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Analysis

A Tale of Two Dead Mothers

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Content Warning: This article discusses death, violence, torture, and attempted rape, as depicted on these shows. Full spoiler warning for all seasons of Black Sails and Into the Badlands.

A couple weeks back I explored the way in which Grimdark settings have a propensity to pile shitty experiences onto the innocent and noble characters in the narrative. One of the examples I used was Veil from Into the Badlands, a character whose suffering culminated in her death at the end of the most recent season. At the time I mentioned the desire to cover her death, and its implications, more in depth, so here I am, and here we are.

What makes Veil’s arc worth discussing in full is her intersectionality. She’s not just a female character, she’s also a woman of color and a mother. She’s also, as I pointed out in my discussion of the daemon ex machina, one of the nicest, most compassionate characters in a dark, dystopian setting and has the strongest moral compass of anyone on Into the Badlands thus far. So, I thought to myself, what better way to bring out the complexities and implications of her narrative than to compare and contrast her with a another mother who may not share all the same intersections, but ended up dying just the same? And what better show to do that with than the Fandomentals’ favorite show about bisexual pirates and dutiful princesses who fight against slavery?

I’m talking, of course, about Eleanor Guthrie from Black Sails.

This is her “I’m not here for your bullshit” face. It comes in very handy.

Watsonian Exploration: How Did it Come to This?

Other than both having functioning uteri, Eleanor and Veil share very little in the way of similar character or personality traits. Eleanor is basically everything Veil isn’t: ruthlessly pragmatic, ambitious, and calculating. She has a complicated relationship with her father, a stronger connection to places than to people, and will change sides on a dime if it benefits her goals. Eleanor thinks primarily in terms of ideological ends and how to get there, and will betray established relationships it if means achieving them.

While her goal for the first three seasons of Black Sails stayed the same—controlling and bringing ‘civilization’ to Nassau—the fourth season sees Eleanor shifting away from Nassau. Her marriage to Woodes Rogers and resulting pregnancy grants her a new perspective on what she wants and what will make her happy. It’s part of a larger pattern within the final season of the show contrasting the desire for ‘life with the one you love’ and ‘the fight for what’s right’. How different characters navigate this clash of ideologies determines their ending and relationships.

Eleanor is one of, if not the, first to choose life with the one she loves. She discovers early on in the season that she’s pregnant with Rogers’s child and begins to act based on her desire to settle down and have a life with him and the baby rather than bring war civilization to Nassau. Yet she does not want to tell him she’s pregnant, which leads to a seeming betrayal of him when she surrenders the fort to the pirates. She even goes so far as to fire on Rogers to get him to stay away in exchange for the Urca cache, and thus a new chance at life away from Nassau.

Believing Eleanor has returned to her ‘pirate ways’ and desperate to retake Nassau to find a way to pay off his debts, Rogers forms a tenuous alliance with the Spanish. The Spanish invade Nassau, and Eleanor must take cover in Mrs. Barlow’s abandoned house with Madi. When Flint and the others leave to chase down stray Spanish soldiers, one of the presumed dead soldiers outside the house attacks. He attempts to rape and/or kill both Eleanor and Madi, and in the ensuing fight, Madi is knocked out, Eleanor receives a wicked gash, and the house is set on fire. Madi eventually makes it out alive (hooray!), but Eleanor dies in Flint’s arms when he returns to check on them.

Eleanor’s death was both entirely unexpected and seemingly random. For many of us here at the Fandomentals who watched the show, it was and still is, the weakest point of the season. While it makes sense at one level because it’s hard to imagine where Eleanor fit into the finale the show was building toward, the suddenness of it was jarring. The show may ostensibly be about Flint and Silver, but Eleanor Guthrie has been, in my view, more of the secondary protagonist than even Silver was, especially in the first two seasons. I fully expected other female characters to die—Max and Anne, to be quite honest—but not Eleanor.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d get this.

Thus, from a strictly Watsonian perspective, Eleanor’s death seems almost worse than Veil’s.

Now, before I discuss Veil’s story, I do want to mention that I actually really, really like Into the Badlands as a whole. Other than Veil’s arc, I find it to be a interesting, engaging, and enjoyable show to watch. It’s pretty violence, but it has an old-time kung-fu-esque vibe that prevents it from becoming overly gory or exploitative. There are also some pretty excellent primary female characters, one of whom is queer, and the main protagonist and romantic hero is an Asian man, Sunny. Media may be saturated with dystopian futures or alternate histories, but Into the Badlands offers a unique spin on the concept, and the worldbuilding is expansive and rich, even if it doesn’t stand up completely under close scrutiny.

Season 2 begins with Veil and her infant Henry all but prisoners of Quinn after she saved him from death at the end of S1. Her arc revolves around her attempting to escape the compound in which he holds her while simultaneously failing to treat his brain tumor but lying about it’s seeming progression toward remission. Finally, an escape attempt succeeds, and she seeks shelter with the Widow, who takes in refugees. However the Widow eventually trades her back to Quinn to negotiate an alliance against the other barons, whereupon Quinn forces her to marry him in order to make Veil’s and Sunny’s child his heir.

In the final, climactic battle of the season, Quinn holds her at knifepoint to force Sunny, the protagonist, to surrender baby Henry in exchange for Veil. (Quinn has kind of a creepy obsession with baby Henry, who isn’t even his kid, and it’s weird.) The standoff ends with Veil stabbing Quinn through her own body, killing both of them.

Rather than unexpected, Veil’s death was pretty well foreshadowed in hindsight. Veil also has a conversation with Tilda about how neither of them were willing to kill their abusers. Several times Veil and Baron Quinn discuss the fundamental difference in their characters; Quinn kills without compunction, Veil refused to kill even the man who brutally murdered her parents. Even on her wedding night as that same man attempts to rape her after forcibly marrying her, she struggles to follow through and actually kill him. The one time Veil killed someone was in self defense and, as it did not help her escape, it accomplished nothing. For Veil, killing others is not the answer and does not lead to freedom.

Nothing actually leads to freedom for Veil.

There were several false starts for her death, or at least violence against her, as well. Every time Veil attempted escape or to find some measure of agency in her imprisonment, I expected retribution that never came. Quinn’s building paranoia and thinning patience with Veil’s resistance to his predatory advances frayed to almost the breaking point several times. Quinn threatens baby Henry multiple times to induce Veil to help him. All season long there’s this bubbling tension regarding when Quinn’s finally going to snap and follow through on his threats toward Veil and Henry.

Unlike Eleanor’s story, Veil’s season-long build up is one of constant emotional and psychological suffering sprinkled with threats of violence both sexual and physical. The numerous conversations that highlight her inability to act violently unless under extreme duress, and even then only to protect the ones she loves, foreshadow her eventually being pushed to the point where she would willingly stab herself in order to also kill Quinn and thus protect her son and lover from a violent man. Within a strictly Watsonian exploration, then, at least Veil’s arc makes sense narratively-speaking and was pretty well foreshadowed.

Thematic Resonances: What Does it Mean In the Story?

Both characters fit within the parameters of the daemon ex machina I recently discussed. While not Grimdark or dystopian, the world of Black Sails is quite thoroughly violent and the historical period in which it exists, heavily tinged with sexism, racism, homophobia, and slavery. Eleanor may begin her character arc in S1 in the dark grey shade of moral ambiguity, but season 4 especially sees her attempting to grow beyond her violent past and reform her life.

Choosing love and family over Nassau has special thematic resonance for her given her relationship with her father. For young Eleanor, political and social ambition was a means to gain her father’s respect and approval. In fact, her desperate need for approval and ‘fuck the patriarchy’ resonated so much with me that for a long time, I really disliked her character development in S4. Ruthless, calculating, ambitious women who aren’t judged by the narrative for their choices are hard to come by. Like Claire Underwood, Eleanor Guthrie was a rare example of this character done extremely well.

The shift in character motivations from ‘political ambition’ to ‘settle down and be a wife and mom’ struck me at first glance as a cruel domestication of a powerful female character. All too often marriage and/or children are given to female characters as a way of ‘rounding out’ their happy ending, as if marriage and motherhood are the expected conclusions to a female protagonist’s journey. Doubly so if that female character has displayed independence, ambition, or cunning, traits that would make her more ‘conventionally masculine’ and therefore in need of ‘softening’ with domestic life. Gotta tame those independent-thinking women with babies and a man.

However, the more I think about the theme of the final season, the more I see how Eleanor’s story, while not perfectly executed, fits within that thematic arc. The conceptual struggle between a life of love and a fight for justice permeated the final season. Every primary character had to decide where their lines in the sand were and which ‘side’ of this ideological battle they would choose. Like Flint, Silver, and Madi, Eleanor chooses the person she loves.

Not only does it fit within the thematic whole, it’s a meaningful step for her character arc. That she willingly chooses not just family but to reject the city that represents her political aspirations and her father’s approval is the most significant step toward growth Eleanor Guthrie could possibly evince.

Nevertheless, unlike Flint, Silver, and Madi, Eleanor dies for her choice. She’s the only character who chooses love over the fight for justice who dies, and in a contrived and random manner. The only other primary character from S1 and still alive in S4 to not get a happy ending is Billy Bones, and he was going mad from his thirst for revenge. From a thematic perspective, I’m not quite certain what the takeaway is. Sometimes meaningful choices get you killed? The world is randomly violent?

Moreover, her pregnancy—coincidentally the aspect of her arc I find the least necessary and most exploitative—seems to shift her into the position that Veil has occupied from the beginning. Namely, that of the innocent who suffer most in a shitty world. By the end of Eleanor’s arc, she’s the innocent collateral damage; that she’s also the only one to specifically choose both wife-dom and motherhood prior to this, well…it’s not all that flattering.

Unlike Eleanor, Veil’s death at least has clear thematic resonance. Hers is the culmination of a resistance narrative and a noble sacrifice for her child. I suppose you could call Eleanor’s death a noble sacrifice. She is actively trying to save Madi from the blaze, and it’s a refreshing change to see a white character sacrifice themselves for a character of color rather than the other way around. Still, the suddenness of Eleanor’s death and the obvious levels of plot contrivance involved—that one soldier just happened to survive without anyone noticing or checking to see if he was really dead and then has the strength to overpower two women who are not at all unfamiliar with physical fighting or violence, sure Jan—kind of undermine the meaningfulness there.

And even if Veil’s death does have thematic resonance, it doesn’t actually follow that it’s positive thematic resonance. I’ll talk more about this in the implications sections below, but Veil’s death is the culmination of a season’s worth of suffering physical violence, constant threats, emotional and psychological torture, forced marriage to the man who killed her parents, and his attempted rape of her on their wedding night. She’s granted very little agency and is actively punished for any attempts to exert herself, culminating in her death.

It’s a resistance narrative for sure, but a rather shitty one in terms of the emotional impact on the audience. As Monique Jones put it in her review for Black Girl Nerds, she’s a damsel who doesn’t get rescued.

Like, this is their own marketing for her character.

That’s not all, her story pretty clearly depicts domestic abuse after her forced wedding. Veil’s self-blame in the face of Quinn’s violent outburst; Quinn blaming her for being ‘drawn to men of violence.’ It’s not all that different from Quinn repeatedly telling Lydia she’s in love with him partly because of his dark nature. In fact, Veil’s reactions to Quinn after their marriage put a whole new spin on his relationship with Lydia. Suddenly, we see that this may not have been as mutual a relationship after all. Though it does not justify any of her choices, Lydia is likely just as much a victim of domestic abuse as Veil, especially in such a heavily patriarchal culture.

On the flip side, there’s some unfortunate messaging involved that wasn’t clearly teased out. Veil might not be attracted to Quinn, but Quinn is right that she’s drawn to one man of violence: Sunny. And while we, the audience, know Veil is not attracted to Quinn in any way, Lydia’s confirmation of Quinn’s comment that she loves him because of, not despite, his violence seems to endorse the idea that women are ‘asking for it’ when they get involved with violent and/or abusive men because they find those men attractive. To be clear, I don’t think the show, or the writers, intend this message at all. But it does stand out to me as an unfortunate takeaway based on the story they told with Lydia and Veil as domestic abuse victims.

So what’s the thematic value here? Domestic abuse kills women? Karma is especially bitchy if you’re a compassionate person in a Grimdark world? If you’re a nice person, everything sucks and then you die to save your baby? At least one of the showrunners clearly believes there’s power and thematic resonance to Veil’s sacrifice, but I’m having trouble seeing what it is other than that the one time she actually succeeds in exerting agency kills her.

Veil’s Noble Sacrifice™ also serves as a direct contrast to the metaphorical motherhood of the Widow. A former Baron’s wife turned Baron herself and champion of freeing the cogs from their enslavement, the Widow has no literal children of her own. However, her protégé Tilda calls her ‘mother’ as an honorific, and the show plays with the idea of her being a mother-figure to the cogs who seek shelter with her much like Dany is Mhysa to the slaves of Slavers Bay. (Though at least with the Widow there aren’t any White Savior implications, thank heavens.)

During the course of S2, however, the show systematically breaks this idealized picture of the Widow down while at the same time showcasing how far Veil will go to protect her baby. The Widow ultimately sacrifices Veil and others under her protection to save her female warriors/protégés, called Butterflies. Veil ultimately sacrifices herself to save Henry. While both put themselves in harms way to protect their children, metaphorical or biological, Veil was willing to die for her son. The Widow, on the other hand, betrayed Veil, and Tilda’s expectations of her, to form an alliance with Quinn.

Pretty sure kicking your daughter’s ass and throwing her in jail is the opposite of idealized motherhood.

One could argue the Widow’s choice was for the greater good; she clearly believes so. Yet, I’m hard pressed to not see that the show was intentionally drawing a contrast between these two women. Tilda’s reactions to the Widow evince a breakdown in idealization and a rejection of her as a ‘true’ mother figure; her refusal to call the Widow ‘mother’ after the latter hands over Veil to Quinn says as much. The contrast between the Widow and Veil underscores the theme that, for Into the Badlands, ‘true’ motherhood is self-sacrifice, selflessness, and putting the needs of your child above everyone else’s, even your own.

And that brings me to…

Doylist Implications: Idealized Motherhood, Fridging, and Manpain

Um, so yeah, idealized motherhood is a problem for both of these characters. On Into the Badlands, ‘true’ mothers put their children first and willingly sacrifice themselves for their sake. Veil epitomizes this value, but we see it in Lydia’s life as well.

Quinn’s first wife and the mother to their son Ryder, Lydia puts her own physical and emotional safety at risk to protect and advance Ryder’s interest, even when they clash with her husband’s. In fact, so committed is she to her son that Ryder’s death sets her on a path of revenge against Quinn, who killed Ryder after he usurped Quinn’s barony. She eventually re-aligns with Quinn and assists in Veil’s forced marriage because Lydia still loves him for…reasons, but the point remains that up until Ryder’s death, she consistently chose her son over her husband.

Bear in mind that on the show, Veil and Lydia are the only two main female characters who have biological children. I know three’s a pattern, but we only have two characters to go on for Into the Badlands, and they both fall neatly into the same box: good mothers are selfless and sacrificial.

Thus, the Widow’s position as a mother figure, though without biological children, stands out all the more strongly. Veil’s sacrifice ensures that her child will be loved, protected, and perceive her as a martyr. The Widow’s lack of sacrifice led to the betrayal and disillusionment of her child-figure Tilda. In fact, the Widow almost kills her own ‘child’ to protect herself and her ideals rather than admit she was wrong and seek reconciliation. She is a fallen mother where Veil is an exalted one.

The Widow is neither selfless nor sacrificial. She may kill for her metaphorical children, but she will not die for them. I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but the idea seems to be that the Widow fails as a ‘mother’ because she doesn’t know what ‘real’ (i.e., biological) motherhood is. She cannot be a real, idealized mother-figure because she doesn’t have ‘real’ children, only conceptual ones. And that’s just all kinds of fucked up.

Eleanor fits the idealized motherhood trope, though to a significantly lesser degree and without the messy contrast with a less ideal mother-figure to prop her up. Her idealization comes in the form of her willingness to sacrifice herself for Madi and desire to settle down into being no more than a housewife and mother. In fact, it seems less a matter of idealized motherhood on purpose, as Veil’s story seems to be, than it is by accident due to a cluster of narrative choices.

Eleanor attempts to rescue Madi and dies in the process. It’s a noble sacrifice, for sure, but it wasn’t made because of her motherhood or to protect her child, as Veil’s decision was. Her desire to settle down with the man she loved was both meaningful character growth and part of the ideological struggle of the season between a quiet life of love or fighting against the system. Her death was random and contrived rather the pinnacle of motherly sacrifice for the good of her baby.

At the same time, the only reason she chose love over civilizing Nassau was, you guessed it, because she found out she was pregnant. She’s thus an idealized mother by implication. Stemming from her pregnancy, the choice to set aside political ambition and ‘settle down’ with her husband and unborn child places her firmly within the expected gender norms for women and motherhood. A ‘good mother’ puts her child’s needs first. Since Nassau isn’t a safe place to raise a child, Eleanor’s desire to leave it all behind looks very much like it’s done not from character growth (though I know it is) but because that’s what a ‘good mom’ would do. A ‘good mom’ chooses her husband and baby’s health and happiness; a ‘good mom’ gives up political ambition, her job, and desire for recognition to take care of her family.

Even her clothing choices reflect peak conventional femininity in this setting.

Again, I don’t think this was at all intentional. But honestly, that was my first impression of her story. Only upon reflection did I see the thematic fit and character growth evident in her narrative. As I said above, this narrative choice first struck me as a domestication of Eleanor’s ambition and an attempt to force her into a more conventional role where motherhood became the primary force in her decision-making process.

And it still kind of is. Her pregnancy, and thus motherhood, was her guiding motivation, it just wasn’t the proximate cause of her death as it was for Veil.

It’s also worth pointing out that both characters intersect at least somewhat with manpain and the fridging of female characters. Eleanor’s death, and his discovery of her pregnancy, solidifies Rogers’ descent into revenge and despair. Nevertheless, prior to her death, Rogers was already well on his way there. I mean, a guy who would ally with the Spanish to rape and pillage the town he supposedly wants to control in order to pay off his debts isn’t exactly in the peak of clear-headedness.

Like Billy Bones in S4, Woodes Rogers was a bit broken when the season started (or soon thereafter) and the cracks only worsened as the season went on. While contrived, Eleanor’s death didn’t feel like fridging and mainpain to me. Yes, it increases his desire for revenge against the pirates, and he shows remarkable cruelty toward the end of the season. But remember, this is the man who had Blackbeard keel-hauled not once, but three times, and then petulantly shot him in the head when Blackbeard ruined his Moment™ by refusing to die. Eleanor’s death may have solidified his descent into black guilt and his thirst for revenge, but it didn’t precipitate it

Since it is not the proximate cause of his pain and struggle, I have a difficult time calling it manpain or fridging, at least in the traditional sense. Her death affects her husband, of course, but it isn’t about him. It doesn’t make her any less of a female character who didn’t need to die. Or one whose death wasn’t clearly driven by narrative contrivance. Your mileage may vary, but to me, these subtle differences are enough to avoid some pretty problematic storytelling tropes.

Veil’s death, on the other hand, is very much poised to shift Sunny’s character arc moving forward. Showrunner Al Gough has said as much in an interview with Black Girl Nerds writer Monique Jones,

“I think for Sunny, he was left with [Veil’s] last words, which were [to] teach Henry to be good. I think that goes to his larger journey of how is he going to engage in the world? How is he going to make the world around him better and better for his son…He does have something to live for; it is his connection to her. He was part of the problem in this world, and how is this going to propel him to be part of the solution? He had that connection, he had love, they had a baby. He’s taken life and now he’s created life and what [is he] going to do now as a parent in a very dangerous world?”

While mostly avoiding manpain by not giving us a traditional Revenge™ arc, Veil’s death changes something about Sunny’s character and his perspective on the world. Thankfully, it sounds like it will be in a positive direction, but that doesn’t change the facts. Her death is still the primary and proximate cause for Sunny’s behavior and actions. Moreover, the main narrative affect of her death is to undercut Sunny’s journey this season to find a way back to her and rescue her. As Gough said in that same interview,

“[Into the Badlands is] about a man going on this spiritual and emotional journey to be good. So I think that at a point, Sunny will find his redemption.”

A black woman died so Sunny could have an epiphany about the uselessness of violence. It’s Sunny’s story after all, so even if Gough and the other showrunners wanted her to “go out in a strong way” and “get the final death blow on Quinn, even in this case, if it meant taking herself out as well” (also direct quotes), her death is still about Sunny, not herself. Her death = his character growth. Her death = his tragedy. That’s pretty classic fridging.

More Doylist Implications: Suffering and Dying as a Woman of Color

After Sleepy Hollow, killing off the only primary black female character will look bad no matter how meaningful or thematically significant it was (like the Spring Slaughter did for queer women). As Monique Jones put it in her review of the season 2 finale of Into the Badlands,

“[I]t isn’t right that Veil, like too many Black women characters before her in other shows, was once again the sacrifice for the better good. It’s doubly painful in a show like Into the Badlands, which has been praised for its focus on diversity and inclusive writing.”

Killing off the only black female character in an episode where two white women survive—one of whom literally dug her own grave—doesn’t sit well with me. There are other black women on the show, but Veil was the only primary black female character. She was also the protagonist’s love interest. Her death destroys a rare interracial relationship between a black woman and an Asian man. Given Daniel Wu’s (who plays Sunny) desire finally do justice to the romantic tension in Romeo Must Die, killing off the woman of color love interest seems to be the exact opposite of helpful or desirable. It only perpetuates the notion that interracial relationships of this kind are either disgusting, undesirable, or both.

But the problem isn’t just her death. Think back to what I’ve said about her story this season being about suffering physical and psychological torture while failing to achieve personal agency. On a Watsonian level, she suffers because of her relationship to Sunny. As the mother of his child, she suffers due to Quinn’s mania and increasing obsession with Henry as a viable ‘heir’ to replace Ryder. She also suffers because she’s a skilled healer—the only one skilled enough to destroy Quinn’s tumors—and one who takes her oath to ‘do no harm’ seriously by not killing Quinn at the end of S1 when she had a chance.

But recall that she’s a black woman in a subservient position and Quinn a white man in a position of power. A white man with a very heavily stylized ‘sophisticated’ Southern drawl (the only character with this drawl, mind you). Baron Quinn has, more than any other character, been depicted as embodying the Antebellum South. He has plantations; they’re opium rather than cotton, but even that choice seems symbolic given the visual similarity of an opium bulb to a cotton flower. You couldn’t ask for a better negative caricature of pre-Civil War Southern hospitality and sophistication as a mask for violence, oppression, greed, and lust for power and control. Hell, it’s even filmed in south Louisiana.

STOP TOUCHING HER; YOU’RE GROSS.

And then the show used him as a vehicle of torture and violence for a black woman under his control. A black woman accorded very little agency in her own plot. She’s actively punished by the narrative for attempting to break free. All but one of her assertions of agency fails. Every attempt to gain some measure of freedom and/or control results in yet more suffering. She’s quite literally trapped and unable to assert herself in any meaningful way against a character who simultaneously represents both white male privilege and slavery. A character who develops a creepy obsession with and entitlement toward both her, a black woman, and her baby, also a character of color. And then she dies.

Yeah…no thanks.

All the suffering that leads up to Veil’s death robs it of any storytelling power. She’s a damsel who was never rescued. Rather than a moment of triumph, her sacrifice is the culmination of a season’s worth of suffering at the hands of a white male sexual predator, rapist, and slave owner who manipulated, threatened, and imprisoned her. It’s too much. I couldn’t sit through the marriage scene, much less what followed. I was physically sick watching and had to mute it. For a story supposedly about resistance, even internal resistance, it felt more like psychological torture porn.

This is partly because of how exaggerated Quinn’s vileness and lechery was by the end of the season. Was it his tumor, or just his character? Ultimately, it didn’t matter. The tumor only existed as the plot demanded and to give him visions of his dead son. His Villain Sue-ness also contributed to the feeling of Veil’s suffering being piled on; the show almost seemed to revel in his utter disgustingness even as he beat impossible odds and magically had all the resources he needed no matter what he was up against.

Looking back, given what’s going on now in Charlottesville and the increased threat of white supremacy and violence against people of color, it’s even worse. Granted, the show could not at all have predicted the turn our society would take during it’s hiatus.

Still, even without current events tingeing it, the narrative has it’s issues. A black woman faced repeated physical, mental, and emotional suffering not to mention psychological torture and attempted rape at the hands of an all-powerful white man. His white wife both looked on and enabled it. Although I do think Lydia redeems herself eventually and is also a victim of abuse, it’s still gross. Everything about it smacks of the historical and current exploitation of black women at the hands of white men and enabled by white women. With such a story, it’s hard to escape the unfortunate and likely entirely unintentional takeaway that the suffering of a black woman is for Drama™.

Conclusion: Two Dead Mothers

Thanks to Black Sails and Into the Badlands, we have two dead mothers. Both are, to one degree or another, defined by their motherhood (this season at least) and it’s idealization. Veil’s arc revolved around protecting her child, and her motherhood functioned as part of a thematic foil for the Widow. By contrast, Eleanor’s shift in perspective may stem from the discovery of her pregnancy, but her story was not employed as a foil the way Veil’s was. In fact, only one other character knows of Eleanor’s pregnancy, so while the audience may know she’s driven by it, none of the other characters do. Rogers misunderstands Eleanor’s choices precisely because she hides the fact of her motherhood.

There’s no misunderstanding Veil, or her motives, by either audience or other characters. At one point or another, every other motivation she had this past season—be it revenge against Quinn or devotion to Sunny—takes a backseat to her mothering instinct. In short, Eleanor is a mother, and that fact affects her choices, but Veil is a mother full stop. The only other defining feature to her narrative this season was her suffering, which has implications both for her as a female character and especially as a woman of color.

Eleanor, on the other hand, spent her season making choices, asserting her agency, and affecting the tide of events. Eleanor faced some scary situations and hard choices, but it was hardly the same level of character and narrative abuse that Veil faced. In fact, the extreme duress Veil suffered throughout the season gives it that much more of an emotional impact, though not in a positive way. It’s a deadly kick to the head after a season’s worth of punches to the chest and gut.

Yet the very randomness and contrived nature of Eleanor’s death on a Watsonian level undermines it’s impact. It feels more like a Plot Twist™ for Drama™ than a meaningful culmination to her character arc. That she’s the only main protagonist to die in the final season, and one that had been present from episode one, only makes her death that much more hollow.

A random Spanish soldier, Eleanor. I’m sorry.

At the same time, because she was an actor with the ability to change the narrative, we feel her absence once she’s gone. At every turn we wonder what Eleanor could have done to affect things, soothe things, stir things up. Her death has an emotional impact on other characters, but the greatest impact on the narrative, to my mind at least, is the loss of a player in the political game. And that signals her independence as a character from her role as mother and wife. We feel her loss in the story arc itself not just in how she affects other characters.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Veil. Moving forward, her lasting impact on Into the Badlands will be in Sunny’s emotional state. Yes, Quinn is dead at her hands, but literally anyone else could have accomplished that action to the same effect.

And, while they both die protecting someone, the meaning is different. Veil dies as a Good Mother Sacrificing Her Life For Her Son. Eleanor dies protecting herself, her unborn baby, and, most significantly, her friend/colleague Madi. Both are sacrifices, yes. Both are acts of agency and self-assertion in the face of violent males. But they’re not the same thing.

One is the culmination of an arc, the other a random tragedy that cuts short an arc. One solidifies her True Motherhood as a foil for another female character, the other is an act of solidarity with another female character unrelated to her motherhood. Eleanor isn’t a Good Mother for defending Madi the way Veil is a Good Mother for defending Henry. And, not to put too fine a point on it, Eleanor dies defending a female character while Veil dies protecting two male characters.

It’s also worth noting that Veil dies after spending the entire season trying to reunite with her lover. They get two seconds of happiness before she’s dead. End of season. Eleanor dies still not having reconciled or reunited with her husband after a seeming betrayal. Your mileage may vary on which feels worse to you as a viewer, but I find Veil’s situation more upsetting. Destroying a happy reunion feels worse than a lack of happy resolution at all, perhaps because it veers so close to narrative sadism.

Despite happening on the heels of a shit ton of gore and violent character deaths at the end of S3 and beginning of S4, Eleanor’s death still manages to avoid being grimdark. That may very well be because of it’s suddenness within the narrative and lack of gore. But I also think it’s because it wasn’t the culmination of a season’s worth of psychological torture porn and threats of violence. Veil’s death feels sadistic because she literally can’t win. No matter what she does, she gets smacked down for it. And her one act of agency that accomplishes anything? It’s her self-sacrificial death. That’s not just dark, that’s basically Game of Thrones levels of ‘what is the point of even trying to be a decent human being?’

At the end of the day, neither of these stories are done perfectly. Both either rely on or play into idealized motherhood in troubling ways and both leave a female character dead who could have had a significant role in the story otherwise. Yet Eleanor’s is done with more sensitivity to potentially negative Doylist implications despite a less than stellar execution. Idealized motherhood defines Veil’s character and her choices. Idealized motherhood in Eleanor’s arc is more a side effect of a weak narrative choice (i.e., she could have come to the same conclusion about leaving Nassau without a pregnancy) coupled with an emphasis on actual character growth and the season’s overarching theme.

As a character of color, Veil’s suffering and death have an even greater negative impact than Eleanor’s death. The story of a black woman unable to get out from under the oppressive control and abuse of a white male coded as a representation of the Antebellum south is pretty awful and not at all what I want to see on my screen. Especially when it culminates in her death and the destruction of her loving relationship with an Asian man, a rare piece of interracial representation for not one, but two marginalized communities. Stories matter and the negative implications of this one far outweigh any emotional or thematic resonance the creators wished to convey.

Plus, when start to tease it apart, what does her death even mean? That the most innocent suffer? This trope needs to die, as it’s usually employed to the detriment of women and people of color. In this case, both. Does her death signify the value of Noble Sacrifice™? Again, why must a black woman suffer for the greater good? And why do we need yet on more story of a Good Mother being self-sacrificing while pitting such an act against a Bad Mother who betrays her ‘daughter’ and is unwilling to die for the ones she loves?

Are we meant to look back and view this act as her sealing her own death warrant?

The ultimate message of Veil’s death seems to be that she should have killed Quinn when she had the chance at the end of S1. Is that what she ‘learned’ this season? That sometimes it’s necessary, even good, to kill somebody rather than have compassion? Is that what we’re meant to take away from this? That compassion only leads to suffering, and it’s better to be a killer than a decent person when your world is shit? Yikes. And Veil had to suffer threats of violence, psychological torture, and a forced marriage to and attempted rape by the man who killed her parents to learn it. Double yikes.

Veil’s story is more well motivated and foreshadowed by the narrative, but that’s about all I can say positively about it. One random, nonsensical, and unmotivated act of violence cannot compete with a season’s worth of physical, emotional, and psychological suffering in terms of sheer what-the-fuckery. For, despite Eleanor’s death being entirely someone else’s choice, the way Black Sails told her story clearly affords her more agency and impact on the narrative overall than Into the Badlands did with Veil. Given the choice between a female character whose ability to act in the narrative in a significant way is cut short by one random act of violence and a female character whose one successful act of agency is to kill herself (and the villain) after a season-long arc of getting shat upon, I know which one I would chose.

Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s stop idealizing motherhood and then killing said idealized mothers with an act of noble sacrifice, okay? Let’s stop killing off female characters of color for Drama™ after a season’s worth of brutalization. Let’s start giving female character roles that don’t revolve around either their motherhood or their suffering and violence at the hands of creepy white males. Let’s start giving female characters of color agency in their own stories; let’s start giving them happy endings with the person they love. Finally, let’s create more healthy, beautiful interracial relationships that don’t end in tragedy, something Black Sails actually did.

I still can’t believe that a happy Maxanne/Jackanne ot3 was endgame.


Images Courtesy of AMC and Starz

Bi, she/her. Gretchen is a Managing Editor for the Fandomentals. An unabashed nerdy fangirl and aspiring sci/fi and fantasy author, she has opinions about things like media, representation, and ethics in storytelling.

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Annedey
Member

Really great article I do not watch into the badlands but your analysis was still clear and interesting. Just for Eleanor I didn’t felt her decision to leave Nassau was in a perpetual domestication of her character. I saw in the embroidery scene her incapacity to adapt to another world. She would have stayed a political person even with a child but Nassau was just unsafe for her as a pregnant woman and for her child. Considering her childhood I found that normal that she wanted to efficiently protect her child. He was more of a parenthesis before being able… Read more »

Gretchen Ellis
Guest

I think they definitely could have built in that direction had she not died, and it would have been a compelling storyline, to be sure. I love Eleanor’s character and would have really enjoyed seeing her balance political interests with being a mother. As I mentioned in my article, a ‘domestication’ of her character was my initial perception and one framed very much by my own experience of media and tropes associated with female characters. I don’t think they actually intended her S4 arc as a domestication at all. It just felt that way to me upon first viewing, and… Read more »

AshleyW
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AshleyW

Great analysis of Eleanor’s character. Her death was the weak point of season 4 for me and one of the things I still struggle to reconcile. On a personal level, what frustrated me so much was the utter faith she still had in Woodes Rogers even when it was clear he didn’t trust or respect her not to return to her “uncivilized ways”. I felt that Flint’s conversations with Eleanor–asking if Woodes was so different from the other men in her life–would lead to some introspection on her part, and maybe some totally valid righteous anger once she became aware… Read more »

Gretchen Ellis
Guest

I wholeheartedly agree about the desire for introspection from Eleanor. Looking back on the season, it does feel like that was building to some kind of epiphany for Eleanor, especially given how she (understandably) feels about the Spanish. And I like your ending much better. It still includes the character growth (turning away from Nassau) that the rest of the season built while also adding into it a level of introspection. And I’m always here for complicated family dynamics!

Bradicai
Member
Bradicai

Great article! I appreciate being able to tie so many of the black sails characters to a single theme and message. One aspect of Eleanor’s death that interests me is not how it further breaks Rogers, but rather how it proves him wrong. Like Billy Bones, he chose revenge over listening to his wife and that decision directly lead to her death, proving him wrong. Eleanor’s death provides another example of why love is the right choice over war. It’s a shame though, that she had to be the one that suffered, despite being right.

Gretchen Ellis
Guest

Good point! Her death does highlight that revenge for its own sake will only ever hurt the ones you love. It is a shame that she had to bear the weight of that, though. One thing I love so much about this show is how consistently it proved wrong the very common idea in modern media that revenge is somehow good and noble and the ‘best’ or ‘right’ path as a response to suffering/trauma/betrayal. For a show that deals with slavery, homophobia, and the patriarchy as well as including a healthy dose of violence, choosing not to frame revenge positively… Read more »

Ray
Guest
Ray

I agree with you on everything you just said. I love Veil but Eleanor was alright. I did not like the way Eleanor was turning on everyone. The writers set Veil up to die. I’m still pissed over her death. I don’t think other black women will make up for that. When you kill off your only black lead actress it’s all your show will be known for. It’s sad but true. Eleanor death made me really sad. I did like that way how Eleanor went out fighting. I don’t expect Veil death. I can’t go into season 3 believing… Read more »

TGGP
Guest

I haven’t watched either show so I’ve avoided spoilers by not reading your article (sorry). However, based on the topic I thought you or others might be interested in this post arguing that “the true emotional center of the book and implicit narrator” of the Harry Potter series is Lily Potter’s ghost. The reason Harry rather than Hermione is the protagonist is not because he’s more competent, but simply because he’s narratively privileged.

Analysis

In Scorpion, I like my women…oppositional

Patrycja

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Scorpion had many flaws and there were plots that could have been handled better. Thankfully with a small exception they were able to write decent female characters which gave us a variety of characteristics and strengths. While leaving the characters on opposite sides of the spectrum.

The waitress liaison

When we meet Paige she’s a waitress at a diner who’s barely getting by. She works two jobs and everything she earns goes to her son Ralph.

We know very little about Paige. There were just a few details that we know. Her father died and her estranged mother is a con women. Their relationship wasn’t the best but they managed to repair it. (Although Veronica leaves at the end of episode 3×14.) Not without leaving some cash for her daughter and grandson. It’s clear to see that Paige tried very hard not to become a mother like her own. She’s very attentive to Ralph’s needs and even though she isn’t aware that he’s a genius in the beginning, she tries very hard to connect with and understand him. She protects her son fiercely.

Paige is a college drop out. During the show she took some night classes in European history to finish her education. Although Paige isn’t a genius, she often contributes some useful ideas to solve problems or offers a comment that helps the others to find a solution.

Throughout the course of the show, she starts understanding and learning more of the science. Her main area of expertise is communication with clients and other people that the team meets. That’s why Walter hired her. She’s supposed to be their liaison to the normal world. She also often takes charge and helps the team to refocus as their minds tend to wander. Paige isn’t a mom only to Ralph—she has to take care of the whole team as they do things like forget to eat.

The waitress had some problems fitting in at the beginning. She didn’t really know her place or role, but with time she became a natural at her job and solidified her position on the team. She did have some trouble with Happy, but they worked it out while dangling on a broken cable in the air.

As wonderful as she sounds, Paige is only human and has flaws like any of us. She is stubborn to a fault and doesn’t like to admit defeat, which doesn’t always sit well with Walter. She can be overprotective of Ralph. Paige has abandonment issues. They can originate from her mother or Drew leaving her when Ralph was little. She was also cheated on. Even though she had abandonment issues, she often used her own fear against Walter who has the same problem. She left him at the end of season 1…which was understandable since Ralphs life was in danger but after that she did it again. Sometimes she lets her emotions cloud her judgement.

Paige is the epitome of a struggling single mom who pushes trough no matter what. Most of her actions are dictated by her heart and the love for her son. Although flawed, she is an excellent example on how to master life’s challenges

The mechanical prodigy

Happy Quinn is a genius mechanic with a rough exterior. She often seems as if she doesn’t care or feel. It’s not true because under the tough shell hides a loving women.

She grew up in a foster home after her mother died. She didn’t see her father until she grew up and found him. Her dad (Patrick) has an Auto repair shop, which can be viewed as the source of her mechanical talent. Repairing stuff is also how she bonds with him.

Her father isn’t the only special man in her life. She shares a profound bond with Cabe, who has kind of stepped up to the role of her father. He was the one who gave her away on her wedding.

Although she may not seem like it, she cares about a selected few very much. Especially team Scorpion. She nursed Walter back to health after he spent some time in the rabbit hole, showcasing her gentle side. She even married him so he didn’t get deported to Ireland.

Happy shared a special relationship with Toby. They got married after she divorced Walter and planned to start a family together. They tried to get pregnant but even then they met another obstacle. Sadly we’ll never know how that plot ended because of the shows cancellation, but I digress.

What I find special about their relationship is the strong foundation in friendship and how well they know and trust in each other. Toby is the only one who didn’t abandon or betray her.

Happy is a representation of every women who makes it in a field dominated by man and was hurt by life. Regardless of that she, was able to build a family and gain success.

The new chemist on the block

We meet Florence as the new chemist who moves to the building next door to the garage. She isn’t a genius, but she’s very smart. She started her own company but lost it. She then moved to start a new business venture.
She can’t really get along with the team in the beginning. Within the course of the show, however, their relationship starts to get better.

Personally, I didn’t enjoy this character. She was created to be a competition to Paige and to show a really smart individual who isn’t a genius but has the same problem as them. Sadly the character comes off as inexpressive and bleak. Her story and problems didn’t manage to get my attention or interest me.

I enjoyed her growing relationship with Sylvester, but it went down the drill since Flo had to have a crush on Walter. The character had potential and maybe with time she could grow on me but alas we’ll never know

The genius whispering sister

Megan was Walter’s older sister. She was a sickly child with a happy attitude. She was one of the few people who understood or tried to understand Walter and build a relationship with him no matter how different he was. She was very ill. She had multiple sclerosis (MS), which eventually killed her.

Even though she was deadly ill, she soldiered on and always saw the glass as half full. She was always kind and lived her life to the fullest. Megan inspired everyone around her, and comforted them when needed. This included Walter and Sylvester in the same episode, at one point (1×12).

She always supported and stood by Walter. Megan was her brother’s biggest cheerleader. Being ill didn’t stop her from having her own opinion. She didn’t want to be on a respirator and she got her way.

Something worth mentioning is her relationship with Sylvester. This particular romance was sweet like a middle school one—the feeling was strong and build on a foundation of trust. Megan gave Sylvester enough strength and courage to go against Walter’s wishes and marry her. Even if they only had a short time together, they were very happy and Megan died having lived a full life.

Megan was the character that showed us that even in the darkest times there’s always hope and a chance to be happy.

Although the woman of Scorpion are on opposite sides of the spectrum, they are united by one characteristic. Strength. Every female character showed strength in her life and soldiering on, making them prime examples on how to handle obstacles.


Images courtesy of CBS

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Analysis

Game of Thrones 3×02 Rewatch: Long Things, Dumb Words

Kylie

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Tuesday means one thing on TheFandomentals: we’re back with another installment of The Wars to Come, a deep dive into Game of Thrones early seasons in an attempt to understand what happened. Last week, showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D) penned a fairly competent opening to the third season. This week, Kylie, Julia, and Jana are ready for another of Vanessa Taylor’s finest, with “Dark Wings, Dark Words.”

Episode Recap

Beyond the Wall, Mance makes it clear to Jon that he won’t hesitate to kill him if he finds out he’s faking his allegiance. After all, the reason he united everyone was to get them to understand they’d all die if they didn’t move south, so he is very focused. Mance then takes Jon to meet Orell, a skinchanger who entered the mind of a bird overhead. Once he comes back to, he informs the group that he spied “dead crows.”

Speaking of those crows, the Night’s Watch brothers began their slow journey back to the Wall. The exhaustion gets to Sam, who kneels down to give up after some taunting by Rast. Edd and Grenn do what they can to rouse him again, but it’s Commander Mormont who gets them all moving by assigning Rast to Sam. If Sam doesn’t make it back, then neither will Rast.

Heading up to the Wall meanwhile are Bran, Rickon, Osha, and Hodor. Bran is still having his crow dreams, though in this one, a strange boy about his age appears, telling Bran he can’t kill the crow since it is him. Later in real life, the same boy manages to sneak up on Bran’s camp. When Osha threatens to kill him if he takes another step towards Bran, the boy’s sister holds a knife to Osha’s throat. He introduces himself as Jojen Reed, with his sister Meera. He explains to Bran that he does have prophetic dreams, though Bran is also a warg thanks to his ability to control his direwolf. He also says the raven is something else entirely, and that it “brings the sight.” Osha tells Meera it’s shameful that she has to protect her brother, though Meera just shrugs it off.

At Robb’s camp, news arrives from both Riverrun and Winterfell. The former is that Hoster Tully, Cat’s father, has died. The second letter explains about the burning of Winterfell, and no sign of Bran and Rickon. Robb tells this to Cat, who grieves and asks if she’ll have to wear manacles to her father’s funeral. Robb turns his army to march to Riverrun, though it’s clear not all the Northern Lords want to go. On the way, Talisa approaches Cat to try and talk to her. Cat makes it clear that she blames herself for everything that’s befallen her family and cites her treatment of Jon Snow as her selfishness that doomed them.

Someone whose self-blame is a bit more deserved is Theon, who finds himself tied up in a dimly lit room underground. He is tortured, while he is asked his motivations for taking Winterfell. However, it’s clear they’re not interested in his answer. A man sweeping the floor comes up to Theon after the others leave and slightly eases the tension in the device for him, saying that he was sent by Yara and plans to save Theon later that night.

Elsewhere, Arya continues her travels with Hot Pie and Gendry, the latter of whom teases Arya for her terrible choices in the three names Jaqen gave her. They are soon found on the road by a group of men who easily outnumber them, including Thoros of Myr and Anguy. They call themselves the “Brotherhood without Banners,” and quickly piece together that they escaped Harrenhal. The brotherhood buy the trio food at an inn, and Arya lies about their escape, saying that Gendry forged them weapons and they fought their way out. Thoros says they’re free to go, but just as they’re heading out, Sandor Clegane comes in, who instantly recognizes Arya and identifies her to the room.

Speaking of trying to avoid tension, Jaime and Brienne continue their travels, as Jaime tries to make conversation by figuring out Brienne’s former allegiance. He guesses that she was in love with Renly, though the mocking stops when an old man with a loaded horse passes by. Jaime says Brienne should kill him, but she refuses. Later, they have to cross a bridge together, and Jaime sits down, purposely dragging out the process. Brienne tries to rush him up, but Jaime manages to grab hold of one of her swords. They fight, and just as Brienne manages to best him, a group of men displaying the Bolton sigil appear. As it turns out, the old man did recognize them, and they are taken captive by the Bolton troops.

Finally, down in King’s Landing, Cersei tries to talk to Joffrey about his view of Margaery, no doubt concerned at her son’s fondness. She points out that Margaery had been engaged to Renly not so long before. Meanwhile, Shae tries to warn Sansa of Littlefinger, implying that he wants to have sex with her. Their conversation is cut short when Sansa is summoned by the Tyrells. Loras walks her to where Margaery and her grandmother Olenna wait. Olenna is very critical of the men in her family and makes it clear that she has a strong grasp of the political situation. The two women ask Sansa about Joffrey, since Margaery is to marry him. They promise no harm will come to her, and Sansa tells them that he’s a monster.

Margaery gets to see that fully on display, when Joffrey summons her and ask if the bedside of a traitor was her proper place. She quickly turns the conversation around, puffing up Joffrey’s ego and feigning interest in his new crossbow. She then hints at killing something with it and letting him watch her do so. Shae is also trying to sort out sexual interests in a conversation with Tyrion. She goes to him to try and figure out what to do about Littlefinger because of Ros’s warning, but quickly becomes jealous of Tyrion’s past purchasing of Ros’s services, as well as his comments about Sansa being attractive. However, they have sex, temporarily resolving that situation.

Does Tyrion want Sansa? Did Cat doom everyone? And will Margaery really have to kill something for Joffrey’s enjoyment? We’ll find out next week, but for now, let’s break down what we just saw.

Initial, quick reaction

Kylie: Well, there’s that cliff the show begins to fall off in Season 3. There were a lot of parts of this episode that worked well, and I genuinely enjoyed. But there’s just so much invented that doesn’t quite work, and it’s quite obviously done with the intent of “improving” the plots. The drop in quality is not subtle for those moments. In fact, just writing that recap the drop in quality is not subtle, but how the hell else do you frame that Shae conversation?

Jana: This is where you start getting whiplash from the draaaastic fluctuations in quality between scenes. I’d say about 75% of this episode was fine or even good, and then we have a self-flagellating Cat doing a crafting project on the road.

Julia: The one thing about this episode was how LONG it was. Seriously, it just kept going and going. There were actual highs this time, but my eyes hurt from all the rolling in other parts.

Highlights/lowlights

Kylie: Marg was my highlight last week, just for a pretty effortless performance that’s enjoyable to watch. This week that’s still the case, but my annoyance at her scripting has finally caught up. However, I will give a highlight to Jack Gleeson in his performance. I think the material is a little mixed in terms of how well it worked (and some of it is the result of trying to age up Joffrey), however he is such a talented actor that it makes up for a lot of it. He has this ability to turn the mood of a scene on a dime, and you see his entitlement, his cruelty, and his vulnerabilities all at once. It’s really brilliant.

My lowlight was the Reeds’ introduction. It wasn’t the most unpleasant thing to watch in this episode by a long shot, but just…why? What are we supposed to make of them from this? They’re mystical? Dramatic? It just came across as random, forced tension, when it would have been genuinely nice to have a pleasant interaction as an opening. A reminder why it is Northern Lords are so loyal and everything.

Jana: The Time Warp Trifecta was really working for it this week, at least for me. Though Margaery’s scene with Joffrey was supposed to be cringey, I guess. And Talisa was the least worst thing about her scene with Catelyn. That conversation between Tyrion and Shae, though… What even was that?

Julia: Omg, “The Time Warp Trifecta.” Thank you so much for being part of my life, Jana.

Jana: Nevertheless, nothing makes me scream more than Catelyn self-flagellating over… Not loving Jon enough? Even though in the same breath she mentions doing things for him most highborn women wouldn’t even do for their own children? And what’s this bullshit about wanting to ask Ned to legitimize him? And being jealous of Jon’s mother? Good god, what a mess.

(Never forget, three seasons from now, all of Book!Catelyn’s fears about Jon threatening her children’s claims will come true. Too bad Show!Catelyn had completely different concerns, apparently.)

Highlights… Hm. I mean, any scene that gives Sansa something to do that resembles her book storyline is nice, and Diana Rigg is a treasure. I feel like this Sansa maybe gave in a little too quickly, but other than that, I guess that’s my easy highlight to pick. Followed closely by Brienne and Jaime fighting on the bridge.

Julia: Lemon cakes is a very easy highlight. There were even some women doing needlework in the background! And cheese boy! Bless his heart. And it’s kind of all I can think of for an unironic highlight.

An ironic highlight might be the patriarchy magically appearing in King’s Landing, because god did it come hard. Wise women obey, guys! And what even is anal sex? Fun times.

The Cat thing was so horrible on many levels, especially the ones Jana mentioned. Legitimating Jon, Cat’s concerns being framed as primarily jealousy… but did we forgot the torture scenes? Maybe we tried to.

Quality of writing

Jana: Varied, is the word I’d use here. Some scenes were really well and tightly written and enjoyable, and then others, the quality just dropped. And there wasn’t even a Littlefinger around to blame! Though admittedly, the scene where Shae and Tyrion talked about him had probably the worst writing. Was anything Shae said even remotely coherent from one sentence to another?

Julia: Is she just really committed to the Girlfriend Experience or are we supposed to think this is a real relationship? Like, why is this sex worker upset that he once engaged the services of another sex worker?

I think it’s at least a soft original material-book scene dichotomy this week. The best written original scene was probably the one with Carol Cersei and Joff, but then you had… all the other stuff. There were scenes that were just middling, I guess, like where Mance explains his backstory.

Kylie: The Jaime and Brienne scenes were some of the best writing in the episode, and also some of the only scenes that included book content as they were supposed to be. But Jana is right; we’d go from that one moment to the horror of Shae and Tyrion’s nonversation. Possibly the first true nonversation of the show?

Our 8th grade book report (on themes)

Julia: Well the title is kind of appropriate because Robb got those two bad news ravens. Not that they quoted the proverb. Also, why is Lord Karstark delivering messages now?

I’m kind of nowhere in terms of overall theme. The best I can do is that people are bonding and consolidating relationships. I’m thinking especially of Marg and Joff, Cat and Talisa, Jamie and Brienne, and Jon and Mance. There are also new relationships that will be important later; Sansa and Marg, the Reeds and Bran, Arya and the Hound, (who never really interacted before, as far as I can recall) Ramsay and Theon (barf).

Jana: Yes, I was considering something along those lines as well. Uneasy alliances, maybe? False friends? Though that might be more hindsight than anything substantial in this episode.

Kylie: “People in groups of varying sizes doing things.” No, “uneasy alliances” is the closest at making sense, and it actually works fairly well. Don’t forget Rast and Sam, too.

The Butterfly Effect

Kylie: Biggest one I see in effect here is with Cat’s scripting. D&D made no efforts to sympathize with her or her viewpoint in Season 1, which is why we get Cat telling Ned to stay in Winterfell. The political advancement of her family? The legitimate concerns over Jon’s potential claim? Never in evidence, so now we get her mistreatment of him played as just…she was petty and jealous and couldn’t love a baby because he had a stranger’s brown eyes.

Jana: No kidding. If I didn’t know any better, you could almost say that Catelyn’s dynastic worries were completely taken out of the show to make it more palpable for the average watcher when Jon becomes king, and that’d be a great move. But that’s also assuming the writers planned more than one season at a time, and, well…

Julia: They just don’t see Cat as a political actor at all. Even when she went to talk to Renly it was only because Robb asked her to, remember. All this personal and political stuff goes right over their heads. The closest they ever got was with Theon, and we all saw how that turned out.

Kylie: It’s early Season 3 and we’re already at the point of legitimizing a bastard being painted as an unquestionably good thing. GAH.

Julia: Okay, I know I’ve been mentioning this every week, but why do they continue to dig this Shae hole? Now she’s defending other woman from sexual exploitation?

Jana: I actually kind of like the scenes with Sansa and Shae, at least right now. I mean, it is clearly a different Shae than the one in the books, and those moments at least make her somewhat likable. I also think that in theory, having someone for Sansa to bounce her inner monologue off of could have helped the show, a lot, with its portrayal of Sansa, buuuut that sure as hell isn’t happening here.

Kylie: I do think Sansa needs someone for that (and why Dontos couldn’t have fill the role is beyond me). But it’s not really in the service of Sansa at all. In fact, the scenes are mostly just Shae imparting worldly advice on the continually naive Sansa, and then whipping out some weird ‘empowered’ lines, like how she’s totally going to make Littlefinger stop. I guess because she runs around with daggers? Or goes to Tyrion with her problems?

I guess I’m torn on it, is what I mean. I like Sansa having someone she can be nice to, even if this is all going to get thrown out the window. But Shae’s scripting is a sore thumb for this worldbuilding.

Remember adaptation?

Jana: They’re doing an all in all okay job with Jaime and Brienne. Yes, she’s more of a brute, and yes, maybe he goes on about Renly being gay a little too much, but other than that… Or maybe I’m just distracted by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (NCW) getting to actually do something again. God, he used to be so good as Jaime when he was allowed to be kind of clever and not just Carol’s beleaguered brother-lover.

Julia: You mean befuddled.

Jana: Larry was very much both beleaguered and befuddled.

Kylie: Agreed. And to be honest, I adore the way NCW and Gwendoline Christie play off of each other. This is what happens when you give actors actual content and motivation. From what I can tell NCW still tries to make sense of things. Poor guy.

Jana: Don’t mind me, I’ll be over here yelling about how they’re PERFECT AND THIS COULD HAVE BEEN SO GREAT AAAAAH but instead we try to normalize twincest for a few years, no biggie.

Julia: I just realized that the changes to Shae and her foregrounding have effectively made Sansa’s plot all about Tyrion even before they get married. But can we please indulge me and talk about why we think the stuff with Shae is happening?

Jana: My best guess as to why the Shae stuff is happening is basically that Tyrion, the precious saint-like audience avatar main protagonist hero, can’t just be fucking a regular sex worker who doesn’t care about him and his amazingness, which is why Shae is given a personality, traits that make her likable (see above points about caring for Sansa), and an informed knack for intrigue. And like, if it didn’t end the way it did, having Ros and Shae meddle with the politics of the big boys might have been a worthwhile plotline. Shae might have been a really nice example for how ladies-in-waiting are used to spy and all that. However, there was still an endpoint to get to, so all the crumbs we’re thrown here are completely meaningless in the long run.

Kylie: It’s so hard for me to understand what they were trying for with Ros in this. Because there is a bit of a throughline about maids and sex workers spying and having outcomes on the politics of the Highborn for sure. But yeah, it was a plotline without space for it, so it just ended up being this…weirdness that gets thrown out the window.

The most confusing part for me is how Martin has praised Shae’s scripting, and not an inconsequential number of times.

Jana: Eh, he is good friends with the actor. And to be fair, Shae is an actual character who at least occasionally seems to genuinely care about Tyrion and has character traits other than being out for self-preservation and good at playing the role she’s being paid to play. It paints Tyrion in a better light and make him more likable in the long run. But that only work if that was GRRM’s actual goal for Tyrion, which I doubt. I’m pretty sure Tyrion being flawed the way he is is very much the point of the character… Or maybe not. It’s hard to say at this point. The Shae thing is going to collapse hard next season, so for now it just seems like too much effort put into the wrong thing.

Julia: Right!? She just has so much screen time. Is it true or apocryphal that she has more lines than Cat this season?

Jana: I don’t have the numbers, but she definitely…does more than Cat. Has more agency than Cat, which is admittedly a low bar to clear, but nothing an ascended extra should be able to do next to a POV character.

Kylie: If it helps, Catelyn’s end tally is more than Shae’s across all their seasons? I feel like it doesn’t help.

Carol Watch: who is Cersei this week?

Kylie: I’m leaning towards Carol. We had nice slut-shaming digs at Marg’s wardrobe that could have gone either way, but we’re beginning to get that sad mom who can’t control her wild kid framing of it all.

Julia: Yeah, I’m going for full Carol. She’s totally right about the sinister nature of Marg’s risque wardrobe. And the patriarchy!

Jana: No kidding. And Joffrey yelling at her about what wise women do is very much like how people are going to be mean to Carol in the future. What happened to the woman who slapped Joffrey for talking back to her last season?

Kylie: It’s official then:

Exposition Imposition: good or clunky?

Julia: Um, Jojen gave us some myth arc exposition, I guess. We learn about anal sex? And FYI, Lord Karstark, it probably snows all the time in Dorne. They have mountains.

Jana: The guy yelling at Sam was kind of telling us What Happened So Far, but it made sense in context, I guess, and the only reason I noticed it was because I was looking for it.

If you’re generous, Joffrey tries to give us exposition about Westerosi views on homosexuality that are somehow not shared by anyone else making fun of Renly and Loras this episode. Did we mention that in the themes? People make fun of Renly and/or Loras being gay a lot this episode.

Kylie: The most seamless exposition was over lemon cakes, when Olenna was complaining about her various family members and her views on their political alliance. But we can’t exactly credit Vanessa Taylor for that one, can we?

I will say one bit of subtle exposition was that Theon is captive of the Boltons. He was on the wooden cross, and then we see the men displaying that later, which Jaime calls attention to with his, “a bit gruesome for my taste.” It was enough to preserve suspense, but it rewards a close watch, which is not anything I can say about the show now.

Julia: The problem with good exposition is that you don’t always notice it.

Kylie: Why do I feel like we should make that into a shirt?

How was the pacing?

Julia: This episode was 57 minutes long, so maybe it wasn’t the pacing that made it feel like it was taking forever. Though I do remember screaming, “am I seriously only 25 minutes in!?” at one point.

Jana: They had a LOT of scenes that were just going nowhere, or had especially frustrating content like the Cat Self Roast and Shae wildly fluctuating between actual nagging girlfriend and the girlfriend experience bought and paid for. Those scenes and the torture scenes dragged somewhat, the rest was fine.

Kylie: It was endless, absolutely endless. Griffin asked me, “Is it over now?” about three times, and I was just as horrified to discover it wasn’t too. It’s interesting, because the pace wasn’t slower in the way Season 7 scenes are slower, where people just walk across the screen for thirty seconds without saying anything. Instead, each scene itself felt pretty packed, but just packed with nothing.

Let’s talk about sex, baby

Kylie: Most sexual aspect of this episode was Marg explaining Renly’s gayness to Joff, and then getting him turned on with a crossbow. I guess there was also Shae’s blowjob to Tyrion after yelling about his attraction to Ros and Sansa.

I don’t know what to do with Marg to be honest. It seems so sinister now, knowing that Littlefinger will give Sansa the advise of “make him yours” to Ramsey, and her failure to do so resulted in her brutalization (at least, the framing of it). Here, we have the successful “make him yours” campaign by Margaery, and boy does she just wield her sexuality so effectively. I understand Vanessa Taylor wrote this episode, but this entire plotline was scripted by D&D, and it’s clear they think women really can successful control “monsters” if they weaponize their womanly bodies properly.

Jana: I’m also just gonna call it— Natalie Dormer already looks way too old for these interactions to not feel an entirely different kind of creepy than they’re meant to be. I know the show is very vague on their ages and all, but there’s at least a 10 year age difference there and Joffrey is in his teens. Not a good look. Nothing compared to what comes later, but already not a good look.

Julia: Does Shae explaining to Sansa “the only thing that men ever want” count as sexual content? Why am I so effing obsessed with Shae?

Kylie: Someone’s gotta teach Sansa about the awfulness of the world, since she’s sure as hell not learning about it inherently or having a survival narrative. Isn’t this the year where we find out she doesn’t know the word, “shit”?

Jana: Well, remember how Sansa is such a slow learner? How could she have figured any of this out if not for the help of others? But yes, the sheep shift scene is in episode 10, newlyweds being nice to each other for some reason, juuust before the news of the Red Wedding arrives. I have no idea why any of that happened, but hey. Eight episodes to go until then.

In memoriam…Hoster Tully

Julia: Did anyone die?

Jana: Catelyn’s self-respect and self-worth. That died. And from what I recall, also her relevance for the rest of the season.

Oh and I guess we find out about Hoster Tully dying off-screen.

Kylie: Just Hoster Tully. I actually liked Cat’s lines about her manacles in relation to that, though may have been more effective if the guy had ever been mentioned prior to this episode. I miss the Whispering Wood monologue.

Julia: I just miss Cat.

Jana: I miss Cat’s plot.

Kylie: I miss Your Sister.

Maybe she’ll be back next week? We’ll have to wait to find out, but that’s a wrap for today. What did you guys think of the episode? Did the Cat/Shae/Margaery stuff overshadow everything else for you, or were they not as bad as we were making them out?

We certainly look forward to continuing on in Season 3, to see what’s in store for us in The Wars to Come.


Images courtesy of HBO

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Analysis

My First Queer: 90s Fantasy Novels

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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!

Oh look, Gretchen is going to be writing about books, big surprise! Like Kristen before me in this series, I didn’t watch a lot of TV growing up. Books were my escape, especially fantasy books. As conservative evangelical Christians, my parents were all about making sure our little child brains were as free from the ‘corrupting influences of the world’ as possible, hence why I watched so little TV and why it took me so long to figure out I was queer. Fortunately for me, my parents trusted my instincts with books. Granted, I was a compliant child who didn’t go out of my way to find anything subversive. If the cover art wasn’t scandalous and the dust jacket seemed free of ‘questionable content’, I could read it.

With literally hundreds of books passing through my hands over the first decade and a half of my life, if I still remember a scene from a book I read only once and decades ago, it meant something to me. Sometime last year, I reflected on these handful of books seared into my soul. Once you look at them, it’s pretty telling why these are the stories I remember.

The Eagle and The Nightingales by Mercedes Lackey (1995)

Sometime in late middle school/early high school, I picked up one of Mercedes Lackey’s books at the local library and proceeded to devour every available book of hers I could get my hands on. I can’t remember which book of hers I read first, but they left an indelible impression on me.

Part of Lackey’s Bardic Voices series, The Eagle and The Nightingales tells the story of Nightingale a Free Bard (someone who wields magic through music) tasked with finding out why the human king and churches are growing overtly hostile to non-human sentient beings and other classes of people they cannot directly control. She joins forces with T’yfrr a member of the Haspur, a race of humanoid eagles who has an angelic voice. Over the course of the book, the two become not only quest partners, but lovers.

So what? I can imagine you thinking. What does a bard and a bird-man have to do with ‘my first queer’? Fair point, dear reader. On the surface, T’yfrr and Nightingale are differently gendered and so seem to fit a heterosexual mold. However, as a young teen, an interspecies relationship felt as ‘forbidden’ and ‘taboo’ as anything overtly gay. There was something…queer about it even if it featured a female human and a male humanoid eagle. Especially in the story’s context of non-humans being persecuted by the church (*cough cough*) and interspecies relationships being considered taboo by the church but accepted in T’yfrr’s culture. Conversations Nightingale has with T’yfrr mirror conversations Vanyel, one of Lackey’s openly gay characters, has about being attracted to men.

Ultimately, it’s a story about discrimination against marginalized people groups and finding love in unexpected places that your society might find taboo but that’s just their (wrong, bigoted) opinion. That struck a chord with me that I couldn’t label. I just really, really liked it okay? And it made a lot of sense to me and made me feel seen for some reason. (Like I said, really telling looking back.) It was also a really well-written story, the best of the Free Bard series (of which this is the third book), in my opinion. We won’t talk about Four and Twenty Blackbirds. I like to pretend that book never happened.

Admittedly, certain aspects of The Eagle and the Nightingales didn’t age well. While the complicated politics and theme of acceptance are still relevant today, the entire Free Bard series features ‘gypsies’ prominently. Lackey’s characterization of the culture she calls ‘gypsy’ is positive, if a bit stereotypical. The real problem is her use of the word ‘gypsy’ at all. I know, I know. This is a fantasy book from the 90s. In that context, her free use of that word to describe a nomadic, Romani-like people is understandable. At the same time, understandable doesn’t mean problem-free and I would be remiss, even in my reminiscences, to overlook that rather glaring issue.

The Last Herald-Mage Series by Mercedes Lackey (1989-1990)

This brings me to the aforementioned Vanyel. The three books in this series—Magic’s Pawn, Magic’s Promise, and Magic’s Price—tell the story of Vanyel Ashkevron, the greatest Herald-Mage in the history of Valdemar. He presents at first as a bored, coddled, vain pretty-boy disinterested in running his family estate. That veneer hides the reality that he’s an emotionally neglected, highly introverted and intuitive, sensitive child who suffers from his father being overbearing and believing he’s ‘not a proper man’. His homophobic father, who fears he is shay’a’chern, the in-universe term for gay, sends him to train as a swordsman to ‘make a man’ out of him.’

Vanyel meets a Herald-Mage trainee, Tylendel, who is openly gay and sparks Vanyel’s understanding of himself. The two become lovers and lifebonded (aka soulmates), but in a magical tragedy, Tylendel dies (don’t worry, I’ll come back to this). The event also awakens Vanyel’s mage gift. In the aftermath, he learns he possesses all of the Heraldic gifts and becomes the most powerful Herald-Mage to ever exist. Eventually he meets another shay’a’chern couple from the mysterious human clan of the Tayledras, the Hawkbrothers known as Moondance and Starwind. Being gay in their society is not taboo, so they teach him to accept his orientation as normal and beautiful. He also meets a bard named Stefan, the reincarnation of his soulmate Tylendel.

Vanyel dies at the end of the series fighting against Valdemar’s enemies. However, that’s not the end for him. He’s given a choice to continue protecting Valdemar, so he, Stefan/Tylendel, and Vanyel’s psycially linked horse Companion Yfandes (it makes sense in context, I promise; she’s like a platonic soulmate who helps him with magic) become spirit protectors on Valdemar’s border.

Admittedly, Lackey killing of Tylendel to awaken Vanyel’s mage gifts doesn’t sit well after recent conversations about the representation of queer characters. Maybe I’m nostalgic and too kind because of what these books meant to me, but the events never struck me as Bury Your Gays (BYG), even as a kid. Lackey goes out of her way to normalize Vanyel’s sexuality, villainize his homophobic father, an even reincarnates Tylendel in the form of Stefan.

Vanyel’s heroic sacrifice at the end doesn’t feel like BYG either. His death isn’t intended to punish him for being gay, which is the root of the BYG trope. In fact, he gets a happy ending, even in death. He, his soulmate Tylendel/Stefan, and his platonic soulmate Companion Yfandes live forever doing what he wanted most in the world: protecting Valdemar.

Oh, and he has four biological children to carry on his legacy, though I honestly can’t remember how the sperm donor thing worked. Twins Brightstar and Firefeather are raised by the Tayledras shay’a’chern couple Vanyel meets. He also fathers Avren, the daughter of lesbian swordfighters in his older sister Lissa’s command. Most important is Jisa, daughter of Shavri, the king’s co-consort. Basically, the king is infertile but no one knows that, so Vanyel agrees to be the donor in secret. As Jisa ends up marrying the heir, the entire rest of the royal line in the Valdemar series descends from Vanyel.

Plus, Vanyel’s story is so central to the worldbuilding and history of Valdemar that without him, the rest of Valdemar wouldn’t make sense. So even in hindsight, I have a hard time labeling this as BYG. He’s just too important a character and everything else about the story resists being boiled down to, “he and Tylendel died because they were gay.”

Anyway, back to why these books were important to me. I related to Vanyel on a deeply personal level. He was introverted, misunderstood, and suffered from both neglect and direct emotional and verbal abuse. He’s deeply emotional and struggles with depression. He’s mocked by friends and family for being ‘moody’ and not fitting into society’s expectations for his gender. Because of the abuse he suffered, he both feared and desperately wanted intimacy yet denied himself the opportunities to open up for fear of getting hurt. Hey! That was me. Reading about Vanyel felt like Lackey had peered into my soul and put what she found on page. And that was aside from him being gay.

Even though reading these books didn’t immediately make me understand my sexuality, following Vanyel’s journey of discovering his sexual orienation deeply impacted me. I got to read it in real time, watch him figure it out, struggle with the implications, and learn to accept and embrace it by being told it was normal. He gave me the first glimpse of something I didn’t realize was true of myself. I just really, really liked and identified with him okay? I was a shay’a’chern…ally.

Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen and Bahija Lovejoy (1994)

Before Lackey, there was Lovejoy and Cohen’s Seven Daughters and Seven Sons. I read this in 5th grade, having picked it off of my teacher’s classroom library shelf because it was based on an Iraqi folktale. I loved (and still do love) all kinds of folktales, myths, and fairy tales, especially non-Western stories. Buran’s story became my favorite, though over time I forgot the title and it took me years to track it down again.

Buran is the fourth of seven daughters living in Baghdad. Everyone in the city shuns her father for not having sons; her uncle—father to seven sons—especially like to throw Buran’s family’s poverty and seeming lack of favor from Allah in their face. Not content to see her family suffer, Buran disguises herself as a man, travels to Tyre, and sets up shop as a successful merchant while maintaining her masculine disguise.

Mahmud, the prince of Tyre visits her shop often, and Buran finds herself falling in love with him and he with her, though she’s still disguised as a man. Soon after he realizes his in love with Buran-in-disguise, Mahmud has a moment where he begins to wonder if she is a woman. So, he sets about testing her to prove her gender. Fearing discovery and the loss of friendship and her business she uses to support her family, Buran uses her wits to pass Mahmud’s first two tests. The third, to meet him at the baths, she flees from as it would reveal her identity. Donning women’s clothing, she heads home, encountering two of her male cousins, whose position in life has much diminished since she left. Her family, on the other hand, is rich and her sisters have married well due to her business acumen.

Her family pressures her to marry, but her heart belongs to Mahmud, though she cannot admit it. Rejecting social expectations of her, Buran determines to never marry and leave her fortune to her sisters’ children. However, Prince Mahmud eventually finds her and the two get married and live happily ever after.

Stories about women who disguise themselves as men and have a prince fall in love with them exist in a strange limbo between queer and heteronormative, depending on how the author frames the prince. Lovejoy and Cohen straddle that line in an interesting way. On the one hand, the story lets the prince believe himself in love with Nasir—Buran’s masculine name—for almost two pages. There’s even a highly sexually charged scene between the two of them told from Prince Mahmud’s perspective. But then Mahmud has a rather convenient insight that Nasir is actually a woman in disguise. It simultaneously feels less homophobic than it could have been and as heteronormative as people who don’t want to acknowledge that Li Shang in Mulan was totally in love with Ping and flagrantly bisexual.

Still, as a child, it was eye-opening to read a story about a man who falls in love with another man, only to realize she’s a woman. And Buran was definitely a character I both admired and identified with. I, too, wanted to be more than what my conservative environment said a woman should be. I admired her courage, her intelligence, and her unwillingness to submit to societal expectations for what it meant to be a woman. There’s a bit of Not Like Other Girls, but no more than Vanyel felt like Not Like Other Boys. They’re both characters who didn’t quite fit in and found a way to embrace and celebrate who they were. Once again, to not-yet-aware-of-her-queerness-Gretchen something about Buran and Mahmud struck home.

And then there was the scene where Buran strips naked and looks at herself as a woman after living as a man for years.

“When I got back to my room, my own safe little room in Jihha’s house, I bade the servant leave the candle, and then I dismissed him. I took off all of my clothes, every single piece, and then I stared down at my naked self. I saw the gentle swell of my two breasts, small, but firm and high, with smooth golden flesh giving way to rosy nipples. I saw the slight curve of my belly, which would never, ever be absolutely flat, no matter how thin and hard the rest of me might be. Beneath my narrow waist, my two hips curved like two crescent moons and between my legs, black hair curled in tiny ringlets.” (p. 151-152)

Poor little 10-year-old baby bisexual Gretchen did not know what to do with the confusing feelings reading that passage awakened in her. I’ll be honest, this was the scene that stuck in my mind for years. Until recently, I had no idea why. Looking back now, I can 100% label it as the first viscerally, “Oh shit, I’m queer,” moment of my life. It only took me 20 more years to unpack it, but this book is the piece de resistance of young queer Gretchen.

So these were my first queer inklings. Strange, I know. Two of the stories weren’t even explicitly queer and the other featured a gay protagonist, not a woman-loving-woman (wlw). But they meant something to me. They planted seeds in my repressed, survival-mentality brain that would only come to fruition many years later. For a survivor of CSA and abuse who literally had no framework for understanding being a wlw, these books were the only shreds I had of a part of myself I didn’t have words for. Yes, they were problematic in some ways. Yes, they were imperfect matches to my own experience. But they were literally all I had.

As I said at the outset, these are stories I vividly remembered years later. Even if I couldn’t remember the name of the book, I remembered scenes or interactions that felt…significant to me in some unnamed as yet way. However flawed they are, they hold a special place in my soul.

They’re also the reason why I write mainstream SFF novels. I know there are other kids out there who don’t know they’re queer just like I didn’t. Kids who wouldn’t think to pick up a book explicitly labeled as ‘queer’ either because they don’t think that’s who they are or because their situation at home wouldn’t allow them to. (My parents would have banned any book labeled that way on sight.) Kids waiting to pick up a book about mages or queens or space colonists and see a protagonist who loves in a way they didn’t know was possible.

So in the end, they gave me even more of myself than I ever could have imagined. This is why stories matter.


Images Courtesy of Atheneum Books and DAW Books

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