The Tragedy Of The Untouchable Girl Trope

The superhero genre – both on page and screen – explores otherness and how it fits into our world, specifically those with mutations and extraordinary abilities. But as we often see, having superpowers can come at a dire cost. Whether it causes physical pain, psychological trauma (or usually both,) these abilities often have more negative consequences than benefits. This is especially true for those with uncontrollable tactile powers. They have to build barriers between themselves and everyone else.

“I belong here. Alone. Where I can be who I am without hurting anybody.” Frozen

And until they gain some control, they’re a liability – often with little to no agency. And being a superpowered female with power incontinence adds another layer of unfair responsibility and oppression.

So, let’s take a look at the plight of the Untouchable Girl, how the limitations imposed upon her mirror society’s contradictory expectations of women, and the ways this trope has evolved into something surprisingly empowering.

The Curse of Untouchability

The Untouchable Girl is cursed with unwanted powers that are out of her control – and often have fatal consequences. Legion centers on David Haller, the mutant son of X-Men’s Professor Charles Xavier, whose Omega-level psychic abilities present as paranoid schizophrenia. While at Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, David meets Sydney ‘Syd’ Barrett, a beautiful, standoffish woman whom he quickly finds out hates to be touched.

“Do you want to be my girlfriend?” “Okay. But don’t touch me.” Legion

But he (and we) don’t fully understand the extent of her aversion to physical contact until he ignores her very clear boundaries and kisses her, inadvertently transferring his consciousness into Syd’s body and vice versa. And because she can’t control David’s immense powers, chaos ensues, and lives are lost.

Syd reveals that it’s not just the body-swapping that plagues her – it’s actually physically painful for her to be touched. Her introduction to us is through David’s perspective, and like him, we see her as this attractive woman with “quirks,” a variation of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl who will change his life for the better. Their relationship is romanticized as star-crossed lovers who have to find creative ways to be intimate without skin-to-skin contact – hand-holding through fabric, sharing a bed with pillows as barriers. But because we’re experiencing everything through his perspective, we don’t get as deep of an understanding of life from Syd’s point of view. Syd is an original character created for the series, but given her involuntary, intimacy-dampening touch power, she’s often compared to fan favorite mutant Rogue.

In the 2000 live-action X-Men film, Anna Paquin played Marie D’Ancanto aka Rogue, a teen girl from Mississippi with latent mutant powers. She doesn’t discover her ability to absorb the life force, mutant powers, memories, and personality traits of anyone she touches until she accidentally incapacitates her boyfriend via kiss.

“The first boy I ever kissed ended up in a coma for three weeks. I can still feel him inside my head.” X-Men

After the traumatic incident, she runs away from home, and eventually finds herself with Wolverine at the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters. This Rogue is younger than her comic and animated series counterpart, and has a timid personality (and an understandable amount of angst.) She also dresses rather modestly compared to the iconic green and yellow spandex her comic character is known for. Paquin’s version of the character doesn’t have the full Rogue power set either, something fans found disappointing. Instead of growing confident in her touch abilities, she ultimately seeks out a cure so she can be intimate with her mutant boyfriend Bobby Drake aka Iceman.

“I wanna be able to touch people, Logan. A hug, a handshake, a kiss.” “I hope you’re not doing this for some boy.” X-Men: The Last Stand

Most fans consider Rogue from the comics and animated series to be the definitive Rogue, a very different version who’s an energetic, sassy flirt with a thick Southern Belle accent. Although she certainly struggles with the lack of intimacy her power demands, she’s mainly focused on being herself.

“That was when I first realized if I touched anybody, I absorbed their strength right into me. Some power, huh? ” X-Men: The Animated Series

She has the same traumatic kiss and we see her father’s reaction and disgust after it’s revealed that she’s a mutant. But her life after this traumatic event differs: raised by her adoptive mutant mothers Mystique and Destiny, she first becomes a villain – and it’s easy to understand how suffering that trauma and shunning led her to embrace the dark side. But after she’s forced to absorb powers from Ms. Marvel (aka Captain Marvel), Professor X helps her and she eventually agrees to join the X-Men. Through Rogue’s story, we can see a more multidimensional take on what it really means to be ‘untouchable’. And if we take a look at other Untouchable Girls on screen, we can see some patterns emerge…

Good Girls, Bad Girls, and Gatekeeping

This untouchability has an inherently sexual undercurrent, a commentary on the unfair restrictions society inflicts upon women and girls and their intimate relationships. Rogue’s story is a clear example of this – it’s a kiss with a boy that sparks the beginning of her trauma and pain. But even when these stories aren’t directly sexual, they of course still involve intimacy – particularly the way girls and women are told to avoid it. They’re told to be “good girls,” which means prioritizing being likable, accommodating, and nice, over letting yourself be an actual flawed human being.

“Don’t let them in. Don’t let them see. Be the good girl you always have to be” Frozen

The idea of women as sexual gatekeepers is a large part of our culture, teaching girls from a young age that they’re solely responsible for the way their bodies “entice” men, and allowing others to police what they wear and how they present themselves. Be attractive and likable…but not so attractive and likable that you send the wrong message and trigger a man’s so-called “natural impulse.” Because if you do, any consequences are your fault. Therefore, women have to both fear and strive for desirability, to stamp down their natural desire for intimate connection in favor of a very particular (and essentially impossible to actually achieve) walking of the line between being stand-offish and available.

In Misfits, a group of young offenders sentenced to community service gain powers during an unprecedented ice storm. Their new abilities are connected to their insecurities – for example, the shy and ignored Simon can turn invisible, and Curtis, full of guilt and regret, can rewind time. Party girl Alisha Daniels is confident in her looks, sexuality, and unapologetically enjoys sex despite being slut-shamed by others. She gains the “power” of Tactile Sexual Arousal, making anyone who touches her skin uncontrollably sexually attracted to her. At first, having this instantly gratifying power to be desired is something that she embraces – but only because she’s wielding it. But, as one would expect, this also has the downside of putting her in constant danger of being assaulted, something that unfortunately repeatedly happens in the first season. This means she needs to be an even more hyper-vigilant sexual gatekeeper, a punishment even non-superpowered women can relate to.

“It used to be a good thing, you know… people wanting to have sex with you. It was nice. Now it’s shit. I don’t know if someone actually wants to sleep with me, or if it’s just this bullshit.” Misfits

The impersonal and often violent nature this power invites has the effect of lowering her once high self-esteem. When Alisha feels rejected by Curtis, who’s cautious of getting involved with a “bad girl,” she misuses her powerful touch to get what she wants, and when it wears off, he’s understandably angry. Not only because he feels violated but also because he already likes her. When they do begin a consensual relationship, there’s obvious strain because they can’t be physical without igniting the intense reaction that Curtis would seemingly be completely unable to control. After her relationship with Curtis ends, she encounters someone who is immune to her powers: Superhoodie (aka Simon from the future.) Because he’s not affected by her power, they’re able to have a real intimate relationship without barriers. Similarly to live-action Rogue, Alisha eventually seeks a way to get rid of her power, and ends up selling it to a ‘power trader’, and buys a new power to replace it: clairvoyance. This not only allows her to have a physical relationship with present-day Simon, it also provides her with a different kind of intimacy with others: being able to see the world through their eyes.

Similar to Rogue, Zoe Benson from American Horror Story: Coven discovers her powers when she loses her virginity to her boyfriend Charlie. During intercourse, he suffers a brain aneurysm and subsequently dies. It isn’t until this terrifying moment that she learns she’s a witch like other women in her family who had the same “genetic affliction.”

“You’re sending me away?” “I’m sorry, baby. We can’t keep you here anymore. It’s too dangerous.” American Horror Story: Coven

And because of this “black widow” curse she has no control over, she can’t have the life she once had, or the future she anticipated. And though the morality of her actions is up for debate, Zoe weaponizes her affliction, exacting revenge on someone who assaulted her new coven sister, finding a new kind of power in this affliction that once seemed life-ruining.

“My mother was right. The world isn’t safe for a girl like me. But maybe I’m not safe for the world, either…” American Horror Story: Coven

Evolution of the Disempowered Untouchable Girl

More and more genre stories have begun taking the Untouchable Girl trope and creating nuanced, complex female characters with more agency. Yes, they still have to restrict themselves to protect others. But their stories often end with them more empowered and free of societal restraints. And the creators use these stories to not just unpack the societal pressures that this trope represents, but to also analyze the trope itself.

When we first meet Gen V’s Cate Dunlap, she’s the gorgeous blonde popular college student dating the literal Golden Boy who everyone wants. But after a shocking death, we learn she’s so much more than that. Cate is one of the most powerful supes on campus and in the world of The Boys. Her tactile mind control comes in handy several times, from getting into a club to saving Andre from a security guard. She can put people to sleep, read their minds, and erase their memories. But she didn’t always see this as a power. When Cate was little, she discovered her latent abilities like seemingly everyone else — through a deeply traumatic incident. She “pushed’’ her little brother away and he never came back.

“My mom never touched me again. Neither did my dad.” Gen V

Her parents (who are the ones who let Vought inject their baby with Compound V as other parents did,) completely shut her off from the world, even family. Because of the years of isolation, fear, and guilt, she was afraid of herself and what she could do, even wearing gloves to attempt to stop her powers – until she was rescued by Indira Shetty, who gave her pills to control her abilities.

“You don’t have to wear the gloves if you don’t want to. I trust you.” “I’m supposed to wear them whenever anyone’s here.” Gen V

But unfortunately, she wasn’t really being rescued at all – she was being manipulated; and ended up wiping the minds of her boyfriend, his brother, and later her friends – which ultimately leads to death, destruction, and broken trust. It’s no surprise that by the end of the season, Cate has become a villain out for revenge on the humans. Cate’s story unpacks the rage that the impossible standards placed upon women can create, and the deeply damaging effect that being manipulated by those you trust can have on you.

In The Haunting of Hill House, Theodora ‘Theo’ Crain develops touch telepathy as a kid living in a spirit-infested house. This “sensitive” ability forces her to absorb and experience other people’s trauma. And like American Horror Story’s Zoe, Theo’s mother Olivia tells her that it runs in her family. But, instead of ostracizing her, Olivia gives her daughter gloves to prevent accidental contact with people and objects that carry a haunted history. As an adult, Theo is detached, guarded, and resistant to serious relationships, opting for casual hookups instead. But as a child psychologist, she’s able to use her power to find out what those kids are going through.

“‘Cause kids like us have been through more than other kids. We’re tougher than other kids. We’re great builders. We make ourselves really safe. And no one ever gets in.” The Haunting of Hill House

Because she wasn’t shunned by her family for her power, she was able to find a way to survive, and even thrive, with it even if she didn’t love having it.

Frozen’s Elsa is notably one of the very few Disney Princesses (or queens) who goes an entire movie without any semblance of a romantic love interest. She was born with magical ice powers that are triggered by emotion. And after she accidentally harms her sister Anna, their parents immediately decide to seclude Elsa away from her and the entire rest of the kingdom. Although they’re seemingly well-intentioned, isolating their daughter for something she can’t control leads to years of fear, guilt, and loneliness. When the people of Arendelle find out about her powers, they turn against her, viewing her as an unstable monstrosity who can’t and shouldn’t be their queen. Her story isn’t about finding a way to achieve romantic connection, but about sisterly bonds. Elsa and Anna rescue each other and work together to get a handle on Elsa’s powers. She finds a way to live the life she wants without having to change who she is.


Superhero powers have always been metaphors for our own human abilities – good and bad – so it’s not surprising that we’re able to find them deeply relatable even when they at first might seem so different from us. The Untouchable Girl trope speaks to something that affects all girls and women in one way or another, and so these stories can help us unpack our own feelings around this seeming curse that society has put on us – but also give us insights into how we can cope with and fight to grow beyond those confines. She shows us how important it is to be able to live life as your true, full self, and what pain can come when you’re not allowed to. She, above all else, touches our minds and hearts.