In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought it’d be good to talk about “love potion” episodes.
Love potion episodes are when a character grabs hold of a potion or device that causes another person, usually the person he or she is infatuated with, to fall in love with them. It may be almost impossible for these types of episodes to not come off extremely rapey. Love potion episodes are the animation equivalent of “mind control” stories in comics, where villains take over the hero’s mind and body, then have sex to the hero’s girlfriend. Most comics portray this as wrong, but, like their animation brethren, downplay the vile nature of the non-consent-by-ignorance implication of the story.
I had made this observation after watching the Lloyd in Space episode “Love Beam #9,” in which Lloyd uses his friend’s invention to make his crush fall in love with him. It was supposed to be funny in a cute, overbearing way, and, generally speaking, all love potion episodes end with the lesson about being unable to force relationships to happen and the falsehood of making someone like you. Generally speaking, these episodes tend to shrug off the darker undercurrents of the love potion, in particular with “Love Beam #9,” which used the excuse of a love beam to open up deeper feelings between the two characters, instead of the harrowing reality that someone altered your mind just so you can go on a date.
It’s fairly disturbing, brought to the forefront in the latest episode of Rick and Morty, “Rick Potion #9” in which Rick gives Morty a love potion to woo his own crush. This results in an absurd, frenzied, global disaster when the potion spreads and causes everyone to want to “bone down” the kid, male or female (and it gets increasingly surreal from there). Rick spells it out in the end, calling out Morty’s desire to essentially “roofie” his crush so he can go out with her. Really, though, it’s the underlying vibe for most love potion episodes, and it raises the question on whether a love potion episode can be done without coming off selfish, creepy, and all around horrible.
I don’t like speaking in absolutes. So a part of me thinks it is possible. But let’s break down the beats of a typical love potion episode. Character A crushes on Character B. Character A acquires the love potion and applies it to Character B, resulting in Character B, through absolute no will or consent of his/her own, to return the romantic desire, sans logic or reason. Nine times out of ten, Character B gets too obsessive over Character A, which then pushes Character A away, but Character B won’t accept Character’s A rejection. So an already non-consensual love story is made worse as the non-consent is return. It’s a rabbit hole of vileness, played off as silly game.
The worse love potion episode I’ve seen had to be Kim Possible’s “The Cupid Effect,” where Wade spends almost a third of the episode shooting Monique with a romantic ray gun so she stays smitten with him. It’s fairly bad because Wade is barely a character who’s never been really outside his room up until this point, and the first thing he does is lust after Monique. There’s also a thin racial undertone to the whole thing. While this might be the most extreme one I’ve seen, most love potion episodes tend to have the same sensibility, and in the era where the real concern of rape culture is front and center, love potion episodes represent the “lighter” dark side of this cultural issue.
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic tried its take on the love potion episode in “Hearts and Hooves Day.” Here, the writers try to overshadow the creepiness via the Cutie Mark Crusaders applying the love potion to two separate, seemingly lonely people. Er, ponies. It’s a somewhat admirable attempt, and not as awkward as the episodes listed above, but there’s definitely a fairly large issue in causing random people with to fall in love, which is, what, rape-by-proxy? The CMC learn this lesson, but not really in the sense that their actions are wrong, but in the sense that the love potion is so strong that the two lovebirds are so smitten that they forget to function. A fairly okay episode, and the core lesson is there, but again, the episode downplays the horrific nature of the element of non-consent. (This also applies to the trolls in the film Frozen. While no love potion is involved, they do uncomfortably try and force Anna into a marriage without any real say on her part.)
Rick and Morty also pointed out the sexual divide of the typical love potion episode. When applied to people of the opposite sex, the love potion episode emphasizes romance and sexual tension, but when applied to same sex characters, it’s always just an intense friendship, and it’s always bullshit. To be fair, any overt homosexual relationships in a kids cartoon is a no-no from a studio perspective. But there’s another element here. It implies that heterosexual relationships are “allowed” to instill this rape-like vibe, yet homosexual relationships aren’t (and that they can’t even exist), which is bad for both sides. Really, there’s nothing good that can come from the typical approach of the love potion episode, not in this day and age.
The best way to handle love potion episodes is to go big and go ridiculous, where the love potion isn’t based on someone’s perverted desire but just an obstacle to overcome, a distraction that’s in the way of a bigger, non-love-related objective. Ducktales’ love potion episode, “A Ducktales Valentine,” already has a bitter Scrooge rallying against Valentine’s Day. It involves vengeful Greek gods, and no one is forcing people to fall in love with anyone – everyone involved is accidentally stabbed with Cupid’s arrows. Darkwing Duck’s “My Valentine Ghoul” is a bit creepier – Gosalyn tries to use a love spray to rekindle Darkwing’s and Morgana’s relationship. Yet Gosalyn’s motivation isn’t about forcing love so much as it’s about not having Morgana kill the Caped Crusader and keeping Negaduck out of the way. It also helps that 1) the effects of the love potion are temporary, 2) it’s literally just only two minutes of the episode, and 3) it’s one of the funniest episodes of the run.
Overall though, if the protagonist actively uses the potion to force the person of his affection to fall for him or her, we’re already entering dangerous territory. While the lesson is worthwhile, the method to get there is inherently couched in a mentality that is uncomfortable. If a love potion has to be used, the lesson should not be a simple understanding that romance is something you can’t force and that one should be yourself. The real lesson should be that love potions are completely and utterly wrong, and the very use of them is damaging to both parties involved. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a crime, but there should be consequences that stem beyond a small speech about respect.