mousy, and when she is nearly sexually assaulted by a drunk man while walking home from drinks with Diana, Diana saves her by kicking the man halfway across a city block. We see that the sexual harassment that happens to Barbara, and the implied rape that she is fleeing from, affect her deeply and inform her wish upon the Dreamstone to first be more like Diana, and then to be an “apex predator.” The objectification and violence suffered by Barbara set her on the path to being a villain, and WW84 is trying to give us some lesson here about the transformational effects of sexual trauma. But Handsome Man’s body being used for sex against his will: Somehow not a problem! I’ll say it again: If this were a male superhero doing this to a faceless woman who the film only credited as “Hot Girl,” we would be up in arms. Why aren’t we now?

Questions of sexual consent are just as important when the focus is male characters as they are for female characters, and it’s extremely disturbing that two recent productions aimed deliberately at female viewers would have such glaring blindspots like this. Bridgerton and Wonder Woman 1984 are both supposed to be fantasies, but they rely on the same kind of dehumanizing experience to secure bliss for their female protagonists. Abuse doesn’t belong to a particular gender, and victimhood doesn’t belong to a particular gender, and it’s dispiriting to see Bridgerton and Wonder Woman 1984 aligning with that binary in the worst possible way.

A Teacher airs on FX on Hulu. Bridgerton is streaming on Netflix as of December 25, 2020. Wonder Woman 1984 is playing in select theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

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Roxana Hadadi is a Senior Editor for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter.



Image sources (in order of posting): HBO Max, Netflix Media Center, Netflix, HBO Max