You can blame Tom Elliot and The Twilight Zone Podcast for this. And then you can go listen to Tom Elliot and The Twilight Zone Podcast (and support him and the show on Patreon!) because both the host and show are damn nifty.
In a recent episode of the podcast, Tom discussed The Twilight Zone episode “The Fugitive”. While I encourage you to give the whole episode a listen, particularly if you’re not familiar with the episode at the heart of the discussion, I’ll give you a quick rundown here:
J. Pat O’Malley plays Old Ben, a kindly old man that plays with the neighborhood children and has a particular kinship with one little girl with a lame leg named Jenny. Jenny has it pretty rough. The other kids don’t like playing with her because she’s a girl and she wears a leg brace. The aunt whom she lives with is horribly abusive towards her. Old Ben is a bright spot in her life.
Old Ben can do magic, like turn himself into other things, because he’s really an alien. When two men show up looking for him, he first tells Jenny it’s because he’s a fugitive. He then heals Jenny’s leg and leaves. In an attempt to get Old Ben to come back, the men zap Jenny into a kind of coma. He shows up to heal her and that’s when the real truth comes out: Old Ben is actually a king. In the end, he takes Jenny with him to his planet. Rod Serling’s closing narration informs the audience that the picture Jenny left under her pillow for her aunt to find is of Ben’s true form. He’s actually a young man. And her aunt will never guess that her niece will one day be a queen.
The discussion of this episode brought up an uncomfortable, but valid interpretation of the relationship between Old Ben and Jenny, insinuating that Old Ben’s interest in Jenny was more than platonic and the fact that he’s actually a young man in disguise doesn’t really make it better since the king in the picture could easily be nineteen or twenty and Jenny is only about twelve. It makes certain scenes and some dialogue rather squicky and distasteful when viewed in this particular light.
Now, like I said. It’s a perfectly valid interpretation of the episode, though I don’t think it was all written with that intent. It was meant to be something like a sci-fi fairy tale. And I’ve never even thought of it in that light when I’ve watched it. That could, of course, be my J. Pat O’Malley bias here. I love that man and I really need to write a post on him. It might be why I always looked at Old Ben as a kindly grandfather figure, someone who went an extra mile to be caring with Jenny because she had so little caring in the rest of her life. Even the reveal at the end didn’t sway my perceptions. I never took the relationship to be anything more than innocent.
And that’s probably because of the fairy tale aspect of the story.
Little girls are groomed from baby-age to be princesses and aspire to be queens. That Old Ben was really a young king and wanted Jenny to be his queen is supposed to be every little girl’s dream, age of consent be damned. We’re actually taught to look for someone older to take care of us. That this would be the ending to this fairy tale isn’t at all out of the norm.
It also plays on another trope common in children’s stories: the abused/neglected kid somehow being special and escaping their situation. That’s what the story really struck me as. That fairy tale of escaping some hostile situation that you, as a child, are powerless to change. That Jenny became queen later never felt that important; you could have left it out all together and the story would ring just as true. If Jenny had been Danny, there would never have been a need for any postscript crowns.
And if Jenny had been Danny, I doubt that as many people would arrive at the less-than-innocent interpretation of the episode because people still struggle with the idea that boys are also sexually abused.
There’s a societal conditioning concerning gender roles that I think plays into both interpretations of the episode. Old men prey on little girls. Little girls want to be princesses and queens.
And while the episode is definitely a product of its time, the lens we view it through hasn’t aged as much as we think.