small screen sirens: ‘just say yes’ – consent and TV
The second season of Girls finished up a few weeks back, tying up what was a pretty mediocre season with Hannah and Adam back together after his champion’s run to her house (that was weird, right?). The pair had spent the entire season foxtrotting around each other whilst she macked on Donald Glover and Patrick Wilson and he had a startling fling with the daughter of one of his AA friends, Natalia.
Adam and Natalia were a strange pairing – that didn’t work more than they did – but they had genuine chemistry and really seemed to like each other. The main point of difference in their relationship, though, was the sex.
Episode nine saw this all come to a head. In this episode, Adam’s kinks were more than just kinks. His thrill for dominance and humiliation were in full force with the reluctant Natalia, and instead of being played as just so Adam, this entered a land of non-consent. Natalia had expressed in earlier episodes her desire to keep things pretty straight in the bedroom, and whether Adam thought he could convert her or if he himself could change is unknown. In this instance, though, it’s all on his terms. He makes her crawl to the bed, f*cks her aggressively from behind before flipping her over and ejaculating on her breasts.
At the end of the day, there’s no such thing as dubious consent. There’s consent and there’s not, and the thing about what Adam did to Natalia in this episode was that the consent wasn’t there.
I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with a healthy humiliation kink. Hannah certainly seemed to enjoy it when she and Adam were together (although how much of that was about Adam and how much was about the kink is a grey area) and hey, all the more power to her. The thing is though, Hannah not only consented, but partook eagerly in this. Natalia did not.
Consent is a topic on TV that is played for varying effects – for control, to set up a bad guy, to set up a bad girl, as a plot device, as a PSA, whatever. This episode of Girls used it in a way that was character building for Adam and cause for the relationship breakdown for him and Natalia – to represent his self-sabotage of his relationship with her and to drive him back to Hannah. That’s not the only way it’s used though. Take The Vampire Diaries, for instance. Consent is an issue that comes into play all the time because the vampires on the show have the ability to ‘compel’. To compel is to look a human in the eye and tell them exactly what you want them to do. Because humans lack supernatural abilities, they are forced to go along with whatever is asked of them. It’s an interesting ability and an even more interesting plot device. Where, a lot of the time, it’s used under the pretext of good intentions – making people forget they saw something traumatising, for instance, or to try to delay grief – it’s also been used in some pretty awful sexual contexts too. In season one, the long-standing character, good-guy-but-bad-boy, Damon, swoops into town and basically just ruins everyone’s week. Not in the least, Caroline’s, our protagonist’s BFF, who Damon compels to ‘be his girlfriend’ and put out accordingly.
This is really troublesome for the viewer as, whilst it is routinely identified as being wrong, it’s generally done so for the wrong reasons. Elena, our protagonist, is angry about the situation, but the way her confrontations with Damon go are more to highlight the differences between sexy-bad-boy Damon and sexy-good-guy Stefan. Caroline has been robbed of any agency, is not consenting to sex and yet the fact of it is relegated to plot device in bringing her rapist and best friend together to share some sexually charged interactions. What’s worse is that Damon is, at the heart of the narrative, a ‘good guy’.We’re supposed to root for him and enjoy the fact that he’s a little more morally ambiguous than his sweeter brother. This isn’t an isolated incident either. Damon does this again to a local reporter in series three, once again to minimal consequences. The show sets it up as character growth though – after all, he sort of likes this woman, unlike with Caroline, and we as the audience are expected to be more concerned by his man pain than by the woman’s inability to consent.
I’m not saying that these sorts of issues shouldn’t be played out on television – quite the contrary, I think it gives a time and a space for these conversations to occur on a broader, social level and for the question of what, exactly, constitutes consent to be heard and answered by a lot of different people. Sure, you’ll get people whose opinions are heinously misguided, but by keeping the question in the spotlight, we’re, well, keeping the question in the spotlight. After all, these issues can’t be put to rest if they’re never unearthed in the first place.