Welcome to the second installment of “Sexism & Season 6,” which focuses on tackling the horrifyingly common misconception that Game of Thrones (GoT) is somehow a feminist’s dream. Or even a remotely progressive narrative. That showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss, along with their writing team (all referred to under the monolithic “D&D”) somehow “fixed” their “woman problem” this year, the problem that had been plaguing the HBO Series basically since its inception.
See, there’s this vague sort of consensus that women had their way this year!
The “dames of Thrones” were boss ass individuals who did not put up with those foolish men, and often as a result, found themselves in positions of power. Ellaria murdered Doran the “weak man” with the backing of all of Dorne, Daenerys and Yara made a queenly alliance centered on the promise that they’d rid the world of idiot dudes who don’t think women should rule, and Sansa actually found recourse against her rapist by murdering him.
Yara: We’d like you to help us murder an uncle or two who don’t think a woman’s fit to rule.
Then add to that the wonderfully intelligent Tyrell ladies, the wonderfully sassy Tarly ladies, and the wonderfully badass fighters in characters like Arya and Brienne. With all these strong female characters battlin’ the patriarchy, it seems like GoT’s “Women on Top!” marketing campaign was quite on the nose!
Except if you think about any of it for more than two seconds.
I already spoke in Part 1 of this essay series about how D&D’s setting has no sort of internal consistency and simply adapts to the needs of a scene. For that reason, there’s no way women (or anyone) can truly triumph and find themselves “on top,” since what they’re on top of is utterly meaningless. These are hollow victories, and frankly the focus that it’s now “women on top” comes across as nothing more than pandering, given the completely superficial exploration of gender dynamics this series offers.
In this section, however, I would like to focus on the actual scripting of the female characters. Because even if we pretend, just for a second, that their achieving power does have feminist takeaways beyond seal-clapping at their shiny crowns, it doesn’t change that the way they’re penned is strikingly sexist.
I’d say “surprisingly,” but I’ve also been saying this since before Season 6 began:
“I don’t really want to shock anyone, but these multitudes of “strong women” simply don’t exist.”
In the linked essay, I brought special attention to the characters of Dany, Brienne, Sansa, Margaery, and Myranda, and how through the past year, their scripting was not only not empowering, but quite offensive. And this was all after I painstakingly went through all of Season 5 to detail the primary sexist tropes D&D employed in the writing of all their characters.
Now this is not to say it couldn’t have gotten better in Season 6, of course. I’m just here to explain to you why it didn’t.
I think I’ll open with Dany, because “Khaleesi” is the face of female empowerment in modern media, isn’t she? She’s a queen with dragons who hates slavery; how awesome is that?!
Not that I’m defending slavery, of course.
Dany this year was interesting, because she sort of had a two chapter journey, if you will. The first chapter involved her navigating her captivity by the Dothraki, whereas the second chapter involved her return to Meereen to handle the situation with the slavers and make plans for the future.
This is where it becomes difficult not to retread ground with Part 1, because the utterly contrived nature of how the Dothraki treated her is part and parcel of the mystifying way in which she navigated it. But we just have to accept certain things, most importantly including the Dosh Khaleen’s magically disappearing authority within Vaes Dothrak.
I’m quite certain D&D meant for us to find Dany rattling off her titles to the khal in “The Red Woman” to be an empowering moment. After all, he was telling her that he’d rape her, and she had an ace in her pocket about why she wouldn’t. Except that…why didn’t she say this at the get-go? Does she live for the rush of high risk situations? I’m not trying to say that a character withholding information that would benefit her is definitive proof that the scripting is sexist, but what I am saying is that it betrays entirely a lack of care about the characters, and it’s all in favor of creating false tension and cheap moments of victory. In other words, it’s this facade of “women on top” when what we should be questioning is why she was on the bottom in the first place.
There’s also the issue of characters deciding to do everything off-screen. Yes, this allows for “reveals,” but when absolutely nothing is seeded to preserve the shock, what follows feels random. How are we supposed to have any grasp on a character when we don’t see them struggling or planning? Dany fell further victim to this in “Book of the Stranger,” the episode where she decided to burn down Vaes Dothrak. For profit. When did she formulate this plan? During her pee break with the other former khaleesi who seemed to like the idea of avoiding rape? Did Dany know that the Council of Khals (the suddenly existing legislative body of Vaes Dothrak) would decide her fate at night, that there’d be braziers in this tent, and that the dirt would be magically flammable?
The point I’m making is that her Empowered Moment falls apart with a minimal level of scrutiny. And even if we somehow manage to ignore the multitude of contrivances required for it to take place, there’s the problem of take-away. If the Council of Khals was supposed to make us feel as though this was Dany’s only way out, that was completely undercut by Daario and Jorah showing up and offering her escape in the scene prior. If we were supposed to believe that this was the “best course of action” because the khals were such a danger to her, then why were there no threats against Dany (and it seemed like they were going to allow her to join the Dosh Khaleen, the supposed ruling class of the Dothraki) until after she started insulting the khals by saying they were weak and only she was fit to rule?
The only conclusion I can reasonably come to is that we were supposed to fist-pump for Dany’s actions because Dothraki culture is gross and rapey and this is the best course of action for *humanity*. So therefore D&D’s idea of female empowerment is a white woman, with a family history tied to slavery and conquest, standing proudly after destroying another culture’s holy place, while the brown people who had outright called her a “witch” dropped to their knees. I hate strawman rapists as much as the next person, but there were people who actually felt…good…about this?
Sorry, but white feminism is not empowering. Or feminism.
You know what else isn’t empowering? Having a female character whose only good ideas come from a dude. This was a trend with Dany that started last year, and boy howdy did it continue into Season 6. The second she got back to Meereen, she began formulating ideas involving mass murder, and what a good thing for all of us that Tyrion was there to talk some sense into her. So then the entire Battle of Meereen scenario was the enactment of his plan on how to handle the slavers, and let’s not forget, he’s the one who fixed her mistake of locking up Rhaegal and Viseron so that they could help lead her victory as well.
Then Tyrion tells Dany to dump Daario and she does (though empowerdly not having emotions about it, because emotions are so weak). And of course when she and Yara, two women in positions of power, hash out terms of an alliance, we’re treated to this moment:
Oh well, at least Yara listens to her dudes as well:
And yes, people listening to advisors is fine, but it’s the pattern. A pattern which in the case of Dany, is completely infantilizing. I guess the best that could be said is that without her men, she’d have still won the loyalty of the Dothraki this year? But then we have to remember why it is that people who just saw their holy place get burned down by a witch would pledge their loyalty in the first place…
There’s one last thing about Dany’s scripting that I think is a bit of an elephant in the room, because it involves dreaded *book knowledge*. I’m all for ending the conflation of GoT and A Song of Ice and Fire, but it’s rather impossible for me not to notice that Tyrion’s plotline this year was Dany’s plotline from A Dance with Dragons. They more or less jettisoned her out of her own arc, and literally retconned developments away so that Tyrion could have her ADWD plot-points to tackle. Hizdahr’s deal with Yunkai and Astapor? Gone. The navy Daario won for Dany? Oh no, a random fire! Granted, everything Tyrion did doesn’t quite line up to the books since the show presents us with a ridiculously simplified situation, but it really does feel as though a woman was shoved aside and put in a position to be a prisoner of strawmen so that they could carry out her plotline with their preferred protagonist, a white dude.
Yikes, I had more to say about Dany than I realized. I guess it’s because of all that empowerment! But I do think it’s an important exercise to demonstrate how just because a woman wins victories and is a ruler in her own right, it’s not automatically progressive.
Same goes for this idea that if a woman is “badass,” then that’s that—it’s a feminist victory!
Arya is really the perfect example of that this season. Granted, her plotline actually came under major scrutiny when her plot armor rivaled that of James Bond’s in Live and Let Die. I do have to think the sheer ridiculousness of her survival detracted a little from her Badass™ status, though aside from these complaints and perhaps a few grumbles about her season finale teleportation, I’ve heard little criticism levied at her scripting.
Arya in and of herself I think is supposed to be a slightly disturbing character, right? Like, her overly violent murders of Trant last year and Walder Frey this year were supposed to be at least a little morally ambiguous? It’s hard to tell, because D&D went out of their way to paint both men as incredibly disgusting and “bad,” but I just don’t think I can imagine anyone who would be able to write or direct those scenes with the intent of them being 100% fine, fist-pumping moments of awesome.
Okay…maybe two or three names spring to mind.
However, the curious thing about Arya is that other than when she pops up to carry out these grisly executions, she’s actually quite passive. This was the case last year, and certainly continuing into this year, where a good chunk of her episodes revolved around being smacked with a stick. Even after she got her eyes back, we see more stick smacking. Then she was assigned to kill an actor and was so bad at her job that her mark ended up noticing her and they developed a friendly rapport. The one proactive decision Arya made was to not kill Lady Crane, which like, okay, I could totally buy doing that not jiving with her moral code, I guess. And then the plot required her to be stupid and go from sleeping with Needle drawn to smirking her way around Braavos:
The rest was simply parkouring to victory.
Even despite her very passive scripting, all if this might have been somewhat forgiven if it weren’t for D&D’s mystifying pattern of injecting catty women into every corner of Braavos. I’ve explained the sexist underpinnings of this trope before:
“[‘Women are Catty’] is based on the assumption that women are always in competition with one another, because their mode of operation is based around getting a man. With intimate heterosexuality being needed to complete them, exclusive male attention becomes their ultimate goal, inherently pitting them against other women who are vying for the same thing. If a man strays from his woman, it is her fault, because she lost out to another woman. And of course, women are not mature enough to snap out of this dynamic, unlike ‘bros before hoes.'”
In my opinion, there’s really no way to reconcile the character of “The Waif” in GoT. What is her problem?! The best explanation is that she has a thing for Jaqen and feels threatened, but this is a woman who simply hates Arya. She smacks her with sticks repeatedly, and the one time Arya counters her blow, angry tears fill her eyes. Then we learn after Arya bails on her contract that The Waif had asked Jaqen for special permission to murder her in the case of such an event. Which she then skips off to do so with glee:
Maybe this wouldn’t have seemed quite so awful if it weren’t for the fact that Jaqen is presented to us as the voice of reason between the two? He’s the one who brings Arya back to the temple, he’s the one who grants her the eyes, he’s the one who gives her another chance, he’s even the one who after the killy-conclusion of their confrontation, gives Arya a bizarre Nod of Approval. Fighting is for the women, reconciliation is for the men.
Add to this the weird rivalry within the theater troupe, where the Sansa actor was very clearly the one who hired the Faceless Men to kill Lady Crane because jealousy, and Lady Crane in turn mutilated her.
What makes this worse is that I almost was won over by the positive interaction with Lady Crane and Arya because that’s how lacking it is on this show, but it was unfortunately overshadowed by Crane’s disturbing trait of stabbing ex-lovers and then, of course, her graphic Shock™ death, demonstrating that positive female interaction on this show is only to tug at the heartstrings.
But whatever, we can tell Arya is a badass because she pops in to murder people in season finales with inexplicably honed skills that we were never shown before. What were we shown instead?
Brienne is another character that you can tell is meant to be a Certifiable Badass because she like, carries a sword or something? And it was nifty of her to save Sansa and Theon from the disappearing hounds when she magically realized that they must have left Winterfell.
However past that, we were treated to another season of her failing at her mission. What was the point of her going to Riverrun, exactly? For a fanservice moment with Jaime that was immediately followed by the scene of him declaring his undying love to Cersei? Brienne failed to secure the Tully army, and failed to even convince Brynden Blackfish to personally help out his niece.
The killer is that with just few tweaks and this show could be so good. Tumblr user “turtle-paced” pointed out in her review of “No One” how easily Brienne’s exchange with Blackfish could have been altered to A.) make us feel that Brienne is more than just a convenient sword, and B.) actually make us feel like this show is more than a series of discrete moments of random shocks:
“Hey, remember when Catelyn dragged Brienne out of a perilous situation saying “fight for the living, not the dead”? Neither do I, it didn’t happen in the show. What show!Catelyn did say in that situation was “you can’t avenge Renly if you’re dead” which seems like advice that’s at least analogous to what’s going on here. Isn’t it neat that the adaptation made the space for a parallel where the beneficiary of that advice has a chance to pay it back to her dead advisor’s kin – oh. No. Brynden got killed offscreen.”
Someone, oh someone, please explain to me how Brienne is supposed to be remotely interesting or empowering? She stalks around killing the people the plot requires her to kill and failing at everything else. Sometimes she gets hit on by Tormund as a joke.
I think our last of the Badasses™ is Yara.
She’s at least supposed to be battle-hardened and stuff, right? And here’s the thing: I was really close to being won over by her after “Home,” when she yelled at her dad about the futility of the reaving lifestyle and later seemed to want to be Queen not just because it was her duty, but because she felt she could elicit positive change.
Then she screamed at Theon for being too traumatized to come with her (back in Season 4) and coldly yelled at him to stop crying. Then she stood passively in the background of her own goddamn queensmoot and let Theon argue everything for her. Then she screamed at him even more for his trauma because it was inconvenient to her, and told him to kill himself if he wasn’t going to be useful. Then she raped a sex slave because she apparently didn’t care about the iron price anymore, nor the concepts of slavery and consent. Then she tried to argue against Dany outlawing raping because that was the Ironborn “way of life”—the same way of life she had argued against in the episode I just praised. Then, of course, her season closed out with Theon’s Nod of Approval after she and Dany vowed to kill all those stupid men.
So am I seriously supposed to see an abuser like Yara, who also can’t seem to argue her own cases and make her own decisions without the help of her brother, as an “empowered” woman? If so, may I ask why?
Speaking of women standing quietly in a corner and being ineffectual at everything they do, there was Sansa this year. That’s right, Ms. “Boss Ass Bitch” herself, according to Sophie Turner.
To be fair, there were a few scenes where Sansa really came out swinging. She whipped the letter from Ramsay out of Jon’s hands and read it in a cool, calm fashion. She met with Littlefinger and screamed in his face that his plan last year was stupid.
Those who voted in ballot for the Season 6 “Carol Awards” know that I often joke about the many different personalities of Sansa, but does it really need to be pointed out this assertive, in-charge, has-a-totally-accurate-reading-on-the-situation sits in complete contention with the Sansa last year who agreed to the world’s worst plan without so much as a follow-up question because of some amorphous promise of revenge?
The good news, however, is that it doesn’t overly matter because after only a few episodes of this Boss-Ass scripting, Sansa was reduced to a character who would stand quietly in a corner while other people argued her case for her. She failed to persuade Lyanna Mormont and Lord Glover to help at all (as did Jon, to be fair), then she sat quietly fuming during a war strategy session when a few episodes prior, we had seen her speak up in the exact same situation. She yelled at Jon for not calling on her, as if she was some school girl who wanted to present a report, only to claim that she didn’t know anything when he finally listened. Then why were you upset? Plus Sansa also withheld crucial information about the Vale troops that cost some six
hundred thousand of her countrymen their lives, only to be hand-waved away in the finale with an apology.
“Only a fool would trust Littlefinger. I should have told you about him, about the Knights of the Vale. I’m sorry.”
Oh. Okay then.
The one bright-spot of her scripting was that Jon fared even worse, so some critics praised her as the “smart one,” comparatively. However, this also came undone in the final episode, when every single Northern Lord forgot about her claim despite the fact that she was sitting right there. And like, this could have been so easily fixed if Sansa had been the one to argue for Jon’s kingship (also because it would have read as a middle finger to Littlefinger, and who doesn’t want that?). But no, that came from Lyanna Mormont, the 10-year-old girl with unquestioning authority who didn’t even consider the proper succession.
Sansa’s face at the end suggested that all of this was done for more tension. Once again, if she wasn’t for it, she could have spoken up. “Hey, how about a ‘Queen in the North’ instead? I’m literally Robb’s heir, and I’m the one who saved you. I’m the reason we have the support of the Vale, and my Tully connection even puts the Lords of the riverlands potentially on the table for us. My doofus brother did nothing but march everyone into a trap that I warned him about.” Wait, did her voice stop working during this scene again?
Literally the only proactive thing Sansa did this season was write a letter begging help that she had already turned down from the dude who sold her to her rapist. And then afterwards when Littlefinger told her he wanted to marry her and co-rule Westeros, she called it a “pretty picture.”
I should point out that I am purposely going to save discussing the full implications of Sansa’s arc with Ramsay until Part 3 of this series: The Fallacy of Violence as Empowerment (or something). However, given the fact that her murder of him was most certainly framed as the climax of her arc, and given the fact that it would have made far more sense for the Vale knights’ eleventh hour save had Sansa actually remained there the whole time (this would have avoided her weird and costly refusal to tell Jon about the troops), we need to take a moment to appreciate that Sansa was in fact displaced from her book-arc for nothing more than a two-season long revenge porn. She was raped in the most illogical context possible because the rape created two seasons worth of drama.
Even if we want to pretend this was a matter of D&D prioritizing Ramsay’s story over Sansa’s (which is very telling in and of itself), there’s the issue that the most important part of Ramsay marrying “a Stark” in the books was that he had the one thing Jon was willing to break his vows over—and at a great cost, ultimately. It’s why the Northern Lords outside of Winterfell were clamoring to get there as fast as possible, champing at the bit to go to war. To save “Ned’s little girl.” The Glovers weren’t praising the Boltons; Robett Glover was in White Harbor with Wyman Manderly trying everything they can to find Rickon Stark, while Sybelle Glover sent clansmen sworn to Deepwood Motte with Stannis to march on Winterfell.
What happened in the show though? D&D replaced that Stark hostage with Rickon, who was used only as a prop to die and make us feel bad. As for Sansa having married Ramsay, Lyanna Mormont held that against her. Aside from her, not a single person in the North gave any shits. Sansa in Winterfell affected nothing in the Northern theater other than motivating Theon to have a Stark-centric “redemption” arc that was punted out the window the second they needed him to head back to the Iron Islands, and spurring Sansa to become “strong” and “hardened,” because rape needed to be her teacher. That is never forgivable, and that is never feminist.
Hey, this is going to shock you, but you know one character who I unironically always have found feminist on this show? The character who was actually my favorite? Cersei. I mean it; this is not a bit of mine.
Now I should clarify, I 100% mean Show!Cersei here, because Book!Cersei has nothing to do with her. However, for the past few seasons, D&D have been telling a very consistent story of a woman who faces abuses, is very much shut out of power, and who sees her children fall victim to exploitative and dangerous situations. As a result, she does what she can with the recourse that she has. Arming the Faith was myopic, certainly, but by all accounts she was fooled by the High Sparrow who had been preaching tolerance and nonviolence up until that point.
You can count the “bad” things Cersei has done on this show on one-hand and have fingers left over. From Season 4 on, you would still have five.
This season continued that narrative…until it didn’t. In fact, it continued that narrative in every single episode but the last one. We saw a Cersei who was continually put upon: she couldn’t go to her daughter’s funeral because her son had found her slutshaming effective, she was barred from contributing to the Small Council, she was sent to stand in the gallery while her son delivered an announcement for the crime of being a woman… Heck, even when she “chose violence” it was because a group of armed bullies wanted to drag her out of the Keep for no discernible reason—though she really did luck out that the High Sparrow was apparently never told about this (or else why was he mystified when she didn’t come to her trial?).
And then she blew everything up and didn’t bother to check on how this might affect her son.
The weirdest part is that I seem to be one of the only people who views this as out-of-character. Because I guess her being snippy with Margaery is the same thing as her willingness to commit mass-murder, while drinking and smirking about it?
Yes, in moments of extreme stress she would talk about burning down cities to save her children, and this is probably what D&D consider “foreshadowing,” but again, saying and doing are different things. There’s simply a major disconnect between the woman who was backed into a corner and sad about it for three years, and the woman who packed the sept with C-4.
Oh and then Cersei went and turned the nun who had been in charge during her imprisonment over to Gregor Clegane, to be slowly tortured (and likely raped). Why the septa got this extra torture when the High Sparrow, who had literally ordered Cersei’s imprisonment and walk of atonement, was just blown to smithereens is anyone’s guess. I suppose we can pretend that the off-screen extraction mission to the sept (or to Margaery’s quarters…this is the same septa who was tailing her) could only handle a low-security target.
So as Cersei sat back and drank her wine, I had to sit back and see the death of the only feminist character on the dang show. Yeah, she randomly ascended to power as a result, but the entire framing of this was that she was a crazed villain. Are we supposed to be lauding the Wicked Witch of the West as a feminist icon because she had winged monkeys who answered to her? (Wicked fans, please don’t answer this.) How about Cruella de Vil? She was enterprising.
Speaking of enterprising ladies, while I have never been particularly compelled by Margaery the Sexual Manipulator, or even found her to be that good of person (did she have any ambitions in all of Season 5 beyond winning a cat fight?), I cannot deny that D&D have gone to great lengths to paint her as a savvy woman who is usually in control of the situation. Except that time last year when she inexplicably needs to summon her grandmother because she didn’t feel like bothering to try and have a conversation with Cersei about the Loras situation. Or bothering to go down to the Sept herself despite being well-loved by the people.
Yes, there is the troubling fact that D&D penned Margaery to be a statutory rapist, and apparently didn’t realize it, because Tommen’s abuse is never actually addressed by the narrative. Like, you could make an argument that his suicide was that follow-up, so maybe they did understand; that Tommen was realistically penned as a young, impressionable kid who could not handle losing his abuser, and this was something that might happen as a consequence of that. Yet when you listen to D&D discuss his suicide, here’s what they have to say:
“Meanwhile, while this is happening, Tommen’s alone. This malleable, fragile, devastated child, basically is sitting there without anyone to comfort him, and if [Cersei] had been there, he wouldn’t have gone out that window. She failed him, and she alone failed him here.” —Dan Weiss
Then Benioff jumps in to talk about how Cersei’s children are the one thing that humanized her, because idealized motherhood isn’t sexist at all. But still, we are given the impression that despite their acknowledgements of Tommen’s impressionable nature, it is merely his tipsy mother to blame rather than, like, his rapist.
For this reason, when talking about Margaery as a feminist character, I’m truly at a loss. It’s great that she’s smart? But why the heck is she presented to us in a remotely positive light?
However, even ignoring that she’s accidentally a rapist (oh yay, she and Yara share in that girl power!), this season, her intellect was punted out the window too. Now, it is important to note that she’s not acting in her self-interest: her sole motivation was to save her brother from his [implied] torture. This wasn’t to improve her House’s position; this wasn’t to help her standing—it was all because Loras told her that he wanted “it” to stop, and she was going to make that happen.
This would have been fine, except the path she took to do so was utterly nonsensical. Rather than trying to even get time with her Grandmother to plan something, she immediately jumped to fake piety, selling out Loras’s claim, persuading Tommen to…establish a religious oligarchy?? (it was never made clear what this alliance meant past “the Kingsguard wear seven-pointed stars”), and despite all that, she couldn’t even get the dude out on bail. Also, she was forced to have a septa follow her around everywhere for her crime of perjury. Keep in mind that at the same time, Cersei, who was still accused of high treason, was prancing around with a reanimated corpse, crashing Small Council meetings, making out with her brother (this was still literally one of her charges), and killing Faith Militant members without anyone saying boo. Marg, honey, your deal really sucked.
Why did Margaery ask the Tyrell army to stand down when she did? Because they probably could have freed Loras right there and then. Even if we want to pretend that she truly thought the fake-piety-amorphous-Faith-union was the best path to saving her brother, you’re telling me that once she stepped out into the sunlight and saw largest army in the Seven Kingdoms, being led by her father, standing right there, it wouldn’t have maybe changed her read on the situation?
Also not to bring up the books, but in the books, just one of Mace’s bannermen marching to the city with his troops convinced the Faith to release Margaery from her prison (yay to Randyll Tarly for doing something other than being a jerk at a dinner table), when she had faced much more serious charges than her show counterpart.
Stepping back and looking at the season as a whole, Margaery was nothing more than a hapless victim. She was imprisoned for no discernable crime, and then came up with a sucky plan to save her brother that only resulted in the power of her House crippled and him mutilated. Then she blew up. And I am told that she’s a very feminist character.
We also have her grandmother, who is unquestionably the official negotiator of House Tyrell despite the patriarchy existing to punish her granddaughter and Cersei. How does she wield this power? By refusing to go to war repeatedly to save the future of her House. The only thing that eventually convinces her is the idea of Margaery also facing a Walk of Atonement. Though at least the walk would have freed her, which is more than Olenna’s plan of doing nothing involved.
Later, Margaery slips her a note that assures Olenna this piety thing is an act, and maybe also a warning, so she high-tails it out of King’s Landing. Then everyone she cares about blows up, so she decides her best course of action is to ally with a group of murderous women who just slaughtered their own House. Or maybe it was because of the possibility of an alliance with Dany? Who knows, but at least she sasses Obara for “looking like a boy” so that we know she’s empowered. And she wants revenge, which is being sold to us as empowerment too. Too bad she didn’t have this fighting spirit during a time where it might have helped anything.
While we’re in Dorne, please don’t make me rehash the awfulness that is the petty, catty Sand Snakes and Ellaria. I was confused why anyone talked about how great it was that they “took on the patriarchy,” when these women were A.) clearly presented to us in a bad light, and B.) embracing toxically patriarchal values by murdering men who didn’t mean their “strong” standards, aka out for blood and showing a refusal to make any sort of peace.
I would also prefer not to yet again dredge up my issues with how Gilly and the women of Horn Hill were penned. Yeah, it’s hard not to agree with someone yelling at Randyll Tarly. But it’s as utterly out of place and pandering as if bell hooks was zapped into Meereen to read Tyrion passages of Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. It’s not magically ~feminism~ if the actual condition of women in the established setting is ignored, or if the setting is too inconsistent for there to *be* a condition of women.
Speaking of pandering, we have Lyanna Mormont. Thanks to D&D’s insightful “Inside the Episode” commentary, we know that they thought it would simply be a “fun” scene to watch to have a 10-year-old girl be a tough negotiator. But despite intent, she actually was a bit of a joy to see on our screen. With her deeply rooted sense of authority and a refusal to be infantilized, she’s the closest thing to Arianne Martell we’ve had on this show to date. The only issue is that this is the same person who gave Stannis a middle finger because she only serves a STARK, yet then dismisses Jon and Sansa’s request for help (it’s a Snow and a Bolton, apparently), even after they tell her that Rickon [STARK] is being held hostage. She only agrees to join their cause when Davos mentions zombies. However, the next scene where she speaks, she’s shaming other Northern Lords for not joining the Starks.
I like the concept of Lyanna, however with her execution, it’s clear that there was no thought put into her character past “wouldn’t it be fun if…”
A similarly shallow line of thought seemed to be followed for Melisandre this season. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we revealed that she was old?” Would it? Do I really need to get into the sexist implications of sagging tits being framed as a Shocking™ moment (why was she naked in the first place?). Also why did this matter in the slightest? The only thing it seemed to influence, forgive me for suggesting, is a notable dialing back in her character’s overt displays of sexuality. She spent a good part of Season 5 sexually harassing Jon, but now that the audience knows her hot bod is an illusion, she’s desexualized?
There’s also the fact that Melisandre was pretty much shunted to the side for the entire season. It was Davos’s idea for her to resurrect Jon, and when she did so successfully, the people thought of him as a god. Why would they give two craps about the sorceress? Then she sat quietly through a war council meeting. Then she was basically off the screen. I guess it’s nifty that there is a woman with *magic powers*, but given that she only uses them when prompted by men is a bit… There’s a word for it. “Sexism.”
I’ll be perfectly honest: I almost forgot about Meera Reed this season. She uh…was sad about her brother for a scene until Leaf told her that she needed to stop it because Bran needed her. She did pretty well holding her own against zombies. She’s not not feminist, so much as she is a non-entity.
That just leaves Missandei. I’m not going to lie: I found it very refreshing and yes, feminist, when Missandei had the following exchange with Tyrion:
Missandei: How many days were you a slave?
Tyrion: Long enough to know.
Missandei: Not long enough to understand.
Unfortunately, that’s kind of it for Missandei this season. She gives public support for Tyrion’s crappy plans in front of other former slaves, and then fades to the background to be a prop for thinly veiled rape jokes, while Grey Worm is the only one who [rightfully] continues to challenge him.
Tyrion: Let’s play a game. You don’t play games, either one of you, ever
Grey Worm: Games are for children.
Missandei: My master Kraznys would sometimes make us play games.
Tyrion: There, that’s a start.
Missandei: Only the girls.
Tyrion: No, no, no. Not that. Of course not that. Innocent games. Fun games. Drinking games.
Not to mention we’re treated to at least four different scenes of Tyrion explaining some concept to Missandei and Grey Worm, be it dragon taming or drinking games, with the tone of a teacher patiently educating the inner-city kids. I *think* it’s supposed to be uncomfortable since his plans still result in the masters attacking, but at the same time it does mean that Missandei and Grey Worm are accorded almost no narrative space of their own; they’re props for that discomfort to play out. Yay.
Aaaaaand then, that’s Season 6! I gotta say, I’m looking for all these “strong women” that are propelling GoT to the status of a “feminist fable,” and I’m simply coming up short. Where are they? Can you help me locate them?
Because really, all I’m seeing are female characters written by two dudes who don’t seem to be aware of any of the sexist assumptions they’re making in the writers’ room, nor any implications that might come out of it. Why did the Waif hate Arya? Why did Theon argue for Yara at the kingsmoot? Why was Sansa’s path to empowerment told through rape (especially when that path had already been established in Season 4)?
And all I’m seeing are critics who think a woman giving an order is inherently feminist, without bothering to listen to what that order actually is.
The final part of this series the concept of “violence = empowerment,” and why this is not the pathway to a feminist narrative.
Images courtesy of HBO
Crazy Ex Girlfriend is Masterfully Deconstructing its Core
Here at The Fandomentals, it’s not hard to tell when we begin to fall in love with a show. You may recall the windfall of Black Sails articles surrounding its series finale, our rather overzealous coverage of Supergirl a year ago, or the way Steven Universe creeps into every podcast we record. We dig in and frenetically try to explain exactly the reasons why you should be so enthused as well.
Then there’s shows like Crazy Ex Girlfriend, where I find myself unable to say anything at all, since it’s more or less perfect.
I know what I’m setting myself up for when I say this, because I’ve felt the let-down quite keenly many times before. That’s part of why I’ve been so hesitant to write anything at all. The other part is that I truly feel my explanations won’t do anything justice; watch it yourself and you’ll see what I mean.
Is Rebecca Bunch’s character the answer to my prayers for jewish women in media? Absolutely. Do we all need Paula Proctors in our life? You bet we do. Is this finally the bridge between musical theater, sitcoms, and dramatic TV? Without a doubt. Hell, it’s a show whose entire premise involves calling attention to the tropes and storytelling conventions we bemoan, and then digging in and flipping them on their heads. All of this I could easily write dissertation-length papers on, while feeling that none of it is adequately explaining what is so great here.
So it’s only now that Crazy Ex Girlfriend is tackling one of the most important issues in our society, and doing it with a remarkably skillful hand, that I’m forcing myself to write out my thoughts. Because honestly? It’s a shondeh if I don’t at least try to spread the love at this point.
As a warning, there will be spoilers for major plot beats through the most recent episode, 3×06 “Josh is Irrelevant.” Which sure, may be a weird way to convince people into watching something, but as I’ve articulated a few times…knowing what’s coming and what a show explores actually makes me more prone to dig into it. If you disagree, let me just leave you with this before you bow out: the “crazy” in the title of the show is exactly why I didn’t watch it for a couple of years. And boy was that a mistake, because it is so intentional, and exactly what’s being explored now in one of the most nuanced and validating ways possible.
Yup, showrunners Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna are tackling mental health navigation and stigmatization. In the most recent episode, Rebecca Bunch receives a formal diagnosis (and even sings a song about getting one), and it’s made clear that all two and a half seasons were leading to this moment—not because of the diagnosis as an end in itself, but as a means to equip our character with the tools and understanding that empower her to push for a healthier state of mind. It is a show about a mentally ill woman lacking in traditional heroic qualities (dare I say antihero?). Yet instead of reveling in her moral greyness and watching her “oh my god” dissent, we are encouraged to actively empathize with her, and root for her to find balance. Because at its core, this show takes on a more positive view of humanity. We’re all just…trying to do okay with what we have, even if our weaknesses and anxieties can manifest in ways that hurt ourselves and those around us.
If that sounds interesting to you, watch the show. But for real now, explicit spoilers from here on out.
Rebecca Bunch was always meant to be a challenging character to the viewer. She makes an impulsive decision in the pilot episode to move to West Covina and pursue an old flame. Convinced this will make her instantly a happier person, she gleefully dumps her medicine down her garbage disposal (we’re unsure specifically what she took, though we do know anti-anxieties were in the mix) while whistling a merry tune. It’s clear this isn’t the healthiest thing you can do and she’s romanticizing the situation (and hilariously, the location as well).
At the same time, it’s also made clear that Rebecca truly was in an unhappy state in New York City, and her methods of coping through heavy medication and excessive work only fed into that. By midway through the first season, Rebecca tries to seek out a therapist to get new drugs, only to be told that she might actually need to explore her issues.
Rebecca: Those are the meds I was on in New York.
Dr. Akopian: Oh, my God. How did your body react to all this medication? You must not have been able to feel a thing.
Rebecca: Exactly. Numb as they come. So scribble scribble on your pizzle pad.
Dr. Akopian: Rebecca, your doctor in New York is a quack. He gave you a Band-Aid, not a cure. My method would be to do some digging and figure out what’s really going on inside your mind. And then we can discuss the appropriate medications.
Rebecca: So that’s great, but I need to be better by Monday.
The driving story continues to be about Rebecca’s quest for her fairy tale romance—a narrative that lives in her mind but not reality. Each romcom trope is broken down, from “unlikely suitor she actually falls for” (he turns out to be a fucking mess and leaves to be able to deal with his own issues in a healthy manner), to “the perfect prince who was always meant to be” (they both approach the relationship merely wanting to be in a relationship, without actually having a stable grasp on what they both need/want in life), to even the “screw men, we’ll just have a fun girl group and that’s enough” (Josh has a new girlfriend they need to stalk!).
However, it is always in the forefront that Rebecca is actively spinning the happenings in her life to fit whatever story she wants, all while resisting the core of what’s at her unhappiness.
Paula: Just let both of them go.
Rebecca: I don’t know who I am without them. I know that’s pathetic. I know it’s pathetic, but it’s true. Who am I supposed to be now?
Paula: Honey, be yourself.
Rebecca: What?! Who? No! Ew. Ugh! Who wants to be that?!
This becomes the most obvious when she enters into a relationship with Josh, but is not magically happier about everything. Rebecca very nearly has a breakthrough with Dr. Akopian to this point, only to be interrupted by Josh’s wedding proposal. Then from there, we get a tale as old as time: Rebecca stops feeling magical feelings about Josh, freaks out and kisses her boss in an elevator, freaks out from that and pushes their wedding date up to two weeks from that day, and then after not sleeping and going in full bridezilla mode, gets left at the altar because Josh begins to feel that he doesn’t truly know Rebecca. We also learn that Rebecca had previously wanted to marry another man in her past (Robert, a former professor of hers), but upon being broken up with by him, burned down his apartment and then was committed to a psychiatric institution for a time.
This is where Season 3 picks up, and in truth, I was very nervous about the Robert reveal. “Oh, so she really is ‘crazy’? That’s the point?” No. the point is that Rebecca is a troubled character who hasn’t received the help she’s needed. She has characteristics we all can relate to, from her self-deprecating thoughts to her struggle to feel ‘normal,’ even if we wouldn’t have necessarily made the same choices she did.
Season 3 shows her in crisis mode. Instead of confronting her insecurities, she lashes out at her friends, and even returns home to stay with her mother for a bit, despite their history with Naomi’s selfish and often inappropriate or harmful behavior. However, when her mom sneaks her anti-anxieties (out of fear of Rebecca wanting to commit suicide), Rebecca feels as though she has no one she can count on anymore, especially since she thinks she alienated everyone else. At the end of 3×05, Rebecca tries to commit suicide on a plane by taking a bottle full of anti-anxiety meds one a time, before telling the flight attendant that she needs help.
Other media has tried to depict suicide before, but it is so often done in a way that’s meant to shock, or even (distressingly) in a way that almost romanticizes the behavior. Hell, Life is Strange actually makes a student’s suicide a playable level, where if you’re just observant enough, you can stop it (for points!). Crazy Ex Girlfriend walked the impossible line of depicting the suicide attempt in a realistic manner—it was easy to track Rebecca’s feeling of hopelessness and isolation—without any sort of glamorization. She was in a rough, unhealthy state, and the audience was encouraged to root for that to change.
Better yet, Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna made themselves available on Twitter immediately afterwards. That, in addition to a suicide helpline message which appeared on the screen following the episode, demonstrated that they were being as thoughtful as possible when approaching such a potentially triggering subject. It was difficult to watch, no question. But shying away from these topics doesn’t give equip us with the tools to handle them. We’ve praised Jessica Jones for starkly examining rape and rape apology; Crazy Ex Girlfriend is a show that should receive similar acclaim, particularly given how usual portrayals of suicide and mental health tend towards victim blaming.
Even that aspect was highlighted in the newest episode; Rebecca continually apologizes for the “hassle” she’s caused, and how bad she feels that everyone’s normal routine has been interrupted since like…her friends want to make sure she’s okay. It’s just so true-to-life. Too often our media has something *happen* to a character, and then it disappears an episode later. Rebecca’s deeply-felt self-loathing and general unworthiness isn’t gone just because her stomach was pumped, however. And that kind of consistency is important. Life doesn’t make narrative sense, so even though there’s a clear story that’s being told, it’s told in way that feels refreshingly familiar. Because it mirrors life.
Add to this the diagnosis. Rachel Bloom has talked openly about her own mental health numerous times. She also said this last week:
It’s clear this was written from a place of understanding, and with an attempt to be as validating and healing as possible. Rebecca sings a boisterous song about getting a diagnosis that will be her golden ticket to happiness (she’ll finally fit in somewhere), which amazingly captures the awareness of stigmatization alongside the often unreasonable weight people attached to their diagnoses. I just say this as a woman with OCD and general anxiety disorder, and I don’t want to speak for everyone ‘neurodivergent’, for lack of a better umbrella term. But in my opinion, the episode’s greatest strength was the way in which both of Rebecca’s doctors talked about her diagnosis. It’s not an identity, nor is it a fix; it’s a tool of understanding behavior, and one that can help guide treatment in a way that makes the most sense for her.
At the same time, Rebecca possesses the traits which define Borderline Personality Disorder. This was something I’ve said (mostly to Julia) for a long time, and something I’ve been scared for the show to tackle. I have intimate experience with this disorder, and without sugarcoating anything, some hurt as well. I have never seen proper depiction of it before this show, and I never in a million years thought it would actually be labeled, then fully described in a way that’s so accessible to an uninformed audience.
“A person with BPD is essentially a person that has difficulty regulating their emotions. Someone that lacks the protective emotional skin to feel comfortable in the world.”
It’s clear that Rebecca’s world is one that’s scary to be in. She never feels she fits, she has a terror of abandonment, and her impulsive actions that she does in order to control situations or feel accepted (be it breaking into Josh’s house to delete an embarrassing text, rushing to a wedding because she had a moment of doubt, or even sleeping with her ex’s dad because he was the only person being nice to her) have outcomes that usually result in more unhappiness. To be able to know that she’s not alone in this struggle is validating.
Though of course, and again realistically, the show doesn’t make the BPD simple or straightforward. Rebecca immediately Googles BPD and hates what she reads: that treatment can be lifelong, that there’s no “cure”, and even that 10% of people with BPD do kill themselves. She pushes against this diagnosis, even telling Dr. Akopian that she was bullied by the other doctor into agreeing with him on it, until Akopian whips out the DSM and goes through the checklist to see if Rebecca matches the criteria. Every point applies, and the show brilliantly provides flashbacks as these are read off. Rebecca sinks into despair, calling herself “certifiably crazy,”
Like…yeah. This is it. This is what happens. I was watching, half wanting to cry because of how easy it is to feel for Rebecca in that moment, and half wanting to laugh because finally what I’ve seen and experienced (second-handedly)—what I’ve even questioned and doubted—is on my screen for the first time, ever. We talk a lot about why fiction and representation matters, yet it’s almost unthinkable that the diagnostic process has been rarely been shown on our screens. Certainly not in this much detail.
The episode does end on a hopeful note, with Rebecca saying that she doesn’t want to ever feel like she did on the plane again. She goes to a group therapy, and gets a book to read afterwards. It’s not the end, nor was it ever meant to be. But it’s the means of getting her to a healthy place, and in that process, we see a lot of our own realities, from the hilarious to the uncomfortable.
That’s the story that matters, and that’s the story that was always being told. We’re just finally at the place where the characters see it too.
Images courtesy of the CW
A Bride’s Story is the Women’s Story You Were Waiting For
A Bride’s Story is a manga by Kaoru Mori (also responsible for Emma). Started in 2008, the series is still running and counts 9 volumes. It takes place in 19th century central Asia and follows several characters in their daily lives. The story is mainly focused on women of the region, but there is also the point of view Henry Smith, an English researcher. Anything else notable? Oh, I just remembered: it is really good.
Talking about a really good manga series could be enough on its own. But you know what’s even better? It is focused on women and their lives. Different women, with different lives, their work, their achievements, their pains. And it is written in a total love of all women. A good manga series, written by a woman about women? What else could we be asking for?
The Story of A Bride’s Story:
I am starting to not like this choice of title very much. But anyway, the manga opens on Amir and Karluk’s wedding. Amir is twenty whereas her husband is twelve (don’t worry there is no weird sexual content between the two). It is not the only thing that separates them. Karluk comes from a mainly sedentary village. Amir’s tribe still has a pretty nomadic way of life. Both spouses are pretty different so the first chapters of the manga follow their adaptation to each other (and to her in-laws in the case of Amir). The presence of Smith also allows the point of view of an outsider into the family.
The story then expands to other members of the family, friends, and neighbors, as well as people Smith will meet during his travels. Yet the story isn’t all over the place. We follow their lives and emotional development. And when Kaoru Mori focuses on one character she takes the time to tell their story. Even if she has to leave aside other characters for some time. But this is not a problem, as it is crystal clear she loves all her characters and will do them justice in time.
A Bride’s Story is going to focus on every aspect of the characters’ lives. There is high drama(military attack of one family on another) but also daily life (learning how to sew, finding your vocation).
In short A Bride’s Story is a really good read. But it is not the only thing that draws you in the narrative.
Art so gorgeous it sucks you in the story:
Another strings to Kaoru Mori’s bow which help you being completely absorbed in her world is that…
Which, considering the time we spend speaking about craftsmanship, is important. Having a visual representation worthy of the script is only doing it justice. If you don’t want to travel to central Asia to discover their handicraft after reading A Bride’s Story you are a liar, and that’s all there is to it. The characters and the details are insanely comprehensive. But we are also given amazing and dynamic action scenes.
This incredible art and interesting story combine to give us a narrative uplifting women at every turn.
An Hymn to women’s lives:
A Bride’s Story focuses, as its name clearly spells out, on brides. Sometimes young brides, sometimes bride-to-be, sometimes widows, but always women facing married life. And no it is not reductive. During the 19th century, marriage was (and still is in some cultures) one of the main events of a woman’s life. It was a literal change of family, of environment, and the real beginning of her adult life. So focusing around this event is not reductive. Quite the contrary. It reminds us that, as long as she is a good person, every woman’s life is worth telling.
Kaoru Mori spends a lot of time on women’s daily activity. Sewing of course (if the manga doesn’t give you a mighty need to start sewing you are a liar), but also cooking, taking care of the herd etc. Everything is worth the author’s attention, and ours. Do you know why? Because it is important work done with care. And this ask for our interest and respect.
Another thing which is incredibly well done in A Bride’s Story is the relationship between this women. They are supportive of each other. There is a mother-in-law ready to sacrifice herself to save her daughter-in-law. When Amir learns that she should go back to her family to marry another man because all the brides they have sent are dead (killed by their husband) she is not only crying because she is terrified. She is crying because she knew both of this girls and is devastated by their death. And the person reassuring her and saying that she is « not going anywhere » is her husband’s grandmother.
There are as many positive women relationship in there as there is stars in the sky. And not always just filial relationship. But also mentorship, friendship and emh…
And the icing on the cake is that every single one of these women is different from the others.
No wrong way of being a woman:
Truly it is refreshing to read about women helping each other. It is even better when they are allowed to be different. Because let’s be real, often in fiction women are created to oppose each other. The “good” kind of woman opposing the “wrong” kind of women. Just look at The White Queen and The White Princess, in which motherhood is glorified and “good” women are rewarded with it whereas “bad” women, women having a “man’s” ambition, became sterile and loveless.
Well, in A Bride’s Story we have traditionally feminine women who are soft gentle and love sewing. We have unconventional women who like to hunt and ride but are still good at feminine tasks (but let’s be real Amir is an amazement in universe too) and others which are not. We also have what other media often depicts as “failing” women, but are just unsure of who they are.
In short, Kaoru Mori is standing on her mountain screaming “They are all my daughters and I love them all!”. And trust me ,it feels good to be, as a reader, welcomed into this story.
To the surprise of no one, I heartily recommend reading A Bride’s Story. As a first manga, if it is your first, it might be putting the bar a bit high for future dives into the medium. But there are worse problems to have. Just to add to all I’ve said above, we also have good and interesting siblings relationships (my passion), making this manga almost without fault. It is worth a try. It really is.
All images courtesy of Yen Press.
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus Excels Because It Knows Its History
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is a phenomenal game. It has an inordinate amount to say about racism, anti semitism, the cycle of abuse, ableism, eugenics, homophobia, fat shaming, PTSD, war, violence, and just about everything else under the sun. And developer MachineGames does all of that with this wonderfully strange combination of hyper-meticulous tact, high production values, and auteur confidence. Of course, none of that would have been possible if the setting surrounding the narrative didn’t work, and holy shit does it ever.
The newest iterations of the Wolfenstein franchise take place in an alternate 1960—leading into ‘61 for the second game—where the Nazis won the war. 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order was a game framed around the “how” of the world. How did the Nazis win? How do they keep their conquered states in check? How have things changed in this reality? How do we stop them from gaining more power? How do we fight back against a near global, yet also interplanetary, regime?
Throughout the game, you come across newspaper clippings and records (The Beatles sort of still exist) that fill the gaps between 1946 and 1960. The result is a fully realized world that isn’t just a horrifying coat of paint over reality; it’s how things would have happened…with a few super-science-y liberties thrown in because why wouldn’t the Nazis a moon base or fire breathing robot dogs? And, of course, the greatest twist of all: the Nazis’ inexplicable sci-fi advancement, the whole reason they won the war, was built on the backs of stolen technology from a secret society of Jewish science wizards. There’s even a sequence where the protagonist, William Joseph “B.J.” Blazkowicz, breaks into a high security compound and finds ancient schematics written in Hebrew, which he knows how to read.
We also knew, in broad strokes, what had happened to the other parts of the world. America had surrendered completely after Manhattan was obliterated by an atomic bomb, mirroring the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Nazis had yet to conquer the vast majority of Africa, as organized resistance was proving far more effective than they were willing to recognize. London was kept in line by a skyscraper-sized robot called the London Monitor, which you get to blow up.
Wolfenstein: The New Order took place almost entirely in western Europe (with a brief sojourn to the moon, of course) and exploring how the one region of the world that was, at one time, actually conquered by the Nazis, ended up being just familiar enough to what it was back then to what it became in their alternate history. It’s this foundation, this deep uprooting and deconstruction of history, that allows its sequel, The New Colossus, to head straight into the United States. We were shown what was comfortably familiar to us, so it was time to show what was uncomfortably familiar.
An America subjugated and ruled by the Nazis.
Enemy Of The State Of Affairs
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is a game about “why”. Why do we fight against oppression when society around us punishes those who do? Why do we push back against systemic hatred, even when it has no bearing on us? Why does a man like William Joseph “B.J.” Blazkowicz, the perfect aesthetic poster boy for Aryan supremacy, reject those who would treat him like a king?
Why has America submitted to Nazi rule? The short answer is: giant airship. The long answer? Well, that one’s not so complicated.
Relatively early in the game, you meet up with a New York City resistance cell lead by a black woman named Grace, a survivor of the Manhattan bombing. In fact, all but one of her members are black with the exception of her partner Super Spesh. Their character designs explicitly invoke imagery of the Black Panthers and the overall Black Power movement.
The first game had you run around helping the Kreisau Circle, the Berlin-based Nazi resistance group that eventually cut the head off the Nazi war machine and stopping them from developing new weapons. This cell was lead by Caroline Decker, a paraplegic veteran. But, in the opening of this game, Caroline is executed by the main antagonist, Frau Engel, leaving a gaping hole in leadership that Grace fits perfectly. Who better to represent a 1960s violent uprising of the oppressed than a black woman in America?
She even goes so far as to move into Caroline’s old cabin in their captured Super U-Boat. From the start of the narrative, Wolfenstein is showing us that America is very different from a conquered Europe. For one, the English language is being banned, hearkening back to that old adage of “If the Nazis won, we’d all be speaking German”.
The largest among the differences though is that, just as Grace says above, America never stopped fighting the Nazis. The military did, yes, and the vast majority of the white population, including a South-governed KKK, but the fact that there is a dedicated anti-gravity airship, the Ausmerzer, whose sole role is to travel the country and crush resistance factions for the past decade tells us in no uncertain terms that the hold the Nazis have over America isn’t as ironclad as they believe it to be.
Even if they are able to put on one hell of a show.
We find newspaper clippings within the game describing resistance cells crushed by the Ausmerzer, and there’s even a moment during a trip to Roswell where you’re recognized (you’re the Reich’s most wanted, after all) by a local resident who, in a terrified act of defiance, whispers that he believes in what you’re doing when just seconds prior he was selling newspaper propaganda with glee.
The cap to this, however, is the final scene of the final mission of the game where you ambush Frau Engel’s live appearance on a talk show. You sneak through the bleachers and into the rafters, noting that every single person in the audience is a cardboard cutout. The show may be being broadcasted to every living room in the world, but it stands to reason that if people aren’t going to the live show…they’re not buying into the lies.
America is being crushed under the heel of the Nazis, yes, but it has yet to be crushed. Good people are still out there in the world, but they’ve forgotten how to resist. Those who were already filled with hate jumped on board, the minority, while everyone else is either putting their head in the sand or just trying to survive.
On the other side of the table, though, is how white America perceives the Nazis. I’ve already mentioned that the KKK controls the south, but it goes a whole lot deeper than that. Slavery has been legalized once more, and auctions are the talk of the town. We find out that, in true Nazi form, they rounded up the country’s degenerates—Jews, queer folk and people of color—and either purged them or sent them off to die in New Orleans…which is now a massive ghetto, Escape from New York style.
And if you “named names”, you were rewarded with what those same people left behind. Land rights, mansions, savings; everything they owned was either seized by the state or given as a gift to those who betrayed their friends and neighbors. This is not something we discover on a broad scale; it’s personal to B.J.
He visits his childhood home after nuking Area 52 (it wasn’t aliens, just ancient Jewish Techno Wizard secrets) and finds his abusive father, Rip, waiting for him, having heard he was in the area and assumed he’d come around. Rip, as we learned from flashbacks, was physically and emotionally abusive to both his son and his wife Zofia, a Jewish Polish immigrant. That, and he was a hardcore White Supremacist, having only married Zofia because he believed her father would be a business asset. He bemoans that no one knows what it is like to suffer as he does, thinking that everyone is trying to steal everything from the White Man.
In short, he represents everything that B.J. has spent his entire adult life fighting against.
When asked what happened to his mother, Rip admits that he sold her out to the Nazis and they took her away. The confrontation ends with B.J. killing his father after he presses a shotgun to his son’s forehead, but through their entire conversation he’d been on the phone with the Nazis. He’d sold out his son, too.
That’s the state of the world in Wolfenstein, and in The New Colossus you blow it the fuck up.
Terror-Billy Goes America All Over Everybody’s Ass
While the game’s marketing may have been pointing towards a parallel with the American Revolution as for how the country ousts the Nazis, I posit that the historical context is far more evocative of our 1960s.
Grace’s existence and design are already evidence of this, but it’s the rest of the resistance that makes this all the more clear. The second big group you recruit, aptly enough from the New Orleans ghetto itself, is lead by a man named Horton. He organizes a group of communists, socialists and anarchists who you’d think wouldn’t fit in with Grace and her people. These are the people that dodged the draft, even if they did push the concept of equal rights earlier than most. Horton even flat out cites their attempted push for a civil rights movement in an argument with B.J.
Of course, there’s a key difference between refusing to fight on foreign soil in a war that benefits the military industrial complex and what’s happening to them now. Horton’s group draws upon sentiment from both the end of the Great War and the counterculture movements of the 1960s.
Again, many of them were draft dodging pacifists, but that goes right out the window when it comes to Nazis. It’s one thing to refuse to fight a foreign enemy on foreign lands when victory would have only spread what you’re rebelling against. It’s quite another to sit by and accept fascism in the very country that allowed, though not always encouraged, you to believe what you saw in your heart as just.
It’s at the end of the game, however, in the ending cinematic, that this entire idea solidifies. That this historical context isn’t an accident, and the frankly unbelievable amount of homework MachineGames must have done paid off in spades. Mere moments after B.J. kills Frau Engel on live television, Grace and Horton speak directly into the cameras and ignite a violent revolution. The Kreisau Circle may be organized like a guerilla military operation, but the American people aren’t. They don’t need to be.
It’s an angry, raw, improvised and imperfect call to arms, but that’s what makes it perfect. Violent uprisings don’t start with eloquence or deep debating over the justification to fight against those who oppress you. They start with whatever you’ve got on hand. The Civil Rights movement, the Stonewall Riots and the general counterculture protests that dominated the 60s are clear influences on Wolfenstein’s depiction of “retaking America”. Seriously, if it didn’t sink in already, they blast a heavy metal cover of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” over the end credits coupled with imagery of violent rioting and uprisings across the nation.
Wolfenstein does not attempt to hold a mirror to our world today, even if it does so inadvertently. It tries to make us look back, so that we remember how to keep moving forward. It’s message is clear because it knows what it’s talking about, no matter how over-the-top the presentation:
Equality is not a debate; it’s a right. Those without it won’t stop until they have it, because for them it’s literally “Fight, or Die”. So the best thing you can do, if you’ve already got it, is to pick them up with you. And if you don’t? If you keep trying to push others down? It’s gonna get bloody, just like it always does, and chances are it won’t be them who’s dying.
Images courtesy of MachineGames
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