In this, the Year of our Lord 2019, there should be no reason to go fridging a woman. And if doing so once might be regarded as a misfortune, to do it twice in service of the same male character just seems like carelessness.
Welcome to The Umbrella Academy: the Netflix / Dark Horse comic book adaptation that hasn’t met a trope it didn’t immediately adopt. With promising diversity in its casting, it could all have gone so much more right. Though, in retrospect, starting with sudden forced births from 43 unsuspecting women – who until that day didn’t even know they were pregnant – should have been a sign of lack of female autonomy to come.
If the execution is complex, the premise is simple enough: billionaire widower Reginald Hargreeves amasses a group of these special children to develop and exploit their powers, harnessing them into the titular crime-fighting supergroup while creepily dressing them in school uniform and eye-masks. Comic books and their adaptations have never shied away from examining the consequences of superheroics on friends and romantic relationships; The Umbrella Academy deliberately hones in on family. Arriving hot on the heels of the superior Titans, DC’s brooding take on the Robin-focussed Batman spin-off, it seems we currently have a glut of examinations about adolescence, maturity and power – which, to be fair, is rich metaphorical territory.
Dysfunctional family relationships do, to some extent, need to be relatable. And in a show with immensely complex – some might say messy – world building and multiple individual parent-child and sibling-to-sibling relationships to make sense of, it does follow that a certain reliance on stereotype might be necessary just to move things along. But when that’s all the character development there is, it gets pretty wearying, pretty quickly. Gender is just one aspect the show is forced to oversimplify through hackneyed tropes – but it’s arguably the most widespread and egregious.
There’s a lot to unpack in just the two female members of the seven-strong sibling superhero squad. Vanya is ignored and sidelined by her ice-cold adoptive father because she appears to have no powers at all – although since she’s played by Ellen Page it’s no spoiler to suggest that by the end of the ten episode run she’ll come out in spectacular style. By contrast, Alison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) has the superpower of… gossip. She has simply to speak a rumour to bring it to life, literally weaponizing bitchiness. But for the last two episodes of the season she can’t even do that; her vocal cords are severed in what could easily be characterised as a violent cat fight with her sister.
That fight is over the actions of a man, because both are mired in complicated romantic entanglements. Vanya takes up with a mystery man so obviously not to be trusted that if you cut him in half the word ‘creep’ would be stamped through him like rings in a tree. Meanwhile Alison, who can at least see that Vanya is dancing with disaster, does her own quickstep around the possibilities with her almost abusively overbearing adoptive brother Luther (Tom Hopper). The same Luther who, realising in the climactic showdown with Vanya that a voiceless Alison is near useless in a fight, uses her as bait while declaring she’ll “thank them later”.
Of course, if these young women seem a little emotionally stunted in their relationships, they have struggled for want of a decent mother figure. Their nanny-mother, Grace, is actually a Stepford robot who exists to serve at the most basic essential levels: feeding, nursing and tucking in. Plot-wise, she also serves to come to an impressive number of sticky ends. At least there is an ostensible reason that she’s not fully human; sadly, it’s because she replaces a string of casually murdered, all female nannies who fall foul of the young Vanya’s uncontrolled powers (ultimately coercively repressed through medication and the manipulation of Alison’s own gift). And since The Umbrella Academy has not one but three mother figures who are, at various times, dead, absent or both – a sheer Disneyverse of half-orphans – it’s no wonder everyone in it is stuck in suspended adolescence. In the case of Number Five (Aidan Gallagher), an ageing time-traveller trapped in his own teenage body, it’s a physical as well as emotional cage.
This might go some way to explaining why Alison is also a borderline neglectful parent, having lost custody of the daughter she only occasionally seems to remember in part because she succumbed to using her powers to end tantrums. As an aside, surely the biggest challenge to our suspension of disbelief is accepting that any co-parent would find this unethical rather than absolutely brilliant. But by the time she is finally ready to connect emotionally from afar with her daughter, her brother has to assume both the duty and the words she wants to say since she’s no longer able to speak.
Outside the household, things teeter on the brink of improvement. There’s a smart, capable cop, though she’s swiftly finished off to give her knife-flinging obsessive ex – who pays little to no attention to her personal or professional boundaries – a purpose. There’s Cha Cha, Mary J. Blige’s brutal assassin, whose behaviour is frequently internally incoherent as she veers from single-minded dedication to wavering uncertainty without any sense of why she might experience either. There’s a rather sweet older woman, Agnes, who is at least an object of desire, although her own interests are fifty percent doughnuts, fifty percent birds. And there’s the mysterious Handler of the shady time police who is at least intriguing, even if her primary personality trait appears to be red high heels. Oh, and let’s not forget the thirty year relationship that Number Five has with half a battered shop mannequin. Well, she’s a great conversationalist.
Respectively, these women and women substitutes will suffer: cold-blooded murder; a deliberately engineered car crash; first being decommissioned by one family member then destroyed by another; having their throat slashed open by their closest female family; being mentally tortured, physically restrained and then attacked by their siblings; and being blown up (and then shot). While their male counterparts also see a level of aggression – it’s a stupendously violent show – the relentless fixation with the mental and physical destruction of women, only to regularly bring them back to life and repeat the process, seeps through the show like bin juice through a garbage bag. Only one man suffers to the same extent, having entered the fray already fragile and addicted, and since Klaus (Robert Sheehan) is also the only openly gay character it seems true to stereotypical form that he is bogged down in self-hatred and tortured by both himself and others.
And so we come full circle to traumatised Vanya and the discovery of her apocalyptic powers which, of course, she’s too emotionally incompetent to control (such hysteria!). It’s unclear whether this is supposed to be a metaphor for repressed sexuality or oppressed female agency but what it comes through as clearest of all is an attempt to excuse repeated torture porn by making one woman technically the most powerful of them all. A bit like the MCU sheepishly saving the lone female lead for last by pulling Captain Marvel out of the deck, the only answer to an overcrowded sausage fest seems to be to make a woman go nuclear. But socially awkward, unloved Vanya is barely in control of herself even before she’s tricked off her sedatives (a side note that veers close to dangerous ableism around medication for mental health) and encouraged to find her voice. Her transition from caged puppy to savage Rottweiler is as sudden and senseless as it is frustratingly predictable. Moreover, the fact that the setup to a proposed second season is to take her back in time and “fix her”, as if she were a rescue dog in need of neutering, is frankly insulting both to women and to Page’s herculean attempts to make the character workable.
If The Umbrella Academy is to make it through a second season, it will need to rapidly simplify both the number and tenor of its character arcs. In doing so, the writers might also consider giving at least one woman the unwavering moral code of Luther, the empathetic sensitivity of Klaus, the unwarranted confidence of Diego or even the mathematical prowess of Number Five. Rather than ticking off casting diversity boxes at the most tokenistic levels, they might consider inviting some women into the writers’ room who could tell them a few things. Things like how many red flags would go off in any woman’s mind after ten minutes with Leonard. Or how it’s possible to crave a simple life and not be a dimwit. Or even that the women in Diego’s life don’t all have to die to give him a reason to live.