‘Some good in the world’

Years after finishing Deathly Hallows for the first time, this conversation still wends through my mind:

‘Are you planning to follow a career in Magical Law, Miss Granger?” asked Scrimgeour.

‘No, I’m not,’ retorted Hermione. ‘I’m hoping to do some good in the world!’

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Before the atrocity known as The Cursed Child came out, Hermione’s plans and career was a rather emotional topic of conversation for me. I remember a particularly charged exchange with a friend, wherein I asked ‘How on earth did Hermione survive after school?’ I was going through a bit of a rough patch in ‘the real world’, having found it not as hospitable and accommodating as I might have hoped. ‘Merit’, hard work, perseverance—none of that seemed to count here. It didn’t matter that I worked well, I thought; the road to whatever I wanted was long and hard and filled with obstacles, and some people had the power to get over them more easily than I did.

‘Hermione would never have been happy outside of school,’ I remember saying. ‘She was too good at it.’

Hermione was and is my model of what kind of student, nay, the kind of person I want to be. She’s intelligent, compassionate, and incredibly intuitive. She’s able to grasp concepts, really get at the fundamentals, in a way that not many other wizards seem to; she’s loyal and not afraid to get her hands dirty, or put in the time to get a job done. As I mentioned in this post, she’s incredibly brave as well, taking on a world she knows nothing about, with no safety net in place to catch her, for the sake of her best friend, love and the ‘rightness’ of her cause.

Such a person, I was sure, would inevitably be let down by the world outside of her school. She was too smart, too fair-minded, to want to thrive in a world of nepotism and red tape, ridiculous rules and drudgery. Unlike the far more officious Percy, who seemed to worship authority almost for its own sake, Hermione was not afraid to question and call out things she found wrong. It may have begun in Divination class, when she scoffed at Trelawney’s predictions of doom, but it was certainly in full force by Order of the Phoenix, when she not only helped start the DA under Umbridge’s nose, but uttered the now-infamous line: ‘I mean, it’s sort of exciting, isn’t it? Breaking the rules.’

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So when she talked back to Scrimgeour in Deathly Hallows, and scoffed at his question of her entering the law, it made a lot of sense. Of course Hermione would have no time for wizarding law, which kept house elves in slavery and endorsed segregation between ‘beasts’ and ‘beings’. She’d seen the law misused enough in just six years of being part of the magical world: Hagrid being carted off to Azkaban as a ‘preventative’ measure, Sirius’s lack of trial, and the exoneration of Lucius Malfoy being key examples. Not to mention, she had literally rebelled against the Ministry in school. Why on earth would she ever decide to go into that hellhole, when she had the whole world open before her? Surely she’d go onto some illustrious research career, I thought, and change lives, curing dragon pox, Neville’s parents, and rehabilitating house elves and other ‘marginal’ elements of wizarding society on the side.

Among the more ridiculous elements of Cursed Child was this, I thought—the revelation of what Hermione actually did after school. We don’t know how it happened, but somehow, she ended up not only running for Minister of Magic, but winning the position. That she won was not the confusing thing; it was her deciding to do it at all.

I tried to expunge it from my memory, like most of Cursed Child. Hermione would never have sold her soul and gone into politics! I told myself. She saw how corrupt it all was. She knew, even after Voldemort was gone, that the Ministry did not change overnight. Of the trio, Hermione was always the most grounded, the least likely to proceed on feelings and idealism alone. She weighed and measured every decision, at least when she felt she had the luxury to. Defeating Voldemort, of course, was a little beyond the scope of the normal, and so she’d thrown her arms up and gone along with Harry’s lack of a plan, while furiously preparing for any eventuality that might result (see: her beaded bag).

downloadBut then, as they say, life happened. I realized it was actually totally of a piece with Hermione’s logic for her to go into the belly of the beast. Hermione was careful, yes, but she never shrunk back from a challenge. Hermione did not rush blindly forth on the strength of feelings alone, sure, but she also never agreed or submitted to anything, or anyone, she felt was wrong. Hermione was smart and capable and scornful of those who believed they were better than her, simply because they were richer or prettier or had ‘purer blood’, but she was also willing, and more than ready, to work with those she respected and cared for, and had never, ever abandoned a friend, or a person, in need.

Surely this Hermione, someone who had saved the wizarding world with her smarts and talent, who’d started a society that was the butt of her friends’ jokes and championed a cause few would support—this Hermione, when she saw the problems of the world she’d chosen to defend, would roll up her sleeves, flick out her wand, and get down to solving them. And what better place to do it from, than the heart of power?

Hermione was on my mind when I read about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the many more like her, young women who are stepping up, around the world, to take charge of a political system that’s historically worked against them. Hermione is on my mind when I read about Reese Witherspoon, or Priyanka Chopra, or other women in the film industry, who, sick of waiting for good parts to be written for them, have opened new streams down which ‘overlooked’ stories can set sail. And Hermione is definitely front and centre when I look at my own female friends, many of whom are doing and will do incredible things, whether that’s braving the courts and corporates, crafting art for a variety of media, or teaching the next generation of Hermiones and Harrys and Rons just how to go about defeating their own Voldemorts.

To them, and to Hermione, salút!

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#Dragonprivilege, or Daenerys as female role model

‘I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.’

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Daenerys “Stormborn” Targaryen, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoyner, and the First Men, Breaker of Chains, the Unburnt, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Mother of Dragons, ‘Mhysa’ and Queen of Meereen, has more accumulated more titles in her quick and brutal rise to power than most long-reigning lords of Westeros. She has built, lost and regained armies, won over barbarian hordes, freed thousands of slaves and killed quite a few of their masters. She has done all this without the aid of a husband, despite being propositioned every few months by a new aspirant for her hand.

Daenerys-Targaryen-Profile-HDDaenerys (I’m going to call her the much simpler-to-type ‘Dany’ henceforth) is considered remarkable.in a universe where patriarchy is near-unquestioned, where a woman’s role is basically to provide children and/or sexual pleasure. Women in Martin’s world need to be experts at manipulating others and their circumstances in order to achieve even the slightest measure of power or independence, and here I’m speaking only of those from powerful families. If you’re one of the smallfolk, life is much rougher, no matter if you’re a man or woman.

So it’s no wonder that Dany is considered to be the series, and the show’s, blazing icon of feminism. She routinely blasts apart the power structures put before her, breaking the bars of cages built to contain her and her ‘children’—structures and cages usually put down and maintained by men. In a recent episode, she literally destroys the patriarchy of the Dothraki, burning down the temple that houses the gathered khals as they insult her and threaten her with rape. Recently, again, she got astride a dragon and destroyed an army sent against her by the (you guessed it) male masters of Yunkai and Astapor. Her power is bound up in her identity as a saviour, ‘mother’ figure: her superpower is her children, the dragons, and her soft power comes from the freed slaves devotion to her, or so we are supposed to assume.

But I wonder, after so many seasons of watching her destroy things, march towards victories that no other character in the series can boast of, is Dany still an inspiring role model for women? Isn’t she a bit too, I don’t know…super powered?

“How dare you, madam!” I hear the knives being sharpened. “Are you implying that she is too powerful? Are you saying that a woman is only inspiring if she is fighting from a position of weakness, and not obvious strength?”

That’s not what I’m saying at all.

Let me put it this way: I will not deny that watching Dany storm the patriarchy and burn down things makes me, both as a fantasy fan and one who happens to be a woman, happy. I like knowing that she has made this incredible journey, from scared little girl in thrall to maxresdefaulther brother, to a powerful badass Queen who makes those epic-level statements. But maybe because I’ve seen her do it time and again (it’s been six years of burning down establishments), I’m not as ‘Woohoo Dany!’ as I was before. Maybe it also has something to do with the fact that she does these things not only because she is smart and determined, but also because she has powers that few in her world do.

Dany has dragons. No matter how she might have tried to shut them away, they are as much a part of her as her fire-proof skin. Dany didn’t triumph over the khals because she outsmarted them; she triumphed because she, unlike them, could survive blazing infernos. Dany won over the Dothraki by playing their game, proving herself unconquerable and thus earning their mingled respect and fear. Dany won over Slaver’s Bay in the same way: she paid for the Unsullied, and then unleashed her wrath via dragons. She then intimidated Yunkai into letting go their slaves, and finally, conquered Meereen thanks to her soldiers sneaking into the city, and riling up factions to assist her in her takeover. Now that her dragons are grown, it seems unlikely that anyone with a ‘normal’ army is going to be able to bring her down.

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Dany has dragons. And that places her at a power level that few people in Westeros can reach. I would say that at this point, her only worthy rival is, maybe, the Night’s King.

Since she’s at this exalted, almost superhuman status, I can’t quite see Dany as a ‘woman’ first. She’s obviously a hero. She has faced great trials, yes, but where she is now is a position of seemingly untouchable, unassailable dominance. She’s not a flesh and blood woman so much as a mythic figure, an Athena, or Mother Mary, if you will—one of those figures who is venerated and raised so far above the hoipolloi that you can’t point to them and say ‘Be like her’ unless you want to give your girl impossible standards. So while she’s an icon for feminism, in the sense that she fights for a society of equals, rich or poor, man or woman, she may not necessarily be a relatable good model for women.

But the other women of Westeros, they’re all equally, maybe even more, amazing than Dany. Arya, Melisandre, Catelyn, Margaery, Cersei, Sansa (my beloved), Gilly negotiate the brutal patriarchy of their world in varying ways, and manage to achieve their ends. Whether its using their sexuality (Melisandre, Cersei, Margaery to a certain extent), their position as mothers (Catelyn and Cersei), employing their perceived weakness to their benefit (Sansa) or just busting balls old school style by joining the boys’ games and playing them better (Brienne, Arya, Asha/Yara), these women navigate within and best the system in whatever ways they can, seeking to live the life they are given on their terms. They don’t have fire proof skin. They don’t have infallible magic, and they don’t have dragons, but that doesn’t stop them from getting what they want.

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Plus, they’re so fun when they scheme together.

Dany can afford to blast and burn obstacles out of her way, but these women cannot. They must negotiate them, use their wits, their skill sets to do so. Of course, due to their (by and large aristocratic) backgrounds, they have advantages that small folk women do not, and we see in both the books and the show how the latter are brutalised, their lack of power stark (Ros is a powerful example in the show). Westeros is much like our world, you see. While problems are universal, a person’s level of exposure to them varies.

Dany is so elevated above this mass of womenkind that she can no longer be said to belong to them. Once upon a time, she did. But not anymore. That’s beautiful, and hopeful, and she is definitely an icon, but she is not a relatable one. Not all of us have #dragonprivilege, but we can be plucky, and resolute and determined and smart the way so many of the other female characters are. And so I’d choose Asha, or Sansa, or Margaery as my role models. Dany, I love you, but you might just be too hot for me.

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When arcs come crashing down


Dark-Sansa-2When a book becomes a movie or a TV show, you can expect some changes. These might be minor, like the exclusion of Ioreth or Glorfindel from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, or huge sweeping changes involving new characters and the introduction of old ones in places they weren’t supposed to be. For the most part, I take these changes in stride. I understand the appeal of inserting Legolas into the Hobbit movies, for instance, because he forms a very obvious connection for fans of the previous trilogy, and even the Dwarf-Elf love story didn’t bother me very much.

For the same reason, changes the show runners have made in A Game of Thrones, based on the Song of Ice and Fire books, have not annoyed me. Until now.

Please note, there are massive spoilers both for the books and the TV show, going ahead.

That last episode has been the focus of a LOT of discussion. Sansa Stark is married off to Ramsay Bolton, easily the most vile and disgusting character in the Seven Kingdoms, and is raped on her wedding night while Theon is forced to watch. To their credit, the show runners shot the scene with Theon as the focus, instead of exploiting Sansa’s pain any further by zooming in on what was happening to her. But in some ways, this just served to make the emotional nadir point even more obvious. Theon, a character who has been through more torture than any other on the show, breaks down watching what’s happening before him.

What bothered me about it

Aside from the obvious fact that this storyline—Sansa getting married to Ramsay—is a HUGE change from what’s going down in the books, aside from the fact that it seems needless to include yet another rape scene in a show that seems to harbour more than a few of them (one is too many by this point), aside from the fact that watching it or listening to it made me feel sick and disgusted and terrified, there are very reader-specific reasons why this scene annoyed me.

First off—I love Theon and Sansa both. They are and always have been among my
favourite characters (numbering favourites one and two, if you want to be specific) and I supported them long before and in spite of derision and shock from friends and fellow Theon-Greyjoy-Alfie-Allen-in-GOT-206readers/viewers. I found both to have been drawn with incredible realism, being perhaps the most relateable characters in the books. These are the people who many of us, I think, would be in Westeros, characters who make mistakes and learn hard lessons. They are not heroes from the start, but they do grow to be.

In the books Theon is where he’s at in the show, serving Ramsay and playing terrorised/reluctant rescuer to Jeyne Pool, the girl who is masqueraded as Arya Stark and married to the Bastard of Bolton. Theon spends most of A Dance with Dragons coming to terms with his identity as Theon Greyjoy and all that he has done; he seeks to redeem himself, slightly, by rescuing the girl, a fellow sufferer. The point of the whole spiel is that Theon does this simply because he feels for the girl and desires to find some goodness in himself. Rescuing Jeyne wins him no favours from other houses, she does not have powerful allies they can run to—in fact, throwing his lot in with hers is pretty much the most suicidal thing Theon can do, and yet he does it.

Rescuing Sansa Stark, on the other hand, could be seen as a much more loaded act. She has powerful allies out there, and she is the Stark girl at the end of the day. No one who associates with her can forget this, not even a woebegone, maimed and castrated one-time foster brother. The selflessness and danger of Theon’s rescue mission becomes a lot more muddled when the girl he rescues is the heir to the North, as far as most people know.

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But the real reason I’m pissed is not so much for Theon’s sake as Sansa’s. I wrote a post a while ago, trying to show the haters why I love this character so much, why she appeals to me and why I do not, repeat, DO NOT find her stupid. What I love about Sansa is the way she manages to cling to some form of idealism in a world that steadily seeks to strip her of all of it. Sansa is learning the ropes of manipulation and deceit from Littlefinger in the Eyrie—where she still is in the books—but you never get the sense that she’s become cynical because of what she’s seen. She is merely picking up the tools she needs to survive, but that glimmer of hope for a better world and the life she dreamt of is still there.

Sansa is something of an icon for me in that gritty world of Westeros. she is not perfect, like the mythical Lyanna Stark. She is not super powered, like Dany or Melisandre, and nor is she as embittered and hate-filled as her sister and Cersei. I find it amazing how time and again she is faced with utter humiliation and yet emerges from it. And now, instead of constantly being rescued by men (or, let’s be honest, only by Petyr Baelish) I hope that in the books she takes the lessons he gives her and then uses them to move on peacefully with her life, not be stuck at the mercy of those around her.

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But the show, after giving her an empowering half season, where she is rapidly learning under Baelish’s tutelage and handling herself with elan in a dangerous court, throws her back down, literally, and has her delusions of control ripped away from her. And the worst part—she’s probably going to have to rely on a man (Theon or Baelish) or another protector (Brienne) to get her out of there.

I see how its tempting to shove Sansa back into the role of the captive princess, something she’s been forced into time and again. But now, when it finally looked like she was getting out of it, it just seems needless and downright cruel to make her suffer through it again. If viewers really are expected to take her seriously, as something more than a deluded little girl, why force her through the same hells again and again and have her rescued by other agents? This, this is what I do not like.

I’m holding out hope still that Sansa will reclaim her power. I have no doubts that she will. But I still don’t see why it need have been ripped away from her in the first place.

Cinderella: An Absurd Fairytale


cinderellaOnce upon a time, there was a beautiful little girl called Ella. Her father died when she was very young, leaving her in the care of his second wife and two step daughters. Jealous of her beauty and general wonderfulness, the stepmother and her daughters forced Ella into becoming their maid, and generally set about trying to repress her spirit.

It’s actually a horrible story, come to think of it.

Ella is forced to slave away for people who she, and her father, had trusted to take care of her, and there seems little happiness in sight. And then things magically look up when the fairy godmother arrives and grants her one wish: to go to the ball and escape the misery for a time.

The important thing that many people miss out in in the Cinderella story is what exactly she wished for. There’s been a meme doing the rounds for a while, that pointed it out. Cinderella didn’t ask for a Prince, or for love; she asked for a night of fun. A night where
she could forget the drudgery of her life for a time, pretend to be someone else and dance away her sorrows like any other privileged young woman in the kingdom. She never asked to be rescued from her situation; that sort of came along later.

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I actually think Cinderella is a very gender neutral story. The core is pretty simple: someone who leads a boring, seemingly meaningless life is suddenly sparked into a realm of wonder by some sort of amazing event, and then everything that they have been through acquires significance and importance. We tell ourselves that Cinderella was rewarded with love and riches because she was ‘good’ and ‘kind’. There has to be some causal connection between what she did before/how she lived and what came next for her. The fairy godmother didn’t visit the wicked step sisters after all.

Cinderella is the ultimate ‘absurd’ hero, along the lines of Camus’s Sisyphus. Camus defined his hero thus: ‘..the whole being is exerted toward the accomplishing of nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.’ Cinderella’s drudgery was undertaken as some kind of absurd punishment, handed down to her by someone who, by all rights, should have risen higher than to take out latent frustration and insecurity on a helpless child. The stepmother is the ‘god’ of Cinderella’s absurd universe, dictating her endless servitude and demanding unflinching love and obedience in return. Being the hapless human she is, Cinderella delivers.

Cinderella does the chores allotted to her because she cannot do anything else. There is no place for rebellion in Sisyphus’s world. His knowledge of this, and his ability to continue on in spite of it is what makes him a hero; similarly, for Cinderella, she perseveres simply because she must. She has no choice. The way her life is lived is unchangeable by her own agency; the attitude she brings to it is what makes her heroic.

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She’s so got this.

The beauty of a fairytale is that things can change, and often do, for no real rhyme or reason. Cinderella’s escape from her absurd existence is simply a fluke. The fairy godmother appears literally out of thin air and rescues her, provides her the night of fun she desires. That brief escape from her rock leads to bigger and better things, but how long before those become their own version of the dreary existence she just left behind? Camus makes it clear that this constant repetition of a meaningless task, the endless labouring towards a hazy and undefined goal, is what defines modern existence. Power comes from recognising this and continuing regardless. it comes from watching as the boulder rolls down the mountain and then following it down the path, to start afresh. ‘..the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols,’ Camus notes. In the recognition of his state, he owns his fate and diminishes the power of the gods.

Cinderella’s ‘escape’ from drudgery is the joy inherent in a fairytale, a pretty fabrication told to children. The reason the story ends where it does is because to follow it onwards would be unbearable. We would see her happiness dissolve, her marriage become routine and rote, another boulder to be rolled up a hill. We might see her giving joy and life to it, as becomes her character, but it wouldn’t do the job of conveying the fabricated moral half so well, that ‘kindness’ will get you places.

One must imagine Cinderella is kind.

The ‘more important things’ AKA Why Hermione is an Exemplary Gryffindor

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Reading the Harry Potter books, it is safe to say, changed my life to an extent that only The Lord of the Rings can claim to match. Since I read the first page of ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’ all those years ago, they have become an integral part of me, allowing me to define myself during years where self worth and identity were hard to come by, picking me up when I thought I had hit rock bottom emotionally and mentally. Even now, when I need a quick reminder of how to get past something that seems insurmountable, I turn to Harry Potter and the different kinds of bravery enshrined within its covers.

Two of those I’ve already spoken about here, on this blog: Sirius’s sort of heady, crazed defiance, which pays little heed to personal safety; and Harry’s much more quiet, dedicated sort of bravery, that enables him to keep his nose to the grindstone and shoulder on even when people tell him to just stop already. In this post, I’m going to tackle another kind, and one that has become a sort of fascination for me, precisely because it’s the kind I feel the most in need of/have felt at some point in the past: the sheer gutsiness of Hermione Granger.

Hermione is walking encyclopaedia of knowledge in the Potterverse, and makes that obvious right at our first encounter. She’s read nearly everything she could get her hands on within two months of being notified that she is a witch, and reels off names to a stunned Harry and Ron. She has read everything in advance, and is the only person who seems prepared to answer the questions Snape puts to Harry during that calamitous first Potions class.

Hermione-hermione-granger-33203720-1383-2100This is a consistent character trait, for most of the series. Hermione, the character who comes from a world and background utterly alien to the magical one, knows more than most wizards and witches her age, or even older. She over-prepares for every test, and her worst fear is, literally, failing all her exams.

Rowling described Hermione as ‘terrified’, explaining that this terror at being unprepared, at finding herself caught out without an answer, is what drives her manic need to know it all and know it now. What propels Hermione’s academic brilliance is not only her near-idetic memory and inherent gift for the subjects, is the simple thirst for knowledge. And
she doesn’t grab it all up for the sake of competing and emerging ahead of the others—she does it because she is terrified of what would happen to her if she doesn’t know.

Hermione is, in some senses, the ideal student, and the most organized human being in the Potterverse. She is amazingly rational, tackling problems with a combination of logic and skill. Identify the cause, identify the solution (through methods of deduction that even Holmes would approve of) and then proceed to apply. The results will be flawless as all the books tell you they should be.

What keeps Hermione from being the hero, though, is her lack of spontaneity, and her need to follow a path laid down for her by books. This is best exemplified in the first Potions lesson of Half Blood Prince, where Hemione refuses point blank to listen to

When playing by the rules gets you nowhere...

When playing by the rules gets you nowhere…

Harry’s notes (rather, the ‘Prince’s’ notes) and proceeds doggedly according to the trusted book’s instructions. Her inability to veer from the printed matter results in Harry, for once, beating her at the subject and taking the lead from then on.

Rebelling against these rules—Hermione’s one guide to a completely unfamiliar world—happens rarely, and when it does, Hermione’s rebellion is usually quite spectacular. She slaps Malfoy across the face, helps to break a convict out of death row (pretty much), starts an underground Defence league and then, finally, bunks an entire school year to bring down the most feared Dark Wizard for a century, following a friend who, she finds out along the way, has absolutely no idea of what he’s doing.

Given that rule breaking and improvisation is really not her thing, it’s a huge huge HUGE deal that Hermione becomes the irreverent, quick thinking witch she does in ‘Deathly Hallows’. What’s perhaps the biggest indication of this change and maturity is the fact that when they finally realize that Harry has no set plan, it’s Ron, the much more impulsive,
badass hermspontaneous character, who walks out on him. Hermione sticks by his side, and doesn’t even give him grief. She keeps her feelings to herself, and shoulders much more of the burden from then on.

The reason I find Hermione so inspiring is, simply put, this: when you’ve been a model student all your life, when you’ve lived your life, clinging desperately to rules and books to anchor you in a wholly new and unfamiliar world, it’s really hard to throw all that aside and just make a go of it on your brains alone. It indicates an extremely high level of maturity and belief not only in your friends, but in yourself. Hermione, by this point, has hermione wandtruly grown up, no longer hiding behind pure logic and reason to guide her. Of course, those remain her greatest weapons, but she finally brings to bear the words she’d uttered all those years ago in the chamber housing Snape’s riddling potions:

‘Books! And cleverness! There are more important things—friendship and bravery…’

No one utterly refashions themselves and gets over their inner hurdles the way Hermione does. And for that, she’s a bloody amazing character and one hell of a role model.

The Brilliance of the Evenstar

There are three important female characters in The Lord of the Rings.

Galadriel, the super powerful, super cool one, whose beauty, wisdom and general awesomeness is unparalleled.

Arwen, the beautiful one who has a tragic but fulfilling love life.

Eowyn, the rebellious warrior prince who does things that no man can do.

If these three formed a clique, I would assume that Galadriel would be the brains, the leader, the effortlessly cool one; Eowyn would be her slightly sporty, energetic second in command and Arwen…Arwen would be the girl in the relationship.


arwen 1There are few characters in the fantasy trove who confuse as much as Arwen Undomiel, alias Evenstar. On the one hand, she is a powerful Elf in her own right, someone who literally gives away her place in the Undying Lands to Frodo, a favour that he can never pay back. On the other, her role in the book is severely limited, condensed into an Appendix where she is little more than a beautiful presence who sighs and ‘cleaves’ to Aragorn, playing no further active role in his struggle.

In the movies, Arwen veered between a warrior princess like role, rescuing Frodo and facing down nine Ringwraiths, and then becoming a pawn who is quite literally passed from father to husband at the close of The Return of the King. In The Two Towers she is told what awaits her if she actually goes through with the mad plan of marrying Aragorn, and seems swayed by her father’s desire to hustle her out of Middle Earth. ‘Do I not also have your love?’ Elrond asks her and, weeping, she confesses that yes, of course he does.

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There are many things that I think Peter Jackson did wrong in the movies (namely Faramir), but his evocation of Arwen’s struggle is nearly on par, for me, with his depiction of Thranduil. It’s quite amazingly perfect. In the book, we never really get a sense of what Arwen herself went through—even in the Appendix, it’s Aragorn we are focussed on, and the quest he has to complete. Arwen’s sacrifice is summed up thus:

And she stood then, as still as a white tree, looking into the West, and at last she said: ‘I will cleave to you, Dunadan, and turn from the Twilight. Yet there lies the land of my people and the long home of all my kin.’ She loved her father dearly.

Jackson puts the romance front and centre, shocking those fans who felt his way ‘brutish’ and ‘so not subtle’. He plays out Arwen’s role in her own destiny, stressing how she rebels against both Aragorn and her father in the making of her choice. In the movie, it’s Aragorn who loses hope in their relationship, who tells her ‘it was a dream Arwen, nothing more’, even crassly and rather insensitively trying to give back a gift that symbolized, to her, the ultimate sacrifice. I love how there is just the hint of a bite in Arwen’s retort: ‘It was a gift. Keep it.’

Like, what are you saying?

Like, what are you saying?

Seriously Estel, learn some manners.

Arwen is the one who keeps ‘hope’ for both her and Aragorn, in the face of his demoralisation. He turns to her in his dreams to find inspiration and strength to carry on, dreamand it’s very strongly implied that Arwen is consciously reaching out to him, watching over him in some form. This is not entirely impossible, given that she is the descendent of very powerful Elves, including Galadriel, Elrond and, of course, Luthien Tinuviel, whose form and fate she brings to life again.

If The Two Towers chronicles her rebellion against Aragorn’s loss of spirit, The Return of the King follows her revolt against her father and his desire to protect her. ‘Ada, whether by your will or not, there is no ship that will bear me hence,’ she says, striving to make Elrond understand that he no longer has the ability to force her to emigrate, that it is no longer really a matter of choice for him, or for her, for that matter, to stay in Middle Earth with Aragorn.

Whether he, or her intended, want her to or not, Arwen is staying put.

Deal with it.

Deal with it.

Now is where Jackson, in my opinion, messes up. For some reason, he makes Arwen a weakening force from this point on. Her fate, for some reason, become tied to the Ring. She becomes the physical embodiment of Middle Earth, in some ways, fading as Sauron’s power grows. Though it is her idea to reforge Anduril, it’s Elrond who carries it to Aragorn. If Jackson had to tweak canon, wouldn’t it have been awesome if he’d gone the whole hog and had Arwen bring the sword to him instead, thereby underlining how much of an independent spirit she is? The exchange would have gone like this:

Aragorn: Arwen! But I thought you were sailing to the Undying Lands…

Arwen: Whether by your will or not, there is no ship that will bear me hence. I’ve made my choice, respect it and take this wonderful sword I had made for you.

Eowyn peeks into the tent, is confused, but then realizes that Aragorn really was just a random crush who is way too old for her and besides, she is not ready to handle his angsty moods.

It's so much better when you just let me go ahead and do things.

It’s so much better when you just let me go ahead and do things.

See, this is why it’s so easy to dismiss Arwen as ‘the girl in the relationship’. She is set up as this amazing character, but then for some reason, the film makers, and the author, made her fall a little flat. So she doesn’t do the obviously amazing things that Galadriel and Eowyn do—but neither of them, in my completely unbiased opinion, go through the sort of emotional maelstrom that Arwen does in the course of the film. Imagine being, for all want himintents and purposes, rejected by the man you have given up your immortality for, and being told you don’t really know your own mind, that it was all some sort of fairytale ‘dream’.

This despite the fact that the man is about 2000-odd years younger than you. What a patronising prick.

Despite this, you persevere, only to be sent away ignominiously by your dad for your own ‘good’. When you come back, claiming once again that there is still hope, he tells you—in fancy fantasyish words—that there’s very little and your boyfriend is probably going to die. You hurl away the negativity and tell the men to stop being idiots and just get on with defeating Sauron already.

Arwen’s emotional strength is amazing, and it doesn’t get praised enough by readers, viewers or feminist critics. She is not, despite appearances, a doormat. It’s a sad fact that
centuries of literature and decades of film have told us that while love may be a powerful tool for a man (please read the Loving Hero Paradox), a woman in love is not a rational being. A woman in love is weak, confused and apt to go where her hormones lead her, to be the sort of crazy figure Taylor Swift ironically brings to life in ‘Blank Space’. A woman in love is not the captain of her own ship, and is prone to doing disastrous things. Witness Dido, Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s play, Hermione’s rare bursts of irrationality, even the doughty Katniss can’t be entrusted with ‘real objectives’ of the rebels because her silly ‘feelings’ will get in the way.

Arwen rebels against this reading, and tells her lover, her father, the rest of Middle Earth, to sod off and respect her decisions. Dying a lonely death on a hilltop? It may not have been ideal, but it was something she chose to do. It’s about time we started respecting that, and realising that ‘the girl in the relationship’ is not always the boy-crazy, silly figure we’ve long imagined her to be.

We need to talk about Jasmine

I grew up quite the Disney kid, as I’ve mentioned before. And so the news that Emma Watson, everyone’s favourite book loving leading lady, is signing on to play Belle in Disney’s revamped Beauty and the Beast was quite exciting. I mentioned this development to my mother, whose response was a world weary sigh and the following question:

‘Why do they want to ruin all the animated movies?’

Being the sassy twenty something I am, I retorted with, ‘Because they have to make the movies more obviously feminist.’

Then I sobered down and added, ‘Also, to make money.’

The conversation made me think, though, about the need for ‘feminist-ifying’ Disney heroines. When I was a kid, watching all those classics like ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Pocahontas’ for the first time, I never really thought about what kind of social codes or behaviours they were prescribing. Now, with all the revamping, they’re coming under some heavy fire and re-examination, so of course I jumped on the bandwagon and went back and rewatched an old favourite: ‘Aladdin’.

I’ve always had a soft spot for this movie. There are two reasons for this, both of which are pretty superficial:

Aladdin was my first crush, and continues to be my favourite Disney prince of all time. 

Someone once told me that I looked like Jasmine.

I warned you—superficial reasons.

Anyway, the rewatch (which took place in September 2014, to be precise, in chilly Chicago, in the company of one of my best friends) made me realize something: Disney already had a fiery, feminist princess, way before Mulan entered the scene. And that princess was Jasmine.


aladdin-disneyscreencaps-com-1391What’s in a name:
‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Little Mermaid’—what do all these classic Disney princess movies have in common? They all include/refer to the female protagonist (the ‘princess’) in their title. Aladdin’s Jasmine is the only one of the original line up to not enjoy that privilege. She is also, notably, the only female character in her movie. Apart from the denizens of a brothel who show up once (during the song ‘One Jump’), and a little girl at the fruit market, Jasmine seems to be the only woman in Agrabah. Or the only woman who’s important enough to be part of the titular hero’s story anyway. She has no female support system, and her only friend is a tiger trained to dismiss troublesome suitors.

Sticking it to the marriage market: When we meet Jasmine, she has just cast off the unwanted advances of yet another conceited princeling. It’s not the first time this has happened—her father has been foisting suitors onto her for a while because the law says she ‘must be married’ to ascend the throne. ‘The law is wrong,’ she says, and all her jasmine pissedactions seem to suit her words. Even when ‘Prince Ali’ shows up, impressing the Sultan with his grand entrance, Jasmine remains unmoved. ‘I am not some prize to be won!’ is her melodramatic exiting line. You go girl.

The existential angst: There’s no question that Jasmine feels ‘trapped’. The movie is full of symbols of her seeking the freedom she lacks—freeing the birds in her garden, jumping over the walls to see what awaits her on the other side, even, at one point, declaring that maybe she doesn’t ‘want to be a princess anymore!’. I suppose you could pin this down to poor-little-rich-girl angst, especially when you contrast it to Aladdin’s desire to find a place/security in his street rat world. Also, when she breaks out of the palace, Jasmine very obviously has no idea how to function in the ‘real world’, nearly losing her hand for her naivety. But she’s a fast learner, and picks up quickly enough.

Smooth playa: Jasmine remains unimpressed by ‘Ali’s’ grandiose display. Jasmine is also a keen observer and can tell quickly that ‘Ali’ is not who he says he is, and is bold enough to confront him about it—‘Why did you lie to me?’, she demands after their romantic ride. Also, look at this bit from ‘A Whole New World’, where Aladdin rolls an apple off his shoulder and Jasmine catches it: it’s obvious she’s figured out who he is.

aladdin and jasmine marketapple

OMG: Remember how Megara is such a big deal in the Disney pantheon because she uses her sexuality unashamedly? Well Jasmine did that LONG before her. Jasmine
jasmineseduces Jafar, distracting him in order to let Aladdin get about his mission of ‘making things right’. Jasmine knows what she’s got and she ain’t ashamed to flaunt it. If you don’t think this is a big deal in a kids’ movie…well. I really don’t know what to say. Of course, it could also be said that, as the only ‘exotic’, Eastern princess in her time, Jasmine was unfairly sexualized in a manner that her fellow ‘white’ princesses like Aurora and Snow White were not. But at least she owns her sexuality, and uses it to achieve her ends on her terms.

aladdin-1992-07-g

At the end of the movie, Aladdin is promoted to ‘suitable’ status because of his exploits, and Jasmine agrees to abide by age-old conventions and get married, so maybe this is a bit of a cop out. I’m looking forward to the rework that Disney will no doubt get down to making, where Jasmine is the real heroine (let’s face it, she’s a lot more fun than Aladdin) who makes her way in a man’s world, maybe picking up a street rat or two on the way.

But only if she wants it, of course.

Aladdin-disneyscreencaps.com-2570

The Awesome Women of Middle Earth

In Middle Earth, people set a lot of store by convention and tradition—for instance, hobbits take a long time to accept the idea of change or straying from a beaten path (that’s why Frodo and Bilbo are considered weirdos in the Shire), and the people of Gondor would rather spend years and years waiting for the return of a king rather than setting up a new line/system of government. The Elves as a people can’t handle change at all, and prefer to forsake a world that’s outpacing them and retreat to a timeless zone where everything stays just the same forever and ever.

aragornIf you’re a ‘good’ man, the chances are that, during any of Ages of Middle Earth, you are engaged in fighting to preserve this order. Your duty dictates that you give your all in the effort to end Morgoth/Sauron/whatever evil comes afterwards, that you learn the art of war and horseback riding and other such manly pursuits and stay far from morally compromising technology. The only men who really go ‘against’ the dictates laid down on them (and by ‘men’ here I’m referring to males both Elven and human) are some of the High Elves, and of course, Feanor and his sons.

But if you’re a woman in Tolkien’s world, your duty is to rebel.

Yes, this might be a strange thing to say. After all, enough and more people have pointed out how the Tolkienverse is a ‘boys’ club’, how no women were made part of the Fellowship, how there are all of three important women in a book as fat as The Lord of the Rings, all of whom are royalty, beautiful and set impossible standards for female readers. The Hobbit has no important female characters at all, but The Silmarillion makes up for both with a bevy of well drawn, smart female Elves and humans who push the story in decisive directions while, more often than not, their men sit around, ‘doing their duty’.

One glance at Tolkien’s women should be enough to convince anyone of the importance of quality over quantity. All his named female characters are fighters, going against convention in ways that the men never dare to do. Let’s just illustrate this with a few examples:

Galadriel—Galadriel turned her back on a comfortable life in Valinor and ventured forth into Middle Earth, and was exiled from the West for her actions. She braved the Crossing of the Ice, lived through Ages of war against Morgaladriel-the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journey-97371goth, and even when the Elves were granted pardon after the War of Wrath, chose to stay on and rule her own kingdom in Middle Earth. Galadriel is a woman of ambition, who left the West primarily because of the pull of adventure and the lure of her own dominion. And there’s no denying the fact that Lothlorien is really run and sustained by her, not Celeborn.

Arwen and Luthien—I know a lot of people think Arwen is nothing more than a beautiful love interest for Aragorn, but you have to stop for a moment and appreciate the magnitude of her choice. She chose to give up her immortality, to sunder herself from her family forever—no one else pushed her into ‘cleaving’ to Aragorn. Tolkien stresses that again and again, even permitting her a very ‘human’ reaction to Aragorn’s death wherein she finally laments and understands what she’s signed up for.

Luthien, well. She’s a superElf. I don’t think any Elf, male of female, accomplishes what she does in the course of her quest. Standing up for her right to love a human, breaking out of house arrest, convincing a hound to aid her quest rather than drag her back to her father, breaking her lover out of Sauron’s prison, coming face to face with Morgoth and luthienbesting him, convincing Mandos, the Keeper of the dead himself to let her lover out—can anyone claim these feats? And she accomplished all this because she refused to stay at home and sing and wait like a good little Elf maiden.

Aredhel—Before warrior woman Eowyn, there was Aredhel, who wandered on her own through forests and lands unmapped by her kindred. Tolkien presents her as an Artemis-like figure, one for whom domesticity is a confinement. Even after she gets married and has a child, Aredhel feels the need to explore and thinks nothing of walking out on her husband.

Eowyn—The only human to actually kill a Nazgul in single combat. Eowyn refuses to stay behind, awaiting news from the battlefield, to do the caregiving and shepherding duties expected of her as a woman. She breaks away from that line of duty with truly astounding consequences.

eowyn3

Morwen and Nienor—Turin’s mother and sister spent years moving from sanctuary to sanctuary, searching for him. Morwen never allowed despair to overcome her, trudging on until she had found the stone that marked the grave of both her children. Sure, neither of them had the greatest of lives, but they also took charge, plunging out into the field to find their loved ones rather than sitting meekly by and allowing Elf lords to dictate their lives.

Given the context, Tauriel is a perfect fit in the Tolkienverse. She’s spirited, brave and has tauriela healthy disrespect for convention, defines her own duty and role as she sees fit. If it’s the male way to prescribe and maintain settled codes and systems in Middle Earth, it’s the female who questions and pushes back. And through these rebellions, Tolkien’s women advance the storyline, throw back the Enemy and, quite literally at times*, function as lights ‘in dark places, when all other lights go out’.

*Seriously. Luthien, Aredhel, Galadriel, Elwing—these women are literal lamps in dark settings at various points of Middle Earth’s history.

Tuneful Tuesday: ‘Bang Bang’

The song that was all the rage this summer is a strange one, a collaboration between three female artists that combines scale-defying vocals, hip hop and tough voiced street dancing. The styles of the three artists are markedly distinct, but feed into, ultimately, what seeks to be some sort of feminist/reclamation anthem that I’m not entirely sure hits its mark.

I’m assuming you know that the song is, of course, ‘Bang Bang’, by Ariana Grande, Jessie J and Nicki Minaj.

bang bang

Women Beware Women: The song starts off on the premise that ‘you’ the girls are addressing (one boy or several, we’re not sure) is not single. He is definitely interested in someone else, who has ‘a body like an hourglass’, and has ‘let’ him ‘hold her hand to school’. Jessie and Ariana insist that though this mysterious girl has all those perfect traits, they themselves will do much more for the boy in question, including ‘giving it to [him] all the time’. They assert themselves as sexually more potent and willing than this hourglass-figured silhouette. Remind you of ‘Dontcha’ by the Pussycat Dolls?

The Varied Settings: The three women start off in markedly different settings. Jessie dances on a New York street, at first only with other women, and then opens up the floor to a stream of enthusiasts, all of whom get caught up in the infectious rhythm. Ariana is arianaacting like a little diva in a bedroom, stretching luxuriously on her bed in between dabbing makeup on her face. Nicki struts around in super high heels on a skyscraper’s roof, a helicopter in the background. The women are evidently claiming the spaces—the streets, the bedroom, the epitome of professional success—for their own, in the absence of, or after pushing, the men out of it. These are their spaces, which they invite the men to afterwards.

Owning it: During Nicki’s rap, she names herself (‘Queen Nicki dominant’) as well as her fellow singers (‘It’s me, Jessie and Ari). She seems to warn off ill-wishers (‘if they test me they sorry’) or her costars, we’re not sure who given the phrasing of the song. The fact however that their names form part of the lyrics makes it clear just how much they are invested in and ‘back’ the song. The lyrics are aggressive, suggestive, dictating, in no nickiuncertain terms, what the mysterious ‘you’ wants—the singers seem to know that better than the person him/herself. And all three seem immensely confident about their own attractiveness and sexuality, including the nineteen year old Ariana, striking poses in public and/or private view with what looks like gleeful abandon. In the final image, pink light floods NYC, signaling a total ‘girl power’ takeover.

Conclusion

For all its assertion and seeming power, I don’t really think ‘Bang Bang’ is the gleeful anthem of women’s sexuality that it seeks to be. Sure it starts with a reneging of conventional beauty standards (the ‘hourglass body’ and ‘booty like a Cadillac’ are discounted), but these are thrown aside because the new women promise ‘it’ ‘all the time’. They are positing themselves as better alternatives based purely on the fact that they are,presumably, better and more willing in bed. No other reason.

finale

Second, the video, while it seems to showcase three very confident, attractive women, also privileges only a certain kind of female body: young, lithe and dressed in a manner that is, above all, sexually attractive. Ari, Jessie and Nicki wear short, scrappy dresses/outfits that hardly seem conducive to dancing very comfortably. Their stilettos, also hardly known for comfort, are focussed on in various shots, and (as Amy from the Big Bang Theory told us), women traditionally wore high heels in order to ‘make the breasts and the buttocks more prominent’. Again, catering to the male gaze. And of course we can’t forget how all three, Ariana especially, continue to look provocatively at the camera, drawing the viewers into a promised, or at least hinted at, liasion.

But here we go into complicated terrain: is owning and declaring sexual intent not a feminist, powerful position? Or is it a way to gratify and seek male attention? Is it still objectification if the person doing the objectifying is you? If Queen Nicki chooses to talk about how she can ‘let [him] have it’, is she acting powerful or just catering to some male fantasy?

Big questions, and probably much more than the singers themselves ever thought to raise. Ah well, we can’t deny that it’s a catchy song and that, despite the ridiculousness of its lyrics, it is quite fun to listen to.

Tuneful Tuesday: ‘Animals’

Last week I looked at ‘feminist’ Taylor Swift; this week I’m going to analyse what is perhaps one of the most sexist, disturbing, rape-culture espousing songs to hit the radio in the last few months. I’m talking about Maroon 5’s ‘Animals’, of course.

maroon 5

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t hate Maroon 5. They’ve put out some very catchy songs, with totally (unintentionally) hilarious lyrics. If you’re feeling down about something, just throw on ‘Payphone’ and laugh at the sheer angst that’s captured in those verses. Or listen to ‘Moves Like Jagger’ and try to figure out what Christina Aguilera’s ‘secret’ is. But this song, well, I think Adam Levine is either very stupid and doesn’t get what his words and his video seem to say, or, the much more likely option, he knows, but he just doesn’t give a sh*t.

The stalker trope: However you slice it, there’s no denying that the ‘I’ of the song, the man Levine portrays in the very graphic video, is an unwelcome stalker. He sees the girl stalkerfor a few minutes at a butcher shop (go figure) and seems to decide that he must have her. We see clips of him putting up hundreds of her photos, some of them cut up to display single body parts like one eye. He fantasises about making love to her, stands under her window (presumably) while she’s sleeping, and even dreams of curling up in bed next to her unknowing, sleeping body. He follows her into a club and taps her on the shoulder and does it again, even when she turns away pointedly. Levine’s character is also presented as the quintessential antisocial—we don’t see him actually interact with anyone in the video apart from the girl, and he seems to spend his time hanging out in and humping slaughterhouse-hung carcasses.

The ‘animal’ imagery: Yeah, yeah, pop stars mix up their metaphors all the time—just think of Katy Perry and her ‘dark horse’ song, the messy misuse of which metaphor earned her this parody—but Levine in this song exhorts his ‘prey’ to both ‘run free’ as well as find ‘another fish in the sea’. I’m still not sure there’s any animal out there that both runs as well as finds its mate in the sea.

But in all seriousness, Levine’s use of the animal as symbolic of something base and primeval is not without precedent. He’s totally espousing Tennyson’s ‘nature red in tooth and claw’. He’s also made it clear that he is at the top of the food chain, the predator in this ‘relationship’ who hunts down and eats alive his chosen meat. Just like ‘animals’, you know? Though maybe he operates more like an insect, some of whom are known to eat their mates after copulating with them.

The blood: At the end of the video, Levine and his victim bathe in a waterfall of blood, ala Carrie. Maybe this is an allusion to the infamous Stephen King story; maybe the proximity to blood and butchery is what gives Levine’s character the sort of uber-stalker powers that he displays. Maybe it’s what gives him the super sense of smell (he claims he can ‘smell’ the girl’s ‘scent for miles’) and  lets him know that the two will eventually become one.

creeep

Or, we can go old school and read the waterfall of blood as an allusion to the girl’s virginity, which Levine will violently wrest away tonight. After this she’ll be just another carcass for him, swinging from the hooks of his slaughterhouse. Ridden hard and put away wet, as Chuck Bass once said. Eesh.

The girl: So, what’s the girl’s take on all of this? We don’t know! She walked into a butcher shop, bought some meat, and seems largely unaware of the torrent of emotions she’s unleashed in this creepy man. According to the lyrics of the song, she has no choice in what Levine intends to perpetrate. She is ‘prey’, she is going to be ‘eaten alive’, she can’t ‘deny’ the ‘animal that comes alive’ when he’s inside her (ew). But what does the Animalsvideo tell me? She seems to have a happening enough life, going out with her friends and not looking like she’s the least bit interested in this desperate man. Her blasé brushing off of Levine’s groping hand in the club communicates that she is secure, powerful enough to push off his advances despite his creepy insistence. She goes about her own life, completely uncaring of his rabid fantasies. And who’s left standing out in the cold and rain? Him.

Conclusion:

Frankly, I don’t understand how anyone can listen to this song and not be the slightest bit disturbed. Then again, I think this is part of the inherent sexism of the entertainment industry: let’s all tear Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus apart, but let’s conveniently ignore the blatantly ‘rapey’ lyrics of ‘Animals’, shall we? Let’s ignore the fact that a man is claiming he wants to ‘prey’ on a woman, regardless of whether or not she wants to ‘run free’. Let’s just close our ears when he sings about how she can ‘pretend that it was [him] alone’ who made things happen—pretty much the go-to line of any guy claiming he didn’t ‘rape’ a non-consenting partner.

Last year, Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ got into a lot of trouble for its problematic music video and lyrics. I’m surprised Levine wasn’t pulled through the same ring of fire. My apologies, ‘sexiest man alive’, but any guy who sings about his need to ‘prey’ on me or another girl is automatically demoted in my estimation. I’m all for tough love, but baby, this ain’t it.