This post was commissioned by Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks Shane!
Trigger warning: Discussion of rape.
Please note that this was written prior to the #metoo movement and associated revelations about Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon. It has not been updated to reflect that news.
Rick and Morty fans are, quite rightly, frequently mocked for an unearned sense of superiority. The claim that the humor of Rick and Morty–a show riddled with fart jokes and gross-out gags–requires unusual intelligence to appreciate is, frankly, absurd, and anyone who sees a miserable, alcoholic, misogynistic, child-abusing mass murderer like Rick as worthy of admiration or emulation has drastically missed the point of the show.
It should not be that surprising, then, that one of the show’s smartest, most insightful, most inciteful jokes goes largely without comment among the sorts of fans who hold up Rick as a paragon of nerd masculinity or queue up for the brief resurrection of an orientalist marketing stunt involving a mix of ketchup and teriyaki:* referring to a love potion as a roofie.
Because of course it is one. What we call “consent” refers to an alignment of perception, emotion, intention, and action. In other words, to truly consent, someone must have capacity to perceive the situation accurately, room to feel genuine emotion about that situation, opportunity to formulate an intention of how they plan to respond to how they feel about the situation, and finally freedom to take action in accord with their intent. Break that chain, knock any element out of alignment, and true consent is no longer possible.
In discussing rape in real life, people usually assume physical force or the threat of violence is involved, disengaging action from intent and making the victim do something they have made clear that they don’t want to. But that’s not the most common scenario; by far the weapon of choice for rapists is alcohol, which mostly operates by distorting perception and cognition, which is to say the first three steps in the process. Consent is just as impossible as when a threat of violence is involved, but because we are so trained by narratives that fixate on the disconnect between action and intent, it becomes easy for those motivated to do so to dismiss.
Fantasy and science fiction stories frequently depict substances (or spells, or machines) that disrupt perception, emotion, or intention, and rarely recognize that they thus violate consent. But a love potion really is just a magical date-rape drug, because it artificially alters emotion. Jessica doesn’t want to have sex with Morty; that is, to the best of our knowledge, she accurately perceives him, has room to feel whatever she feels about him, opportunity to make decisions about those feelings, and freedom to act on them, and chooses not to have sex with Morty. Until he smears her with magical “roofie juice serum,” at which point she becomes so determined to have sex with him that she loses all self-control. He’s distorted her perception of him, altered her emotions, seized control of her intentions, and is thereby forcing her actions: Rick’s name for it is thoroughly accurate.
That throwaway joke alone would hardly be worthy of an essay. But the rest of the episode builds it into a theme: this is all about the ownership and violation of bodies. Morty’s attempt to violate Jessica’s bodily and mental autonomy goes wildly out of control, and Rick’s attempted solutions make it even worse, as people all over the world unwillingly lose their humanity. They are reduced to monstrous things, abjectified as “Cronenbergs” (referring, of course, to David Cronenberg, master of grotesque horror), and ultimately just abandoned to their fate. Rick doesn’t care about their humanity any more than Morty cares about Jessica’s; Rick just sees something grotesque he wants to escape, while Morty just sees something attractive he wants to possess.
All this comes together in the ending, as Morty is forced to bury his own alternate-universe corpse so that he can slip into that Morty’s life. He passes, silent and bug-eyed, through a world where everything is the same as before he used the roofie juice serum, yet he knows that nothing is the same, because he is not the same. He was forced to confront his own mortality, the reality that he is a body, and see that body treated as an object, buried and forgotten.
Two episodes later, in “Rixty Minutes,” Morty uses the fact of his corpse as an object lesson for Summer on the meaninglessness and horror of existence: “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV?” That is the solution he attempts here in “Rick Potion #9”: he sits in front of the TV. But he remains mute and wide-eyed as ever, making clear that it doesn’t work. He cannot simply forget that he is an object, a monster, a rotting corpse.
None of us can. But that’s the difference between Morty here and Morty two episodes ago: he asks Summer to come watch TV with him. We are all things, animals, bodies; but by treating one another as people, by communicating and asking instead of coercing and forcing, we become people as well.
*Seriously, look at the ingredients list here. Soy sauce + sugar + garlic and spices = Americanized teriyaki sauce. Tomato paste + sugar + vinegar = ketchup. Neither of these things is Chinese. One is an Americanization of a Japanese cooking technique, the other an Americanization of a Malaysian sauce.
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