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Why Do Stories Matter?

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The Ethics of Storytelling Part 2 (see Part 1, here)

We’ve all heard it before, the cry of the anti-critic. It seems like whenever we voice critiques of media, someone rallies the cry of “It’s just a TV show/book/film!” or “It’s just a story!” (usually followed by “Get over it!”). As if stories were irrelevant, meaningless things that exist merely to be consumed and the leftovers discarded as easily as day old McDonald’s french fries. ‘Just’ minimizes, dismisses, and derides. We’re silly to care, even sillier to pursue reasonable discussion and criticism. But there is nothing ‘just’ about stories.

As Kat Barrell pointed out in our interview, human beings have been telling stories since the beginning of time. Long before humans were driving cars or playing football or writing internet articles, they were telling each other stories. It’s in our blood and DNA. Storytellers and preservers of traditions were­—and still are in other parts of the world—some of the most revered members of society. A tradition this ancient cannot be trivial.

But why do stories matter so much? For starters, stories are creative expressions both of self and culture. This is no small thing. We live in an increasingly mechanized society where people are treated as either bottomless pits of consumption or interchangeable parts in the machine of capitalism and industry. Creativity is not valued as highly anymore because aesthetics are frivolous in the world of the machine. So if nothing else, stories defy the pressure to measure life in terms of productivity and output potential. Stories are art, and therefore immanently human, but that’s not the end of the matter. They are also much more.

Stories as Mirrors of Ourselves

Stories are more than aesthetics, they’re also reflective. We see ourselves reflected in stories and understand ourselves better. No matter your race, gender, religion, or physical ability seeing yourself onscreen is a powerful experience, like the first time you see a wlw couple and think “That’s me!”. The overwhelming response to Alex Danvers’ storyline and the Sanvers ship on this season of Supergirl has been a powerful rush of self-identification and emotional attachment: “This is how it feels to have our stories told”.

Seeing ourselves in stories validates our experiences. The portrayal of characters with our skin color, sexual orientation, or religious background in different narrative roles (villain, protagonist, friend, mentor, love interest, etc), underscores our own humanity because humans themselves exist in every possible role. Humans are fat, thin, tall, short, whiney, awkward, gregarious, friendly, nefarious, and a whole host of other things. We’re all varying shades of grey with our motivations, so the more different characters we see that we can identify with, the more seen and acknowledged we feel. More human, less alone.

Seeing ourselves in a story generates new insight into our motivations, personality, and self. It can be positive, “That’s why I do the thing!” and negative, “Oh, right, that’s a problem I have too.” More, diverse characters mean more opportunities for self reflection and growth. It can also be a shorthand way to help other people understand you: “I’m 50/50 Luna and Hermione” or “I’m a Slytherin with a dash of Hufflepuff” or “I grew up with a dad like Petyr Baelish” (if you did, I’m so, so sorry).

By understanding ourselves, flaws and all, we learn to love ourselves more. It’s often easier to love someone else than ourselves, even someone with similar flaws. We’re our own worst enemies; sometimes the things we hate most about a character are personal flaws. So, the more stories we tell, the more options we have to love more characters which, if they remind us of ourselves, can help us see ourselves more kindly. I could talk about how my initial hatred of Sansa Stark was rooted in self-loathing and once I understood this, I turned into a true knight of the Sansa Defense Club. Or, I could tell you how much my absolute love for Luna Lovegood (and frustration at her sidelining) has helped me to enjoy the more scattered, random aspects of my personality. Stories can give us back ourselves.

Stories can open up new avenues for self-actualization. When diverse characters exist in varying occupational roles or exhibit alternative lifestyle choices, we start to think outside of social or familial expectation. Seeing a female scientist like Eliza Danvers encourages young girls to consider STEM fields. Boys with more feminine coded interests can take heart in Steven Universe’s love of dresses, hearts, glitter, and singing catchy pop songs in front of an entire city. Seeing trans and non-binary characters can help questioning young people understand how best to self-identify and know that exploring their gender is safe. Human beings in real life come in every flavor imaginable, so the more diversely stories represent their characters, the more it will look like real life. And the more stories look like real life, the happier, healthier, and understood people will feel. In other words, representation matters.

Stories as Windows into Other People

On the other side of this coin, stories allow us to understand other people better. Like the first time you see a black character talk about oppression or a trans character talk about transmisogyny. Suddenly, what your black or trans friend has been saying about their experiences suddenly clicks into place. The shorthand for conceptualizing ourselves to others works equally well the other direction. Although limiting, the boxes are still useful. There’s a reason why MBTI and other, similar personality tests stick around for example, or why the Harry Potter houses do. Stories offer categories into which we can sort and understand people. Just so long as we allow people to ‘break the mold’ and act other than our categories might permit, there’s no problem in using them as a touchstone for empathy.

And this isn’t just me talking either. Recent studies have proven that reading literary fiction improves children’s capacity for empathy.

“Literary fiction, by contrast, focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships…This genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom.”—Julianne Chiaet, “Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy”

It isn’t all that surprising when you think about it. Reading how other people think allows us to comprehend their thinking processes. We start to put ourselves in other character’s shoes, which bleeds over into ‘real’ life. Stories help us to understand people who are different from ourselves, which, again, hammers home the need for diversity in our storytelling. It doesn’t just help us understand ourselves, diverse stories and representation allow us to empathize with perspectives other than our own.

Stories as Windows into The World

“We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.”—J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”

Stories give us a window into not only people but also societies. Not all stories are real in the sense of ‘having actually happened’, but many unreal stories can be true. Stories reflect our lived experience and show us the world around us as we were meant to see it, and in that sense, are true. This, in turn, allows us to see both the flaws and the beauty of the world around us. We see something familiar in a new way, renewing our sense of awe and enjoyment. Pixar movies like Cars and the Toy Story series, for example, invite us to look at the world of inanimate objects differently. Finding Nemo singlehandedly changed how I hear the cry of seagulls.

For good or ill.

Other stories mirror back the flaws of our society. Science fiction and fantasy at their best provide a way to talk about issues like racism and sexism from a more objective standpoint that does not immediately turn off those who need to hear the messages the most. I strongly believe that A Song of Ice and Fire’s vivid, sometimes overly graphic, depictions of sexism and misogyny are meant to force us to reflect on our society (your mileage may vary on how successful Martin is). Ender’s Game depicts the tragedy of narrow-minded xenophobia and jingoism in a way that ought to shock us out of complacency. Dystopian fiction like 1984 and Brave New World portrays the flaws of governmental extremes if left unchecked. In all of these stories, a fresh perspective opens up new perspectives and conversations on societal flaws we’ve habituated ourselves to.

Stories can also give us a glimpse into minority experiences in our society or even different societies altogether. Huckleberry Finn and Their Eyes Were Watching God provide very different windows into black life in the late 19th and early 20th century America. Similarly, Luke Cage allows black persons to tell their own stories about life in Harlem not filtered through typically white produced crime serials set in New York City. A Harlem that, though modern, is more accurate in its depiction of the racial make up of the neighborhood than J. K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them.

Such stories remind those in positions of privilege that their version of history is not entirely accurate. That there are other versions of the stories they’ve been told and that their story is too limited to encompass the whole of life. At their best, other people’s stories allows us to realize that our story is incomplete or flawed.

Likewise, stories give voice to marginalized and hurting people, providing an avenue for them to not only tell but interpret their experiences. Victims of abuse write stories to process their trauma and help others in similar situations. Jessica Jones gives voice to women who have been raped. The upcoming Hidden Figures attacks the erasure of women of color from historical narratives. Every new Disney Princess movie featuring a woman of color allows more young girls of color to see themselves as beautiful, powerful, and worthy of being their own hero.

Thus, stories can both subvert or uphold the status quo. Too many stories from the majority perspective will minimize or silence minority voices. More stories from marginalized communities will challenge the dominant perspective. The underlying fear of increased minority representation stems from precisely this power to subvert the status quo. Because, at some level, even those who deny the meaningfulness of stories recognize that they have the power to shape reality in either edifying or destructive ways.

Stories as Windows into Alternate Realities

“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.”— J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”

Escaping from real, lived pains and traumas through stories is not an invention of the modern era, but rather one of the essential features of stories since their inception. There is a longing in the midst of suffering for life to be better. Visiting a world in which there is hope, light, and joy during times of crisis reminds us that there is goodness in the world even if we aren’t currently experiencing it. Like the prisoner Tolkien speaks of, there is no harm in exploring a world fundamentally better than our own when we struggle. Stories ease suffering and we often carry the hope found there back into our ‘normal’ lives. We endure because of escape. How did Cinderella cope with her abusive stepmother? She visited the prince’s ball to dance the night away and forget her suffering for a while. That’s okay. Stories are made for that.

Similarly, stories allow us to reinterpret present reality in order to change it. Supergirl’s speech to National City in the S1 finale called on everyone to choose hope in order to break them free from Myriad’s hold on their lives. In the wake of this disappointing election season, many people (myself included) used her words to encourage ourselves to hope for a better future and stay strong. Her story had the power to strengthen our resolution in the present and start planning for the future. Stories show us how we can change our world for the better.

Stories also provide a way for us to reinterpret, reclaim, or defy our past or present experiences. Many comics began as reactions to war and/or grew out of minority experiences in America. Superman began his career as a symbol of Jewish power to fight the Nazi’s during WWII, Captain America as well. Lin Manuel-Miranda’s “Hamilton” reclaims American history for minorities and provides greater space to talk about the current contribution of minorities to American society. Alongside a whole host of female driven comic books, Supergirl is reclaiming comic book stories for women, especially LGBT women, and feminism.

Fanfiction most vividly encapsulates this purpose of stories. A recent study of fanfiction tropes highlights the popularity of fluff and happy endings, with major character death being one of the biggest no-nos. Fanfiction is frequently (though not always) the art of the disappointed, the hurt, the frustrated. We turn to it to change what we disliked about a story in so called ‘fix it fic’ and find solace in it when media makers kill off our favorite characters in brutal ways. We seek it out for happy endings instead of grimdark nihilism.

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”—J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”

Tolkien writes specifically about fairy (or fantasy) stories, but it applies to other genres as well. Stories grant us a glimpse of the final defeat of evil. In our society, Dark™ and Gritty™ have become a catchphrase to mean “realistic”, as if the world is essentially dark, humorless, and depressing. Literary nihilism masquerading as realism. But stories remind us that joy, hope, love, and light are as real as sorrow and pain. Happy endings allow us to picture a world where evil is ultimately defeated by good, where love triumphs over hate, and joy over existential wallowing in angst.

The Power of Stories

Ask any parent why they do not allow their child to consume certain media and the answer will be something along the lines of “Children are sponges, and we have to be careful what they consume otherwise it will warp their brains.” (It’s an oversimplification, I know, but it usually boils down to this.) At some level, human beings recognize that stories have power to shape how children think, which can lead to censorship. Yet, we fail to apply this same concept to adults much of the time. Adults are above being changed or shaped by stories. Children are impressionable, not adults.

“I think this is an error; at best an error of false sentiment, and one that is therefore most often made by those who, for whatever private reason (such as childlessness), tend to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large.”—J. R R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”

It’s not true, as I hopefully have shown. Stories don’t just have power to shape children, though they do have that power. Stories shape how adults perceive reality and other people as well. Just look at how specific messaging (i.e., stories) shaped the election this past year. Or, look at how the overwhelming death of LGBT+ women on television was funneled into positive change and, hopefully, a change in how media portrays this vulnerable, marginalized group. Stories are not indifferent.

Stories have the power to shape perception and change reality for the better or for the worse. Seeing Sauron and Saruman defeated by the hobbits reminds us that we, too, can defeat the tyrants and manipulators in our lives. Stories can equally generate apathy, a sense of inevitability to evil. The acedia in our media merely reflects the apathy in our society toward those not in our immediate circle of concerns. The failure to change toxic structures becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. We don’t believe we can change things because our stories exude that message. Saying media is ‘just’ a story misunderstands of the power of storytelling.

We are not above stories; we are shaped by them. Rejecting the power and meaning of stories is tragically ironic in the original Greek sense. It’s rooted in hubris and denial: Oedipus not perceiving how his actions fulfilled the prophecy of the gods even as he sought to defy it; Cersei consumed with averting a story told by a woods witch and inadvertently conforming to it. Part of the irony of Martin’s repeated us of the phrase “words are wind” in A Song of Ice and Fire is that it’s a lie. Or at the very least a half-truth. Words are not wind. Words (and stories) have power.

The Responsibility of Storytellers

Stories matter because they have great power, and with power comes responsibility. How we tell stories matter as much as the stories themselves, and we need to discuss storytelling in terms of ethics. There is a healthy way and a destructive way to tell stories. We, as storytellers of all kinds, have a responsibility to tell stories that maximize the potential for stories to shape our society and ourselves in positive ways. It can involve iconoclasm or a call for revolution, as with dystopian fiction. Sometimes it means providing a vision of an alternate, better reality, as with science fiction, fantasy, or fanfic. Other times, it means shining a light onto trauma and the destructive ‘-isms’ of our society (sexism, racism, ablism, etc.). It can also mean telling your own story so that someone else can see themselves represented and know they’re not alone.

Storytellers have a responsibility to give voice and representation to the vulnerable and marginalized members of society, for that is how we understand others and ourselves better. I, as a white person, do not personally experience the systemic oppression of people of color. Stories can help me understand, empathize, and mobilize for change. Stories about LGBT+ women help me perceive myself better as well as remind me I’m not alone. In short, the more stories we tell, the more beautiful and nuanced our society will become.

all-the-things

I love Allie Brosh.

Finally, we have a responsibility to tell stories in an ethical manner that does not harm our audiences or take advantage of them, especially vulnerable audiences. We have a responsibility not to exploit our readers or viewers, not to intentionally harm them for our own sadistic pleasure. Why? Because stories matter, and they can hurt as much as they can heal.

Why Stories Matter

As a category, ‘stories’ encompasses more than fictional narratives. History is story, religion is story, our own inner dialogues are stories. Ultimately, stories matter because human experience is story. It is no small thing to give someone themselves or generate empathy. It is no small thing to provide a new vision for the world to contrast the grim realities we face. Stories tell us who we are, who other people are, and our place in the world. And, how we perceive reality determines how we live our lives, what kind of people we want to be, and what kind of world we want to live in.


Images and Gifs courtesy of The CW, Disney/Pixar, Dreamworks, Cartoon Network, Hyperbole and a Half, and CBS.

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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Analysis

Brimstone Is More Grimdark Nonsense Posing As Feminist Empowerment

Antoine

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The road to hell is sometimes paved with good acting but not even Dakota Fanning can save "Brimstone". (Image Credit: Momentum Pictures)
Content warning: article contains discussions of incest, sadism, and torture porn. Spoiler warning for the movie Brimstone.

Brimstone is the latest victim of the Grimdark plague afflicting too many narratives nowadays. To the point that I’ve started accidentally calling the movie “Grimstone” or “Brimdark”. Dakota Fanning is convincing in the lead role of a traumatized, hunted survivor, but no amount of good acting can redeem such an unpleasant, painfully long (nearly 2.5 hours)  and pointlessly sadistic ordeal. Not even Kit Harington’s somewhat brief appearance and sad puppy face is worth it.

The Road to Hell is Paved with Faux-Feminist Tales of Empowerment™

For some reason that still escapes me, the Political Film Society (whatever that is) has nominated Brimstone as “best film on human rights of 2017”. They have praised director-screenwriter Martin Koolhoven for daring to expose the “extreme debasement of women” in a the mid-19th century American West, while making a jaw-dropping political comment,

“Another theme is the depiction of the American West as lawless, hinting that within American culture there is an extraordinary macho strain that continues in family life and politics, what Theodore Adorno called the ‘authoritarian personality,’ which maintains strict discipline at home and votes for those who appear strong enough to break the rules to get things done. Brimstone was released at a time when filmviewers may find resonance in the story with the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency.”

Sure, it’s easy to connect “the rise of Donald Trump” to misogyny (it’s also lazy and simplistic). The problem is that Brimstone is not actually exposing or denouncing it; it’s actively participating in constructing it. Depicting the “extreme debasement of women” (the wording used by the Political Film Society should already give you a clue) in an exploitive, pornified, Grimdark framework reminiscent of Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue is not the way to bring attention to misogyny, rape culture, or violence against women. It brings us back to the old debate of Depiction vs. Endorsement which is actually way older than we might think.

Before diving headfirst into the disturbing, depressing universe of Brimstone, I propose a short trip into the historical origins of the Grimdark subgenre. This topic deserves its own piece, which will be fully fleshed out in the future, but let’s start with a quick overview.

Gothic vs. Grimdark and the Sadean Narrative

Unlike David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D), the infamous (around here) showrunners of Game of Thrones, Brimstone director Martin Koolhoven at least never pretended he was writing a Dramatically Satisfying “Gothic Horror,” though it does contain similar tropes. Indeed, it’s hard not to compare the two. So much so I had to pause while watching Brimstone to check if they shared a screenwriter or ‘creative genius’ in common rather than just Kit Harington and Carice van Houten (they don’t seem to).

As a historian of the French Revolution and the 18th century, it’s also difficult not to see the similarities between the Grimdark narrative to which Benioff, Weiss, and Koolhoven subscribe and Sade’s Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue. Especially when the former attempt to root their stories in “historical accuracy” or “historical realism.”

Some of the main themes of the Gothic genre are impossible to separate from the historical era in which it originates. Like most fiction, the eternal battle between Good and Evil is at the forefront. In this case, the concepts most commonly used during the period were those of Virtue and Vice, in which the Apostles of Vice try to tempt, lure or corrupt the Champions of Virtue.

Gothic fiction is further characterized by decay and corruption, which parallel that of the Ancien Régime itself. The old protectors (nobility) and moral guardians (clergy) were the institutions that used to champion Virtue. However, by the 18th century, they are increasingly failing in their duties; they were no longer capable of playing and fulfilling their roles, or deliberately stood against them, leading to the rise of new “Champions of Virtue.” These new heroes will define the 19th century with new struggles. In this period, the revolutionary acts as a substitute for the fallen figure of the “Knight in Shining Armor” and “Protector of the Innocent.”

As a moral and political critique of the Ancien Régime, Gothic fiction shares much in common with epistolary novels of that century, but they both differ from Sade in significant ways. Most importantly, in the former Virtue ultimately triumphs. Sure, it won’t get out of the fight unscathed. Its champion will lose their innocence; they might fall from grace, they may even die, often by sacrificing themselves, but what they represent will endure.

The same holds true of contemporary Gothic fiction. Even the Hannibal series, which seemingly showcases a perfect Sadean villain (he even plays the harpsichord, come on!), is not Sadean itself. Despite the temptation, corruption, and fall of the hero, Virtue still prevails and triumphs (beautifully, I must say).

Will Graham considers to fall literally after his metaphorical Fall from Grace

I’d say, right about here.

As “Love Crime” (the song playing during this moment) says it best, the characters embodying this thematic struggle play an ageless “deadly game”, on which depends the meaning not just of good and evil, but of life and humanity.

This narrative, however, bores a certain type of people who long to see ‘the villains win for a change’, who wish the world was shown as it ‘truly, realistically, accurately is’—from their point of view—in all its gritty darkness and villainy. One of these was the Marquis de Sade (that’s the first and last time I will dignify him of his title and particle).

Over the course of his career, Sade brought forward arguments extremely similar to the usual apologetic discourse excusing the Grimdark turn in storytelling. Like history as the true source of atrocities and the necessity to depict evil in the most horrifying (and graphic) ways to make sure that evil is understood and loathed as such.

In the preface to his 1791 edition of Justine, he bragged about his “originality” in inserting a plot twist that had “undoubtedly” never been done before: letting the villains win and rewarding them in the narrative while the Champions of Virtue remain forever miserable and meet atrocity after atrocity.

“The scheme of this novel (less a novel than one might suppose) is undoubtedly new; the victory gained by Virtue over Vice, the rewarding of good, the punishment of evil, such is the usual scheme in every other work of this type: shouldn’t we be tired of such a hackneyed lesson!”

In other words, it’s boring when the Good Guys win, especially if they don’t face horrific circumstances to make us appreciate their (seemingly vain) struggle.

The 1791 edition pretended to be a moralistic cautionary tale—and a “most sublime” one at that, as he praises it himself—destined to make people, especially women, “love Virtue more” by making her champion “suffer beautifully and sublimely.” Sade’s 1799 re-edition (La Nouvelle Justine) featured even more exploitation, more torture, more rape, and more murder. His intentions had taken a much darker turn.

By 1799, his sarcastic praise of Virtue had vanished. Virtue is now a “ridiculous idol” worshiped by “imbeciles” who fail to realize they will never be rewarded for their good deeds. It’s better to “abandon oneself to Vice than to resist it,” because “Virtue is too weak to fight against Vice” and choosing her side is a sure way to lose. For these reasons, he proclaims he must “courageously dare” to depict crime as it is, “that is, always triumphant and sublime, always happy and fortunate”, while virtue is “always dour and always sad, always pedantic and always miserable.”

Sade was also a troll, both in history and literature. On July 3, 1789, when tensions were already high, he screamed from his cell in the Bastille that prisoners were being butchered and that people needed to come and free him. (It wasn’t true – and the revolutionaries who later stormed the prison were disappointed to find out there were only seven prisoners inside). He also trolled the philosophical themes of the Enlightenment and the Revolutionary politics, parodying them, twisting them, and pushing them to absurd limits.

Sade weaponized irony and ambiguity in a way that wouldn’t seem out of place on 4chan (coughs). His prose is nauseating, yet inevitably boring. Even in the 18th century Shock and Awe got old pretty fast. His style ripped off other pornographic novels of the century, like Thérèse Philosophe (1748), in which porn was intercut with philosophical ramblings. Only for Sade, his blandly described, repetitive “porn” was made of rape, abuse, torture, and murder, while the “philosophy” provided “natural” justifications for these.

In short, Sade created his own Grimdark “satire” of Gothic horror in which he corrupted the roles of the main characters. The protagonist/Champion of Virtue, often an Ingénue (usually female but sometimes male), becomes a Doom Magnet bringing death and disaster everywhere they go. The calamities that befall the protagonist extend to every good person who has the misfortune to cross their path, befriend them, or want to help them. Nothing can save them, not even Providence/God is on their side. Their belief in goodness, honor, and virtuous principles is mocked, and they are punished for holding onto them.

Meanwhile the villain who, as in Gothic fiction, is often a Depraved Aristocrat or a Corrupt Priest or Nun becomes an overpowered Villain Sue, deflects karma, and is rewarded for understanding the ‘truth’ about ‘human nature’. This is the Sadean Narrative.

Sound familiar?

Sade’s excuses and defenses are the same as D&D’s: invoking historical accuracy, realism, human nature, ‘how things really are or were’, etc. But that’s bullshit. It’s a construction. As much as they pride themselves in showing the so-called truth of human nature, Grimdark writers and their apologists neglect whole parts of it, omit them, erase them in order to create, as Adam Roberts puts it, a cynical, nihilistic, ultraviolent world “where nobody is honorable and Might is Right”.

The same can be said of Martin Koolhoven’s Brimstone.

Brimstone, or the Misfortunes of Virtue

This 149 minute long movie is divided in four chapters: “Revelation,” “Exodus,” “Genesis,” and “Retribution”. The second and third chapters are out-of-order flashbacks explaining how we got here while the last chapter resumes where we left off in the first.

In the first chapter, we meet Liz (Dakota Fanning), who’s mute. She works as the town’s midwife. She’s happily married with two kids, a stepson and a daughter. Everything is going mostly well. However, her past catches up on her when she meets the town’s new reverend. As we’ll later learn, Liz’s real name is Joanna, and the new reverend she’s terrified of isn’t just a sadistic, hypocritical asshole who’s been chasing her for a while, he’s also her incestuous father. The main purpose of the nonlinear narrative serves to conceal this plot twist (somewhat predictable when you know the genre though YMMV).

The chronological beginning of the story is in “Genesis”, in which young Joanna (Emilia Jones) is 13 years old. On the night Joanna menstruates for the first time, she finds her father, the Evil Reverend (Guy Pearce), whipping her mother, Anna (Carice van Houten), in the barn for not putting out. It’s filmed in a voyeuristic, creepy way that hides behind the excuse of “exposing violence against women” to showcase torture porn. This is one of the many pointlessly graphic whipping scenes featured in the movie, another of which involves a child actress who was less than ten years old at the time of filming (Ivy George, who plays Sam, Joanna/Liz’s daughter).

Anna finds out her husband is creeping on their daughter, because “now she’s a woman” and her mother is not fulfilling “her wifely duties.” Presumably to stop her from telling everyone (I assume because it’s never explained), the Evil Reverend gets her a scold’s bridle. It’s ridiculous but hey, it does provide great imagery for the trailer and for the reviews to denounce the “extreme debasement of women.”

"Brimstone" is about exposing misogyny or something

This is about “human rights” or something.

It doesn’t get any better from there on out.

Goodness Gets You Killed

Get used to this basic rule when watching the movie: each nice person dies horribly. Because goodness gets you killed. Because it’s written that way.

  • Anna, Joanna’s mother who could have protected her – hangs herself.
  • Johnny Sand, who tried to save her – shot with his own gun (through the Reverend).
  • Nice Sex Worker Sally – hanged for murder.
  • Random Mourning Father – shot in a rigged duel he could never have won.
  • Nice Friend Elizabeth – stabbed with her own knife (through the Reverend).
  • Nice Husband Eli – disemboweled (by the Reverend).
  • Protective Teenage Stepson Matthew who tried his best to protect his Stepmom and Half-Sister – shot (by the Reverend).
  • Nice Husband’s Father (and Mathew and Sam’s Grandpa) who was helping Joanna and Sam by hiding them – impaled to a door (by the Reverend).

The anvil needs to be dropped about what kind of world Justine, I mean, Joanna, lives in. It’s a Crapsack World from which there is no escape, as the rest of the movie will painfully remind Joanna (and the viewer) each time a spark of hope shines through.

Soon after the Evil Reverend gets the scold’s bridle for his wife, for example, Joanna asks her mother why she lets him treat her that way, and that she would rather die than live like that. This scene leads directly to Anna wandering off and immediately hanging herself right there in the church while her husband is preaching about how evil women are. Awkward. One of the few (maybe even only) people who could have protected Joanna is now dead.

Similarly, the whole subplot involving Kit Harington is ultimately insignificant and only serves to reinforce the lesson that good deeds will lead you to your grave. He’s a Thief With a Heart of Gold who wanders onto the Evil Reverend’s ranch, and Joanna hides him in the barn until he recovers from his wounds. He’s a Good Guy; he turns her down when she reluctantly offers herself to him. Johnny Sand (let’s just call him that) is the only one to oppose the Evil Reverend when he decides to marry his own daughter. He’s even all backlit with glorious sunlight, like a Prince Charming finally showing up!

Don’t get too excited: he dies.

Just as he’s about to shoot the Evil Reverend, he somehow loses grasp on his own gun —SOMEHOW—and the Reverend shoots him instead. Bye Johnny Sand. You tried. You just couldn’t win in this kind of narrative.

After her “wedding” to her father, Joanna runs away to the desert, where she faints, is found, and is ultimately sold to a brothel, Frank’s Inferno. Most of the women she meets are Mean and Catty and mock the 13 year-old child, except for one Nice Sex Worker named Sally who protects the last shreds of Joanna’s innocence. Needless to say, she meets a dire end; she’s hanged by the sheriff for murdering a man who wanted to rape Joanna. Even though she was just defending herself, as Joanna tearfully insists, Frank reminds her “there are rules,” and Sally knew not to defy them.

Several years later, the now grown-up Joanna (played by Dakota Fanning) witnesses a duel between Frank and a mourning father, who blames the former for his daughter’s death and demands a “fair fight.” Joanna, her friend Elizabeth, and all the other women working at Frank’s Inferno cheer for this unnamed man, an unlikely Champion of Virtue in this Crapsack World. He symbolizes The Good Father None Of Those Women Presumably Had:

“It’s men like you, who think their actions have no consequences, who are making this country turn into what it’s turning to. So, for my daughter’s sake, for every daughter’s sake, I have to kill you.”

Much like Johnny Sand earlier, he dies. The duel was rigged anyway so he could never have won. Cue the sad faces of the women who needed another reminder of the world they live in.

Joanna and Elizabeth (right) in "Brimstone"

Because Virtue Just Can’t Win.

But one of the most over-the-top example of this disturbing ‘theme’ is the murder of Joanna/Liz’s stepson, probably punished because he wanted to become a nice person someday. The scene is utterly ridiculous. There’s a blizzard, you can’t see a thing, and yet the Evil Reverend manages to shoot the kid? Who only got out of the wagon because he accidentally dropped his own riffle? Why did any of this have to happen? Because it provides great imagery, I guess.

Symbolism maybe

Blood on pure white snow? Are they trying to say something?

So, to recap: Joanna/Liz’s life sucks. Anybody who tries to save her, protect her, rescue her, or cares about her dies violently. Narrative Acedia strikes again.

The only decent person who makes it out alive is the doctor who refuses to cut out Joanna’s tongue when she comes up with the illogical plan of taking Elizabeth’s place.

Meanwhile, the Evil Reverend is near unkillable. Cut his throat and let him to drown in his own blood in a room you set on fire? He survives that! (The movie never really explains how, nor stops to ponder how impossible this would be even with the best medical care the 19th century could offer.) Set him on fire? He feels nothing apparently, he even seems to embrace it, either because he made a pact with the devil (which I would be willing to accept at this point) or because he’s a Secret Targ. Who the hell knows? Well, Hell might actually know. Liz/Joanna does shoot him out the window, but she should have made sure he was really dead, because he might be Michael Myers’s ancestor.

Secret Targ or Reverend Myers?

Okay…?

Not only does he have exaggerated physical strength—despite his age and job, I mean, he’s not a soldier, he’s a reverend—and can snipe a kid in a blizzard with a mid-19th century weapon (could this even be done?), he seemingly has magical powers or future technology allowing him to consistently find where Joanna is. Did he microchip her? Does he have a GPS? Just how small is the Old West exactly? How does he keep finding her?

It’s a very small world, mostly because it’s written that way, a way that makes no logical sense whatsoever once you stop and think about it for a minute.

In Which the Movie Falls Apart

Besides torture porn, Brimstone has several problems both in regards to its construction and plot. Mostly that it makes no sense. The nonlinear narrative, which seemed interesting at first, does a very good job at concealing this important fact.

When we first meet Liz, she’s mute because her tongue was cut out. How did this happen?

We learn this in the second chapter, “Exodus”, when Joanna takes her dead friend’s identity. Elizabeth was a Nice Friend, so of course this means something bad would inevitably happen to her. In a scene of very gratuitous violence, Frank cuts off her tongue because she bit a customer’s tongue who was trying to kiss her while she had repeatedly told him not to.

The local doctor checks her up and gives her a book on sign language, which she learns along with Joanna. It’s sweet. Liz wants to run, and finds a Nice Older Man (see where I’m going with this?) who lost his wife and doesn’t care about her past, as long as she can cook and doesn’t mind that he already has a son from a previous union. Liz is very excited, and asks Joanna to come with her, and they can pretend to be sisters. Again, it’s kinda cute.

Joanna and LIz in Brimstone

They are such good friends. Wouldn’t it be just AWFUL if something happened to break them apart?

But of course, this nice ending just cannot be. (BECAUSE IT’S WRITTEN THAT WAY.)

On the very evening they plan to run away, they get the visit of a Very Special Customer who pays every woman in the brothel, and Frank is adamant that no matter what he wants, you give it to him. Guess who it is?

Why, it’s the Evil Reverend of course!

He came to find Joanna and is Very Disappointed by “her life choices”—namely, being sold to a brothel—and decides he has to “punish her”. This sentence is said so many times throughout the movie I’m sure it’s only there for a specific part of the audience to masturbate to. But hey, ‘Human Rights’ amirite?!

Elizabeth hears Joanna’s screams and rushes to save her. As you recall, however, she does not survive the confrontation with the Reverend (she’s too nice), yet he somehow manages to survive both having his throat cut and being set on fire.  And this is where the shaky foundations the movie is built on finally collapse.

Joanna should be free. She thinks her father is dead. (And he should be, even though he’s not.) The brothel is on fire. She could go wherever she wants, do whatever she wants. But, instead of, I don’t know, doing something that doesn’t involve cutting her own tongue out, she decides to take Liz’s place and identity. Since ‘her’ husband-to-be expects a woman without a tongue, she visits the doctor and asks him to cut out her tongue. He can’t bring himself to do it, so she does it herself.

I can’t stress enough how pointless and gratuitous this is, or how this makes no sense in any kind of reality. There was no reason for her to do that. She didn’t have to take Liz’s place. She didn’t have to cut out her tongue. But that wouldn’t be as Dramatically Satisfying, now would it?

The Voiceless, or Missing the Point of Themes and Metaphors

Brimstone completely fails to grasp any actual theme or metaphor present in the story (besides, maybe, the “Symbolic Blood on the Snow” shot, whatever that meant).

The typical excuse of “historical accuracy” to depict “reality” in all its grittiness mysteriously disappears once it comes to one of the main traits of the protagonist: her being mute because she has no tongue. The addition of that disability to the story is never really explored, neither metaphorically nor realistically. Brimstone treats a self-inflicted disability as a Shock and Awe moment, and then erases its meanings from the narrative, much like Jaime Lannister and Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones.

Other than a brief moment with the doctor telling the original Liz how to care for her wound and giving her a book of sign language, and one scene in which Elizabeth teaches Joanna what she learned, the subject is thrown away so fast it almost feels anachronistic. It seems so random and out of place, it’s hard to believe that sign language has a very old, very rich, very interesting history because the movie treats it like a footnote.

"Brimstone": Elizabeth teaches Joanna sign language.

Elizabeth teaches Joanna sign language. Don’t ask me which type it is though, or if the one used is even historically accurate.

Brimstone alsο completely erases any struggle Liz/Joanna might have with her disability while living in the 19th century Old West; it never stresses how dangerous and potentially deadly it would be to cut your own tongue. Which, I might reiterate, was only done to fulfill the plot’s contrived demands. She never has any communication problems. It never actually impacts the narrative. It doesn’t seem to incapacitate her at all. The only reason it happens is so the film can remind us (again) this is a Crapsack World, and she/we just can’t have nice things.

Speaking of the ending, it’s the final cherry on top of the ‘life is crap and good people can’t be happy’ cake. A sheriff from the town where she worked in the brothel drops by, and we learn the original Elizabeth had murdered Frank just before ‘rescuing’ Joanna from the Evil Reverend. As Joanna claimed her identity, she is now guilty of her crime. Conveniently, her daughter (who had been her interpreter) is nowhere to translate for her, but she doesn’t even attempt to explain anything. There’s nothing to explain, really. As the sheriff who comes to arrest her puts it:

“You should’ve changed your name, Liz. How many Elizabeth Brundys you figure there are in this world? And how many of ‘em you figure don’t got no tongue?”

Life sucks.

The sheriff wants to bring her back to the town to hang her and puts her on a boat. In one final act of agency (maybe), Joanna, who is cuffed with heavy chains, decides to throw herself into the river, and drowns. But it’s ok! We see her smiling underwater.

She may be dead, but at least she’s Empowered (TM)!

She may be dead, but at least she’s Empowered!

As this depressing epilogue unfolds, we hear the voice of a narrator, much like we had in the opening of the movie. We realize it was provided by a grown-up Sam. “I remember her well,” she says in the end. “She was a warrior. Always in control.” Well, except from the part where her entire story was controlled by men, including first and foremost by the director-screenwriter.

Life Isn’t Sadistic, The Writer Is

This is a movie that tackles a faux-feminist message yet fails to grasp the meaning in a woman cutting off her own tongue. Martin Koolhoven seemingly has no idea what genre he’s writing, borrowing tropes from Gothic horror, Grimdark edginess, exploitation movies, and slasher films. This would be sad, if he wasn’t so smug, somehow believing he’s the first director-screenwriter to ever tell a Western from ‘a woman’s point of view,’

Koolhoven: So I decided to started (sic) writing one, and then I started thinking, What is it actually that I’m interested in here? Why is it such an interesting genre? There’s this almost boyish quality to it, this adventure and artistic idea of freedom. But then, as I was thinking that, I thought, that’s a very macho approach. It’s only a half-truth because for women, Westerns are not actually about freedom all. I had just read a book called In the Rogue Blood by James Carlos Blake about two brothers, and at some point, the sister runs away and they say, “Okay, what are her options? Either she’s going to marry someone or she’s going to be a prostitute.” And that sort of hit me. I realized that that side of the story is never really told. There’s not a lot of movies about that. Actually, none at all. Then I thought there has to be a movie from that point of view.”

Even if we ignore the many different female-lead Westerns that showcase a great diversity of roles for women, Koolhoven isn’t even the first to tell a story from a sex worker’s perspective; I found a film with four of them.

Though it’s rather simplistically true that, historically, women have more often than not been confined to make a choice between “being a wife or a prostitute,” there were still many ways to navigate and test these limits. Exceptions don’t make the rule, but they still exist. So let’s ignore how there’s a 1993 movie that proves Koolhoven wrong. And the fact that the Old West was a lot queerer than we think.

Nah, let’s just remake Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue, set it in the Old West and call it Brimstone. How Bold!

Koolhoven and some interviewers seem to think Brimstone is doing something new, and praise it as “daring” and “provocative”. It’s not. Nothing here is new. This story is old, really old. This has been done already, over and over and over. There are ways to tell the story of a girl then young woman who tries to escape from her abusive father. Brimstone was obviously not the way to do it. Unfortunately, this form of storytelling is in vogue, much like the Grimdark subgenre itself.

At the end of the day, Brimstone is the same old Grimdark exploitation nonsense, the misogynistic, nihilistic, and reductive roots of which go all the way back to Sade. Horror and cruelty do exist, yes, but you can choose how to write about it. You can choose what you show on screen versus what you describe with dialogue. Sometimes “Show, Don’t Tell” doesn’t (shouldn’t) apply. As such, it’s rather easy to tell when the purpose is… well, torture porn.

The existence of evil doesn’t negate the reality of goodness. “Realness” and “historical accuracy” don’t equal “sadistic.” Writers who choose to depict these stories this way and inflict it on us, however, are.


Images courtesy of Momentum Pictures and Sony Pictures Television

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Analysis

Sith Inquisitor’s Journey to Freedom

Angelina

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Minor spoilers for the Sith Inquisitor class quest chain; minor spoilers for the Knights of the Fallen Empire/Eternal Throne DLCs

It is a great part of RPG experience, and even a greater part of RPG enjoyment, to like your character.  And by “RPG” I mean any RPG whatsoever, from LARP to tabletop to video game. Which is only natural, as you can’t really relate to the character you don’t like. And what is RPG if not relating to a character so that you can share its fictional experience?

Which, mind you, doesn’t mean that person should be likable. More like, they should be interesting. An interesting piece of shit, after all, has a much bigger chance to win over your emotions than a bland, shallow Stainless Hero. Like, when you watch The Thief and The Cobbler (the recobbled cut, of course, not that abomination), you sympathize with the first much more than the latter. What a perfect role model he is! But I digress.

When I first set out to play Star Wars: The Old Republic, I was highly unsure if I really wanted to do so. I’ve always had problems with video games in the sense that they don’t actually let you create your character. You get a not-so-wide variety of characters and must choose one to try to empathize with. This makes every game a hit-or-miss case for me: either it’s love at the first sight, or it’s “who are those people and why should I have anything to do with them.”

Sith Academy; a gloomy place, isn’t it?

Meeting the Sith Inquisitor

I confess, I made my initial character choice based on my desire to shoot lightning. I thought it would compensate for the lack of emotional involvement I expected. Luckily, I was mistaken!

The story was captivating right from the start because it had questions to ask. And those questions were directed to me, a player. It was me who had to answer them for myself. It was me who had to choose for myself. Because my course of action depended not on what were my plot goals and neither on my gameplay preferences. It depended on my opinion on certain problems.

Basically, you start in a very unprivileged position, that of a slave. An alien slave, if you really want to experience this story in its full power. You finish in a rather privileged position, that of a Dark Council member. On the surface this seems like a typical rags-to-riches story. However, the action/adventure story is only a minor part of the experience. The main part is the inner path—looking back to your past to create your own future and, more importantly, your future self.

In a nutshell, it is a story exploring how you deal with the trauma from past abuse: do you internalize the point of view of the abuser or the abused? As a survivor myself, I can only praise the way this narrative was given and framed in-game.

Dealing with the Trauma

So, you are a slave. You spend half your Prologue experiencing constant verbal and physical abuse from your sort-of teacher. He wants to get rid of you so that a free, Sith Pureblood candidate will win the golden ticket. But justice is served, and the ticket is finally yours. You are no more a slave, but a Sith—a person in the position of power above all non-Sith. What do you do now? And more importantly, how do you do it?

The game has a Light/Dark Side system in it. Before it was totally remade (broken, I’d rather say) it worked like Paragon/Renegade system in Mass Effect games: you choose one of two alternatives, you get certain amount of Side points, you become more attuned with a certain side of the Force. Or sometimes there is a neutral way, that’s neither. It doesn’t give you any points, but still is important in this storyline.

Your first encounter with Dark vs. Light presents a very typical kill the baby/save the baby dilemma: you can torture a witness to extract the criminal’s name, or you can talk to him and exchange help for information. A very easy choice, is it not? The next encounter is the one that gets under your skin.

It is with the evil mentor who wanted to kill you, who humiliated you, who was your abuser. You can scorn him now that you are free and a Sith in service of a Lord far above your former teacher’s station. You have every reason to hate this man, you have to wish to humiliate him in return. The first option is to threaten him, and while taking it would be extremely understandable, it is not a neutral option–it’s Dark Side. It is still playing along the rules of the system: might is right; you now have both, he has neither.

The Light Side option is to thank him, to break those unholy rules. You may not forget it, and you may be quite bitter later on about your early experience. You may never actually forgive him. Yet you refuse petty revenge, you refuse the power play. Because evil can’t mend or undo another evil.

I swear, something in my heart trembled when that rat of a man smiled to my character in return and thanked him. Because at last I saw the real Dark vs Light narrative, where Light begets more light–and Dark begets more dark.

Thus I understood that I really want to experience that story up to the end.

How can it be Dark Side? It’s fairly innocent… or is it?

Your Choices

While both versions of the Sith Inquisitor’s class story present him dealing with his trauma, I could never get myself to try the Dark one. It was really, really dark; the story of a person broken and driven to the edges of sanity, who would never let anyone have anything that person was once denied. I really couldn’t help pity the creature that person would eventually become. It’s not that this story is exactly bad, but I think it is somewhat toxic and too much in line with “being tortured makes you evil” narrative. Not exactly the trope that is in any way helpful for abuse survivors.

The Neutral path—what you tread if you don’t follow any consistent course of action—was less devastating on the personal level. It is more of a quest for identit-y than anything else. Your character does eventually give in to the darker side of their nature, but also eventually does something truly and genuinely good and selfless. In the end they receive the name Occulus, for being a mystery to everyone , including themselves. Because they really don’t know themselves. After all, the Sith Inquisitor is presumed to be very young; somewhere in their early twenties.

Sith Inquisitor

My own perfect cinnamon roll of an Inquisitor

I really loved the third option, the Light Side. It is a path of empathy, a path of true freedom. It is also the path most difficult both for your character and for you as a player, for it consciously sets you against certain old tropes and easy decisions.

Good Is Not Easy

Many games try to “convince” you to do right thing by making good choices less hard than bad ones. In general, this game is no exception; if you were to take the Dark route as a Jedi Knight, it would require more time and work from you than the opposite. But on this route it’s the other way around. Being a good person here is not—just as in real life—easy. It is hard.

I can’t describe Light!Sith Inquisitor as anything but a Suffering Empath. Having experienced much trauma in the past, this Sith Inquisitor struggles their best to shield others from the same trauma, even when it doesn’t benefit themselves. Even when it means direct harm to themselves.

For example, their power is based on that of the restless spirits they’ve bound to their soul. Letting those spirits go means the Sith Inquisitor goes back to the start, where they are fairly ordinary a Sith and no match for the truly mighty ones. It means a real threat to their life or, at the very least, their well-being. But because it is right, they fulfill their promise and let the spirits go and find peace.

In another instance, they encounter a racist, foul-mouthed, self-infatuated prick, and they don’t kill him. They choose this because that abominable creature is someone else’s loved person. and your own (both player’s and character’s) desire to punish him cannot be given a higher priority than someone else’s love and anxiety.

This route is hard, because it requires additional quests and lines of dialogue. It is hard, because sometimes you really want to teach someone the hard way, to vent your own (player’s) disgust and rage, to punish the bad guys. But as long as you remember the “two wrongs don’t make right” rule, you can really enjoy that story.

Well, “enjoy” is not exactly the right word, but you get it.

When they spoke of finally knowing true freedom (in being released to the Afterlife) I really cried from happyness

True Freedom

This story is about real freedom; that is, spiritual freedom.

One of the easiest paths to achieve your goals in Star Wars universe is by using Mind Trick. You simply make the other person do and think what you wish them to. It is often used as, well, an easy and harmless workaround. It is often marked as a Light Side option in the Jedi class stories (the Dark option being to fight).

But on this route it is never a offer as a good option—usually neutral, but sometimes even bad. Because, y’know, it’s about freedom. What is more abusive, after all, than to deny a person that person’s free will?

I cannot fathom an action more free of will, of an agency more openly expressed, than denying a whole system of oppression while being raised as a part of it. But the Sith Inquisitor does just that.

Every time they eschew their own in favor of someone else’s, they deny that system. Every time they refuse to acquire more power because it would others more dearly, they deny that system. Every time they choose to respect the free will of the others, even if it means problems for themselves, they deny that system.

 Conclusion

What I really wanted to do, right from the beginning, was to thank the author.

Rebecca Harwick created a fascinating story that works perfectly for a genre that requires deep emotional connection with your character. RPG is about living other lives, those we can never experience IRL but those still having an impact on us and our life. We all know that stories matter, and I think we need more stories like that.

And it is a highly satisfying story. You really feel it by the end, that peace and glory that come with being righteous.

Personally, it helped me deal with my own trauma and helped me sort out things and realize that some options are not really an option—that giving in to the abuser’s point of view would really keep me stuck in that trauma forever.

That, while trying to be a good person is often hard, it’s worth it.

P.S.: And Then They Ruined It…

When you experience something that great, you want more of it, do you? Well, I wanted. So I went on to playing DLCs that are supposed to cover the later life of the same hero.

Sadly, the story-line there was clearly written as a continuation of the Jedi Knight’s class story, and any difference in dialogue was purely cosmetic. This actually came out bad for many classes, but the Sith Inquisitor suffers not only plot-and-logic-wise, but also thematically and, I daresay, problematically.
You see, it is generally okay if a privileged golden boy of a Jedi, who was always treated as someone special and a Chosen One, gets a lecture from those still above him about him not being special and his real role being a mere gear in a much greater machine. It serves him right and it even has some thematic significance. I am, of course, referring to the Jedi Knight—the supposed Anakin-done-right hero, the most obviously coded as male and most irritatingly problematic in and of himself.

This kind of lecture is certainly not okay when delivered by two uber-privileged guys (a Jedi Grandmaster and a Head of the Dark Council) to a former slave. They tell this slave to be nothing more than a cogwheel, that freedom is overrated and that they need to subjugate themselves to someone or something greater. They directly say, “you are weak because you fight for your freedom, become a willing slave (to the Force, but still) and you’ll be strong.”

It is problematic, isn’t it?

It really ruined the thing for me. The narrative that was centered around freedom, around acquiring it, understanding it and using it right…it was thrown away in favor of a rather lazy “we all are slaves of the Fate” plot device. And that’s only when we talk themes and not slavery per se, and the narrative completely forgetting about it.

My only solace is, it was written by another person.


Images courtesy EA Entertainment

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Analysis

Will Has a Women Problem

Michelle

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Love him or hate him, you have to admit William Shakespeare wrote some of literature’s most iconic women. Queens such as Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, and Titania; tragic heroines like Cordelia, Juliet, and Ophelia; the outspoken self-advocates Beatrice, Katherina and Paulina. While only some of Shakespeare’s women wield legitimate, authoritative power, all of them are powerful figures on stage: women of devastating conviction, integrity, and passion At a time in history where women had few legal rights—and couldn’t legally appear on a stage—Shakespeare’s women stood as monuments to women’s potential and women’s reality.

It’s unfortunate, then, that Will, TNT’s ten-episode period drama, does its women a disservice. This is not to say that Will’s women are bad characters. On the contrary, Alice Burbage, Anne Hathaway/Shakespeare, Emilia Bassano and Apelina are powerful, bringing some of the most poignant emotional experiences to the show. Unfortunately, those performances don’t happen for the sake of their own characters’ individual growth. Frustratingly, Will’s women instead end up as tried-and-true tools shaping men’s destinies.

As Will’s love interest, Alice Burbage is the woman most affected by Will’s underlying misogyny (although she’s not the most insidious example). From her first appearance in “The Play’s the Thing,” when she leans out of her window, breasts just short of dropping out of her bodice, Alice is set up as a sexual object for Will’s attention. But it is her brilliance and dedication to the theater that draw Will to her as a lover and intellectual soulmate.

Alice is an “educated woman,” her learning much more advanced than the supposed average early modern daughter or housewife (who actually had to have a decent bit of learning in order to maintain the household, but suspension of disbelief and all that). She can read and write well enough to provide clean copies of scripts for the actors of her father’s theater, and has enough business savvy to help her family with the theater business.

Alice’s intelligence doesn’t exist for herself, though. Rather, it exists for Will. A blossoming-playwright with no experience, Will is a really terrible addition to the Theatre. He has talent with words but little else; he barely understands how theaters and theater-going works. For Will, there is only “the art,” which finally bites him in episode 3, “The Two Gentlemen.” No one will buy Will’s newest play, a complicated piece of poetry with nothing to appeal to an audience. Once he admits Alice is right and he needs her help, though, Alice gives Will access to all the plays in her father’s repertoire and then helps him hit upon the then-not-so-novel idea of stealing the overarching idea.

Once that’s in hand—with Alice guiding him in the selection and the theft—Alice helps him write.

“To him she must be like day, like night, like light. Like light.”

“Like light?”

Even when Alice is asleep, her presence is the thing that spurs Will to continue to write, his eyes fixated on her as he writes passionate speeches for Sylvia. When James discovers them in the morning, it’s Alice’s fury and insistent on its quality—quality she oversaw—that gets it performed.

Alice does the same for Henry VI pt 2. After encouraging Will to write the histories out of order, she gives Will the title for the play:

“Henry VI: The Rise of the Dauphin Menace. When I was reading the histories, I discovered the Dauphin, Charles II, joined forces with Joan of Arc.” (Episode 6)

The pair of them function like this for most of the season: Will comes to Alice with the seeds of a play, the words that are his signature, and Alice provides the necessary structure to see the play succeed and Will’s star rise. She coins the term“prequel” for Henry VI pt 2, decides on the overall plot of that same play, and, perhaps most importantly, suggests Will humanize Richard in Richard III, making his actions more horrific by highlighting the humanity still lurking in the monster. Without that crucial character change, the endgame against Topcliffe would have failed.

Alice, however, never receives recognition for her significant, life-altering contributions. Will, of course, praises her genius and recognizes that without her, his writing stagnates. But he makes no effort to inform her father, mother, brother or any of the company about her crucial contributions to the plays that have made them and him, so popular. Instead, he sits proud and preening over the work she improved, enjoying her labors and her love until he is forced to end their relationship.

This is perhaps why Alice switches intellectual loyalties—Father Southwell gives her credit. The more entwined Alice becomes in his Catholic plot, the more Southwell praises her devotion and willingness to endanger herself. Southwell, however, is no better than Will, using Alice’s brilliance, grief, and determination to further his cause. As his newest convert, Alice is best suited for smuggling messages since she is thus far unknown to any of Topcliffe’s informants; moreover, her connections to the theater, frequented by one of the Queen’s advisers, give Southwell noble connections he needs to deliver his manifesto to the Queen. Alice, then, is Southwell’s newest and best instrument in his Catholic war. She’s also the one he loses most quickly.

In the end, everyone loses Alice; her destiny finally to leave the world she loved and desired in the hands of a man she can’t stop loving. Her suffering at Topcliffe’s hands encourages the company to perform Richard III (thus altering the torturer’s destiny) and cements Will’s undying love for her—none of which she can share. Instead, Alice must go, freeing herself and Shakespeare from a love she now knows could never be and no longer wants. It is only through that pain, apparently, that Will can go on to right the greatest love story: Romeo and Juliet, where his “bright angel” will shine again.

Alice is just one woman robbed of a life or dream for men’s sake. Another, set up against Alice, is Anne Hathaway. Never one to get a fair treatment in adaptations, Anne is everything Alice isn’t: an obstacle to his art and an intellectual inferior. From her opening line, Anne is portrayed as shrewish and incapable of seeing Will’s greatness: “Who will want a play by William Shakespeare?” (“The Play’s the Thing”). Anne is incapable of seeing Will’s art, and clouds his genius with mundane concerns like the survival of his family.

Is the sarcasm evident?

Anne’s demotion to a tool of Will’s destiny is briefer than Alice’s but just as unfair because she deserves better, from both Will and Will. However, her dire situation is never taken seriously. When Anne brings Will’s children to London to visit him, and  learns about his affair with Alice, her hurt is shown as unjustified. Alice understands Will in a way Anne simply can’t; how dare Anne reject Will for something as simple as a connection with an intellectual equal?

Moreover, when Anne finally admits to Will her situation in Stratford, he cannot fully recognize or accept her pain or the fear that fuels her inability to believe in him. Living as a servant to his parents, with the threat of homelessness and beggardom, Anne physically can’t believe in his dream because a dream can’t help them now. It can’t provide them food or shelter. It can’t give them a livelihood and future. The money Will makes as a writer isn’t enough to ensure her and her children’s safety if they are forced out by his family and his father’s poor business practices. But Will sees her insistence that he take responsibility for them, that he look after them as he promised to, as manipulative and cruel.

All of this is heartbreaking because Anne loves, or at least loved, Will, and at some point, Will loved her. At the tavern, after she’s accepted by the company even after her fumbles, Anne and Will dance, smile and laugh. As they walk home and speak of the early days of their relationship, there is genuine warmth and affection in the shared memories. But domesticity chafes Will. It suffocates him in a way Anne is able to—and has to—endure, and he can no longer return the love she still extends to him. At his distress over Topcliffe’s threats against his family and Southwell’s inability to understand his situation, Anne reaches out to him,

“Yet you do not talk of your struggles with me. I am here to listen and to ease your burdens, as a wife should. If you would share with me.”

For her pains—for her labor, emotional and physical—all she gets in return is Will insistence he can’t, and won’t, share with her.

“I cannot speak of what’s inside of me. That is why I write.”

But Anne can’t read. Will’s writing—his plays, his dreams—is an impassable barrier between them, one which Will doesn’t bother to pull down and which Anne eventually accepts.

That’s Anne’s destiny: acceptance of being not even second best. “It’s not about the girl,” Anne tells him in episode 6, “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” as she piles their children in a carriage bound for Stratford. Anne is Alice’s inferior, but more than that, Anne is not theater. She is not the escape, the support and the adoration Will craves and now enjoys in the London theater. Anne is just the mother of his children, a burden to his art. Although it clearly pains her to realize it, she has to step aside; her only purpose left in his life is, as she says, “to leave you free to be who you wish to be” and fade quietly into a lonely life, awaiting money and the occasional letter.

Anne’s grieved blessing and disappearance are required. No longer a figure in Will’s life or thoughts—she’s referenced not even a handful of times after her departure and is never seen again—Anne no longer obstructs his art or his destiny. With this freedom, Will is able to put his pen and his talent to bringing the Theatre up and tearing Topcliffe down with one of his most powerful plays. He can take the first steps into the fame that will follow him for centuries.

Alice and Anne’s roles as destiny-tools are specific: they shape Will, and to a lesser extent Topcliffe and Southwell, into who they are meant to be. Emilia Bassano and Apelina don’t operate in quite the same way. Although they also, indirectly, affect Will’s destiny, their characters exist as more generalized comments on the role of women in Will’s narrative world.

At her first appearance in “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” Emilia Bassano seems to be a noble woman. Alice, however, breaks that illusion. She reveals that Emilia is Lord Hunsdon’s newest mistress—replacing the one from episode one—and although she was once nobility, she’s fallen on hard times. The daughter of a Venetian musician and “impoverished Moroccan royalty,” Emilia has taken up residence with Lord Hunsdon as a companion skilled in conversation and poetry.

She has absolutely no illusions about her purpose and position. “Thou art sorely misguided,” she tells Will in episode seven, “What Dreams May Come,” “None of this is mine. It belongs to Lord Hunsdon, just as I do.” Emilia is property, dressed up in the finest the Queen’s advisor and cousin can offer but with the knowledge that she is no longer her own. Emilia is a thing now, a thing as pretty as her dresses and jewelry, but expected to perform certain duties and services or suffer unspoken consequences.

Her status as high-class property affords Emilia some freedom, but nearly all of it is used to serve others, most often as facilitator. She puts Will in touch with Lord Fortuscue, whose commission for A Midsummer Night’s Dream saves the Theatre from closing. She overhears Lord Hunsdon’s conversations and then shares important details about Topcliffe’s promotion and Alice’s increasing role in Southwell’s plot with Will. But Emilia also provides what she can, especially when Will rescues Alice from Topcliffe’s clutches. She opens Lord Hunsdon’s house to them and gives them access to her own personal physician, even knowing the danger it puts her in.

As Emilia said, nothing she owns is hers. If Lord Hunsdon, cousin of the Queen cousin and–until the last episode–Topcliffe supporter, learns of her aiding and harboring Catholics plotting against him, her life could be in danger. But no one ever addresses or acknowledges this. Emilia is not important enough for fear. Convenient when she is needed, shelved when she is not, the precariousness of her situation—a situation Will brings her into with a well-written sonnet—is never given serious consideration by anyone.

Nor is Apelina’s, although she is confronted with the danger of her choices almost daily. Her situation, in many ways, mimics Emilia’s: they’re both owned, although by different classes of people. Emilia is a nobleman’s mistress, Apelina a peasant sex worker. Apelina has a nearby brother to consider while Emilia is separated from apparently all she’s ever known (but never seems bothered by that fact). However, the most important difference between these two women is that Apelina is given no identity within the narrative.

From her first appearance in “The Play’s the Thing” to her death in “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” Apelina has no personal identity or discernible history apart from “motherless whore,” “dirt-some punk,” and Presto’s sister. Her name is never even mentioned in the show; it only ever appears in the ending credits, a brief half-second flash near the end of the cast list. Without an identity, Apelina occupies the lowest space for women in Will: a complete and total object, to be used, cast aside, and then briefly mourned, if she’s lucky.

She is somewhat “lucky,” in that regard. Her brother Presto is clearly devoted to her, or at least to the idea of her being free. He takes up thieving to pay for her freedom and tortures himself with every day she suffers under Doll’s thumb. Apelina shares that love, and fully verbalizes it when Doll tries to sell Presto to Topcliffe. She helps him escape and undergoes torture to keep him safe. When Presto is caught and agrees to prostitution, she tries to make it as easy as she can for him, giving him alcohol to ease the pain and offering him a compartmentalization technique that has always helped her.

None of this, though, is for her.

Everything Apelina does is as Presto’s sister; everything she does, and says, and is, is for Presto’s growth. Presto needs to suffer, needs to steal from the Theatre and then feel the intense grief and pain to move him into position for Will’s final endgame. But unlike Alice’s case, it is a private grief. No one apart from Presto and Will ever know about Apelina and her role, and even they speak of it only in passing.

In a way, it makes sense that the women in this period drama are so suppressed. Will focuses on the downside of pursuing dreams: the things lost when dreams become obsessions and are followed without any sort of consideration for the lives affected. Yet, Will never took the opportunity to explore the women’s dreams. Alice could have been shown learning that she would never inherit the Theatre and then working to change that reality. Anne could have turned her attention to a different destiny than the happy, stable marriage she once desired. Emilia could have looked for ways to restore her status, or to bring unmentioned family to her side. We could have seen Apelina dreaming of a life of freedom, a home for herself and her brother.

But Will doesn’t care about women’s dreams and women’s destinies; there are dozens of women in Will, named and unnamed alike, and none of them exceed Alice’s crucial instrumentality or Apelina’s limited use. Even Queen Elizabeth I is only referenced, never seen. Will’s world is a man’s world, and male destinies, desires, and hopes are the only ones that matter. Women—their needs, their livelihood, their lives, their bodies—are considered only so far as they work to further or hinder men’s destinies. They are tools, sharpened for use and discarded when no longer needed.

Instead of characters, they are caricatures.


Images courtesy of TNT Productions

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