Presented by “Harry Potter and the Reread Project”
When we left the Golden Trio in my last Harry Potter Reread post, Hermione had just suggested forming a secret study group in response to Umbridge and the Ministry of Magic refusing to teach them actual defensive magic. Despite Harry’s original lack of enthusiasm about the idea, Dumbledore’s Army takes center stage in the third of five parts of Order of the Phoenix, giving us not only the joy of Harry as a teacher but his first awkward romantic encounter as well as more nastiness stemming from Umbridge, more Weasley family drama and more angst on Harry’s part.
More Toady Evilness
As I pointed out at the end of my last Reread post, the second part of Order of the Phoenix largely lays the foundations for the rest of the book, making it a bit less interesting. To a certain extent, the same is true of the third part as well: many of the chapters are focused on the everyday and school life of the characters, their classes, the seemingly unsurmountable mountain of homework, and Quidditch practices.
At the same time, there’s a growing sense of insecurity, surveillance and mystery as Umbridge’s power grows while Voldemort remains mostly out of the picture. One way this is achieved is through making Umbridge almost omnipresent. During this part of the book, her inspections of other teachers become more frequent, leading to some hilarious exchanges (for example with McGonagall), as well as the deeply uncomfortable inspection of Hagrid’s Care of Magical Creatures lesson. During this, Umbridge consistently treats Hagrid as if he was too stupid to understand her by speaking extremely slowly and loudly to him and accompanying her words by gestures. She also immediately shows up on Hagrid’s doorstep when he returns to Hogwarts despite it being the middle of the night to interrogate him about where he was.
This sense of omnipresence becomes even stronger when Umbridge puts a ban on all student organisations that she hasn’t personally approved almost immediately after the first meeting of Dumbledore’s Army. She also attacks Hedwig to read Harry’s letters, hurting the owl and almost catching Sirius when he essentially uses floo powder to facetime Harry.
It’s something that makes Umbridge an incredibly effective villain: she’s always either keeping up with or one step ahead of the protagonists in ways that they don’t anticipate. This is also the case when Umbridge provides the Educational Decree that gives her the absolute authority over the punishment of students who break school rules, meaning that she can issue a lifelong Quidditch ban against Harry and the Weasley twins after he and George get into a physical fight with Malfoy.
Umbridge is also an effective villain because she absolutely undermines the idea of Hogwarts as a sanctuary. Her very presence shows that Hogwarts isn’t save from outside influence. The fact that she can also abuse Harry to the point of leaving actual lasting scars without anyone doing anything about it is even scarier as it shows that the teachers inside Hogwarts are also quite powerless to protect the students. And after she has banned Harry from Quidditch, it gets to the point where he barely wants to return to Hogwarts—a point that Harry never reached in any of the previous books, no matter what was going on.
Additionally, Umbridge monitoring Harry’s communication specifically further isolates him from the Order in general and Sirius, the only Order member actually willing to give Harry any information in the first place, specifically. That in combination with the Daily Prophet’s silence and Dumbledore absolutely keeping his distance from Harry means that both the main characters and the readers don’t know what is going on outside of the school.
It’s an interesting contrast to the first fifth of the book that took place in Privet Drive and at Grimmauld Place. During this part, the threat that Voldemort presented to Wizarding society and the effects of his return were a lot more palpable. There is still a basic awareness of the threat that Voldemort presents but it’s something that Harry and his friends are far less preoccupied with than in the first part of the book.
Essentially, Order of the Phoenix contains two main conflicts—the fight against Voldemort and his Death Eaters and the Ministry and Umbridge trying to gain power in Hogwarts—alongside the everyday and school life of the characters. During roughly the first half of the book, the latter becomes the focus of the story, giving both the readers and the characters a sort of respite before plunging them back into the fight against Voldemort.
An Antifascist Study Group
Speaking of the fight against Voldemort, it’s only been during this reread that it really sunk in how gutsy and at the same time kind of sad it is that the DA was formed. After all, most of the characters are between 15 and 17; they should not have to teach each other how to defend themselves against the members of a fascist organization. They especially should not have to risk their school education to do so.
Of course one could argue that Dumbledore’s Army is just a study group meant to resist Umbridge and counteract the Ministry’s bad teaching priorities. This is, after all, part of how the characters justify Dumbledore’s Army to themselves. But already during the formation meeting of the group in the Hog’s Head, Hermione explicitly said that the group wasn’t about fighting Umbridge but about preparing to defend themselves against Voldemort.
I also only now realized that while Harry was the teacher, it was Hermione who was ultimately organizing and running the DA. Not only was it her idea in the first place, she was also the one who found people who were interested in learning, organized the first meeting, found a non-suspicious way for the members to communicate with one another and made sure, though in a fairly unethical way, that no one could go and tell Umbridge about the DA. Not to get too into feminist analysis here, but I do think that it mirrors real-life division of labor along gender lines very well. Except that Hermione gets recognition and praise for her organizational work.
Moving into Focus
The DA also allows the narrative to push more secondary characters into the spotlight, especially Neville. Harry first focuses on him because he’s struggling the most, but starts to regularly note his achievements and growing ability. Order of the Phoenix also incorporates what we learned about Neville’s parents (that they were tortured so badly they are mentally disabled) in Goblet of Fire, first by having Neville try to attack Draco Malfoy after he makes a comment about St. Mungo’s having a ward for people with lasting mental damage from spells and then by actually introducing his parents.
Two other secondary characters who become more important in Order of the Phoenix are Ginny and Cho.
Unfortunately, I haven’t done the math but from my fairly subjective impression, Ginny gets more lines and becomes more present with each book: first through occasionally joining conversations when the Trio and often the twins are hanging out with each other in the common room in Prisoner of Azkaban, then having to reject accompanying Harry to the Yule Ball in Goblet of Fire, forcing him to ask Padma, and then through actually resolving major plot points, for example when she makes it clear to Harry that he can’t be possessed by Voldemort.
It’s actually a quite clever way of making side characters become more prominent, but it also means that a lot of Ginny’s character development after Chamber of Secrets happens completely off-stage. While Hermione nicely explains some of it to Harry when he asks how Ginny gained the ability to speak around him after starting to date other people, it feels unsatisfactory, especially because we never see her deal with being possessed by Voldemort.
It’s also annoying because Neville’s character development, for example, is done so much better. It’s simultaneously marginal enough to not dominate the story in any way but not so marginal that it’s completely unexpected. Yes, Ginny becoming more prominent is noticeable, but only if you specifically pay attention to it the way I did. If you don’t, it feels a lot like Ginny showed up in Chamber of Secrets as a shy eleven-year-old who was possessed by the Dark Lord, then disappeared for two books and reemerged as a a sassy, sporty, fairly popular fourteen-year-old in Prisoner of Azkaban.
Awkward Teenage Love Stories
Interestingly enough, Cho’s growing prominence happened in a similar way: She first appeared in Prisoner of Azkaban as Ravenclaw’s seeker playing against Harry, then becomes Cedric’s girlfriend that Harry’s crushing on in Goblet of Fire and then becomes Harry’s actual love interest in Order of the Phoenix.
It’s a very typical teenager-y romance subplot, perfectly capturing the deep awkwardness of being fifteen, in love and completely overwhelmed. Harry hasn’t actually thought about how Cho might be feeling or how confusing and terrible the situation is for her. He also genuinely doesn’t believe she could be interested in him, even though Hermione tries to subtly encourage him, and has no idea what he’s doing—he doesn’t even seem to realize that Cho is leaning in for a kiss. At this point of the novel, it’s a bit cringe-worthy but at the same time kind of funny, heartwarming and very relateable even years after my own first awkward teenage experiences.
Additionally, the romance subplots gives us readers one of the most fun and lighthearted scenes of the book, namely Ron, Harry and Hermione talking about Harry and Cho in the Common Room. It’s one of the scenes that best shows the Trio’s friendship and affection, the way they make fun of and are exasperated by one another but also genuinely like and support each other.
The main part of the Cho subplot also takes part immediately before Harry’s vision of Arthur Weasley getting attacked by Nagini at the ministry. It’s one of the most major plot points of the novel and also the moment where the entire book turns. The focus shifts from the events at Hogwarts and Umbridge back to Voldemort and the Order. It’s a thematic shift that’s accompanied by a physical shift as well, as the main characters return to the Order’s Headquarter for Christmas. Juxtaposing it with the funny awkwardness of Harry’s first kiss is a perfect way of making sure that the book does not become too dark.
Snake Bites, Magical Medicine and Ableism
Speaking of Arthur Weasley being bitten by Nagini, I love the fact that this finally allows the readers and characters to visit St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries. We only ever got glimpses of magical illnesses and health care at Hogwarts but St. Mungo’s opens up a bigger window into this area of the Wizarding society. Of course, it doesn’t answer all questions. I’m still curious how exactly Muggle and Wizarding medicine can be combined or how wizards treat cancer, but it’s more than we knew before and that’s something I’m always happy about.
Additionally, some of the magical injuries JKR includes in the description of the hospital are just hilarious. There is, for example, a woman who occasionally lets out a high-pitched whistle and has steam pouring out of her mouth in a weird imitation of a human tea kettle and a man whose daughter has wings sprouting from her back and is flapping around his head.
Of course the visits to St. Mungo’s also reveal one of the more disturbing aspects of the Harry Potter world, namely that wizards and witches with lasting spell damage are essentially institutionalized in a specific ward in the Hospital. It’s a depiction that resembles the treatment of many mentally ill people, especially those deemed scary or dangerous, in the real world.
Another similarity to the way mentally ill and disabled people are treated in real life is their constant infantilization, especially by people that are meant to take care of them. Both the healer responsible for Gilderoy Lockhart, the Longbottoms and other patients and Neville’s grandmother behave in this way towards these people, talking to them as if they were little children or even a nuisance.
This made me think about how entirely possible it is to read this as simply a depiction of real life ableism that is meant to again deconstruct the idea that the Wizarding World is inherently so much better than the Muggle world. After all, this is a constant theme running through the books: bigotry exists everywhere and we must take a stand against it to change society for the better. However, unlike in other cases, like the house elves, JKR doesn’t make the characters take an explicit stand against this treatment of mentally ill people.
Speaking of real-life bigotry brings me to the giants, a group of people that JKR also uses to mirror the prejudices of the real world. Giants are strongly discriminated against, to the point where they have also been the victims of ethnic cleansing like “giant hunts” that decimated their numbers and forced them to move to mountain enclaves. Literally none of them are able to live in normal Wizarding society anymore, something that is difficult even for half-giants like Hagrid.
JKR’s portrayal of bigotry against them is one the one hand fairly good as she is using it to show how being ostracized can push people towards radical right wing organizations that promise them inclusion and privileges. What JKR doesn’t reflect on in the books is the way these right wing movements often simultaneously present a serious threat to these people despite using them to push their own agenda, but to be fair, I’m not entirely sure how to incorporate it into the series either.
Another thing that JKR does well is show how authoritarian conservative characters like Umbridge tend to be deeply bigoted against not just one minority. Umbridge hates werewolves and pushed legislation that makes it impossible for most of them to find work as a result of Remus Lupin being outed as a werewolf by Snape. As mentioned already, she also treats Hagrid as if he was too stupid to understand normal human speech because he is a half-giant, a fact that she is very aware of thanks to Rita Skeeter. Her conservatism isn’t limited to ensuring that Hogwarts does not become too independent of the Ministry, it also includes her trying to keep marginalised “half-breeds” on the fringes or out of Wizarding society.
On the other hand, JKR makes a fundamental mistake in her portrayal of both the giants and the werewolves. In both cases, these groups are analogies for real world minorites—JKR even explicitly confirmed that werewolves are supposed to mirror people with AIDS—and the way they are treated is supposed to show the irrationality and wrongness of prejudices, especially through making members of each group some of the kindest, most helpful and most beloved characters of the book. But at the same time, JKR’s werewolves and giants are both hyper-violent and actually dangerous to both Wizarding and Muggle society. Werewolves like Greyback specifically target the children of people who cross them, for example, and all werewolves do become uncontrollable, deadly creatures if they don’t regularly take their potion. Giants are not just extremely brutal, they are also too stupid to stop being brutal, something that brings them even closer to complete extinction because they can’t stop fighting against one another.
This brutality is why many witches and wizards fear werewolves and giants, something that is supposed to be seen as irrational, an assessment I can’t entirely agree with. If both giants and werewolves were actually quite harmless, it would be accurate to describe being afraid of them living among “normal” humans as outrageously dumb and prejudiced. But making them actually dangerous, especially so dangerous that they can’t stop killing each other like the giants, essentially vindicates these prejudices.
I’m aware that JKR is mostly using stock fantasy creatures and their classical features. Neither giants nor werewolves are new creatures, they feature widely in fantasy, and they usually are anything but harmless. But the fact that something is a fantasy stable doesn’t mean it doesn’t have problems and can just be copied without making adjustments. Another example of this are goblin characters which are often filled to the brim with antisemitic stereotypes, specifically greediness, untrustworthiness and the classical hooked nose. Taking these classic fantasy creatures and changing them around—making werewolves actually quite harmless when transformed or all giants gentle but terribly clumsy—would have been far more subversive. It also would have significantly strengthened JKR’s anti-bigotry message.
Harry Potter Defense Squad Part II
I already expressed annoyance at how significant parts of the fandom see Harry as whiny or annoying in Order of the Phoenix despite the fact that he is a deeply traumatized fifteen-year-old who went through a whole bunch of terrible stuff that no one should have to go through. Additionally, Harry has absolutely legitimate reasons to be angry: he spends much of his summer isolated and completely in the dark about a war that deeply affects him only to learn that he is simultaneously under surveillance.
After he returns to Hogwarts, his anger takes a backseat as he tries to just live his life, but it does make a return when Hermione first suggests that he teach others Defense against the Dark Arts. He is confused why they’d even ask him in the first place which makes Ron and Hermione list his achievements. When he reacts defensively and tries to point out how much help and luck was involved in all of these situations, they start smirking, making Harry feel like they aren’t taking him or the situation seriously. This makes him lash out and yell at them:
“You don’t know what it’s like! You – neither of you – you’ve never had to face him, have you? You think it’s just memorising a bunch of spells and throwing them at him, like you’re in class or something? The whole time you’re sure you know there’s nothing between you and dying except your own – your own brain or guts – or whatever – like you can think straight when you know you’re about a nanosecond from being murdered, or tortured, or watching your friends die- they’ve never taught us that in their classes, what it’s like to deal with thinks like that – and you two sit there acting like I’m a clever little boy to be standing here, alive”
It’s a gut wrenching, massively emotional scene and one of the first time Harry actually expresses just how scary and traumatic fighting Voldemort in the graveyard actually was for him. While it’s not pretty and certainly uncomfortable for Ron and Hermione, it’s also super understandable that it makes Harry angry that they just sit there, smirking at him and listing his achievements, ignoring him trying to explain that a lot of it had more to do with luck than with his own skill or cleverness. It becomes even more understandable when you take into account that he spends a lot of his time being treated as a liar by many of his fellow students and even one of his teachers who also uses this as an excuse to physically abuse him. Harry consistently feels like people aren’t taking his experience of being almost murdered by Voldemort as seriously as they should, largely because people genuinely aren’t, and his best friends seemingly doing the same thing is deeply painful.
Of course Ron and Hermione recognize that they were wrong, apologize and the Trio makes up. Harry spends some comparably angst-free and even happy weeks, training the DA and kissing Cho until he witnesses Arthur being attacked. It’s another really scary moment for Harry as he first fears that people aren’t taking him seriously while Arthur, one of his father figures, is bleeding out and dying somewhere and then receives absolutely no explanation for what just happened. Even worse, the person he mainly sees as a mentor figure still essentially ignores him.
When Harry then also feels like attacking Dumbledore in the one moment when Dumbledore isn’t ignoring him, things get even more confusing for him. He already feels like it was him that attacked Arthur Weasley and is worried about what this means, so this only makes him more worried that Voldemort might be possessing him.
The only person he does share this fear with, Sirius, tries to reassure him but it only makes Harry feel dismissed and ignored. This is when he overhears Moody suggest that he might be possessed, something that seems like the most logical explanation for the situation. Because he’s immediately convinced that this is true and worried he might hurt his friends and almost-family, he isolates himself. And because Ron has the emotional range of a tea spoon, he tries to give Harry space instead of talking to him which makes Harry feel like his friends believe that he is possessed, making him resentful and isolating himself further. When he considers running away, Dumbledore orders him to stay at Grimmauld Place but gives no further advice or explanation.
Harry’s reaction is probably a bit immature: he automatically assumes the worst possible scenario is true without fact-checking it at all. But Harry is also a panicked 15 year-old. He’s already looking for an explanation of what just happened to him and not getting one and struggling to separate what he saw happening from himself when he hears Moody say that he might be possessed. It’s the only explanation he’s being given which makes it even less surprising that he immediately latches onto it.
Let’s also not forget that Harry is an abuse victim who is used to anything that goes wrong being blamed on him and being held responsible for things that have nothing to do with him. Even people who aren’t his abusers did blame him for pretty terrible things happening to him, like becoming a champion in the Triwizard Tournament. It would have been out of character for him to not assume that he’s somehow partially to blame for what happened to Arthur.
Order of the Phoenix is an incredibly intense book for Harry specifically because bad things constantly happen to him. Essentially every time it seems as if thinks are going well, something else terrible happens. When he finally gets out of Privet Drive, the threat of expulsion from Hogwarts hangs over his head. When he isn’t expelled and can return to Hogwarts, Umbridge is there, trying to make his life specifically hell. When he has managed to make it through detention with her and formed the DA, he gets banned from Quidditch. When he realises that Cho returns his feelings, he witnesses one of his father-figures getting attacked, almost dies, something that he feels responsible for and that leads people to suspect he might be possessed by Voldemort.
And of course, things will continue to only get even worse.
Crazy Ex Girlfriend is Masterfully Deconstructing its Core
Here at The Fandomentals, it’s not hard to tell when we begin to fall in love with a show. You may recall the windfall of Black Sails articles surrounding its series finale, our rather overzealous coverage of Supergirl a year ago, or the way Steven Universe creeps into every podcast we record. We dig in and frenetically try to explain exactly the reasons why you should be so enthused as well.
Then there’s shows like Crazy Ex Girlfriend, where I find myself unable to say anything at all, since it’s more or less perfect.
I know what I’m setting myself up for when I say this, because I’ve felt the let-down quite keenly many times before. That’s part of why I’ve been so hesitant to write anything at all. The other part is that I truly feel my explanations won’t do anything justice; watch it yourself and you’ll see what I mean.
Is Rebecca Bunch’s character the answer to my prayers for jewish women in media? Absolutely. Do we all need Paula Proctors in our life? You bet we do. Is this finally the bridge between musical theater, sitcoms, and dramatic TV? Without a doubt. Hell, it’s a show whose entire premise involves calling attention to the tropes and storytelling conventions we bemoan, and then digging in and flipping them on their heads. All of this I could easily write dissertation-length papers on, while feeling that none of it is adequately explaining what is so great here.
So it’s only now that Crazy Ex Girlfriend is tackling one of the most important issues in our society, and doing it with a remarkably skillful hand, that I’m forcing myself to write out my thoughts. Because honestly? It’s a shondeh if I don’t at least try to spread the love at this point.
As a warning, there will be spoilers for major plot beats through the most recent episode, 3×06 “Josh is Irrelevant.” Which sure, may be a weird way to convince people into watching something, but as I’ve articulated a few times…knowing what’s coming and what a show explores actually makes me more prone to dig into it. If you disagree, let me just leave you with this before you bow out: the “crazy” in the title of the show is exactly why I didn’t watch it for a couple of years. And boy was that a mistake, because it is so intentional, and exactly what’s being explored now in one of the most nuanced and validating ways possible.
Yup, showrunners Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna are tackling mental health navigation and stigmatization. In the most recent episode, Rebecca Bunch receives a formal diagnosis (and even sings a song about getting one), and it’s made clear that all two and a half seasons were leading to this moment—not because of the diagnosis as an end in itself, but as a means to equip our character with the tools and understanding that empower her to push for a healthier state of mind. It is a show about a mentally ill woman lacking in traditional heroic qualities (dare I say antihero?). Yet instead of reveling in her moral greyness and watching her “oh my god” dissent, we are encouraged to actively empathize with her, and root for her to find balance. Because at its core, this show takes on a more positive view of humanity. We’re all just…trying to do okay with what we have, even if our weaknesses and anxieties can manifest in ways that hurt ourselves and those around us.
If that sounds interesting to you, watch the show. But for real now, explicit spoilers from here on out.
Rebecca Bunch was always meant to be a challenging character to the viewer. She makes an impulsive decision in the pilot episode to move to West Covina and pursue an old flame. Convinced this will make her instantly a happier person, she gleefully dumps her medicine down her garbage disposal (we’re unsure specifically what she took, though we do know anti-anxieties were in the mix) while whistling a merry tune. It’s clear this isn’t the healthiest thing you can do and she’s romanticizing the situation (and hilariously, the location as well).
At the same time, it’s also made clear that Rebecca truly was in an unhappy state in New York City, and her methods of coping through heavy medication and excessive work only fed into that. By midway through the first season, Rebecca tries to seek out a therapist to get new drugs, only to be told that she might actually need to explore her issues.
Rebecca: Those are the meds I was on in New York.
Dr. Akopian: Oh, my God. How did your body react to all this medication? You must not have been able to feel a thing.
Rebecca: Exactly. Numb as they come. So scribble scribble on your pizzle pad.
Dr. Akopian: Rebecca, your doctor in New York is a quack. He gave you a Band-Aid, not a cure. My method would be to do some digging and figure out what’s really going on inside your mind. And then we can discuss the appropriate medications.
Rebecca: So that’s great, but I need to be better by Monday.
The driving story continues to be about Rebecca’s quest for her fairy tale romance—a narrative that lives in her mind but not reality. Each romcom trope is broken down, from “unlikely suitor she actually falls for” (he turns out to be a fucking mess and leaves to be able to deal with his own issues in a healthy manner), to “the perfect prince who was always meant to be” (they both approach the relationship merely wanting to be in a relationship, without actually having a stable grasp on what they both need/want in life), to even the “screw men, we’ll just have a fun girl group and that’s enough” (Josh has a new girlfriend they need to stalk!).
However, it is always in the forefront that Rebecca is actively spinning the happenings in her life to fit whatever story she wants, all while resisting the core of what’s at her unhappiness.
Paula: Just let both of them go.
Rebecca: I don’t know who I am without them. I know that’s pathetic. I know it’s pathetic, but it’s true. Who am I supposed to be now?
Paula: Honey, be yourself.
Rebecca: What?! Who? No! Ew. Ugh! Who wants to be that?!
This becomes the most obvious when she enters into a relationship with Josh, but is not magically happier about everything. Rebecca very nearly has a breakthrough with Dr. Akopian to this point, only to be interrupted by Josh’s wedding proposal. Then from there, we get a tale as old as time: Rebecca stops feeling magical feelings about Josh, freaks out and kisses her boss in an elevator, freaks out from that and pushes their wedding date up to two weeks from that day, and then after not sleeping and going in full bridezilla mode, gets left at the altar because Josh begins to feel that he doesn’t truly know Rebecca. We also learn that Rebecca had previously wanted to marry another man in her past (Robert, a former professor of hers), but upon being broken up with by him, burned down his apartment and then was committed to a psychiatric institution for a time.
This is where Season 3 picks up, and in truth, I was very nervous about the Robert reveal. “Oh, so she really is ‘crazy’? That’s the point?” No. the point is that Rebecca is a troubled character who hasn’t received the help she’s needed. She has characteristics we all can relate to, from her self-deprecating thoughts to her struggle to feel ‘normal,’ even if we wouldn’t have necessarily made the same choices she did.
Season 3 shows her in crisis mode. Instead of confronting her insecurities, she lashes out at her friends, and even returns home to stay with her mother for a bit, despite their history with Naomi’s selfish and often inappropriate or harmful behavior. However, when her mom sneaks her anti-anxieties (out of fear of Rebecca wanting to commit suicide), Rebecca feels as though she has no one she can count on anymore, especially since she thinks she alienated everyone else. At the end of 3×05, Rebecca tries to commit suicide on a plane by taking a bottle full of anti-anxiety meds one a time, before telling the flight attendant that she needs help.
Other media has tried to depict suicide before, but it is so often done in a way that’s meant to shock, or even (distressingly) in a way that almost romanticizes the behavior. Hell, Life is Strange actually makes a student’s suicide a playable level, where if you’re just observant enough, you can stop it (for points!). Crazy Ex Girlfriend walked the impossible line of depicting the suicide attempt in a realistic manner—it was easy to track Rebecca’s feeling of hopelessness and isolation—without any sort of glamorization. She was in a rough, unhealthy state, and the audience was encouraged to root for that to change.
Better yet, Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna made themselves available on Twitter immediately afterwards. That, in addition to a suicide helpline message which appeared on the screen following the episode, demonstrated that they were being as thoughtful as possible when approaching such a potentially triggering subject. It was difficult to watch, no question. But shying away from these topics doesn’t give equip us with the tools to handle them. We’ve praised Jessica Jones for starkly examining rape and rape apology; Crazy Ex Girlfriend is a show that should receive similar acclaim, particularly given how usual portrayals of suicide and mental health tend towards victim blaming.
Even that aspect was highlighted in the newest episode; Rebecca continually apologizes for the “hassle” she’s caused, and how bad she feels that everyone’s normal routine has been interrupted since like…her friends want to make sure she’s okay. It’s just so true-to-life. Too often our media has something *happen* to a character, and then it disappears an episode later. Rebecca’s deeply-felt self-loathing and general unworthiness isn’t gone just because her stomach was pumped, however. And that kind of consistency is important. Life doesn’t make narrative sense, so even though there’s a clear story that’s being told, it’s told in way that feels refreshingly familiar. Because it mirrors life.
Add to this the diagnosis. Rachel Bloom has talked openly about her own mental health numerous times. She also said this last week:
It’s clear this was written from a place of understanding, and with an attempt to be as validating and healing as possible. Rebecca sings a boisterous song about getting a diagnosis that will be her golden ticket to happiness (she’ll finally fit in somewhere), which amazingly captures the awareness of stigmatization alongside the often unreasonable weight people attached to their diagnoses. I just say this as a woman with OCD and general anxiety disorder, and I don’t want to speak for everyone ‘neurodivergent’, for lack of a better umbrella term. But in my opinion, the episode’s greatest strength was the way in which both of Rebecca’s doctors talked about her diagnosis. It’s not an identity, nor is it a fix; it’s a tool of understanding behavior, and one that can help guide treatment in a way that makes the most sense for her.
At the same time, Rebecca possesses the traits which define Borderline Personality Disorder. This was something I’ve said (mostly to Julia) for a long time, and something I’ve been scared for the show to tackle. I have intimate experience with this disorder, and without sugarcoating anything, some hurt as well. I have never seen proper depiction of it before this show, and I never in a million years thought it would actually be labeled, then fully described in a way that’s so accessible to an uninformed audience.
“A person with BPD is essentially a person that has difficulty regulating their emotions. Someone that lacks the protective emotional skin to feel comfortable in the world.”
It’s clear that Rebecca’s world is one that’s scary to be in. She never feels she fits, she has a terror of abandonment, and her impulsive actions that she does in order to control situations or feel accepted (be it breaking into Josh’s house to delete an embarrassing text, rushing to a wedding because she had a moment of doubt, or even sleeping with her ex’s dad because he was the only person being nice to her) have outcomes that usually result in more unhappiness. To be able to know that she’s not alone in this struggle is validating.
Though of course, and again realistically, the show doesn’t make the BPD simple or straightforward. Rebecca immediately Googles BPD and hates what she reads: that treatment can be lifelong, that there’s no “cure”, and even that 10% of people with BPD do kill themselves. She pushes against this diagnosis, even telling Dr. Akopian that she was bullied by the other doctor into agreeing with him on it, until Akopian whips out the DSM and goes through the checklist to see if Rebecca matches the criteria. Every point applies, and the show brilliantly provides flashbacks as these are read off. Rebecca sinks into despair, calling herself “certifiably crazy,”
Like…yeah. This is it. This is what happens. I was watching, half wanting to cry because of how easy it is to feel for Rebecca in that moment, and half wanting to laugh because finally what I’ve seen and experienced (second-handedly)—what I’ve even questioned and doubted—is on my screen for the first time, ever. We talk a lot about why fiction and representation matters, yet it’s almost unthinkable that the diagnostic process has been rarely been shown on our screens. Certainly not in this much detail.
The episode does end on a hopeful note, with Rebecca saying that she doesn’t want to ever feel like she did on the plane again. She goes to a group therapy, and gets a book to read afterwards. It’s not the end, nor was it ever meant to be. But it’s the means of getting her to a healthy place, and in that process, we see a lot of our own realities, from the hilarious to the uncomfortable.
That’s the story that matters, and that’s the story that was always being told. We’re just finally at the place where the characters see it too.
Images courtesy of the CW
A Bride’s Story is the Women’s Story You Were Waiting For
A Bride’s Story is a manga by Kaoru Mori (also responsible for Emma). Started in 2008, the series is still running and counts 9 volumes. It takes place in 19th century central Asia and follows several characters in their daily lives. The story is mainly focused on women of the region, but there is also the point of view Henry Smith, an English researcher. Anything else notable? Oh, I just remembered: it is really good.
Talking about a really good manga series could be enough on its own. But you know what’s even better? It is focused on women and their lives. Different women, with different lives, their work, their achievements, their pains. And it is written in a total love of all women. A good manga series, written by a woman about women? What else could we be asking for?
The Story of A Bride’s Story:
I am starting to not like this choice of title very much. But anyway, the manga opens on Amir and Karluk’s wedding. Amir is twenty whereas her husband is twelve (don’t worry there is no weird sexual content between the two). It is not the only thing that separates them. Karluk comes from a mainly sedentary village. Amir’s tribe still has a pretty nomadic way of life. Both spouses are pretty different so the first chapters of the manga follow their adaptation to each other (and to her in-laws in the case of Amir). The presence of Smith also allows the point of view of an outsider into the family.
The story then expands to other members of the family, friends, and neighbors, as well as people Smith will meet during his travels. Yet the story isn’t all over the place. We follow their lives and emotional development. And when Kaoru Mori focuses on one character she takes the time to tell their story. Even if she has to leave aside other characters for some time. But this is not a problem, as it is crystal clear she loves all her characters and will do them justice in time.
A Bride’s Story is going to focus on every aspect of the characters’ lives. There is high drama(military attack of one family on another) but also daily life (learning how to sew, finding your vocation).
In short A Bride’s Story is a really good read. But it is not the only thing that draws you in the narrative.
Art so gorgeous it sucks you in the story:
Another strings to Kaoru Mori’s bow which help you being completely absorbed in her world is that…
Which, considering the time we spend speaking about craftsmanship, is important. Having a visual representation worthy of the script is only doing it justice. If you don’t want to travel to central Asia to discover their handicraft after reading A Bride’s Story you are a liar, and that’s all there is to it. The characters and the details are insanely comprehensive. But we are also given amazing and dynamic action scenes.
This incredible art and interesting story combine to give us a narrative uplifting women at every turn.
An Hymn to women’s lives:
A Bride’s Story focuses, as its name clearly spells out, on brides. Sometimes young brides, sometimes bride-to-be, sometimes widows, but always women facing married life. And no it is not reductive. During the 19th century, marriage was (and still is in some cultures) one of the main events of a woman’s life. It was a literal change of family, of environment, and the real beginning of her adult life. So focusing around this event is not reductive. Quite the contrary. It reminds us that, as long as she is a good person, every woman’s life is worth telling.
Kaoru Mori spends a lot of time on women’s daily activity. Sewing of course (if the manga doesn’t give you a mighty need to start sewing you are a liar), but also cooking, taking care of the herd etc. Everything is worth the author’s attention, and ours. Do you know why? Because it is important work done with care. And this ask for our interest and respect.
Another thing which is incredibly well done in A Bride’s Story is the relationship between this women. They are supportive of each other. There is a mother-in-law ready to sacrifice herself to save her daughter-in-law. When Amir learns that she should go back to her family to marry another man because all the brides they have sent are dead (killed by their husband) she is not only crying because she is terrified. She is crying because she knew both of this girls and is devastated by their death. And the person reassuring her and saying that she is « not going anywhere » is her husband’s grandmother.
There are as many positive women relationship in there as there is stars in the sky. And not always just filial relationship. But also mentorship, friendship and emh…
And the icing on the cake is that every single one of these women is different from the others.
No wrong way of being a woman:
Truly it is refreshing to read about women helping each other. It is even better when they are allowed to be different. Because let’s be real, often in fiction women are created to oppose each other. The “good” kind of woman opposing the “wrong” kind of women. Just look at The White Queen and The White Princess, in which motherhood is glorified and “good” women are rewarded with it whereas “bad” women, women having a “man’s” ambition, became sterile and loveless.
Well, in A Bride’s Story we have traditionally feminine women who are soft gentle and love sewing. We have unconventional women who like to hunt and ride but are still good at feminine tasks (but let’s be real Amir is an amazement in universe too) and others which are not. We also have what other media often depicts as “failing” women, but are just unsure of who they are.
In short, Kaoru Mori is standing on her mountain screaming “They are all my daughters and I love them all!”. And trust me ,it feels good to be, as a reader, welcomed into this story.
To the surprise of no one, I heartily recommend reading A Bride’s Story. As a first manga, if it is your first, it might be putting the bar a bit high for future dives into the medium. But there are worse problems to have. Just to add to all I’ve said above, we also have good and interesting siblings relationships (my passion), making this manga almost without fault. It is worth a try. It really is.
All images courtesy of Yen Press.
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus Excels Because It Knows Its History
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is a phenomenal game. It has an inordinate amount to say about racism, anti semitism, the cycle of abuse, ableism, eugenics, homophobia, fat shaming, PTSD, war, violence, and just about everything else under the sun. And developer MachineGames does all of that with this wonderfully strange combination of hyper-meticulous tact, high production values, and auteur confidence. Of course, none of that would have been possible if the setting surrounding the narrative didn’t work, and holy shit does it ever.
The newest iterations of the Wolfenstein franchise take place in an alternate 1960—leading into ‘61 for the second game—where the Nazis won the war. 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order was a game framed around the “how” of the world. How did the Nazis win? How do they keep their conquered states in check? How have things changed in this reality? How do we stop them from gaining more power? How do we fight back against a near global, yet also interplanetary, regime?
Throughout the game, you come across newspaper clippings and records (The Beatles sort of still exist) that fill the gaps between 1946 and 1960. The result is a fully realized world that isn’t just a horrifying coat of paint over reality; it’s how things would have happened…with a few super-science-y liberties thrown in because why wouldn’t the Nazis a moon base or fire breathing robot dogs? And, of course, the greatest twist of all: the Nazis’ inexplicable sci-fi advancement, the whole reason they won the war, was built on the backs of stolen technology from a secret society of Jewish science wizards. There’s even a sequence where the protagonist, William Joseph “B.J.” Blazkowicz, breaks into a high security compound and finds ancient schematics written in Hebrew, which he knows how to read.
We also knew, in broad strokes, what had happened to the other parts of the world. America had surrendered completely after Manhattan was obliterated by an atomic bomb, mirroring the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Nazis had yet to conquer the vast majority of Africa, as organized resistance was proving far more effective than they were willing to recognize. London was kept in line by a skyscraper-sized robot called the London Monitor, which you get to blow up.
Wolfenstein: The New Order took place almost entirely in western Europe (with a brief sojourn to the moon, of course) and exploring how the one region of the world that was, at one time, actually conquered by the Nazis, ended up being just familiar enough to what it was back then to what it became in their alternate history. It’s this foundation, this deep uprooting and deconstruction of history, that allows its sequel, The New Colossus, to head straight into the United States. We were shown what was comfortably familiar to us, so it was time to show what was uncomfortably familiar.
An America subjugated and ruled by the Nazis.
Enemy Of The State Of Affairs
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is a game about “why”. Why do we fight against oppression when society around us punishes those who do? Why do we push back against systemic hatred, even when it has no bearing on us? Why does a man like William Joseph “B.J.” Blazkowicz, the perfect aesthetic poster boy for Aryan supremacy, reject those who would treat him like a king?
Why has America submitted to Nazi rule? The short answer is: giant airship. The long answer? Well, that one’s not so complicated.
Relatively early in the game, you meet up with a New York City resistance cell lead by a black woman named Grace, a survivor of the Manhattan bombing. In fact, all but one of her members are black with the exception of her partner Super Spesh. Their character designs explicitly invoke imagery of the Black Panthers and the overall Black Power movement.
The first game had you run around helping the Kreisau Circle, the Berlin-based Nazi resistance group that eventually cut the head off the Nazi war machine and stopping them from developing new weapons. This cell was lead by Caroline Decker, a paraplegic veteran. But, in the opening of this game, Caroline is executed by the main antagonist, Frau Engel, leaving a gaping hole in leadership that Grace fits perfectly. Who better to represent a 1960s violent uprising of the oppressed than a black woman in America?
She even goes so far as to move into Caroline’s old cabin in their captured Super U-Boat. From the start of the narrative, Wolfenstein is showing us that America is very different from a conquered Europe. For one, the English language is being banned, hearkening back to that old adage of “If the Nazis won, we’d all be speaking German”.
The largest among the differences though is that, just as Grace says above, America never stopped fighting the Nazis. The military did, yes, and the vast majority of the white population, including a South-governed KKK, but the fact that there is a dedicated anti-gravity airship, the Ausmerzer, whose sole role is to travel the country and crush resistance factions for the past decade tells us in no uncertain terms that the hold the Nazis have over America isn’t as ironclad as they believe it to be.
Even if they are able to put on one hell of a show.
We find newspaper clippings within the game describing resistance cells crushed by the Ausmerzer, and there’s even a moment during a trip to Roswell where you’re recognized (you’re the Reich’s most wanted, after all) by a local resident who, in a terrified act of defiance, whispers that he believes in what you’re doing when just seconds prior he was selling newspaper propaganda with glee.
The cap to this, however, is the final scene of the final mission of the game where you ambush Frau Engel’s live appearance on a talk show. You sneak through the bleachers and into the rafters, noting that every single person in the audience is a cardboard cutout. The show may be being broadcasted to every living room in the world, but it stands to reason that if people aren’t going to the live show…they’re not buying into the lies.
America is being crushed under the heel of the Nazis, yes, but it has yet to be crushed. Good people are still out there in the world, but they’ve forgotten how to resist. Those who were already filled with hate jumped on board, the minority, while everyone else is either putting their head in the sand or just trying to survive.
On the other side of the table, though, is how white America perceives the Nazis. I’ve already mentioned that the KKK controls the south, but it goes a whole lot deeper than that. Slavery has been legalized once more, and auctions are the talk of the town. We find out that, in true Nazi form, they rounded up the country’s degenerates—Jews, queer folk and people of color—and either purged them or sent them off to die in New Orleans…which is now a massive ghetto, Escape from New York style.
And if you “named names”, you were rewarded with what those same people left behind. Land rights, mansions, savings; everything they owned was either seized by the state or given as a gift to those who betrayed their friends and neighbors. This is not something we discover on a broad scale; it’s personal to B.J.
He visits his childhood home after nuking Area 52 (it wasn’t aliens, just ancient Jewish Techno Wizard secrets) and finds his abusive father, Rip, waiting for him, having heard he was in the area and assumed he’d come around. Rip, as we learned from flashbacks, was physically and emotionally abusive to both his son and his wife Zofia, a Jewish Polish immigrant. That, and he was a hardcore White Supremacist, having only married Zofia because he believed her father would be a business asset. He bemoans that no one knows what it is like to suffer as he does, thinking that everyone is trying to steal everything from the White Man.
In short, he represents everything that B.J. has spent his entire adult life fighting against.
When asked what happened to his mother, Rip admits that he sold her out to the Nazis and they took her away. The confrontation ends with B.J. killing his father after he presses a shotgun to his son’s forehead, but through their entire conversation he’d been on the phone with the Nazis. He’d sold out his son, too.
That’s the state of the world in Wolfenstein, and in The New Colossus you blow it the fuck up.
Terror-Billy Goes America All Over Everybody’s Ass
While the game’s marketing may have been pointing towards a parallel with the American Revolution as for how the country ousts the Nazis, I posit that the historical context is far more evocative of our 1960s.
Grace’s existence and design are already evidence of this, but it’s the rest of the resistance that makes this all the more clear. The second big group you recruit, aptly enough from the New Orleans ghetto itself, is lead by a man named Horton. He organizes a group of communists, socialists and anarchists who you’d think wouldn’t fit in with Grace and her people. These are the people that dodged the draft, even if they did push the concept of equal rights earlier than most. Horton even flat out cites their attempted push for a civil rights movement in an argument with B.J.
Of course, there’s a key difference between refusing to fight on foreign soil in a war that benefits the military industrial complex and what’s happening to them now. Horton’s group draws upon sentiment from both the end of the Great War and the counterculture movements of the 1960s.
Again, many of them were draft dodging pacifists, but that goes right out the window when it comes to Nazis. It’s one thing to refuse to fight a foreign enemy on foreign lands when victory would have only spread what you’re rebelling against. It’s quite another to sit by and accept fascism in the very country that allowed, though not always encouraged, you to believe what you saw in your heart as just.
It’s at the end of the game, however, in the ending cinematic, that this entire idea solidifies. That this historical context isn’t an accident, and the frankly unbelievable amount of homework MachineGames must have done paid off in spades. Mere moments after B.J. kills Frau Engel on live television, Grace and Horton speak directly into the cameras and ignite a violent revolution. The Kreisau Circle may be organized like a guerilla military operation, but the American people aren’t. They don’t need to be.
It’s an angry, raw, improvised and imperfect call to arms, but that’s what makes it perfect. Violent uprisings don’t start with eloquence or deep debating over the justification to fight against those who oppress you. They start with whatever you’ve got on hand. The Civil Rights movement, the Stonewall Riots and the general counterculture protests that dominated the 60s are clear influences on Wolfenstein’s depiction of “retaking America”. Seriously, if it didn’t sink in already, they blast a heavy metal cover of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” over the end credits coupled with imagery of violent rioting and uprisings across the nation.
Wolfenstein does not attempt to hold a mirror to our world today, even if it does so inadvertently. It tries to make us look back, so that we remember how to keep moving forward. It’s message is clear because it knows what it’s talking about, no matter how over-the-top the presentation:
Equality is not a debate; it’s a right. Those without it won’t stop until they have it, because for them it’s literally “Fight, or Die”. So the best thing you can do, if you’ve already got it, is to pick them up with you. And if you don’t? If you keep trying to push others down? It’s gonna get bloody, just like it always does, and chances are it won’t be them who’s dying.
Images courtesy of MachineGames
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