Subtext and subversion: Part Two

Carrying on from the previous post, below is a detailed, episode-by-episode rundown (with pictures!) of Ragnar and Athelstan’s relationship.

I present this not as a “This is why my slash ship is canon” manifesto, but instead as an illustration of the relationship itself, so folks can understand why I’m so giddy about it. Regardless of whether one sees or even imagines a sexual aspect to the relationship, it is still one of the greatest m/m love stories in current popular media, on the same level as some of the all-time great homoromantic (if not homoerotic) relationships such as LOTR’s Frodo and Sam. And it does all this without ever once apologizing, downplaying, laughing it off, or trying to macho things up to avoid anyone getting uncomfortable with it. This is not a “bromance,” with muscle-bound Ken dolls giving each other fist bumps and Man Smacks and then going home to their hot, completely underwritten female love interests. It’s just plain love, plainly portrayed as if it’s the most normal, natural thing, smack in the middle of a traditional blood-and-glory testosterone fest. That some people (including me) also see a sexual element to the relationship is actually irrelevant; The love is the same either way.

Of course, other shows in this genre have had canon m/m romantic and sexual relationships (Game of Thrones, Spartacus, Da Vinci’s Demons), and I’m thrilled to see that kind of representation. Yet such portrayals don’t really have the sheer subversive power that this one does: The macho male lead is utterly besotted with a decidedly not-macho young man, and their relationship forms one of the biggest plot arcs in the series. Renly and Loras, however nice it was to see them on screen, couldn’t do what this is doing to help change paradigms of how men are supposed to feel about each other. Straight guys can wave them off; they don’t look up to them as role models. Ragnar, though? He’s a hero. He’s an audience avatar. And he openly adores another man. That? Is subversive. Yay!

If you’d like to see some of this subversion in detail, read on! (Please be aware that there will be spoilers below for both already-aired seasons, and some spoiler-heavy speculation about season three. Click the cut at your own risk!) Continue reading

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Subtext and subversion: Vikings edition

Long time, no post!

Life’s been chaotic in recent months (no need to bore you with details), and to keep from melting down, I’ve spent a fair amount of my (limited) free time escaping into my usual happy places of pop culture and fandom. In particular, my ventures of late have focused on the TV series Vikings, thanks in large part to a great Tumblr community for it. As with many of the things I enjoy, it’s definitely an Id tickler, but it also has a lot of elements that tickle my higher brain, too. It’s not without its fails, but for a show supposedly just about a bunch of beardy white dudes hacking at each other with axes, it’s surprisingly progressive. Its female characters are all rich and unique, especially the warrior woman Lagertha, who is far, far more than an attractive lady with a weapon. Its male lead spends equal time agonizing about his family as he does doing the manly battle and politicking thing. It also has some very nuanced examinations of religious and cultural differences. I actually think it’s one of the best large-scale political and relationship dramas since Battlestar Galactica (to which it bears a great resemblance, if you get past the spaceships-vs.-longships thing.)

But by far, I feel the most interesting aspect of the show, from a progressive, pop-culture-analysis perspective, is its primary male/male friendship, between Ragnar, the Viking lead, and Athelstan, a Christian monk he captures in a raid and takes for a slave. Friendships between men are of course core parts of almost any mainstream story, but there’s something very different about this one that’s made me sit up and take notice: It plays like a traditional love story, right down to a ton of classic subtext and several common romance tropes. That this is happening in a supposedly macho show like this is astonishing, and also incredibly subversive and thus, I think, worthy of a closer look, which is what I’m hoping to do here.

The short version, for those not wanting to read the dissertation-length stuff in the next post:

Between them, creator/writer Michael Hirst, his directors, and the two actors, Travis Fimmel (Ragnar) and George Blagden (Athelstan), have created a male/male relationship that is considerably more physically and emotionally tender, intimate, committed, and demonstrative than virtually anything else in modern, mainstream media that doesn’t involve canon gay or bi characters. It’s also getting considerably more screen time, plot importance, and serious treatment than the vast majority of canon m/m romantic relationships, which are almost universally only side plots, at best. Only actual family relationships (brothers, father/son, etc.) usually get the level of attention and emotional intensity this friendship has, and those rarely have some of the other elements, such as co-parenting, shared destinies, and in-canon sexual tension. Best of all, the relationship isn’t at all being treated as a joke or otherwise downplayed, as is common for hundreds of other “bromances” in popular media.

Unsurprisingly, this relationship has been run with by slash fans (including yours truly.) We slashers do have a tendency to take our ships a bit too seriously, but even keeping that in mind, it’s unusual. This is not the garden-variety slash pairing one finds in almost all popular media these days, with fans gleefully squishing together a pair of attractive buddies upon only the slightest of lingering glances. Instead, a great deal of it is actually right there on the screen, leaving fans only a few gaps to fill with our fertile imaginations. Much of what’s there is in the text itself, but what isn’t directly spoken in so many words is on par with canon-deliberate storytelling subtext such as that found in Hannibal.

Unlike many popular slash ships, this relationship is not being textually no-homoed (see: Sherlock), beyond both characters having sexual involvement with women. Nor is it being deliberately slashbaited as an in-joke (see: Supernatural, Teen Wolf, Hawaii 5-0, and a host of other wink-and-nod, fandom-conscious shows.) It’s also not being sabotaged by turning it into a tragedy (see: the MCU’s Steve Rogers/Bucky Barnes.) These men actually love each other, actually express it, and actually don’t apologize or try to make up for it in any way. In fact, were it not for heteronormative and monogamy-normative bias, and bi erasure, most people would probably read their relationship as romantic without even a second thought. Those of us who are personally familiar with what m/m romance looks like can see it without ever needing slash-colored glasses.

Of course, we don’t know for certain whether all of the subtext and romantic themes of this relationship are consciously intended by Hirst. There are indications, though, that at least some of it is, or if not intentional, a happy accident of actor chemistry and director choices that he’s fine having show up on screen. And hallelujah for that. As someone who believes we’d all be better off if men were more comfortable being loving toward each other, regardless of whether sexual attraction is involved, I find the whole thing not just fascinating, but a beacon of hope in a pop-culture landscape that celebrates men killing each other, but shies away from them saying “I love you.”

To get a more-detailed, episode-by-episode (and illustrated!) explanation of what I’m talking about with this relationship, see the next post!

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Problematic entertainment, part two

Carrying on from the specific-show discussion in part one. In this segment, I’ll explain why I keep watching the problematic stuff I do, while I also ditch stuff that’s theoretically less problematic. Continue reading

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Problematic entertainment: Game of Thrones edition

Warning: The below piece includes discussion of sexual assault, as well as spoilers for the current seasons of Vikings and Game of Thrones, and mild spoilers for GoT’s source books.

If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones and saw last night’s episode, you’ve no doubt seen many subsequent rageflails (including this great one) about a scene involving Jaime and Cersei. This post will be one of them, but I also want to dig deeper into some of the meta issues involved, and explain why, even though I generally abhor many things about the stuff I enjoy, I often still stick with them.

First, let me recap what happened in the episode (feel free to skip to the next section if you’re already aware of all this–this is a pretty long post!) and then I’ll explain what, in my opinion, this all means for how I approach problematic things. (Also, if that term is unfamiliar to you, please go read this.)

Exhibit A: A Song of Wins and Fails Continue reading

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Bully pulpits and the abuse thereof

Chez Scalzi the last couple of days has been host to a discussion about the resignation of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich. Long story short, for those unaware: It was discovered he made a large donation to a Prop 8 campaign, OK Cupid then decided to cut ties with Mozilla in protest, and that led to Eich’s resignation.

The chatter in the wake of that has centered on free speech rights, and, predictably, there are the usual people making the following errors:

1. Not understanding that the First Amendment covers only speech-silencing actions by government, not by individuals and private entities, and that it also doesn’t protect all speech, nor guarantee a rapt audience, a soap box, and an enforcer squad keeping your opposition from speaking up.

2. Not understanding that, going beyond constitutional protections and into the philosophy of free speech, people are STILL guaranteed the right to dissenting opinions on the speech of others.

3. Not understanding that calling for a boycott is a free speech right, and it’s one that everyone has equally. The boycotts of some groups may have more power than others due to that group having larger numbers, or economic or political power, but calling for the boycott itself is still something everyone has an equal right to do. People can call for a boycott of OK Cupid for their initial action, for instance. Yay, freedom.

4. A whole heapin’ helpin’ of false equivalence and misunderstanding the difference between speech and action. This is, of course, being muddied by Scalia and his dipshit cronies in SCOTUS deciding that political donations are speech rather than action. (And really, if that’s so, then why not classify paying someone to commit a murder the same way as we classify saying you’re going to murder someone? Money speaks far louder than words and has way more power to initiate subsequent action; the two cannot be considered equivalent.)

I pointed out the above things over there, but there was something else going on that made me a lot angrier: Something that boiled down to the belief that calling for help when you’re being abused is somehow equally as bad as the act of abuse in the first place; the belief, in short, that gathering allies to oneself in order to have strength in numbers against a foe is somehow inherently morally wrong. This is actually a problem underlying a lot of conservative-leaning libertarian thought, so I’d like to dig into that a little more. Continue reading

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Post-script on the essentialism thing

Because this point may have been buried well enough in that wall-o’-text that some might miss it: I absolutely do not reject trans* identities just because I reject gender essentialism. I also don’t reject monosexual orientation identities just because I consider gender to be a lot more complex than innies vs. outies.

I’ve read pieces recently arguing that the mere existence of people who use non-binary gender labels somehow devalues trans* people who do have a binary identity. (That was part of the inspiration for my recent authenticity post, too.) That’s absolutely not the case anymore than the existence of bi/pansexual people makes it impossible for gay people to argue that their state of being is innate. There are, of course, biological elements to both gender identity and orientation, but there are also constructed elements, too–and even elements that are a matter of conscious choice. Acknowledging that and working toward changing the negative aspects of some of those non-hardwired things isn’t in any way eliminating anyone’s identity.

Indeed, it can (and should) be argued that the reason LGBT people deserve justice isn’t because we “can’t help” the way we are, but because we shouldn’t be expected to. Endless research trying to prove why we are this way only leads to people trying to find ways to fix those “birth defects.” Our argument should be that existing and living our lives in a way that makes us happy harms no-one, and therefore there should be no legal or social impediments to our doing so. The burden of proof shouldn’t be on us to prove why we should have rights. It should be on the other side to prove why we shouldn’t. Continue reading

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Why essentialists make me want to throw things

Another day, another cisgender femme arguing that women who “want to look like men” are inherently sexist because in rejecting certain aspects of a narrow definition of femininity, they’re rejecting women. I have neither heads nor desks enough to express my feelings on this. Words will have to suffice, I suppose.

First of all, the short version: Anyone who identifies as a woman, regardless of how their body is configured, whether they have or want children, or their dress and grooming habits, is a woman. Period. A woman in her natural physical state, with natural body hair, no makeup or jewelry, and in comfortable, functional clothes is not a man nor is she trying to be one. Likewise a woman who doesn’t want to be a parent, or who doesn’t wish to breastfeed or be a solecaregiver. Additionally, everyone who doesn’t meet the ideal of being a masculine, cisgender, heterosexual male is, for the purposes of sexism, considered enough of a woman to be subjugated and therefore has a stake in feminism. This is why, even though I identify as masculine-spectrum genderqueer on a personal level, on a political level I identify as female. The world is going to consider me that regardless of what feels right to me, and I believe in standing with everyone else considered so as a matter of solidarity.

That need for solidarity, and strength in numbers, is why the policing of who is and isn’t a woman, whether it’s a woman who isn’t “femme” enough, or a woman who was assigned male at birth, is actually supporting the goals of sexism, not feminism. (See my previous post on authenticity policing for more on that.)

Beyond that, however, the essentializing of artificial femininity is overt sexism in itself, not just in denying women their identities, but in reinforcing the capitalism-fueled social structures that form a huge part of the cage that women are kept in. Continue reading

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