We need to talk about America’s Next Top Model

Promo shoot for America's Next Top ModelThis post is going to seem wildly off topic. I’m sure it will garner easy trolls, as well as people who don’t think they’re trolling but feel I’ve made a Serious Lapse In Taste of which I’ll need to be educated. I mean, what am I doing, with my blog which is casual in style but (tries to be) scholarly in approach, enthusiastic in tone, feminist in philosophy, writing about that awful woman , Tyra Banks, and her tacky show?

Which is kind of why I feel like it’s an important post to be made and it does belong.

Let’s start from the fact that it is overwhelmingly men who have criticised me for liking this show. Whereas numerous women have (in hushed tones, with a shifty look, as though confessing a dirty secret) have either volunteered that they like it, or confessed that they do too when I say I do. They are almost always quick (very quick) to add that what they love is the artistry of the photographs, and sometimes (usually if they are more comfortable with their own femininity) with the beauty and interest of the clothes.

Sadly, the promos (like the above) are almost always hilariously contrary to this professed quality. I mean, Tyra looks pretty powerful and clearly knows how to work a camera, but the skimpiness of the clothes and the cliché of many of the poses adds together to make something that looks faintly ridiculous and a tad exploitative.

I’m not gonna defend the promos too much. I rarely like them. But I would say that it’s worth baring in mind that this is all the models, including the ones that fall out in the first few rounds because they are, basically, crap. It’s also a composite of a group of individual photos. None of these women posed with each other. The were all trying to look their best for themselves as individuals, and none of them were thinking about how they would look in the composite because what they cared about was being judged on that photo, and there’s no way they could have known what the other girls would be doing anyway. As for the theme… themes for large groups of people verge very easily on the cliché, and ANTM has to roll out loads of these over the course of the series. If you try to focus on an individual model you can actually see that some of the outfits are not, in themselves, bad. Indeed, the model in question might be working the shit out of that thing. Compare, for example, the models in the front, or the one in the middle row on the far left with the cheesily posed lack-luster trio immediately above her. One thing this awkward promo format does allow for is that as each model gets eliminated her image disappears from the group, and you often have an interesting sense of perspective as you see that the ones who are left are usually doing more interesting things in their first photo.

As for Tyra… Let’s bloody well talk about Tyra Banks. She gets a lot of flack. She gets called fake and cheesy and bitchy and all sorts of unpleasant unsavoury things. Here’s what Tyra is: she’s a driven career woman who launched herself as a teenage girl into a very competitive field that frequently eats people up alive and actively works to exclude people of colour. She not only stuck it out and made it through levels of discomfort and hand-to-mouth poverty that would send most of us looking for a cushy job at McDonalds, she rose to the very top of her field, and then, before her fame faded and at the point where the natural effects of ageing would have excluded her from that field, she used her fame, her contacts, her skills, and her experience to make the move to TV. And whilst that might seem easy for a famously beautiful woman to do, it’s really not very common. There are probably others, but Tricia Helfer is the only other one I can think of (and she hosted Canada’s Next Top Model, too). Think of the adverts you may have seen other top models doing. If they speak at all it’s often pretty stilted. Acting and modeling and presenting are all different skill sets, and we only show our own ignorance if we suppose that any of them are easy.

What’s more, Tyra talks about her own career as a part of America’s Next Top Model, and whilst, yes, there’s a certain amount of self-aggrandizing in that, it’s no more than Alan Sugar gets away with on The Apprentice. She tells how it was always her plan to move from modelling to presenting. She knew the career of a model has a set lifespan and she planned ahead. There’s a kind of terrifying awe that grows as you watch through the series and realise just how meticulously Tyra has planned her life; how in control of it she is, how she manages her image and achieves her goals. She’s a business woman, and a pretty effective and powerful one, at that. Whatever you think of America’s Next Top Model, you can’t deny that it’s given Tyra everything she wanted: exposure, money, a career that extended beyond modelling, and a certain amount of power and visibility in an industry that likes to keep women in their ‘place’.

Which, of course, is usually the reason men laugh at me for being a feminist who enjoys America’s Next Top Model. ‘How can you watch something that’s in an industry that so exploits women?!’ they say, having never seen an episode.

Firstly: are they expecting that as a feminist I want to abolish modelling altogether? Do they have similar concerns about male models? I’m sure that some people do (possibly with good reason), but I’m pretty sure that these men (the ones I have talked to) don’t. That there are people who wear clothes and display them on catwalks and in photographs does not seem, in itself, to be a problem. In fact, it seems like a good way of both getting a designer exposure and allowing consumers to have an informed idea of what’s available. Honestly, I can’t see any problem with the idea that there should BE models.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing wrong with the industry in its actual form. It clearly is often exploitative of models. It’s frequently objectifying of women. The standards of beauty that have become desired in fashion are remote from reality in a way that’s damaging to consumers and (often) models both. That’s a reason to dislike a lot of how the industry works at the moment. It’s not a reason to say we should denigrate the industry altogether. Ignoring it, refusing to educate yourself about it or engage with its politics is basically tacitly encouraging it to continue on however it wants without you.

J Alexander (aka Miss J)

J Alexander (aka Miss J)

I’m going to hold my hands up right now and say that I absolutely had all these prejudices when I started watching. But I was parrot-sitting in a large house with a large TV and no internet. I like to take breaks whilst studying, and I watched a bunch of things I wouldn’t usually watch just because they were on when I was taking a break. America’s Next Top Model was one. At first it seemed bizarre. The characters flamboyant to the extreme, such as the fabulously larger than life Miss J Alexander, catwalk coach. But when they actually started to talk about their work, or when Miss J strutted his stuff on the catwalk* and explained to the young hopefuls what they were doing wrong… I realised quickly that there was a lot more to this career that I had never taken seriously than I had ever guessed. And I felt stupid for that, because of course there is.

Most people are uncomfortable having their picture taken, and many people who are conventionally attractive don’t know what to do with themselves in front of a camera and take dreadful photos. As for walking a catwalk, I’m pretty sure that most of us, if asked to do so, would produce a highly embarrassing pantomime of the activity. Of course there’s skill involved. Millions of attractive women (and men!) wash out of the fashion industry because however pretty they are they aren’t models. And there’s a clear difference between a catalogue model and a supermodel. We all know it. We mock the catalogue models for their cheesy poses – whatever else we say about the men and women in editorials and on catwalks, we rarely call them cheesy.

And this was underlined when it came to the photos. The people I’ve talked to who quickly rush to say that they watch for the artistry of the photography aren’t lying. Some of them are breathtaking. Here are just a few:

Cycle 15 winner, Ann Ward

Cycle 15 winner, Ann Ward

Kayla Hagler, Cycle 15

Kayla Hagler, Cycle 15

Jenah Doucette, Cycle 9

Jenah Doucette, Cycle 9

Cycle 9 Winner, Saleisha Stowers

Cycle 9 Winner, Saleisha Stowers

There’s real skill involved here, and being able to see the difference between someone who is trying to pose and someone with genuine skill who knows their body, their angles, how light plays on their skin, is aware of their surroundings, understands what will show clothes to best effect and what won’t… it’s really interesting. And you also see what goes into the lighting, the photography, the hair, the make-up. What makes a good walk. How personality, common sense, punctuality, can prove vital for someone who actually wants a career, as the models go to ‘go sees’ and compete to get booked, but also to get back on time (a model who arrives late is disqualified). The contestants are educated about what it’s really like to be a model, and so are we.

Which is not to say that it’s 100% ‘real’. The girls share a fabulous house and are constantly thrown into situations that will provoke discord. it’s a reality TV show and it has those markers. I will also concede that quality has fallen off sharply in recent years. I don’t watch anymore, but I watched a good 16~ cycles before I gave up. Of course the format got stretched and old. Of course it got formulaic. And ultimately I felt that the contestants were being asked to do some things that weren’t OK.

In one particularly fraught episode Tyra demanded that all the women wear special pants (underwear) to enhance their bums. One girl refused on the grounds that it went against her beliefs about body image, and she was treated extremely harshly for it. On the one hand, I understood that Tyra was actually pushing the boundaries of accepted standards for beauty. In particular, a larger behind is often favoured in African-American culture, whilst white American fashion scorns it. But on the other hand, the pressure to accept any and all of a client’s demands, whilst possibly realistic, does reflect and support the ugly side of the business, and the pressure to conform to beauty standards, whatever your personal beliefs.

It was also an uncomfortable moment as the girls were being taught ways to stick their bums out to be more attractive. This seemed in direct conflict with the line that had always been drawn before between ‘model sexy’ and ‘hoochy’. The ‘teaches’ and methods of posing the contestants were being taught that season seemed to be getting increasingly silly. One felt that the show was struggling to remain fresh and interesting, and had begun to reach too far.

However, ANTM’s descent into absurdity is highlighted against a background that frequently sought to be progressive. Having been a woman whose own career ended when she ceased to maintain the stick-figure physique, Tyra (an obviously still beautiful woman) championed plus size modelling. And whilst her rebranding of this to ‘fiercely real’ feels a little forced, I can get behind her thought that ‘plus size’ isn’t really as big as that name suggests, and that the real aim is to encourage greater diversity of body-types in modeling. ANTM also embraced transwomen, gay women, bi women, religious women, atheist women, women on the autistic spectrum, women of colour, educated women, women from poor backgrounds, metropolitan women, country women – all kinds of women. There was a real sense of Tyra consciously pushing the boundaries of what is permitted in fashion and championing the disadvantaged and excluded. Yes, some of it was to have a ‘story’, but there are an awful lot of US TV shows that would not have represented such a spectrum, and would have vilified a lot of the sorts of women described above.

So, yes, it’s now over-branded, formulaic, something of a caricature of itself. But just because it’s concerned with fashion and modelling doesn’t mean it’s frivolous. Just because the fashion industry frequently has a very problematic relationship with women and their bodies doesn’t mean that this show endorses everything you don’t like about it. Just because it’s full of flamboyant personalities doesn’t mean they don’t have serious things to say. And whilst one sometimes senses the machine of Tyra’s image generation working in the background, you cannot deny that she’s effective. Over all I sense a woman of tremendous personal strength, charisma, and confidence, with a sharp mind, using what she knows to build the kind of career she wants and challenge the issues she faced when she was fighting her way up the scale.

And I admire that. And I think a lot of the other women I know who like this show admire it. And I think we like seeing a powerful woman leading a show where there are lots of other women of many different races, backgrounds, sexualities, and beliefs, many of whom are ‘interesting’ to look at rather than conventionally beautiful in the way an actor is expected to be. Whether we want to work in fashion or not we also like to see the artistry and skill that goes into a sort of work that women do for which they are denigrated more than their male counterparts. (Which is not to say that male models face no issues of body-image or prejudice, they do, but the scale of the way women are judged by their appearance and for earning money by their appearance is that much more.)

And I can’t help but wonder if maybe some of the people who mock Tyra Banks as ‘annoying’ or ‘fake’ really just feel discomforted by seeing a confident woman running a show, instructing others, being regarded as an authority. She feels ‘fake’ because we’re not used to seeing a woman take such a stance of certainty – of stating facts and imparting knowledge, of sitting in judgement. There’s a sense of ‘What RIGHT does she have to set herself up as an authority like that?’

So, yeah, the later cycles of America’s Next Top Model in particular have issues, but they represent just a fraction of the output. This show has an awful lot more going for it than many people give it credit for, and I’m sick of apologising for liking it and for being berated as though I have betrayed the sisterhood (although it is rarely my ‘sisters’ who voice such views. So, I wanted to talk about America’s Next Top Model for a bit. And now I have.

*It’s my understanding that Miss J is not transgendered and uses male pronouns primarily, although he is referred to as both ‘he’ and ‘she’ on the show.

Posted in America's Next Top Model | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

National Flash Fiction Day

Apparently, it’s National Flash Fiction Day. So, I wrote you some flash.

The Monster Under My Bed

It turns out there really are monsters under the bed. Which is an odd thing to discover at the age of thirty-four.

I say ‘monsters’; I guess I default to that because it’s what children would say are monsters. Not human. Nightmarish to look at with human eyes. Not something you want under your bed, anyway. I mean, I don’t really want anything under my bed, do you? That’s quiet time. Alone time. Unless you have a partner.

I newly don’t have a partner. She left me for a girl with long red hair and a collection of ‘vintage’ My Little Ponies. I hadn’t realised My Little Ponies were a thing I needed to have to keep her heart.

So, anyway: me, alone, in bed, newly single. About a month. Still not sure if I should change the double-bed in for a single to fit my new ‘relationship status’. And there I was, 4am, woke up from a dream where all my friends could fly, and I was still stuck on the ground. Couldn’t get back to sleep. Made some tea. Decaf, of course, I’m not that stupid. And I thought, well, time to sort out the room.

I’d kind of let it all go to hell since she left. Revenge. You know, ’cause me living in a shit-heap is revenge on her for leaving me. Or something.

My clothes had started not making it to the laundry basket, and then slowly creeping under the bed. And then getting covered in biscuit crumbs because I’d basically retreated with my laptop to my bed when I got home from work – insulating myself from the world with layers of Internet and duvet.

So. I put my tea on the floor and crouched down to see what had slipped under there, and I saw them:

Eyes looking back at me.

I screamed, of course.

I mean, I’d been worried about spiders, but great, big, human-sized-but-not-human-coloured eyes were not what I was prepared for.

The eyes opened wide – as shocked to see me as I was to see them.

I stared at them, unblinking. Not wanting to lose sight of where they were even for a second. Not that much unlike how I react to spiders, to be honest.

The eyes stared back.

Finally, they broke the silence:

“Hello,” they said.

“Hello,” I said back.

“Well, this is awkward.” The eyes looked down, shiftily.

“Would you care to explain what you’re doing under my bed?”

“I thought you would be asleep,” said the eyes.

“That’s not reassuring.”

“Well, you usually are at this time.”

“Not getting better.”

The eyes sighed. “I suppose I’d better come out, then.”

“I’d appreciate that.”

I’m not sure what I was expecting to crawl out from under my bed. Man? Woman? The voice was that middling pitch that makes it hard to tell, but even so, how did I think a man or a woman would get under my bed – repeatedly – without my notice?

What crawled out from under my bed was not a man or a woman. And I suppose it didn’t really crawl. It sort of oozed. Its body, in as much as you could say it had a body, was composed of a sort of shifting, shadowy darkness. It almost seemed to melt into the shadows cast by the mess on my floor from my bedside lamp. Except for the eyes, which glowed blue on feathery shadow stalks.

“Hi,” it said.

“OK,” I said.

It rolled its eyes. Which is something of a more dramatic move for something whose eyes were on stalks. “I’m a sentilamia.”

“Are you? That’s nice,” I said. “And why were you under my bed?”

“You’ve let a lot of stuff collect down there.”

“I know. I was going to clean it out.”

“No, not that stuff,” it sort of shivered with what might have been annoyance. “Feeling stuff. Sentilamias, we eat waste emotions. Well, you’d call them waste. I’m not dirty – I don’t want you to think that!” It drew itself up, shifting up the shadows of my open dresser drawers.

“I’m honestly not sure I’m thinking anything with any certainty right now,” I said.

“So, you don’t mind?” it ventured.

“Of course I mind!” I snapped. “I don’t want anybody under my bed when I think I’m alone!”

“It’s a perfectly healthy ecological relationship,” it said, primly. “You don’t want this stuff collecting. You’ll be wallowing in it within a week and then you’ll never get over her!”

“‘Get over her?’ – what do you know about that?”

It rolled its eyes again. The motion was quite disconcerting. “Only everything, of course,” it said. “I have been eating your waste emotions for the last three weeks. She’s not worth it, you know. If her head could be turned by that redheaded bint you deserved someone more committed to you anyway.”

“Uh, thanks, I guess,” I said. “Look, I don’t want to interfere with your ‘ecology’, or whatever, but you really can’t just hang out under my bed when I’m asleep.”

“It’s your ecology too,” it said, a little huffily. “You don’t want to know what happens to people who don’t have a good sentilamia on hand when they get really low.”

I thought about it for a moment. I only had its word to go on that it was providing some kind of psychic service, but what it was saying did make a certain amount of sense, and it did seem to know all about Alley and her new lover. That, and I didn’t have a better explanation for the presence of something I didn’t even know existed living under my bed.

“OK,” I said. “But do I need to be asleep for you to eat my ‘waste emotions’?”

It seemed to consider this. “No, I suppose not. I’m consuming some of them right now. Don’t you feel a bit better?”

Oddly, considering I’d just confronted a home-invader shadow-monster, I sort of did. “Yeah… I guess.”

“I could stop by in the evenings, just before you go to bed? We could even have a bit of a natter. Venting verbally is a good way to expel the waste.”

“Uh, sure. And you won’t come again without announcing yourself first?”

“I swear on all that’s dark and mysterious.”

And… she did. It turns out she’s a she.

And that’s how I met my first monster, and a strange new friend. Shoshi the sentilamia.

She even helped me set up wards to stop other monsters getting into my room uninvited. The undersides of beds are apparently prime doorways to the underworld. (Although they don’t like you to call it that – who’s to say that our world is not on the underside of theirs?)

Shoshi helped me get over Alley, and I sleep better now than I ever have in my life. On Saturday nights she takes me down to her side of things and shows me what real nightlife is like.

I can’t say that I miss Alley at all.

Posted in flash fiction, Free Fiction | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Review: Hannibal, Season One

Poster for HannibalSo, this is a show, then. Wow.

In my post-Game-of-Thrones-what-do-you-mean-we-have-to-wait-a-whole-year-for-the-next-episode daze I was fumbling around for something to absorb me in my ‘off’ hours. I don’t tend to turn to trash-TV to turn off. I mean, I’ve enjoyed the odd reality TV show in my time (especially the artistic ones, like Project Runway used to be), but I know a lot of people prefer what’s sometimes called ’empty-calories’ TV. Something that’s not necessarily that good or gripping, but which goes down easy because it runs through familiar tropes. There’s nothing wrong with that, I just don’t think I’m wired that way. I prefer to throw myself into escapism full-throttle.  I turn off easier if there’s something with a fully-formed world, well-developed characters, good writing, and excellent acting with a well-paced and interesting plot going on. Which means that when I happen across a Dexter, a Game of Thrones, a Mad Men, I latch onto it and get pulled in until it’s all used up. I know some people find those to be the sort of shows they have to turn their brains on for – serious shows that demand attention – but I just don’t work that way. It’s not some kind of intellectual thing, like I even want ‘stimulating’ in my ‘off’ hours. It’s more like… the more effort someone else has spent providing something that will take my whole attention and avoid disturbing my suspension of disbelief for 45mins or an hour, the more easily I can just hand my consciousness over to them completely for that period of time. They take all the reigns of my mind and I just lie back and enjoy the show without my mind getting in the way and saying things like ‘Well, that was a bit sexist’ or ‘That line did not sound at ALL natural’ or ‘No one would really do THAT’ – because it doesn’t happen. The whole piece is primed for my smooth absorption.

Mads Mikkelsen, looking dapper.

I mean, just look at this dapper bastard.

Which is good in some ways, but can leave me feeling bereft when one really awesome thing is over and nothing is there to fill its place. It’s a good time for discovering new things.

And there was Tumblr, with a growing number of people throwing up pictures of Hannibal. Making in-jokes about Hannibal. Posting pictures of Mads Mikkelsen because ‘Ha ha – he’s so hot but he’s playing a cannibal WTF’. Even people who hadn’t seen Hannibal making PowerPoints about Hannibal to humourously explain what they had gleaned about Hannibal based on everyone else constantly posting about Hannibal.

So I thought, OK, why not give this Hannibal thing a go.

I’m rather glad I did.

Plot

Hannibal is a TV show based on the characters and events of Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris, the first book in the trilogy of which the second is The Silence of the Lambs, the seminal film in which Sir Anthony Hopkins gave an Oscar winning performance as Hannibal Lecter, the psychiatrist cannibal who helps FBI trainee, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster, who also netted one of the film’s many Oscars), catch a serial killer. I’m gonna hold up my hands right now and say that I haven’t read the books and I have only seen The Silence of the Lambs. A friend of mine tells me that Hannibal is more like a prequel to Red Dragon, Wikipedia says otherwise, and I’m in no position to say which is right. It’s certainly pre-Silence of the Lambs, that much is true.

So. Hannibal as a TV show is actually more about Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) a criminal profiler whose extreme empathy makes him extraordinarily effective at understanding the minds of killers, but socially crippled and powerfully affected by the things he imagines when reconstructing a crime scene. At the start of the series, Will has left the FBI to focus on teaching, as he finds field work too taxing and the FBI has judged him too unstable.

That all changes when Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) calls Will back in to help with the case of a serial killer who impales his victims on antlers to drain them of blood, before cannibalising them. Knowing Will’s unstable condition, Jack asks Hannibal Lecter, a forensic psychiatrist, to covertly assess Will. A covert assessment that becomes overt after Will and Hannibal catch the killer, Garrett Jacob Hobbs, in the act of attacking his own family. Will shoots Garrett, necessitating a formal psychological assessment, from which point Will continues to see Hannibal on a voluntary basis, as Jack continues to employ his unique gifts and Will finds the strain harder and harder to bear.

Will insists from the beginning that one of the murders attributed to Garrett Jacob Hobbs was committed by a copy-cat, and we, the viewer, are given reason to think that it was committed by Hannibal Lecter. Of course, anyone who knows even a whiff of the history of the character suspected that to begin with. As the series progresses Will and Hannibal develop a close relationship, although one begins to suspect that Hannibal’s care of Will’s mental health may have ulterior motives. And for his part, Will notices other murders supposedly committed by serial killers that do not entirely fit that killer’s MO.

What are Hannibal’s plan’s for Will? Will Will figure out what Hannibal is? What will everyone think when they realise what was really in all of Hannibal’s fabulous dinners?

How was it?

Bloody excellent (no pun intended). I was in two minds about whether to watch it. One always is with a spin off from a franchise, but it came highly recommended, not just from Tumblr, but from people whose tastes I trust. Equally, I enjoy some police procedurals, but not others. It’s a saturated market place and a format with tropes entrenched in sexism, which I’ve written about before. Plus, I have a hella big squick for cannibalism, so whilst I’m a big fan of Dexter, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to deal with a sympathetic presentation of a cannibal. But hey, Game of Thrones was over and I had a gap to fill, so why not?

It was worth the risk. Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is different from Hopkins’s, but not to the detriment of either. His almost deadpan stillness adds an alienness to him as an aloof psychiatrist. Although still charismatic, his is a charisma that draws you in – to step closer, to speak your thoughts to fill the silence. It adds an edge to Mikkelsen’s good looks that allows the watchfulness and disquiet the character evokes to prevent any impression that his handsomeness detracting from the horror of what he does. And though he is immaculately dressed in very flattering clothes, the perfection of his appearance speaks of an exactness of mind that works for a character that dissects human beings. A sense that that level of perfection isn’t quite… human.

Although, of course, Hannibal is human. And Hannibal, the TV show, never makes the mistake of demonising killers to the extent that you might think that killing like that isn’t really the act of human beings. Hannibal himself shows human affection. Although he is distant from people and has few real friends, he does seem to like Will Graham, and he affection for Abigail Hobbs (whom both he and Will become guardians of after Will saves her life by taking her father’s) seems genuine. He also expresses a wish for friendship with his own psychiatrist, Dr Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson). Similarly, his own reserved mannerisms are closely mirrored by Dr Du Maurier, and whilst other psychiatrists, such as Dr Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), show greater warmth, the sense that a certain detachment is natural to the analytical mode and a wish not to import one’s own assumptions onto one’s patient seems both reasonable and normal for a person in his line of work.

Without doubt, the psychiatry is central to the show. Not being a psychiatrist, I can’t comment with any authority on its authenticity, but as a layperson who has had cause to learn a bit about mental illness over the years it rang reasonably true. In analysing the killers, and in Will’s empathy with them, the show forces the viewer to accept their actions as those of human beings with complex psychologies whose actions have a context and thus cannot be attributed to some vague notion like ‘evil’. At the same time, through Will’s eyes, we are never divorced from the horror of the actions. Whilst the programme is certainly not for the faint of heart, there is no way that it could be said to sanitise or normalise violence. Rather, it forces the viewer towards a confrontation with horror both at emotional and analytical levels in a way that leaves little room for excuses. Human beings do do such things as these, and admitting that does not entail excusing it.

As for the cannibalism… yes, there are numerous darkly humourous moments in which it is strongly suggested (or even directly shown) that Hannibal is cooking people for dinner and serving them to almost everyone on the show. And the whole time I was sitting there going ‘Gnnnaaaaghhh! No! Don’t EAT IT’, but that’s OK. The humour is very subtly played and it is never pressed into tastelessness.

As for the sexism… it fares better than most of its genre. There are limitations stemming from the source material. Elementary has shown that you can change the race and the gender of no less a literary character than Dr Watson and not detract from the show (I’m sure there are those who would disagree, but I don’t have a lot of time for such people) but it’s possibly an added controversy that you don’t need when you’re making a show about a cannibal. So, yet again, it’s two middle-class white guys in the lead roles, and this time both of them are hyper-intelligent odd-balls who don’t play by the rules. On the plus side, the next most significant character is played by a person of colour, and there are two other people of colour in the recurring cast. Roughly half the cast are women (how bad is it that this is unusual?), they all have distinct characters, and only one of them has a relationship or potential relationship with one of the leading men.

I loved Gillian Anderson’s Dr Du Maurier, and not just because it’s always a pleasure to see Scully getting work. She was perfectly Hannibal’s equal for detached and analytical perspective, which women are rarely allowed to be on TV. There’s even a suggestion that she suspects what he does, and that she is prepared to protect him anyway, just as he once protected her in the past.

Equally, showing that women can be detached and unemotional doesn’t mean showing all female characters that way. Alana Bloom is warm and caring. Gina Torres‘s Bella Crawford is a strong and self-contained, yet still feminine woman. Beverly Katz (Hettienne Park) is out-going, yet somewhat sardonic. Lara Jean Chorostecki‘s performance as Freddie Lounds is intriguingly suggestive of sociopathic, but not psychopathic, behaviour, in her aggressive reporting technique. And Abigail Hobbs presents a significant and interesting question mark throughout the series, as many wonder whether daughter takes after father, and if she’s actually a killer herself, or simply a very messed up girl. That’s what we want: not cookie-cutter Strong Female Characters who kick ass but never have a hair out of place, but rich, complex, diverse characters, who are devised and defined just as male characters are: as full people, interesting in their own rights, not specified in advance by their gender.

It’s also worth mentioning Jimmy Price (Scott Thompson) who plays a slightly camp forensic scientist. I liked that we don’t know whether he’s gay or not and his slightly camp mannerisms and tone of voice are never commented on or made fun of by the other characters. It’s just how he is. On the one hand, it would have been better to have a recurring character who was acknowledged as being gay – I’m aware of the frustrations LGBT people feel at only ever being hinted at on screen – but it was also nice to have camp behaviour not being treated as exceptional, weird, or to be mocked. Whether he’s a het man who’s comfortable with being camp, or a gay guy who can be relaxed around his coworkers, it’s nice to have a character who is camp where being camp is not the entirety of what his character is about.

So, whilst there are a few areas that aren’t all that might be wished, in comparison to many TV shows that I also like and watch, Hannibal does pretty well. And those issues aside, it’s a really interesting programme with some fresh new takes on a familiar genre. By no means simply a cashing in on a franchise; rather, a well-thought out, meticulously explored gem of a show.

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Review: Game of Thrones, Season 3 (Contains Spoilers)

Game of Thrones Season 3 posterIt’s hard to say that there has ever been a more hotly anticipated season of any show than the third season of HBO’s adaptation of George R R Martin’s sprawling epic fantasy, Game of Thrones. One comment I hear again and again from people is that upon finishing an episode of Game of Thrones they instantly want more – like they had expected it to go on and it cut off abruptly. So greatly are people drawn into the world and its plot. I myself was counting down the months, the weeks, the days, from a surprisingly long time off. Basically, from the end of season 2. As one macro said: ‘One does not simply wait 306 days for Game of Thrones Season 3‘. Of course, HBO, weren’t idly letting the tension build itself. In addition to a dazzling array of posters and trailers, the cast seem to have been everywhere doing countless promo shoots, both ridiculous and sublime, including the sublimely ridiculous. They also seem to have cottoned on to the humorous creativity which infects the fans, offering the ability to create your own Game of Thrones style sigil.

House Sigil Philos

I made a sigil for Philosophy, because I’m sad.

Although, to be honest, all these things were just stop-gaps in my already stoked anticipation.

The question is: did it deliver?

The answer? A complex shuffle of competing shouts of ‘HELL YES!’ and ‘Eh’.

There’s no doubt, the big moments this season were big. Of all the moments in GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire that stand out as jaw-droppingly shocking for newcomers and most-tensly anticipated by long-time fans, this season has an uncommonly high percentage. The previous two seasons probably contained one a-piece: Ned’s execution in season one, and the Battle of Blackwater in season two. This season we are treated to:

  • Daenerys sacking her first city
  • Jaime losing his hand
  • The Bear and the Maiden Fair
  • and, of course, the Red Wedding

All of which were unutterably delicious. This season saw the pay off for things that have been set up gradually over a long period of time, with Daenerys’s freeing of the Unsullied and raising of Astapor being one of the most visually stunning and dramatically satisfying pieces of television I’ve ever seen. Daenerys’s storyline is one of the most interesting and complex in an exceptionally interesting and complex show. And it has to be. Hers is the storyline that involves dragons, and that’s a trope of weighty cultural depth, heavy with the legends and fairytales of disparate cultures and centrally located in the modern consciousness of fantasy tales by Tolkein’s iconic Smaug in The Hobbit. I love dragons, but I know a lot of geeks who find them overused and annoying. If you want to win over that crowd, as well as the crowd of non-geeks who are watching for the sexy, violent, political drama, you need a solid foundation of plot, character, and acting of sufficient gravitas.

And they pull it off. Daenerys comes to her pivotal moment early in the season: episode 4. Having escaped from Qarth with her dragons and a modest amount of loot, Daenerys comes to Astapor, a great slaving city, famous for training the Unsullied: eunuchs of unparalleled fighting skill, endurance, and obedience. Jorah urges Daenerys to buy Unsullied, despite her entrenched ideological objections to slavery. The Masters of Astapor give her the usual spiel via translator, all the while mouthing off about her in Valyrian. Daenerys, against Jorah and Selmy’s advice, agrees to trade one of her dragons for all of the Unsullied – including those still in training.

Daenerys Kicks Butt

Up until now, Daenerys has been a beautiful young girl with a great name and three dragons, but she has had no land, barely any people, no army, few funds, and her dragons were small enough to be mere curiosities. At the start of season 3, though, we see that her dragons have grown, and so has she. Jorah and Selmy are too busy squaring off against each other to realise that Daenerys would never give one of her dragons into slavery. She is deeply opposed to slavery, views her dragons as her children, and is more than smart enough to realise that one dragon is worth more than 8,000 Unsullied when it comes to war.

In a stunning move that cements her stature as legend in the making, she waits until the Master has placed the whip of power in her hand and then reveals to the sexist pig that Valyrian is her mother tongue, and she has understood every insultingly misogynistic phrase he has uttered. She tells him that a dragon is not a slave and commands the Unsullied to kill their masters, and her dragon to roast the one who holds his chain alive. Having sacked the city, she frees all the slaves and asks them to fight for her of their own free will. Of course, they do.

It’s stunningly cinematic, worthy of a feature film. Emilia Clarke really comes into her own, and I take back every single word of doubt I voiced for her. I dare you to watch the above and not want to follow her anywhere.

Rousing stuff. Climactic stuff. Which is a little bit weird for an episode just shy of half way through the season.

Brienne and Jaime’s Very Bloody Buddy Movie

If you’ve been following me on Twitter or Tumblr for a while you may be aware that I was basically referring to this season in anticipation as ‘Brienne and Jaime’s Very Bloody Buddy Movie’. Of course, in reality, this was only one thread of plot, but it forms the backbone for the middle part of the season where all the political shenanigans are working themselves out to set up the big events further down the line.

Brienne and Jaime’s relationship is one of my very, very favourite things about A Song of Ice and Fire, and I’ve basically been waiting two seasons to see it finally flower before us. It’s through Brienne’s relationship with Jaime that we get to see a side of him that we have only glimpsed before, hidden behind the shocking introduction, way back in the first season, where he pushes a small boy from a window. We’re set up to hate Jaime, and almost all the characters are colluding to encourage this impression. It’s not just that he tried to kill a child to hide his incestuous relationship, he killed a king whom he was sworn to protect. Pretty shitty thing for a knight to do, right? Yeah, it’s easy, very easy to see Jaime the Shitbag.

Except, the king he killed was a mad man known for burning adults and children alive, sparking the war that led to Robert gaining his throne. And having killed the king, with his father’s army entering the capital, Jaime could have made a play for it himself. But that never even occurs to him. He cedes the throne instantly to Robert. He never wanted it. When Cersei tries to persuade him that he should be the Hand of the King, he refuses. He has never wanted power or responsibility. Despite his bravado and insolent manner, we gradually see revealed a man who’s never really at ease in social settings unless he’s talking about war. There is a hesitancy and lack of confidence lurking under the surface. His harsh words reflect a bitter disillusionment, and one might take the time to wonder why any man might ‘take the white’ – join the King’s Guard, swear to celibacy – if he were young and rich and beautiful and the heir to Casterley Rock. There must have been some real idealism in there somewhere. What would make a man like that kill a king? What would it do to a man like that to kill his king? And to be condemned for that act from every quarter outside of his family.

We also learn that Jaime always struggled with his schoolwork. There are hints that he may have had dyslexia, but Tywin, father of the year, would brook no quarter, and forced Jaime to read for four hours a day before he was allowed to go and do what he was good at: learning to fight. And I think we see here the germ of a deep insecurity. A man who only ever wanted to do what he was good at and enjoyed, but from whom others always demanded more. With no mother and a father like Tywin, it’s unsurprising the Jaime would feel drawn to the unconditional love of his twin sister for solace (even if incest is taking it a bit far). And it’s equally unsurprising that he would run away from his father for the simple, cleanly honourable life of a knight of the King’s Guard at King’s Landing.

But everywhere he is seen through the veil of ‘Kingslayer’. And at first Brienne despises him for his lack of honour. He seems everything that she is not. And he taunts her for the strength of her principles – her strength of honour, which he feels is lost to him forever. But when she proves herself his equal as a fighter he cannot help but respect her. He has always connected best to people on this one level where he is sure of his own skill, and it creates a connection that he has never had with a woman before. In turn, the respect he accords her as a fighter is one that Brienne has rarely experienced, except from Renly, whose meagrely kind treatment sparked an unrequited love, and from Catelyn, whose bravery and respect won Brienne’s undying loyalty.

When Jaime’s (successful) efforts to save Brienne from rape lead to him losing his hand, they each open up to each other in a way neither has to any other person, and in a post-amputation fever, Jaime tells the real story of what happened when he killed the mad king. How Aerys, had commanded him to kill his own father, and for his pyromancer to destroy the city; how Jaime’s action in killing him saved a quarter of a million lives. And where every other person outside of his family had refused to hear him out, had despised him, Brienne listens. And she believes him. And she tells him he did the right thing. It’s probably the most powerful thing anyone has ever done for Jaime.

I’ve written a lot about their relationship here and here. But I guess what I’m coming to is best summed up by someone else:

Put simply, she’s the knight that he wanted to be. She has all of the qualities that he tries to pretend aren’t important to him, are the realm of the naive and the stupid, but that he hates that everyone assumes he doesn’t have, that he thinks it’s too late for him to ever reclaim.

glamphonic on Tumblr

Jaime doesn’t push Bran out of a window because it’s what he wants to do. He does it because Cersei asks him to: ‘The things I do for love’ he says. Jaime was a man of honour who was despised for doing the most honourable thing in a bad situation. He had always been starved of love – his mother died when he was young and his father is a big time poo – and in a world that hates him he would have done anything for Cersei, even though she never shared the honour that came naturally to him.

And then, there’s Brienne. Who is everything he ever thought a knight should be, and she doesn’t think what he did was dishonourable when she hears the whole story. And she tells him he can be the sort of man he always wanted to be.

Guys… I just have too many feels about this. If you don’t ship Brienne/Jaime I think your heart is broken.

Ahem. *coughs* Not a tear in my eye. Dust. Yeah, dust.

Anyway. Before all the feels come out, it is totally a buddy movie, I promise. Because there is also a world of BANTER, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime) Gwendoline Christie (Brienne) manage perfectly the shift between humour and tension. Particular kudos to Gwendoline Christie for managing to portray Brienne as suitably awkward whilst also keeping up her end of the banter. Honestly, it may not have had the cinematic glory of Daenerys’s sacking of Astapor, but Brienne and Jaime’s character arc provides a much needed emotional anchor, one which gets its pay off as Jaime is forced to abandon Brienne at Harenhal, where she is forced to fight a bear in parody of a popular Westerosi folk song ‘The Bear and the Maiden Fair’. Learning that Brienne’s ransom has not been accepted because Jaime led her captors to believe that her father is richer than he really is, Jaime returns, jumping into the bear pit despite knowing that he is now useless in a fight, his only value being that others will protect him for his ransom. It is an utter confrontation with his own vulnerability at the same time as a true act of heroism, marking a quite remarkable moment of redemption.

Of course, all of the above is drawn from the books, but the HBO team are commended for pulling off what was, for me, one of the most anticipated story arcs of the whole show.

There were a couple of rough notes. Brienne’s cry of ‘The Kingslayer!’ when Jaime faints in the bath tub, felt way forced and overdone, mostly due to poor staging and overly dramatic camera angles, but the scene leading up to it was spot on. They even managed to make Brienne’s forgetting that she’s naked (one of the most painfully unrealistic moments in the books) into an act of power. Also, the fact that Gwendoline Christie is actually beautiful, and not as ugly as Brienne is meant to be in the books, makes what is meant to be a humiliating and inappropriate act of forcing her to wear a dress lose all its power. She doesn’t look awkward in it at all, and all the ‘uglying up’ styling, which was passably effective up until this point, basically evaporates when she’s cleaned up and wearing a dress that actually suits her quite well.

Minor points, though.

The Red Wedding

No review of season 3 could go by without discussing the moment that shook the Internet, as millions of fans who hadn’t read the books tuned in for the penultimate episode to witness Robb Stark, Catelyn, the pregnant Talisa, and all of the Stark army slaughtered by the Freys (and Roose Bolton) after Edmure Tully’s wedding to Rosalind Frey.

Twitter wept. An account was set up called @RedWeddingTears retweeting all the people who said they were rage-quitting Game of Thrones afterwards (you’d have thought Ned’s death in season one would have alerted them to the stakes in this game, but hey ho). Highlights include:

Meanwhile, on Youtube, countless people videoed their friends reacting:

Which was reblogged to Tumblr. Although in the land of gifs and macros everything takes a lighter tone, and to ‘Red Wedding’ becomes a verb:

Red Wedding: To betray, shoot, stab, dismember, eviscerate and humiliate a foe in a place of false safety”

@MalkyDel on Twitter

So, I think we can assume that the episode had the desired effect. Honestly, I have difficulty connecting with people who want to quit a show because it generates a strong emotional reaction for them. I kinda wish I hadn’t known it was coming, because that kind of punch to the gut is what I want from fiction. I don’t know why, but I think it’s relatively normal for humans to feel that way. Something about tapping into shared emotion at a fundamental level. Being moved by terrible things somehow makes us feel less alone.

And on a serious note, this was a very sophisticated presentation of a blood bath. No, I’m serious. I don’t know why people who will grant Shakespeare as a great genius decry violence in shows like Game of Thrones. There’s a difference between blood presented for pure titillation and blood presented as a grim confrontation with reality. A lot of the plays we count as truly great are revenge tragedies. Hamlet has a body count of nine. Titus Andronicus is his most gruesome at fourteen, as well as rape, dismemberment, and cannibalism – it was his most popular play during his lifetime. Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi is famously bloody, as is his White Devil – in one production I saw fake blood ended up literally dripping off the stage. I couldn’t find an exact figure for it, but The Revenger’s Tragedy is widely thought to be the bloodiest of the genre, with one reviewer writing: ‘the body count of Revenger’s Tragedy makes the deaths in plays such as Hamlet seem like an adolescent squabble’.

And that’s what this is: a tragedy. Anyone familiar with the genre could not help but see the visual and stylistic references. It perhaps sits somewhere between classical tragedies (like Oedipus Rex) and Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedy, but both are evoked. I can’t have been the only one who noticed that the set dressing for the Frey stronghold turned remarkably Elizabethan once the wedding started. The spartan stone castle was suddenly clad in oak panelling and tapestries. And the layout of the set with the dais for the wedding party’s table was reminiscent of a stage – complete with galleries above, just like the galleries of an Elizabethan theatre, to which our attention is drawn when crossbowmen fire down upon the wedding party from above. In this context the excessive bloodiness of the scene feels right at home and calls on centuries of literary discourse about death, and our voyeuristic interest in death. I wrote my exam piece on Shakespeare about the relationship between revenge tragedies and the spectacle of hangings in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. The playwrights were conscious of the similarities between plays and these obscene spectacles. People would rent out rooms with good views of an execution; issue programmes of the day’s hangings, much like theatre programmes; sell snacks to the audience… It’s one of the reasons the play-within-the-play is a recurring feature of the revenge tragedy, calling the audience to reflect upon their own behaviour and fascination with death.

Death is one of the most central themes in literature because it comes to us all. And it is a large emotional part of life before it comes to us ourselves. I would imagine that everyone who is old enough to watch Game of Thrones has known death, probably death in the family, so the family dramas that usually form the central part of both classical and revenge tragedy ring home for all of us. And the centrality of family is emphasised from the start. We begin with a scene in which Robb and Catelyn come together again, having been estranged, are bonded by their shared desire to avenge Ned – Robb’s father and Catelyn’s husband. The scene is also set at a wedding – a joining of families. And as Catelyn pleads for her son’s life she calls on the honour of both her families: the Tullys and the Starks. Moreover, the centrality of motherhood to Catelyn’s character has been emphasised throughout the season, as she makes ritualistic doll-wreaths to protect her sons Bran and Rickon, who she thinks are probably dead, and she regrets never being able to accept Jon Snow, Ned’s bastard, properly into her heart as a son. It all leads up to the final tableau, as she seizes Walder Frey’s unfortunate wife and holds a knife to her throat, begging for Robb to be spared. Who could not but feel her agony, admire her strength – Michelle Fairley, who had always played the role with intensity, taking it up to a new and as yet unseen level.

Her stillness and inarticulate cry at Robb’s death, before her own throat is slit, thus seem wholly appropriate, where the oft trotted out cry of ‘Noooooo’ has been rendered silly in other shows. Even the realistically spurting blood that is usually forgone in modern cinema, as audiences (who have rarely seen arterial blood spray) find it implausible, works in the context of the revenge tragedy.

Granted, the Red Wedding lacks the trope of a ghost sending a protagonist on a quest of vengeance, but I think the scene between Catelyn and Robb at the start of the episode, considering Ned’s death, spurring them on to accept the Frey deal in the name of revenge, can be seen as a symbolic ghost scene. Certainly, the ghost of Ned’s death hangs over the event, and the outrage it prompted eerily echoed in the excess of grief evinced on the Internet for the Red Wedding.

We also see Robb’s hubris. He should see, really, that going back to the Freys cap in hand when he has slighted them so thoroughly is a really bad plan. But he’s the Young Wolf. He’s never lost a battle. In the classical style, the Red Wedding forms a requisite catharsis. And although Robb was, for many, a favourite character, he was set up to be a little too perfect. The handsome young man and brilliant tactician, his one flaw being falling for the wrong woman, perhaps pride in thinking he was above marrying a Frey… in the literary game he had been set up for a fall. People call George RR Martin names for murdering favourite characters, but I’m not sure he’s as harsh as people think. The really interesting characters – the Tyrions, the Aryas, The Daeneryses – the flawed characters who make the compromises necessary to survive, but still retain a humanity and charm to keep us on their side… they seem to be doing quite well.

Doubtless I am tempting fate to say such a thing, and I’m by no means convinced anyone is immune from not making it to the end, but I’m not terribly surprised that it’s the Ned and Robb Starks of this world that have popped it. Or, at least, I wasn’t surprised by Robb after Ned had gone that way.

I honestly think ‘The Rains of Castermere’ The Red Wedding is a brilliantly crafted piece of theatre – not just in the original writing of George R R Martin’s books, but in the direction, scripting, set design, and acting of the actual episode itself. It’s like a little play within a series – a set piece – after the old revenge tragedy tradition. And it provides a concentrated microcosm of the themes of the wider series. Whilst there is some voyeuristic enjoyment of scenes like this, the enjoyment is parasitic on the horror. I’m willing to bet that the majority of people who swore off Game of Thrones after the Red Wedding will be back again next year after they’ve digested the event. In part because they will digest the event. It’s an event that demands to be digested and considered. It forces reflection because the emotions it provokes are so intense. It provides a counterpoint to the glorification of violence we see exemplified in the sub-plot, as Daenerys’s three best fighters – Jorah, Greyworm, and Daario – showcase their fighting skill in a striking piece of choreography. Because, for some reason, that kind of violence, which obfuscates the pain and death and gore it causes, is permissible, where as the raw horror of a blood bath like the Red Wedding is repugnant.

Surely violence should be repugnant. Surely we should wince and look away. I’m puzzled by people who want to see violence cleaned up (except for in kids shows, because, as my friends who are parents tell me, kids can find that stuff pretty upsetting), especially as they tend to be the same people who think we are becoming desensitised by violence on telly. We’re desensitised by santised violence. By violence only ever presented as cool and bloodless. No, I’m not saying every episode should be a Red Wedding, but anyone who thinks the Red Wedding glorifies violence needs to have their internal sensitivity to violence checked, because all those reactions above? That great outcry such as I have never seen in response to television before? That’s people who are shocked and awed and were confronted by the fact that the underlying message of Game of Thrones is not and never has been ‘violence is cool’; rather the message in unequivocally ‘war is awful’.

The Eh

OK, that’s a lot of praise and in-depth analysis. Let’s take a breather before the close to return to the ‘eh’ that I mentioned in the beginning. Because, believe it or not, this was not my favourite season. It has most of my favourite moments (and I haven’t even covered all the brilliant stuff between Tyrion and Sansa and what’s been going on with Arya becoming a murderous little revenge driven terror*), but it also has the worst pacing. Between the really awesome moments are a lot of scenes that stand out against those moments as somewhat grey and unexciting. Most of the scenes at Riverrun are required to set up the Red Wedding, but seem to crawl by in comparison to places where things actually seem to be happening. Granted, this is only a low note in the context of general Game of Thrones quality, and you need some quiet moments amongst the burning cities and Red Weddings, but, for instance, the Brienne/Jamie banter scenes do this much more effectively than the Riverrun scenes, despite the wonderful Tobias Menzies bringing such colour in incompetence to the role of Edmure Tully.

In this way I’m hard pressed to rate this season over season two, just because season two was consistently good value. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that season three of Game of Thrones was a fantastic bit of television with some Internet-shaking drama that sort of throws down a gauntlet for all other television shows to take up… if they dare.

*Just a quick sidenote, there, as it relates to the Red Wedding, I think Arya’s witnessing of the events of the Red Wedding form a crucial part of the message as outlined above. Because, unlike, for instance, Hamlet where the cleansing pile of bodies leaves a sense that order has been restored, Game of Thrones presents the more realistic picture that violence begets violence. Revenge only ever leads to more revenge, and Arya’s story arc is all about the forging of a revenge driven character. That list she repeats to herself? That’s not just a list of people she wants to kill, that’s a list of people she wants to wreak revenge on. In hurting her they stoke the desire to hurt others.

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Review: House of Cards (Netflix)

House of Cards promo imageDisappointingly unsatisfying for something that’s also quite gripping.

Despite the enthusiastic promotions of Netflix (which is a company I generally approve of) and the presence of Kevin Spacey in the starring role (a man I find both oddly-attractive and an excellent actor) I was reluctant to click on the huge WATCH THIS NOW banner that suddenly appeared at the top of my Netflix homepage the day this launched.

The Lincoln MemorialIt’s not really hard to fathom why, though. I mean, you couldn’t get a much more patriarchal image than the above: a middle-aged white man sitting on a marble throne that looks an awful lot like Abraham Lincoln’s colossal monument of Massive Marble Manhood and Political Domination. I mean, I’m assuming it’s meant to be ironic: a political schemer dripping blood from his fingers to stain the great man’s chair, but I wasn’t feeling it. No, what this image said to me was POWER. I knew exactly what the program was going to be about and I hadn’t watched it, yet. Clearly Kevin Spacey was playing a Magnificent Bastard in the US political arena. And that was the story. Right there. Wow, look at the middle-aged white man go. And, I’ll be honest, I didn’t expect it to be badly acted or badly written – I respected the team and the actors – I just expected to find it dull and utterly unsurprising. I am bored to tears with ‘dramas’ about middle-aged white men running circles around everyone else. They aren’t dramatic, anymore, they’re expected, tiresome, depressing.

But I ran out of Hemlock Grove and my interest was piqued by the large number of women in the supporting cast: Robin Wright, Kate Mara,  Sakrina Jaffrey, Kristen Connolly, and Constance Zimmer, and more!

Plot

Francis Underwood (Spacey) is a US congressman who at the start of our show expects to be made Secretary of State, but his ambitions are unexpectedly thwarted. Plastering a smile on his face, he begins to plot both his revenge and advancement to an even higher position.

Claire Underwood (Wright) is Francis’s wife. Ambitious and steely in her own resolve, she works in the not-for-profit sector, spearheading the Clearwater Initiative. She seems to genuinely care about her charitable work, but this doesn’t stop her from being uncompromisingly ruthless when she believes it to be in her or Francis’s interest.

Zoe Barnes (Mara) is an ambitious young reporter who thrusts herself into the fore by snapping a fortuitous picture of Underwood admiring her rear. Underwood enjoys her audacity and sees the value of using her to strategically leak stories.

Peter Russo (played by Corey Stoll) is a US Representative addicted to drugs, alcohol and prostitutes. He’s divorced and engaged in an office romance with Christina Gallagher (Connolly), but seems like his heart is in the right place.

Russo is caught drunk driving with a prostitute in the passenger seat and Underwood sends his Chief of Staff, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), to sweep the matter under the carpet, giving him a hold over Russo, upon whose unstable shoulders many of Underwood’s plots will turn.

How was it?

Eh… I don’t know, really. I suppose it was much as I expected: well-written, well-paced, well-acted, and… disappointingly predictable. Not in the individual twists and turns, but in that it was about a white, wealthy, middle-aged man tying everyone else in knots. And watching privilege seek revenge for a comparatively minor slight is… not that satisfying?

Spacey was exactly what he needed to be. Robin Wright was completely spot on as the ice cool hard-ass who still  believes in making the world a better place and believably struggles with her love for the ruthless Underwood and her attraction for the more free spirited Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels). Corey Stoll is sympathetically a complete mess for whom you root to get his act together. Kate Mara is appropriately annoying in her ambitious forwardness, and carefully balances the line between being unlikability and hidden depths.

Robin Wright as The Princess Bride

Robin Wright as The Princess Bride

The ingredients are right, but the recipe creates a dissatisfying result for the modern mouth. I kept thinking: this could have been awesome if they’d given the Francis Underwood role to Robin Wright. If you’re finding the name familiar, by the way, let me help you out. You may be recalling Robin Wright from all time classic satirical romantic adventure story, The Princess Bride.

Quite apart from it being a pleasure to see her again (took me about half way through the series to work out where I knew her from), this couldn’t be a more different role. Buttercup from The Princess Bride was all softness and sweetness and innocent belief in true love, barely concealed under a veneer of haughtiness which is really just another facet of her naivety. Claire Underwood, by contrast, is quiet spoken and beautiful and works for a good cause, but is self-possessed and a real force to be reckoned with. In the first episode she gets her manager to fire half her staff so that she doesn’t have to accept a donation that would compromise Francis, and then lets the same manager go herself. We instantly know this is a woman to be reckoned with, and Robin Wright’s performance is perfect. I would have been much more interested in her performance of a truly uncompromising role, like that of Francis.

Instead, her steely resolve is ultimately undermined. Despite what she claims, she isn’t quite as independent from her husband as he is from her. Not that either of them is fully so. One of the more interesting things about the show is their relationship, which is both open and governed by strict rules. Both Claire and Francis have lovers, and neither keeps this from their spouse; it is always understood that the affair is to be fleeting and useful. Despite the fact that jealousy does cause occasional tension, this seems to work for them. Nevertheless, whilst both partners show weakness, it is Claire who seems to truly reach out for love and for comfort in her lover, it is Claire who secretly longs for children and comes to regret accepting Francis’s decision not to have them, it is Claire who always returns to Francis – drawn by his power and security.

None of this is inappropriate for a character or wrong for a woman. But it’s part of that sense that this is always how women are presented. You can have a woman show strength on-screen, just as long as you undercut that strength in some way. Show that she does really want love, and to have children, and that, despite her protestations, she will endure subservience… maybe even likes it a little.

You could have believably gender-flipped this show, and seeing as they transplanted the original British concept to an entirely different political system, it’s not unreasonable to think that they might have experimented with the form some more as well.

But they didn’t. And whilst there are plenty of strong women, Francis Underwood gets the better of them all. Even when they do start to mount an attack on him, it is something they must band together to perform. And although the issues surrounding women using their sexuality to get ahead are touched on, I found the analysis one-sided and a little shallow. Yes, Francis uses sex to get what he wants, too, but it’s by assuming a stereotypical older-man-using-younger-woman role, which is questioned, but never really unseated. I kept hoping that the title was a hint that Underwood’s delicate plan was doomed to come tumbling down, but it never quite happens.

And… and it’s not enough to show the flaws of the patriarchy anymore. I’m bored with it. I know what those flaws are. Show me something new. At the end of the day a show about a patriarchal figure who abuses his power is still a show about a patriarchal figure. It’s not just that it’s sexist it’s that it’s… uninteresting. We’ve seen The West Wing, and Yes, Minister, and even House of Cards itself, before. If you wanted to remake a show, why not use that venue to propose something new. That would have been actually provocative and interesting.

So, yeah, if you’re looking for time to kill, there are worse ways to do it, but I’m not going to say this is Must See Television (or webivision, or whatever) because it’s not. It’s a very well-made version of something you’ve seen hundreds of times before.

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Review – Star Trek: Into Darkness

Star Trek: Into Darkness poster, featuring Uhura looking badass

I wish I’d seen THIS movie.

It’s hard to write a serious review for what was not even remotely a serious movie, so I’m not even gonna try. Benedict Cumberbund* was excellent, and whilst it’s hard to talk about the deeply problematic elements of white-washing represented in his taking the role without giving spoilers… I can see why he was chosen even if I also feel considerable disquiet about it **(spoilers in the footnote). Nevertheless, this film was beyond sloppy, and if you want to enjoy it in any sense, just find a YouTube clip of all the Cumberbatch bits and sit and watch that. It’ll be cheaper and less disappointing.

So, this is my half-arsed, bullet-point list of everything that was wrong with Star Trek: Into Darkness:

  1. Tribbles. It’s WAY too early for Bones to even know what a tribble is, let alone for it to be a standard lab animal – and WHY WOULD YOU HAVE A TRIBBLE AS A LAB ANIMAL, ARE YOU INSANE? DO YOU EVEN WANT TO HAVE A SPACESHIP LATER? Although both Vulcans and Klingons have a history with tribbles, in ‘The Trouble with Tribbles’ it’s made reasonably clear that humans haven’t encountered them before, as evidenced by the fact that they have no idea how dangerous they are.
  2. Androids on the bridge. I like androids about ten times more than the next person, but whilst I was uneasy about their role in the previous movie, I am NOT HAPPY about seeing an android officer on the bridge of the Enterprise in Kirk’s time. You don’t mess with Data. You just don’t. Stop it.
  3. Intertextuality without text. This movie was all over the place riffing off things both explicitly and implicitly. It’s not just other Star Trek movies and the way that every character is constantly saying favourite quotes with no sense of timing or style, its visual references to Star Wars and spaceships that look like Terminator hunter-killers and the inside of a Klingon death… planet… thing… that just really strongly reminded me of the spaceship interior at the end of Independence Day. But it was all just… thrown in there. There was no meaning to it, and, out of context, it doesn’t even really work as a hit for geeks. Geeks like consistency, and this film had none of that.
  4. Spock is Kirk is Bones is Scotty and Uhura is Deanna. Everyone (except Khan) is in slip-stream between a caricature of who they’re meant to be, spouting catch-phrases, and completely the opposite of both their character in canon and as set up in the 2009 movie. The Kirk-Spock-Bones Freudian triad is gone. Spock has emotions up the wazoo and Bones… Bones is an empty puppet, whose lack-luster lines are wasted on Judge Dredd Karl Urban. I mean, I get why you want to make Spock the main character: Zachary Quinto is much more charismatic and modern a front-man than Chris Pine, and the 2009 movie added real nuance and interest, but the nuance is gone. Spock is interesting as a man drawn in two directions, and the Vulcan no-emotions side to Spock has become a thin gauze, stripping any sense of emotions roiling under the surface of their power and tension. As for Uhura…
  5. That’s not Uhura. The kickass, take-no-shit, in-love-with-a-vulcan-because-she-can-respect-his-reserve-and-keep-that-shit-PRIVATE woman is GONE. This is a needy stereotype of a woman who gets pissed at her man at the drop of a hat. And whilst, yeah, she might be upset that he put his life in danger, the Uhura of the last movie would have understood his motivation, and if she had any problems with it she would have worked them out in PRIVATE, and not in front of the captain, a man she knows to be a womaniser who has always been needling at the edges of their relationship, waiting for it to fray.
  6. And whilst I wanted to be generous when I read quotes of Abrams saying that Star Trek was always sexy and that’s what they fans want, I had to admit that the shots of the saucy-shiny-suits at the beginning which offered a bit of equal-op sexiness were pretty brief. And all Uhura does in those scenes is emote whilst the men around her – who all like Spock, too, take action. She gets a tiny bit of come-back towards the end, but it’s like the way Brenda finally stops screaming to step up to the plate in Highlander as… a distraction so that her man can properly dispatch the bad guy. Between those two points we see an AWFUL lot of men, both extras and main cast, and two VERY sexualised women in the main cast and a negligible scattering of female extras. All of whom are in the ‘retro’ mini-dresses. Alas, the TNG move to have that be a uniform that men wear too seems to have been swept under the rug.
  7. LIGHTS. OH GOD. THE LIGHTS. I thought Texts from Superheroes were exaggeratingTextsfromsuperheroes mocks J J Abrams' obsession with lens flare.

I mean, I’ll be honest, I thought I knew and understood that J J Abrams has a lens flare problem, but someone close to him needs to stage an intervention. This is NOT healthy.

He even had the gall to put his flashy little lights in the beam-up effect, which my Geek-Film-Buddy Lee actually liked, but I… was rather less impressed by.

Going into this movie I thought J J Abrams’ had been his own worst enemy leading up to the release. He overhyped the ‘WHO IS BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH PLAYING?!1!’ card and he said really dumb things in interviews, like that he never actually liked Star Trek and thought it was too ‘philosophical’. I thought he couldn’t really mean it, because the 2009 movie had been so good. But this movie felt like the lazy work of someone who’s a bit too full of their success and whose careful attention to detail when he was trying to win over the fans went out the window when he felt he had them bought and paid for.

I don’t like to write negative reviews in general, but this was one of the Big Damn Films of the year, and I’d been really looking forward to it, and I thought if you’re the sort of person who’s interested in my reviews in the first place you’d probably want to know what I thought. So, here it is: it was a white-washed movie with a pinch of sexism, a couple of nice cameos from Hollywood sci-fi old guard and one up-and-coming charismatic actor making a role his own who you can’t fault for stepping up to the plate even if it really ought to have gone to a person of colour. It was poorly paced, poorly plotted, and contradictory, but the production values were very high. If you don’t mind these issues then you may enjoy it as sci-fi fluff.

*Yeah, yeah, I’m not really into making fun of people’s names, but he’s a rich, successful, white man who doesn’t seem to mind and generally seems to be having the time of his life. He’s also about the only thing I’m going to speak positively about in this review. He can take it.

**SPOILERS IN THIS FOOTNOTE: if you’re luckier than me and avoided more than hints about WHO BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH IS PLAYING, I didn’t want to give the game away, but yeah, it’s Khan. Although the big reveal is somewhat marred by Cumberbatch pronouncing ‘Khan’ differently to every person ever, including everyone else in the film. If you don’t know why this is problematic: Khan was a NON-WHITE superhuman. He was from INDIA. And whilst his portrayal by Mexican Ricardo Montalbán in The Wrath of Khan has some clumsy race implications, he was at least played by someone other than a white guy. Yeah, Khan is a character with tremendous charisma, and you need a really phenomenal actor to pull off the role, in part because Ricardo Montalbán’s performance was so iconic, but if you don’t see how having a white guy play a genetically-engineered-to-be-perfect human being FULL STOP is a problem, you got some alone time you need to spend thinking about that, anyway. Add to this that the role was specifically conceived of as for a person of colour in a ground-breakingly progressive series… yeah, it’s really problematic. THEN, they take a really, really pale white guy – a BRITISH white guy (because everyone knows charismatic villains are only PROPERLY charismatic and villainous if they’re British) and PALE HIM UP SOME MORE with make-up that makes him look ill (why? this guy is a superhuman! He’s not ill. It’s almost impossible for him to BE ill) and dye his red hair black BECAUSE HE’S AN EVIL BRITISH GUY, GUYS, THAT’S WHAT THEY LOOK LIKE! LIKE DRACULA, RIGHT? I’M PRETTY SURE HE WAS BRITISH. And yeah… my cans ain’t happening because I’ve lost my evens.

Posted in Review, Stark Trek: Into Darkness | Tagged , , , , , | 12 Comments

Apologies

Apologies, all. I forgot how messed up and stressed I am in a heady instant of over-estimating my abilities and sense of self-worth. So, I’m cancelling Project Super Dead Fish. I think only about 7 people viewed the page anyway. There was a lot of enthusiasm out there for the idea, but not the enacting it, and I am not a healthy enough beast to do it by myself. A healthier beast would wait longer and see how it went, but it was just causing me an immense amount of anxiety – more than I anticipated. So… let’s all just pretend it didn’t happen, OK?

Thanks. Womble out.

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On Dowager Countesses and Queens of Thorns

The Queen of Thorns givin' the sass

Olenna ‘Queen of Thorns’ Redwyne, sassing Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones.

We love them, don’t we? The old biddies carrying AK-47s of wit and scatter-bombs of scathing put-downs, but… lately, I’m getting depressed by it all. I’m depressed because of why we love these women and why we allow them to say the things that would never be given to a younger woman to say.

They’re a stereotype just as much as the whore with a heart of gold (Inara, Ros, Shae). Don’t believe me? I searched on ‘Queen of Thorns’ in Google Image Search (gif format) and got as many images of the Dowager Countess as I did Olenna Redwyne. By the Dowager Countess, I of course mean Violet Crawley from Downton Abbey. That’s her on the lower right.

The Dowager Countess

The Dowager Countess, Violet Crawley

We love her because she says the things no one else will say. We love her because she’s a woman who’s not afraid to use her voice and speak her mind. And even if what’s on her mind is kind of rude, we don’t mind, because she phrases her put-downs with such style. We’re titilated and refreshed and we say to each other: ‘I love her! I love that she can get away with that!’

But let’s take a step back and examine this. Why is it that a Dowager Countess or a Queen of Thorns can get away with things that other people can’t? The clue’s in the name. They’re both extremely wealthy, titled, widowed, very well-educated women. They’re also both white. They’ve basically won the circumstance jackpot in every way except being female. So what have they got that, for instance, Cersei Lannister, Queen Regent, theoretically more powerful and wealthy than either one, hasn’t? The answer? They’re too old to be used for their beauty or their capacity to breed. Cersei thinks the best tool she has is between her legs, but in reality, that’s as ripe for use by others as it is for her own ends. In this week’s episode, Cersei’s beauty is used by Tywin as a selling point in the marriage he wants to arrange with the Tyrells. And it is countered by Olenna because Cersei’s fertility is more limited than that of a younger woman. Cersei is learning the hard way that trying to play the game on patriarchy’s terms is a game she can only lose, as her value is defined in a patriarchy based on her attractiveness and ability to breed. When Tywin insists that she will marry Loras Tyrell, all she can say is ‘No, please, don’t make me do it again’.

So, we’re meant to celebrate Olenna as a contrast. All hail the matriarchy! But is it really? Olenna’s freedom is founded in her being past breeding age and youthful beauty. She jokes with Varys that any flirtation between them is pointless, because she is too old and he is a eunuch, but it’s a truth. They are both privileged by being outsiders to the sexual game, and they both suffer for lack of sexual value as well. Margaery Tyrell is hailed as her protégé, but in the end she must still woo Joffrey. He may not be particularly interested in her beauty, but it makes her an eligible match and a political mover to rival Cersei. And though she may have shown herself more skilled at manipulating Joffrey, in the end it is only that she discovered that he had more unusual buttons that needed to be pressed, and she will only ever have power through him.

I just…

There’s nothing wrong, per se, with characters like Olenna Redwyne and Violet Crawley. I just find it really depressing that they’re being celebrated as matriarchs and game players when they really haven’t broken out of the patriarchy at all. And even on our supposedly enlightened (ha ha) twenty-first century screen, they are only allowed to give such good ‘sass’ because they fit the stereotype for older, wealthy, white, educated, noble women. All that wry wit that’s been flowing from Tyrion, Varys, Littlefinger, even Tywin… that’s the political moving and shaking and educated wit of wealthy white men, who can come from whatever background they like (Littlefinger and Varys are not noble-born), have whatever sexual proclivities they like (Littlefinger and Tyrion can associate with whores without shame – Tywin’s attitude towards Tyrion would be nothing to how Cersei would be treated were all her indiscresions known*, and his whoring around hasn’t seemed to hold him back with anyone else). Cersei tries her hand at biting wit, but it is always edged with bitterness and uncertainty. She folds under Tywin’s gaze because she knows that, ultimately, as a woman in her prime, she has no power that is not rooted in her beauty and her fertility.

As for poor women or women of colour… they haven’t got a hope in hell. You thought Ros was witty, maybe? But never with any real power or assurance. She may have thought that when she moved to taking care of Littlefinger’s books she gained some more power, but it was never enough to set her free of him, never enough to protect her.  As for Shae? She is completely dependent on Tyrion’s protection and patronage, and though he may love her he never lets her forget it. Would you consider any of Daenerys’s Dothraki attendants witty? They barely have personalities beyond mindlessly muttering ‘it is known’. Daenerys herself is almost always required to be too serious to get away with wit, and at every turn she is called ‘whore’ or worse. I’m not saying the show isn’t critical of this, it is, and Daenerys in Game of Thrones makes a far more powerful feminist character than she does in the books. It’s just… I don’t feel like hailing the Queen of Thorns as some great victory. And I’m uncomfortable with this trend towards endearingly cutting biddies. Because they’re allowed to be cutting only because they are viewed as harmless. It doesn’t matter what they say because they are women who have outlived their sexual usefulness.

I don’t want to have to wait until I’m 70 to speak my mind. I don’t want the actors I watch have to wait until they’re 70 to get the roles where they get to portray women who speak their minds.

I don’t like that women who speak their minds in their older years are regarded as ‘treasures’ because they’re so ‘precious’ being allowed to get away with scheming and criticising men only because men sort of enjoy being taken down by an old woman. I don’t like that a woman speaking her mind in this way is seen as ‘getting away with it’, like she snuck it under the rug. They’re still not being taken seriously. And, as we see, although Olenna is allowed to take down Tyrion and to best Varys, when she comes to spar with the great patriarch, Tywin Lannister, she loses. Because an older woman with some spirit in her is a delight, but an older man is serious business.

*I’m being circumspect, here. Others who have read all the books may read between the lines.

Posted in A Game of Thrones, Game of Thrones | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

I would just like to express my undying love for VlogBrothers

I could call this a review, but it’s more like a sonnet, except that it’s not written in any kind of verse form, so it’s missing one of the most defining features of sonnets and is thus not a sonnet at all.

What I’m trying to say is that I love VlogBrothers, and I blame all of you for not telling me about them before. Since my vow to sample vloggers and webisodes created by someone other than Felicia Day or Wil Wheaton, some of you have kindly pointed me the way of a few specimens of what the web has to offer.

You told me to try I Am Tim, about the last reminaing descendent of Van Helsing fighting Evil in York. And I wanted to like it, because it’s made and based in my city and it’s indie and scrappy and genre, but I just couldn’t get into it. And I could have reviewed it to say that, but I didn’t watch enough of it to give a full report, and I don’t like to shit on indie creators just because after five minutes of watching I felt a bit ‘meh’.

You told me to try Garfunkel and Oates and you were right about them. Garfunkel and Oates are an incredibly talented comedy musical duo who peddle quirky, geeky, often risque humour, sometimes with a ukelele. Sometimes I feel like they’re speakin’ out for women who own both their sexuality and their social awkwardness, with songs like ‘I Don’t Understand Job’ (NSFW) and Go Kart Racing (Accidentally Masturbating)’ (obviously NSFW). But othertimes I’m a little uncomfortable with how they buy into certain stereotypes, with songs like ‘Gay Boyfriend‘, ‘Pregnant Women are Smug‘, and ‘29/31‘. Some parts of these songs are funny and they’re still well-made, but… yeah.

And then there was VlogBrothers. VlogBrothers present regular short video blogs by John and Hank Green. Their videos are geek-centric, liberal, and very funny. Hank’s video, Tumblr: The Musical, made in collaboration with AVbyte, is a perfect example of this:

Exuberant to the point of hyperactivity, John and Hank Green have their finger not merely on the pulse of the Internet, they are enthusiastically swimming in its veins. In this video Hank unabashedly praises the time-sink that is Tumblr, a blogging platform which has grown from the fringes to becoming rapidly central to anyone who wants to build an Internet presence, especially amongst geeks. Singing about Tumblrs obsession with gifs, Benedict Cumberbach, cats, and the minutia of Tumblr’s swiftly evolving ideolects, Hank could go pound for pound with Felicia Day’s ‘Do You Wanna Date My Avatar‘ for geek points.

And I’m basically crushing on Hank Green right now so I just want to link you to all his awesome vlogs, like Cat GIF critique and 17 rants in 4 minutes, but John Green is also worth your time. More than worth your time, awesome. Take, for example, this review of Escape from Camp 14, exposing things I… didn’t know about North Korea and probably should have. And, you know, he was in a Google hangout with President Obama, so, umm, awesome.

Anyway, I’m going to watch Iron Man 3, now and if I don’t leave now I won’t have time for a drink first and that’s not how me and Lee Harris watch geek movies. So… enjoy VlogBrothers. Your life will be better.

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Review: Doctor Who: Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

Poster for Doctor Who Journey to the Centre of the TARDISWell, that was the best episode of Doctor Who we have seen in a very long time. It was near perfect in execution, nodded to a past that charts back before 2005, and had some deep, troubling and interestingly explored themes. I was impressed and captivated. There was a clear impression that this needed to be a landmark episode, and it delivered.

Hard to believe it took eight years to show an interior of the TARDIS that was more than nameless corridors, but when push came to shove we were not let down.

Plot

The Doctor decides to let Clara try and fly the TARDIS as a way of getting the two of them to feel more comfortable with each other. (The TARDIS has made it plain that it doesn’t like Clara one bit and doesn’t trust her to be aboard without the Doctor.) For some reason putting the TARDIS in some kind of safety mode to allow Clara to fly involves turning off some plot significant shields? (I said near perfect execution, didn’t I?) Anyway, the moment is provided for the TARDIS to be exposed and some likely lads in a salvage vessel spy it and try to haul it in.

During the process of this the TARDIS is damaged, and somehow the Doctor is thrown outside the TARDIS whilst Clara is trapped within (fudge fudge fudge). The Doctor convinces the salvageers to help him enter the TARDIS and find Clara on condition that they receive the ‘salvage of a lifetime’.

Meanwhile, Clara becomes lost in a very unhappy TARDIS (fires are periodically a problem, because of… reasons) and she finds herself chased by strange, dark, creepy creatures.

The Doctor and the salvageers (it’s a word, shut up*) enter a race against time to save Clara and stop the TARDIS from exploding, hampered by the fact that some of the salvageers are more intent on salvaging than saving.

To add spice to the mix, one of the salvageers is an android, and he can sense the pain of the TARDIS, causing tension as he urges against his teammates’ impulse to just loot and get out.

My thoughts

This was bright, bubbly, entertaining, nostalgic, and dark. Which is a lot of what I want out of Doctor Who. We had some lovely nods to TARDIS episodes past, including the fan-beloved swimming pool. I would have liked to see the Cloisters (we do hear the Cloister Bell), maybe the rooms of some former companions, and I’m madly curious about the Doctor’s own bedroom, but there you go. They had to go wherever the plot was relevant, so fair enough.

There were a number of notes that made me wince. It wasn’t as bad as a Moffat penned episode, but there were a few completely unnecessary gender-oriented jokes which went unchallenged, and I continue to feel uncomfortable with New Who’s (mainly Moffat Who’s) emphasis on the conception of the TARDIS as female and in some kind of romantic relationship with the Doctor. Yes, there is a tradition of referring to ships using female pronouns, but that’s a sexist time and location-centric Earth tradition, no reason for the Doctor to buy into it. No obvious reason for the Doctor to think of the TARDIS as gendered at all. Being gendered is not a requirement of sentience. I know the Neil Gaiman penned episode is popular and all, but one of the things that made me less keen on it was this emphasis on the TARDIS as female and in love with the Doctor – even thinking of herself as called ‘Sexy‘, which if you wanted to encapsulate everything that’s wrong with Moffat era Who, a lot of it is said right there.

There’s nothing wrong with the TARDIS being feminine per se (she couldn’t possibly be female (sexed), TARDISes don’t mate), she can be gendered however she fancies. The problem is that she’s in a master/slave relationship with a paradigm patriarchal figure in an epically popular television show aimed at children. And don’t get me started on the people who think the themes don’t matter because it’s a family show. Do you even know what a theme is? A theme isn’t something invented by academics, it’s something academics label as a way of identifying messages embedded in a work of literature (yes, TV is literature, just like plays, deal with it) and issues tackled. If your message is one of iconic figures with whom children will identify being engaged in deeply problematic master/slave relationships with the division being created along gendered lines in a show where the male patriarch increasingly belittles women… yeah, it’s a problem.

Let’s talk about the master/slave dialectic; it’s an important tool of societal, psychological, and literary analysis. Marx liked  and popularised it for that reason, although it originates in Hegel. One thing I think really raises the bar of this episode of Doctor Who is that it directly addresses the problematic of master/slave dynamics.

The Hegelian theory is that a consciousness cannot be self-aware unless it has encountered another consciousness which it recognises as like itself and yet distinct from itself (don’t worry about why, it goes back to Kant’s transcendental idealism, which is a whole other thing, just accept for now that it’s a theory with a good amount of history behind it). As such, any consciousness is reliant upon other minded beings for its own existence, and yet (according to Hegel) it is always trying to destroy, or at least assert dominance over the Other. It doesn’t like that there is a consciousness out there that is not its own, so it seeks to destroy or absorb it. Which it can never do without destroying itself. Thus a symbiotic relationship forms. The ‘winner’ of the struggle becomes the ‘master’, dominating the ‘slave’, and yet the master becomes completely reliant on the ‘slave’ for nearly everything. Masters are not producers.

Now, there’s a feminist history of rejecting the struggle for dominance in the master/slave dialectic as a specifically masculine view. I do not subscribe to this. I think such views rest on an unsubstantiated essentialist view of gender which reads women as fundamentally submissive or non-combative. There’s plenty of evidence that this is false, even if you think that women are, on the whole, more submissive or gentle than men. Personally, I don’t just believe, but know, that many women are neither submissive nor gentle; however, I do not assert that this is an indication of superiority. I know there’s substantial reaction against Anglo-American feminist insistence on active and assertive agency as the only legitimate and respectable way for a woman to demonstrate her worth. Gender aside, one should concede that praising only the assertive and aggressive is problematic. My point is rather that assuming that these are exclusively, or even predominantly, male attributes is both false and problematic. I do think there is a natural human drive towards dominance. ‘Natural’ merely in the sense that the genes of those that strive for the most food, the most mating opportunities, etc., have a tendency to result in continued survival, and that’s common between men, women, gender queer, monkeys, catfish, and elephants. Nevertheless I also agree that struggling for dominance is not the only successful survival trait, and often beings that expend their energies in other directions can be more successful. Megan Lindholm’s masterpiece, Alien Earth, which is also deeply concerned with analysis of the master/slave dialectic, is particularly interesting in its exploration of cooperative ecologies and their relation to combative ones.

What I’m getting at is that the master/slave dialectic as an analysis of sentient interaction is an idea with legs, but not one we should be uncritical of. The Doctor’s relationship with the TARDIS is an exemplar of the master/slave dialectic. (A point the Doctor’s relationship with the Master has flirted with drawing out under the hands of some of Doctor Who‘s more insightful writers in the past.) The Doctor is the ‘master’, yet he is almost completely dependent upon the TARDIS for just about everything. She is his slave, and must do what he tells her, yet he’s not even a Timelord without her, he’s just the last Gallifreyan, not even able to reproduce. You can see why, then, it’s problematic to phrase this particularly iconic master/slave relationship in gendered terms. I am reminded with bile in my throat of the discussions I have had with male geeks about the sexism inherent in David Eddings’s works. All the women are ultra feminine, but, it is always said, the men would be hopeless without them. Polgara may be an immortal sorceress, but she likes cooking and darning socks. And that’s fine. Many women like cooking and sewing. The problem is that the men around Polgara exploit the assumption that she will like these things by completely neglecting to develop any skills in these areas. In this way, she has to perform these services for them. Dividing labour along gendered lines enforces a restriction of women’s options even as it makes men dependent on them. The catch is, the actions that men depend on women to perform are rarely those that allow women to accumulate extra resources with which to commission services from men.

And so the feminist Marxist analysis of the master/slave dialectic goes.

So. The thing I liked about this episode is that it confronts these problematic elements embedded in Doctor Who head on. By having a character who is othered (designated as the slave role) by virtue of him being literally a machine (the theoretically non-sentient analog of the slave role) we are confronted with the deep inappropriateness of such relationships. I don’t want to transgress into the Spoiler Zone, but let us just say that the emotional impact of the inappropriateness of such a relationship is made viscerally evident.

Moreover, despite the depressing tendency towards sexism in recent Doctor Who, and some unsettling elements of characterisation of the TARDIS with respect to her gendering as female, the TARDIS has a long history of defying the Doctor’s expectations. The majority of Peter Davison’s era, for instance, is spent with the Doctor having very little  control over where the TARDIS goes at all. His repeated attempts to return Tegan to Heathrow airport in the correct era represent an utter failure of mastery. Similarly, ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS’ is structured by scene after scene of the TARDIS asserting control and rendering the Doctor, his companion, and everyone else aboard her utterly helpless.

This is why I think Stephen Thompson is to be commended as the writer of this episode. This is an acknowledgement and exploration of the Doctor’s problematic relationship with the TARDIS at a level we rarely see. Like the salvageers exploiting their ‘robot’ companion, the Doctor has gained immeasurable benefits – near godlike status – exploiting the TARDIS. And when the Doctor ‘offers’ them the TARDIS in compensation for rescuing Clara (one assumes he always plans to double-cross them on this, but it’s still a startling thing to do with a being you regard as sentient) one is confronted by the narrowness of their vision as they proceed to try and dissect the TARDIS, ignoring the fact that the TARDIS as a whole is worth immeasurably more than any circuit could be. The slave, we are reminded, is usually much brighter than the masters – he or she has to be; she or he does all the work.

It should also be noted that this is probably unique as an episode of Doctor Who in which people of colour outnumbered white people, and I suspect that it no mistake. One of the factors underlying the current instability of our economic situation, after all, is that so-called first-world, predominantly white countries like the UK and the US have had their wealth bolstered by exploitation of people of colour for centuries. It is a mistake to think this ended with the abolition of legal slavery. As a relatively poor person in the UK I can still buy a top for £3 if I want to. How is that possible, but that someone, somewhere, earns far less than I do? Now, following the credit crunch, our economy struggles to stabilise in a world where developing nations we are used to exploiting are gaining greater economic power.

One might still think ‘Well, that’s all very well – elucidating the master-slave relationship, but the status quo remains unchallenged for the Doctor at the end’. I think there’s some legitimacy in that. People talk about having a female Doctor or a black Doctor as a way of balancing the scales, but I still kind of feel like that’s missing the point. Not that I’m against it. I think a black Doctor could now be possible with nothing problematic to it at all. A female one… well, I have no faith that it would be well-executed under the current regime, and the total dominance of Doctor Who by male writers is preventing a woman from gaining sufficient credibility to take the helm and challenge the way of things. But in another time, under different leadership, with different writers… sure, it could be fine. My point is rather that 50 years of the Doctor flying around acting as the Great White Male Saviour to countless cultures that have not his wealth**, his education, his technology, cannot be erased by having one iteration of the Doctor be black, or Asian, or female. The problem with viewing it like this is that we are still maintaining the wealthy white man as the ideal by making it a goal to have people of colour and women play his role. The real goal is to surround this show where a rich, educated, white man saves the day again and again with a normality where any man, women, intersex or gender queer individual can save the day in any way he/she/zie damn well likes. The Doctor should not be the standard we all seek to attain. The Doctor should be just another character. Rich, complex, exciting, amongst other rich, complex, exciting characters, each of whom is rich, complex, and exciting in different ways. The rich, white, educated male ideal is not the only one to which we should aspire.

Nevertheless, I do think credit is due to Stephen Thompson and it must be noted that although there is little he can do within the confines of the show to change the cultural context in which it appears, or the necessity that the Doctor is and always will be the title character whose centrality is determined by his possession of the TARDIS – nevertheless, he does show us that if the TARDIS wishes to assert control she is more than capable of doing so. Moreover, although the status quo is re-established amongst the salvageers as well, the way in which the wrongness of their situation has been underscored provides a counterpoint with which to remind the audience that just because things have returned to the status quo, that doesn’t mean that it’s OK.

*I might have just started reading The Three Musketeers, it’s not important, don’t look at me like that.

** Incidentally, ever notice that the Doctor never thinks to carry money and never knows what would be appropriate to give someone when he has some? That’s a classic sign of someone whose wealth has become so vast they can’t even count it anymore or relate to those who lack it with any real understanding. You may not think of him as rich, but the TARDIS offers him so much wealth that money doesn’t mean anything to him. Not caring about money is not a sign of having grown ‘beyond’ such trivial things. It’s a sign that you’re rich enough that you’ve never had to care. One thing I like about Clara is that she consistently challenges the Doctor on his privilege, and expresses concern that the opportunities the TARDIS offers have distanced him from being able to connect with other people on any normal level.

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