The second episode of Titans turned to tropes for its storytelling. It is a disastrous step that the show may not recover from.
The Titans premiere was slow, but managed to be arresting. Sadly, the same thing cannot be said of its follow-up, which has already exposed the show’s problems. A weak plot and patchy acting were the least of the episode’s problems – it was mired by tropes one would not expect to see in a series made in 2018.
We spotted four annoying sexist tropes that cropped up in the second episode. Spoilers ahead!
1 – The Love Triangle
It’s 2018, how are we still defining female characters by their relationship to the men in their lives? That’s so Twilight! Alas, the writers of Titans didn’t get the memo.
Superhero Dove, aka Dawn Granger (Minka Kelly), gets a subversive introduction on the show – she saves her male partner, Hawk, aka Hank Hall (Alan Ritchson), from gun runners who have captured him. Unfortunately, that is where the subversion ends.
Dawn spends the rest of the episode moping over long-lost love Dick Grayson (Brenton Thwaites), a pairing not seen in the comics, caring for the injured Hank, and stopping fights between Dick and Hank when the three of them are together.
In contrast to Dawn, who fights because she loves Hank, Hank Hall is motivated by his desire to do good in the world, to cure his injuries, to find a better life for Dawn and himself. All this for a character who has less screen-time in the episode than Dawn.
Romance has consistently been a problem for female characters in superhero franchises. Whereas male characters are given myriad personality traits, female characters, if they are even included, tend to be motivated solely by the love they have for men.
How fascinating would it have been for the roles to be reversed? For Dawn to be the reckless hero desperate to do good, and to power through her injuries, with Hank just along for the ride because he loves her? It can’t be this hard to write nuanced female characters in this century!
2 – Maternal Instincts
There’s one aspect about female characters that has been consistently infuriating – reducing them to their maternal instincts.
When Dick Grayson brings Rachel Roth (Teagan Croft) to Dawn and Hank, it isn’t just to find a place where they will be safe – Dick’s secret plan is to leave Rachel with Dawn and Hank so that he can go back to his investigation.
Let’s break this down. Dick Grayson, who was mentored by the world’s greatest detective, plans to leave a terrified child who trusts no one but him, with a couple who he last saw four years ago, and who most likely have zero experience working with children. Because, that’s the smart thing to do, right?
Leaving aside the fact that this is a dreadful take on the character of Dick, why would he feel comfortable taking Rachel to Dawn and Hank instead of Alfred Pennyworth, who practically raised Bruce Wayne and Dick on his own? Because Dawn is a woman and thus, will automatically be equipped to care for said child? The subtext of the episode seems to reinforce this.
All the while that Rachel is with Dick, she is sullen and afraid. The moment she is with Dawn, she becomes bright and chirpy, laughing for the first time in the show. Dick even asks Dawn about this sudden change. Dawn simply says that she didn’t treat Rachel like a child, the way Dick does. Did her special ‘woman powers’ magically show her how to do that?
It is also infuriating because the narrative doesn’t have the same expectations of Hank as it does of Dawn. Hank has nothing to do with Rachel at all, which makes Dick’s decision to leave the child with them even more suspect. No matter how much money he leaves Dawn and Hank, Dawn will have to do the heavy-lifting, with Hank being the aloof father stand-in, if that.
If there is a child involved in a story, the narrative immediately has the child gravitate towards the only female character around. There was hope after the first episode that Titans would subvert that expectation with Dick taking Rachel under his wing, but the series decided to go down the traditional route. This is either lazy writing or evidence of the writers’ complete lack of understanding of women and the female audiences tuning in to the show.
3 – Chosen One
Films, especially those with fantasy elements, often rely on the trope of the Chosen One – that one character who was always ‘normal’ but is now on a grand journey to save/ destroy the world. Titans episode two heavily plays into this trope.
In the premiere for the show, viewers were introduced to Rachel’s powers, and that she had the potential to open a doorway that would bring about the destruction of the world. Rachel’s ‘Chosen One’ identity was further solidified by the fact that Starfire, all the way in Austria, was also searching for her.
In episode two, the show doubles down on the ‘Chosen One’ concept. When Dick Grayson is contacted by his partner Amy Rohrbach (Lindsay Gort), she informs him of a cult that is after Rachel. Later in the episode, an entire sleeper cell of assassins is activated with the sole purpose of finding Rachel.
The Chosen One trope isn’t inherently problematic – everyone wants to be a hero and entertainment media is ideally placed to show the everyman as the sole hero.
The trope becomes a problem when it is incorrectly applied, which too often happens with female characters. Whereas male Chosen Ones, like Neo from The Matrix, Harry Potter, and Emmett from The Lego Movie, get to be Chosen Ones with defined arcs and measurable actions, female Chosen Ones like Jupiter Jones in Jupiter Ascending, and to some extent, Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games series, are mere props, displayed for all to see but with little to no agency. In other words, men get to do things, women get to motivate men to do things.
We are seeing parts of this trope in Rachel’s characterization. She doesn’t do anything, at least not wilfully. Till now, her soul-self has attacked when threatened, and presumably it will have more agency in coming episodes, but Rachel, the character viewers are seeing on-screen most of the time, has no agency or growth. She exists merely to instigate those around her to action. There is still a hope that this will change soon but I’m not holding my breath.
4 – Faux-Fridging
Partway through the episode, Amy Rohrbach is attacked in her own home by the sleeper cell assassins. Their mission is to find Dick Grayson, and they will get their information any way they can. Rohrback is threatened, slashed, and beaten, all because the assassins want to find Dick.
We see this far too often – a woman put in peril because someone wants something from a man. The fact that the assassins find Dick means that Rohrbach likely gave up the information. What did she have to endure to do such a thing? We don’t know. Rohrbach’s fate is left to be discovered in the next episode because the narrative is too eager to move on to its more important target, Dick Grayson.
In the closing moments, we are witness to an even worse event – the assassins attack Dick, Hank, Dawn and Rachel on a roof-top. None of them are prepared, and thus not in costume. Dick is almost immediately dispensed with, which makes no sense because he’s Robin, the Boy Wonder, and Hank and Dawn are left to fight on their own. But while Hank struggles, Dawn is batted away and falls to the ground many feet below. When Dick finds her, Dawn is practically dying. The episode closes with Dick trying to resuscitate her but it looks quite dire for the character.
The term ‘fridging’ very specifically alludes to a female character being killed primarily to motivate a male character or to advance their story. From time immemorial, writers have turned to killing or raping the women in male characters’ lives as a source of motivation. But, in recent years, the practice has been called out by female fans. Sadly, that hasn’t stopped male writers from continuing it.
Just this year, fans accused Avengers: Infinity War of fridging Gamora primarily for the advancement of Thanos and Star-Lord’s arcs. Noticeably, Gamora’s death appears to have little to no impact on her sister, Nebula. Another film in another franchise, Pacific Rim: Uprising fridged the beloved character Mako Mori from the first film to motivate her brother, Jake Pentecost. Neither Gamora nor Mako Mori were allowed to enjoy arcs of their own. That right there is the problem with fridging – it elevates the needs of a male character over that of a female character.
The Arrowverse, of which Titans is not a part of, though many of the crew are shared between the shows, has long struggled with its fridging problems. What we are seeing with Titans may not be out and out fridging – that is too easy for fans to call out. We are instead being treated to faux-fridging: Female characters are being hurt, but not killed, for the motivation of the men in their lives.
Rohrbach and Dawn will likely be back in upcoming episodes, but they are not going to be the same, not after what they have just suffered. The men in their lives – Dick and Hank – will probably be unscathed. There is no excuse for treating female characters as second-class citizens. That Titans has chosen to go down this path is deeply troubling.
The Titans premiere had its problems but it appeared to be headed in a refreshing direction. But the second episode has gone back ten steps, relying on outdated tropes and a narrow point of view to tell a badly-evolved narrative. It is early days yet and one can hope that the show is still salvageable, but Titans is going to have to do something incredible if it is going to win back fans.