The thing I like the most about this episode of Misfits – apart from everything – is that it only could have been done on Misfits. Is it perhaps the most direct attempt by a fictional TV show to address issues of gender, sexuality, rape & rape culture, and queerness, but because it’s Misfits, it doesn’t turn into a preachy Very Special Episode. Instead it’s borderline genius at both entertaining and expressing a view of social importance.
The defining scene of the episode comes in a climactic confrontation in the locker room, with all of the misfits, as well as the probation worker and guest star Emma, confronting Curtis-as-Melissa. Overwhelmed, she bursts out saying “You have no idea what it’s like to be a woman!” Having a male character spend a few days as female and bust out a line so direct should go over like a lead balloon of preachiness. But it doesn’t, because it’s Misfits, and Misfits has three advantages: it’s speculative fiction, it’s profane, and anything can happen on this show.
One of the biggest advantages that speculative fiction has over other genres is that it can use its magic/science to reflect tricky real-world situations. Buffy The Vampire Slayer can express its heroine’s anxiety about growing up by having a demon related to her current predicament. Star Trek can show the danger of a form of political discourse by having an extreme variation on that on an alien planet. So Misfits having a superpower that allows one of its characters to examine gender relatively incredibly easily, without having to make the major decision to dress in drag or undergo any kind of transgender process. And it’s also aided by the fact that it makes sense in-context. We know that Curtis has this power from the last week, and all 14 previous episodes make us aware that there are powers which have some rules – it’s not out of nowhere.
This isn’t Tyra Banks in a fatsuit, Curtis literally does become a woman. He literally does have to deal with someone grabbing his ass, having his drink spiked, being hit on constantly. He also gets to see some advantages, like the female orgasm. So his “You have no idea what it’s like to be a woman!” is a process we’ve seen. He’s learned, in a few days, how things are different, because the SF aspect of the show allows him to.
That helps Curtis’s line have meaning, but the jokes afterward prevent the scene from turning into a Big (Boring) Feminist Moment. Rudy is hacking up the pube he has in his throat, and everyone notices that Curtis-as-Melissa has started her period, staining her white running shorts. Drama followed by comedy, profound mixing with profane. I wrote about this for the TV Club Advent Calendar a few weeks ago, thanks to the South Park Christmas special with “Mr. Hankey, The Christmas Poo”. My core theory there was in order for the social norms of a Christmas special to be reinforced, those norms have to be legitimately transgressed. To take that point and make it a little broader to encompass this episode of Misfits, I think that in order for a show to make such earnest points, it has to be willing to seemingly undercut those points. But this doesn’t actually negate it, it reinforces Curtis’s budding feminism by leaving his statement up in force, followed by entertainment and not a lecture. Or, to be even more straightforward: Misfits can be extremely political because it’s also extremely entertaining.
Part of the reason for that entertainment is that, more than just about any other show, there’s a feeling that anything can happen. The blend of comedy, soap opera melodrama, and horror & danger means that I can imagine just about any result of any situation. A dude who could make milk explode comedically turned into a villain who went on a murdering spree. Superhoodie was only killed by video game character. Or the death of a creepy stalker probation worker turned into something funny and sweet when Simon hung out with her corpse. Pretty much all I’m certain of is that the five main characters won’t die in an early-season episode (while a later episode is of course fair game).
Could they be raped, though? Yes, it’s possible. I didn’t want Curtis-as-Melissa to be raped, but I considered it entirely possible – that would make for an interesting enough story moving forward. And as for Emma, well, it’s not like Misfits is exactly good to its love interest guest stars. She easily could have ended up in a shallow grave like Nikki or Charlie or Nathan’s brother, so the fact that she got away relatively unscathed and happy was surprising and inspiring.
At any rate, at the point where Melissa makes the dramatic statement about not knowing what it’s like to be a woman, all we know is that she was just drugged and sexually assaulted, her friends don’t know it’s her, and her crush/budding relationship has just gone horribly wrong. And it’s entirely possible that none of these things will be resolved in any kind of happy fashion (well, bad guys usually get their comeuppance, but sometimes they do massive damage first). So all that drama and melodrama adds up to a tense scene that needs release and resolution. Curtis-as-Melissa shouts everyone down, which amusingly releases tension for comedy, then comes the period and its jokes to continue that release.
So that combination of profanity, speculative fiction, and tension combine to let Misfits get away with saying what it’s trying to say without seeming preachy or boring. But what is it actually saying? What it seems to me to be is the best entertaining, mass media depiction of queerness I’ve seen. When Simon asks Curtis if he’s a lesbian because Curtis enjoys sex as Melissa, Curtis says “I don’t think there’s an official term for this shit.” He’s saying he doesn’t fit into the binaries of straight/gay, male/female, because now he crosses those boundaries. And yes, some of that is because he has a supernatural ability not present in the real world, but what Curtis describes and experiences is a transgendered state that can be similar to real-world people who start to break gender and sexuality boundaries in unconventional, queer fashion.
It’s not perfect, and it’s not likely to be used as a replacement for Judith Butler in advanced theory classes, but that’s another part of why I like it. Curtis, and the show, and to take it a little further, media representation are all struggling with this. It’s highly unlikely that most people would (or should) consider Rudy’s defense of his behavior to be something simply to be laughed off, but that’s probably better than Curtis suddenly turning into an angry radical feminist. It’s not about having the answers to everything, but it’s about the freedom of figuring out the questions. Curtis feels free when he breaks out of his gender and its rigid roles. And although that role is partially specific to him, it’s also partially about him being able to fight free of the social construction of gender, which he finds invigorating although not without its consequences.
I joked with media studies professor Chris Becker on Twitter after this aired that this episode was going to launch a thousand conference papers. I hope it does, and I hope it shows up in a thousand more “Intro to…” classes. Not because it will be the magic bullet that helps people understand queerness, but because it’ll be a great way to open the door to discussions about it. That it’s a wildly entertaining episode as well? That’s a rare and special combination, and it’s one that makes this episode of Misfits a worthy addition to a theoretical Television Hall Of Fame.
- “I’m not a complete caveman!”
- Alisha may have her best moment, showing Curtis how he jerked it around her when they were together. Also an interesting use of the “male gaze” to show Curtis’s perspective of Alisha miming him.
- We’re not supposed to give A+ grades, especially for currently-airing shows. But if something belongs in the Television Hall Of Fame, well, I think that speaks for itself.