Women: Gird your Loins, Game of Thrones Season 3 is Coming

The third season of Game of Thrones scheduled to start at the end of March. Medievalists are thrilled to have our fantasy worlds revitalized and distilled into a cast of strong characters. Fantastic and magical creatures belong in the worlds of JR Tolkein, not George RR Martin. (Well, that is, except for the dragons, zombies, and psychic wolves.)

(source: http://www.thefrisky.com/photos/the-sexy-ladies-of-game-of-thrones/game_of_thrones_042512_m/full-size/)
(source: http://www.thefrisky.com/photos/the-sexy-ladies-of-game-of-thrones/game_of_thrones_042512_m/full-size/)

Although the series is loosely modeld after a medievalizing fantasy of England’s fifteenth-century Wars of the Roses with some elements of actual human experience, no student of the period could accept this as a representation medieval history. This is a TV drama with all the exciting, violent, and passionate parts emphasized and even exaggerated to entertain you and me. That means it seems likely that we’ll see more naked bodies, bloodied bodies, and mutilated bodies.

One writer at Salon has analyzed the sources in the series finding parallels between characters, geographies, and politics. This survey puts Martin’s series into a larger literary context with romantic historical novelists such as Alison Weir and Philippa Gregory. Miller writes:

You may have noticed that most of these books are about women, despite the fact that, with very few exceptions, the women of the Middle Ages had little power. Much of today’s popular historical fiction about the rulers of the Middle Ages is read by women who are primarily interested in the lives and problems of women. Since the historical record contains next to no information on this topic, fiction has stepped in to fill the breach.

If women are a big part of the audience for this TV series, Martin’s novels, and the related romantic historical novels, what does it mean that we women are willing to ingest stories about the complicated, problematic, and lowly status of women in the middle ages? There is a difference between strong TV characters who are central to the plot and strong individuals who possess powers and skills. These women are strong characters who try to attain the agency to take control of their lives. The last thing I’d ever want to do is to reinforce medieval gender hierarchies. Not that I think that is what is going on here. Rather, these women are much more like us than not. They, too, are navigating tricky gender politics. Maybe the problem with the show is that none of these women are empowered. Maybe its because most of the central female characters have to be shown bare chested and as subjugated sexual partners or objects.

Why do we women even watch this show? And what does it mean that even some of my strong feminist friends like it? Given our culture’s reluctance to maturely take responsibility for standing up against rape and violence against women (Seth McFarlane’s song at the Oscars, the Violence Against Women Act in the US which was finally passed, the tragic culture of rape in India, to name a few recent stories), the show creeps dangerously close to crossing the line and advocating rape culture.

One commentator hopes for something different in season three—a change that gives women more power—and dismisses the first two seasons as “violence against women being passed off as entertainment.” I’ve read all the books and am sorry to say, she will be disappointed.

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Is Claire Underwood Human? House of Cards

* * * Spoiler Alert * * *

The new made-for-and-by-Netflix TV series House of Cards is definitely TV worth watching. Since watching all 13 episodes in series 1, I’ve been brooding about how the show portrays women, especially the lead character Claire Underwood played by Robin Wright. She is a shrewd business woman who uses all of her connections and assets to develop her career and power. Married to Francis Underwood, the House Majority Whip in the US House of Representatives, she runs CWI, a non-profit that advocates for clean drinking water. The lengths to which she is willing to go in order to preserve her public reputation parallel her husband’s. Some recognize in her character shades of Lady Macbeth.

The first question I’ve been pondering is about what her character tells us about the shifting frontiers of the feminist movement. Wright is familiar to many of us from the movie The Princess Bride (released 26 years ago in 1987) in which she played a young, beautiful damsel whose future is dependent on a young man. Claire Underwood is more than a grown-up version of this young damsel / princess; she is an independent woman who needs little except cooperation from the people closest to her and consent from her husband to allow her to operate independently. Finally we have a modern heroine who is upright and seated next to her partner. She knows how to be supportive and how to ask for help, but the last things he needs is to be rescued.

Secondly, I’ve been secretly asking myself how I could be more like her. Fierce. Tough as nails, yet still somehow feminine. Unwavering and unapologetic. As distorted as this might sound, I think she might be a hero for working women. Or at least she might be a fantasy of what the rest of us in the trenches imagine as the Machiavellian Princessa.

As awesome as these qualities might be, her cruelty knows few bounds. For example, her severe decision to dismiss half of her staff casts her as as shrewd business woman. That round of dismissals was quickly followed by her decision to hire a young activist with international experience in order to grow that dimension of her non-profit business. Employees are just capital in her system—they come and go—in the same way that major donations come and go. Loosing one isn’t devastating; it’s just a fact, a thing that happens or doesn’t happen, a thing that changes other things, but not how she feels about her business. She is determined to succeed at all costs.

Or at least she might be a fantasy of what the rest of us in the trenches imagine as the Machiavellian Princessa.

Other aspects of her character reinforce this unfeeling quality. (Really, all of the central female characters are ruthless.) Her commitment to exercise leads her to run inconsiderately through a graveyard. On one trip through the graveyard another woman tending the grave of a loved one gets Claire’s attention and reprimands her for desecrating the place by running. This disturbs her enough to change her running route and almost enough to make her want to share this detail with her husband. Her middle-of-the-night-running wearing all black reinforces her comfort in isolation and shadows.

The same critiques of being too shrill, shrewd, or sharp have been levelled against many other women in leadership. Hillary Clinton’s political campaigns come to mind. Perhaps women are held to a double-standard, but if so, that’s hardly new. If we saw Claire going through feelings of insecurity, self-doubt, or fear would we think her more feminine? One may mistakenly interpret the scene where she asks Francis’ advice about which dress to wear for her meeting with a famous photographer as indecision and dependence on him. But the scene is about the exact opposite thing: it’s is about her willingness to manipulate others. By suggesting the black dress Frances is giving her permission to be intimate with the photographer she is planning to meet.

There is some difference between her self-interest and her husband’s narcissism. Claire’s ambitions are hardly grandiose and she doesn’t push Francis or Gillian, her employee, or anyone else to express admiration for her. Perhaps if she became a parent her child would inherit her legacy. Her decision to hire Gillian, a young, beautiful woman who brings her own successes to the table suggests Claire is attempting to find a successor who can take the mantle of her business and make her name even bigger. Claire soon discovers that she cannot control Gillian which leads to a fundamental conflict between these women. Gillian is too ethical for Claire’s pragmatic compromises.

The women in this show, especially Claire, are complex individuals who do not hide behind a mask of being good. Rather, they are determined to take risks in order to succeed. Is she human? Does her humanitarian work make up for her ruthless manipulations? She may control many aspects of her husband’s political career and vulnerabilities, but she is not a god. She may also navigate through the spinning wheels of running her business, but she is not a machine. And, she may seem cruel in her devious, snake-like treachery, but she is not an animal. But is Claire human?

…despite the build up of her strength and power, Francis makes it clear that he does not view her as his equal. Her work is not as important as his. No, there is no real formal equality…

Where does this character fit into the matrix of feminism and post-feminism? Does she identify with the powerlessness of women? Or is she an equal? By the end of series one, despite the build up of her strength and power, Francis makes it clear that he does not view her as his equal. Her work is not as important as his. No, there is no real formal equality between them. Her ambition may scare us, but her devious spouse makes sure to attempt to put her in her place. He asks for her acquiescence and her passivity.

Round-up: Why God is Missing from Downton Abbey?

I do like me some good TV drama! Throw in period clothing, architecture, props, and I’m golden! The recent phenomenon of Downton Abbey has revived the genre for a newer, younger audience.  It’s like the new-money version of Miss Marple: all the complexity and drama of the genre (minus the murder mystery) updated to reflect the perspectives of modern TV producers and viewers.

While I love the show and its romantic view of how traditions change, it does a poor job of being a piece of historical fiction. Other commentators have griped about the anachronistic phrases that locate the use of English to the 1980s, not the 1910s. From the very beginning, the show has included almost nothing of the institutional church or personal devotion that would have constituted a major part of the psychological and social lives of the upstairs and downstairs characters. They rarely attend church or church sponsored events, they do not explore theological explanations for life’s complexities, and only Lady Edith makes a visit to her local parish once to pray after learning another of her friends was killed in the war.

In the current Season 3 we only see the church as a kind of foil to the modern and independent ways of thinking. Although the show’s plot emphasizes these social changes, it is especially surprising that after the tragic death of an important character that there was no pastoral support or even presence. Old Lady Gratham’s words to her son, Lord Grantham, advise only to not blame oneself for the tragedy. No pondering about the hand of God in human affairs or about how or why God would let this death happen. No phone-call to the priest who lives on the estate and who depends on Lord Grantham for his livelihood. What does it mean to employ a vicar if not to have someone to call in emergencies?

Why do I care so much about the missing religion from Downton Abbey? About the absent God-talk? About the marginalized institutional church and about how personal religious faith is more embarrassing than anything else? Because it is bad history to not use the discursive contexts of the period that the show claims to represent. Sure, I know the show isn’t historical evidence about the 1910s and 20s, but many people will interpret it that way. The choice to avoid these aspects of life in this period dilutes our ability to understand history and social change. It lulls us into an easier history that doesn’t seem so alien to our contemporary context. It represents a crisis of Faith in which we re-tell our history ignoring some of the biggest aspects.

In the world of Downton Abbey, the Church of England is an irrelevant and forgotten blip on the horizon. It is only present in fleeting moments on the fringes of society. The invisible church mirrors how the producers and writers in the 21st century view it—as an institution that is quaint at best, but probably just a meaningless nuisance and a waste of time. Church-land was already old fashioned and out of date in the early 20th century; how much more so now. The scene in Season 1 in which Lady Edith visits local churches with a potential love interest reinforces how our society only knows how to access church buildings as part of architectural history, nothing more.

Matthew and Lady Edith (image: http://i.huffpost.com/gen/931186/thumbs/o-DOWNTON-ABBEY-570.jpg?6)
Matthew and Lady Edith (image: http://i.huffpost.com/gen/931186/thumbs/o-DOWNTON-ABBEY-570.jpg?6)

Granted, there are a few scenes in which characters pray. This nod to the English Anglicanism of the early 1920s is subtle. And even in these prayer scenes—Lady Mary’s bedside intercessions for Matthew when he is injured and the servants praying for him when he is lost at the front—it is shown as a last resort. She was embarrassed to be discovered praying when her sister Edith walked into her room. 

There are also few scenes in which the tension between Catholicism and Anglicanism in England surfaces. Most notably, the family is divided over baptizing baby Sibyl into the Catholic church. As if this conflict is enough to represent the chasm between England and Ireland.

The show avoids the fluent God-talk that would have constituted more of the social interaction of everyone in that part of the twentieth century. While the show may be about the crisis of faith that was erupting in every class of society, these characters should be portrayed as more familiar with the liturgical and devotional practices of their day. That is their past and present.

Here is how one commentator summarizes the religious landscape of Downton Abbey, “In many ways it’s a secular introduction to what the crisis of faith might look like. In other words, the crisis of faith is not explicitly grounded or framed in God-talk. There’s very little explicit reference to God in the television series. Grace does not take place at meals, even though there’s a lot of eating. They rarely go to church, except for a wedding, and even then you don’t see much of the wedding service. So faith is strangely non-explicit, and yet simultaneously faith is very present. And what I think the series is doing is inviting us to think of faith in a new and different way. Faith is interpreting how we relate to each other. Faith is coping with the complexity of our past. Faith is carrying the baggage that shapes us all into the present and doing so in ways that are ameliorated and less damaging. Faith is hope even when you are in a predicament of hopelessness. All these themes bubble through countlessly.” The commentator (Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary) sees the changing faith stories of these characters taking a “spiritual-but-not-religious” turn in which their humanist values are tested.

I’m not alone. There are plenty of viewers and fans of the show asking similar questions about the missing dimensions of religious life.

  1. This blogger (Episcopal rector) asks the same question about how almost every significant aspect of church life has been omitted from the series.
  2. Julian Fellowes is a practicing Catholic as discussed in this podcast from America magazine of The National Catholic Review. 
  3. This article from Christianity Today (Todd Dorman, 1/4/13) asks the same question.
  4. This essay from Thinking Faith analyzes the Catholicity of the show. 

Fringe Finale (Season 5 Episode 13) “An Enemy of Fate”

http://thecommunity.anglican.ca/pop-culture-piety/5259/white-tulip/

Here’s a link to a commentary on the finale of Fringe. The author of this essay focuses on the symbolism of this flower as a message of forgiveness and love.

Walter's White Tulip (http://scifiempire.net/wordpress/?p=4040)
Walter’s White Tulip (http://scifiempire.net/wordpress/?p=4040)

I agree, although I am very wary of using God-language to describe the nature of the cosmic dynamics at play here. I’d like to add that Fringe expresses a belief that the arts—especially music—have the ability to do more than represent ideas. This simple drawing of a tulip possesses enough permanence and life-altering hope that the characters involved were able to take really big risks for the sake of human life. The material permanence of the tulip transcended space and time in much the same way as a miracle-working icon might defy conventions of how art is made and viewed. Seeing the simple flower helped key characters make decisions that reversed the nightmarish mutations of their future lives.

Music is what helped Walter be more human. He found music helped him deal with overwhelming complexities in his mathematical calculations, it guided him to navigate the murky depths of grief and despair, and it was what he needed to bring him back to himself when the calculated coldness of the dystopian future threatened to annihilate him and the rest of the rag-tag band of resistance.

Music—and all the arts—helped Walter recognize the richness of being human. The lesson he learned was about valuing the emotional and unpredictable dimensions of life, and not seizing rational control of it. Listening to music (and, by extension, engaging with all the arts) pushed him and the rest of his small circle of family and friends to try and understand its forms and meanings. Art makes us more human.

These musings lead me to interrogate another adage. Will beauty save the world? Listening to, seeing, and sensing the arts in all its permutations cause us to seek understanding of its forms and meanings. Asking those questions about meaning and beauty causes us to behave as though we have a life-altering hope in the meaningfulness of life. For Walter and the rest of the Fringe-world, beauty and aesthetic experiences are enough in themselves to soothe troubled souls and motivate characters to make dramatic sacrifices for the sake of loving relationships. In other words, the only world worth saving has beauty.