Sometimes being a feminist who spends a good deal of time thinking about storytelling in media can really suck. It’s a rare show in which I can truly lose myself these days, because too often some line is spoken or action occurs, and all I see is a trope. I had to take a week off Agents of Shield after Coulson encouraged Mallack to tap into his Manpain over his Fridged daughter as Revenge Fuel. Even shows I love and will heartily defend aren’t free of issues, such as the Madonna-Whore Complex implications found within Avatar the Last Airbender.
The Office is a show near and dear to my heart. I am a huge sucker for mockumentaries, to the point where I’m actively sad the genre fell out of popularity despite it being a thoroughly beaten a dead horse at this point. (Though weirdly I’ve never liked Modern Family). It’s something about the combination of the mundane and the broken fourth walls that I can’t get enough of. More so, The Office at its best (I’d argue it peaked with “The Dinner Party”) is almost unparalleled. I find there to be high rewatchability, partly because doing so actually relaxes me somehow, and partly because this is one of the easiest shows to reference in existence. In fact, I still can’t receive a performance review at work without cracking a smile thinking of Angela’s.
However, each rewatch, I’m finding myself liking Jim Halpert less and less.
This is rather alarming. After all, he’s arguably the “main character,” or certainly the one we’re meant to sympathize with the most. It’s his pranks we laugh at and his glances into the camera lens we relate to. And my first time watching this show, I viewed Jim as something of an unproblematic fave.
I also certainly shipped him with Pam Beesly, which I’m pretty sure was the show’s intent. The lead up to their relationship served, in many ways, as the driving force of the first three seasons. Heck, their first kiss was the Season 2 cliffhanger. And, with the exception of the last season, their relationship was presented to us as idyllic.
Now, I’m extremely happy that was picked apart a bit, which led to what I would consider one of the most emotionally affecting moments in modern television.
Even there though, tensions quickly resolved themselves. “Jam” was still that paragonal relationship to strive for, with Jim himself being framed as the “ideal” boyfriend/husband. The first time around, I think it’d be very difficult for anyone to not want a Jim Halpert in their life.
But now… Dudes, I don’t know. I mean, I still find him to be funny. He’d be great friend material, though he does spend an inordinate amount of time pulling pranks for someone in his thirties. Heck, even his bedroom screams “man-child.” Or “trying to re-live college glory days.”
Sure he may be a bit too complacent in his career choice for 90% of the show, but that’s relatable enough too.
No, it’s his relationship with Pam that makes me want to throw things.
I believe we’ve talked before about “Good Guys™” (sometimes called “Nice Guys™” for those who don’t care quite so much about alliteration). But simply put, this storytelling conversion assumes that good guys, who we know are Good™ because like…they wouldn’t treat a woman like that jerk does, are entitled to the affections of women. That they deserve them, in fact, by virtue of being…Nice™. “Dogged Nice Guy” is perhaps the most common way this plays out, and certainly how Jim was presented on The Office. Here, the premise is that the good guy will always, patiently be there for the woman until she sees his worth.
In fact, the “low-key yearning” scenario that the TVTropes page lists is basically a plot summary of Seasons 1-3:
Bob will likely begin by saying that he has his hopes for a more serious relationship, and he hopes Alice will eventually feel the same. He’s content to be Platonic Life Partners until that time comes. From here, he may remind her of his unrequited love every time he sees her, or he may never mention it again. Alice might refuse the Relationship Upgrade because she doesn’t want to ruin this friendship, or else believe that Bob just has a schoolboy crush he’ll get over. If Alice is in a relationship, Bob might try to accept it for Alice’s sake. If Bob dates someone else in the interim, this may make Alice have a Green-Eyed Epiphany and create a Unrequited Love Switcheroo.
In traditional straight examples, as long as Bob is honestly a Nice Guy, or at least a decent guy, both of these two attitudes are usually expected to result in success. Due to the Rule of Romantic, Alice will always realize over time, that she really happens to love him back.
Now, for clarification, I’m not in any way trying to say that nice guys don’t deserve happiness. But the damage of this school of thought is that it completely undermines a woman’s agency and feelings. What she wants becomes secondary, because she “should” see the value in Good Guys™, unlike those bad boys she always goes for. It’s a trope that plays right into and endorses male entitlement, something which—and I hate to alarm anyone—is rather pervasive in our society. This is what gives rise to the dreaded “Friend Zone,” which in its most common usage, is a concept that serves to shame women for saying “no.” If they say “yes,” however, we have slutshaming!
With Jam, I do feel like I’m doing Pam a disservice by implying her feelings are undermined here. It is pretty clear to the viewer that she holds a degree of romantic interest in Jim. We see it when she gets a little bit jealous of the attention he gives Amy Adam’s character in Season 1, and how she’s relieved when said character seems too vapid to be a “real threat” in Season 2. By Season 3, she’s clearly in awareness of her feelings for him, giving him every signal that she is interested, and once more, shown as upset by his relationship with Karen.
So…what’s the problem with telling the story of a slow-burn between two friends? One is a “nice” guy so therefore it’s a sexist trope?
The thing is, men can have unrequited crushes for women without a Friend Zone element creeping in. But where it crosses the line, at least for me, is in Jim’s treatment of other women as well as his bizarre sense of entitlement regarding Pam’s feelings.
To be perfectly fair, neither one was a huge issue in the first season. Jim does get touchy with Pam in one episode, but it wasn’t an issue until her fiancé came in and threw a shit-fit. It’s important to keep in mind that Roy is presented to us as a toxically male jerk. He makes homophobic jokes, takes little to no interest in Pam’s ambitions, and though he tries to clean himself up for a few episodes later on, that abruptly ends when he snaps, screams at Pam, trashes a bar, and then goes to beat up Jim for a kiss Pam told him was mutual that happened nearly a year prior. So we’re meant to view his reaction in “The Alliance” as a douchey overreaction.
Continuing with Jam, in the second season, we do see Jim sometimes crossing the line when it comes to Pam’s physical boundaries, but the show also gives us the impression that’s more due to her discomfort with the social feedback than with him:
And really, it’s that last gif that shows what starts to be my main issue here. It’s about his hurt, and we’re later shown Jim scrapping a half-written sopping email along the lines of “sorry if that was weird”, because he’s the focal point. Not how she felt with her shirt lifted half up in front of her coworkers.
In fact, any time she gets visibly uncomfortable by him being too close, the narrative wants us to be frustrated with her, like on the “Booze Cruise” when she walks away because he’s creepily staring at her.
Not that Pam had a much better showing in that episode when she made fun of Jim’s girlfriend with him in front of her.
And I guess, like, if that’s Jim’s flirting style, then okay, whatever. Can’t blame him for trying, right? But where the main issue comes in is with his bizarre sense of entitlement surrounding her feelings for him and how he’ll punish her for behaving in a perfectly acceptable way that a friend would.
For instance, in “Halloween”. there’s a job opening for a paper salesman in Maryland with double the salary than what Jim makes at Dunder Mifflin, and probably a better location than Scranton Pennsylvania. Pam suggests that Jim applies to it because like, that’d be a good thing for him. He gets immediately pissed off, and even though she basically falls over herself to demonstrate that she cares about him (literally clinging onto his arm when she’s worried he might have been canned), he doesn’t forgive her until she says (hyperbolically) that she would “blow her brains out” if he left.
In “The Client,” Jim makes possibly the creepiest joke anyone could make to an engaged friend ever, and then takes a pissy shot at her relationship when she just tries to diffuse it:
Jim: Some might even say we had our first date last night.
Pam: Oh really? Why might some say that?
Jim: Cause there was dinner, by candlelight, dinner. and a show, if you include Michael’s movie. And there was dancing and fireworks. Pretty good date.
Pam: We didn’t dance.
Jim: You’re right, we didn’t dance. It was more like swaying. But, still romantic.
Pam: Swaying isn’t dancing.
Jim: At least I didn’t leave you at a high school hockey game [like Roy had done on his first date with Pam].
Thankfully she snaps at him for this, but the episode ends with his baleful look into the camera saying, “Okay, we didn’t dance. And I was totally joking, anyway. it’s not really a date if the girl goes home to her fiance. Right?” Awwwww you hang in there, buddy.
I’ll skip Jim reporting Pam to HR for planning a few details of her wedding in the office because I guess that could have reasonably slipped out, but then let’s talk about Jim’s love confession to her. Now, it should be noted that he decided to transfer branches because it was so hard for him to be around Pam.
Which…okay, I guess? But he needs to tell her how he feels “just once.” That’s fine. So when they’re alone together during the events of “Casino Night” he tells her that he’s in love with her. She basically answers, point-blank (no hesitation): “I can’t. Your friendship means so much to me though.” He cries and walks away and she runs upstairs to tell her mom, because she clearly has feelings for him. Then he finds her, she says “listen, Jim,” and he kisses her. Cliffhanger!
We find out later in a flashback that the rest of that interaction went like this:
Jim: You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do that.
Pam: Me too. I think we’re just drunk.
Jim: No, I’m not drunk. Are you drunk?
Pam: No. [Jim goes to kiss her again] Jim.
Jim: You’re really gonna marry him? Okay.
Then he walks away and goes to his new job at his new branch. Pam, meanwhile, calls off her wedding, clearly a direct result of this. However, when Michael meets up with Jim in “The Convention” and tells him that, Jim says, “It’s just, I kind of put it all on the line. Twice, actually. And she said no. Twice.” I’m sorry, did she not blow up her eight-year relationship/upcoming wedding and turn her entire life upside-down for you fast enough?
This attitude is only made worse when the two begin reconnecting on the phone, showing Jim on very friendly terms with her. Yet he can’t bear to work in Scranton again (the branches merge), unless he gets himself a security blanket girlfriend that he doesn’t really care about, who he convinces to move there despite, by his own admission, New York City being nearby and full of better opportunities for her.
Aaaaand that’s when Jim really falls off the table for me: his treatment of other women.
First there was his relationship with Amy Adams. It’s clear she’s not going to be his future wife (she’s presented to us as dumb, and I guess we’re supposed to find it funny?), and he ends up rather cruelly dumping her on the booze cruise (after making fun of her with Pam) because he’s so upset Pam and Roy finally set a date for their wedding. That wasn’t exactly framed as a positive, and I guess it’s fine…these things kind of happen.
But then there’s Karen Filippelli, Jim’s coworker in the Stamford branch. They begin dating just as the branch closes, supposedly when he tells her “Scranton isn’t that bad, you should come too.” Then once in Scranton, Pam makes it super, duper clear that she’d be open to being with him, but Jim kind of clings to Karen, presumably out of fear of being hurt by her again. However, his entire relationship with Karen is characterized by him treating her with indifference, outright flirting with Pam at Phyllis’s wedding and saying she’s “cute” when she dances, and then telling the camera crew that “hypothetically, if Pam was interested…” HEY JIM. YOUR DATE IS RIGHT THERE.
But don’t worry, when Pam has the nerve to go have comfort sex with Roy, he’s REALLY glad he’s with Karen now. Because it’s not like Pam might just be having a tough time, especially given that Phyllis basically made a carbon-copy of her planned wedding that never happened, and especially when she has no reason to assume Jim would ever be considering a hypothetical relationship with her.
Jim’s less glad when Karen has the audacity to suggest that she actually finds a house in Scranton and moves out of her shitty motel, because the house that was available is only a couple of streets away from him and it’d be like “moving in together.” Pam of all people had to be the one to tell him he was being unfair.
When Karen finally learns of Jim’s
former feelings for Pam and asks him about it, he tries to ignore her legitimate concerns:
Karen: Did you ever have a thing for Pam?
Jim: Pam? Did I ever have a thing for her? No Why, did she say something?
Karen: …I moved here from Connecticut.
Later, when Jim outright admits that he still has feelings for Pam, Karen insists on talking through it, the jerk. So we’re treated to lots of sympathetic shots of sleepy Jim, because his girlfriend who moved for him was a wee bit upset.
All this comes to a head when both Karen and Jim apply for a job with corporate in New York, and Karen broaches the subject of their future (after what could be read as a public confession of feelings from Pam the episode prior):
Karen: Well, if you get the job then I’d move here with you. Would you move with me? I’m not stupid, okay? I was at the beach. We won’t have a future in Scranton. There’s one too many people there.
Jim: You mean Kevin?
Karen: Exactly. But you get it, right? Can’t stay there.
Jim: Yeah, I do.
That’s nice, Jim. Make a joke about it. It’s almost as nice as the fact that you abandon her in New York City because you want to go grab dinner with Pam.
No literally; he was Karen’s ride. And I’m also pretty sure she was passed up for the job in favor of Ryan because of Dunder Mifflin’s sexist culture, though that’s an issue for another day.
But that’s the saga of Karen! A girlfriend Jim used to hide behind and drag along because he was still determined to punish another woman for not immediately jumping at the chance to be with him after one kiss. Honestly, the only good of it that came was Karen telling Jim off in Season 4:
Yes, Jim and Pam loved each other. But all of this was portrayed as not only acceptable behavior (which it’s not), but the behavior we were supposed to root for! Jim turning up in Scranton at the end of “The Job” was presented to us as a great, romantic moment.
There’s also the fact that Jim gets rewarded by the narrative over and over. Pam’s incredibly truncated art program is hard for him? Oh well, she’s going to just drop out of it because she heard the strain in his voice on the phone after she made friends. That’s healthy! And truthfully the timing of his proposal was just shy of pissing on her to mark her.
Then, while I do praise the final season for “going there” and giving them actual friction with their relationship, it was Pam who had been working overtime to allow Jim to go skipping off to Philly half the time to follow his dreams, something he initially hid from her. For a second I think the show wanted us on her side? But then in the finale she agreed to uproot their family to support him, saying “I just needed time.” As if she had been unreasonable through all of this.
Really, what it comes down to is that The Office gave us the utter prioritization of Jim’s feelings at about every turn, and given that this was the foundation on which “Jam” was built, it leaves an incredibly bad taste in my mouth.
There is officially one plotline where this doesn’t happen: the Michael Scott Paper Company. And it’s everything. Mostly because Jim’s not involved at all, and his own subplot is him finally getting negative feedback from someone, even if it’s presented to us as totally unreasonable.
Though like…shouldn’t someone who’s been at this job for years know what a “rundown of clients” means?
Look, I like slowburns. And “not actually unrequited” love. But what I don’t like is when one side has a sense of entitlement that not only goes unchallenged, but is endorsed. Especially given the genders at play, because women’s desires are totally never ignored, right?
Images courtesy of NBC
Sith Inquisitor’s Journey to Freedom
Minor spoilers for the Sith Inquisitor class quest chain; minor spoilers for the Knights of the Fallen Empire/Eternal Throne DLCs
It is a great part of RPG experience, and even a greater part of RPG enjoyment, to like your character. And by “RPG” I mean any RPG whatsoever, from LARP to tabletop to video game. Which is only natural, as you can’t really relate to the character you don’t like. And what is RPG if not relating to a character so that you can share its fictional experience?
Which, mind you, doesn’t mean that person should be likable. More like, they should be interesting. An interesting piece of shit, after all, has a much bigger chance to win over your emotions than a bland, shallow Stainless Hero. Like, when you watch The Thief and The Cobbler (the recobbled cut, of course, not that abomination), you sympathize with the first much more than the latter. What a perfect role model he is! But I digress.
When I first set out to play Star Wars: The Old Republic, I was highly unsure if I really wanted to do so. I’ve always had problems with video games in the sense that they don’t actually let you create your character. You get a not-so-wide variety of characters and must choose one to try to empathize with. This makes every game a hit-or-miss case for me: either it’s love at the first sight, or it’s “who are those people and why should I have anything to do with them.”
Meeting the Sith Inquisitor
I confess, I made my initial character choice based on my desire to shoot lightning. I thought it would compensate for the lack of emotional involvement I expected. Luckily, I was mistaken!
The story was captivating right from the start because it had questions to ask. And those questions were directed to me, a player. It was me who had to answer them for myself. It was me who had to choose for myself. Because my course of action depended not on what were my plot goals and neither on my gameplay preferences. It depended on my opinion on certain problems.
Basically, you start in a very unprivileged position, that of a slave. An alien slave, if you really want to experience this story in its full power. You finish in a rather privileged position, that of a Dark Council member. On the surface this seems like a typical rags-to-riches story. However, the action/adventure story is only a minor part of the experience. The main part is the inner path—looking back to your past to create your own future and, more importantly, your future self.
In a nutshell, it is a story exploring how you deal with the trauma from past abuse: do you internalize the point of view of the abuser or the abused? As a survivor myself, I can only praise the way this narrative was given and framed in-game.
Dealing with the Trauma
So, you are a slave. You spend half your Prologue experiencing constant verbal and physical abuse from your sort-of teacher. He wants to get rid of you so that a free, Sith Pureblood candidate will win the golden ticket. But justice is served, and the ticket is finally yours. You are no more a slave, but a Sith—a person in the position of power above all non-Sith. What do you do now? And more importantly, how do you do it?
The game has a Light/Dark Side system in it. Before it was totally remade (broken, I’d rather say) it worked like Paragon/Renegade system in Mass Effect games: you choose one of two alternatives, you get certain amount of Side points, you become more attuned with a certain side of the Force. Or sometimes there is a neutral way, that’s neither. It doesn’t give you any points, but still is important in this storyline.
Your first encounter with Dark vs. Light presents a very typical kill the baby/save the baby dilemma: you can torture a witness to extract the criminal’s name, or you can talk to him and exchange help for information. A very easy choice, is it not? The next encounter is the one that gets under your skin.
It is with the evil mentor who wanted to kill you, who humiliated you, who was your abuser. You can scorn him now that you are free and a Sith in service of a Lord far above your former teacher’s station. You have every reason to hate this man, you have to wish to humiliate him in return. The first option is to threaten him, and while taking it would be extremely understandable, it is not a neutral option–it’s Dark Side. It is still playing along the rules of the system: might is right; you now have both, he has neither.
The Light Side option is to thank him, to break those unholy rules. You may not forget it, and you may be quite bitter later on about your early experience. You may never actually forgive him. Yet you refuse petty revenge, you refuse the power play. Because evil can’t mend or undo another evil.
I swear, something in my heart trembled when that rat of a man smiled to my character in return and thanked him. Because at last I saw the real Dark vs Light narrative, where Light begets more light–and Dark begets more dark.
Thus I understood that I really want to experience that story up to the end.
While both versions of the Sith Inquisitor’s class story present him dealing with his trauma, I could never get myself to try the Dark one. It was really, really dark; the story of a person broken and driven to the edges of sanity, who would never let anyone have anything that person was once denied. I really couldn’t help pity the creature that person would eventually become. It’s not that this story is exactly bad, but I think it is somewhat toxic and too much in line with “being tortured makes you evil” narrative. Not exactly the trope that is in any way helpful for abuse survivors.
The Neutral path—what you tread if you don’t follow any consistent course of action—was less devastating on the personal level. It is more of a quest for identit-y than anything else. Your character does eventually give in to the darker side of their nature, but also eventually does something truly and genuinely good and selfless. In the end they receive the name Occulus, for being a mystery to everyone , including themselves. Because they really don’t know themselves. After all, the Sith Inquisitor is presumed to be very young; somewhere in their early twenties.
I really loved the third option, the Light Side. It is a path of empathy, a path of true freedom. It is also the path most difficult both for your character and for you as a player, for it consciously sets you against certain old tropes and easy decisions.
Good Is Not Easy
Many games try to “convince” you to do right thing by making good choices less hard than bad ones. In general, this game is no exception; if you were to take the Dark route as a Jedi Knight, it would require more time and work from you than the opposite. But on this route it’s the other way around. Being a good person here is not—just as in real life—easy. It is hard.
I can’t describe Light!Sith Inquisitor as anything but a Suffering Empath. Having experienced much trauma in the past, this Sith Inquisitor struggles their best to shield others from the same trauma, even when it doesn’t benefit themselves. Even when it means direct harm to themselves.
For example, their power is based on that of the restless spirits they’ve bound to their soul. Letting those spirits go means the Sith Inquisitor goes back to the start, where they are fairly ordinary a Sith and no match for the truly mighty ones. It means a real threat to their life or, at the very least, their well-being. But because it is right, they fulfill their promise and let the spirits go and find peace.
In another instance, they encounter a racist, foul-mouthed, self-infatuated prick, and they don’t kill him. They choose this because that abominable creature is someone else’s loved person. and your own (both player’s and character’s) desire to punish him cannot be given a higher priority than someone else’s love and anxiety.
This route is hard, because it requires additional quests and lines of dialogue. It is hard, because sometimes you really want to teach someone the hard way, to vent your own (player’s) disgust and rage, to punish the bad guys. But as long as you remember the “two wrongs don’t make right” rule, you can really enjoy that story.
Well, “enjoy” is not exactly the right word, but you get it.
This story is about real freedom; that is, spiritual freedom.
One of the easiest paths to achieve your goals in Star Wars universe is by using Mind Trick. You simply make the other person do and think what you wish them to. It is often used as, well, an easy and harmless workaround. It is often marked as a Light Side option in the Jedi class stories (the Dark option being to fight).
But on this route it is never a offer as a good option—usually neutral, but sometimes even bad. Because, y’know, it’s about freedom. What is more abusive, after all, than to deny a person that person’s free will?
I cannot fathom an action more free of will, of an agency more openly expressed, than denying a whole system of oppression while being raised as a part of it. But the Sith Inquisitor does just that.
Every time they eschew their own in favor of someone else’s, they deny that system. Every time they refuse to acquire more power because it would others more dearly, they deny that system. Every time they choose to respect the free will of the others, even if it means problems for themselves, they deny that system.
What I really wanted to do, right from the beginning, was to thank the author.
Rebecca Harwick created a fascinating story that works perfectly for a genre that requires deep emotional connection with your character. RPG is about living other lives, those we can never experience IRL but those still having an impact on us and our life. We all know that stories matter, and I think we need more stories like that.
And it is a highly satisfying story. You really feel it by the end, that peace and glory that come with being righteous.
Personally, it helped me deal with my own trauma and helped me sort out things and realize that some options are not really an option—that giving in to the abuser’s point of view would really keep me stuck in that trauma forever.
That, while trying to be a good person is often hard, it’s worth it.
P.S.: And Then They Ruined It…
When you experience something that great, you want more of it, do you? Well, I wanted. So I went on to playing DLCs that are supposed to cover the later life of the same hero.
Sadly, the story-line there was clearly written as a continuation of the Jedi Knight’s class story, and any difference in dialogue was purely cosmetic. This actually came out bad for many classes, but the Sith Inquisitor suffers not only plot-and-logic-wise, but also thematically and, I daresay, problematically.
You see, it is generally okay if a privileged golden boy of a Jedi, who was always treated as someone special and a Chosen One, gets a lecture from those still above him about him not being special and his real role being a mere gear in a much greater machine. It serves him right and it even has some thematic significance. I am, of course, referring to the Jedi Knight—the supposed Anakin-done-right hero, the most obviously coded as male and most irritatingly problematic in and of himself.
This kind of lecture is certainly not okay when delivered by two uber-privileged guys (a Jedi Grandmaster and a Head of the Dark Council) to a former slave. They tell this slave to be nothing more than a cogwheel, that freedom is overrated and that they need to subjugate themselves to someone or something greater. They directly say, “you are weak because you fight for your freedom, become a willing slave (to the Force, but still) and you’ll be strong.”
It is problematic, isn’t it?
It really ruined the thing for me. The narrative that was centered around freedom, around acquiring it, understanding it and using it right…it was thrown away in favor of a rather lazy “we all are slaves of the Fate” plot device. And that’s only when we talk themes and not slavery per se, and the narrative completely forgetting about it.
My only solace is, it was written by another person.
Images courtesy EA Entertainment
Will Has a Women Problem
Love him or hate him, you have to admit William Shakespeare wrote some of literature’s most iconic women. Queens such as Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, and Titania; tragic heroines like Cordelia, Juliet, and Ophelia; the outspoken self-advocates Beatrice, Katherina and Paulina. While only some of Shakespeare’s women wield legitimate, authoritative power, all of them are powerful figures on stage: women of devastating conviction, integrity, and passion At a time in history where women had few legal rights—and couldn’t legally appear on a stage—Shakespeare’s women stood as monuments to women’s potential and women’s reality.
It’s unfortunate, then, that Will, TNT’s ten-episode period drama, does its women a disservice. This is not to say that Will’s women are bad characters. On the contrary, Alice Burbage, Anne Hathaway/Shakespeare, Emilia Bassano and Apelina are powerful, bringing some of the most poignant emotional experiences to the show. Unfortunately, those performances don’t happen for the sake of their own characters’ individual growth. Frustratingly, Will’s women instead end up as tried-and-true tools shaping men’s destinies.
As Will’s love interest, Alice Burbage is the woman most affected by Will’s underlying misogyny (although she’s not the most insidious example). From her first appearance in “The Play’s the Thing,” when she leans out of her window, breasts just short of dropping out of her bodice, Alice is set up as a sexual object for Will’s attention. But it is her brilliance and dedication to the theater that draw Will to her as a lover and intellectual soulmate.
Alice is an “educated woman,” her learning much more advanced than the supposed average early modern daughter or housewife (who actually had to have a decent bit of learning in order to maintain the household, but suspension of disbelief and all that). She can read and write well enough to provide clean copies of scripts for the actors of her father’s theater, and has enough business savvy to help her family with the theater business.
Alice’s intelligence doesn’t exist for herself, though. Rather, it exists for Will. A blossoming-playwright with no experience, Will is a really terrible addition to the Theatre. He has talent with words but little else; he barely understands how theaters and theater-going works. For Will, there is only “the art,” which finally bites him in episode 3, “The Two Gentlemen.” No one will buy Will’s newest play, a complicated piece of poetry with nothing to appeal to an audience. Once he admits Alice is right and he needs her help, though, Alice gives Will access to all the plays in her father’s repertoire and then helps him hit upon the then-not-so-novel idea of stealing the overarching idea.
Once that’s in hand—with Alice guiding him in the selection and the theft—Alice helps him write.
“To him she must be like day, like night, like light. Like light.”
Even when Alice is asleep, her presence is the thing that spurs Will to continue to write, his eyes fixated on her as he writes passionate speeches for Sylvia. When James discovers them in the morning, it’s Alice’s fury and insistent on its quality—quality she oversaw—that gets it performed.
Alice does the same for Henry VI pt 2. After encouraging Will to write the histories out of order, she gives Will the title for the play:
“Henry VI: The Rise of the Dauphin Menace. When I was reading the histories, I discovered the Dauphin, Charles II, joined forces with Joan of Arc.” (Episode 6)
The pair of them function like this for most of the season: Will comes to Alice with the seeds of a play, the words that are his signature, and Alice provides the necessary structure to see the play succeed and Will’s star rise. She coins the term“prequel” for Henry VI pt 2, decides on the overall plot of that same play, and, perhaps most importantly, suggests Will humanize Richard in Richard III, making his actions more horrific by highlighting the humanity still lurking in the monster. Without that crucial character change, the endgame against Topcliffe would have failed.
Alice, however, never receives recognition for her significant, life-altering contributions. Will, of course, praises her genius and recognizes that without her, his writing stagnates. But he makes no effort to inform her father, mother, brother or any of the company about her crucial contributions to the plays that have made them and him, so popular. Instead, he sits proud and preening over the work she improved, enjoying her labors and her love until he is forced to end their relationship.
This is perhaps why Alice switches intellectual loyalties—Father Southwell gives her credit. The more entwined Alice becomes in his Catholic plot, the more Southwell praises her devotion and willingness to endanger herself. Southwell, however, is no better than Will, using Alice’s brilliance, grief, and determination to further his cause. As his newest convert, Alice is best suited for smuggling messages since she is thus far unknown to any of Topcliffe’s informants; moreover, her connections to the theater, frequented by one of the Queen’s advisers, give Southwell noble connections he needs to deliver his manifesto to the Queen. Alice, then, is Southwell’s newest and best instrument in his Catholic war. She’s also the one he loses most quickly.
In the end, everyone loses Alice; her destiny finally to leave the world she loved and desired in the hands of a man she can’t stop loving. Her suffering at Topcliffe’s hands encourages the company to perform Richard III (thus altering the torturer’s destiny) and cements Will’s undying love for her—none of which she can share. Instead, Alice must go, freeing herself and Shakespeare from a love she now knows could never be and no longer wants. It is only through that pain, apparently, that Will can go on to right the greatest love story: Romeo and Juliet, where his “bright angel” will shine again.
Alice is just one woman robbed of a life or dream for men’s sake. Another, set up against Alice, is Anne Hathaway. Never one to get a fair treatment in adaptations, Anne is everything Alice isn’t: an obstacle to his art and an intellectual inferior. From her opening line, Anne is portrayed as shrewish and incapable of seeing Will’s greatness: “Who will want a play by William Shakespeare?” (“The Play’s the Thing”). Anne is incapable of seeing Will’s art, and clouds his genius with mundane concerns like the survival of his family.
Is the sarcasm evident?
Anne’s demotion to a tool of Will’s destiny is briefer than Alice’s but just as unfair because she deserves better, from both Will and Will. However, her dire situation is never taken seriously. When Anne brings Will’s children to London to visit him, and learns about his affair with Alice, her hurt is shown as unjustified. Alice understands Will in a way Anne simply can’t; how dare Anne reject Will for something as simple as a connection with an intellectual equal?
Moreover, when Anne finally admits to Will her situation in Stratford, he cannot fully recognize or accept her pain or the fear that fuels her inability to believe in him. Living as a servant to his parents, with the threat of homelessness and beggardom, Anne physically can’t believe in his dream because a dream can’t help them now. It can’t provide them food or shelter. It can’t give them a livelihood and future. The money Will makes as a writer isn’t enough to ensure her and her children’s safety if they are forced out by his family and his father’s poor business practices. But Will sees her insistence that he take responsibility for them, that he look after them as he promised to, as manipulative and cruel.
All of this is heartbreaking because Anne loves, or at least loved, Will, and at some point, Will loved her. At the tavern, after she’s accepted by the company even after her fumbles, Anne and Will dance, smile and laugh. As they walk home and speak of the early days of their relationship, there is genuine warmth and affection in the shared memories. But domesticity chafes Will. It suffocates him in a way Anne is able to—and has to—endure, and he can no longer return the love she still extends to him. At his distress over Topcliffe’s threats against his family and Southwell’s inability to understand his situation, Anne reaches out to him,
“Yet you do not talk of your struggles with me. I am here to listen and to ease your burdens, as a wife should. If you would share with me.”
For her pains—for her labor, emotional and physical—all she gets in return is Will insistence he can’t, and won’t, share with her.
“I cannot speak of what’s inside of me. That is why I write.”
But Anne can’t read. Will’s writing—his plays, his dreams—is an impassable barrier between them, one which Will doesn’t bother to pull down and which Anne eventually accepts.
That’s Anne’s destiny: acceptance of being not even second best. “It’s not about the girl,” Anne tells him in episode 6, “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” as she piles their children in a carriage bound for Stratford. Anne is Alice’s inferior, but more than that, Anne is not theater. She is not the escape, the support and the adoration Will craves and now enjoys in the London theater. Anne is just the mother of his children, a burden to his art. Although it clearly pains her to realize it, she has to step aside; her only purpose left in his life is, as she says, “to leave you free to be who you wish to be” and fade quietly into a lonely life, awaiting money and the occasional letter.
Anne’s grieved blessing and disappearance are required. No longer a figure in Will’s life or thoughts—she’s referenced not even a handful of times after her departure and is never seen again—Anne no longer obstructs his art or his destiny. With this freedom, Will is able to put his pen and his talent to bringing the Theatre up and tearing Topcliffe down with one of his most powerful plays. He can take the first steps into the fame that will follow him for centuries.
Alice and Anne’s roles as destiny-tools are specific: they shape Will, and to a lesser extent Topcliffe and Southwell, into who they are meant to be. Emilia Bassano and Apelina don’t operate in quite the same way. Although they also, indirectly, affect Will’s destiny, their characters exist as more generalized comments on the role of women in Will’s narrative world.
At her first appearance in “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” Emilia Bassano seems to be a noble woman. Alice, however, breaks that illusion. She reveals that Emilia is Lord Hunsdon’s newest mistress—replacing the one from episode one—and although she was once nobility, she’s fallen on hard times. The daughter of a Venetian musician and “impoverished Moroccan royalty,” Emilia has taken up residence with Lord Hunsdon as a companion skilled in conversation and poetry.
She has absolutely no illusions about her purpose and position. “Thou art sorely misguided,” she tells Will in episode seven, “What Dreams May Come,” “None of this is mine. It belongs to Lord Hunsdon, just as I do.” Emilia is property, dressed up in the finest the Queen’s advisor and cousin can offer but with the knowledge that she is no longer her own. Emilia is a thing now, a thing as pretty as her dresses and jewelry, but expected to perform certain duties and services or suffer unspoken consequences.
Her status as high-class property affords Emilia some freedom, but nearly all of it is used to serve others, most often as facilitator. She puts Will in touch with Lord Fortuscue, whose commission for A Midsummer Night’s Dream saves the Theatre from closing. She overhears Lord Hunsdon’s conversations and then shares important details about Topcliffe’s promotion and Alice’s increasing role in Southwell’s plot with Will. But Emilia also provides what she can, especially when Will rescues Alice from Topcliffe’s clutches. She opens Lord Hunsdon’s house to them and gives them access to her own personal physician, even knowing the danger it puts her in.
As Emilia said, nothing she owns is hers. If Lord Hunsdon, cousin of the Queen cousin and–until the last episode–Topcliffe supporter, learns of her aiding and harboring Catholics plotting against him, her life could be in danger. But no one ever addresses or acknowledges this. Emilia is not important enough for fear. Convenient when she is needed, shelved when she is not, the precariousness of her situation—a situation Will brings her into with a well-written sonnet—is never given serious consideration by anyone.
Nor is Apelina’s, although she is confronted with the danger of her choices almost daily. Her situation, in many ways, mimics Emilia’s: they’re both owned, although by different classes of people. Emilia is a nobleman’s mistress, Apelina a peasant sex worker. Apelina has a nearby brother to consider while Emilia is separated from apparently all she’s ever known (but never seems bothered by that fact). However, the most important difference between these two women is that Apelina is given no identity within the narrative.
From her first appearance in “The Play’s the Thing” to her death in “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” Apelina has no personal identity or discernible history apart from “motherless whore,” “dirt-some punk,” and Presto’s sister. Her name is never even mentioned in the show; it only ever appears in the ending credits, a brief half-second flash near the end of the cast list. Without an identity, Apelina occupies the lowest space for women in Will: a complete and total object, to be used, cast aside, and then briefly mourned, if she’s lucky.
She is somewhat “lucky,” in that regard. Her brother Presto is clearly devoted to her, or at least to the idea of her being free. He takes up thieving to pay for her freedom and tortures himself with every day she suffers under Doll’s thumb. Apelina shares that love, and fully verbalizes it when Doll tries to sell Presto to Topcliffe. She helps him escape and undergoes torture to keep him safe. When Presto is caught and agrees to prostitution, she tries to make it as easy as she can for him, giving him alcohol to ease the pain and offering him a compartmentalization technique that has always helped her.
None of this, though, is for her.
Everything Apelina does is as Presto’s sister; everything she does, and says, and is, is for Presto’s growth. Presto needs to suffer, needs to steal from the Theatre and then feel the intense grief and pain to move him into position for Will’s final endgame. But unlike Alice’s case, it is a private grief. No one apart from Presto and Will ever know about Apelina and her role, and even they speak of it only in passing.
In a way, it makes sense that the women in this period drama are so suppressed. Will focuses on the downside of pursuing dreams: the things lost when dreams become obsessions and are followed without any sort of consideration for the lives affected. Yet, Will never took the opportunity to explore the women’s dreams. Alice could have been shown learning that she would never inherit the Theatre and then working to change that reality. Anne could have turned her attention to a different destiny than the happy, stable marriage she once desired. Emilia could have looked for ways to restore her status, or to bring unmentioned family to her side. We could have seen Apelina dreaming of a life of freedom, a home for herself and her brother.
But Will doesn’t care about women’s dreams and women’s destinies; there are dozens of women in Will, named and unnamed alike, and none of them exceed Alice’s crucial instrumentality or Apelina’s limited use. Even Queen Elizabeth I is only referenced, never seen. Will’s world is a man’s world, and male destinies, desires, and hopes are the only ones that matter. Women—their needs, their livelihood, their lives, their bodies—are considered only so far as they work to further or hinder men’s destinies. They are tools, sharpened for use and discarded when no longer needed.
Instead of characters, they are caricatures.
Images courtesy of TNT Productions
The Source deals with Feminism and Intersectionality
A common criticism of feminism is that, as it exists today, it tends to forget the most vulnerable of women, i.e., those that are not wealthy, white, cisgendered, able-bodied, neurotypical, or straight. The response to this has been to draw increasing attention to the principle of intersectionality, that is how one oppression interacts with and complicates others (if you are non-white, neurodivergent, and also LGBTQ+, for example). Similarly, intersectionality seeks to investigate how privilege might interact with oppression (if you are a woman but also white, or if you are a POC but also rich, etc).
Despite the fact that intersectionality has become a common tools of analysis in the social sciences, cultural productions haven’t kept up. Sure, we talk more and more about oppressed demographics, but typically one at the time. We don’t want to strain a muscle, I guess.
And it’s true that even if lately we’ve saw an increase in feminist productions, they tend to primarily cater to one, maybe two demographics (when they actually manage to be feminist at all and not just an exercise in faux-feminism, but that’s another problem). And those demographics aren’t always intersectional.
That maybe why The Source, a feminist movie focused on poor Arab women in a country who suffered colonization, strikes me as special in today’s cultural landscape.
The Source or The Women’s Source
The Source is a 2011 French movie (original title La Source des Femmes literally The Women’s Source) that presented at the Cannes Film Festival the same year. Radu Mihaileanu wrote and directed it, taking inspiration from the classical play Lysistrata and from an actual women’s revolt in Turkey.
The story follows a community of women in a tiny village, nowadays in an unnamed muslim country that used to be a colony. In this village, it is the tradition that women bring the water to their family. The source is, and has always been, at the top of a mountain.
One day, one woman falls while coming down and miscarries. For Leila, who has herself miscarried under such conditions, it is too much. She organizes a strike to persuade the men to do something to bring the water directly to the village. This strike is of a special kind, though; it is a love strike. With time the strike unleashes a debate way larger than the access to water, namely, on the condition of women vis-a-vis traditions.
The movie is supposed to be a dramatic-comedy, and you will laugh yes, but way less than you might have anticipated. And, if you plan a light evening of good fun, I recommend you postpone watching this movie.
So before we move on to the themes, it’s worth summarizing the main characters:
- Leila– clearly the main protagonist, she didn’t grow in the village but came to live there when she married. She is not completely accepted there.
- Vieux Fusils– (literally Old Riffle), among the elders of the village, she supports Leila in her idea immediately. Married when she was a child to a violent man, now that she is a widow recognized for her wisdom.
- Loubna/Esmeralda– teenage sister-in-law of Leila. Madly in love with a boy from another village and has decided to marry only for love. Fan of a telenovelas and therefore nicknamed Esmeralda by the other women.
- Rachida– Leila’s mother-in-law. Hostile to Leila and her strike.
- Sami– Leila’s husband and teacher at the local school. In favor of the strike, but maybe more in favor of a peaceful village.
There are of course a lot of other characters, in favor of or against the strike, but these are the most important to the story.
A Feminine Feminist Revolution
The way Leila and the other women decide to lead their ‘revolution’ might at first appear artificial and even a tad insulting. Is a woman’s only influence on the world through her sexuality? But the fact is that this women don’t have the choice. To have water in the village the government must pay for important construction works, and for this to happen you have to face the AdministrationTM. And the administration has a directive to do nothing if not absolutely necessary, which typically means having time, connections, money, and education.
No woman in this village has all of that. Not even the entire group of women can gather all of those things. To tell the truth, the men don’t have them either. Their lot is better than that of women, but in front of a disinterested government they are as powerless as the women are. To gain what they want, the entire village must work together.
The women don’t want to penalize the village. The want the men to realize that they are suffering for nothing, and that if they love and value them they should help them do something about the condition of the water supply.
They do not reject femininity for the sake of it. But they reject thousand-year-old traditions that are outdated or were wrong to begin with. For example, going up the mountain to carry back water when running water could be installed. But as I previously said, the debate about water brings other questions, like that of the relation between men and women. The husbands think it is their right to sleep with their wife, so due to the strike, eventually practices such as marital rape and child marriage are also denounced.
There is something that grabbed my attention about The Source. In Lysistrata, one of the inspirations behind the movie, the title character (whose name literally means ‘Army Disbander’) wants to stop a war by not sleeping with men and making the other women do the same.
And there is this conversation in The Source:
Hussein (Leila’s father-in-law): Don’t belittle men. My grand-father and my father waged war on the colons and on our neighbors. In order to defend our tribe, our village, our family, and to defend our source of water. During those times women and children stayed at home, sheltered. A lot of us died. Men hunted (…). You realized it was never easy
Leila: They were all warriors.
Hussein: Valiant warriors of great courage (…). We never asked you to do our work in our place. It is for your protection and it is the tradition. The cycle of life. (…) But with the drought there is no more work.
Leila: And no more war.
The Source talks about changes in the society. How the men fell out of employment and how, if they could, they would follow the traditional role they were assigned but they can’t. And the answer given is that maybe it is for the best. Maybe we are best without the violence that exist in the traditional roles of men.
When men have it bad women have it worse
Now on to other subjects tackled by the movie that fit into the idea of intersectionality. Women suffer in this village because they are women, but also because the majority of the village suffers too. If girls barely go to school, boys don’t have a possibility to achieve their dreams either. Women don’t have it bad, per se, they have it worse.
The village is isolated. The climate has changed and agriculture has became impossible. The people in the village as a whole are stuck in there, without a chance to access a better life. The women in the village are stuck in homes they didn’t choose without a chance to access a better life. Worse, the little they have—food, respect, a roof above their head, their children—can be taken from them at any moment if they step out of line
And they are people who don’t want things to change. Some men abuse their wives at their will and use the bad situation to do virtually nothing with their lives. The government doesn’t want change either. It is shown as corrupt and not in any hurry to do anything to better the lives of its citizens. That’s why it doesn’t want to help this village. Because if it does listen to the demand of the women, the most fragile demographic of their country, they might have to listen to other oppressed voices.
A parenthesis on western ‘humanitarian’ tourists
The Source is nearly free of western, white characters. The only ones in it are humanitarian tourists, and oh boy is it glorious! If you are not aware there is currently a backlash against a certain type of humanitarian work. The one that is way more performative than effective and reeks of neo-colonialism. When rich young people pay to have ‘humanitarian’ trips and do to work they are untrained for (but I guess are naturally experts at through the sheer power of whiteness), in order to discover the Real Meaning of LifeTM and add a line to their CV. Just a new rebranding of the good old White Savior.
Well our westerners are those humanitarians. Well I guess they are not that bad because they bring money and don’t receive or offer life lessons. But seeing clueless Europeans watching a show made for them (to show gratitude) while the tensions of the village unfold in front of them is so nice. They can’t understand it, since they don’t speak Arabic, but long story short, The Source makes a point explaining that you can’t be the hero of people you don’t understand.
Of Hope and Love
Gloriously, the movie never becomes nihilistic. Sure, there is despair in our world. There is apathy, oppression, violence, and people who will stand for it. But it doesn’t mean that all hope in mankind must be forsaken. There is love in this world, and love conquers all.
That’s what Loubna’s story represents. Everything is possible when you believe in love, even when the object of your love is proven to be disappointing. Because as long as you believe in the idea of love you can muster the courage to move forward, and maybe find someone more worthy of your love. Like Leila did.
To truly love and be loved you must be worthy of this love, and eventually both Sami and Leila are.
It is also important to love your neighbor, as Vieux Fussil does. She might not have children of her own but she takes care of every young women in the village because they need love and support. Because to turn into the best version of yourself, you need love. Love is like water, it brings life.
And that’s what the women ultimately bring to the village: Love and Life.
The Source isn’t a perfect movie; it has its flaws. It is probably a bit too theatrical, but it is inspired by a play after all. It’s a bit Manichean too, though while not stigmatizing Islam. (The fact that the imam refuses to move against the women because he has been convinced by them is touching.) But it is important to remember that the movie is a fable. It was never intended to be a realistic social movie.
It’s a tale about women and their emancipation. It’s a tale about change and its benefits, and it’s a tale about love. It’s different, and in the end, it’s enjoyable to watch. So I would say that The Source did its job fairly well.