Dear ‘The Umbrella Academy’: It’s Still Incest

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Released on the same day, with both adapted from a series of comics and centered on a team of dysfunctional superheroes, it is perhaps no surprise that Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy” and DC Universe’s “Doom Patrol” were instantly compared to one another by many review outlets, from the Los Angeles Times to Rolling Stone and beyond. So far, both series also seem to be somewhat grounded in the concept of family. In “The Umbrella Academy,” all of its main characters are siblings who were adopted as infants and raised together to form their superhero team. “Doom Patrol” plays around more with the concept of found family, with the heroes living together and relying on one another as they struggle with their powers and new mechanical bodies. While I can’t fully review “Doom Patrol” yet as it is released on a weekly basis and still has many episodes to go, I will say this in comparing it to “The Umbrella Academy”: at least there’s no incest so far.

Now, before I fully dive into this topic, I want to quickly address other qualities within “The Umbrella Academy” that make me jump between viewing the show in a positive or negative light. For the positive side, I generally enjoyed watching it. It features impressive special effects, an engaging narrative, and several characters that I greatly enjoyed watching whenever they were on screen — mainly Klaus (Robert Sheehan) and Number Five (Aidan Gallagher). The fact that the show reframes the superhero genre through the lens of child abuse and its damaging effects is genuinely interesting and refreshing, setting it apart from other superhero TV shows and movies.

However, several moments kept popping up that detracted from my overall viewing experience. For one, in the last episode, one character, who is part of a secret, evil organization, speaks in Yiddish. They make the comment that it is an “old saying” that has been used by the organization for a long time. This has dangerous antisemitic implications since it supports far right conspiracy theories of Jewish people being evil and trying to secretly enact their villainy upon the world with its connection to the show’s organization here — this twitter thread details more on this topic.

The show dabbles in quite a few sexist tropes that intersect with race as well. One big issue is that a female character is fridged. This is the trope where characters are hurt or killed specifically to provoke a reaction from and cause development for another character. This is often done against female characters for the benefit of a male character’s personal growth. Without getting into spoilers, the sole reason this occurs is because it serves to motivate one of the show’s main male characters, who had a past relationship with her. The female characters of color in this show also constantly have violence inflicted upon them, a change from the comics since a lot of these characters are white in the source material; to see both of these points from a more spoiler-heavy perspective, The Mary Sue wrote an article going into further detail on these tropes.

And to stay on the topic of gender, much of the plot feels like it never would have happened if the female characters weren’t constantly mistreated and silenced. It’s hard to tell if the show is actually posing a critique or just falling into this trope, but it consistently made me want to yell at my TV screen when I saw a female character ignored and something bad then happening that could have been prevented if she had been listened to in the first place.

Beyond problems regarding gender, the show also makes use of the Bury Your Gays trope. I don’t think a character’s sexual orientation should be a spoiler, so I’m going to say here that Klaus is a queer character. I was excited when I learned that he, as one of my favorite characters, is queer, but the fact that his male love interest is killed right in front of him left me incredibly disappointed. Once again, LGBTQ+ characters are not allowed to be anything but tragic and are denied what doesn’t fit into a heteronormative narrative. As for more on Klaus, while I loved his character, the show also has him be the one to make a prison rape joke in the second episode. The threat of rape and the act of rape itself should never be presented as funny, no matter the gender identity of the person it is directed at. Also, considering how LGBTQ+ people experience higher rates of sexual violence than cisgender heterosexual people, it feels pretty distasteful to have the one major queer character be the one to make this joke.

Now that I’ve covered these issues, which I’m sure there are plenty more of, I want to talk about how “The Umbrella Academy” presents the topic of incest. I believe this is a major issue that must be addressed because the show makes it a major plot point and actively tries to represent it in a way where the audience is supposed to like it, and even root for it to continue. This topic of incest comes about in the relationship between Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) and Luther (Tom Hopper), who are shown to have had romantic feelings for each other since childhood. This is completely canon to the comics, which feature one more incestuous romance than the show itself does currently.

As stated earlier, Allison and Luther are adopted siblings. People may try to say their relationship is not really incest because they are not biologically related, but such thinking ignores how they have been raised together as siblings since birth. The idea that biology is the only thing that makes incest wrong favors an argument that nature is supreme to nurture. It doesn’t take into account how people who have been raised to be siblings will, more than likely, think of themselves as siblings.

This incestuous trope also delegitimizes families who raise adopted children. It presents adopted children as not being true members of a family because they are biologically related. This creates the stigma that biological children are the only real, completely legitimate children a person can raise. It makes the bonds between an adopted child and their family appear lesser and may even cause an adopted child to believe that their parents don’t love them as much as they would love a biologically-related child. The fact that places like the Adoption Network Law Center need to have articles about this subject is indicative of this issue’s harmful effects on the relationship between a parent and their adopted child and the adopted child’s self-esteem.

So, for anyone who believes Allison and Luther’s romance is acceptable, this line of thinking creates the idea that adopted children and their families aren’t true families. However, I won’t fully blame people for liking and supporting the romance. This problem is intrinsic within the show itself because it does nothing to critique its use of incest. It also heavily romanticizes their relationship, turning it into something ideal for the characters if they are ever allowed to be together as an actual couple. They exchange plenty of longing glances between one another, and at one point, Allison even appears jealous over Luther when she hears about him having sex with another woman.

However, the biggest way the show pushes this relationship as acceptable to its audience is the dance sequence that happens between them in the sixth episode, “The Day That Wasn’t.” The scene partially takes place in both characters’ imaginations as their clothing changes into a dress and suit and shining lights descend around them. They appear happy and confident as they dance with one another to the song “Dancing in the Moonlight” by Toploader. The dancing culminates in them finally kissing and realizing their feelings for one another.

The trouble with this entire sequence is that it romanticizes their relationship to the extreme, making it seem almost like a fairy tale. It presents their love as true and perfect. The show does this so that the audience can be overpowered by how great they would be as couple, despite their sibling status. This scene, along with the show as a whole, idealizes their heterosexuality and gives off the heteronormative impression that a man and a woman who are not biologically related cannot exist near each other without inevitably experiencing feelings of romance and desire. The fact that the source material has an additional unrequited incestuous relationship between a male and female character puts it even more at fault for this.

Allison and Luther’s relationship being incestuous isn’t the only problem with it — it’s also just completely unhealthy, aside from them being adopted siblings. Remember that problem I spoke of earlier where the female characters are mistreated and ignored, even when they’re right and can solve all the problems weighing down the plot? Well, this comes greatly into play with Allison and Luther’s relationship. The show expects me to root for them as a couple when Luther doesn’t listen to Allison’s input. Going into spoilers, this is particularly apparent and egregious in the final episodes. When Luther imprisons Vanya (Ellen Page), the seventh sibling and only other sister in this superhero family, Allison tries to set her free, but Luther refuses to let her do so. This causes Vanya to later go berserk and become even more dangerous. Later on, when the siblings go to capture Vanya, Allison tries to go in alone to calm Vanya down and get her to come with them peacefully. Luther pretends to agree to this, but he secretly plans with his brothers to use Allison as a distraction so they can forcefully bring Vanya back. Allison’s plan nearly succeeds since Vanya looks happy when she sees Allison watching her violin performance and finally acknowledging her talent, but the other siblings’ violent intervention causes Vanya to become violent herself, leading to the start of the apocalypse.

Luther clearly doesn’t respect what Allison has to say, so why should I want them to be a couple? The fact that Allison is Black and Luther is white makes this aspect of their relationship even worse since Luther, as a white man, is silencing and ignoring the opinion of Allison, a Black woman. He belittles her input on both a racial and gendered level, making the idea of these two being romantically linked extremely toxic in a way that goes beyond even the incest itself.

With all of these problems stacked one on top of each other, I can’t recommend “The Umbrella Academy.” I’m tired of seeing anti-Semitism, fridging, violence against and the silencing of women of color, the tragic queer, rape jokes, and the acceptance of incest reflected in the media I consume. Their inclusion perpetuates these ideas and encourages people to continue using them into the future. The fact that TV Tropes has a page dedicated to the numerous tropes populating the idea that Incest is Relative says a lot. Writers, stop romanticizing incest. Stop normalizing all these harmful tropes and influencing your audience to simply accept them as they are.

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