Female Characters: 4 (Alisha/Kelly/Melissa/Emma)
Male Characters: 6 (Simon/Curtis/Rudy/Sean/Seth/Jay)
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? Yes.
This episode gives us a much needed insight into Curtis, who has perhaps been a little neglected in previously, and hasn’t made as much of an impact as the other characters. Having given up his previous power to rewind time to an elderly Jewish man who wants to kill Hitler, Curtis is now endowed with a new power; the ability to change sex. He can morph (at will, it would seem, which makes a change from the sporadic nature of his previous ability) into a female alter-ego named Melissa. As a woman there are few new things Curtis has to get to grips with (undergoing a drugs test where he is required to pee into a small container proves especially difficult) but the overwhelming amount of unwanted public attention and scrutiny directed towards his new female body proves to be the most problematic. I read one review which referred to this episode as a ‘preachy tale about women's rights and men's inability to empathise with the opposite sex’. A particularly unfair analysis in my opinion, as I felt that the episode was in no way preachy, but actually managed to pursue a fairly radical (for mainstream television at least) and responsible exploration of complex issues such as sexual harassment and rape, whilst still remaining true to the overall ethos of the show.
Despite this programme being about a group of outcasts gaining super powers via a lightning storm, I felt that the topic of rape was dealt with in a fairly sensitive and realistic way. According to statistics, ‘Women are more likelyto be sexually attacked by men they know in some way, most often partners (32%)or acquaintances (22%), and ‘most rapes are carried out by men known to the woman. Around 54% of rapes are carried out by partners/former partners. Only12% are by strangers.’ Despite this, when rape is portrayed in film and television, it is generally at the hands of a deranged sociopath who is a stranger to the victim. Presumably this somehow makes the topic of rape a bit more palatable for mainstream audiences. In Melissa’s case it is her athletics coach, someone who is in a position of trust and power, and someone who she knows, who spikes her drink and attempts to rape her. At first he seems like a nice, normal guy who is genuinely interested in her athletic abilities and helping her reach her potential, but as the episode progresses we see her becoming more and more uncomfortable with the attention he gives her. However, one thing I found disappointing and extremely incongruous about this episode is that it begins with that most puzzling and oxymoronic of things; the rape ‘joke’. Of course it is Rudy who delivers the line, ‘I feel like I’m being raped here and not in a good way’ and I can see how it might somehow be defended with the excuse that this simply reflects his character. He is obnoxious, crude and generally scummy therefore we’re not supposed to relate to him and we’re not supposed to laugh with him, but at him. Whilst to a certain extent this may have been the case when it came to Nathan, I don’t think it holds up with Rudy. We’ve only just been introduced to this character, and given what was covered in episode one, I think it’s clear that despite his faults we’re supposed to sympathise and relate to Rudy on some level. To be honest, I don’t really buy into the excuse in any case and I don’t think rape ‘jokes’ are ever funny. But it completely astounds me that the writers could include a line like this in an episode which shows two scenes of attempted rape. There has been a recent rise in the acceptability of rape jokes, and other similarly inappropriate topics which are generally lumped together under the vague heading of ‘un-PC’ humour. I find it difficult to get my head around why people find this brand of comedy funny. In addition to the obvious shock factor, one reason I can think of to explain it is that people generally conceptualise these ideas in a sort of unethical vacuum. If they really stopped to consider how just horrific topics like rape or paedophilia are there is no way they could laugh at them. In this particular case, given that an inappropriate joke is made about the very topic the episode deals with, I don’t see how anyone could find it humorous. Rudy is later made an example of for taking advantage of a drugged Melissa, with Curtis warning him, ‘The next time you find a girl unconscious you don’t touch her.’ I appreciate the attempt made here to address some of the ambiguities that often surround issues of rape and sexual assault, and whilst I do think this should be commended, the point is somewhat undermined by the inclusion of a rape joke at the beginning of the episode.
Sexual harassment is also addressed throughout the episode. Curtis experiences completely different treatment as Melissa than he does as a man. Simon (whilst generally quite awkward anyway) is especially awkward around Melissa. And from Sean he gets lingering sleazy stares and unwanted sexual attention. Rudy is the only exception and remains his usual disgusting, shameless self when caught pissing in the sink. Entering a bar proves to be a particularly uncomfortable experience as he receives sleazy stares from several men and we can see that he feels self-conscious. He is pursued almost predatorily by Sean throughout the episode despite clearly articulating that he is not interested and wants to be left alone. In one scene Sean grabs Melissa’s arse, and when he told to back off he mutters ‘lesbian’ under his breath. For me this highlighted the common perception that women are perpetually playing hard to get, and for some men the idea that a woman genuinely isn’t interested in their advances is unthinkable and will be met with hostility. Negative attention doesn’t just come from men though. Melissa faces just as much scrutiny from the female characters in this episode. Unaware that Melissa is really Curtis, Kelly suspects that Simon is cheating on Alisha with her. They both gang up on Melissa and Alisha calls her a slut.
I found this scene particularly interesting because it shows just how critical women can be of each other. It also shows the impact of sexual harassment and constant public scrutiny and how it can affect someone, with Curtis snapping under the pressure:
‘I’ve got an attitude? You can’t even talk to me without staring at my tits! You had your hands all over my arse… [To Rudy] And you ask before you touch! - all the groping and staring and sleazy chat-up lines – you have no idea what it’s like to be a woman!’
I think the fact that it is a man experiencing this, and communicating just how degrading and infuriating this sort of treatment is, makse it particularly effective. The sexual harassment of women, whether in the workplace or on the street, is often undermined by arguments that it is just harmless flirting or that it should be regarded as flattering. For example one journalist, and I use the term extremely loosely because it’s The Daily Mirror, wrote an article in response to the amazing website Hollaback! with the headline, ‘When the wolf whistles stop it’ll be time to die.’ What I think this episode highlights well is that it is not harmless and for many women it makes up a relentless and extremely tedious part of their daily life. Annoyingly, this scene is interrupted by Melissa’s period and I’m not really sure what that was supposed to achieve. Perhaps it was supposed to signal a bad ending to a particularly bad day? The episode does seem to focus almost solely on negative aspects of being woman, with a few clichéd references to multiple orgasms included in attempt to balance it out.
I did, however, really enjoy this episode overall, and there were many other positive aspects. For example, the episode begins with Curtis having his ego taken down a notch when he learns that he is not as good in bed as he thought. He is shown pulling at Emma’s clothes, pushing her head down so that she will give him head, and generally being selfish and inattentive. Given the growing ‘pornification’ of mainstream culture from music videos to advertising, and how these forms of media promote hyper-sexualised images of women who are used and abused by men for their own pleasure, I especially liked that it was highlighted that the reasons for Emma’s bad sexual experience were Curtis’s selfish, forceful actions and his general lack of respect for her. Another great moment was Simon’s inability to get his head around Melissa sleeping with Emma, prompting him to ask Curtis if that makes him a lesbian. For me this scene really highlighted the stupidity of our society’s obsession with restrictive labelling when it comes to sexuality and gender, and I loved Curtis’s reply, ‘I don’t think there’s an official term for this shit'. The next episode focuses on Simon so I'm looking forward to more baffling but brilliant time travel weirdness!