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Super. Dysfunctional. Representation.: The Women of “The Umbrella Academy”

Why I love “The Umbrella Academy” but not the way it treats women

Illustration by Serena Rodriguez

**WARNING! This post contains spoilers for the first season of Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy.” Reader discretion advised.**

Christ on a cracker! Gerard Way fans rejoice because “The Umbrella Academy” is set to premiere its second season on July 31. The Netflix original show received an outpouring of fan love upon its initial release last February. 

“The Umbrella Academy” is smart, funny and full of action. What it is lacking is positive female representation. All the women in this show are either killed off or their roles are determined by the men around them.

The show follows an adoptive family made up of seven siblings, each equipped with their own unique superpowers. Number One has super strength, Number Two can hold his breath indefinitely and is very skilled in close-quarter combat, Number Three can alter reality with a simple lie, and so on and so forth. At the center of the family is the harsh, foreboding father figure, Sir Reginald Hargreeves. He brought the siblings together and exploited their powers without giving them the love one usually receives from a father. 

Being a single father is no easy task, even for a rich British man. So, Reginald created a mother figure for the seven children: Grace (played by Jordan Claire Robbins). Grace is a smiling, doting robot…literally, she’s a robot. She cooks, cleans and plays the role of “mother” perfectly. A perfect foil for Reginald’s stern demeanor. And the beginning of a very troubling pattern in the “Umbrella Academy” array of characters.

Grace (Jordan Claire Robbins) – Source: IMDb

When Number Seven (her real name is Vanya and she is played by the incredible Ellen Page) was younger, her powers made her completely unmanageable. Reginald tried to introduce her to a multitude of nannies/”mothers” but she destroyed all of them. The only one that stuck? Grace, the blank-staring 50s-style housewife whose only purpose is to listen to her man (her creator, mind you) and take care of her children.

This is not an attack on mothers or wives; I’m addressing a harmful stereotype that has perpetuated for decades. A stereotype that’s troublesome to see in one of the most popular shows released in the past few years. I would hope there would be more dimensional roles for women at this point. 

I would also hope women of color wouldn’t be seen as expendable in this day and age. But writers let me down all the time. Helen Cho (played by Emily Piggford) was the first chair in the orchestra Vanya was auditioning for. She was barely seen in the show before she was killed off and her body was left to rot in an attic. Cho felt like a plot device rather than an actual character. We were briefly introduced to her and then she was used for furthering Vanya’s journey. It makes you wonder why the writers chose to use a woman of color as a character destined for tragedy.

Helen Cho (Emily Piggford) – Source: IMDb

Then there’s Detective Eudora Patch (played by Ashley Madekwe). I really liked her. She was intelligent, independent and she was not afraid to put Diego (Number Two) in his place. It was a bit irritating that one of her main purposes was to be Diego’s love interest but Diego is my favorite Hargreeves so I, personally, was not too bothered by it. I wanted him to be happy. 

Patch was looking into strange murders around town that seemed to be linked to the Hargreeves family. This fateful investigation led to Patch’s untimely death. She was shot after finding the show’s two antagonists in a motel. Patch went from a strong female character to being another woman of color killed off for plot progression.

detective

While the scene where Diego cries over her body serves as a great moment for the audience to sympathize with the second Hargreeves, it is incredibly frustrating that Patch died for seemingly no reason. Patch didn’t have to die but, unfortunately, women of color are apparently still seen as dispensable in media.

As previously mentioned, there were two main antagonists for “The Umbrella Academy”’s first season: Hazel and Cha-Cha. They were assassins sent to kill Number Five, the sassy youngest sibling whose history is too intricate to get into right now. (Just watch the show, they explain it better than I ever will.) Cha-Cha was played by the incomparable Mary J. Blige. She was strong, ruthless and seemingly indestructible. That is until Hazel falls in love with a local waitress. Once Hazel becomes distracted, Cha-Cha becomes enraged. Despite their mission to kill Number Five, she vows to kill the couple, punishing them because Hazel abandoned his job. 

She is focused on getting the job done, which I can respect. What bothers me is that it is heavily implied that Cha-Cha has romantic feelings for Hazel and that’s part of the reason she loses her shit. If Cha-Cha were a real person, not a fictional television character, she would probably ditch her lovey-dovey partner and get the job done herself. But, no. She’s a woman in a television show so her entire persona is dependent on the man she’s with. The man she probably has feelings for. To quote Miranda Priestly: groundbreaking.

Cha-Cha (Mary J. Blige) – Source: IMDb

Another, perhaps unsuspecting, antagonist of the show is Vanya. Vanya’s character troubled me in two ways and neither of them had anything to do with the fact that she was a villain. In fact, I think the world needs more female villains. First, Vanya is completely undermined for most of the season. She supposedly “doesn’t have any powers” but it was actually Reginald repressing her powers with medicine since she was a child because she was too strong. (Again…watch the show if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) Anyway, because she has “no powers,” everyone treats her like she doesn’t exist. They speak down to her, think she has no spine and generally gaslight her into silent submission. It is a horrid routine that many women are all too familiar with.

Vanya meets Leonard. Leonard is a dick. He is the second issue I have with Vanya’s characterization. Throughout the season, Vanya doesn’t have the confidence to stand up for herself. Leonard gives her that confidence through his “love” and “support,” which, of course, we find out is all a ploy to weaponize Vanya and get revenge on the Hargreeves for an age-old grudge Leonard has. Men really ain’t shit, huh? (Kidding…sorta.) Anyway, I wanted Vanya to find strength within herself. I always want women to find strength within themselves. I’m tired of men ostensibly handing it to them or helping them achieve it. We are perfectly capable of doing it ourselves and I want to see that reflected in the content we consume.

Vanya Hargreeves (Ellen Page) – Source: IMDb

Finally, we get to the most atrocious act of them all. One of the strongest Hargreeves is Number Three (her real name is Allison and she’s played by Emmy Raver-Lampman), the sibling who can alter reality by saying the words “I heard a rumor…”. Allison also has this weird romance with Number One (whose real name is Luther and whom I have a strong dislike for) but that’s not my biggest grievance, although it is a grievance. Allison was flawed, this is true, but I was also very fond of her. She was a strong leader, a loving sister and someone who had gone a little mad with power. I thought she was a well-rounded character. Which obviously meant to the writers that she had to silenced. Literally. Towards the end of the season, Allison had a falling out with Vanya as she began coming into her powers. In the skirmish, Vanya accidentally slashed Allison’s throat. For a terrifying moment, we were left wondering if Allison was even alive. 

Allison thankfully survived the ordeal but she was left mute. Her vocal cords must have been severed by the blow. (I don’t know how anatomy works or if that’s even possible, but it happened.) The one Hargreeves constantly using her voice to stand up for herself and others was quelled by violence. Not to mention the fact that Allison is yet another woman of color harmed within the show. It’s very upsetting to see but at least she wasn’t killed off, I guess? It sucks that I have to say that.

Allison Hargreeves (Emmy Raver-Lampman) – Source: Netflix

Ellen Page, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Mary J. freaking Blige. The cast was brimming with talented women and they were all let down by poor writing/character development. I’m not the first one to notice the unfortunate trend of female representation in “The Umbrella Academy” and I hope I’m not the last. Here’s to hoping the new season brings positive change.

8 Reasons To Watch Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy

There’s been a lot of comic book content coming out of Hollywood lately, and after setting the sun on the Defenders branch of the Marvel Universe, Netflix dropped their originally-produced adaptation of the Dark Horse Comics series The Umbrella Academy. It may be easy to see this as “just another superhero story,” but after giving it a go, we’ve found eight reasons you might actually want to give this one a shot. And, bonus– this is all spoiler-free, so you’ll be able to discover all the juiciest bits for yourself.

1.The Source Material

(Image: Alternative Press, 2005)

The Umbrella Academy started as a three-edition comic book series penned by Gerard Way (yes, My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way). Set in an alternate timeline where JFK was never killed, the story focuses on seven of 43 children born in a mysterious cosmic event where nearly 50 women (previously not pregnant at all) give birth at the same time. Those seven are adopted by an eccentric billionaire, Reginald Hargreeves, who raises six of them as superheroes and isolates the unremarkable but musically gifted seventh child, Vanya, from her siblings.

It’s a lot to unpack, but the Netflix series (which Way executive produces) streamlines this pretty well by focusing on the family and largely focusing on adapting the first volume, The Apocalypse Suite, which focuses on the family coming back together after the death of Hargreeves, and including some references to the second volume, Dallas. With characters that address issues of divorce and drug addiction, it finds a way to stay grounded even in its fantastic universe, and it tells a great story of siblinghood and growing up as a prodigy child.

2. Ellen Page

(Image: Netflix)

First of all, Ellen Page with a violin. That alone is reason enough to watch this.

Page plays Vanya Hargreeves, the ordinary violinist who earns the ire of her family by writing an autobiography about growing up in the Hargreeves household. While Vanya’s character progression is slightly different from the comics, Ellen Page does a really good job playing Vanya and showing a sympathetic and relatable character growing into her own outside the shadows of her famous family. It’s also fun to watch her build a bond with Allison/The Rumor (Emmy Raver-Lampman), who seems to be the only one of her siblings who respects her as a person despite her status of ordinary. Which, actually, that reminds me…

3. The Siblings

(Image: IGN via Netflix)

These characters are so much fun to watch. Between the rivalry of super-strong Luther/Spaceboy (Tom Hopper) and Diego/The Kraken (David Castañeda), who has the gift of perfectly aiming everything he throws, the haunting of spirit-connected Klaus/The Séance (Robert Sheehan) with his deceased and monstrous brother Ben/The Horror (Justin H. Min), and the mysterious history of Five/The Boy (Aidan Gallagher) all make for interesting and compelling moving parts that make the story feel full. Everyone has their own quirks and struggles, making each character feel unique and fleshed out, and there’s something about everyone to root for.

4. Hazel and Cha-Cha

(Image: Netflix)

Hello, who doesn’t want to watch Mary J. Blige as an assassin from a mysterious organization?

Hazel (Cameron Britton) and Cha-Cha (Blige) catch the family in their crosshairs because of their connection to Five, and honestly, they are way more enjoyable than any secondary characters have any right to be. They have great chemistry as partners and actually carry kind of an interesting little side story together. (AND they don’t get shoved into a relationship at the end, which I think is a major bonus.)

5. The Music

(Image: Daily Express via Netflix)

With the main character being connected to music, it’s kind of a given that the show should have good music, which is fantastic, because that’s exactly what they had. Vanya’s violin music is incorporated throughout the score of the show, and there are also lots of great upbeat pop and rock songs to keep the flow of the show moving. Often they get incorporated into action sequences, like Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now and The Turtles’ Happy Together, but they also once or twice take a break from the action to have a dance scene– no, I’m not joking, and no, it doesn’t feel out of place. It jives just fine with the quirky feel of the series, and it provides for some fun moments alongside the series’ more heavy material.

6. The Costumes

(Image: Netflix)

The comic series takes place in 1977, but the Netflix series is changed to take place in 2019. This means that there are some incongruencies– the siblings’ robot “Mom” is styled after a 1950’s Stepford-style housewife, but Allison dresses in modern-trend wide pants and leather jackets– but that’s part of the charm of the series. What’s really unique is the design of the Umbrella Academy member costumes, complete with classic superhero-stylized domino masks with whited out eyes, pulled straight off the cover of a comic book. Kate Walsh’s Handler also has my favorite costumes of the whole series, with her vintage dresses and coats in highly-saturated colors.

7. The Mansion

(Image: Netflix)

While a lot of the sets are the same kind of slightly run-down muted you see in a lot of superhero media, the Hargreeves Mansion is an awesome set with lots of neat little details, from the Umbrella Academy logo on the doors to the kindergarten-style combat instruction posters in the hallway. It also houses the childhood rooms of the different members of the Academy, which give lots of insight into their personality, like Allison’s multitude of poppy posters and Luther’s space paraphernalia. The general spaces, like the kitchen and the sitting room, also are really well-designed and give off a Wayne-esque vibe that feels like a tribute to comic media without feeling like a carbon copy.

8. The Cinematography

(Image: Netflix)

There are so many gorgeous shots in this series. The title cards are clever, each one a different placement of an umbrella that draws your attention. The fight scenes are smooth, easy to follow, and appealing (an early fight between Five and some hitmen in a donut shop is a particularly fun show of his powers), and it balances serious and snappy. A flashback with Klaus is fantastical and over-the-top, but Vanya’s scenes are fittingly very simple and subtly-composed. The end of Episode Seven has one of my personal favorite shots of the entire series, a very simple tracking shot that has a lot of impact. The cinematographer knows the screen space and knows it well.
The Umbrella Academy is a fun romp with a dark edge. Quirky and gritty, crazy and touching, this wild class is one that we hope isn’t going out of session just yet.