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.)
By far, however, 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 yet 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. They get some blowback for it in canon from people who dislike the cross-cultural nature of their relationship, but between themselves, their love for each other is unfettered by reticence or shame. 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!