TW: This article contains mentions of Sexual Assault
Amazon’s The Boys is not your everyday superhero show. Co-created by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and adapted from the comic book by Garth Ennis and artist Darick Robertson, The Boys is an absurd yet satirical superhero series that discusses issues that are culturally and politically relevant in real-life, such as the Me Too movement, white nationalism and the relevance of the superhero genre in the entertainment industry.
In this dystopian universe where superheroes and big corporations control the media and manipulate the public to gain popularity, The Seven – Vought’s manufactured group of superheroes – are not like the Marvel or DC superheroes. They don’t really care about saving the world and making a difference. They care about ratings, popularity and sponsorship deals. Due to their immense popularity, The Seven are treated as high authority by everyone who works with them and as a result, bear no consequences for their damages; Vought will always be there to save the day. So, they exploit people who are inferior to them and use their power and status to get what they want. For example, Homelander (Antony Starr) uses his power to rape and murder people, The Deep (Chace Crawford) sexually assaults women whilst Translucent (Alex Hassel) spies on people in the bathroom without their consent. To expose Vought and this group of ego-driven superheroes, a group of mercenaries headed by Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso), Frenchie (Tomer Kapon) and Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid) are tasked to take them down.
In season one, The Boys explores sexual assault of female superheroes and how big corporations like Vought do not care about victims or survivors of such events. The story begins when Starlight (Erin Moriarty) auditions to be part of The Seven after Lamplighter (Shawn Ashmore) retires. The Deep shows her around Vought’s headquarters and Starlight confesses that The Deep is her favourite member of the group. Then, The Deep forces her to perform sexual favours to stop her from being fired.
Although the assault is not shown on screen, the scene is uncomfortable. Starlight is mortified and The Deep uses manipulation tactics to coerce her into performing this act. This experience changes Starlight’s perspective of what it means to be a ‘superhero’. She had always dreamed to be a part of The Seven and her ambition to use her power for good is shattered because of the terrible experience. In the comic book, Starlight is left to deal with the assault behind-the-scenes and The Deep does not face any consequences for his actions. However, in bringing the scene from page to screen, showrunner Eric Kripe changed the storyline after female writers convinced him that it must be added to the show as it is relevant as a result of the Harvey Weinstein case and the MeToo movement.
When Starlight finally speaks about her assault in public, it is received very well – her ratings and popularity increase, which pleases the higher ups at Vought, but what comes after is horrifying. Vought’s CEO Madelyn Stillwell (Elizabeth Shue) is aware of who she spoke out against and they are willing to protect The Deep, despite his repeated history of inappropriate behaviour. But when Starlight refused to comply with their demands, they reminded her that reporting the sexual assault, it would not only ruin Vought’s reputation, she might lose her job. Later, Stillwell forces The Deep to make a scripted apology in public and he gets demoted from The Seven. This is a reference to parodical admissions from celebrities who have been accused of similar offences such as former television hosts, Bill O’ Reilly and Matt Laurer were forced to resign after they were accused of sexual misconduct in the workplace.
Starlight’s reaction to the whole incident opens her eyes to the true nature of Vought. She realises that her safety was not a priority for them and they were more interested in themselves and the reputation of the other superheroes. The violence she faced is ignored completely by Stillwell and they demand that she make some changes to her image, such as wearing a more revealing costume. They then exploit her speech and ratings to make her a feminist icon, not because they care about her, but because they were only thinking about the corporation.
Just as how the first season tackles sexual assault, the second season dives into female empowerment and queer liberation. This season also introduces another female superhero Klara Risinger/Liberty/Stormfront (Aya Cash) and Vought launches a new campaign to introduce her to the world. The campaign, “Girls Get It Done” with Stormfront, Starlight and Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligot) is in part to promote Vought’s new stance on feminism to appeal to the public. But Vought’s approach to the campaign relies on cliched ‘girl power’ catchphrases and press junkets to promote that feminist strength comes from wearing revealing clothes and knee-high boots. What is similar to Starlight’s sexual assault and the campaign is that the female superheroes are not given any control or agency to control.
As the season proceeds to the end, it is revealed that Stormfront is a Nazi and she has been and she is the first successful Compound V subject and Vought’s founder, Federick Vought’s widow. She recruits Homelander and wants him to lead Aryan-race superheroes by distributing Compound-V, a drug used to create superhumans with extraordinary abilities, to the public. Her mission is to get rid of non-superhuman people.
Stormfront’s arc is an examination of the mainstream ideas of feminism built on white supremacy and protecting whiteness, as she incites violence on stage and promotes her white supremacist ideology through The Seven. Realistically and historically, white women are more concerned about protecting their white womanhood. Online media propaganda machine, Breitbart and the white supremacist rally in Charlottsville are inspirations for the second season. White nationalism propaganda being spread across online media and being consumed by people are parodied as real-life events.
During a rally, Stormfront’s xenophobic, hate-mongering speech radicalises a young man, who mistakes a convenience store clerk for a superhero and shoots him. Publicly, Stormfront and Homelander condemns the attack but this is once again, an act. In another episode, Stormfront murders and hurts characters of colour, Kimiko/The Female (Karen Fukuhara) and a Black family without a second thought. She shows no remorse or sympathy towards the victims. Stormfront understands branding and Vought’s power and she uses social media to preach her ideas. During an investigation to stop Homelander, Hughie, Mother’s Milk and Starlight find out that Stormfront/Liberty committed a racist murder in 1970s. If anything, this storyline is deeply reflective of what kind of world we are living in right now.
To add more fuel into Vought’s female superheroes agency, when Homelander outs Queen Maeve’s relationship with Elena (Nicola Correia-Damude), Vought decides to use that as an advantage for their brand and promote queer products. Queen Maeve, who is bisexual, is branded off as a lesbian while Elena is forced to be part of Vought’s plan to sell more merchandise. The marketing team reveals a plan to give them a makeover and establish a clear-cut gender role relationship despite her reluctance to be part of their plans to become a more queer friendly corporation. When Elena starts to protest Vought’s new strategy, Queen Maeve convinces her that going against the company would put them more in danger.
By highlighting the satirisation of how companies use queer liberation and female empowerment as a tool to boost their business, it is a reflection of what some studios are showing in their movies. In The Boys, the “Girls Get It Done” was a direct satirical target to Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame. The campaign was written in the show because Rebecca Sonneshine, a producer, was appalled at the forceful get-together scene of all the female superheroes in Avengers: Endgame. She found the “she’s got help” scene to be condescending, only written in the film to pander to the audience. The scene felt random considering none of these characters has ever met before. Despite the positive intention of the scene, it does not pay off as the female heroes were only seen fighting together for a few seconds.
In the last episode of the season, when Queen Maeve, Kimiko and Starlight beat the hell out of Stormfront, it made sense. Because of the current political climate, it was satisfying to see a Nazi getting stomped on screen. The reason why the season finale works well is that the characters have an established history whereas in Avengers: Endgame female superheroes do not. It was not random or shown in a way to pander an audience but, for the sake of the story that was built through storytelling. The fighting scene had an emotional relevance to that moment and it was empowering to see the female superheroes beat a Nazi on screen. Stormfront’s arc ends perfectly as it feels like an expected catharsis to the story. It builds on the foundation of Stormfront’s racism and white nationalism without the sake of only existing to pander to the audience.
The superhero genre has somewhat changed with the adaptation of The Boys. While there have been many satirical movies and TV shows that discuss the exploitation and idolization of superhero culture, The Boys does it in a way that is unique to the current political climate. It is ashow that offers a social commentary of many of the issues that people face such as sexual assault in the workplace, and the rise of white supremacy in America, and the way celebrities exploit their image to pander to their fans. As both of the seasons discuss issues that are relevant to the times, it would be interesting to what the writers come up with in the next season.