Smugglers Ponderings

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: On the abusive treatment of Mantis

Trigger warning: abuse.

Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2 came out last week in the US (and a few days before that in the UK). I watched it last Wednesday and have been thinking about it ever since.


For all intents and purposes, this is a fun, light, genuinely affecting superhero movie that should have been a breezy watch, a couple of hours of light entertainment. I liked most of it a whole lot and even cried in the highly emotive ending – but the movie repeatedly punched me in the face. What went wrong?

The treatment of the new female character, Mantis.


Mantis is a new introduction to the team and to the franchise, appearing for the first time in the new movie and by the end of it, it looks as though she will be a recurrent character. Mantis is an alien with empathic powers: she can not only read people’s emotions when she touches them but also effectively control those emotions. Mantis is found by the team when they visit a planet called Ego and from the moment she first appears to the very last scene she is in, she is constantly negged, belittled and cruelly treated by another member of the team, Drax. All of it is played for laughs, because Drax is a character who serves not only as comic relief but whose literal mind often serves as framing for telling “the truth”. “The truth”, when it comes to Mantis as a character, is: she might be ugly but that doesn’t matter because she is “beautiful on the inside”. Her constant abuse is disguised as some sort of positive, acceptance message. It’s even worse if you think about the character’s backstory as presented in the movie, if you think about the scarcity of female characters in the franchise and above all, if you put it in historical context.

Let me try to unpack all of this.

Mantis is presented as a naïve and trusting character. That is so because she has had no other meaningful interaction in her life apart from her relationship with a male character called Ego. Ego took Mantis from her home planet, brought her up to serve him (he calls her a pet, if I am not mistaken. She calls him master) and kept her away from any meaningful contact with anybody else until the Guardians arrive.

Her backstory is already one of abuse to start with.

Enter the Guardians and Drax. From the moment Drax sets eyes on Mantis, she calls her ugly and disgusting, even going as far as making vomiting gags when he looks at her. It’s constant and unrelenting verbal abuse. Mantis takes it in stride because she doesn’t understand what is happening and doesn’t have a reference frame to understand it. But we do. And we are supposed to laugh at the expense of a character who has known nothing but abuse her whole life and doesn’t entirely understand what is going on.

We also do have a historical frame of reference: we, the viewers should know that this is a man, verbally abusing a woman, telling her that she is ugly over and over again. Because Drax is one of the “heroes”, the expectation here is that he and the other Guardians have “saved” her and that he is now the “only one” who can see the real her. Therefore he is the only one who truly finds value in her, beyond her ugliness. This, friends, is textbook abusive tactic and that’s how real life abuse plays out.

To have one of the few female characters in the franchise be the butt of a recurring joke only compounds the fact that Mantis’ entire arc seems to evolve around her being useful first to Ego (she puts him to sleep) and then the Guardians (she saves them and once her usefulness is exhausted, she is taken out of the equation, carried away as a damsel in distress by no other than her abuser). Her other plot purpose is to “read” Peter’s feelings and making Gamora deeply uncomfortable when she reads out those feelings in front of everybody. In the comics, Mantis is a grandmaster martial artist – what happened to that?

All in all, this is textbook abuse, played for laughs and disguised as an empowering message. It was a cruel, gross and completely unnecessary arc for a character that has so much potential.

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  • Cody Sisco
    May 8, 2017 at 12:49 pm

    Art and speculative fiction doesn’t always show us what **should** be, it can also show us how imperfect we are and our faults. People often pile ridicule and abuse on those they perceive as weak. Mantis’s story is also about how she empowers herself to leave Ego–she chooses to tell Drax the truth about him–she frees herself. She joins the Guardians voluntarily and moves into a better (though not perfect) situation.

  • steve davidson
    May 8, 2017 at 3:07 pm

    I was bothered by this as well, tho not to the degree you were.
    However, the character Drax is presented as literal minded, and, though I don’t have the film to reference (yet) I do believe that the scene in which he told Mantis that she was ugly, he was doing so to try and relieve her concerns (ham-handedly and literally-minded).
    There’s no doubt it was awkward and problematic (obviously, otherwise you’d not have mentioned it), but I also believe that we’re going to see a reconciliation of these issues in Vol 3.
    In Vol 1, Drax was constantly engaging in the same behavior with Gamora, and while it may not have been satisfying, it was resolved in a manner that attempted to show that Drax was genuinely concerned for her, though not expressing it well: he refers to her as a “whore”, and ten seconds later shoots Nebula for talking to his friends badly (no one says that to my friends, or some such); my impression is that he does not know that “whore” is an insult.
    I think we’re going to see a romance between Drax and Mantis in the next film…or a very close nurturing relationship. It doesn’t excuse what you’ve observed, but I am hoping that those scenes you referenced are set-ups for future (good) resolutions, as I am reluctant to think that this franchise would be this seemingly insensitive.

  • Ana
    May 8, 2017 at 4:01 pm

    @Cody: yes, that is true that one possible reading is that Mantis freed herself in search of a better life. Which is why the last scene between her and Drax (beautiful on the inside) was still discomfiting for me. Up until the very last moment, it is still played for laughs.

  • Ana
    May 8, 2017 at 4:11 pm

    @Steve: I am sure you know that words have power and words have context. Maybe “whore” means nothing to Drax but it sure does mean something to the audience, do you agree? It is playing on our knowledge of it to use it as a joke just like the second movie did. When voiced by one of the “heroes”, these words and this behavior simply augment and excuse real-life words and behaviors. For me, it is impossible to disassociate.
    All the more so because I have lived through this as have many women. This IS not only insensitive but cheap, cruel and lazy.

  • Anonymous
    May 8, 2017 at 10:17 pm

    I didn’t perceive it that way. I agree that Drax was mean and out of line during those scenes you mentioned but we need to understand Drax and what his truths are. Also, Gamora defended Mantis and even reprimanded Drax on his comments. Remember that part of the reason we like Drax is that he has no filter, and he is from a different culture where telling the absolute truth is normal for HIM. Let’s not forget that we need to discern fantasy from reality. I am in agreement that everyone of every race, culture, sexuality, basically EVERYONE needs to be treated with respect. As people, a parents and friends, we need to treat other people with the respect they deserve and how we would want to be treated. We need to know when it’s ok to poke fun (it’s different for everyone) and when we may take a joke too far. Also, with all this sensitivity around joking and cultural appropriation, I fear we might loose the freedom to joke about these and other things. We need to learn not to use what we see on TV as an excuse and justification for our behavior in our daily lives. We need to learn and teach that what we see on TV or in movies is for entertainment purposes only. I am afraid if we start censoring ourselves we will start slowly giving away our freedom of expression.

  • Arifel
    May 9, 2017 at 9:56 pm

    I went to see the movie yesterday having seen that you’d written this article but not read it – needless to say was pretty apprehensive about how much I was going to enjoy it with themes like this. I also hated how sparingly and for other characters’ benefit Mantis was used, and had no idea the character was supposed to be a martial arts master – why the hell not here, Marvel?

    On the interactions with Drax, I ended up with a different reading from you based on the early conversation between him and Peter about his non-dancing wife. Peter’s comments about how unattractive the wife sounds (delivered in sarcasm so Drax won’t realise) make me think we’re not supposed to interpret Drax’s remarks on sexual attractiveness as “The Truth” in the way some of his other comments are supposed to be. In this reading, when he starts being rude to Mantis I think we are supposed to be laughing at his expense, because Mantis, like Gamora and Nebula, has a body type and not-too-alien face which we are clearly supposed to see as objectively beautiful.

    Of course, this is still a shitty reading because it relies on an off-screen “ugly” woman (with “a bit of meat on her bones” as Drax says at one point – because of course ugly = fat) to juxtapose with the literally one female body type we see in the entire Galaxy (compare that to Yondu’s crew! I assume none of them could be women because then the robot sex worker scene “wouldn’t make sense”) so the latter can be upheld as a universal standard of beauty. It’s also still the same awful behaviour onscreen which never gets challenged by any of the characters – and it relies on a more secondary strand of Drax’s character than the one emphasised in your analysis above. So to be clear this is in no way a defence or a “this is how it should be read to make sense” argument – just how I saw it.

    Also, Mantis’ arc got so little screentime compared to what it clearly deserved – in particular, why oh why doesn’t she get to TALK to Gamora, that one sympathetic sentence is NOT ENOUGH – I hope this is going somewhere in later films because I’m hopelessly in love with the overall space aesthetic in these and will no doubt end up watching more, but my patience for these jarring, unchallenged interactions is getting even thinner. (that “whore” comment in first one didn’t even make sense within the movie- what has Gamora done at any point in literal-minded Drax’s acquaintance which makes him believe she is a sex worker?)

    Unrelated, but worthy of an entire other essay of criticism which I hope someone is writing as we speak: “genetically manipulated peak race” as blonde-haired white people painted gold, CAN WE NOT? EVEN AS BADDIES? CAN WE JUST RETIRE THIS CONCEPT LITERALLY FOREVER NOW?

  • Anonymous
    May 12, 2017 at 9:08 am

    This argument for ‘political correctness’ is quite thin.

  • Ana
    May 12, 2017 at 9:14 am

    “This argument for ‘political correctness’ is quite thin.”


  • Joe
    May 14, 2017 at 9:09 am

    I absolutely agree with you, and left the movie feeling very uncomfortable. Not only is she female, but she is played by an actress of Korean decent, and the character plays into all the notions about Asian women as submissive, simple, and unable or unwilling to defend themselves. We’ve seen these tropes over and over in our culture and here they are trotted out again, but not only is she a naive slave kept only for her valuable powers and too innocent to know she deserves better, but that plot point is compounded by further abuse by Drax, and the fact that we are to find it so hilarious. I do agree that Her obvious physical beauty helps soften it, but rather than seeing it as something that signifies we are really laughing at Dax and his former wife, it feels like an excuse of the abuse, because from our culture’s perspective, Drax is wrong.

    And it might not have bothered me quite so much if the film had left it at that, but even nature joins in and she actually gets smacked against the side of her head by debris and the audience was rolling in the aisles.

    Complicating the matter was, as you mentioned the potential in Mantis. For once we have a woman who’s powers are not about violence, but about the potent force of emotion. I’m so tired of seeing female characters who are redeemed by, or cheered on because they are as good as the men at fighting (often by wrapping men between their thighs, no less and snapping their necks) as if this is revolutionary.

    It saddened me, because as much as she is mistreated, and portrayed as a childlike naïf, the core of her character has such value, being so emotionally centered. Rather than a warrior spirit, Mantis is, at essence, a healer, which to my mind is not equal to the power of combat, but far superior (if less easily capitalized on in an action film). And when she was in danger, I felt the drama of the story more than any other time, because she had absolutely no malice in her makeup.

    I know that this origin is only the beginning of a much larger arch in which she becomes more worldly wise and self empowered, but her origin is still troubling to me, as is the fact that so many found such weird glee in her debasement.

  • Beth
    May 27, 2017 at 12:28 pm

    One thing that pushed against that is Mantis has no investment in her physical beauty. When Drax makes gagging noises at the thought of her approaching him sexually, she responds in kind — she is just as repulsed. She doesn’t think of herself as an object with a responsibility to be pretty or available. She is someone held captive by an evil creature.

    Drax is still rude (I don’t want to use the word abuse, because he doesn’t have power over her, and his entire onscreen family communicates through insults). It’s a recurring problem for the movies. Remember when he called Gamora a whore? That went against his entire character as a literal speaker — there was no evidence that Gamora sold herself sexually, so it was an idiom putting her down as a female, one sent directly to the audience because it’s “always funny” to call women whores. So clearly the franchise has no problem insulting women for laughs, even when it has to violate its own conventions to do so.

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  • Brian
    June 13, 2017 at 4:13 pm

    Everything you’re saying is predicated on a universal beauty standard and identical sexual behaviors. You have no idea what is considered appropriate in the culture Drax came from. A sexually active young American woman would be called a whore by men from a conservative Arab culture. Again since we know nothing about Drax’s people maybe they view any sex outside of procreation to be a form of prostitution. As for his comments regarding Mantis’ appearance we don’t know what the females from his species look like do we? No we do not. Drax is supposed to be 6’6″ and almost 300lbs. What if in his species females are larger than males. His wife could have been 7′ tall and 400lbs. Which he was raised to find attractive. When he looks at Nebula, Mantis, and Gamora he remarks on how skinny and frail they are. Which he finds unattractive. Drax has no body hair, is that normal for his species? Does he find hair unattractive? Again you don’t know. This wasn’t a joke about ridiculing a woman’s appearance it was about showing that what is viewed as attractive varies between cultures so imagine what it would be like between species.

  • Ana
    June 14, 2017 at 4:21 am

    Wow, you must be really tired after that mental gymnastics

  • Anonymous
    July 13, 2017 at 2:33 am

    I love how Ana didn’t debated you and Instead just decided to laugh and tell that you are wrong.

    I think the same as Brian. All this ugly Mantis stuff its only about Drax’s species weird (or different) beauty standard and the fact that he can’t be stopped to tell his most literal feeling to people because he’s not much perceptive.
    Also its really dumb how people get offended by characters being not “politically correct” as if movies should educate viewers of take care of their feelings.

  • Anonymous
    July 26, 2017 at 8:28 pm

    I was more offended for Groot when he called him a “dumb tree”.

  • Anonymous
    August 10, 2017 at 2:26 am

    Wait, if it’s abuse, are you saying when Drax called her ugly but saying it’s a good thing because being loved despite being ugly is considered abuse and then near the end him risking his life bringing her unconscious form back to their ship is still abuse just because he calls her ugly a couple of times?

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