In the first episode of FX’s Legion, David “Legion” Haller (Dan Stevens) meets a girl named Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller). The two connect during a group therapy session at the psychiatric hospital where they’re both staying. In their initial encounter, Syd is brittle, twitchy, and, it’s quickly revealed, does not like to be touched.
None of this seems particularly unusual — given the episode’s setting, it doesn’t feel surprising to encounter a character with an aversion to physical contact. A group therapy session with a drug addict and alleged schizophrenic you’ve only just met isn’t really the sort of scenario that sparks a desire for intimate physical contact.
But in short order, the show offers a backstory for Syd’s quirks. Like David, Syd’s “mental illness” is actually a manifestation of the powers bestowed upon her by genetic mutation. Halfway through the first episode of Legion, David ignores Syd’s personal boundaries and leans in to kiss her. A chaotic commotion ensues and it’s revealed that, as a result of Syd’s power, the young lovers have switched bodies. Unable to control the raw power of David’s body, Syd accidentally releases a telekinetic blast that transforms the doors of the hospital into solid concrete walls, killing David’s friend Lenny (Aubrey Plaza) in the process.
An episode later, Syd explains that being touched — even through a layer of clothing — is physically painful for her, so much so that her condition takes on a new dimension. Suddenly she’s the tragically untouchable girl, a love interest who can only be admired from afar, lest physical contact unleash unfathomable harm (like, for instance, the death of Lenny).
Syd isn’t the first female character to be afflicted with the curse of untouchability. E4’s Misfits has Alicia, a mutant who sparks uncontrollable sexual attraction in anyone who touches her skin; female comic-book villains who wield the kiss of death — a power that allows them to suck the life force out of anyone foolish enough to embrace them – include Poison Ivy, Shiklah, and Satana, to name a few. The closest parallel to Syd may be another inhabitant of the X-Men universe: Rogue. Like Syd, X-Men team member Rogue bears her mutation in her flesh; when Rogue makes skin contact with another person, she temporarily absorbs their memories, strength, and powers, weakening, or even killing, them in the process.
There’s an undeniable sexual element to the trope of the untouchable girl, one that’s literal as well as metaphorical. Even Rogue and Syd, whose experiences aren’t as explicit as Alicia, Poison Ivy, or Shiklah, initially reveal their powers through a kiss, and it’s made clear that this sort of mutation puts a damper on any sexual exploration and intimacy. But read more broadly, the untouchable girl is a commentary on the sexual-gatekeeper role so many women unwillingly end up in. For these women, physical intimacy has grave and sometimes even fatal consequences. On Legion, for example, Syd takes the blame for the death of Lenny despite David’s obvious role in his friend’s demise. To the extent that she’s absolved of the crime, it’s only because of a recognition that David’s body offered more power than she was prepared to deal with. But ultimately, despite how hard David pursued her, Syd is the one at fault for the chaos unleashed by her mutation, much in the way that women who deal with unwanted pregnancies, STIs, or even sexual assault are often deemed at fault for “letting” men’s sexual desires proceed unchecked.
When it’s handled deftly, this trope can be a powerful exploration of the bind society puts women in. In the X-Men films, Anna Paquin’s Rogue struggles with being untouchable, the barriers to intimacy so painful that in some versions of her story she’s driven to “cure” her mutation, sacrificing her formidable abilities for the chance to experience physical intimacy without fear. Whatever the benefits, Rogue clearly views her powers as an uncomfortable, and often painful, burden, just as many real-world women see the roles of sex object and gatekeeper that are so often thrust upon them by the world.
Similarly, Misfits’ Alicia — who initially views her power as an easy way to sate her appetite for male attention — eventually comes to realize that the impersonal lust her power sparks is at best emotionally empty and at worst a threat to her safety. Over the course of two seasons, she’s driven to seek out intimacy that doesn’t rely on the easy and immediate gratification provided by her power, exploring relationships that privilege an emotional bond over a sexual one. When she finally abandons her power at the end of season two, it’s to engage in a relationship that’s both emotionally and physically fulfilling, with both aspects of intimacy presented as equally important and rewarding.
So far, Legion doesn’t seem to be taking the kind of complex, nuanced route found in Misfits or the X-Men movies. Unlike Rogue or Alicia, Syd has little to no agency; everything we know about her comes filtered through the lens of David, and from that perspective she’s presented as the perfect, permanently chaste love interest — one who serves mainly to demonstrate David’s noble, heroic restraint without ever running the risk of defiling herself by tarnishing her purity with something as sordid as sex.
In this variation on the untouchable girl, it’s physical intimacy that’s positioned as being inherently damaging; sex becomes a chaotic impulse that men are drawn to and women must cut off at the pass. In addition to offering a limited view of sex, this type of narrative creates a limited view of women, positioning us as creatures who respond and react to men’s impulses rather than engage in behaviors (even sexual ones) of our own accord.
It remains to be seen how Legion will handle Syd’s story over the course of the season, and it’s possible that the show will find a way to take the character in a direction that offers a nuanced, complex take on female sexuality. But so long as Syd’s power is solely examined through the impact it has on David and his desire for her, it’ll never truly do the character, or the experiences of women, justice.