If you haven’t been watching The Orville, or if you’re not the type to keep track of episode titles, you may not be familiar with Cupid’s Dagger. The Orville is a series that has proven quite divisive among audiences. Despite a rocky start, The Orville quickly began thoughtfully tackling complicated issues with nuanced sensitivity. As of now, the vast majority of the aired episodes stand out as challenging science fiction that elevates the series to that rare class of parody that doesn’t just mock its genre but truly aspires to the best of what it can produce.
But, we desperately need to talk critically about episode 9 of the first season, titled Cupid’s Dagger.
Spoiler Warning: I’m about to tell you everything that happens in Cupid’s Dagger. I don’t necessarily recommend watching it before reading on, just… be aware. I’m throwing it all out here.
In Cupid’s Dagger, the crew of the Orville is sent on a mission of peace to help negotiate the future of two species in conflict over a world they each claim as their origin. Each of the two species has sent an ambassador to negotiate aboard the Orville as Darulio (played by Rob Lowe), a third party archeologist, analyzes an ancient artifact from the planet to identify which race truly lived on the planet first. While Darulio performs his investigation, Cmdr. Kelly Grayson (played by Adrianne Palicki) approaches him for a sexual encounter. Shortly thereafter, the captain of the Orville (played by Seth Macfarlane) also becomes infatuated with Darulio and also has a sexual encounter with the archeologist.
These serial romantic encounters play off of the larger context of the characters involved in a way that is not pertinent to this story, and so I’m going to gloss over the character drama caused by them. The main effect is that the crew is distracted, and fails to properly maintain diplomacy between the visiting ambassadors. This negligence results in the assembling of the respective fleets of each species around the disputed planet.
This is where things get sticky. What comes next is why we have to have an uncomfortable talk. We find that Darulio is a member of a species that regularly secretes a hormone that chemically compels those in contact with it into sexual relationships with those around them. The crew of the ship then uses the chemical on the visiting ambassadors to deliberately compel them into a sexual relationship in order to manipulate them into ceasing hostilities long enough to provide the results initially promised by the archeological component of the negotiations.
Some of you may be savvy enough to have picked up on what happened there: the protagonists deliberately used chemicals to manipulate people into engaging sexually. This is rape, and it is never addressed by the plot. In a show that has previously shown great consideration of its subject matter, the unexamined use of rape to resolve the core conflict displays a disgusting lack of social awareness. It is a throwback to the days when protagonists could unapologetically commit horrifying atrocities. Moreover, this unexamined use of rape is a textbook example of rape culture.
I want you to know that I am aware that this term can be overused. I have seen it used to target entire groups blindly. Entire genders have been blanketed by this term. But here and now, we have such an extreme textbook example, that we have to use these words to acknowledge what has happened. If you are not familiar with rape culture, here is the definition:
Rape Culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence is excused and normalized in the media and popular culture.
This definition is important because it cites 3 specific criteria that define rape culture (It is uncomfortable to say, and it’s uncomfortable to read those words over and over again, but this issue is critical to our culture, and it must be emphasized and so I must be explicit about the issue we are talking about.):
- The rape must be prevalent.
- The rape must be excused.
- The rape must be normalized.
Even a show I love cannot be excused from this criticism, and so I am going to identify how Cupid’s Dagger meets all 3 of these criteria definitively.
First, it must be pointed out that the rape is the most prevalent aspect Cupid’s Dagger. It permeates the plot from beginning to end as multiple characters are similarly taken advantage of while their judgment is compromised chemically. Ultimately, the climax of the episode is resolved by the subversion of the free will of the ambassadors at the most critical moment in which the threat is resolved by the protagonist. This is the most definitive element of the most important scene.
Second, the rape is excused by the protagonists as the solution to their problems. Their negligence throughout the episode results in a final conflict to which they have no reasonable answer. By resolving this conflict through the subjugation of free choice, the show excuses the rape as a viable solution without ever challenging whether or not it should or should not be used. In failing to acknowledge the moral issue in chemically manipulating the judgment of a third party, The Orville suggests that is an acceptable solution that needs no excuse when the need arises.
Finally, in Cupid’s Dagger the rape is normalized by failing to ever call it by name. Rape. A harsh word that implies so much emotional torment and pain that it is agonizing to even read. By not acknowledging that what we are seeing is rape, The Orville depicts these events as so normal that they are not even considered in this context.
Unfortunately, this episode of The Orville perfectly meets the criteria required to qualify as a textbook example of rape culture in modern media. I still love this show and feel that it has displayed an abundance of sensitivity in many of its episodes. However, this does not excuse what happened here. This was a failure of perspective that escaped everyone responsible for shaping what was presented to viewers.
It’s important that we talk about it, too. I know that the term is abused. It’s difficult to look at. It’s difficult to hear. Often it’s used controversially for attention. I plead with you to look past all of that and see what is truly important here. It is essential that we point it out when confronted with a textbook example of the prevalent, excused, and normalized use of rape in our media.
By talking about it we label it for what it is. I cannot stress how critical this is to prevent the attitudes and ideas that allowed this to happen from spreading. I’m not asking you to avoid this show or boycott its creators, only to be a part of the conversation. If we all talk about this together in order to be aware of the media we consume, we can prevent this from becoming normal. We deserve better from creators. We deserve better from our society.