I spend a fair amount of time searching out and discussing positive representations of women in film but I don’t often look at television. I mean I look at television, of course I do, but what I mean is that I rarely write about it.
I’ve posted on Buffy, Doctor Who and Westworld before and in terms of what I’ve been watching recently, I’ve enjoyed the two new Star Trek shows, Picard and Discovery, as well as The Umbrella Academy and Agents of Shield. Also, and to prove that I don’t just watch shows with robots in them, I loved last year’s Watchmen, Killing Eve still has moments of brilliance and Fleabag is a work of genius. All of these series have strong female characters in, as (despite its title) does the show that has prompted me to put fingers to keys now.
I’d read The Boys comic when it came out and didn’t really like it but was still curious to see how it would translate to screen. Season 1 actually had me gripped with its story, characterisation and unpredictability but Season 2 has really stepped things up and become enthralling viewing. Mostly it has reined in the ultra-violence (which seemed to be trying too hard to shock on the page), despite an opening scene that seemed to suggest it would be doing the opposite, but it has lost none of its audacious boldness. What it has gained is a better handle on its social commentary, making more of a statement about the current situation in America highlighting cultural fascism and mocking conscious, marketable liberalism.
We’ll come back to the first of these shortly but first let’s think about the latter and the way it plays with ideas of feminism. The big message of Vought International, the company that owns and promotes superheroes in the show, has been ‘Girls get it done’. Concentrating on Queen Maeve, Starlight and new hero Stormfront we have seen feminism being sold as a product while each of these characters has shown different strength behind the scenes. In the case of Maeve who was outed, her sexuality has been marketed too with her lesbianism becoming a brand. All of this says something about films like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel in the real world and references the fact that no film company has yet given us a gay superhero but asks if they did would this be anymore of a reflection of real women? Maeve is actually bi-sexual but is told this doesn’t sit as well with the public. I’m not going to condemn Marvel and DC for putting strong female role models out there and I think those films are great but it does raise some interesting points about this and the disconnect between life and the movies. Out of the spotlight Maeve is feeling disenchanted and trapped and Starlight is actively fighting against Vought at great risk to herself. Their real struggles are not the ones being celebrated or praised. Stormfront, on the other hand, is a Nazi.
It is through Stormfront’s rise that Season 2 of The Boys has also tackles the acceptable face of prejudice and bigotry in Trump’s America. Always stopping shy of revealing her full self, Stormfront in the show gains support and popularity for her stance on keeping the US safe through racial supremacy. We see her real nature and past though and the public are foolish to go along with her lies and rhetoric. The Supergirl TV show did something similar last year (as well as having a trans superhero) but there it was prejudice against superpowered aliens whereas here people are being taught to fear one another and to idolise and put their trust in those in power, which is closer to what is genuinely happening in the US right now, and in Western society around the globe.
Ultimately (and here come some spoilers) Stormfront is beaten. At first by Maeve, Starlight and the other superpowered woman in the show Kimiko (who has been much more rounded and much less of a trope in Season 2). It is significant that the point at which these three really ‘get it done’ is when battling another woman as feminism is about being empowered and standing up for your rights on your own terms, it is not about attacking men. Stormfront is actually a male character in the comics but for this moment if for no other it is important that they gender swapped the character here. Later Stormfront is properly debilitated by a young boy defending his mother and she is left well and truly Anakin Skywalkered. Sadly said mother has rarely been more than an extension of her son and her husband’s stories but even though they fridged her at the end, she’s had moments of strength and bravery too.
There is more in this show, both in terms of examining representations of women (in politics, in industry, in the justice system, in law enforcement), in notions of masculinity and in puncturing the superhero genre (there is a particularly interesting inversion of the classic hero on a rooftop framed by the moon image at the end). The Boys is not always an easy watch, it certainly isn’t for the squeamish, but it is highly entertaining and the final episode is satisfying in a way so few Season wrap ups are. More than all of this though is how it plays with notions of gender and how they are presented in a way quite unlike anything else you’ll see right now and that seemed worth mentioning.