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Women in ‘The Umbrella Academy’

"There are seven female characters in The Umbrella Academy ... only four are left alive at the end of the series, and of those four, only two are actually central characters – one of whom is left without her voice, while the other is unconscious."

Jenny Krikis discusses the gender balance (or imbalance) in a latest Netflix show, in which "women are still hitting the glass umbrella".

Now let me first make this clear, I thoroughly enjoyed Netflix’s latest hit The Umbrella Academy. The series follows seven superhero siblings coming together to stop an apocalypse, making it the perfect blend of your classic dysfunctional family story, along with superheroes and an end-of-the-world scenario. Gripping stuff. However, despite its successes, the show’s shortcomings regarding its portrayal of female characters are difficult to ignore.

There are seven female characters in The Umbrella Academy: two superheroes, an assassin, a cop, a robot, a doughnut seller and a villain. Of these, only four are left alive at the end of the series, and of those four, only two are actually central characters – one of whom is left without her voice, while the other is unconscious. By comparison, all the key male characters are left perfectly intact and on their feet at the end of the series. Not exactly feminism’s greatest on-screen moment.

Of the seven superheroes in The Umbrella Academy, only two are women. While of course there is nothing inherently wrong with having more male than female characters, a ratio of 2 women to 5 men doesn’t even come close to having an appropriate gender balance amongst the show’s main cast. If we then we look to the actual superpowers these women are given, bearing in mind their male counterparts have powers like knife-throwing, super-strength, time-travel, communicating with the dead and turning into a giant octopus-like monster, our first female superhero, Allison, creates ‘rumours’ which then come true – because gossip is what women do best, right? And while this superpower, however gender essentialist, does place Allison in a position of power, she refuses to use her power as it gives her a level of control over other people which she doesn't trust herself to have.

Contrastingly, her brothers never question their ‘right’ to use their powers in any situation, regardless of the adverse effects it may have on other people. So while Allison is a powerful character, her power is one which presumably would never have been given to a male character, and she is shown to be incapable of using the power for the force of good, ultimately portraying a weakness in her character that her male counterparts do not have.

Our second (and final) female superhero, Vanya, does not grow into her powers until later in the series. And when it turns out that Vanya has the potentially most extraordinary powers out of all her siblings —male and female, it is then revealed that she is ‘too emotional’ to control them. The trope of the powerful woman becoming a danger to others, due to her inability to control her emotions, and consequently her vast powers, is an overplayed and overly sexist one. While of course, it is understandable that Vanya may be emotional, it is not so understandable that this should limit her ability to have control over her own mind — much less turn her into a rage-fueled murderess intent on causing the apocalypse.

The history of female oppression, in which women were (and sometimes still are) labelled as ‘too emotional’ to hold certain jobs and ‘too emotional’ to be reliable in a position of authority, makes Vanya’s treatment by her writers an insult to women everywhere. Furthermore, the way in which Vanya is feared by those around her simply because she is powerful, including by her father when she is only four years old, and the way in which she is forced to hide and suppress her power (because it scares her male superior), is a damaging plotline that encourages women to hide their strength, rather than develop their potential.

Then it comes to the ending fate of the show’s female characters. The cop and the assassin, both women of colour and neither given adequate character development, are both killed off. The cop within the first few episodes, her death merely serving as a plot device from which to fuel the rage and emotional journey of ex-lover Diego, and the assassin in the apocalypse – which her male partner manages to escape. The assassin’s male partner not only survives the apocalypse, but also runs off with his new girlfriend after being given character development and a redemption arc, which his female counterpart was denied. Then our superhero Allison is pitted against her sister Vanya (because female characters can never just get along) in a near-death experience in which she loses her ability to speak – and hence her rumour-spreading powers.

For a show already lacking in female representation, literally taking away the voice of one of the only two central female characters left at the end of the series seems a bit too much. However, perhaps it doesn’t matter that she can no longer speak, as the male characters around Allison rarely listened to her anyway. When she repeatedly pleads with them to talk to their sister Vanya, not lock her away or unnecessarily attack her, she is ignored ‘for her own protection’, while her brothers go on to escalate the situation and essentially make everything worse, resulting in the apocalypse and the end of the world. The stereotype of men being somehow incapable of listening to women, having an irrational compulsion to ‘solve’ all their problems through violence rather than communication, is hardly one that needs reinforcement on mainstream television.

The only other three women on the show whom I have not yet mentioned (all side-characters), are the superhero children’s ‘robot’ mother who is killed off, a doughnut seller who runs off with the first man to show her some attention, and The Handler; a villain of sorts who just wants to get on with her job and let the apocalypse happen.

Oh, and I suppose there really are 8 female characters – for we mustn’t forget the inanimate mannequin Dolores (silent, passive, literally a doll who exists to keep a man company), who is given far more respect, from both characters and writers alike, than any of the living, breathing women on the show.

It seems women are still hitting the glass umbrella.

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