Trigger warning: mentions of rape throughout.
We’ve established again and again that pop culture has issues with consent. From that horrible Jaime and Cersei sex scene that the directors insisted wasn’t rape (it was) to almost every siren-related fantasy plot ever, the one thing that’s obvious about understanding consent is apparently that no one does.
That’s kind of terrifying. It’s pretty horrible that adults just don’t get simple concepts like “no means no”, “inability to consent means no”, “the absence of a yes means no”, or “coerced consent is not consent”. And what’s worse is that, when this way of thinking lodges itself in our cultural headspace, it isn’t just adults who are on the receiving end of it. Rather, this mentality creeps its way into children’s media as well, and too often goes entirely unchallenged within that media. Kids aren’t going to go read a blog post about Snow White or Sleeping Beauty’s inability to consent while asleep after watching those movies—there needs to be some kind of message within the film (or book, or show) that shows them why it isn’t kosher. And while there’s a lot of onus on kids’ media to be didactic in some way, a lot of it still falls flat.
One way this failure presents itself is in the appearance of love potions in kids’ or kid-friendly media. We’ve discussed before how frightening the wizarding world’s mentality about love potions is—they’re considered a funny trick rather than what they are, which is a date rape drug. In the sixth book, Romilda Vane actively tries to dose Harry with a love potion, and we learn that Voldemort was conceived while Tom Riddle was under the effects of a love potion and that’s why he can’t experience love. While Half-Blood Prince may be a little too challenging for a beginning reader or—with all its other content (both the dark and the romantic)—a little too grown-up, that isn’t the first time love potions are mentioned or their use is normalized. In Chamber of Secrets, Lockhart jokes (or is serious, who can be sure?) about encouraging students to seek out Snape for a love potion. They’re sold in Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes alongside other silly pranks intended to get you out of class or set off a few fireworks. Throughout the series it’s made clear that dosing someone to be attracted to you is super harmless and at worst an inconvenient trick.
I’ve also taken Gravity Falls to task for what was actually an even worse message. In one episode, Mabel steals love potions from Cupid, who’s visiting the town for a music festival. She screws around with them and eventually tries to solve the awkward dynamic that’s plagued their friend group since Wendy and Robbie broke up by dosing Robbie and Wendy’s friend Tambry with potion instead. Not only does Mabel face no real consequences from overshadowing Robbie and Tambry’s agency in this way, she’s actually rewarded for it in a way, because it works. Robbie and Tambry are a perfect couple, and the day appears to be saved. The show lost out on a really important teachable moment by not censuring Mabel in some way for her meddling.
Other kids’ media gets close to the subject but doesn’t quite go the distance. For example, in Aladdin, Genie makes it clear that one of the hard-and-fast rules for genie wishes is that you can’t wish for someone to fall in love with you. However, he doesn’t make it clear that this is because mind-controlling someone into loving you is creepy and rapey as hell. Rather, we’re just left to infer it from the fact that the bad guy later does try to do it. The inability to wish Jasmine into loving him is an inconvenience that forces Aladdin to think out of the box and wish to be a prince instead. However, because Genie starts off with these rules, we have no idea if Aladdin would have tried to wish for Jasmine’s love if he’d not known it was forbidden.
One of the few children-oriented things I’ve seen that does implicitly emphasize the importance of consent to kids is Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series. In the first book, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, our heroine September meets a shy Marid (a type of magical creature rather similar to a genie) about her age who’s named Saturday. While we aren’t smacked over the head with any kind of romance—it is middle grade, after all, and September is only twelve—we are unsubtly told that the two will end up together when, while traversing a part of Fairyland where time is unstable, they briefly encounter their future daughter.
In the second book, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, September returns to Fairyland to vanquish her own shadow, who has been stealing magic and the shadows of other beings from Fairyland-Above and hoarding them in Fairyland-Below. These shadows, while made in the image of their casters, are also a bit more feral and unrestrained than their fleshy counterparts. At some point, shadow Saturday grabs September and kisses her without any warning. Rather than being a pleasant surprise, September is horrified and betrayed, and continues to think on how much this action hurt her as the story goes on. And yet at the same time, shadow Saturday can’t understand why she was upset about it. It was all in good fun, after all, and doesn’t she like him?
This interaction is honestly perfect in the way it subtly teaches kid-type readers about consent. It shows that even if you are potentially romantically interested in someone—even if your future child is already out there running around Fairyland, a guarantee that you’ll someday do more than just kiss—they don’t have the right to kiss you if you don’t want them to or are not ready for them to. It shows that the person whose consent was violated is perfectly justified in being angry and hurt with the person who did the violating. It also teaches that, rather than a mysterious villain, it’s often a person close to you who hurts you. In the story, it’s part of the way we’re shown that it’s not all right for the shadows to be separated from their people, because there’s a difference between finding the courage to do something you’ve wanted to do, and taking what you want from someone without their input. While the shadows see behavior like Saturday kissing September as the former, it’s made clear to us that it’s the latter.
Consent and, relatedly, ownership of one’s own body, are often among the “controversial” topics that are considered adults-only. How can you explain to kids what consent is without bringing up sex? Catherynne M. Valente shows us that it’s pretty easy to do so, and even to do so in a way that addresses more complicated (and more common) issues like an acquaintance or loved one forcing themselves on you in some way. And honestly, that’s still even within a romantic framework. Kids need to be taught far younger, before they’re worried about romance, that their bodies belongs to them, and no one else is allowed to touch them if they don’t want them to. Kids’ media needs to step up to the plate and learn from the lesson Valente has so deftly woven into her fantasy story. Then maybe we’ll finally raise a generation who actually gets it when it comes to consent.
Hear more from Lady Saika on Character Reveal, the podcast she cohosts with BrothaDom!