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Credit: Amazon Studios

The women of The Boys showcase the trappings of toxic work environments

Contributed by
Sep 4, 2019

The title of Amazon Prime's The Boys is a bit misleading. In a sea of boys, its most fully fleshed out, interesting characters are its women. And they're exhausted.

Same, ladies. Same.

Within the eight episodes of the series' first season, we follow a ragtag team of vigilantes — the titular Boys — as they attempt to control the Seven, the powerful corporate-backed superheroes running amok* (and that's a big asterisk I'll explain in a moment). The aforementioned corporation in question, Vought, is using the supers' physical powers for Vought's business and financial gains.

That asterisk? Well. The "amok" part is largely left to the dudes, while the women are left to clean up messes and question their own choices.

On the very first day of her dream job, Annie January, aka Starlight — played by Erin Moriarty — turns around to find her teen crush, the Deep (Chace Crawford), respond to her revelation of her youthful feelings by dropping trou and masturbating in front of her. She is rightfully horrified. She shows flashes of rage, of her own power.

First, he talks her down, making sure she knows she is the one overreacting. 

"Hey, hey hey. Take it easy. Settle down. We're just talking." 

Then he pulls rank (false rank at that), threatens her, and gaslights her, using that reaction against her. It's her fault. She's the attacker here, not him.

"The thing is, I am number two around here. So, like, if I say so, you know, you'd be out of here. Especially since you attacked me ... I mean Iowa's sweetheart, the defender of Des Moines, just went psycho on the Deep. I mean, that could put you out of the business."

Finally, he uses her passion, her drive, and her morality against her.

"Just think of all those kids. I mean, the kids. The kids who look up to you? They'd just be shattered. I mean, that's not what you really want, right?"

the-boys-starlight

Credit: Amazon Prime

At that moment, there is a look on Starlight's face. A familiar look. One of rage, sadness, helplessness, pain, and, ultimately, a forced acceptance. Because she knows. We all know.

In so many toxic relationships or workplace environments, the powerful get their way. And the rest of us are put into impossible situations. Do we stay and take it? Do we say something and potentially lose everything? Or do we walk away and lose it all anyway?

In theory, protocols are in place to prevent these things. But in situations like this, with the unchecked power of Vought and the Seven, the risks are great and the fallout far more common than justice.

Think about every #MeToo-era story and that omnipresent reply: "Why didn't she report?"

"Why didn't she say something?"

"Why didn't they fight back?"

What The Boys shows so well is a commonplace power differential, and how silence and shutting down victims is far more convenient than admitting wrongdoing. But beyond at the corporate or PR level, it shows the truth among those who face this kind of harassment — at work, in the street, online, or at home — and how sometimes ... it just doesn't feel like there's a choice at all.

That's certainly the case with Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott), a recovering addict who got into the super-gig to do the right thing, to help people. When she gets caught up in the glitz, even leaving her girlfriend Elena for the far more destructive Homelander (Antony Starr), she finds herself making more and more concessions — ultimately, leaving a plane full of people alone to die screaming because Homelander says it's not worth trying to save even one of them, that their mission is futile.

Throughout the season, Maeve can best be described as weary. She's accepted the perils of the job, and not simply just the physical dangers. Her image, her persona, her choices are no longer her own. She has given herself to the Seven, to Vought, to Homelander, and it's only when she's vulnerable, perhaps intoxicated, and with Elena that she lets herself fall apart under the crushing weight of what's become her existence.

On the other side of the coin is Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue), who believes herself to be in complete control but deep down knows she isn't, that there is no control to be had, especially over Homelander and his poisonous, abusive obsession with her. She tries her best to use that as a tool, to regain power, but in the end the power is never truly hers.

The women of The Boys operate in their workplace as best they can. Annie tries to fight and is punished for it. Maeve tries to be a team player and is punished for it. Madelyn tries it all — she babies her problem supers, giving them everything they want; she is forceful and unrelenting, a terrifying force; she is a mother attempting however futilely to achieve work-life balance; she is in control; she is completely out of control. She is punished for it. All of it.

Perhaps that's why it's such a moment of catharsis when Annie as Starlight actually uses her voice and the Deep is sent off to Ohio, albeit as little more than a move of PR optics (and having as much to do with accidental dolphin-cide as his sexual assaults). Because it's so rare for so many of us to actually see our assailants face any consequence whatsoever. Even Madelyn — an actual boss who in theory has the power that we are socialized to believe will save us, will serve as our shield — never gets that moment. But even in a Deep-free world, Annie faces the same kind of condescension, belitting, and power-play threats designed to keep her small and controllable.

Beyond the impossible struggle of these women attempting to navigate life as a woman in a toxic and misogynist workplace, these characters speak to the impossible struggle of simply existing as the "right" kind of woman in a world that keeps shifting the goalposts.

With or without superpowers, it's hard out there. And women are tired.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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