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Game of Thrones Took an Orientalist Journey




Last Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones put a final nail in the coffin of the Dornish subplot; an aspect of the show that even its most earnest defenders agree was a failure. Now that it’s over (I think, I was wrong once before.) it’s a good time to get into the weeds of why it was so unsuccessful. There are all the obvious issues with the plot itself, the dialogue, the casting, the direction, the costumes… but the ultimate root source of all of these is a failure of adaptation. More specifically, it’s a failure of the writers of GoT, David Benioff and Dan Weiss, to understand a fundamental feature of the source material: point of view.

The A Song of Ice and Fire (aSoIaF) series, on which GoT still claims to be based in its opening credits, is famous for George R.R. Martin’s use of what is called a “close third-person pov” structure. The story follows many principal characters. Each chapter alternates between them and is told, not only through their eyes, but also through their minds. The character’s voice are unique, and influenced by their own experiences, knowledge, and biases.

So, Sansa Stark begins the series seeing things as one would expect an eleven-year-old girl who’s been sheltered and taught idealized notions of how people in power behave would see things. As she gains experience, her commentary of the goings on in King’s Landing and the Vale become more and more insightful, and a good deal less idealized. When she becomes more wary and suspicious, people start behaving more suspiciously. Tyrion Lannister brings his vast knowledge, especially of history, to the table as he navigates through war, politics, and exile, but he also brings his misogyny, internalized ableism, and Lannister pride.

Tyrion’s biases are especially relevant here because it’s through his point of view that we first see the people who have always existed on the edge of Westeros, part of the system, and yet outside it. In many important ways, the Dornish were as much the “great other” as the Wildlings in the North, or the Free Cities across the Narrow Sea.

Image: Tomasz Jedruszek. © Fantasy Flight Games.

All Dornishmen are Snakes

I’m sorry to have to bring in the dreaded book knowledge, but it’s important that I explain what George R.R. Martin accomplished with the Dornish in the source material before I can discuss why the show failed to make the same point. Indeed, their own narrative undercuts everything that show plotline was about.

In Westerosi culture, Dorne’s separate history, cultural distinctiveness, strong sense of unity, and their determination to be politically autonomous leads them to be othered in the eyes of Westerosi. They see Dorne as an exotic place, full of violent and sexy people who look and act oddly. Put another way, they are the targets of prejudice, and what we would reasonably call “racism”. They’re certainly the subjects of a good amount of off-hand racist comments and jokes.

“Leo’s eyes were hazel, bright with wine and malice. “Your mother was a monkey from the Summer Isles. The Dornish will fuck anything with a hole between its legs. Meaning no offense.”” -A Feast for Crows (aFfC)

“Tyrion had sent her little girl to Dorne, and Cersei had dispatched Ser Balon Swann to bring her home. All Dornishmen were snakes, and the Martells were the worst of them.” -aFfC

“Poison was for cravens, women, and Dornishmen.” -A Dance with Dragons (aDwD)a

(I should note, to avoid confusion, I’m going to refer to people who are from Westeros, but not Dornish, as “Westerosi.” This term will not include the Dornish, unless otherwise stated, even though technically, the Dornish are Westerosi.)

It’s useful when thinking about the Westerosi view of the Dornish to compare it to “orientalist” ideas in Western European thought.

Orientalism is, strictly speaking, a nineteenth century artistic movement in Western Europe that depicted “the middle east” and points further. It’s most famous for painting of women in harem and eastern market places. These days, though, the term in most likely to be associated with the work of Edward Sa`id and his most famous book, Orientalism.

The quintessential image of Orientalism: “Le charmer de serpents” by Jean-Léon Gérôme

This book is a foundational text of postcolonial thought, and rather notoriously dense and difficult to get through for students in ‘Introduction to Middle Eastern Studies’ classes. What I offer is a very simplified summary of Sa`id’s ideas.

He argued that western depictions of “the orient” are, in general, inaccurate, servile, and patronizing. Even the very concept of the orient itself is inaccurate, servile, and patronizing. It conflates many complex times, places, and peoples and turns them into a “narrative of incident,” a convenient background where white people can have adventures.

This is self-serving on the part of western culture because these narrative aren’t interested in actually exploring or understanding these places. It exists to create contrast between east and west, where “the east” is irrational, weak, childlike, and feminine, and “the west” is rational, strong, developed, and masculine. It justifies western domination by implying that the western understanding of the orient is more valid than the understanding of the actual “orientals” who live there.

This plays into the Westerosi understanding of the Dornish in many ways, though one of the most obvious is the contrast between Dornish and Westerosi conceptions of Dornish “ethnic identity”. (A totally anachronistic term I only use for lack of a better one.)

Dorne has a complex history. It’s defining moment as a unified political entity was the marriage of Mors and Nymeria and the coming of the Rhoynar from Essos, but there’s a good deal more to it than that. The idea of a separate “Dornish” identity seems to have existed before then, when Dorne was inhabited by petty kingdoms of Andals and First Men. The people living in the red mountains and the deserts and river valleys beyond were certainly referred to as such when they were raiding the Reach in ancient times, and one of the titles of the Yronwood kings in the Boneway was “King of the Dornish”.

The coming of the Rhoynar had a profound cultural, legal, and political impact on Dorne. Most notably, they adopted a distinctly Rhoynar legal tradition. Still, it’s completely inaccurate to say that the Dornish are simply Rhoynar transplanted to the desert who totally overwhelmed and subjugated the indigenous Andals and First Men. That would be as inaccurate as implying that the current English identity or cultural and political system are purely the result of the Franco-Norman invasion, ignoring the Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic elements that are just as, if not more, central.

The Westerosi have made much of the “ethnic” divisions in Dorne, most famously in the Targaryen king Daeron I’s history of his conquest.

“There were three sorts of Dornishmen, the first King Daeron had observed. There were the salty Dornishmen who lived along the coasts, the sandy Dornishmen of the deserts and long river valleys, and the stony Dornishmen who made their fastnesses in the passes and heights the the Red Mountains. The salty Dornishmen had the most Rhoynar blood, the stony Dornishmen the least.

All three sorts seemed well represented in Doran’s retinue. The salty Dornshmen were lithe and dark, with smooth olive skin and long black hair streaming in the wind. The sandy Dornishmen were even darker, their faces burnt brown by the Dornish sun. They wound long bright scarfs around their helms to ward off sunstroke. The stony Dornishmen  were biggest and fairest, sons of the Andals and First Men, brown-haired or blond, with faces that freckled or burned in the sun instead of browning.”

The Three Sorts of Dornishmen: Stoney, Salty, Sandy. From: The World of Ice and Fire.

Most readers with a passing interest in the history of the Social Sciences are no doubt strongly reminded of Victorian Era pseudo-Anthropology and its preoccupation with categorizing everyone in the world into the four “races,” Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid, and Amerindian.

SCIENCE! (and a little gift for francophone readers.)

This type of thing didn’t disappear from school textbook until well into the 20th century, but is generally considered these days to be little less than bunk. And it was an idea that interacted quite heavily with orientalism. It’s a perfect example of Western Europeans thinking they have a better understanding of “others” than the people themselves do.

It’s worth noting, of course, that the Dornish in A Song of Ice and Fire never refer to themselves using Daeron’s three categories. In fact, it’s often characters who would clearly fit into the “stony” category that are the most assertive about a “Dornish” identity.

Contrary to how the Dornish think of themselves, the Westerosi emphasize the Rhoynar aspects of Dornish culture to play up the idea that it is exotic and somehow “foreign,” rather than something that developed in Dorne with Rhoynishness as one piece of a greater cultural-political puzzle that is more than the sum of its parts.

The Dornish are Crazy

So what does this all mean for Game of Thrones, particularly as an adaptation?

This issue is that aSoIaF goes out of its way to challenge the Westerosi image of them, especially through the point of view of Dornish characters. Contrarily, the Dornish of the show simply are the orientalist stereotypes that the Westerosi believe them to be.

“The Dornish are crazy,” Bronn said in season 5. “All they want to do is fight and fuck.”

This is a rather good characterization of the stereotype in both text. Indeed in the third volume, A Storm of Swords, we first see Dornish characters (namely Prince Oberyn and Ellaria Sand,) and we do so only from the point of view of Westerosi characters. Their characterization as overly sexual and unpredictably violent is well in place. Oberyn’s mysterious darkness and reputation for poisoning and duels is his prime characterization, and Ellaria probably worships a Lyseni love goddess, at least according to the gossip that reaches Sansa.

However, by the time we meet Arianne Martell, a point of view character in A Feast for Crows, we gain an entirely different perspective on both these characters and maybe even begin to suspect that Oberyn spent the previous book playing into stereotypes deliberately in order to gain a specific political advantage and make his hosts in King’s Landing uncomfortable. Arianne’s view of her uncle doesn’t erase or deny his violent past or promiscuity, but it emphasises his devotion to his family and children, and his role as a beloved popular political figure.

The difference in Ellaria as soon as she crosses the mountains is even more striking. The woman who was framed as the classic dark, seductive foreign woman who uses her sexuality in a magical way, probably to control men for her own purposes, is revealed to be rather conventionally feminine and focused primarily on her role as a mother. Rather than trying to manipulate people, her main wish is to break the cycle of violence in order to keep her children safe.

Contrast this to the way the Dornish are played throughout their run on Game of Thrones. These stereotypical aspects were not only played straight and presented without challenge, but also dialed up to eleven.

The first Dornish we meet are a monolith of dark, broody men who are identically dressed. The sole speaker in the group introduces us to the cartoon accent that will be used for all Dornish characters for the next four years.

This scene is short and relatively unimportant, but it’s very telling as to how simplified and exoticised Dornishness will be, even compared to the Daeron I’s racist ethnography. For one thing, they’re all men, eliminating the important role that women have in politics in Dorne, another thing that Westerosi think is very unusual, and probably dangerous. And for another thing, there is none of that diversity of appearance that allowed Daeron’s ethnography to begin with. Here, every Dornishman is the same, and he has the same opinion about everything.

Then we meet Oberyn and Ellaria and…. they’re in a brothel. As far as anyone can tell, this is where they’ll live for the duration of their stay.

Now, the Oberyn of the books series is canonically bisexual and his relationship with Ellaria is implied to not be entirely monogamous. While it’s true that the Dorne of the books is notable for its permissive attitude to sex in general and homosexuality in particular, I don’t think it’s uncontroversial to say that the emphasis GoT placed on these elements goes beyond what the source material indicated.

There’s no clearer indication of this than that first scene, where the pair were apparently so overcome with the need for sex that they ditched the king and headed straight for the brothel for group sex. And this emphasis on the salaciousness of their sex life does not stop for the entirety of the season. For Ellaria especially, there seems to be nothing in life but having sex, and there’s little indication that she and Oberyn have anything in common other than the fact that they enjoy having sex in the same room.

An obsession with sex is a common orientalist trope. Concubinage and the harem especially terrified and fascinated puritanical western minds, though their views of both of those things bore little resemblance to reality.  

“The Harem Dance” by Giulio Rosati

In these conceptions of oriental sex, female homosexuality is omnipresent, if always implied, and it’s used as a way to characterize orientals as barely in control of their own sexual impulses. So while there’s little implied about Oberyn and Ellaria in season 4, their frequent scenes, with the set decorated with the bodies of sex workers of both genders, serve the very same function. And they contrast very tellingly with, for example, Cersei and Jaime’s need to keep their relationship secret, or Tyrion’s chaste marriage to Sansa.

The other half of the Dornish coin in the opening scene with Oberyn and Ellaria comes later on, when they overhear a man in the other room singing a pro-Lannister song. In retaliation, Oberyn stabs the man through the wrist, while his lover watches, clearly aroused.

This violence isn’t the controlled, calculated violence that is wielded for political or military ends by other characters within the show; it’s impulsive and irrational. Oberyn can’t help himself, it seems.

The prince, however, did receive a few humanizing and complicating moments in the episodes before his death. These were the moments that made him a successful character. But Oberyn’s success was perhaps the downfall of the show’s presentation of Dorne, because the following season doubled down on the uncontrolled sex and violence, but was unable to recreate the charisma that made it bearable.

Weak Men Will Never Rule Dorne

In the fifth season, the emphasis in Dorne shifted to the bereaved Ellaria Sand and Oberyn’s adult daughters. And their need for revenge.

“One finger at a time.”

This need put the women in conflict with Oberyn’s brother Doran. The narrative attempted to frame this as somehow a victory for women over restrictive patriarchal control, but in the end, it was all a rather textbook example of Sa`id’s Narrative of Incident. The truly important conflict of the storyline was not the one within the Dornish royal family, it was the peril that Jaime Lannister, and his daughter Myrcella, were placed in in this strange and mysterious land.

Indeed, any even cursory consideration of the motivations and actions of the Dornish characters reveals how little sense they make. Myrcella as a target for Ellaria and the Sand Snakes revenge makes no sense. Her misplaced anger towards Prince Doran for not sharing her impulse makes even less, but that hardly matters because Ellaria is not a rational actor, because the orient is a place that doesn’t allow for rational action.

In contrast to the directness of western political violence, where knights face each other in duels governed by well understood and rigidly adhered to rules, oriental political violence is always hidden. It’s characterized by poison and brothers stabbing each other in the back. There are endless betrayals and lies. No one can be trusted, and no one ever tells the whole truth. And in the end, no one survives. The very impossibility of navigating such despotic harem politics is the point. It is meant to be impossible to survive or to change. Neither Doran nor Jaime’s good intentions could survive Ellaria’s need for revenge. Indeed, not even Ellaria could survive Ellaria’s need for revenge, because there was no reason to it. She was no more in control of her impulse toward violence in seasons 5, 6, and 7 than she was in control of her need for sex in season 4.

Again, the book series presents us with a Dornish court with a reputation for poison and intrigue, and then challenges this image through its Dornish point of view characters. The intrigue and conspiracy may still be there, but it’s contextualized entirely by Arianne and Quentyn’s love of family and need to do their duty. Importantly, it’s a context that has everything to do with them and with Dorne, and with these two characters as political agents.

There was the barest hint of this kind of agency in season 4, when Oberyn’s revenge was framed as a response to familial love for his sister and the injustice of her death. But as soon as the scaffold of directly adapting material from A Song of Ice and Fire was removed in season 5, all this context that would have made the actions of Dornish characters comprehensible or relatable disappeared. Their actions became things that happened to other, more favored characters.

In sum, the Dornish were not truly characters on Game of Thrones; they have been much more like forces of nature. Beyond reason and understanding.

Dorne itself, as a place, was poorly defined. It seemed entirely uninhabited except for a few guards who may as well be mannequins, and consisted of nothing but a little patch of desert. It didn’t have a history of its own, or any people to have opinions about the violent overthrow of their monarch. Such considerations were never deemed to be important. As in 19th century Western Europe, the only importance that the orient (Dorne) can have is in what it teaches those who observe it.

Images courtesy of HBO and Bantam Publishing

Julia is a Managing Editor at The Fandomentals with far too many hobbies and complex emotions. She may or may not be an actual Martell.



The Expanse Season Two Still Fares Well As An Adaptation





The Expanse has had the seventh book in the series released this month, while its third season (meant to adapt the second half of the second book) is scheduled to come out some time next year. In other words, both the authors of the source material and of the adaptation are keeping busy, making it a very current show. So allow me to continue in my attempt to assess how it fared as an adaptation.

The second season works with the second half of Leviathan Wakes, the first book in the series, and the first half of Caliban’s War, the second installment. It continued its similarity to Game of Thrones as an adaptation by diverging from the source material significantly more than in the first year it was on air. The good news, however, is that the changes are not so dramatically for the worse as is usual, and in some cases are even for the better.

Warning: the following contains spoilers for both the show and the books.

Some problems remain from season one. Chiefly, two of them. One is the scope of the world as it is depicted on the show.  The other are the universally dark and gritty visuals. Ganymede is supposed to have corridors carved in ice. Wouldn’t it have been awesome to see that? But now, just more indistinguishable black and grey.

The most significant difference between the books and the show in season two is, without a doubt, all the added drama. It’s everywhere. Every little thing that is routine in the books becomes exceedingly tense on the show. Starting with the Somnambulist, which is not taken by force – or near enough to force – in book!verse, but is simply a ship at OPA’s disposal that Holden is given by Fred. Continuing through Bobbie’s escape from her rooms in the UN compound; she simply walks away in the book and that’s it. And ending with the escape from Gynemedes, which, int he books, is not so much of an escape as simply, you know, leaving. I could keep listing other instances, but this serves as a good example of the sort of tension added for television.

Related to this is also the complete secrecy that surrounds everything on the show. The books work much better with the reality of modern technology where things are streamed immediately. Billions of people watch Eros crash into Venus live, for example, and the data available from what happens there is available to everyone. Or there is the whole thing with the zombie terminator attacking on Ganymede. On the show, it’s a huge secret Chrisjen has to exert extreme energy to ferret out. In the books, everyone knows and there is footage of the attack available. One of my favourite little moments is when Holden tries to hide his identity behind a scruffy beard as he comes to Ganymede, and you end his chapter feeling that he succeeded. Only to open Chrisjen’s chapter and find out that he really, really did not.

Secrecy adds drama, so it is understandable why the show decided to go this way. The need to keep viewers hooked is evident, too. And ending the season in a middle of a book, they needed a suitably dramatic bang to end with. So while all of these things make me roll my eyes, I do not truly blame the show for them. I feel the missed character beats much more keenly.

Captain James Holden

Holden is one character whose arc from the first half of Caliban’s War was adapted truly well. There was the inevitable added drama, as everywhere, but his essential story arc remained.

With regards to the end of Leviathan Wakes, however, the issues from season one continue, and Holden is treated as more of a boy scout by the show than he is by the book. One fantastic moment (though one that could hardly be adapted) was seeing inside Holden’s head when the Head Human Experimenter tried to convince him to join forces before Miller shot him. The reader can see, with intimate certainty, that Holden is this close to giving in when Miller pulls the trigger. We know for certain that it was done at just the right time. Yet Holden condemns Miller for it without the slightest trace of self-awareness, confident he would have resisted. It’s no doubt intentional, and it’s perfection. It should have been replaced by a similar scene suitable for the visual medium that would have conveyed the same. It wasn’t, and Holden’s character suffered for it.

On the other hand, I very much appreciate the change made to Holden’s dynamics with Naomi. In the books, when they start their romantic relationship, it turns out that not only has Naomi been in love with him for ages, so had pretty much every female on the Canterburry, because he is obviously God’s gift to womankind. It’s something to be thankful for that we don’t have to deal with that on our screens, even though I admit that the way book!Naomi handles Holden after that is exquisite.

I’m also very much in favour of the open communication that happens between them before they have sex in the books, as opposed to the “thick erotic tension” kind of deal the show went with. It would be easier to teach people about affirmative consent if there were actual examples of it in the media. There was a scene like that in the book, and guess what? It didn’t get adapted. Let’s all pretend at astonishment.

Dr. Praxidike Meng

I must admit that I was surprised when I saw he was one of the point of view characters. I neither knew nor expected it, and that in itself sums up the biggest problem with his show adaptation. He was very much pushed into the background. I understand why, I suppose – it might have been felt that there were too many new characters – but he lost a lot of his appeal when his role was cut. He is there to represent a valuable civilian point of view among all the trained soldiers and expert politicians. And his expertise adds a crucial dimension to the catastrophe of Gynamede.

Though if someone had to be cut short, I’m glad it was Dr. Meng. I understand they could hardly reduce Hodlen’s role, as much as I’d appreciate it, and both of the ladies are more interesting than Dr. Meng.

Still, I remember lamenting the sharp division between the first and second half of season 2 and pointing out that had Dr. Meng been included in some of the earlier episodes, it would have helped to make the transition more seamless. Now that I know he is one of the point of view characters, I feel this even more strongly.

Assistant Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala

I cannot quite decide whether Chrisjen is an adaptational success or failure. Because she is perfection on the show…but she is also quite different from the books. If I should compare book!Chrisjen to someone, it would probably be Miranda from Devil Wears Prada, or characters of that sort. She is not likable in any straightforward way, but at the same time, she has a charm to her that is oddly irresistible as much as you want to punch her in the fact at the same time.

Show!Chrisjen, on the other hand, is much softer on the surface, not showing her hard lines so obviously. Even when she swears, she does it with a kind of disarming smile that takes the edge off it. Book!Chrisjen is nothing but edges.

I don’t want to complain, because show!Chrisjen is one of the best things that ever happened to me, and there is nothing intrinsically better or worse about either of their characterisations. But I cannot help but wonder how far gender stereotyping played a part in making Chrisjen less obviously hard. And it becomes especially problematic when paired with her stupidity in season 2, which takes the form of that oh-so-very-feminine failing of trusting too much in her friends, or ex-friends.

I wrote out my thoughts about that elsewhere in detail.To summarise, it was a subplot that prioritized a male character over a female one, and made Chrisjen look naive. But it was also an excellently done one. So while it troubles me, I cannot with a clear conscience say I wish it didn’t happen. I just hope it won’t again.

Additionally, one change I definitely appreciated was Chrisjen not being Errinwright’s subordinate on the show. It changed the dynamic significantly, and very much for the better. It also made this whole added subplot in season two possible.

Gunnery Sergeant Roberta Draper

Bobbie has a similar problem as Chrisjen: she, too, is made to look markedly more stupid on the show. Only as Chrisjen is effectively a genius, she ends up being just a little incompetent. Bobbie sometimes ends up looking downright stupid.

To be fair, her character is exceedingly hard to adapt. She has that in common with Dr. Meng. While Jim and Chrisjen constantly talk to people around them and even the things that are part of their inner monologue are easy to change to a personal conversation with someone close, Bobbie doesn’t have that option. She doesn’t have anyone close to her left. For a long time, the only person she talks to at all is the chaplain, whom she just dismisses in many different ways when he tries to ‘help’. There is no way to naturally have her talk about what she thinks and feels, because being alone is an important part of her character arc. But not everything can be shown with images.

But that is not the biggest problem with her character. No, that is reserved for the mysterious decision to make Bobbie into a fanatical war-monger at the beginning. I have been complaining about lack of proper representation for Mars in the first season, and so was very happy to see Bobby in nr. 2. And it’s not like seeing her slowly change her approach when confronted with new facts was worthless. But it also made her into a very flat and irritating character for the first two thirds of the season.

It’s not like book!Bobbie goes through no character development after she sees Earth with her own eyes. It’s not like she’s not patriotic or proud to be a marine. But she can be all this and still retain some nuance, and some brain cells. The showrunners seem to have forgotten that. Bobbie on the show frequently comes off as a brat, something her book self never does.

There are other characters worth a mention, naturally. Fred Johnson is probably the most significant. His role was changed significantly as well, and much more tension withing the OPA was included. It adds to the problematic depiction of OPA as uncultured and wild space terrorists, but on the other hand it’s masterfully done. One can understand the sources of tension and where the different branches and wings are coming from. Much like with Errinwright, here again one is willing to forgive the problematic nature of the added material for a large part, because it forms such excellent additions.

In the end, the only thing I truly blame the second season for is the assassination of Bobbie’s character. While changes to Chrisjen upset me, they were compensated for by the excellent quality of Errinwright’s subplot. Yes, it is telling that the two female protagonists were undercut by the adaptation, making them look less smart than they are in the source material. But Chrisjen still comes out of it pretty impressive. The changes to Bobbie, on the other hand, are much more destructive, and they held no compensation, no hidden bonus. She is simply depicted as unlikable, to such an extent that even when we finally get legitimate reasons for sympathy, it’s long in coming.

Season 3 should fix that, and fast. Hopefully, Bobbie is here to stay. She shouldn’t have to carry the weird season 2 baggage with her throughout the show.

Images courtesy of SyFy

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The Legend Of Korra Is A Perfect Deconstruction Of Superman





Superman is arguably the single most recognized fictional character in human history. He’s right up there with Batman and Mickey Mouse. His ‘S’ is, at times, even more widely known. “Truth, Justice and the American Way”. “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” We know that these phrases are attributed to Superman, even if we don’t know the specific origin or, in most cases, how in the world we even learned them in the first place.

For 80 years, Superman has served as a beacon of hope and change for anyone and everyone. His origin, that of the immigrant whose home and culture were lost the day of his birth (an identity he can never fully regain), is a tragic yet resonant one that has, and will continue to, stand the test of time. Even if it has been re-appropriated into that of a pseudo-messianic myth, the immovable Jewish foundation of Superman’s internal struggle between assimilation (Clark Kent) and refusing to do so (Kal-El) isn’t something anyone has any intention of erasing.

Superman is the bedrock on which all modern heroes are based. Every divergence and every variation, no matter how big or how small, starts with Superman. He is the source, so, naturally, that means he’s the most prone to deconstruction and revisionism.

There have been so many attempts to deconstruct Superman as a concept, as well as his character, that it’s become almost a cliche to even consider it. Nearly every run at it ends in failure, most often due to a fundamental misunderstanding of what Superman even is. What he means, why he is who he is, etc. Off the top of my head, I can name two stories that actually succeed in deconstruction, as they have something worth saying: Superman: American Alien and Superman: Red Son. Wait, no, three examples.

The Legend of Korra. And it does it in a way that is embarrassingly similar to what Zack Snyder’s vision of Superman failed to be.

Xenophobia, A Modern Take

The narrative of Superman is one that is eternally relevant. Immigration as part of the American Dream, let alone an aspect of the nation’s entire identity (“Give us your poor, your wounded, your huddled masses…), has always been a hot button issue. In the new millennium, however, with the onset of the age of instant communication and social media, as well as the events of 9/11, it has ballooned into a political issue based almost entirely on fear. Fear of the “other”, to put it simply. And who is more “other” than Superman himself? He looks like us, and talks like us, but if you’re you and Superman just showed up one day in the real world…you’d have no idea where he came from and what his intentions are.

The only thing you, and everyone else, would know is that he’s different, and possesses abilities that effectively make him a living God. And that is terrifying. Even if the first thing he does is save a plane from falling out of the sky, he’s still going to be looked at with suspicion and fear. At any moment, he could decide to burn the world to the ground. And that’s exactly how Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice treats Superman.

Something to fear, because he isn’t like us. Because he’s too powerful. Because nobody asked for his help, no matter how altruistic his intentions may appear to be on the surface.

It’s a fantastic opening premise for a deconstruction of Superman, as it makes it necessary for him to prove he’s on our side. To do so much good in a world that resents him out of instinctual fear drilled into their heads by the era that they’re eventually forced to give him the benefit of the doubt. That, as far as the public is concerned, it isn’t any more complicated than a man who is just trying to do the right thing. Except that never happened in those movies.

We never saw Superman be Superman. We saw him save people, yes. We saw him do the thankless job. We saw the world resent him. But we never saw him inspire. We never saw him do anything to make us want to trust him at all. To challenge our preconceived notions of who Superman is.

Until General Zod and company arrived, he only operated in secret, using his powers when it was convenient for him. And even when he was forced to face Zod, he brought untold destruction and and collateral damage to his adopted world…completely invalidating the point of the post 9/11 narrative in the first place. How can the world trust a man who destroys the very city he is trying to protect? They don’t need or want Superman, especially since the only reason Zod attacked at all was because he had been “hiding” on Earth.

When Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice rolled around, Superman is stuck in an inconsistent guilt spiral from the destruction of Metropolis. Except he doesn’t actually do anything to address that, and the movie doesn’t really either. The first thing Superman does is intervene in a fictional African nation to take down a warlord for the sole purpose of saving Lois Lane. Which, if the film wanted take the very-often-overlooked implications of Superman being an American icon, thus leading to him acting as a sort of unintentional symbol for American interventionism, would have been extremely interesting. Except it doesn’t do that either. Superman is there because he wants to save Lois, and that’s it.

Batman acts as a sort of audience surrogate for the fear that Superman inflicted on the world during his battle with Zod, which might have worked had that gone anywhere aside from Batman trying to kill Superman. He never tries to talk to him or understand him; not even after the infamous Martha scene. If he’s supposed to represent our combined terror of what Superman could be capable of, we should probably be able to agree with his rationale (or even understand it) for not stabbing the man who he saw as a monster two seconds ago in the face.

And then Superman dies, only to return in Justice League to a world that, for reasons that aren’t in evidence and also directly contradict everything that came before it, loves and adores him. A world that was on the verge of eating itself because of his death, despite no one wanting or needing him in every other instance.

None of it is earned. None of it really makes any sense, and the whole production, over multiple films, is only half of what is necessary to convey the narrative Zack Snyder clearly tried to tell.

Avatar Korra, Sequence Breaker

As Kylie so eloquently laid out last week, The Legend of Korra is one hell of a transgressive narrative due mostly in part to its titular protagonist. Korra is brash, overeager, and immeasurably powerful. Her series arc is one of self discovery and self acceptance in a world that actively rejects her existence every chance it gets. She wants to be, essentially, Superman, in a world that has no need nor desire for one. The similarities don’t stop there.

She holds ultimate, untold power and uses it with reckless abandon at the start of the series. In her first few hours in Republic City, she undertakes vigilante justice and violently destroys several storefronts. Because that’s the kind of person she is.

People don’t trust her the moment she announces herself, they wonder why they need her, even though previous incarnations of her have almost always been treated like spiritual leaders and authorities. No matter how many times she saves the world, people still hate her. They are suspicious and cynical of the stranger, since she is inherently an outsider due to her birthright and connection to a world (the Spirit World) few can even comprehend or understand.

This set-up is supposed to make us question and consider what being the Avatar actually means when the assumed role is no longer relevant or necessary. What can Korra reasonably do when the geopolitical climate isn’t as simple as “stop evil”? When every action she takes is looked at with intense scrutiny from a far more connected public. That is to say, the show asked us to consider Korra in relation to her previous incarnations to explicate the disparity just as Snyder’s Superman did by contrasting him the with the multitude of other versions of Superman across every form of media imaginable.

Zack Snyder’s Superman begins his journey in much the same place Korra did. He has powers he doesn’t know how to control, and hides them until the world is ready, just as the White Lotus hid Korra. Of course, this is where the deconstruction of Superman falls apart: it doesn’t actually go anywhere. He starts where Korra starts, and doesn’t progress at all. He does the thankless job, sure, but he doesn’t learn from any of his choices or mistakes. He intervenes without thinking about it, and chooses to brood instead of facing his issues and trauma.

At the end of Man of Steel, Clark faces off against General Zod and causes devastating damage to Metropolis. Zod has the same abilities as Superman, as they are both Kryptonian, meaning that he’s basically supposed to serve as an evil mirror. This is far from dissimilar to the finale of Book 2, where Korra fights Unalaq after he becomes the Dark Avatar and starts destroying Republic City. She even kills him in the end, as there was no other way to save the world.

Even Superman’s death at the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — as well as his subsequent resurrection in Justice League — is paralleled and unintentionally blown out of the water. Korra did something very similar with the end of Book 3, sacrificing herself at the hands of the Red Lotus to save the Airbenders. Though she is not killed, she vanishes from the public eye as she heals…just as the world enters a state of actually, truly needing her intervention with the chaos spreading throughout the Earth Kingdom like wildfire.

Superman and Korra are both on isolating journeys of self discovery. Korra’s takes place before and during the final season where she learns to cope with her PTSD, and how to better approach her role even though it is so undefined and volatile. She can be the kind of person she wants to be without constantly fighting for relevance, and even if the world resists her she can pick and choose her battles.

Korra learns how to be happy as Korra, rather than her title and all of the baggage she had stripped from her in the finale of Book 2. Previous Avatar cycles (much like previous incarnations of Superman) operated in a traditional way, but that’s not how the world works anymore and that’s okay! She can still find happiness and purpose in whatever she chooses to do, even if it’s not what her childhood self believed it would become due to the White Lotus jamming that into her head. Not unlike Jor-El did to Superman in Man of Steel.

Superman’s journey takes a confusing amount of years throughout Man of Steel, given that he wanders the world as a bum with a depression beard. The entire sequence doesn’t seem to serve a purpose, since he discovers who he is from the Fortress of Solitude. He doesn’t learn anything about himself as an outsider living in a foreign land, nor does he have a wound that requires isolation and introspection to heal or understand. This is the kind of thing that would have made more sense to happen after killing Zod.

But since it doesn’t, we’re left with an angry, brooding Superman with no redeeming qualities or justification to treat him as Superman. He’s just a superhuman guy in a cape who does things that are kinda nice sometimes.

Korra, meanwhile, justifies her own existence and acts as the hero people grew to mostly tolerate, and occasionally love. She gave them every reason to trust her, and a good amount of people do by the end of the series. Unlike Snyder’s Superman, it was something she earned by deconstructing her own legacy.

Images courtesy of DC Comics and Nickelodeon

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Why You Need To Be More Excited About Bisexual Rosa Diaz





Television has been a mixed bag for bisexuals. Even as gay and lesbian representation become more and more common (though not as fast as it should), characters within other parts of the acronym are few and far between. For bisexuals, who often suffer from confusion not just without but within the LGBT community, proper, outright representation means quite a lot. Not hints, not little flirts after a female character breaks up with her boyfriend. And especially not characters that just hook up with the same gender as fanservice. We want characters who can say “I’m bisexual.” We’ve been lucky to have characters like Sarah Lance or Daryl Whitefeather in recent years, but as a whole, television seems reluctant to acknowledge bisexuality.

But we finally have another name for that criminally short list: Detective Rosa Diaz of Fox’s Brooklyn 99. And not only is she bisexual, but she’s also a bisexual Latina woman played by a bisexual Latina woman. Let me say that one more time to help it sink in. We have, on a major network, a Latina woman coming out as bisexual who is played by a Latina bisexual woman.

Brooklyn 99 has been a success since day one thanks to its character, heart, and style of comedy that refuses to punch down. It has also become well known for its handling of social issues, best represented by the character of Captain Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher); a black, gay man whose sexuality is merely a part of his character, not his entire identity. The handling of Holt, who stands out in a sea of shallow stereotypes and tokenism, has led the show’s fans to hope another character to come out as a member of the LGBT community. When it turned out that it was Detective Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) would be coming out as bi in the show’s ninety-ninth episode, appropriately titled “99,” the people rejoiced.

The episode itself did a good job of keeping her coming out low key. She only comes out to her friend, Detective Boyle, and only after he’d spent the episode bugging her about her new paramour. Interestingly, the show played with ideas of heteronormativity as Boyle pesters her about who “he” is, about her “boyfriend.” Rosa’s frustration seems not to be with Boyle’s prodding into her well guarded personal life (though that is part of it), but instead with his assumption that she was only dating a man. This episode restrains the result of this coming out to Boyle and Rosa bonding, letting the coming out stand alone. It is in this week’s follow up episode, “Game Night,” where the show’s dedication to Rosa and her coming out becomes more obvious.

The conflict in this episode, for Rosa, is in coming out to her parents and co-workers. Rather than let it just be played off as something she can sweat like so many other things, it instead very realistically captures the fears an LGBT+ child, particularly an adult one, might face when coming out.

Rosa’s first act is to come out to her co-workers during a meeting. She uses the term “bisexual,” and allows “one minute and zero questions” of seconds. We learn that she, like many other lovers of the same sex, discovered her sexuality while taking in media, in Rosa’s case Saved By The Bell. The show makes a conscious decision here not to make it some “phase” or something she’s just now discovering. Rosa Diaz has been bi since she was in 7th grade. She has been bi for all five seasons of the show.

Coming out to her parents has an entirely different set of emotions. Rosa fears that her coming out will change something with them, that somehow they won’t love her or they won’t want to be around her (Of course, in Rosa’s usual fashion, their bonding time consists of silent dinners). With Jake’s help (who gives an impassioned and curiously personal coming out speech to Rosa to help prepare her for her parents), she makes an attempt over dinner. Here, Rosa’s fear rapidly turns to anger when she learns that her parents were worried she was going to come out at dinner and were relieved that she was, thanks to a misunderstanding with Jake, just a mistress. The show pulls no punches here, capturing not just how angry she is at her parents’ ignorance but also heartbreak at being burned due to her vulnerability. In true sitcom fashion, this conflict wraps up cleanly by the end of the half hour. But the power and authenticity of it remain.

Stephanie Beatriz, herself a bisexual woman, has not been quiet in her desire for Rosa to reflect her own sexuality and has been effusive in her support of the storyline. She’s worked hard to make sure that the story reflects the bisexual experience, and has personally validated many fans in their own journeys. She does all this while still portraying Rosa as the stone-cold bad ass she’s always been. The emotions we see in Rosa as she comes out are real, they are powerful, and they are beautiful. But they are all 100% still Rosa’s.

As a final and personal note, this is a huge moment for me as a bisexual man being able to see the representation of some of my experiences on the screen. But I can only capture a small part of why this matters. I can’t even fathom how much this matters to bisexual women, let alone our POC brothers and sisters who are even less represented. Rosa Diaz’s coming out is their story as much as it is anyone’s, and I hope that I was able to capture a small measure of the joy this news has caused. 

Images courtesy of FOX

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