By: Phillip Brenfleck
Recently, I’ve been fueling my fascination with the UK with Misfits, the E4 television series that is currently gearing up for its fourth season (or “series,” if you’re from across the pond).
People describe the show in various ways, but for brevity’s sake let me lend you a hand. Think young, British, juvenile delinquents caught in a freak storm that sweeps the city and endows handfuls of average British citizens with super powers. It’s Heroes meets Skins, it’s sexy, vulgar, sci-fi, and downright foul at times. But despite all that, Misfits is exceptional in its handling issues surrounding gender, sex, and sexuality. There are a number of episodes where characters find themselves switching bodies, sexual orientations, gender identities, and/or hooking up with nearly every member of the main gang of protagonists, affectionately referred to as the “ASBO-Five” (ASBO is the British equivalent of a “Disturbing the Peace” violation here in the States).
But one episode in particular deserves the blue ribbon in my book, “Two,” the second episode of Season 3. After the eventful climax of Season 2, the ASBO-Five turn in their powers to a ‘power dealer’ named Seth, who then later sells them new powers: clairvoyance, remote viewing, the brain of a rocket scientist, and the power to change biological genders. The latter was received by our friend Curtis, the one-time track and field all-star and aspiring Olympian who was banned from athletics and trying out for the 2012 Olympic Games after being caught in a night club buying cocaine
Curtis (biologically male) and his biologically female form, Melissa.
Curtis becomes the focus of the episode when, itching for a way to get back into athletics without breaking the terms of his probation, he decides to become Melissa (his female-bodied form) to participate in a women’s track program held at the community center where he carries out his community service. While he walks around in a female body, Curtis becomes hyperaware of just how hard it is to be a woman: his probation worker first asks him out for a drink, then stares at his tits, grabs his ass, and finally calls him a lesbian when he calls him out for being so invasive. This is just the start of Curtis’ crash course in how hard it is to live in a female body.
Curtis (as Melissa) calls out his probation worker for harassing him.
After showing off in the first round of training, Curtis switches back to his male body and sleeps with Emma, a young woman participating in the track program. The next day Emma regales Melissa with the story of how awful Curtis was in bed; Curtis is shocked to learn that he isn’t as smooth or sexy as he thought he was. It goes a step further when Curtis, now biologically female, finds himself more successful pursuing Emma as a woman than as a man. Determined to woo Emma, Curtis (as Melissa) explores masturbation and gradually learns more about sex in a woman’s body – eventually with Emma’s help. Now fully comfortable having sex in his female form, Curtis finally succeeds in dating Emma.
The most powerful moments of the episode begin when Melissa almost becomes the victim of sexual assault when her track coach Mark drugs one of her drinks. Emma walks Melissa out of the party and sits her down while she calls a cab. In this seemingly short time span, two things happen: 1) Rudy, another of the ASBO-5, goes down on Melissa, the entire time the barely conscious Melissa thinking it’s Emma, and 2) after Emma walks in on this happening and angrily leaves, Melissa is quickly taken to a remote parking lot by Mark and is saved from being raped only by her sudden transformation back to Curtis. The next day when Mark tries to blame the incident on how drunk they both were, Melissa does not hesitate to accuse Mark of attempted rape.
Mark, the track coach responsible for the attempted rapes of Melissa and Emma, tied up at the end of the episode.
Things escalate when Emma, too, is almost raped by Mark a few days later. Curtis rushes to her aid in the nick of time and pummels Mark into a bloody pulp before locking him in the back of his own car. The next morning when Emma comes to, Curtis explains the situation he’s been in and shows Emma both of his forms. Emma and Curtis then decide to tie the now naked Mark to the bleachers by the track field, with the words “I DRUG AND RAPE GIRLS” emblazoned onto his chest in black Sharpie. The episode ends, after Emma reluctantly leaves for an indeterminate location, with Curtis confronting Rudy for his earlier sexual activity with the semi-conscious Curtis, and emphasizes the importance of sex only with mutual consent.
In one fell swoop, Misfits addresses issues of gender, sexism, and sexual assault while still maintaining the infallible, vulgar British humor the show is renowned for. The episode manages to engage the audience in many challenges women face, and it goes further by addressing some of the challenges people face when their bodies don’t necessarily match their individual identities. Curtis’ struggles shed light on the daily struggles women face in contemporary society, as well as how hard it is to be to be a man within the body of a woman. The episode starts a conversation about the fallibility of the gender binary, about issues of sexuality and how it intersects with sex and gender, about sexism, rape, and male privilege.
Curtis’ experiences in a woman’s body tells us that it is harder as a female athlete, dealing with the advances of the men around you; that it is harder to manage your relationships with people when the expression of gender people see doesn’t match up with your own gender identity; and that gender is not simple. Curtis courts Emma as both a man and a woman, and Emma remains attracted to him both ways. This might parallel the dynamic in transgender relationships, and how sexuality can change within a relationship once one partner undergoes transgender surgery. Something I particularly appreciated when Curtis transforms back into a man’s body during his attempted rape by Mark was the allusion to the reality that rape does happen to transgender people, or people who express their genders differently.
It’s difficult to do justice to the episode in such a small space, but it is so exciting to see popular British media address these issues without succumbing to stereotypes, and Misfits does an incredible job of it. If you’ve got the time to indulge the show, it is well-worth your time. “Innit.” (sound it out; British parlance for something obvious or appreciable).