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Analysis

Storm Front is a Study in Sexism

Neele

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Here on The Fandomentals we usually write about and discuss things we love, but every now and then someone decides to bite the bullet. Well, now it’s my turn. I bit the bullet. I read Storm Front, the first of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files novels.

Oh, boy it was a ride. The worldbuilding was messy, but the plot was decent. Nothing great but enjoyable, or it would have been, if not for the sexism. The sexism ruined it. Not that sexism isn’t everywhere. It is. Still, given that the book is written using the first person perspective, the sexist perspective of the protagonist colors everything he sees. And, therefore, everything the audience reads. It gets nauseating. And since I had to suffer through this lens, you will, too.

Let’s start with the protagonist, Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, the man who believes:

“men ought to treat women like something other than just shorter, weaker men with breasts.” (p.11)

Yes, that is an actual quote.

Harry is a wizard, the phone book says so, and he is behind on rent. Luckily a woman “with a voice that was a little hoarse, like a cheerleader who’d been working a tournament” (p.5) contacts him about her missing husband. They decide to meet up to discuss it further. But first, Harry has to take a look at a crime scene.

At the hotel where the crime scene is at we meet Detective Karrin Murphy, the original tough girl, who prides herself in never showing weakness. First thing Dresden does is an extensive and appreciative description of Murphy including her,

“kind of cute nose you’d expect on a cheerleader.” (p.10)

Seriously, what is this fixation with cheerleaders? Aren’t they usually pretty young? Is that an American thing? This is not the last time this comparison comes up, clearly.

He goes on to speculate how her legs look beneath her trousers, and physically races her to the door so he can hold it open for her, She finds this irritating and does not wish for it, yet he does it anyways. Chivalry may be an outdated concept, but in itself it is usually not malevolent. Undermining the authority of the woman who is supposedly in command by habitually going against her explicit wishes in said chivalry, that’s something else.

Before entering the actual crime scene in the bedroom, Harry looks around and finds some woman’s underwear, which is again described extensively and appreciatively. The first description of the actual corpses is this:

“They were on the bed; she was astride him, body leaned back, back bowed like a dancer’s, the curves of her breasts making a lovely outline. He stretched out beneath her, a lean and powerfully built man, arms reaching out and grasping at the satin sheets, gathering them in his fists.” (p.15)

Only then does he mention that both of their ribcages seem to have exploded. Clearly that is of lesser importance.

I…have a lot of questions that are unaccounted for in Dresden’s description. Why does rigor mortis keep them in this aesthetically pleasing position? Logic and biology would have them slump down long before it sets in. How can her breasts still be as lovely as described when her ribcage is exploded? Anatomy doesn’t work that way, Harry Dresden.

Harry then concludes that the murderer of the woman (in her twenties, in fabulous condition) and her lover is a woman. Why?

“Because you can’t do something this bad without a whole lot of hate. […] Women are better at hating than men. They can focus it better, let it go better. Hell, witches are just plain meaner than wizards. This feels like feminine vengeance of some kind to me.” (p.21)

This earns him a “Chauvinist pig” remark from Murphy, but I wouldn’t take anything coming from her as serious critique of sexism. Even if she intended it thusly, the outcome of her remark (i.e., nothing) doesn’t support reading it that way.

Speaking of outcomes, spoiler alert, the killer was not a woman. Does this undermine the sexist lens Harry sees through? Maybe it could have, had he ever reflected on it. We learn that the murdered man is a gangster named Tommy Tomm and the woman, a sex worker in the employ of the vampire Bianca.

We get another extensive and over-appreciative description of a female character when Dresden meets up with Monica Sells, the woman with the missing husband. It’s not worth repeating in full, but trust me, it’s more of the same. Turns out her husband, Victor, disappeared three days ago. He showed an interest in magic, which is why she contacted Harry rather than the police. She tells him to look around the family’s lake house and leaves him with a scorpion pendant that belonged to her husband.

The logical thing to do now is, of course, visit the nearest bar, McAnally’s, the pub for the wizarding community. There he meets Susan Rodriguez, the book’s only person of color. After the obligatory overly-appreciative female character description, this time including exotifying her darker skin and the “lazy appeal of her dark eyes” (p. 55).

Susan is a reporter, and she, too wants information concerning the murders.

“One of the things that appealed to me about her was that even though she used her charm and femininity relentlessly in pursuit of her stories, she had no concept of just how attractive she really was.” (p. 57)

The author was probably going for Obliviously Beautiful. But, it seems more like Susan’s lack of confidence is seen as more attractive than the presence of it given how Dresden treats Karin Murphy. She is also written as clearly attracted to Harry. While she is flirting in part to obtain information she is shown to be disappointed that “[Harry] didn’t look down her blouse even once” (p. 57). He did look, actually.

Harry then drives out to look around to the Sells’ lake house, where he summons a fairy to blackmail for information. Said information is that someone was having sex and ordered pizza the previous night. The conclusion Harry draws on the missing husband?

“He was lurking about his love nest with a girlfriend, like any other husband bored with a timid and domestic wife might do under pressure.” (p. 76)

When he turns to go, the warden Morgan appears and reminds Harry that he is the magic counsels prime suspect for the murders. he is being watched and any breaking of the laws of magic will lead to execution. Returning home, Harry decides to prepare an escape potion before meeting with Bianca. He doesn’t know the ingredients, so he summons Bob, an air spirit living in a human skull.

Bob, as can be expected of bodyless spirits, is obsessed with sex and easily insulted in his masculinity. After asking for details about Susan’s looks, he agrees to help with the escape potion but under the condition that Harry prepares a love potion, too. This, naturally, makes Harry contemplate Susan.

“I thought, if Susan should ask me for some kind of demonstration of magic (as she always did), I could always-

No. That would be too much. That would be like admitting I couldn’t get a woman to like me on my own, and it would be unfair, taking advantage of the woman.” (p. 94)

Clearly, he has his priorities straight (that’s sarcasm, if you can’t tell). Dear Harry Dresden, consent shouldn’t be an afterthought, especially not to your ego.

He does agree to brew the potion, even if he does not intend to use it. (Obvious Chekhov’s gun here.) As for the ingredients of a love potion? Tequila (“so long as it’ll lower her inhibitions”), chocolate (“chicks are into chocolate, Harry”), perfume, lace, the last sigh at the bottom of the glass jar, candlelight, a torn up $50 bill (Harry was out of diamonds and money is “very sexy”), and “the ashes of a passionate love letter” that turn out to be torn pages from a romance novel (p. 97). You better believe the quote Bob chose from the novel started with “her milky white breasts” because what else would it start with?

Now on to my least favorite chapter, the meeting with Bianca the ‘vampiress’. After a phone call from Murphy who complains that “that bitch won’t talk to us” (p. 102), Harry decides to stop postponing the encounter. They meet at Bianca’s Velvet Lounge. Harry is led in by her assistant, Rachel, and the description of her physical appearance is thankfully neglected. For now.

Bianca, when she appears looks “too good to be true” (p. 109).  She flirts with Harry (as most women do), but when he brings up the murder of her employee, she attacks him, drawing blood. In losing control of her demeanor, she loses control of her appearance.

“It had a batlike face, horrid and ugly, the head too big for its body. Gaping, hungry jaws. It’s shoulders were hunched and powerful. Membranous wings stretched between the joints of its almost skeletal arms. Flabby black breasts hung before it, spilling out of the black dress that no longer looked feminine.” (p. 111)

It. In losing her attractive appearance Bianca goes from ‘she’ to ‘it’, from person to animal or thing. Like the warden, Bianca thinks Harry murdered her employee. Only when he manages to convince her otherwise and talk her down, does she return to her attractive human form. Her “flabby black breasts swelled into softly rounded, rosy-tipped perfection once more” (p. 115).

She is willing to talk now, yet she’s still embarrassed and furious at Harry and herself. Because she lost control? No, because what she wants most in the world is to be beautiful. He saw her ‘true’ form and now knows she is ugly; she f*cking cries because of it. Make it stop.

According to her, Tommy Tomm was one of the better clients, because “he treated [sex-workers] like real people” (p. 116). She has no idea to a possible motive, but provides Harry with the phone number of Linda Randall, the murdered woman Jennifer Stanton’s former co-worker and roommate.

When Harry leaves, Bianca, hungry from seeing Harry’s blood, feeds on her assistant Rachel. And this is when the story decides to describe her appearance. In full.

“Bianca’s tongue flashed out, long and pink and sticky, smearing Rachel’s wrist with shining saliva. Rachel shuddered at the touch, her breath coming quicker. Her nipples stiffened beneath the thin fabric of the blouse, and she let her head fall slowly backwards. Her eyes were glazed over with a narcotic languor, like those of a junkie who had just shot up.

Bianca’s fangs extended and slashed open Rachel’s pale, pretty skin. Blood welled. Bianca’s tongue began to flash in and out, faster than could really be seen, lapping the blood up as quickly as it appeared. Her dark eyes were narrowed, distant. Rachel was gasping and moaning in pleasure, her entire body shivering.” (p. 120)

Was all this necessary, for the characters? The worldbuilding? The plot? Hardly. Like the extensive description of female characters, this is purely to cater to the (presumably straight male) reader.

Harry contacts Linda Randall, she works as a chauffeur and repeatedly refuses to meet him. Does he leave her alone? No. He tracks her down while she is waiting for her employers.

“Well, you’ve got me cornered, don’t you? I’m at your mercy. […] And I like a man who just won’t stop.” (p. 126)

Like almost any other woman, she flirts with him, partly to distract him from the fact that she is hiding something. We learn that her and Jennifer Stanton were occasional lovers (hypersexualized bisexuals, yay!) and that they would often meet customers together (bisexuals in threesomes, yay!), including Jennifer’s fellow murder victim. The conversation ends with the arrival of Linda’s creepy employers, the Beckitts. It is implied that besides being the chauffeur she is intimate with at least Mrs. Beckitt.

Afterward, Harry confirms that there really was someone having sex at the lake house by talking to the pizza- delivery guy, who says it was more like an orgy. He also learns that there was someone taking pictures from outside.

The next day Harry visits Murphy at the police department. On the way up, he sees the arrest of an addict high on the pseudo-magical drug ‘three-eye’. The woman “looked like a teenager having a fight with an out-of-town boyfriend” (p. 142)Gods, can you please stop infantilizing women/ comparing them to teenagers!

Anyway, he sees and stops the escape attempt of the three-eye addict, which leads him to conclude that the drug is in fact a magical substance. It’s supplier is a magician capable of murdering Jennifer Stanton and Tommy Tomm. After fainting in Murphy’s office due to a concussion (he was attacked the night previously), Murphy drives him home and tucks him into bed. She kisses him on the forehead when she leaves, because all women are attracted to Harry Dresden. He wakes up to a storm and realizes that it is an adequate supplier of energy to magically murder someone. Indeed, there had been a storm on the night of the murders.

He plans to get dressed for a meeting with Linda Randall but has not yet done so when the doorbell rings. It is Susan, the date he has forgotten. This he judges to be “a little rude of me” (p. 165).

He leaves Susan in his living room and takes a shower. Hearing someone come down the stairs to his apartment, he hurries to the door in a towel. If Susan opened the door and it was Linda “that would be the cattiest thing you’ve ever seen” (p. 168).

It is not Linda, it is a demon, who tries to kill him. Fighting the demon Harry loses his towel (of course he does). He shoves Susan downstairs with instructions to drink the escape potion. She drinks the love potion instead (of course she does). Eventually both her and Harry seek refuge from the demon in a small protection circle they are not allowed to leave. Which is obviously when the love potion kicks in.

Harry has to protect Susan from breaking the circle and accidentally killing them both because “she [is] beyond reason, the potion [has] kicked her libido into suicidal overdrive” (p. 179). He is the sensible one. Because female sexuality is irrational and animalistic. Through all of this Bob only comments how great the love potion is working.

They escape with help of the escape potion. At first Susan refuses to drink it, endangering them further. Harry has to promise to sleep with her afterwards to get her to drink it. Once outside they could easily shake of the demon by passing flowing water, readily available in the storm. But naturally the different potions Susan drank interfered and leave her vomiting and unable to walk. As it is there is no chance for both of them, our ‘hero’ “[would] never make it with her slowing [him] down” (p. 187).

Manly man that he is Harry decides to fight, especially when the demon’s master appears as a phantom made of shadows. Harry channels the storms lightning to vanquish them both. Oh and Linda Randall is dead, which is a why she missed her appointment with Harry.

Dresden and Murphy inspect the crime scene. Again, the first thing he does is inspect her underwear lying around and note that she liked her ‘toys’. Then we get more vivid description of her dead, naked body.

“Linda had been on the phone when she died. She was naked. Even this early in the year, she had tan lines around her hips. She must have gone to a tanning booth during the winter. Her hair was still damp. She lay on her back, eyes half-closed, her expression tranquil as it hadn’t been any time I’d seen her.” (197)

No anatomical impossibilities this time. An exploded ribcage still leaves some very nice hips to ogle, though. Sorry, dressed, non-sexualized corpses are clearly too much to ask for. Linda Randall with her “vulnerability that magnified the other parts of her personality” (p. 198) and her so-called “Slut act” (p. 129) is treated in death as she was treated in life, poorly.

We learn that Linda’s employers lost a daughter in a shooting involving some of Johnny Marcone’s men (the guy Tommy Tomm worked for). When Murphy confronts Harry with the fact that Linda had his card, he internally remarks that she doesn’t look at all “like a cutesy cheerleader” (p. 202).

Again, she demands that he share his information with her and the police force, because he is a strong suspect for the murders. Again, he refuses to do so, deciding that telling her would endanger Murphy, as if leaving her blind doesn’t. Also, he fears, that in admitting he knew Linda, Murphy might question whether they were lovers and as “Linda wasn’t exactly a high-fidelity piece of equipment” (p. 202) ascribe him jealousy as a motive. Harry leaves after Murphy, in tears, promises to arrest him the next day if he doesn’t start cooperating.

While thinking about “doing Murphy’s job for her”  (p.206) Harry is attacked again. In the struggle his attacker manages to steal some of his hair, a necessary ingredient for the chest exploding spell. The guy escapes, but Harry recognizes him as one of Johnny Marcone’s men.

Since he is certain that the murderer is the one supplying the city with three-eye, he seeks out Marcone. Learning that his guard has collaborated with the drug supplier and undermined his control of the city’s organized crime, Marcone has him shot. Unfortunately for Harry ,the hair has already been passed on.

After wandering around in the rain musing about his dead mother and witnessing an execution, Harry breaks into the now abandoned apartment of Linda Randall. After sleeping there for a while he finds a film canister of the same type that was at the lake house. This time, it actually containing film.

That is when someone else breaks into the apartment. The man, Donny Wise turns out to be the photographer from the lake house and another occasional lover of Linda’s. She promised him sex in exchange for him taking photos of the orgy at the lake house she was participating in, supposedly trying to get leverage on some of the other participants. So many levels of wrong in this.

Harry burns the film, lets the photographer go, and heads of towards Monica Sells’ house. Monica, of course, breaks down crying. He learns that she was abused as a child, and that “she’d married a man who provided her with more of the same” (p. 243).  Look, abuse narratives have a place in stories. They can be justified, even important, if the author can handle them respectfully. Here, it is treated as one note. It adds nothing vital to the story in a way to make it justified, nor is it more closely examined either. It’s a Tragic BackstoryTM for a Tragic Female CharacterTM. Full stop.

We learn that Monica Sells and Jennifer Stanton are sisters (there were no discernable clues for this). Victor Sells, a wizard, powered his spells for producing three-eye first with his wife’s fear of him, then with the lust of the people he was organizing orgies with, including his wife, her sister, Linda and the Beckitts. Worried about the wellbeing of her children Monica spoke to her sister, who got Linda to provide leverage on Victor and threatened him with exposure. He killed both them and Tommy Tomm, who was most likely collateral damage.

Leaving her to her weeping, Harry meets Jenny, the Sells’ daughter, who knows that her father’s not one of the ‘good guys’ anymore. Fueled by manpain, Harry decides to call Murphy. Murphy, however, has made good on her promise. Since Harry has not deigned to communicate anything at all, she is waiting for him, searching his office, handcuffs ready.

Panicked, he tells her not to look into his desk drawer because there is an evil wizard’s magical scorpion talisman in there he neglected to mention. Logically, Murphy does what every cop would do when a suspect tells them not to look inside the drawer. She looks inside the drawer.

Again, dashing hero Harry Dresden hurries to the aid of a damsel in distress that wouldn’t be distressed at all if not for him. When he reaches her,

“Murphy lay there, curled on her side, her golden hair in an artless sprawl about her head” (p. 264).

Seriously, please consider getting to the rescuing part. This is a woman in distress, who cares whether her hair sprawls artlessly or not!

The scorpion is alive, it is big and growing. Harry calls 911 for Murphy’s shoulder wound and poisoning. Murphy does the counterintuitive thing to staying alive and handcuffs Harry to herself. This effectively inhibits most of his movements and prevents him from fighting the scorpion. The “stubborn bitch from hell” is literally tying our protagonist down (p. 265).

They make it out, barely killing the scorpion. The EMTs arrive, as does the storm. Harry does not expect to survive the storm if he doesn’t act immediately, so he slips Murphy’s hand out of the handcuffs, leaves her with the EMTs, and limps over to McAnally’s. There, he borrows a car determined to outdrive the storm to the lake house, knocking out Morgan who has again come to confront him on the grounds of the murders. His dead mother gives him strength to get there.

He arrives just as Victor Sells is preparing the sacrificial rabbit for his ritual. The Beckitts provide the necessary lust as fuel for the spell. Harry breaks the circle in time to prevent the ritual, but not prevent the killing of the rabbit though. The naked Beckitts grab guns and start shooting while Victor sets more scorpions loose before resorting to starting a fire.

Harry doesn’t catch fire, but the house does. Then Victor makes the mistake of summoning the previous demon in Harry’s presence.

“I thought of little Jenny Sells, oddly enough, and of Murphy, lying pale and unconscious on a stretcher in the rain, of Susan, crouched next to me, sick and unable to run.” (p. 310)

Thinking of the poor women Victor harmed (not that two out of three weren’t put into harm’s way by none other than Harry himself), our brave hero wrests the demon’s control from Victor without claiming it for himself. Harry then watches the demon turn on Victor and devour both it and his scorpions.

Morgan shows up just in time to save him from the burning building. He ends up in the hospital, right down the hall from Murphy’s room. Harry sends her flowers, she throws them in his face. I hope the authorial intention here was to show that Murphy is still mad about the lies and needlessly endangering her, but I fear that it is meant to show that she is a Strong WomanTM who doesn’t need flowers from men.

In the end, Susan agrees to another date. They are implied to have had sex because this is critical information for the reader. it wouldn’t be part of the ending monologue otherwise.

Yes, this is the end, the book is finally over. It managed to be sexist on both character and narrative level. I didn’t even write down every instance; it’s that pervasive in the story. For everybody not reading this book, congratulations, you dodged a bullet. Thankfully, I’m not inclined to self-torture, which is why I won’t read the second Dresden book.


Pictures courtesy of Roc Books

Neele is a university student with an aversion to sunlight, a love for storys and science and immense procratination skills.

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Priscilla
Member

Oh boy. I heard good things about the Dresden Files and considered reading them myself. Now I’m glad I didn’t, I don’t think I could have handled that amount of sexism. And the books are actually quite recent, we can’t even use the excuse of “they’re a product of their time” or “back then stories like this were tolerated”.

Timothy John Sturm
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Timothy John Sturm

… yeah, unfortunately I can’t defend the sexism in this book that much, although in later books it’s much less, and what sexism there is is more a symptom of Harry Dresden than it is Jim Butcher, evidenced by when he writes from a different perspective in the series or in other book series. Dresden does undergo real character development in this area over the series, but doesn’t really stop being a little sexist, in the same way that I have to admit I’m sexist and have instinctual sexist thoughts despite years of deprogramming and trying very hard to be… Read more »

Priscilla
Member

It’s always good when an author improves. Everyone has the right to make mistakes, after all, and I’m glad the Dresden Files everyone loves are actually better than this. I’m still not sure I could stand two books of sexism without a great writing to compensate (and even so, sometimes the sexism is just too much), but it’s good to know the series has more to offer in case I wanna read it.

Rhodri
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Rhodri

You can either skim books 1 and 2, or just read the recaps or the comics. Book 3 is where it starts to get good, Book 4 where it gets SERIOUSLY good. Not coincidentally, it’s about the time when Harry starts really maturing, growing up, and forming more constructive relationships with others.

Katie
Member

Do you think it’d be possible to just skip the first three? Or is there enough continuity where it would’t make sense?

Timothy John Sturm
Guest
Timothy John Sturm

I mean yeah you can wiki or recap read the first two, but the third book is where the series really kicks off, so no don’t do that. Also introduced a lot of important characters you should meet.

The third book isn’t bad it’s just… not quite at the level of the books to come after. So yeah, If you’re going to blunt the pain, read the third and recap the first two through the wiki or tvtropes

Apfeljunge
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Apfeljunge

the first 2 books are also available as comics which are much less painful to read because it is over much faster.

Reya
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Reya

Well I, being a woman, can actually “defend” it, because there is NOTHING TO DEFEND. Let me take it one step at a time. 1. You are actually offended by “men ought to treat women like something other than just shorter, weaker men with breasts” because….let me guess..you understand from this that he thinks girls are weaker. Guess what, honey, physically, most of us are weaker than the average man. It’s a biological fact, unfortunately. What I understood from that quote though is that he thinks women are more than what most men see them to be and that men… Read more »

Hekateras
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Hekateras

Oh Jesus. I’d HEARD that it was bad, but…

Katie
Member

YIKES. This was a very good write up, but I couldn’t even make myself finish reading about all the sexism. Thanks for biting that bullet!

Kraas
Guest
Kraas

Cool, now I have another reason not to read this series besides not liking urban fantasy.

Barbara
Member

Thank you so much for this. To quote from my article on dated media, “my attempt to finally read Dresden Files (…) was aborted after about fifty pages because I just couldn’t deal with sexism permeating the story.” But I’ve heard it recommended by so many people I was wondering if I was perhaps the only one to see it. So, thanks for the confirmation. Also also for the bravery and determination to soldier through. I couldn’t do it.

STGJR
Member
STGJR

I pretty much echo the idea of skipping to “Grave Peril”.

Most of the fandom theories on the way Harry sees women is that it has to do with him being in his mid-20s and single, with the later books reflecting a combination of A) actually being in a relationship and B) his growing maturity.

“Summer Knight” is when we start to get “Murphy is Awesome” scenes. 😀

Apfeljunge
Guest
Apfeljunge

as a big fan of the series, I fell compelled to defend it. The first 2 books are kinda rough but I think butchers other series and his later books prove that he can write non-sexist narrative and that Harry Dresden view of the world is not supposed to be the “correct” one. He is sexist, in an old fashioned way, and as “problematic” as that might be, he is at least well intentioned. The fact that he usually sees women as beautiful damsels to be rescued even comes up repeatedly in the series and bites him ass. Anyway, if… Read more »

Mark S
Guest
Mark S

Probably the weakest write-up of a fiction novel from the perspective of an unreliable narrator I’ve seen. But if that’s your opinion of the first book of the series, that’s okay.

A shame you won’t continue reading the sequels because for all the “narrative and character sexism,” you’re missing out on some truly epic stories.

Rhodri
Guest
Rhodri

Yeah, there’s a reason I tend to skip over/skim ‘Storm Front’ when I do my rereads (and sometimes ‘Fool Moon’ too). Basic summaries aside, they can be skipped. Book Three, ‘Grave Peril’, is generally accepted to be where the series starts getting really good (and Butcher himself is a bit embarrassed about how bad the first couple of books are by comparison with the rest), and is a necessary read because of all the character introductions it makes and the arc it kicks off. Part of the problem is that the first book was intentionally written in a heavily pulpy… Read more »

Analysis

My First Queer: Evil Queens

Barbara

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This article is part of the My First Queer series, a site-wide series of articles written by some of our non-straight Fandomentals contributors. Each will contain their thoughts on their first experiences with queer media and what it meant to them. Enjoy!

Looking back at the other My First Queer articles, I have to say my experience is going to be rather different – but then again, each of those was different, too, and the experience is varied. Still, mine differs in the way that it is much more focused on attraction, instead of the more generalized realizations of queerness or powerful stories of love.

The second is definitely because there were none to be had. The first is, perhaps, because I grew up in a very liberal household. I knew about the existence of the the letters of the LGBTQIA acronym — except queer itself, I guess, because it doesn’t really have a Czech equivalent — probably by the time I started middle school, and certainly by the time I was fifteen. There was no need to discover the idea of queerness.

What was an entirely novel concept, on the other hand, was the idea that it could somehow relate to me, or to anyone close to me.

After all, in most media queerness was — and still is — only incidental, something that happens to the side characters, and as everyone is a protagonist of their own story, I never considered that it would be something to touch me in person. When I try to think of the first piece of media where I encountered a non-straight relationship, it’s difficult. I have been reading fantasy intermittently since I was eleven. Some of that fantasy probably contained background queer characters in a casual way that went well with my general expectations of “this is something that exists somewhere in the world but doesn’t concern me in any way”.

I do remember the first book where a non-straight relationship was at least a little bit prominent: the Witcher Saga by Andrzej Sapkowski. If you know Sapkowski or have read the books, you know it’s not…exactly an ideal introduction into the world of queerness. The protagonist — or one of the protagonists — of the book, Ciri, runs away from an attempt on her life, almost dies in the desert, and finally joins up with a band of outlaws. The first night with them, she is molested and almost raped by one of the men. One of the other women stops him…and then slides into bed in his place.

This is the beginning of Ciri’s first romantic relationship, which ends with her lover/rapist being brutally murdered by a man who then proceeds to enslave Ciri. So, you know. Not exactly the pinnacle of representation, and definitely not something you would want to model your romantic life on.

This choice always feels impossible in-game, precisely because Ciri’s relationship history is so charged,

Sapkowski’s books have other mentions of wlw, too: the long-lived sorceresses being bored of their relationships with men and so trying women for a time until they discover it’s not any better. That caught my attention a little more.

I loved everything about Sapkowski’s sorceresses. Powerful, beautiful and arrogant, I can say with the benefit of hindsight that however over-the-top and mired in sexist stereotypes, they were a combination of my life goals and my wife goals.

However narcissist that sounds, the kind of person I want to be has always been similar to the kind of person I want to have, be they women or men, because I’ve always been more fan of the concept of “marriage of true minds” than “opposites attract.” That probably didn’t help with making matters clearer, since it provided a comfortable excuse for why I cared about them so much: I wanted to be like them.

The most important part, though, is that the sorceresses weren’t really queer. They were still predominantly depicted as straight, focused on the men and interested in them, and their gayness was only incidental, and always connected to men. That, combined with my real-life experiences, likely shaped my views for quite some time. Because the thing is, there was a lot of wlw women around me, but either none of them identified as bisexual, or I didn’t know they did. Just like in Sapkowski! Sleeping with both men and women was just what all the really cool girls did, right? And men found it hot.

What an amazing view to absorb.

Philippa would be so disappointed in me.

Sadly, it held through my actual first experiences with women, and of those around me. Looking back at it, it was insane. A good friend of mine was in a relationship with a girl, they even got fake-married, but I still thought of her as straight and didn’t take it seriously. After all, it was just a couple of gals being pals. In bed.

In short, Sapkowski was the piece of media during my adolescence that got the furthest in having me engage with female queerness, and it did not go very well. But there was another way my identity as a straight girl had the potential to be eroded. Not with explicitly queer women, but with (assumed) straight women I simply found hot. And boy, were there plenty.

Like I said, Sapkowski’s sorceresses hit me exactly in my weak spot. I have always been fascinated by the “evil queen” archetype. If I lived in a country where Disney animated fairy tales were the standard entertainment for children, I’m pretty sure my first queer would have easily and decidedly been Maleficent and the Evil Queen from Snow White. As it is, I only came across them later, and Czech fairy tale films don’t really have any properly evil queens to speak of, for some reason.

So as it was, my first glimpse of this was Circe.

I had a retold-for-children version of Odyssey when I was little, and it was my favorite book. Odysseus was an amazing hero and everything, but there were also beautiful illustrations in my version, and the women in those illustrations were really pretty. Particularly attractive was the evil sorceress who almost defeated Odysseus (and totally would have if he hadn’t cheated by getting help from the gods). She was a-ma-zing.

I dare you not to fall in love.

Not too long after, there was an encounter with Disney after all: I had a book version of Aladdin, and in Aladdin there was Yasmine. In particular, Yasmine in her slave outfit. Yeah, I know.

Looking back at it, I can hardly see for the amount of cringe I’m doing, and I could write dissertations on the orientalization and sexism specific to what can be found in those scenes. But my seven year old self didn’t know anything about that. I just knew that there was, you know, something about Yasmine in that outfit, being so clever as she pretended to be willing to rule alongside Jafar.

I mostly thought it was because she was wearing red and I liked red. Like I said, I was seven.

The next step on this way was the evil queen from Never-Ending Story 2. I remember always being frustrated when she pretends to be good in the middle of the film, because she lost like half of her sex-appeal – though again, I wouldn’t have put it that way when I was probably about ten at this point. Then came Sapkowski, and my love for his sorceresses. And around the same time, there came the most important stepping stone from the realm of media on my way to self-discovery: Monica Bellucci.

I honestly don’t remember how I first came across her. It must have been online, because going through her filmography, the only things I really recall seeing her in are the Matrix films, and before that I was only aware of Asterix and Obelix. And I distinctly remember thinking when it came out, as a connoisseur of the animated version: yeah, she’s a good fit for Cleopatra, she’s hot.

Almost as hot as this one. Come to think of it, Cleopatra from the animated version of this film might actually belong to my series of childhood crushes, too.

So, somehow, somewhere, I discovered Monica Bellucci, and I was immediately smitten. To this day, I consider her effectively the epitome of female beauty.

I was fourteen when Matrix Reloaded came out, and I really enjoyed the scenes with her. A lot. In fact, they probably make me recall that film in a much more positive light than it deserves.  Soon after this, my computer was stuffed with all the pictures of her I could find, mostly of them lightly erotic. Hilariously, yes, I still believed I was straight.

I could continue listing all the other movies I saw with impressive evil queen/femme fatale types in them. Snow White and the Huntsman was a disaster of a movie. But the Queen, oh, the Queen! Well, I think you get the idea.

At any rate, Monica Bellucci was the first woman I have ever seen that I looked at and thought, yes, I want to have sex with her. Not even this, though, was enough to bring any change in how I understood my sexuality. Looking for the media that helped with that, the first media that actually included a healthy queer couple… That would be fanfiction. When I was over twenty, maybe even closer to my mid-twenties.

Yeah.

To be fair, if I had a varied romantic life in the years between, I probably would have figured things out sooner even without any books to help, but as I began dating my husband not too long after my Bellucci-induced awakening, that rather limited my exploration.

My computer was stuffed with pictures like this. Stuffed. How could I think I was straight?

The fact still remains, though. It took twenty years of reading to come across a wlw couple worthy of the name. And it required fanfiction.

I read a lot, though I didn’t seek out queer books – I probably didn’t know that was a thing, to be honest, and if I did, I wouldn’t have searched them out anyway. I was straight, remember? But I read a lot, and varied things – detective stories, fantasy, literary fiction. In none of that did I come across a proper wlw relationship.

The first “femslash” fanfiction I read was a bunch of stories from the Harry Potter universe. It was mostly sexual relationships, combining various Hogwarts girl into pairs and seeing what happened. While fun, it didn’t do much to convince me to take my own preferences too seriously.

I can’t actually pinpoint the one story that did that. What I do know, though, is that as I moved from my reading from HPFF to FF.net and then to AO3, the number of wlw relationships that appeared in my reading increased. Though they were still mostly background relationships, they were at least treated more seriously than what I was used to.

Little by little, the stories chipped away at my denial. But I still can’t help to think that had Sapkowski been less of a sexist clown, and had two of his powerful women been badass wlw queens who ruled the Lodge of Sorceresses, I could have figured everything out so much easier.

In fact, that sounds like an AU fanfiction someone should write.


Images courtesy of Dimension Films, CD Projekt Red, Dargaud Films, Bounty Books, and Fabrizio Ferri

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Analysis

Past Looks Back from Terrier

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Image Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Terrier contains many firsts for Tamora Pierce. Published in 2006, it surprises the reader with the first person journal format. Previously Pierce used close third person, but this works’s for Beka’s story. It also gives the reader their first glimpse into Tortall’s past. Pierce sets this book in 246 HE, almost two hundred years before her other novels. This also is her first police and crime novel. While she dabbled in crime in the Alanna books, and mentioned the Lord Provost, now she tells us how the police system in Tortall works. Or, used to work, we hope.

Spoilers for all of Terrier and for all of Pierce’s other novels

So, What Happened?

Terrier opens with a flashback to George’s youth. Eleni bailed him out of the Guard station and told him about his famous Guard, then called Dogs, ancestress. Then we jump to 244 HE in the past, where we meet Tunstall, Clary, and the Lord Provost. The Lord Provost tells how he caught a gang of Rats, because eight-year-old Beka Cooper tracked one down.

Then, we see Beka on her first day of Puppy training, where she’s assigned to work with Tunstall and Clary as her mentors. She stumbles initially, given her shyness and overconfidence. But eventually, she grows into her job. Beka also connects to a friend from her past, Tansy, who’s married to the grandson of the most corrupt landlord in Corus. A killer called the Shadow Snake killed Tansy’s son Roland. Tansy gives her a strange stone that her husband claimed would change their fortunes. Beka and her Dogs discover that it’s fire opals, mined by Crookshank, Tansy’s grandfather-in-law.

Through her magic with ghosts and dust-spinners, Beka tracks the opals and the Shadow Snake. Crookshank killed 17 people to keep his opals secret. Beka befriends Rosto, Kora, and Aniki, new members of the Rogue’s court from Scanra. She divides her time between the opals, and the Shadow Snake. Crookshank blames the Rogue for Roland’s death, and the kidnapping of his grandson.

Eventually, Beka discovers the location of Crookshank’s mine, and the Dogs move in. They rescue the current work crew, dig up the dead crews, and arrest the guards. A riot starts the next day after the news of Crookshank’s mine breaks. Rosto locates the Shadow Snake and Herum, Tansy’s husband. They rescue Herum, and discover the Shadow Snake was Yates Noll, and his mother, ‘the kindly’ baker. The book ends when Rosts becomes the new Rogue.

Past and It’s Benefits

Present and Past with Pounce and Poverty

One of Pierce’s successes is how she links the present and the past together. She does this several ways, through character links, and through class links. The most obvious character link is Pounce. Pierce draws on the emotions regarding the cat and constellation that followed Alanna from In the Hand of the Goddess on. Pounce also follows Beka, and we see how this spirit cat became who he was for Alanna. She uses him to tie us to Beka and her story. Pounce also grows in this story, being somewhat cattier than in Song of the Lioness. “Pounce trotted past the newcomers, carrying a black kitten … I cannot let you maul me about. Do it to him.” (427). In doing so, we see how his patience grows from past to present.

Pierce also uses her ties to the past significantly. She opens the book with Eleni bailing out a young George. Eleni tells him about, “Rebakah Cooper … She was a fierce and law-abiding and loyal, my son. All that I want for you. … Steal and you shame her.” (6). Afterwards, Eleni asks the Goddess to guide him on Beka’s path, instead of the theiving path he eventually takes. By utilizing irony here, as well as at the end, when Rosto plans to build the Dancing Dove, we see how the universe connects past and present.

Also in Eleni’s prologue is the revelation George started stealing because she couldn’t afford to feed them enough. This ties into the other theme that ties present and past together, that of poverty. Beka is the first POV from the lower class since Daine, and Daine talked mostly to the nobility. She counts coppers, and worries about rent. Even though the Provost fostered her, she remains part of the lower classes, which provides valuable insight.

Women’s Rights – Knights, Priestesses, and Pedestals

Lady Knight Sabine of Macayhill proves one of the most influential secondary characters in all of Terrier. She is the first lady knight that we meet that never once is treated differently because of her gender. Alanna struggles with acceptance of her gender. Kel succeeds only despite prejudice against female knights. With Sabine, we see the age that inspires them, where lady knights were never doubted, never disparaged for their skills. Sabine rescues Beka from a tavern brawl that would have killed any other Puppy. She helps Tunstall, Clary, and Beka track down Crookshank’s mine and harry Duwall, one of the Rogue’s chiefs. Her fellow knights and nobles respect her. It’s immensely refreshing.

We also see respect for women’s rights in the religious arena. Fulk often sexually harasses women. When Beka’s Dogs ask him to identify the fire opal, he harasses Beka. They stop him. Clary threatens to send him before the Goddess’s temple. Tunstall clarifies. “At the last eclipse, the Mother of Starlight temple chose Magistrates. Goodwin’s now the Goddess’s Magistrate … She signs a writ, and the warrior [ladies] with the sickles come for him.” (86). While violence against women remains a problem for Tortall, past and present, it’s a step in the right direction. It shows the slow steps of progress.

Finally, in a more meta-textual level, women now have the right to be villains. There’s equality between evil women and evil men for the first time in Pierce’s novels. Roger, Ozorne, Blayce, Rubinyan, all male. Now, the Shadow Snake is the primary antagonist, and she’s Mistress Noll. Yes, we’ve had female secondary antagonists, Imajane, and Delia come to mind. But if you put women on pedestals and don’t let them be flawed, then you’ve only entered another phase of misogyny. Pierce takes steps to correct this here.

The Past and It’s Problems

Slavery

The thing that shocked me most in Terrier was the depiction of slavery. After the very successful Trickster’s Duology, to include slavery and to not even mention freeing slaves dissapointed me. In addition, this is the first we hear of any slavery being in Tortall’s past. While the importance of not whitewashing history is clear to me, Pierce simply could have not included slavery in Terrier and in Tortall’s past. Not only is it slavery, it is child slavery, and state sponsered slavery, and a complete reversal of the slave positions of Scanra and Tortall.

Child slavery proves a significant problem, when Beka investigates the Shadow Snake. She uncovers people who sold their children and claimed the Snake took them, or children genuinely taken for the slave trade. “Slave taking is disliked in Corus, but it isn’t illegal. Kidnapping children without their parents’ leave is illegal though.” (79). To clarify, parents can sell their children into slavery, but other people cannot. It is morally disgusting, and Beka prostests it only minimally.

We know the Crown sponsers slavery because not only is there a, “Ministry of Slave Sales” (384), but illegal slave markets get broken up by Beka and the Guard several times. The ‘illegal slavers’ set up a stable to “look like a proper slave market.” (384). After seeing Aly destroy the slave markets in Rajmuat, after seeing a rebellion that freed slaves, this grows intolerable. Scanra also doesn’t have many slaves since they can’t feed free citizens, let alone enslaved ones. Given that slaves work most of the farms in Scanra in the present, it feels Pierce merely flipped Scanra’s present with Tortall’s past to make the past darker. That doesn’t sit well with me. It shows insensitivity on issues she handled well previously.

Diversity and the Watsonian Lens

On a Doylist level, the amount of diversity in Terrier show’s Pierce’s advancing commitment to intersectional feminism. Take Sergeant Ahuda, the chief of the Guard Post where Beka trains, for example. “She is a stocky black woman with some freckle and hair she has straightened and cut just below her ears. Her family is in Carthak, far in the south. They say she treats trainees the way she does in vengeance for how the Carthakis treated her family as slaves.” (25). While the last sentance is dubious, she still remains a POC woman in charge of several dozen people. That’s wonderful, and Pierce develops her more than she did Sarge, in The Immortals Quartet.

In addition, Pierce shows people of color moving around Corus. “[The Rogue]’d foreigners with him, two Yamanis with their hair in topknots. With them stood the Carthaki who’d had Kayfer’s ear my first knight at the Court.” (399) Bazhir also move around the streets, though in a slightly more insular fashion. This reflects their isolation in Woman Who Rides Like A Man. This amazes from a Doylist sense, that Pierce moved so far from that contentious book.

But, in a Watsonian lens of thinking about books, it proves problematic. The diversity here only highlights the lack of diversity in her first series. Song of the Lioness doesn’t even mention non-white characters until the third book, and I find that depiction contentious. Something had to change between Tortall’s past and the present we see here that changed Tortall’s opinion of people of color. We know it results from the chronological evolution of Pierce’s feminism, but still. It also makes you wonder what happened that Lady Knights no longer were accepted. It may be this question is answered in the next too books. But still.

Police Novels and Modern Feminism

I don’t believe it especially controversial to mention that for the last decade or so, we’ve started having conversations about police brutality and corruption. It spawned movements, endless articles, and websites devoted to tracking cases of brutality and corruption. So, this makes it hard to see feminism and feminist movements in Police and Crime novels like Terrier. From our perspective now, we see a novel such as Terrier that contains moments of ‘police’ corruption and brutality, and find it difficult to endorse. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth looking at.

Thankfully, no police brutality against unarmed and disenfranchised victims occurs in Terrier to my judgement. I might miss something, but the closest thing to brutality I saw lies in the ‘nap tap’. “All of us love that hammer blow of baton against jaw, even if it doesn’t always knock a Rat out. Goodwin has the city’s record for the highest number of perfectly delivered nap taps that end with a Rat carried away, stone unconscious.” (192). Beka hesitates at one point about hitting a tavern brawler that is attacking her with her baton, fearful that she’ll seriously hurt him. They do use riot gear at one point, when a riot forms when the news of Crookshank’s mines gets out. But those two moments are the closest the Provost’s Dogs in Terrier come to modern worries of police brutality.

Police Corruption

Unfortunately, corruption proves differently. Someone kills a Dog that gambled with weighted dice, and Beka sympathizes with him. “Of course there are crooked Dogs. I can name two handfuls myself. … I do not like that he was crooked. But he’d still been a Dog.” (201). The insular community of the Dogs allows some exceptions for bad behavior if the perpetrator was a Dog.

Corruption also comes in the Happy Bags. “Other Dogs collect Happy Bags from each business that wants to know otherwise ill-paid Dogs will watch over them with diligence.” (92). In addition they collect from the Rogue which buys some peace between his Court and the Dogs. “Not taking offense over a bit of briber, are you? … On the very night your Dogs are here to collect their bribes from the Rogue. … That’s different. That’s for all the work every one of us does, to keep the streets orderly.” (107).  But it’s not just for keeping the streets orderly. Dogs get personal bribes as well as the institution of the Happy Bag. And their bribe from the Rogue is not only in repayment for public order, but also keeps the Dogs away from several places. Places where the Rogue hides stolen goods, and where Yates hides from the Dogs.

The Dogs get funding almost entirely from the Happy Bags. Beka does not have a single qualm about the bribes that fund her work. She simply accepts it, and in some way the reader accepts it as well. Or they would if the conversation over police didn’t become so strident in recent years.

The mostly non-existent brutality and the blatant corruption make it difficult to read feminism in this book. After all, intersectional feminist groups spent years discussing and protesting this kind of behavior.

Conclusion

Overall, I believe that Terrier continues Pierce’s trend of increasing feminism. The way she includes diversity, even though it creates a Watsonian problem, convinces me of that. The depiction of slavery remains problematic, but I believe that her overall attempts at feminism trump that. It’s also balanced by the central nature of slavery in the Trickster’s Duology. However, the depiction of police corruption makes this book a harder sell to the modern liberal audience than when Pierce first published it.

Hopefully, Pierce’s expanding feminism continues as we enter the books that I have not yet read or reviewed.


Image Courtesy of Random House

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Analysis

Deep character dives propel Daredevil Season 3: Sister Maggie and more

Michelle W.

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Sister Maggie stands with arms crossed and a skeptical look on her face. She is wearing her full nun habit. Shelves of church paraphenalia are in the background.

This Daredevil fan has got a lot of words to spill about Season 3 of the Marvel Netflix show, which rose out of the ashes of Midland Circle (the messy Defenders and hit-and-miss Season 2) to make some of the greatest Marvel TV so far. And it’s in no small part thanks to getting back to excellent characters.

In Part 1, I explored why Matt is such a walking dumpster fire and that’s why I love him. And I enthused about great story choices made for Karen, possibly the best example of character development of the season. Here, I’ll cover some of the new characters this season, as well as an old favorite villain.

Part 2 of a 2-part article. Spoilers ahead!

Sister Maggie stands in a church basement. She is wearing white shirtsleeves and a black dress, putting on blue gloves, looking exasperated. Angel statues and stained glass windows are in the background.

Sister Maggie

Daredevil fans were excited to see the well-known comics character Sister Maggie appear in the show. Knowing a little about the comics storylines with Maggie, Matt’s mother that he never knew growing up, I was cautiously hopeful that this modern show wouldn’t succumb to some of the pitfalls that have happened with this character in the comics. In some storylines, she was demonized for leaving Jack and Matt when Matt was a baby. In a more recent storyline, post-partum depression was advanced as an explanation, finally giving more sympathy to the character.

This is the explanation that the show wisely goes with. We get a Sister Maggie backstory with  Maggie as a young initiate to the convent, taking a detour in life when she meets and falls in love with Jack Murdock. In this version of the story, it isn’t that Maggie suddenly chooses to enter the convent after having a child. She returns to her original life plan, when her nun friends and mentor come to collect her, since Jack is at his wits’ end in the face of her depression. This gives some interesting ambiguity to comments Sister Maggie makes throughout the season about life choices and directions and regret. She clearly thinks she has made mistakes. Does she consider it a mistake to have left her training to marry Jack and bear his child? A mistake to have left Matt? Or both?

Before these revelations, however, Sister Maggie is a bit of a mystery. We don’t learn for quite a while that she’s Matt’s mother in this storyline. Until then, it isn’t clear, since the show only takes inspiration from the comics, and doesn’t strictly follow their stories. In the meantime, Sister Maggie nurses Matt back to health, curbs his worst self-destructive impulses (or at least chews him out afterwards, since she can’t exactly stop him), and gives him cynical life advice he sorely needs. She’s a hardened person who has seen it all and drinks hard liquor, a vice Matt accuses her of overindulging in. (A perfect example of Matt in a glass house, throwing stones.)

My favorite line from Sister Maggie, and a good candidate for my favorite line in the season, was in this exchange:

Matt: “D’you believe people can change?”

Sister Maggie [after a pause]: “I’m still holding out hope.”

In other words, in her five-plus decades of life, Sister Maggie has never seen anyone change. Her dialogue in the early episodes reveal her to be a deeply cynical person, who nonetheless remains true to her faith in humanity and in God. Joanne Whalley’s acting truly brought this tragic, realistic, and loveable character to life.

Young Sister Maggie talks to Jack across the ropes of the boxing ring.

Secrets and guilt

Though it made sense for the plot, I found Sister Maggie less interesting as a character when her cynicism and sarcasm gave way to profound guilt. First, she blames herself a little too heavily for Bullseye’s murders in the newsroom, since she was the one who encouraged Matt to seek out his friends. She did so for Matt’s well-being, never imagining he would pull those friends into a plan to get testimony from the guy paid off to shank Fisk in prison. And that plan seemed risky but logical – I don’t even blame Matt for the newsroom massacre, much less Sister Maggie. Her guilt here seemed misplaced, and I thought it detracted somewhat from the emotional impact of her later, more important source of guilt.

That, of course, is how she left Matt, and never revealed herself as his mother. It’s an odd parallel to Matt/Daredevil, in a way – she helped raise Matt, in the orphanage, but kept her “secret identity” as his mother from him. Matt finds out who his mother is in a sad and powerful way, overhearing her prayer. His anger at her, and at Father Lantom for keeping her secret from him, is very understandable, and I thought was played well. But we got no more wisecracking, hard-drinking, cynical nun for the rest of the season, and I mourned that.

Not to say the subsequent scenes with Sister Maggie aren’t moving, and important: she confesses to Karen about being Matt’s mother and her guilt for abandoning him. She bravely misleads the corrupt FBI agents several times when Karen and Matt are hiding out in the church, quickly putting together that they can’t be trusted, and risking her own skin. And we get a glimpse of what Matt and her relationship might be like going forward, when Matt tentatively asks her if she can help him with the spiritual guidance that Father Lantom used to give him.

I missed that hard-edged side of Maggie, and I hope we’ll see it again in Season 4 (knock on wood that that gets made). Overall, though, I was more than pleased with this addition of another complicated, interesting female character to this show.

Wilson Fisk

I don’t know if I can gush anything new about Vincent D’Onofrio’s portrayal of Wilson Fisk that hasn’t already been gushed. His acting as Fisk is the kind of thing that can really irk you when you think about the unspoken rule that no superhero shows can win Emmys or the like, because D’Onofrio certainly deserves some kind of award.

In the first season, I initially didn’t like the character of Fisk. I didn’t see the point of following his slow, cautious courting of the art dealer, Vanessa Marianna. Nor of his love of art, meticulous choosing of cuff links, or expert making of omelettes. There was a genius slow build for this character, though. When Fisk’s childhood murder of his abusive father was finally revealed, with his emotional outburst, “I am not a monster!”, somehow D’Onofrio made that 12-year-old’s panic come through the face of this terrifying adult crime lord. And suddenly it all made sense: the obsessive clinging to all the trappings of civilization, of haute culture, are how Fisk desperately proves his own humanity to himself in every moment. It was brilliant, and I was thoroughly won over on this fascinating character.

Wilson Fisk is back in a similar excellent synergy of writing and acting here in Season 3. Once again, we see his ruthlessness combined with his deep vulnerability and insecurity that he rarely reveals – usually only in the presence of Vanessa.

Wilson Fisk sits facing the camera with a calculating expression.

Bending Dex to his will

I have two favorite things about Fisk in this season. One is his manipulation of ‘Dex’ Poindexter, a troubled FBI agent who we eventually see develop into the villain Bullseye. Fisk gives a couple of key speeches to Dex to win his trust and convince him to work for Fisk. In the first speech, Fisk takes a guess that Dex must be miffed about being investigated for shooting criminals that had surrendered, when Dex’s actions (at least from Fisk’s perspective) could be seen as heroic. Fisk’s adept psychological manipulation here was captivating. You could see Dex quickly get bent to his will. And it fits with everything we know about Fisk – how even in prison, in Season 2, he took methodical steps to become top dog and get everything he wanted. He’s a master at this stuff, and it is what makes him so scary.

Later on, Fisk has thoroughly dug through all the files on Dex he could get his hands on, including transcripts of therapy sessions Dex had as a kid. Fisk learns that, as a child, Dex killed his loving, supportive baseball coach in a fit of rage. Fisk’s manipulation after knowing all this is still skillful, although he has the benefit of all that information. Scarier is that he was willing to do so much research on the guy to find his weaknesses. And the synergy with his own life, with Dex murdering a parental figure at a young age, is not lost on Fisk.

Fisk stands in front of a painting, wearing a crisp white suit. The painting is a black and red rectangle on an orange background.

Fisk’s personal art gallery

My second favorite thing about Fisk in Season 3 is a small detail that I find endlessly interesting, which is Fisk’s taste in art. I loved the storyline around ‘Rabbit in a Snowstorm’ in Season 1. Now, as Fisk outfits his lavish house-arrest penthouse, we get to see many other art pieces in his possession. Fisk is clearly attracted to 20th century abstract art, with an emphasis on bold colors and geometric shapes.

I did a quick check with some art historian friends, who identified most or all of the artists represented to be abstract expressionists from the New York School. One looks to be Excavation by Willem de Kooning. Another resembles a Franz Kline. And the red and black rectangles on a smoldering orange background is clearly designed to look like Mark Rothko. (I might be the only viewer who gasped, “Not the Rothko!” when it got destroyed in the final showdown.)

The show made a great choice to go with New York School artists. We already know that Fisk likes abstract art, and this is a famed school that grew out of the city around which Fisk bases his identity. It makes sense that Fisk would see this art as representing some of the highest culture to come out of New York.

Dex stands in his apartment wearing a black suitjacket and white shirt. His apartment is very clean and white. His expression is blank.

Benjamin ‘Dex’ Poindexter (Bullseye)

I am of two minds about Dex. As comics villain origin stories go, this one was pretty good. But I just wasn’t captivated by this character. I was more interested in his use as a tool by Fisk than who he was in his own right.

Dex’s mental illnesses were a bit cliché for a villain: the sociopathic tendencies, the obsessive-compulsive traits. At the same time, these traits made a lot of sense for the character. Dex’s obsessive cleanliness was revealed to be a way he keeps and regains control after a lapse into rage and confusion (symbolized through audio like a swarm of buzzing bees drowning everything out.) His sociopathy, and his struggles to control it and learn empathy, gave him some depth. His therapist was an interesting character in her own right, despite a short amount of screen time.

On the other hand, Dex’s quasi-love interest and (Dex-appointed) moral compass, Julie, gets stalked and fridged for the storyline. Again, even though this plot was relatively well-done – Julie seemed like a real person, with normal responses, for example – this is ground that has been covered so many times in TV that it has gotten boring.

The one thing I really liked about Dex/Bullseye was his fighting abilities. Being a master at long-range weapons made him a perfect antagonist to Daredevil, who excels at close combat. Their battle in the newsroom made it clear that Matt was not prepared for Bullseye’s abilities, and Matt lost the fight. It is important to have your heroes lose sometimes, and Dex’s special skillset was a great way to accomplish this.

I was surprised at the end of the show that Dex did not die. Maybe I shouldn’t have been: a lot of villains in the MCU are spared to be used in further movies or seasons, especially white male villains (see e.g. Fisk, and Billy Russo from Punisher, vs. Killmonger from Black Panther; Cottonmouth, Bushmaster, and Mariah Dillard from Luke Cage). It was a striking scene at the end when, with experimental surgery, Dex prepares to come back as Bullseye.

But before that, Dex’s arc seemed to be bending toward death. In the calculus of action dramas, viewers were owed a tragic (or not so much) death on the part of the villains, to match the tragedies of Father Lantom and Ray Nadeem – not to mention minor characters like Julie, and Jasper, the Fisk-shivving would-be informant. Somehow, though, both Fisk and Bullseye made it, despite Bullseye’s life-threatening injury. I guess the actors signed a contract for longer than one season!

Nelson, Murdock and Page

Finally, there is so much to say about the original threesome we all loved from Season 1. Fans, at least in my corner of fandom, are enamored with the dynamic between Karen, Foggy and Matt, who enjoyed a heartwarming though booze-soaked friendship – it wasn’t for nothing that they were a popular OT3. There’s been a lot of angst over how this happy found family got so destroyed in Season 2, in part due to Matt’s battle with the Hand. We’ve been eager to see the three of them come back together, and Season 3 delivers it.

View over Foggy's shoulder of a buffet table with five people looking up from the food to warmly greet Foggy.

Best Damn Avocado

First, a little bit about Foggy Nelson. Fans of Foggy were pleased to see a big role for him this season. We got him running for District Attorney, in a bold attempt to push the other candidate, Blake Tower, to do something about Fisk. We were granted some comic relief in the form of interactions with Foggy’s best frenemy Brett Mahoney – who often seems like the only non-crooked cop in Hell’s Kitchen.

We finally got to meet Foggy’s family, with his brother Theo played by an actor that I’d believe was related to Elden Henson. Matt saves Foggy’s life in the newsroom fight, which was not highlighted much but seemed to add some balance, as Matt has saved Karen’s life multiple times. And Foggy’s relationship with Marci was explored, although I was disappointed that not much of Marci’s “shark in a skin suit” personality got to shine through; she was mostly relegated to the role of Supportive Girlfriend.

Foggy’s relationship with Matt has been through some ups and downs. Foggy reached a breaking point in Season 2 in particular, drawing a line in terms of how much crazy he could tolerate from Matt. In this season, he seems to have reverted to that intense loyalty that led him to unquestioningly follow Matt in quitting his lucrative law internship to start their own firm. This loyalty-to-a-fault does fit the characters’ backstory, and hearkened to Foggy’s role throughout the comics. But I would have liked to see more emphasis on what the transition involved for Foggy to turn back to trust and forgiveness towards Matt.

Matt, Karen and Foggy sit around a table with food and bottles of beer in front of them.

Reunion

Similarly, though it warmed my heard to see the happy reunion of Nelson, Murdock and Page – hanging out in the Nelson Family Meat Shop, drinking beers, and plotting opening a firm together again – I wondered if this happiness was completely earned. Yes, the three finally started working together again to counter the menace of Wilson Fisk. But there had still been friction between them over Matt’s reluctance to go through legal methods, versus doing it “his way” – the vigilante way. And all the hurts Matt has rained upon his friends seem swept aside in the end.

Plus, Matt appears surprisingly mentally stable by those final scenes (drinking whisky for “medicinal purposes” notwithstanding). At the start of the season, Matt was in religious, identity, and emotional crises, and he engaged in suicidal behavior. It seemed a little miraculous that Matt managed to climb out of his deep emotional hole without psychiatric help.

Then again, I could be succumbing to the trap I’ve fallen in before with the Marvel Netflix shows, and with Daredevil in particular: expecting too much realism and forgetting that it’s all a comic book. Matt physically survived a building collapse. Compared to that, it isn’t too hard to swallow that he mentally recovered from emotional collapse. That realism mistake I keep making is just a testament to the excellent world-building, writing and acting of this show, especially true of Season 3. The care and craft that’s been put into this show makes it feel real enough to believe.


Images courtesy of Marvel / Netflix

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