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Body swap sex and issues of consent in Alias, Buffy, Fringe, and Orphan Black

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Feb 11, 2019, 1:00 PM EST

In body swap comedies, there is often a moment in which the protagonist ends up in an awkward romantic situation played for laughs. In 13 Going on 30, Jenna (Jennifer Garner) wakes up to find a half-naked guy walking around her apartment. She may be an adult in appearance, but with her 13-year-old self occupying an older body, it becomes a case of avoiding this dude's horny advances. In 17 Again, Mike (Zac Efron) has to ward off his flirtatious teen daughter because she has no idea he's really her dad in his teenage form. Narrowly dodging incest is a common body swap or even time travel trope — see also Back to the Future. Anything that messes with genetics, magic or the space continuum opens up these worlds to the possibility of more than one version of a person.

Lines are often crossed, which might have you wondering how these moments end up in a script in the first place. The adult version of Josh (Tom Hanks) sleeps with Susan (Elizabeth Perkins) in Big and this would be fine — except Josh is still effectively a 12-year-old boy and Susan is completely unaware she has just slept with a child. Cases of mistaken identity are common in romantic narratives, from Shakespeare to Maid in Manhattan, but when that person wears the same face as another character, not only are the dramatic stakes higher but other issues are raised too.

Body swaps are not just for fantasy comedy vehicles; several science-fiction infused television shows have employed variations of this plot point to cause conflict, heighten tension, and throw a spanner into developing romances.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Credit: 20th Century Fox Television

Hooking up with someone and then finding out it is actually an entirely different person is going to lead to quite the conversation when this particular case of mistaken identity is unmasked — whether it is a body swap, clone, double or someone from an alternate universe. In Fringe, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias, and Orphan Black, a character has sex with someone they didn’t intend to all because they look identical to the person they thought they were sleeping with. This is not intended for hilarity, because here the sex is used to manipulate, coerce and distract. In all four examples, it is a man being duped and the notion of consent becomes murky as a result of these dishonest actions. What are the ramifications of saying yes, only to find out later that all was not as it seemed? 

In each of these TV shows, there is a pre-existing romantic connection between the couple in question. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this particular body swap arc spans the shortest amount of screentime, but this also happens to be the one traditional body swap in these four different cases. In the Season 4 episode "This Year's Girl," Faith (Eliza Dushku) wakes up from the coma Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) put her in at the end of their knockdown, drag-out final fight in the Season 3 finale. A device Faith has been gifted by the now-dead Mayor (Harry Groener) allows her to switch bodies with Buffy; before Faith gets out of Sunnydale, she wants to have some fun with the person she considers to be the epitome of a “good girl.”

Crimped hair, leather pants and dancing provocatively are all on the agenda. Faith has unfinished business with her former friend; she feels like everything has been taken from her, so what better way to get her own form of revenge than to screw Buffy's boyfriend? By all appearances, the woman that seduces Riley (Marc Blucas) is his girlfriend, a point he makes when Buffy is back in her own body and she realizes he slept with Faith. "I slept with you," he retorts.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Credit: 20th Century Fox Television

Earlier, Faith has asked Riley, “What do you want to do with this body? What nasty little desire have you been itching to try out?” She tries to get him to indulge in some “bad girl” role-playing. He demures, he doesn't want to play games but instead make love like they normally do. A post-coital embrace causes Faith to spiral; her time in Buffy’s body is not quite the fun release she was hoping for. Instead, it dredges up old insecurities and her issues with intimate affection, not just in terms of sex; in an earlier scene, she is also unnerved by a hug from Buffy's mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland).

Buffy’s relationship with Riley is relatively new at this point; they have only slept together for the first time a few episodes prior to this. However, in the grand scheme of things, the betrayal levels are low and Riley doesn’t even seem that weirded out by the whole thing. In other episodes, their hot and horny post-slaying antics are entwined with a different kind of demon. It's still not as bad as that time when Buffy lost her virginity and her boyfriend lost his soul.

Even though Faith-as-Buffy looked and acted differently, Riley isn’t held accountable for his mistake, and in the Angel and Faith Season 10 comic Faith does apologize to Riley for this deception. The same cannot be said for the fallout in Fringe when Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) finds out his relationship with Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) is actually with a woman from an alternate universe.

Fauxlivia Fringe

Credit: Fox

At the end of Season 2, Olivia is trapped “over there” after getting switched with her counterpart — Fauxlivia, as she is known. The romantic foundation had already been laid as Peter and Olivia were about to make the leap from co-workers/friends to something more, but when Peter sleeps with Olivia for the first time, it is really the version from an alternate universe. Fauxlivia has already utilized making out as a distraction technique — so Peter doesn’t see the blood trickling from underneath her bathroom door — and sex is the next logical step, an act she resorts to when Peter continues to question her out-of-character behavior. 

It works; Peter later notes he was beginning to suspect her, but he put the differences down to their change in relationship status. He feels like a fool, while Olivia feels violated because this person who looks exactly like her has tainted everything, from the clothes hanging in her wardrobe to the man she shared her bed with. Olivia is so focused on Peter’s inability to recognize this imposter — or at least recognize and call her out — that she doesn’t consider his point-of-view. She has been through a lot, so she can be forgiven for her initial lack of empathy. 

Peter believes he is a idiot for falling for such an obvious distraction technique — or "vagenda," as Walter (John Noble) calls it— but when the heart feels a certain way, logic is ignored. Separating the mind and the body is one thing each alt-version is banking on; lust takes precedence over reason. It is only when Olivia reads Fauxlivia's reports that she fully understands how easy it was for Peter to be duped. The similarities extend to how they speak and the words they use. He consented, but again it is perhaps even more complicated than Buffy's body swap, because while Fauxlivia looks and sounds the same, she is an entirely different person.

Orphan Black

Credit: BBC America

In the pilot episode of Orphan Black, Sarah (Tatiana Maslany) uses sex to buy some time as she inadvertently stumbles into this world of clones. Paul (Dylan Bruce) is dating the now-deceased Beth — he does not know Beth has jumped in front of a train at this point — and he unexpectedly returns home as Sarah gets out of the shower. Sex on the kitchen table is one way to delay questions that might blow her cover. Fauxlivia was on a deep-cover assignment and resorted to sex to keep on the mission; in Orphan Black, Sarah is a grifter used to thinking fast on her feet. Both women take advantage of a pre-existing relationship for self-interest and self-preservation. Olivia is trapped in another universe, while Beth is dead.

However, Sarah is not responsible for Beth’s death. Instead, she is using this weird experience to try and make some quick cash to get her daughter back. Beth left her purse on the train platform, which leads to Sarah to discover that Beth has a lot of money. Again, Paul knows something is not quite as it should be; this "Beth" has a different hairstyle and a new found love of The Clash. He consents, but he doesn't have all the information.  

The most messed-up version of the "body swap" trope comes courtesy of Alias, because this one involves cold-blooded murder. Francie (Merrin Dungey), Sydney Bristow's (Jennifer Garner) best friend and roommate, is killed purely for logistics as she is the perfect unsuspecting target to gather information on her spy BFF. Project Helix allows someone to become another person in physical likeness; Alias is stacked with double agents, but this technology literally turns someone into a double. At this point in Season 2, she has also just hooked up with Will (Bradley Cooper) as he embarks on a career as a CIA analyst, so it's a two-for-one of information and infiltration.

This is a new romantic relationship, so again there are a number of ways to use sexuality to distract. Will has known Francie for a long time, but this sexual component is a brand new aspect. Fake Francie — or Francinator — manipulates this good timing for her benefit until Will figures out the woman he has been sharing a bed with is actually Allison Doren: an operative hired to infiltrate Sydney’s life. When Will discovers the truth he asks, “Was it always you?” not knowing if this entire relationship status change was a manipulation (it wasn’t). As she plunges a knife into him, Allison sobs because those fake feelings have developed into something more.


Credit: ABC

Will doesn’t die; in fact, he lives to enact revenge for the real Francie. However, killing Allison doesn’t fill the hole and he describes how empty he still feels. Allison manipulated not only his body, but she also violated his mind by messing with his memory. Will did consent in sleeping with her, but even though her body is an exact double of Francie's, her mind belongs to someone with a completely different agenda. 

The scenarios in Fringe, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Orphan Black, and Alias are unlikely, but “rape by fraud” is a very real thing. Mistaken identity is a romantic comedy and sci-fi cornerstone, but there are ramifications when the person saying yes does not have all the pertinent information. In each of the examples discussed it is a man being manipulated by sex; would it read differently to an audience if the gender roles were switched? In 13 Going on 30, Jenna does not sleep with a grown man, but in Big, Josh does hook up with an older woman. These movies are nearly 20 years apart in release date, so we can’t know for sure if it is gender or a change in attitudes predicated by what is socially acceptable that informed these narrative choices.

Separating the body from the mind is an impossible task, but not in science fiction. In the case of these four guys, the woman they had sex with looked identical to the woman they thought they were having sex with. Consent was granted; however, sex is often more than just a physical act and each woman was not the person they were pretending to be. Olivia, Buffy, Beth, and Francie are more than their body parts and the men duped into saying yes deserve better.   

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