I’d like to tell you a story of a woman, kidnapped and enslaved at a young age. Hollywood would be tempted to tell the tale of her becoming a jaded, hardened badass who fights back against such a system, freeing herself and perhaps exacting revenge on her captors. There is an empowerment in that, sure (even if it’s not inherently healing), but in speculative fiction there’s much to be gained from experiencing the lives of women outside of this Stock Type too. Amazingly, the story I’m describing did exactly that.
She ended up being freed as a young adult by another woman, one who apparently wants to make the world a better place, and chose to commit her life to that cause, even though she was by no means required to do so. During her time, she made a true empathetic connection with another former-slave and victim of sexual violence—in his case, sexual mutilation. The two worked alongside one another and became trusted advisors, going as far as to challenge the racial privilege of the second-in-command, even if ultimately conceding in their plans; they seemed to feel that incremental improvement is better than nothing. Through each other, they found solace and an ability to begin to process their trauma and move towards healing.
When their survival seemed at its most uncertain, they pursued a physical relationship together—one with a heavy focus on trust, consent, and mutual understanding. Truly, something meaningful transpired there, and demonstrated how there are different ways in which women might navigate their own traumatic pasts to reclaim their agency and begin to heal.
Anyone who’s kept up with Game of Thrones will know immediately that I’m telling the story of Missandei of Naath, as portrayed by the HBO program. And anyone who’s kept up should also immediately recognize what an anomaly this is. There’s usually no place for a character like Missandei on David Benioff and Dan Weiss’s show, and frankly there was no place for her once her rather tasteful love scene with Grey Worm ended. In Thrones’s final episode of Season 7, the two of them didn’t even get a reunion, or any acknowledgement of each other (I’d have taken a headnod), though we were thankfully able to be reminded of how significant Podrick Payne’s penis was in the eyes of Bronn.
Thrones is not sexist because Missandei and Grey Worm were booted to the sidelines after the second episode this year; they were booted to the sidelines because it is a show where a sexist approach to storytelling is thoroughly woven into its fibers. For three years now I’ve attempted to break this down, from explaining how the tropes employed in Season 5 revealed misogynistic assumptions on the part of the writers (likely unwittingly, but how is that helpful?), to the sloppy way in which Season 6’s worldbuilding rendered any type of female empowerment worthless, though there was (of course) only one sexist pathway to it anyway.
Well here I am looking back at Season 7 with no clue how to begin explaining something that is more or less the show’s defining feature. Yes, it is still that sexist.
“But there’s lots of women in charge of things! This was the season of two queens and Sansa running Winterfell!” someone might reasonably say. And this is the crux of the issue and why, in my opinion, the show falls victim to such sexist writing in the first place. Because feminist storytelling isn’t merely shoving women into positions of power and then jumping up and down ‘yas queening’ them. It’s providing a narrative with feminist takeaways for the reader/viewer.
In speculative fiction, gender dynamics should be portrayed (along with any other kind of system of oppression) in a way that provides insight or forces the audience to think about the different struggles of different people within that society, which inherently drives conversations for what this means in our own world. So this means that the difficulties faced by the characters of Thrones as a result of the toxic patriarchy in which they live have to have meaning for there to be a feminist takeaway. A woman simply existing in a position of power offers no inherent challenge other than “try to find a dialogue on the internet about this character that doesn’t result in sweeping judgements about the capacity of all female rulers being made.”
Because of course those generalizations would be made! Of course there are people who think, of all things, that Thrones actually capitulated too much to ‘SJWs’. Jon Snow knelt to a woman—a woman—I say! If anything the only sexism on this show is…is…sexism against men.
Sorry, I’ll stop roleplaying as a redditor, but this is not an “out there” stance taken on the show. It is, however, an incredibly superficial one, and one I believe the showrunners have taken as well. Women merely being in a position of power is an end in itself, and a progressive one at that.
But…this completely ignores their actions in power, as well as the sexist tropes and assumptions that serve as the foundation for the writing in the first place. It’s nothing but a facade of feminism, and one with dangerous misogynistic messages lying just underneath.
Be a Dragon
Rather than breaking everything down into discrete tropes or reexamining the faux-empowerment of violence/revenge, I think it’s more constructive if we zoom back on the whole of season 7. Part of that is because nothing really happened, but another part is that the scripting of everyone was all over the place. Remember when Cersei appeared for just one scene, where Tycho Nestoris praised her for a gold delivery that was en route? In isolation it’s fine enough, but at the same time: what the hell was this? Were we meant to side with him? Were we meant to be upset when Daenerys attacked said gold (or…not, apparently)?
Scenes just sort of seemed to…happen this year.
That messiness aside, it’s clear that one of the central driving tensions was the War of the Two Queens: Daenerys and Cersei. They both burned down religious institutions last year to bring about their respective queenships, and the people who might have been upset about said religious institutions burning down were turned into their ardent supporters.
“The Iron Bank appreciates how you cast off the yoke of superstition, freeing the crown from elements who sought to subvert the rule of law.”
Then throughout the season, they oversaw their troops and worked to solidify political alliances as they clashed in the battlefield. When a far bigger threat to their ultimate survival was revealed, they both came together to discuss this and agree to a truce, one that Cersei had no intentions of upholding.
This sounds great, doesn’t it? I mean sure, in a setting such as Westeros where we’re told that Sansa’s rape was an inescapable reality of the world, you would think they’d have both had some difficulties being treated seriously as political threats, but that’s its own issue. It was still two powerful women vying for the most important position in the land.
Except…they were both somehow remarkably passive during the whole thing. Sure, we got Olenna’s completely empty advice to Daenerys:
“Will you take a bit of advice from an old woman? He’s a clever man, your Hand. I’ve known a great many clever men. I’ve outlived them all. You know why? I ignored them. The lords of Westeros are sheep. Are you a sheep? No. You’re a dragon. Be a dragon.”
Okay, go be some grapes, Olenna. Is this what Benioff and Weiss think female empowerment looks like?
However, throughout the season Daenerys did listen to clever men. That’s kind of all she did. Tyrion proposed the world’s worst battle strategy, because it was “more humane” to slowly starve an entire city and split her troops than to directly strike her enemy, and she agreed. When that blew up in their faces, she wanted to take her dragons to end the war, but first asked Jon what he’d do, who talked her out of attacking King’s Landing. Instead, she took one dragon and attacked the Lannister soldiers, which was intercut with shots of Tyrion looking very worried, and ultimately framed as a bad thing when she used Drogon to execute Lord Tarly and his son for refusing to bend the knee.
She then signed on to Jon and Tyrion’s god-awful “let’s capture a wight” plan because Jon convinced her that she needed to fight in the North and this clearly was the only path towards a totally necessary truce with Cersei (sure). Her one great, proactive choice in this, to not listen to Tyrion, was so that she could save Jon’s stupid face from the idiotic mission (he asked nicely). Finally, she spoke about four words to Cersei during the truce negotiation, instead giving Tyrion and Jon the floor and only adding a quick “I didn’t believe it myself” to back up their points.
Nothing that changed for her politically was through any decision of her own. Hell, when she had her coalition of Badass™ women gathered around a table, it was only Tyrion who volunteered a plan, and it was an objectively terrible one at that. Was this supposed to be meta commentary on how dumb the male characters are? Because it wasn’t framed that way at all.
Jon was heroic. We know that because he swung his sword a lot at bad guys. Then Tyrion was presented to us as wise and rightfully concerned about Daenerys’s nature. Her best attribute that he listed was her willingness to listen to him. In fact, the two driving tensions in her plotline were whether or not she’d schtupp Jon, and whether or not Tyrion could control that horribleness of hers.
Tyrion: I can’t make her decisions for her.
Varys: That’s what I used to tell myself about her father. I found the traitors, but I wasn’t the one burning them alive. I was only a purveyor of information. It’s what I told myself when I watched them beg for mercy– I’m not the one doing it. When the pitch of their screams rose higher– I’m not the one doing it. When their hair caught fire and the smell of their burning flesh filled the throne room– I’m not the one doing it.
Tyrion: Daenerys is not her father.
Varys: And she never will be– with the right counsel.
The voices leveraged in Dany’s plotline? Men. The proactivity and planning? Men. What did she do? Apparently not much aside from advocating for the brutal murder of her adversaries, which we were supposed to find very concerning.
Then there was Cersei, who I’m not even sure what to do with. I know she’s supposed to be absolutely unhinged. She blew up the sept. We were told over and over how bad she was, both in- and out-of-verse.
“All that’s ever mattered to Cersei is her children, and, in relatively short order, Cersei has lost all of her children. She now is in a very dark place, and all she really has left is power for the sake of power.” —D.B. Weiss.
However, in this season, she was once again a super reasonable actor. She convinced Reach bannermen to join her cause using the stigma of the Dothraki and dragons against them, she acted as the stable establishment to the point where the Iron Bank representative was actually praising her for blowing up the sept because it had freed the people from superstition, and her point against signing up for this “let’s fight the army of the dead together so you can then turn around and crush me” was a valid one, even if it was apparently too much for Jaime. Hell, she was even the one decidedly in charge of where to commit troops. She orchestrated an off-screen deal with Euron to ensure her army would remain in a strong position, plus she was the only mind anyone was trying to change during the entire final episode.
And we were told how evil she was.
We were told that this woman, with a reasonable approach to governance and a realistic assessment of her own military capacity, was the worst person ever. Thought her baby would have made her care about humanity? Well you were wrong! We can have a discussion about what she should have done and what was moral to do in the face of the wight (just ignore that zombie guarding her), but it’s really an exercise in futility.
Cersei is evil. She’s turned on by violence (evidenced by Tyene’s death), and her political ambition is framed as a terrible thing because it’s just a selfish “dynasty for herself.” Women don’t get to want power or do anything unilaterally from such a position without being antagonists, even if we know the only reason Cersei attained it was for her literal survival.
The war of two queens was sexist nonsense, and in the end, it really just served as a pleasant backdrop for Tyrion’s struggles as Hand, Jaime’s reaching his breaking point with Cersei, and Jon going off on his super exciting action mission. Infantilized and controlled woman = good, but only if they listen to their men. What feminism.
A Little Game
There was more or less one other plotline in the entirety of Season 7, since Sam at the Citadel is barely worthy of thought. I’m speaking, of course, of Winterfell, which believe it or not, was fairly promising in terms of offering a relatively feminist plotline.
I have a feeling we were supposed to be more on Jon’s side than Sansa’s with their early bickering, but once he left for Dragonstone, she was left to run the entire North and did a damn good job at it. Sure, she was doing it in vampish attire, but we saw her handling the Northern Lords with grace, and worrying about things like grain stores and proper armoring for the cold. It was all a bit basic, but nothing particularly revenge-filled or violent.
However, all that went up in smoke the second Sansa was reunited with her siblings. Arya was instantly suspicious of the way she was running things, since they were going over well with the Northern Lords, unlike the King who Fucked Off Out of the North. This then led to a bizarrely escalating tension between the sisters, where not only did they not get along, but Arya threatened to outright murder Sansa and steal her face. “Catty women” is a sexist trope, and one Game of Thrones has a long history with, but this was an entirely new level.
What’s weirder still is that while this may have worked in a kind of “oh god, look what Arya’s become” way, it was instead played as this reasonable beef between them. Arya took to blaming Sansa for the downfall of House Stark, and the damning evidence—a letter Sansa had been forced to write to Robb asking him to bend the knee to Joffrey—was evidence that Sansa herself feared, meaning it must have been a somewhat valid point on Arya’s part.
Then…were we supposed to find Sansa’s “ambition” a concern? When she and Jon would snipe at each other, it was his word that was the final say, and his decisions were usually presented to us in a positive. We also saw her likening herself to Cersei saying that she had “learned a lot from her” (because she was reasonably pointing out a threat to Jon). Later the weather vane Northern Lords seemed about ready to oust Jon as king and replace him with Sansa. Was there the implication that if Arya hadn’t been giving her the stink eye, she would have been tempted by this? Because there was no evidence of that whatsoever in her words or actions.
Finally, there was a bizarre fascination in Winterfell with female clothing. First, Lyanna Mormont stood up and announced that she had no designs to knit and instead wanted all women to fight, because #feminism and what army has ever needed socks in the wintertime? Then we got not one, but TWO scenes of Stark siblings recalling how Sansa was wearing a “pretty” dress just before something traumatic happened to either herself or her family: namely her rape and Ned’s beheading. Was the connection between the expected performance of femininity as demanded by Westerosi custom and these horrible events supposed to be there? If Sansa had been a “badass” like her sister and worn leather action outfits, would these have been prevented?
Collectively, everything painted a picture condemning any feminine-coded activity, which once again falls into this show’s pattern of only allowing a toxically masculine mold of empowerment. Hell, even the resolution of the plotline was part of this, since the way Sansa got Arya to no longer want to kill her was by ordering Littlefinger’s execution and getting revenge for their family. Then, when Arya tried to sort of apologize by saying Sansa was doing a pretty bang-up job running Winterfell and she couldn’t have done it, Sansa disagreed and called Arya the “strongest person” she knows, which was played completely earnestly.
Why was Arya’s character even remotely portrayed as reasonable or praise-worthy to us? She came in, didn’t seem to have the ability to empathize with any of her family members, only showed an interest in fighting, and immediately became suspicious to the point of threatened murder because Sansa was doing her job. And since this entire plotline was one idiotic bait-and-switch so that the viewer could be so SURPRISED by Littefinger’s death, how is this the best execution of it that Benioff and Weiss could come up with? Is this truly how they think two sisters with differing personalities would act after years of trauma and separation from one another? Is it that difficult to conceive a world in which women can get along and lift each other up?
The answer is, of course, yes. Benioff and Weiss still are woefully inept at writing women outside of their Badass Action mold, because that’s the only acceptable behavior for anyone. Women exerting agency in a different way? Well, they’re evil like Cersei, or cause for concern, like Sansa’s apparent political aspirations. Hell, they’re woefully inept at writing men like this too, which is why Theon had to beat an Ironborn to death to make his point.
Remember kids, violence and physical fighting capacity make you a strong character, and that’s not based on patriarchal bullshit at all!
The Reality of the World
It’s kind of funny, in some ways, that another thing Benioff and Weiss are completely unable to write is actually the patriarchy itself. You see, this whole “this world needs violence against women because realism” thing, or even the fact that we’re supposed to be celebrating Cersei and Dany as queens, only really works if there’s a system they triumphed against. Again, character struggles have to actually mean something for there to be a feminist takeaway. Otherwise it’s just random shit happening on our screens that may or may not feature women.
But, like I detailed last year, the patriarchy only exists sometimes, usually as an excuse for something bad happening to women. For it to exist all the time, that would require the writers to put themselves into the shoes of their female characters and really think how such a system might affect them, and…the awfulness of the two major plotlines I just described above wouldn’t exist.
If there’s a patriarchal system, then why would Ed Sheeran and his merry men not even ask Arya who she is, or where her lord father was, or if she needed accompaniment wherever she was heading? A young girl alone in the woods would be something for concern, no? But then in the same episode, Arya refuses to kill the women of House Frey (not like they can pass on the line, I suppose), because…? Feminism? Because she knew they were oppressed by a system? But is this the same system where no one blinked an eye at Queen Cersei despite her living brother being there, despite the fact that she blew up the smallfolk’s religious institution (and even Hot Pie knew it), and despite the fact that she was the same woman they had seen paraded naked through the streets—presumably to shame her?
At a certain point, we may just have to accept that the worldbuilding of this show is as sloppy and shoddy for gender dynamics as it is for travel speeds of ravens and Gendrys. In my view, it’s really not worth re-litigating the Magically Disappearing Patriarchy because Season 7 just didn’t even bother trying to include it. Lyanna Mormont wanted women to stop knitting, and everyone cheered. The Northern Lords were suddenly aware that Sansa might be a suitable candidate to serve as their Queen in the North, even though they all missed that fact last year. It simply didn’t matter, which is why the mere fact that it’s Queen Daenerys doesn’t matter either. Though the show likes to pretend it does.
What were the character actions? Whose voices were empowered? What was the messaging? Exactly what it’s been for the past few years. This was a season with Action Men doing Action Things, while women bailed them out, fought among themselves, or were horrible evil assholes for trying to get things done on their own. But hey, at least Missandei managed to tease out a slice of meaning.
Images courtesy of HBO
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.