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Agents of SHIELD Has A Serious Problem With Its Treatment of Abuse

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DISCLAIMER: This is a personal opinion piece of the author and NOT necessarily the opinion of SpoilerTV.

Agents of SHIELD chose to tackle the subject of abuse in multiple storylines and unfortunately, the way they’ve handled it is troubling and offensive in each instance.

Grant Ward’s parents and older brother abused him from a young age, and his backstory is explored early in the series. Then came the reveal that he was a double agent and the show tackled his relationship with his mentor, John Garrett, which painted a grim picture as revealed in episode 1.21, Ragtag. Grant was fifteen and in juvie for setting his house on fire when John walked in and offered him a second chance - to “save him from hell”. John kidnapped him - Grant was a minor and legally unable to consent to going with the man - and abandoned him in the woods with only a dog for company. A scared teenager who thought he had been saved was led to believe he had no other options if he wanted to “become a man” and join SHIELD, as he was initially led to believe. Emotional abuse is defined as intimidation, threatening physical abuse, isolation, harming pets, and gaslighting (meaning a person manipulates another by making them question their own memory and involves denial). John Garrett and Grant Ward’s relationship fits this criteria. John calls him “weak and worthless” and drills into his head that love is a weakness. When it’s finally time to become a double agent within SHIELD, John orders him to kill his dog, Buddy. A terrified Grant can’t do it but John does, and only reinforces his “love is a weakness” creed. He brainwashed Grant into following him.

When Grant needs to be injured to sell his cover to the team, John steps right in and viciously beats him with a smile on his face. It seems likely that Grant was also physically abused by his mentor. Then Skye needs to open the hard drive full of secrets about the alien drug that resurrected Coulson and saved her, and John orders Mike Petersen stop his heart. John doesn’t even care that Skye could have chosen to let Grant die, and was clearly fine with it. In fact, when Grant confronts him about it, John actually turns it around on him. He tells Grant he should be happy for him, then calls him weak and accuses him of playing the victim - more gaslighting. He mentions weakness again after ordering Grant to kill Fitzsimmons, something he clearly doesn’t want to do. When Grant starts having doubts, he confides in Raina, who manipulates him into staying with his abuser. It doesn’t excuse his actions at all but Grant Ward was physically and emotionally abused all his life, and that’s a fact clearly shown multiple times in season one but the show decided ignore and retcon. They turned him into a villain because of his abuse and saw nothing wrong with this or the fact that only brought up his abuse to vilify him even further. In interviews, they even turned it into a game about whether Grant was telling the truth about his abuse. They refused to answer it one way or another because they liked it being a mystery.

In season two, in exchange for getting the government off SHIELD’s back, Phil Coulson makes a deal with Christian Ward - Grant’s brother. He decides to sell Grant out to his abuser and nobody saw a problem with it, not even the writers. He was victim blamed repeatedly. Melinda May even compares their traumas and says it “doesn’t make us all psychopaths” when all traumas are different. This wasn’t a competition but Agents of SHIELD made it one. Skye has a right to be upset but telling a mentally ill man who tried to commit suicide three times that he “should have tried harder” was crossing the line. She also accused him of lying about his abuse, something that sadly occurs in real life all the time.

Season three only makes it worse. Grant Ward was brutally murdered in cold blood and possessed by an ancient Inhuman. The writers had no issues with further violating a man in death who was a lifelong abuse victim and sexually assaulted by Lorelei in season one (something they also glossed right over). But they also introduced Grant’s younger brother, Thomas, and vilified him even more. He slammed Grant for not being able to overcome his abuse like him, as if every situation is the same. And the show once again ignored the fact that Garrett kidnapped and abused him, which had a big hand in how he turned out. They chose to portray a good victim vs. bad victim narrative, which is damaging to real life abuse survivors.

In episode 2.13, One of Us, the team hunts down Skye’s biological father and the team he’s assembled, which includes a woman named Karla Gideon. An abuse victim, Karla murdered her abuser and continued to kill. Instead of showing empathy, Coulson says “he would have felt bad for her” if she hadn’t done this.

Season two also introduced Kara Palamas, a SHIELD agent who in 2.03 we saw tortured, abused, and brainwashed by Hydra. It was later learned that Bobbi Morse gave Hydra the information that led to Kara’s capture as a way to to cement her cover and we are given no indication that Bobbi tried to help afterwards - or that she informed Coulson or Gonzales. Although Coulson claims SHIELD never leaves a man behind, that’s exactly what they did with Kara.They never attempted to help - they just leave her behind after fights where she is left unconscious - and instead blamed her for a situation that wasn’t her fault. May especially blames Kara for still having her face (“Look, when she takes your face, we’ll talk”). It became a running joke that May fought someone with her face even though she was fighting a brainwashed woman who had no choice. She lost her identity in the aftermath of all of this. And although he massively screwed it up and they went too far, Grant Ward did more to try to help her than anybody else. Even though the team hated Ward, they had no problem leaving her with him. Then instead of writing a storyline where Kara does get help to overcome her abuse and come out the other side stronger, the show violently killed her off in order to set up the next leg of Ward’s storyline.

Season four revealed that Fitz had been emotionally abused by his father, Alistair, who abandoned his son when he was a child. Jemma mentions to Mack that Alistair was always telling Fitz "he was stupid and worthless". In the Framework, it was implied that Alistair physically abused him too when Fitz flinched away from him. And although it was an alternate universe and Fitz later felt guilty for his actions, the writers chose to write another storyline where an abuse victim became evil because of their abuse instead of handling the storyline respectfully, something they clearly cannot do. None of this was helped by a crew member insensitively Tweeting to upset fans that Fitz wasn’t abused by Alistair (in either world) and they didn’t believe AIDA was manipulating him - two storylines that definitely occurred. This crew member also believed that emotional abuse wasn’t real and the way that Alistair treated Fitz was “just something that happened in the old days” (even though Fitz would have been a child in the nineties and this was wrong even in the “old days”). It was horrifying to discover that someone behind the scenes actually believed this and shows a lack of understanding on the topic.

The writers can and should try to do better because this disturbing pattern needs to end - they are hurting real abuse survivors with their actions. They have a duty to depict this topic sensitively even though the show is fictional and about superheroes.