More than one friend asked me to watch Netflix’s new animated sci-fi anthology show, Love Death + Robots. It was a good recommendation – I love science fiction, especially stories involving robots – and I love anthologies that show off different writers and creative teams. While the animation is superb, and there were some episodes that I thoroughly enjoyed, on the whole, I couldn’t help but notice some egregious examples of women being victimized or sexualized.
[editor’s note: the first season of Love Death + Robots was released on Netflix on March 15, 2019 (link), featuring eighteen episodes from different production and animation studios, and was produced by Joshua Donen, David Fincher, Jennifer Miller, and Tim Miller.]
“The Witness,” for example, tells the story of a sex worker who witnesses the murder of someone who looks just like her, and spends much of the episode with her naked body on display for the viewer’s voyeuristic pleasure. “Beyond the Aquila Rift” features a graphic sex montage, aimed deliberately at straight male viewers, while “Good Hunting” is mostly about the victimization of a female character.
I’m not alone. The critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes reads: “This animated anthology has enough creative Death to satisfy cyberpunk aficionados who Love their Robots to have some Heavy Metal influence, but the series’ lofty ambitions are often undercut by a preoccupation with gore and titillation.” Abby Robinson from Digital Spy notes that “each episode comes with a ‘sexualised violence’ warning” and “We see women’s bodies in disturbing, threatening scenarios, where very real trauma is used as a prop.” (Her analysis of “The Witness” is fantastic – I recommend giving it a read.) Ben Travers of IndieWire writes that the first third of the episodes “are hyper-masculine to the point of creepiness; five of the six include shots of a woman’s naked breast. Some of those women were alive, some were dead, and some weren’t women at all, but each instance feels more gratuitous than warranted — and, combined with the violence, gore, and disturbing admiration of both, lends the series a sophomoric quality.” Peter Rubin of Wired writes, “Depending on the order you watch them, you may find yourself frustrated by what feels like an endless parade of stoic supermen and the women who deceive or escape them.”
I don’t have much to add to these reviews. Rather than reviewing the series or each of its episodes, I’d like to provide a more in-depth reading of the first episode, “Sonnie’s Edge,” a story that features the survivor of sexual assault who participates in underground gladiatorial battles between genetically-engineered monsters.
[Warning: language, sexual assault, violence, misogyny, as well as disturbing and sexual images.]
Based on Peter F. Hamilton’s short story of the same name, “Sonnie’s Edge” follows its “unbeatable” titular heroine as she arrives at an underground fight venue, refuses a bribe to lose, and emerges victorious from the ring, only to be visited afterward by the man whose bribe she had earlier rejected. The story revels in the trappings of a rape revenge fantasy; though we don’t see Sonnie’s rape on-screen, we are witnesses to a number of scenes which use this trope as a frame.
The opening sequence shows Sonnie and her crew arriving at the arena with their monster, a “beastie,” and it appears that the narrative will be a feminist take on the underground battle genre. The monster is rolled in inside a tank, and the antagonist, a rich man appropriately named Dicko, tries to bribe Sonnie to lose while he looks at it with awe:
DICKO: Might I have a peek? I’ve heard so much. [Looks in the tank] Yes. He’s magnificent!
SONNIE: Yes. She is.
DICKO: Oh. Of course, my apologies, “she.”
As Sonny says, “Yes. She is,” the camera shows her looking sideways to Dicko’s beautiful blonde (female) companion, Jennifer. Cue the lesbian sexual tension, which will come to fruition later. Dicko then asks Sonnie to lose the match, which she refuses, prompting the following exchange:
DICKO: And what makes you so special?
SONNIE: I’m not special. Unique. No other team uses a female pilot for their beastie.
DICKO: That’s it then? Your edge? Women fight better than men?
SONNIE: This one does.
A nice feminist statement, right? When Sonnie’s crew supports her, they say the fight isn’t about the money. It’s “personal.” The reason, as the female crewmember, Ivrina, soon explains, is revenge:
It’s cunts like you that fucked her up to begin with. A year ago, Sonnie got snatched by an estate gang and when they was done using her, they started cutting, slicing marks into her flesh. Can you imagine that kind of pain, that kind of humiliation carved into her skin? A lifelong reminder of that day. So when Sonnie steps into the pit, she’s not fighting for pride or status and certainly not for your fucking money. She’s carving up the men who did this to her.
The “edge,” at this point (at least as Ivrina presents it), seems to be Sonnie’s personal need to “get back at” the men who raped and scarred her, and the visual and narrative elements of the episode facilitate this connection, especially during the arena fight. Sonnie steps into the ring via her monster, Khanivore, to face a male opponent, Simon, controlling a monster named Turboraptor, who throws sexual taunts at her the entire way. His first words to her are “What a sweet little girl. You’re going down.” He then proceeds to motion pushing her head down toward his crotch, miming the act of fellatio.
When Sonnie’s monster lands the initial blow, he screams a gendered insult at her: “Fucking little cunt.” The monsters continue to battle, and when Khanivore is dealt a few bone-crushing blows, it’s made clear that Sonnie, despite her calm exterior, is panicking. Her heart rate spikes, and Khanivore’s primary weapon, an extension from the back of her head, splits into multiple-tentacle-like appendages with a sharp spike at each end. The weapon is penetrative, dealing several blows to the opponent in a kind of reversal of Sonnie’s gang rape.
Khanivore eventually tears off her opponent’s arm, and it appears as if she’s won. At this moment, however, it is revealed that Turboraptor has a bone blade embedded in its humerus. The blade flicks out and cuts off several of Khanivore’s appendages, and the camera slows down as Khanivore screams and is knocked to the ground. The following shot shows Turboraptor stalking Khanivore, who is positioned on the ground, still screaming, not unlike a predator stalking prey or a rapist approaching his victim. The following shots show Turboraptor stalking Khanivore, who is positioned on the ground, still screaming, not unlike a predator stalking prey or a rapist approaching his victim.
Khanivore is dragged to her feet, slammed against the wall, and stabbed in the gut with the bone knife. There’s a pointed shot of Turboraptor’s hand gripping the edge of the ring, and the position of the monsters – male pinning the female against the wall and penetrating her, graphically – is obviously reminiscent of a sexual position.
There’s another close-up of the bone knife penetrating Khanivore’s body even more, and at this point, I was convinced that we were looking at sexualized violence.
Khanivore then opens her eyes and plunges her blade-shaped face into Turboraptor’s chest, killing him and winning the match. She rips off his head and holds it aloft in victory, before tossing it to the floor.
From all of these elements, it would seem that the episode champions female dominance over their attackers in a similar vein as Steig Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: Sonnie processing her trauma through (symbolic) retributive justice. But the episode does not end with Sonnie’s victory. After the fight, while her teammates are celebrating, Sonnie catches the Blonde, Jennifer, wandering into the storage area where Khanivore’s body is kept in its suspension tank. While expressing admiration for her courage, Jennifer seduces Sonnie, and it is here that the rape-revenge narrative is turned on its head. Sonnie proclaims that her winning streak in a male-dominated world isn’t due to her traumatic past. She says
SONNIE: Hate was something I had to learn. You don’t come into this world with hate. That’s primal. It fills your senses. You can see it hear it, taste it, and it keeps me alive.
JENNIFER: But that night, the gang.
SONNIE: Rape. It’s not that. They can’t see past it. No one can. But it ain’t what gives me my edge. Angry little girl, out for revenge. Dicko believes that shit ’cause he wants to. They all do.
JENNIFER: Everyone sees what they want to see.
Despite our impression that Jennifer is with Dicko as a means of survival, out-of-the-blue she stabs Sonnie in the head, Wolverine-style, with hidden blades that emerge from her fingertips. Dicko appears, taunting her with “Are you scared now?” and calling her a “silly fucking girl” before Jennifer pulverizes Sonnie’s head with her heels. When Sonnie doesn’t die, we learn that her original skull was too damaged after the rape for her to survive, so her friends saved her consciousness and put it in a processor chip. The psychic link, which normally allows humans to control their monsters in the arena, is actually reversed in Sonnie’s case: Sonnie psychically controls a human puppet body, while her actual consciousness is housed in her genetic monster. Her “edge,” the thing that helps her win every fight, is not the need to take revenge on her rapists, but her fear of death. The episode ends with her true self, Khanivore, killing Jennifer with a tentacle through the skull, and, as the episode closes, presumably Dicko as well.
If we’ve been paying attention, it’s obvious that Jennifer is a femme fatale. She conveniently wears a style of dress, including “high class gloves,” that doesn’t match the aesthetics of other characters’ clothing (except Dicko’s), nor does it fit the cyberpunk world in which she operates. She also uses her sexuality to distract Sonnie from her true motives, ultimately leading to Sonnie’s (seeming) demise. Her physical distraction, I suggest, mirrors the way the episode as a whole uses visual and narrative appeal to “distract” us from the reality of Sonnie’s “egde.” Ivrina’s speech at the beginning serves as the first “distraction,” introducing the pre-packaged rape-revenge fantasy as an easily digestible narrative. Dicko easily buys this rape-revenge story because he cannot see Sonnie as anything other than a “little girl” who fights for her pride. We, perhaps, buy into it because we are constantly reminded of Sonnie’s past through her ever-visible facial scars (which have the air of the “cool scars” trope), or because we’re content to build our expectations for the episode based on the familiarity of the rape-revenge trope. This “distraction” is especially interesting given that Sonnie’s rape is a red herring in the original short story – although Sonnie claims to have been gang raped, she actually crashed her team’s van while drink driving after her first win, mangling her human body beyond repair.
The visuals during the fight are the second “distraction,” deliberately dazzling the viewer in the attempt to overshadow details which point to something being amiss. Violence, gore, and sexualized imagery are given more screen time than the clues which help us predict Sonnie’s twist – namely, the process of “booting” the affinity link. When Sonny steps into the arena, her male crewmate, Wes, holds a tablet showing a side-by-side of Khanivore’s and Sonnie’s brains. In the initial shot, lines connect the two, as if they are already synched. As Wes “activates” the link, the lines disappear, and he presses a skull icon on the image of Sonnie’s brain. The color scheme is red, as is Sonnie’s headpiece.
During the fight, Sonnie’s opponent, Simon, continually breaks his concentration to make taunting comments, and gestures in the same manner as his monster. By contrast, Sonnie is completely still. She does not even move after her victory, giving the impression of an unusually cool, level-headed fighter with nerves of steel. While we may be distracted by Sonnie’s badassery, her stillness is actually an indication of her mind being elsewhere. The affinity link confirms this: the next time we see her moving, her headpiece is green. When Sonnie’s voice comes through the speakers after her “murder,” the headpiece is red again.
Third, the sexualized female body is nearly always a distraction for the viewer: Sonnie spends much of the episode in a tank top with her nipples visible to the viewer, and the straps of her underwear are visible above the waits of her pants. Ivrina is shirtless, save for a jacket, emphasizing her cleavage (further emphasized in promotional images for the series). Characters during the fight are decorated with glowing paint, which draws attention to the sexuality of the female body (in Ivrina’s case) or the power of the male body (in Simon’s case). These bodies are put on display in the arena while the monstrous bodies are driven into each other in the ring below. The tryst between Sonnie and the Blonde is arguably written for a male viewer, accentuating their sexual relationship over their emotional connection through close-ups of the Blonde’s breasts, a shot of her pulling her skirt up, etc. Jennifer literally uses her sexuality to distract Sonnie (and the viewer) from reality, or as she puts it during their exchange: “Everyone sees what they want to see.”
If the twist comes at a shock to us, we’ve fallen for the episode’s trap. Just as a male (or female) character is misled by a femme fatale, so we are taken in by the (frequently male-gazey) visual appeal of the episode and the lure of the familiar rape-revenge fantasy, and we don’t realize (or don’t care) that the characters are playing with our gendered expectations. In Dicko’s case, via these distractions, he is wrapped in Khanivore’s tentacles, and presumably killed. The viewer, by contrast, is revealed to have been duped. (And if you weren’t duped, good for you. The episode still actively tries to mislead you.) Even if we’re on Sonnie’s side, Sonnie’s “twist” forces us to identify with Dicko in that we’ve both been blindsided.
It’s arguable that the “twist” proves Sonnie’s point that people can’t look past the rape, even the episode’s viewers. By focusing on rape stories and imagery throughout the episode, we miss the clues that predict the “twist,” and we fail to see the underlying reality of the situation: that Sonnie is literally fighting for her life every time she steps into the arena. The use of rape is consistent with the way female bodies are deployed in the episode as a whole: rape centralizes the female body as the site of a crime, and the rape-revenge fantasy in “Sonnie’s Edge” packages crimes against the female body for male consumption. Similarly, the sexualized female body is crafted as an object for male consumption. The constant display of and attention to female bodies obscures reality of the situation, and it is only when the female body is literally destroyed – when Jennifer pulverizes Sonnie’s head – that we are told the truth.
In one sense, it’s an empowering moment: Sonnie is separated from her puppet body, allowing her to overpower her foes and reveal that she has used gendered expectations to her advantage. Yet for all the episode’s insistence that we not allow ourselves to be distracted by the female body, the twist re-centers the body as an object of horror. The scene features close-up shots of confused faces and Sonnie’s broken skull, her notably disembodied voice flows from the speakers, creating a feeling of unease.
Khanivore creeps up behind Dicko and the Blonde out of the darkness, like any baddie in a horror film, before she graphically drives a tentacle through the Blonde’s skull. Even if we find Sonnie’s vengeance cathartic, the shock value of the violence and gore reinforce the monstrousness of Sonnie-in-Khanivore’s actions. Sonnie is rendered as the monstrous feminine in that she is literally a woman in a monster body, and though the key to her winning streak may very well be her very real fear of death, Sonnie is in Khanivore’s body in the first place because of that rape. She is turned into a literal monster because of what was done to her, and the episode’s ending shows her exacting vengeance over those who underestimated and committed violence against her.
The horror of this reveal is also anchored in a sudden gain of agency. Except in the arena, Khanivore is confined to the suspension tank and must navigate the world through a puppet body. Throughout the episode, Sonnie is also confined narratively by the expectation of a rape-revenge fantasy, which enclose her in familiar (and in some ways, “acceptable”) genre boundaries. Her sexualized female body moreover confines her within a system where men retain power as owners of the gaze. It is when these limits and boundaries are removed that she is the most agential and most dangerous, seemingly suggesting that the uncontrolled woman constitutes both power and is also a threat.
I find “Sonnie’s Edge” is ultimately a study in the persistence of our contemporary cultural models of viewing and power. Sonnie tries to overcome the expectations created by attention to her body, only to be reinscribed in a different kind of bodily existence that reiterates patriarchal prejudices. Her story is emblematic of the failure to find ways to represent the female power (or empowerment) as anything other than monstrous. Perhaps this is why “Sonnie’s Edge” fits so comfortably within Love Death + Robots as a whole – despite its aims to deliver an “inventive” sci-fi anthology, the episode ultimately falls back on tropes that have plagued the genre for years. Love Death + Robots writers seem driven by their own “edge” – the fear of the death of a certain subset of sci-fi – only to be confined by their own limitations. If so, “Sonnie’s Edge” is a perfect meta-commentary on the struggle for the genre and its stories to evolve.