If you’ve ever binged “iZombie,” CW’s dramedy about a 20-something zombie who solves crime by eating the brains of murder victims, you’ve probably wondered what you would do if you, too, were a sexually active zombie.
The character Liv Moore (Rose McIver) struggles with this dilemma constantly. She’s a zombie; her boyfriend is not. Sexual activity leads to the passing of the zombie virus. It’s not just swapping body fluids through sex, a simple scratch initiates the transfer. Kissing is okay; biting is not. Condoms won’t stop it, either. And under the influence of zombie brains, Liv isn’t quite herself, adopting some of the tendencies and perception of her latest meal. (Her past victims have included a dominatrix, an erotica-writing librarian and a hedonistic artist.)
There’s an upside, though — at least for the audience. The consequences of Liv’s meals create a platform for the characters to frequently check in. They acknowledge lapses in reason, work to find mutual comfort levels, and have ongoing discussions about what consensual sex within a complex relationship can look like.
Mainstream TV has a consent problem, and it’s more than just #problematic. Crime shows blur the humanity of sexual assault victims. Romantic comedies translate gas-lighting and stalking as acts of love. Often, when consent is blatantly woven into the narrative, its nuances are lost. Frequently neglected: The “checking in” factor — things like “Are you okay?” “Does this feel good?” “What does it mean if we do this?” Consent is not to be taken for granted by any partner, no matter the depth of their relationship — but many times, in pop culture, it is.
The dire consequences of turning someone into a supernatural or monstrous being serve as a natural catalyst for these conversations. Widely, the conscientious monsters, creatures and spirits of contemporary fantasy and horror TV figure out how to navigate healthy sexual relationships with their mortal romantic counterparts. Not just because of the risks involved, but because it solidifies their partnership in the eyes of the viewer, and in turn, makes them more human.
“It may be because it’s about a power dynamic — what they’re negotiating is, ‘I can do something that might hurt you, so we should talk about that.’ But in reality, that’s true for all of us. All of us have the ability to hurt our sex partners, some ways more obvious than others,” says Jaclyn Friedman, author of “Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power, and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All.”
While not perfect, the layers of fantasy and metaphor can make these conversations easier to digest. It also provides a workaround for the expected “awkward” consent script young people seem to be so averse to. But why have monsters been able to become more progressive than the rest of us?
“We can talk about consent when it’s a zombie and laugh,” Friedman continues. “But to say each of us has a responsibility to our partner’s happiness, it contains a nugget of truth that if we don’t pay attention to our partner, we can hurt them.”
Probably the most sexualized of the monster world, the vampire with a conscience is a relatively new development. David Baker teaches film studies at Griffith University in Brisbane and is the author of “Hospitality, Rape and Consent in Vampire Popular Culture.” He notes that Edward Cullen’s and Angel’s consciences may have evolved in response to the thorny, contemporary conversation around consent.
“Vampires are interesting because they allow for culture to express the issues without feeling they have a clear sense of them,” Baker explains. He suspects the pop culture emergence of “attractive, sympathetic, sexy and misunderstood vampires who have serious problems with impulse control” may be a response to the popularity among female fans. “The shows need to negotiate the relationship with the woman because they want to maintain a certain strength on her part,” he adds. “It must be a wider social question. It must be part to second-wave feminism and equality — men’s relationships with women have changed, and forms of consent became more important.”
An earlier iteration of this arrived via “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which has sparked discussions around the complexities of consent within a BDSM relationship, rape through identity deception, and the fluidity of gender roles. Despite their otherworldliness, the characters maintained human dynamics, meaning they have an impact on the way we think and consider each other.
“While ‘Buffy’ and other fantasy and horror series might feature monsters and the supernatural, with action and spectacle, they also engage viewers through emotional realism,” “Buffy” scholar and University of Northampton teacher Lorna Jewett writes in an email. “The fantasy elements might even allow sufficient safe distance between viewers and the situations depicted to encourage conversation about how the characters or story line managed consent.”
“A lot of the plotlines add complexity to what consent might be — it’s portrayed carefully and interestingly,” notes Matthew Pateman, a professor at Edge Hill University and author of “The Aesthetics of Culture in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” He adds that the first season uniquely shattered the consent myth that sexual betrayal involves a male pursuer and female victim. (Xander falls in love with a “praying mantis”-like creature who has taken the form of an attractive female teacher to seduce male virgins.)
Still, these monsters present gratuitous examples of bad judgment, too. Even Liv Moore “brain-roofies” her non-zombie boyfriend with horny librarian brains to get him in the mood. (She quickly admits guilt before any activity takes place.) And the series’ actors themselves have been the subject of allegations of sexual misconduct. (Requests to participate in this story went unanswered by the show’s publicist.)
But it is the many shades around what leads to considerate, responsible sexual activity that may pay off.
“Regardless of age, most people don’t have good examples of what affirmative consent or good sexual communication should look like. Having a culture where it’s the norm on TV or in movies, where if when people were sexual, they talked about, you could see how many ways it can happen,” Friedman says. “It’s this idea that you need a signed permission slip, ‘Can I touch your left breast: yes or no?’ If we had a robust tapestry of couples talking about sex in infinity different ways, it would all seem more natural.”