Billed initially as Harry Potter for grownups, Syfy’s The Magicians didn’t start as a “woke” show. It began as a voyeuristic fantasy for the straight, nerdy, white male. The show promised to push the envelope by deconstructing traditional fantasy tropes without really changing the underlying power structures that underpinned the genre.
Based on the Lev Grossman book of the same name, The Magicians lamented the objectification of women while narratively raping its female leads. It mocked tokenism while not giving its brown characters much to do. The concept of the heroes journey may have been called into question relentlessly throughout the first and second season, but ultimately the protagonist was a brooding, white man thrust into a quest to overcome a big bad.
The show changed in its third season, and the reason why has everything to do with the way the #metoo movement has impacted the entertainment industry as well as society at large. The show represents a living, breathing, albeit imperfect, impression of sexual and racial mores evolving before us in real time.
Syfy’s Icky, “Problematic” Past
In the late aughts and early 2010s, the public was starting to warm up to science fiction and fantasy again. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) had just launched in 2009 with Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, and within three years, we would see the rise of The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, as well as a bevy of other genre mainstays.
The Syfy network, however, was struggling to take advantage of this shift. The channel had been trying for years to replicate the magic of the 2004 Battlestar Galactica reboot (see Stargate Universe, Caprica, and Defiance) with little success. In order to pay the bills, it had to rely on b-movies such as Sharknado, reality programming, and campy TV shows such as the X-files spoof Warehouse 13. These movies and TV shows were lighthearted, fun, and like a lot of fantasy and science fiction of the time, very sexist.
The Syfy Network (the Sci-Fi Network before 2009) had been producing terrible made-for-tv movies for years, but during this transitional period, it produced over a hundred b-movies in six years. The quality of these movies was terrible — that was the point — but an unfortunate side-effect was that they were (almost) all mysognistic garbage.
For example, in 2009’s Hydra, the main characters blatantly objectify a woman within the first fifteen minutes of the film. She is referred to as “entertainment” and innuendos abound. The characters casually bet on the leads ability to “hit” on her.
The 2011 film Doomsday Apocalypse, which is about a duo trying to stop an Easter Island-inspired armageddon, has its female lead Brook Calvin, (played by Jewel Staite) follow the far less competent Eric Fox (played by A.J. Buckley) the entire runtime. She does this despite having studied the historical information surrounding the doomsday prophecy her whole life. Eric is only connected through “magical” genes.
The 2013 film Sharknado, the infamous b-movie about a tornado carrying sharks that tear apart the Hollywood skyline, seemingly takes pride in depicting “scantily-clad” women on shark-infested beaches (and cities). The first scene has the camera ogle at women before they head into the dangerous water.
It would be easy to conflate the sexism within these texts with their b-movie status, but the misogyny of these films was not an accident.
The Syfy channel did not have even a single female director for one of their b-films until Misty Talley directed Zombie Shark in 2015. There were literally hundreds of these films made before a woman helmed one. You would have to be naive to assume that that didn’t have an impact on how these films were constructed.
This sexism extended beyond film; however, with many of the network’s TV shows objectifying female characters in a way that the male characters did not experience.
Take, for example, the popular, scripted show Warehouse 13 (2009–2014) where two former secret service agents are tasked with the job of tracking down dangerous supernatural artifacts they then store in a classified warehouse in South Dakota. These agents are supposed to be partners, but only agent Myka Bering (played by Joanne Kelly) finds herself staving off belittlement and objectification regularly.
In episode three of season one (Magnetism), she tells her partner Pete Lattimer (played by Eddie McClintock) to follow protocol, and he responds by saying to her that stress will give her wrinkles (i.e., insinuating that being demanding will make her ugly). Later in the episode, she has to stop a man groping her after a supernatural object releases the man’s “subconscious” desires.
As another example, the light-hearted comedy Eureka (2006–2012) had multiple episodes where female leads were placed in a subservient position. The show is about a secret town of highly intelligent scientists working on technological breakthroughs for the US government. The protagonist, Jack Carter (played by Colin Ferguson), is the only “normal” person there, and he’s in Eureka because he stumbles into it. He supplants deputy Jo Lupo (played by Erica Cerra) from getting a promotion, even though she’s been doing the job far longer, simply because the former Sheriff has a feeling about him. Carter is a jock archetype, and he’s often quite dismissive to the “nerds” who run the town, especially the female ones.
In episode eleven of season two (Maneater), Jack Carter becomes exposed to spores that make him irresistible to women. The episode includes Jack having to dodge kisses from colleagues and breakup catfights. The spores were released after the town’s men had to “endure” a sexual harassment seminar were the female instructor asserted that humans are naturally inclined to reproduce with as many partners as possible (it should surprise no one that this episode was written exclusively by men).
These are some of the sexist shenanigans that frequented the Syfy channel during its camp phase (roughly from 2009 to 2015). While a lot of these women were strong-willed, multi-dimensional characters, Syfy’s powerful women many times fell into a certain…
…mold of heteronormative beauty.
These strong women were often white and blonde, or, at the very least, they strictly adhered to stereotypical conceptions of mainstream beauty (i.e. skinny and feminine). The Syfy network did not invent this objectification in science fiction — it has existed since H.P Lovecraft first squeezed Chuthulu’s tentacles for ink — but the network has nonetheless relished in it.
The Magicians would begin within this mold as well.
Oblivious and Unaware
The Magicians was a project that took years to develop. Series creator Michael London first optioned the rights for Lev Grossman’s dark, genre-busting novel back in 2011. After a failed pitch to FOX, he took it over to Syfy, which ordered a proof-of-concept pilot. The pilot was filmed in New Orleans in December of 2014, and when that was deemed okay, the network gave the go-ahead for a 13-episode run set to release in January of 2016 (though the new pilot was released months earlier in December of 2015 as a teaser to build hype).
The Syfy channel was amid a rebrand when it launched The Magicians in 2015. The network wanted to move away from the campy aesthetic that had defined its runtime for over half a decade, and go back to producing prestige science fiction and fantasy. In the mid-2010s, their new roster of television included the dark and grim space opera The Expanse, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s corporate dystopia Incorporated, the miniseries Childhood’s End based off the Arthur C. Clark story of the same name, and the overly meta The Magicians.
From the getgo, the tone of this series was intended to be markedly different from shows like Eureka and Warehouse 13. As co-creator Sera Gamble said in an interview:
“This is Harry Potter for grownups. This is Harry Potter for America, in the real-world with the sort of problems you have in your 20s.”
Although the series was more “adult” — there was violence, sex, and even alcohol (gasp!) — it still relied on the same sexist archetypes as previous shows. The series arguably has two main characters: the magically-obsessed and psychologically-troubled Quentin Coldwater (played by Jason Ralph) and the take-charge realist Julia Wicker (played by Stella Maeve). How these two characters are treated falls neatly into gendered lines. While Quentin gets accepted into Brakebills University (this universe’s equivalent to Hogwarts) and given a quest to save the magical multiverse, Julia is rejected from Brakebills and has to fight tooth and nail for the right to learn magic. Quentin is narratively rewarded for his right to feel special (though he doesn’t always feel that way), while Julia is punished.
We see this in the first episode (Unauthorized Magic). Julia fails her entrance exam, and her Procter has her memory erased so she can reassimilate into nonmagical society. Julia fights her erasure, however, and scars herself in the hopes of trying to remember. She succeeds in retaining the knowledge of magic, and even manages to learn a spell. When she later confronts Quentin about Brakebills, he gaslights her:
QUENTIN: It’s really okay if this is not your thing. You’re hurting yourself, and you’re not okay.
This rejection forces a determined Julia to get help from more dangerous avenues. Her search for the truth leads Julia to hedgewitch Pete (David Call). Hedgewitches are people who do not have formal magical training. They are the magical underground, and her first interaction with Pete is framed in a sexually abusive way. He magically pins Julia against the wall and directly states his pleasure in holding power over her.
PETE: How does it feel to know I can do whatever I want to you?
This incident is not a one-off in the series, and throughout the first and second season, the women of The Magicians endure a lot of sexually charged events. Julia is later raped by God Reynard the Fox and finds herself impregnated, which gives her magical powers in the process. In the same vein, fellow Brakebill’s student Alice Quinn (played by Olivia Taylor Dudley), whose most signify plot point at that point had to do with her brother, has to drink the magical seed of a God to fight the season’s big bad. The show’s emphasis on God jizz had one feminist critic sarcastically remark:
“In the TV show, having the semen of a god inside your body gives you magical powers.”
This was a point of contention among some feminist critics when the show first aired, but it was not a major concern to the majority of TV watchers or the creators behind the show. When co-producer Sera Gamble was asked about Alice having to drink the God jizz, she responded:
“I don’t know that drinking the vial of semen had anything to do with sexuality — that is a power move.”
If it seems strange to you for someone to argue that semen has nothing to do with human sexuality, then that in of itself is a signal of how far the politics of media has changed in the last several years. This tone-deaf approach to sexuality would not last. The show would be forced to shift as society at large responded to grassroots activism that came to a boil in the mid-2010s.
On The Cusp Of A Revolution
When The Magicians first aired in 2015, the #metoo movement was in its infancy. The concept existed — activist Tarana Burke had started the Me Too campaign nearly a decade prior in 2006 — but it would be several years before the backlash against Harvey Weinstein, Roy Price, and other “popular” serial abusers truly materialized.
It was building, however.
Several years before the show’s launch, the national conversation on sexual assault was already starting to shift. In 2011, the Obama administration, in its now-famous Dear Colleague letter, made the case that Title IX allowed secondary schools and colleges to investigate and prosecute cases of sexual assault. If universities didn’t comply with this new understanding, then they risked federal funding getting pulled.
This new policy created an alternative to the legal system, which had at the time required (and mostly still does) a higher burden of proof for victims of sexual assault. Suddenly, the threshold for believability was far lower, and this created an opening both judicially and politically. The student-driven nonprofit Know Your IX was established in 2013 with the intent of combatting sexual harassment on college campuses by using this new policy to its advantage. The infrastructure and momentum were finally in place for the country to start listening.
The #metoo movement had countless alarm bells, both loud and silent, but one its loudest was Steubenville. In the summer of 2013, a 16-year old girl from West Virginia attended several parties in Steubenville, Ohio. She consumed a lot of alcohol, and eventually blacked-out. She would awake in the arms of Trent Mays the following morning without remembering how she got there. Within a few weeks, high school footballers Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond were taken into custody on rape charges.
The case became a powderkeg for several reasons.
For one, the teens had placed a lot of “evidence” of the party online, which made it easy for the public to follow and discuss the events on social media. The events got the attention of the Columbus-based blog the Prinniefied, the online activist group Anonymous, and later, the entire country.
People were angry about the rape, but more so, many onlookers were frustrated by what they perceived as a culture of complacency. Steubenville was a town passionate about its local football team, and there was evidence that they let footballers get away with a little too much. As ABC News reported several months later:
“Steubenville is a place where football is more than just a past time; it’s a religion. And residents here worship on Friday nights.”
During this time period, there was a slew of incidents that caused people to question how much abuse they should ignore from men-who-play-sports. A year later the country would be horrified by NFL player Ray Rice dragging his fiance out of an elevator. A similar debate would be had with the perceived lax sentencing of Stanford swimmer Brock Turner in 2016 after he raped an unconscious student behind a dumpster. The nation was starting a collective conversation on what men, particularly white men, should be able to get away with.
Another reason people were frustrated by the events in Steubenville was that they fell into a conventional narrative where the media positively covers the perpetrators of sexual assault, sometimes even lamenting how the negative coverage “ruins” the future prospects of these young men. The website ThinkProgress, for example, collected a timeline of positive coverage of the Steubenville perpetrators. People were so frustrated by the coverage that a change.org petition, which demanded the news organization CNN apologize for its allegedly skewed coverage of the incident, was signed by over 200,000 people.
Suddenly, this became more than a rape case. It became about how women are portrayed in the media. As Gawker writer Mallory Ortberg commented on the coverage of the Steubenville perpetrators:
“It’s perfectly understandable, when reporting on a rape trial, to discuss the length and severity of the sentence; it is less understandable to discuss the end of two convicted rapists’ future athletic and academic careers as if it were somehow divorced from the laws of cause and effect.”
The conversation was shifting from preserving the dignity of “all parties” to listening to the allegations of the victims of sexual assault.
Following Steubenville, the way American society talked about sexual assault was transforming as more and more women started to speak out. We are all familiar with #metoo, but from 2013 onwards there was a slew of social media campaigns addressing the issue of sexual assault. Campaigns such as #WhatWereYouWearing, #SurvivorPrivilege, #RapeCultureIsWhen, and #YouOkSis — many of which were started by women of color — sought to challenge the narrative that perpetrators should be believed over victims.
We as a society were starting to think more critically over how women were portrayed, and that extended to entertainment as well. For example, the Bechdel-Wallace Test, a media literacy test first popularized by comic book artist Alison Bechdel and Liz Wallace in 1985, grew to be immense popularly in the early 2010s. The test demands a piece of media have three things: (1) it has to have at least two women in it; (2) who talk to each other; (3) about something besides a man. This test moved from being a niche topic of discussion to being officially endorsed by the Swedish government in 2013. The test has since been used to gauge everything from the Oscars to summer blockbusters and has spawned countless derivatives.
Currently, critics and consumers alike are more likely to take notice of the actual demographic breakdown of women in the entertainment industry. Organizations like Women And Hollywood, which was founded in 2007, meticulously track the number of women that are acting, writing, producing, and directing major Hollywood films in any given year. This type of media criticism has grown in recent years and intersects with race, class, and a myriad of other social identifiers. A portion of consumers now care, not just about what’s in a text, but how that text is constructed.
It was this building awareness that forced the showrunners of The Magicians to pivot their “Harry Potter for grownups” pitch to “woke people who do magic.”
Syfy Embraces #MeToo
On October 5th, 2017, actress Ashley Judd accused film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault via an exposé in The New York Times. The article painted a grim picture of Harvey Weinstein using his position as a media mogul to pressure women into performing sexual favors for him. This abusive behavior had been an open secret that had been going on for decades.
From JFK to Bill Clinton, there had been many powerful men accused of something similar, but this was different.
This time the world would believe the accuser.
On October 16th, people were encouraged by actress Alyssa Milano to share their incidents of sexual assault using #metoo. It became a viral sensation the world over. People everywhere started to share their stories, and more importantly, name their abusers. We are still living in the wake of that world. Hundreds of famous men (and some women) have been fired and publically shamed for abuses that had once been ignored. It has altered the landscape of business, politics, and Hollywood, leading to dozens of resignations, and even a few prosecutions.
The third season of The Magicians wrapped up filming in December of 2017 while these larger societal revelations were going down. The way the show treated its female characters unsurprisingly departed from previous seasons as space opened up to center around non-male perspectives. As Sera Gamble said of the Magicians in April, 2019:
“Sometimes being a hero means admitting that your girlfriend’s a better magician than you! In order to move the story as far and as deep as we want to on The Magicians, we have to make it really clear to the audience that we’re not interested in telling the same old fantasy story, and that it’s actually about the people you might expect to be off to the side.”
We are light years away from claiming that rape allegories are power moves, aren’t we Sera Gamble?
In the third season of the show, Julia is no longer a character suffering sexually charged abused whenever the plot needs to rev up the tension.
She is a literal God.
Raynard’s mother Persophene has given Julia Raynard’s old powers as a way to atone for her son’s sins.
The character Alice is struggling with the fallout of having once been a Niffin — a creature of immense power — and although she’s in a bad place in the third season, it’s because of her own decisions. She has done and is still doing terrible things, but its an arc separate from a man.
Other characters that didn’t have complete arcs in the first few seasons start to come into their own. The former Brakebills student Margo Hanson (played by Summer Bishil) is now the de facto ruler of the Narnia knockoff Fillory. She’s fought hard to gain power and has risen from being a rank-and-file Mean Girl to quickly becoming a fan favorite.
We also see Quentin start to realize the damage he has done to those around him. When he encounters an unfiltered version of his depressed subconscious in season three, episode six (Do You Like The Teeth?), his id states this case plainly:
Shadow Quentin: “The part of you that kept magic from Julia when you could have helped her, that is what set her on that path. You got your best friend sexually assaulted.”
The dynamic changed for the better, and it isn’t merely the TV show The Magicians that has gone through an #awokening. The entire Syfy channel appears to have done a 180.
The TV show Killjoys (2015–2019) — a show about a group of spacefaring assassins — is helmed by show creator Michelle Lovretta of Lost Girls fame. Her show not only has Dutch (played by Hannah John-Kamen), a competent female leader and strategist calling the shots for the team, but a group of masculine men that rarely question her leadership.
The show Wynonna Earp (2016–2019) is about a badass, female gunslinger killing demons and other supernatural beings.
Even the more male-centric show The Expanse (2015–2019) managed to have the powerful UN Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala (played by Shohreh Aghdashloo) leading Earth’s forces on a solar-system-wide scale
The outlook of the network has moved away from fulfilling the weird sexual fantasies of straight, white men and more towards empowering marginalized voices. Where seven years ago you had Syfy blogging about how getting an Edward Cullen tattoo was emasculating, now they have not only streamed all five films but published supportive think pieces of the series. One has even stated that the intense backlash against Twilight was because of internalized sexism.
A lot has shifted quite quickly, and if we squint, we can see outlines of the future.
What The Magicians says about the future
The Magicians remains one of the Syfy networks most-watched shows. When you look at its latest season, the show has provided some interesting insights into where we are, as well as about the future of the #metoo movement.
Filming for the fourth season of The Magicians started in June of 2018, well after #metoo was already in full swing: Harvey Weinstein had been ousted from his company. Kevin Spacey had been pushed out of House of Cards. Women were enjoying a spurt of being believed.
The lesson of the fourth season consequently moved beyond merely listening to, and creating space for the series’ more marginalized voices, and into new territory. It started to advocate for replacing stories altogether, even those that the show had once told.
The heart of this message lies with Quentin. In the fourth season, we conclusively learn he isn’t the Chosen One. He is not the hero, as he would be in a traditional fantasy arc, but a supporting character. This fact is narratively made quite plain when we learn that his magical concentration is the mending of small objects.
In season four episode seven (Side Effects), the show focuses on characters who have so far have been b-characters on the show, and on a meta level, challenges why they are b-characters in the first place. As the character William ‘Penny’ Adiyodi (played by Arjun Gupta) tells a white, male side character.
Penny: “You are trapped in your POV. You have a classic case of White Male Protagonism, Derek, and a Librarian simply can’t have that.”
The show isn’t talking to only Derek here, but all white males who believe that the realm of fantasy belongs to them alone. This point is brought home when Quentin stops a big bad by repairing a mirror. He uses his skill set to assist the group, modeling to other men how small acts for the greater good can be rebellious. He isn’t rewarded as a hero for this action, though. He dies, and unlike with other character’s death arcs, he isn’t coming back. As showrunner John McNamara asserted:
“This is the last you will see of Jason playing Quentin. And I’m not being coy. As far as we’re concerned at the moment, it’s the last we’ll see of Quentin.”
The show’s message here seems to be clear. It’s not enough to center characters like Julia, Alice, Penny, and Margo in a story. We need to kill archetypes altogether. People don’t deserve to feel special at the expense of those around them. Quentin, a man who had hurt friends and foes alike in his quest to feel special, needed to step aside to allow Alice, Julia, Penny, and others the chance to truly develop. On a meta-level, the show seems to suggest that a lot of white men need to own up to the reality that they are not always going to be the protagonist in the story.
In the process, the show is revealing the next step in the fight for equality in film and television. With so much representation won, we are slowly moving past the fight for representation alone. Progress cannot only be about creating female-centric spaces like with Killjoys and Wynonna Earp, but also by creating stories about what narratives we need to reject too.
Quentin needed to die, and progress-willing, a lot more fictional heads are next on the chopping block.
Come at me bro.
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