Content Notes: This post is ostensibly about abuse (and how fandom assigns “abuse/r” labels based on the role a character plays in their respective narrative). I also quote dialogue between Jessica Jones and her abuser Kilgrave and discuss abuse related to Batman and the Joker. But the entire post is about abuse and it may trigger survivors so… Read carefully.
It’s a bit worrying that to huge swathes of fandom, the words “villain” and “antagonist” are now synonymous with “abuser”.
I’m a lurker by nature, so I’m always watching the way that fandom clings to or discards trends or tropes in their favorite source media and the fanworks that they produce about them. One thing I’ve noticed is that recently, within certain fandom spaces, the words “villain” and “antagonist” are more and more frequently conflated with the word “abuser”, something which I find worrying and frustrating.
In many fandoms, I’ve seen villains called “abusive” just by virtue of their being the villains. I’ve also started to see the terms “abuse”, “abuser”, and “abuse apologist” being thrown around willy-nilly to try to somehow show fans the error of their shipping ways (usually by calling them names or suggesting that they’re as bad as the fictional villains – or real life abusers in the accuser’s past).
Only that’s not how any of that actually works, but that’s not stopping it from happening in several fandoms that I’m in or have been adjacent to and I have… thoughts.
In the fandom for Netflix’s Voltron: Legendary Defenders show, people reject ships with the series’ villainous figures, the Galra.
They have banners on their blogs that demand “Palotors” and “Galra sympathizers” not interact with them (with “Palotors” referring to people that ship Season 3 antagonist Lotor with any of the paladins and “Galra sympathizers” referring to anyone that doesn’t see the Galra as uniformly awful/ships them in any capacity).
They ignore the fact that the series shows Galra that have been fighting against their imperialist, genocide-committing ruler for years in order to paint a portrait of the entire people as unredeemable monsters. Despite the fact that the series’ canon doesn’t support that view of the entire species.
Then… while everything in the DC fandom on Tumblr is problematic and alternate canons don’t matter to fandom, I’ve specifically seen posts calling for folks to stop shipping hero/villain ships like Lex Luthor/Clark Kent and Sinestro/Hal Jordan because of their status as adversaries.
That fandom in particular has a thing about only shipping villains with other villains and I’ve seen hero/villain ships added to lists of “gross” DC fandom ships even if they’re not each other’s nemesis.
Most recently, I saw a post about shipping in the fandom for the new Netflix series Lego Elves: Secrets of Elvendale where, amidst all of these valid comments about ships/fanworks about shipping practices to avoid, the source of the post told people to avoid shipping ship antagonists and protagonists.
When I started writing this post, the show had only been out for two days and already, not only was a PSA about shipping necessary, but it included villain/hero ships as ships to avoid.
I won’t link to it, because the person that made the aforementioned post is sixteen, but when they were asked to clarify their thoughts, they literally said that antagonist/protagonist relationships romanticized abuse.
No, for real.
In the response, the OP explained their thoughts on why these relationships were so bad by saying:
Basically, it’s unhealthy to be in a relationship with someone who is an enemy or wishes you genuine harm. So a villain or antagonist is likely to not be kind to their s/o if they’re the protagonist because they’re an enemy. There’s loopholes of course, like having the antagonist redeemed and forgiven. Basically antagonist/protagonist relationships romanticize abuse.
(They also, in a separate post about shipping in that specific franchise, wrote that “As far as shipping goes there’s no clearly problematic pairings excepts [SIC] villain/protagonists so I’d steer clear of those should they arise” – something that somehow manages to ignore the fact that the main villain and main protagonist are apparently distant cousins…)
That’s what brings us to my biggest problem with fandom: right now, so many young people aren’t approaching characters with any nuance whatsoever. Antagonists and villains aren’t inherently abusive and they don’t automatically hold power over the protagonist or hero. Additionally, power imbalances and highlighted power dynamics aren’t something that automatically makes a ship unequal and unshippable.
Some words aren’t synonymous
Assuming that hero/villain and protagonist/antagonist relationships are inherently abusive or romanticize abuse (because of what I’ve seen called “an inherent power imbalance” but well… doesn’t make sense) winds up being a really simplistic and, honestly, naïve way of looking at relationships.
We have to start by acknowledging the fact that hero and protagonist don’t actually mean the same thing. They’re synonyms, but they aren’t direct translations. When people talk of heroes, they tend to be talking about heroic figures whether or not they’re the protagonist of the work.
For example: even when Batman isn’t the protagonist of a work, he’s a (super)hero. In Batman: White Knight, the Joker is the protagonist of the story and a hero in his own mind, but that doesn’t mean that Batman suddenly becomes an actual villain in the rest of the DC Universe.
That being said, the conflation of “hero” and “protagonist” then leads to a fundamental (and worrying) misunderstanding of what villains and antagonists are and how they all relate.
A villain can be the protagonist of a piece of media just as easily they can serve as its antagonist.
This reliance on a very binary look at and labeling of characters doesn’t make room for the fact that there’s more to life than two sides. In these conversations about heroes and villains being shipped with one another, no one ever thinks of the poor, misunderstood anti-heroes.
If heroes and villains can no longer be shipped with one another because the relationships with them are supposedly inherently imbalanced, what then becomes of relationships between anti-heroes and well… anyone?
What’s more is that the idea that the antagonist and protagonist are automatically incapable of having a respectful relationship ignores the fact that not everything is a superhero comic or a mediocre action movie.
The antagonist is literally the being that gets in the way of what the protagonist is trying to achieve.
A character being designated as the antagonist doesn’t immediately mean that they’re evil.
And evil is a bit more complicated than fandom is willing to discuss…
Which brings us to the real problem: many people in fandom assume that all villains and antagonists are all capital-e Evil and there’s no circumstance where they should be allowed to have relationships with other characters regardless of who those characters are – or were.
For example, the Voltron: Legendary Defender fandom has hated Lotor since he was referenced at the end of the series’ second season.
Despite claims to the contrary, they didn’t hate him because he was (clearly) going to fill his father’s colonizing shoes and take up as the new series’ villain.
They hate him – and ships involving him – because in the 1980’s show Beast King GoLion (which we know as Voltron: Defender of the Universe), Prince Imperial Sincline (the character that would become known as Lotor in the series’ English dub/re-edit) was obsessed with the counterpart of the character we would come to know as Allura and assaulted another character that looked like her.
Except… in the English dub of the series, trimmed/edited for content and to market the series towards children, basically none of this happened and Lotor is quite literally a different character from Sincline.
This isn’t a case of retconning a rapist’s actions or romanticizing an abuser.
Lotor and Sincline, despite sharing the same appearance in GoLion and Voltron:DotU, aren’t the same character and Sincline has been all but lost to history.
Unless you watch GoLion, you’re not going to get that character.
And yet, the fandom claims that the revamped character in 2017 is basically the antichrist specifically because of his Japanese counterpart from 1981 and has decided that his ships are inherently abusive according to a canon that isn’t even his. Nothing in the current Voltron show shows Lotor as anything other than a complex character who has complex relationships (like with the team of fellow half-Galra who followed him until the last season).
He’s not abusive and he isn’t a rapist.
He isn’t written that way in his interactions with his team or to the Paladins of Voltron and their allies.
Nothing in the show or show marketing material supports that.
Sure, some villains are abusive garbage piles that have (and use their) power over the hero.
I can’t get behind ships like Kylo Ren and Rey in their current canon because, in this case, Kylo’s goal is to dominate her with his power. He uses the Force against Rey multiple times, terrorizing her in order to get what he wants and keep her from fighting him.
Same goes for a ship like Percival Graves and Credence Barebone in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them where the former literally uses the latter’s experience being abused to manipulate him into doing his dirty work.
Without some serious rewrites, neither of these two relationships can be even remotely appropriate or acceptable in their canons because there’s a lack of equality between them and abuse has been encoded into their interactions since the start.
And I’ll admit it, many popular villain/hero ships are absolutely terrible ships in and out of their respective canons. They’re the worst of the worst in canon and their respective fandoms don’t do much better in terms of portraying the relationships fairly or responsibly.
But, there’s so much more going on here on top of this. There’s so much nuance that is left behind by deciding that every single villain/hero relationship isn’t just problematic, but abusive. And that it’s all because of the villain supposedly holding all of this (personal or societal) power over the hero…
I’m still harping on the Voltron Legendary Defender fandom, but I mean… it’s a hard fandom to let go of because it’s where I’m seeing the birth of much of this disastrous discourse. It’s also where I’m seeing characters accused of being villainous (or abusive) on the basis of societal imbalance or prejudice.
In almost every Voltron incarnation so far, Keith and Allura have wound up together or have been implied to have some sort of romantic relationship. Up until the current series, no one seemed to give half a damn.
In VLD, Allura’s entire race has been killed by the Galra over the course of ten thousand years. Keith, in season two, is revealed to be part-Galra. Of course, the writers went for a ham-fisted callback to conversations we have in our real lives about race and prejudice and failed miserably (by having Allura realize that “not all of the Galra are genocidal imperialists”), but as of now: Allura and Keith are cool.
But the fandom literally says that a Keith/Allura relationship would be abusive and “antiblack” because Keith is… basically one-sixteenth Galra and found out like an hour before Allura did that he wasn’t entirely human.
I’ve seen multiple people say that the ship is racist and abusive because “Keith is one of Allura’s oppressors” or because “the Galra destroyed Allura’s people”.
Meanwhile… Keith is like eighteen to Allura’s… ten-thousand (give or take a couple millennia frozen in stasis). He wasn’t even alive when the Galra committed the Altean Genocide. How exactly is he responsible for any of what the Galra did to the Alteans? How is he a freaking villain or a potential abuser based on a heritage he didn’t even know he had?
Moving on, I’d like to wrap this up by providing a couple examples from some popular fandoms that show how some hero/villain relationships are problematic because of behavior on the HERO’s part and how they differ from relationships where the villain is clearly abusive in their canon interactions with the hero.
(I had more examples but they touched on even more triggering content than usual and I didn’t want to subject anyone to that…)
Let’s start with Marvel’s Jessica Jones and Daredevil series:
For some reason, despite watching all of Jessica Jones, many members of fandom left the show shipping Jessica with her rapist and abuser, Kilgrave. In this dialogue from episode eight “AKA WWJD”, Jessica explicitly says that he raped her and he deflects the blame repeatedly:
Kilgrave: What part of staying in five-star hotels, eating in all the best places, doing whatever the hell you wanted, is rape?
Jessica: The part where I didn’t want to do any of it! Not only did you physically rape me, but you violated every cell in my body and every thought in my goddamn head.
Kilgrave: That’s not what I was trying to do.
Jessica: It doesn’t matter what you were trying to do. You raped me, again and again and again.
Kilgrave: How was I supposed to know?! Huh?! I never know if someone is doing what they want or what I tell them to!
Jessica: Oh, poor you.
Kilgrave: You have no idea, do you? I have to painstakingly choose every word I say. I once told a man to go screw himself. Can you even imagine? I didn’t have this. A home, loving parents, a family.
Jessica: You blame bad parenting? My parents died! You don’t see me raping anyone!
Kilgrave: I hate that word.
Kilgrave isn’t just a series villain. He’s a rapist and an abuser who doesn’t even think that he’s done anything wrong. He literally uses his power to subjugate and abuse Jessica (and countless others) in the show and comic.
He’s actually a monster. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that rapists and abusers should get happy endings, orgasms, or goopy, glorious relationships. They should get what’s coming to them… Let me tell you… when Jessica killed him, I cheered.
Contrast that with Elektra and Matt Murdock in Daredevil. Elektra occupies a super murky space between anti-hero and villain between the comics and show and Matt is a clear-cut hero. According to the current fandom take on heroes and villains, their relationship should be problematic because Elektra, being a villain-ish figure and all, is a “bad influence” on Matt who of course she has power over.
That’s not how their relationship works and even if you were to squint, Matt is who appears to hold the power in their relationship and who is frequently not exactly kind to Elektra. I wouldn’t call it abusive (but it could be), but Matt holds the cards in their relationship and I can count two instances in Daredevil season 2 where he gets all… moral at her for being who she is. In this relationship, the villain doesn’t even come close to having power over the hero.
Elektra’s whole thing is that she plays a tough game, but is just a sensitive soul. Matt is constantly ignoring that, acting like she corrupted him and (mis)treating her based on a relationship they had years before. Matt is allowed to change and demand that Elektra respect him as a changed man, but Elektra is supposedly the same woman she was from back then?
How is that acceptable?
(Matt also makes her help save Stick’s life – Stick being the man who dehumanized and abused her throughout her childhood and adulthood until she was the exact tool he needed her to be. Oh, and he’d just tried to kill her.)
That’s a good example of a hero/villain relationship where, while evidence of some power imbalance exists, it’s not from the villain’s part and it’s not as easy as saying that the relationship is an abusive relationship either.
Then there’s DC Comics:
Two ships immediately come to mind and they’re both Batman-ships: Batman/Joker and Batman/Catwoman.
Look, I do hate the idea of shipping Batman and the Joker, but it’s not because the Joker is a villain, but because he killed one of Bruce’s kids, cut off his father figure Alfred’s hand, and brutally assaulted Barbara Gordon, one of his close friends.
What makes this ship problematic isn’t that the Joker is evil, but that he’s constantly going after Bruce’s family in order to alienate him and make him more amenable to focusing on the Joker alone. His goal is to cut Bruce off from his support system and family to make Bruce more likely to do what he wants.
It’s classic abusive behavior and it’s canon.
In Necessary Evil: Super Villains of DC Comics, creators Scott Snyder and Peter J. Tomasi actually fleshed out the abusive nature of the relationship as revealed in that comic (though they of course don’t see it as such):
Snyder: When we did “Death of the Family” story, …he comes at Batman saying, “Deep down, we really love each other.” And, of course, Batman says, “I hate nothing more on the earth than you, Joker.”
Tomasi: The Joker feels that the family that Batman has built around him all these years … is dragging him down. He says, “These people are draining your soul. These other members of the Bat family, they’re sucking the life out of you. I’m your friend. I wanna make you be the best that you can be, … so that we can both have a relationship that we could enjoy for so many years, …without these knuckleheads on the side constantly draining you. And so I’m gonna take care of them for you. And I’m going to wipe out all these family members, … so you can be free of their encumbrance.”
Yeah, that’s abusive as hell.
He wants to separate Bruce from his family and friends, leaving him with only one significant relationship: with him. He repeatedly attempts to hurt and injure the people that Bruce loves in order to isolate him and make him dependent on that villainous rivalry.
Let’s never forget that Death in the Family happened. The Joker murdering Jason Todd was one of the most controversial moments in comic book history, and to this day has impacted how all three characters are portrayed.
As with shipping T’challa and Baron Zemo in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the lowest bar for ships to maybe set on the shelf until you can handle it well should be “one member of this ship killed the other’s parent/child/sibling/pet”.
And yet – the fandom kind of still acts like the Joker and Batman are meant to be together trapped in this darkly romantic rivalry that actually doesn’t exist anywhere but in their heads.
Then there’s Batman/Catwoman.
Unlike Batman/Joker, which will never be canon in the main universe, this ship is canon in most universes and pretty positive for the most part. It’s also a ship between a hero and villain where the hero has clear power over the villain. Yes, I know that technically Catwoman is currently an anti-hero at this point in time, but throughout the decades, she’s been a villain more than anything and that’s how Batman/Bruce Wayne has seen her.
That’s also how he usually treats her.
I mean historically, Batman has been this holier-than-thou do-gooder figure in Catwoman’s life. He’s frequently seen lecturing her and acting like he knows better than her. He’s frequently this crusader for morality that keeps reminding Selina that she’s just not good enough for him – even when she’s trying.
It’s been better in recent years, but as recently as DC’s New 52 soft-reboot (2011 to 2016), the relationship between the two characters was unequal to the point where Batman was sleeping with Selina-as-Catwoman without telling her his own public identity – while he not only knew hers, but was interacting with her as Bruce Wayne during the day.
Now there’s a relationship that has always had some signs of a serious power imbalance… on the hero’s end.
In The Many Lives of Catwoman, author Tim Hanley writes that:
Bruce’s secret identity added a one-sided power dynamic to the relationship. He knew that Selina was Catwoman, and saw her through that lens, while she only knew part of who he was. He could also use his Batman identity to do things Bruce couldn’t, like surveil and confront her, manipulating Selina without her knowing that her boyfriend was behind it. It was dishonest and controlling and kept them on an unequal footing.
Bruce’s behavior (which Hanley lays out from an arc where Selina gives up fighting crime in order to be with him) is abusive. Rather than accept Selina as she is, Bruce fixates on how she could turn back to crime at any moment. He stalks her, gaslights her, and uses his power as Batman to keep track of her and manipulate her (even when he’s not playing Batman).
Even in times when they both know each other’s secret identity (which hasn’t been that often), Bruce still sometimes gets downright paternalistic with Selina as if he is the ultimate arbiter of morality and she’s a child that needs discipline.
As with Elektra and Daredevil, when male heroes and female villains date or fall in love, the female villain is the character expected to change fundamental aspects of herself and give up her identity in order to be with a man.
Hero/villain relationships aren’t inherently abusive or problematic because of where the characters fall along moral lines, but relationships like Batman/Catwoman and Daredevil/Elektra have the potential to be both of those things due to how (predominantly male and straight) writers and creators handle the relationship between a male hero and a female villain very poorly.
To sum up
I think it’s easy to assume that all hero/villain ships come with the same issues of morality, but it’s better to go by a case by case analysis. Not all heroes and villains come from the same mold and in that same vein, not all hero/villain ships come from the same mold either.
Should fandom think a bit more carefully about the kind of hero/villain relationships it supports or the kind of content that it creates for those ships?
Yeah, sure. I mean… that can’t possibly hurt.
However, there’s a definite difference between talking about how fandom handles ships between heroes and villains in ways that maybe don’t acknowledge potential problems or that turns those problems into positives and just writing off all hero/villain relationships as harmful and abusive because they’re heroes and villains.
While some popular villain/hero relationships are iffy because of the villain’s identity or actions, many others either aren’t abusive at all, have the potential for positivity, or are problematic because of the way that the hero constantly treats the villain.
Deciding that hero/villain relationships are all abusive and harmful based on some reductive ideas of what heroes and villains represent and/or do isn’t a good start or the way to handle any of that.
 Gross is in quotations because while I can understand why some of the ships regularly appearing on those lists wind up there, others are just… clearly a matter of the OP’s preference for canon and fanon…
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2 thoughts on ““You Can’t Ship a Protagonist and an Antagonist””
This is such an interesting post! You made really great points here!
You say in your intro tweets that you whine a lot, but if this is whining, it’s quality, nuanced whining. Thank you for your work!
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