One of the most famous (and infamous) DC comics storyline is The Judas Contract, originally published in 1984 by Marv Wolfman and George Perez for the New Teen Titans. The arc goes into the backstory of Deathstroke the Terminator (Slade) and the introduction to new characters. The most notable addition includes Terra, a teenage girl with incredible Earth powers who ends up betraying the other Titans…and being in a sexual relationship with Slade. At the time, her being in this relationship cemented her status as being unlikable and a villain.
Since standards have changed significantly since the 1980’s, but Terra’s relationship with Slade is a crucial part of her character, how do you portray it in modern times? Well, there are two ways to do it, as demonstrated in the Teen Titans 2003 animated series and the recent direct to DVD Teen Titans: The Judas Contract.
In the former, the relationship between Slade and Terra is strongly implied, but not shown. It will fly over most kids heads, but adults (and people who have read the original comic) will know that Slade is indeed sexually abusing her in addition to physically and emotionally so. It’s clear that he sees her more than just a tool: he wants her to be his and his alone (and all that implies). But the show explicitly CONDEMNS this relationship. Whenever the two characters are onscreen it is made to be creepy, unnerving, and repulsive.
What makes this work is that Terra herself is a nuanced character. While she’s not exactly my fave character, we know that she’s scared, confused, and lost, and Slade took advantage of her. You see that she genuinely likes the Titans and does want to do the right thing, but Slade led her astray. Ultimately, she’s able to fight back against her abuser and saves the day. Of course this ending is brought into question in the very last episode, but the point is, this version of The Judas Contract expertly and respectfully handles this controversial subject matter.
The new 2017 movie does…not.
What struck me out when I watched this movie was just how…unlikable Terra was. Like she makes it really apparent that she has no respect for the heroes that took her in. It’s only when they throw her a surprise party when she suddenly starts caring for them and having second thoughts. Slade (her abuser) is given more sympathy since he talks about how hard he had it young and had to fight to get where he is now and is shown saving Terra’s life. Even the ending, when she finally fights back against him, portrays him in a tragic light.
But what really horrified me was a particularly lurid scene where Terra gets dolled up and dressed down into lingerie, walks seductively, and cuddles up to him.
The comments are even worse. Some people rightfully point out that this is pedophilic, but then there are people in the comments who are defending this, saying that SHE’S the one who’s trying to initiate the sexual relationship, that she’s a slut, that this is supposed to look like a student/teacher crush, that Slade is not taking advantage of her…like, no???? Why are they literally SEXUALIZING a fucking MINOR in an abusive relationship?
The problem with sexualizing Terra like this is because these types of representations can lead to young girls getting sexually assaulted and raped in real life. Sometimes abusers will use sexualized pictures and art of young girls (such as cartoon characters or even photoshopped pictures of real celebrities) to groom their victims. Where do you think the mentality of “she asked for it/she wanted it” when a young girl gets raped and no one takes her seriously comes from? Maybe this would’ve been fine if Slade specifically said “no, Terra, it’s not going to be like that, now go put your clothes back on”, but even if he doesn’t take advantage of her now, he’s still leading her on. It’s gross and it’s not right.
What makes this so jarring is that the relationship between Dick (Nightwing) and Kory (Starfire), a healthy relationship, is handled naturally, realistically, and beautifully. Yet the writers turn around and make a minor in an abusive relationship unlikable and sexualized?
If you’re going to show a relationship like this, you need to do it with tact and grace, because otherwise you can send the wrong message. And in our current world where young girls are sexualized, women are infantilized, and sexual assault is often blamed on the victim, maybe you’re sending a bad message when your audience thinks the sexualized minor is the one in the wrong here.