Television

Privileged Positions: House of Cards and Frank Underwood’s Machiavellian Monologues (22 April 2016)

“Since a ruler, then, must know how to act like a beast, he should imitate both the fox and the lion, for the lion is liable to be trapped, whereas the fox cannot ward off wolves…[b]ut foxiness should be well concealed: one must be a great feigner and dissembler.  And men are so naïve…that a skillful deceiver always finds plenty of people who will let themselves be deceived.”

-Machiavelli

At the conclusion of Act 4, Scene 3 of Hamlet, after convincing Hamlet to sail to England, the stage is cleared for Claudius to address the audience.  Though not marked as an aside, Claudius uses these 11 lines to announce that he has sealed letters “conjuring to that effect/The present death of Hamlet” (4.3.62-63).  By this point in the play, audiences have little reason to trust the words of Claudius, but at this moment, he utilizes the empty stage as an opportunity to pull back the curtain of his deception to reveal to the audience the machinations of his plot.  This was a common theatrical device on the early modern stage, in which the soliloquy or the aside would offer characters a chance to directly address the audience.  In this particular example, Claudius drops the façade of the Machiavellian liar to reveal his true intentions.  In doing so, he reveals truths about himself to the audience that he had kept hidden from the rest of the characters within the play, confirming what they already knew—that Claudius could not be trusted.

Turning to modern representations of Machiavellian villains, this is a device employed with frequency by Frank Underwood in Netflix’s House of Cards, a political thriller that owes a great deal to the tradition of the stage Machiavel.

House of Cards

Machiavellianism, American style

Frank Underwood, the Democratic House Majority whip, is introduced to audiences as a ruthless pragmatist, directly addressing his audience to explain the principles that guide his philosophy. In this moment of revelation, it is not only important that audiences witness Underwood’s actions, but also that he shows himself capable of pulling back the veil that is assumed to exist between his character and his viewing audience.

Here, he, like Claudius, is revealing truths about himself to which only his audience will have access.  Through the later use of these asides, Underwood is presented as a consummate liar, a man capable of sabotaging the administration in which works from within and he is often heralded as a prime example of a modern Machiavel.[1]  He represents what modern writers understand to be an idealized form of Machiavelli’s Fox-Lion politician, capable of crushing those he feels have wronged him while deceiving the world into believing that he remains loyal to their cause.

Frank Underwood, like Claudius, participates in affirming for audiences what they already believe to be true.  In Hamlet, the moments in which Claudius reveals himself to be a treacherous usurper affirm that which audiences could only speculate upon prior to his confession.  In a similar vein, Underwood’s casual asides become revelatory for audiences, but what they reveal is political rather than personal. These tiny acts of revelation say a great deal about how House of Cards conceptualizes the modern political landscape.  Underwood is able to speak truths to the audience as if he were a kind of omniscient chorus, well versed in the inner workings of Washington politics and able to speak with an authority which other characters lack.  As the Machiavellian fox, capable of lying to and manipulating those around him, Underwood’s monologues seem to remove the veil of calculated dissimulation and therefore come as unfiltered truths about the political system, and in a sense they simply affirm what audiences already believe about the operation of power.  Even though we may know that they are presented through the voice of a liar, by framing them as asides directly to the audience, they are granted a significant measure of authority.  In these brief asides, the figure of the liar takes off his mask, but instead of revealing guilt, he reveals how easily he is able take the reins of the political system to his own advantage.

Similarly, this device places audiences in a privileged position of knowing what other characters do not.  In Hamlet, the titular character is never given the clarity of truth concerning his uncle that audiences receive thanks to the decision to stage Claudius’s confessions as spoken upon an empty stage.  Likewise, none of Underwood’s victims are given the privileged knowledge that we as spectators enjoy thanks to our frequent glimpses into Underwood’s rationale for his actions.   In essence, by revealing his status as a Machiavellian dissimulator, Underwood affirms the value of Machiavellian dissimulation.  By announcing himself as Machiavelli’s fox and granting audiences a privileged glimpse into the rationale of the fox, we affirm the maxim that a man must be like a fox if he is to succeed in the world of politics.  House of Cards, like Game of Thrones, utilizes Machiavellian thought to demonstrate the ruthlessness and dissimulation that these programs believe underscore successful politicking.  While certainly not an affirmation of the political beliefs of its characters, our introduction to Frank Underwood in House of Cards breaks the 4th wall to convince audiences of what they already believed to be true:  Washington politics is a game of deception and ambition where ruthlessness trumps idealism.

[1] It is worth noting that Machiavelli would likely despise men like Frank Underwood.  Much of The Prince is presented as a guidebook for ways in which a ruling prince can avoid being undermined by duplicitous schemers like Underwood.


Evan Hixon is a first year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

“You win or You Die”: Game of Thrones and Machiavellian Amorality (15 April 2016)

“However, how men live is so different from how they should live that a ruler who does not do what is generally done, but persists in doing what ought to be done, will undermine his power rather than maintain it.”

-Machiavelli

Note:  Spoilers for the first four seasons of Game of Thrones and for Richard III

One of the major reasons that early modern audiences reacted so negatively to Machiavelli’s political philosophy stemmed from the idea that he advocated for amorality in both politics and in life.  Treating politics as a science, Machiavelli urged rulers to focus their attention on preserving themselves and their state, even if this meant doing things that were traditionally understood to be immoral.  This was not an altogether unfair reading, as Machiavelli did suggest that rulers should be more concerned with appearing noble and moral than with actually being noble and moral.[1] However, this translated into the popular consciousness as Machiavelli advocating for a total discarding of traditional morality in the name of personal gain.  As a result, stage Machiavels—a term used to describe theatrical characters meant to be associated with Machiavellian politics—were not only framed as amoral, but they tended to treat this amorality as something that offered them greater insight into how the world actually functioned.

This language of embracing the material reality of the world against an idealized vision of how we would like the world to operate became a key topos of many of the well-remembered early modern Machiavels.  Richard III argued that morality and social decorum were merely niceties that could be overlooked if one were powerful or ambitious enough.  In arguing for his right to use whatever means necessary to seize power, he famously suggested that “[c]onscience is a but a word that cowards use, /Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe:/ Our strong arms be our conscience,” (V.iii.309-311).  Here, Richard expresses the belief that structures of idealism and morality, things like conscience, honor or love exist only to discourage the strong from seeking power.  In essence, the early modern Machiavel articulates a belief that social conventions are arbitrary constructions designed to keep men in line.

As I mentioned last week, a good case study for examining modern interest in Machiavellian politics can be glimpsed in HBO’s Game of Thrones.[2]  Much of the early series focuses on the political aftermath of the death of king Robert Baratheon and the ensuing series of civil wars and back-room politicking that occurs as a result.   Central to this conflict is the complicated political maneuvering undertaken by courtly figures such as Petyr Baelish and Cersei Lannister who, among others, frequently articulate the idea that the only way that power can be maintained is by acknowledging that one must be willing to engage in wrongdoing in order to secure oneself in an a disorganized and chaotic political environment.

Cersei Lannister and Petyr Baelish discussing what truly makes one ‘powerful’.

If Game of Thrones has a central thesis, it is a conscious rejection of idealism and a desire to ground high fantasy in a ‘veneer of reality’ that often slides into cynicism. Characters like Cersei and Petyr are drawn in direct contrast against figures such as Eddard Stark and his son Robb, who stand in as representatives of a kind of idealized heroism aligned with more traditional fantasy heroics.  Following the Machiavellian injunction to focus on “how things are generally done” rather than how “they ought to be done,” Game of Thrones constructs for itself a universe in which conventional ideas of morality and heroism fail.

evanw2g2

Eddard Stark’s Execution.  Such is the fate of idealistic men in Game of Thrones.

In this environment, good men die, because in the world of G.R.R. Martin’s Westeros, good men are frequently being undermined by individuals who better understand how the world works.[3]  The series embraces a decidedly Machiavellian logic concerning what makes a successful politician and through five seasons, the series shows little sign of subversion.

Petyr Baelish may as well be echoing Richard III when he comments that, “Chaos isn’t a pit.  Chaos is a ladder.  Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again.  The fall breaks them.  And some, are given a chance to climb.   They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love.  Illusions.  Only the ladder is real.  The climb is all there is.”[4]  For pop culture Machiavels like Baelish, nothing matters except the acquisition of power.  Everything else is immaterial.  Thus, as one of the most successful Machiavels in Westeros, Baelish’s words seem to ring true throughout the series, as ideals like love, family and trust constantly fall short when those who embrace them are forced to confront the ‘realists’ of the series, who tend towards dissimulation, deceit and violence.[5]  Game of Thrones may not consciously be invoking the rhetoric of Machiavelli, but the series seems to affirm the Machiavellian idea that those who understand how power operates (in this case amorally) succeed where others fail.

The major difference to draw out between how early moderns thought about this aspect of Machiavellianism and how modern audiences think about it stems mostly from how much credit we are willing to give the Machiavellian position regarding the nature of men.  Game of Thrones is often praised for its more ‘realistic’ depiction of fantasy topos and for its rejection of an idealistic image of medieval fantasy.  While Baelish and Richard III are both the villains of their respective series, Richard III ends with the Machiavellian usurper defeated in righteous combat by the divinely ordained King Henry VII.  In the world of the early modern, the just order is preserved and the good, righteous ruler replaces the amoral Machiavel.[6]  In contemporary fiction such as Game of Thrones, even when it seems clear that the villainous Machiavel is a character we are meant to revile, the show seems to still affirm that they do simply have a better understanding of how the world works than the characters they manage to out maneuver.  While figures like Cersei Lannister and Petyr Baelish may not be the heroes of our fiction, in a series such as Game of Thrones, they certainly seem to have a better understanding of the amoral, calculating political environments in which they traffic.  In moments such as these, modern audiences seem much more willing to accept Machiavelli’s argument that how the world works and how we would like it to work rarely align.

[1] “[A ruler] must be prepared to vary his conduct as the winds of fortune and changing circumstances constrain him…not deviate from the right conduct if possible, but be capable of entering upon the path of wrongdoing when this becomes necessary.”

[2] Game of Thrones remains incredibly popular through its 5th season, drawing in over 8 million viewers for its season finale:  http://variety.com/2015/tv/news/game-of-thrones-finale-ratings-jon-snow-cersei-1201519719/

[3] Petyr Baelish betrays Eddard Stark:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdmnL1lY-UM

[4] For a more detailed examination of what Baelish’s politics can teach us about history, see:  https://metathesisblog.com/2015/01/13/game-of-thrones-theory-of-history-nasty-brutish-but-definitely-not-short/

[5] In some cases, as with Eddard and Robb Stark, the ideals of loyalty and love prove to be actively detrimental, as a belief in the importance of those concepts result in the deaths of those characters.

[6] Also, Henry VII was the grandfather of Elizabeth I, so this ending worked to affirm the authority of the Tudor monarchy.


Evan Hixon is a first year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

“The Illusion of Choice”: Forced Freedom in Mr. Robot and Late Capitalist Society (30 October 2015)

I experience a fleeting feeling of freedom whenever I go to the grocery store.  It offers me a reprieve from the stress and anxiety that creeps up on a daily basis as I worry about deadlines approaching or what I’ll do next after I finish graduate school. And then there’s always the peripheral flutter of unending concerns about issues that most people are able to accept as out of their control––rampant deforestation; rising PH levels in the ocean; increasingly endangered coral reefs, polar bears, and countless other species; the 50 million people in the U.S. who experience food insecurity; the factory workers in third-world countries without decent rights or wages making my clothes; the innocent victims of wars perpetuated by military-industrial complexes; the staggering racial injustice of the U.S. prison-industrial complex…the list literally could go on forever.

It’s no wonder that I get in a rut sometimes as I encounter more staggering statistics and tragic stories. I tend to feel debilitated in these moments when I must confront the fact that I’m just one individual who does not have the time, talent, or resources to combat all evil at once, and so it will be time calm down.   So I go out of doors and, when it’s too cold to appreciate nature, I will go to a grocery store looking for comfort food, clearing my head by distracting myself with, ironically, more stacks of stuff.

It’s not a habit I’m proud of and that I want to remediate, and so the first thing I have to do is understand it.  It seems to me that what is tantalizing about the experience of shopping is the ability to exercise some kind of control through the act of consumer choice.  Perhaps as someone who constantly feels like her life is barely under control, the ability to swipe a card to pay for stuff somehow is empowering, inevitably stemming from the sordid allure of ownership.  But of course it’s only a temporary feeling.  Once the chocolate bar is gone, it’s back to square one, and I then realize I don’t own the things that I buy:  the things that I buy own me…

*

It’s not very often that one can turn to a network television show in order to illustrate just how vice-like global capitalism’s grip is on everyday life, at least in any way that’s meaningful, yet this is exactly what I have recently discovered in USA’s new show Mr. Robot.  Its main character, Elliot, is a genius hacker who suffers from social anxiety and craves world revolution.  Although he works as a techie at a cybersecurity firm to pay the bills, in his free time he hacks into the various accounts of people he suspects to be petty criminals and, like a digital Batman, anonymously tips the police or blackmails the evil-doers into righting their wrongs if he stumbles across illegal or immoral conduct.  But what the entirety of the show is predominately about is Elliot and a group of other hacker individuals known as “fsociety” who are attempting to do the impossible:  completely overthrow the corporate overlords, redistribute the wealth entirely, and usher in a new era freed from the systemic acts of injustice perpetrated by the greed of the excessively wealthy.

robot1 It would be impossible for me to summarize here even just the main plot points of the first season, and at any rate what I want to talk about is the second episode in particular in which Elliot grapples with the question all progressively-minded millennials like yours truly battle with daily: Do any of our choices really matter?  At this point in the show, Elliot has already been inducted into fsociety but remains timid and wary of the revolutionary candor of its leader, Mr. Robot, who has proposed that their next exploit involve blowing up a facility where all of the crucial servers for E Corps (also derogatorily referred to as “Evil Corps”) are located.  The problem with the plan, like so many violent acts of rebellion, is that the destruction from the blast would also inevitably entail the deaths of many people in the town adjacent to the facility, something Mr. Robot insists is merely a price they have to pay for the revolutionary cause. Elliot refuses to endanger the lives of innocent civilians.  Mr. Robot rolls his eyes.  He tells Elliot that in life, like in computer code, there are people who are “ones” and people who are “zeroes”––people who act vs. people who don’t; heroes vs. cowards. Elliot shrugs him off in the moment but clearly remains vexed as he attempts to return to a normal life. While sitting through a therapy session in which he usually remains silent, when asked how he’s feeling Elliot uncharacteristically decides to oblige his therapist’s request for specifics by launching into a slow, melancholy monologue:

How do we know if we’re in control? That we’re not just making the best of what comes at us and that’s it and trying to constantly to pick between two shitty options… Coke and Pepsi. McDonald’s or Burger King. Hyundai or Honda…It’s all part of the same blur, right? Just out of focus enough.  The illusion of choice.  And half of us can’t even pick our own cable––our gas, electric, the water we drink, our health insurance.  Even if we did, would it matter?  Our only option is Blue Cross or Blue Shield.  What the fuck is the difference?  Aren’t they the same? Nah, man… Our choices are prepaid for us.  A long time ago…

What’s the point, right?  Might as well do nothing.
This is not an unfamiliar attitude; articles are written about millennial malaise more and more these days as moments of activism like Occupy Wall Street rear their heads for an exciting moment only to dissipate and the status quo continue.  Scholars have weighed in on the cause of hesitation among young people like Elliot who know that injustice exists but nevertheless believe there’s little to nothing they can do about it.  There are many explanations, primary among them the fact that fear and anxiety is at an all-time high for millennials for whom “student debt is at its highest” with a “fear of unemployment and poverty” as a result.  It’s no wonder America’s youth is afraid of challenging the establishment when what they’re worried most about is putting food on a table for one.  I myself have suffered from similar fears, although my own therapy via career counseling has begin to allay some of my anxiety about entering soon into “the real world”––but the fact that I, and so many others, need reassurance is telling in itself.  My counselor has told me time and again “I wish you would be more confident.” I wish I could too.

robot2

Enough said.

What Elliot expresses above and continuously throughout Mr. Robot is an implicit awareness of existing within what the critical theorist Jean Baudrillard called “simulacra”–– that is, when “reality” disappears as it is subsumed by the models or maps that seek to not only represent reality, but to overtake it, in effect becoming “hyperreal.” What was once the representation of reality becomes reality, and this then means the two cannot be separated nor distinguished from one another.  We no longer travel, for example, without consulting Google Maps. In fact, we locate ourselves in relation to this digital representation of streets and addresses to the point that we can no longer navigate without it; the little red pin on the map and the actual place are one and the same.  When Elliot laments that the choices we make are “illusions” already predetermined for us, he is expressing the anxiety of living within simulacra wherein “we are confronted with a precession of simulacra; that is, the representation [that] precedes and determines the real.”  How many of us choose to deviate from the path determined by GPS or feel anxious when we seemed to have taken the wrong turn?  We only go where maps will lead us. Ergo, Elliot’s comment that, in reality, our options are limited and so is our power, which is the reason why Elliot concludes that one “might as well do nothing.”

Yet because we are implicated in a system, there is no choice that can be made that will not impact another person somewhere in the world. If Elliot decides to “do nothing” and let the corporations continue to exist with impunity, he will likewise have agreed to others’ lives be negatively affected when he had the option (as his therapist reminds him) to do something. Contrary to Mr. Robot’s dismissal of his moral compass, Elliot’s fear of hurting others in the pursuit of revolution is a real fear that should be taken seriously, for it is the quintessential dilemma for people of conscience throughout the world who are painfully aware and wary of the fact that their actions will inevitably affect someone, somewhere, somehow.  For example, in the election season right now, though I am a die-hard supporter of Bernie Sanders’s campaign, I nevertheless wonder what might happen if we tax Wall Street speculation so ruthlessly.  Will they move their operations elsewhere to countries whose government’s have abysmal labor laws, thus exploiting potentially even more third-world workers than we already do now? The answer seems to me to be, honestly, “Maybe.”

In fact, there are infinite possibilities when it comes to the consequences of our actions, which is what makes the precautionary contemplation of worst-case scenarios cease to be useful after a certain point, especially when it inhibits further action.  In Absolute Recoil, Slavoj Žižek discusses the notion of “radical acts of freedom,” which he insists “are possible only under the condition of predestination” wherein we “know we are predestined, but we don’t know how we are predestined, i.e., which of our choices is predetermined,” and yet paradoxically it is in “this terrifying situation in which we have to decide what to do, knowing that our decision is decided in advance, [which] is perhaps the only case of real freedom, of the unbearable burden of a really free choice––we know that what we will do is predestined, but we still have to take a risk and subjectively choose what is predestined” or, if considering the “simulacra,” what is predetermined (68).

robot3

Oxymorons are popular in critical theory, as is staring gravely into space.

The beauty of Mr. Robot and critical theory is that it forces us to see our incessant anxieties about the efficacy or consequences of our own actions as ultimately ones that come from fear of our own freedom.  To run in the other direction, to “do nothing,” or to do what is safe or neutral, inevitably perpetuates the violence that, today, is mostly hidden from us as the simulacra distorts the reality lying just underneath its veil.  The question of whether or not anything we do actually “matters” often comes from the fearful question, as it does for Elliot, that what we will do will matter in harmful way.  While the simulacra may predetermine the parameters of our reality, it does not mean we are without power to intervene.

Which leads me back to my own initial questions for my blog series as I wrap up my time with Metathesis this month:  Do they “matter,” the messages popular culture send us? Do we need to spend our time deciphering texts or television shows for hidden ideologies?  Why should we keep English departments around? Why bother with critical theory?  With the help of Mr. Robot, I’ve come to the following conclusion: To be able to decipher cultural “codes” is itself a kind of hacking.  It is a project that when done seriously, and with the intention of changing the world, has real power just as Elliot does so long as he chooses to recognize it.  There is one crucial difference though: Whereas not all of us have the gift of deciphering code and understanding complex data, we do have the gift of thought and critical thinking.  The most tantalizing belief of our global capitalist, “post-modern” world is that our choices do not matter, a belief that prevents thinking too much out of fear of futility––i.e., “What’s the point, right? Might as well do nothing…”

But if there’s one thing critical theory teaches us it is that what is “true” is not objective, nor is it relative, nor is it a given.  What is “true” is tied to power relations and therefore to systems that create logics.  If all there is, then, is power, and if we are here to empower the disempowered, then that must mean we have to begin to interrupt the program to bring a more important message and, most importantly of all, not be afraid to.  We are in control of more than what we choose to eat or wear, maybe more in control than many of us want to admit. But if that’s the price we pay for our freedom, might as well do something.


Liana Willis is a second-year English M.A. student genuinely interested in all branches of critical theory, but in particular traditional Marxist and neo-Marxist cultural materialisms.  When not teaching, reading, consulting, or writing, she can be found somewhere nearby discreetly practicing yoga asanas and wishing she could be sleeping right now.

A life is made of critical appreciation

The curious thing about the arts is how they flow across geographical limitations like no other stream of study or career. Art has an organic capability to mold itself in the vision of its audience no matter what its origins were. The story of a French boy who finds an extremely spherical balloon that has a mind of its own (Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon) can create vivid emotions for a college student living in a busy metropolis in India. The painting of a couple embraced in a passionate kiss amidst stark hues of yellow and green, created by an Austrian painter (Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss) could mean very different things for an American artist and a Turkish student. A Sufi song could be interpreted as a prayer to God or an ode to eternal love.

Just like any form of art, good television content flows across borders as well. When I started watching The Good Wife while still in India, I was mesmerized. The last time I was that mesmerized was when I discovered gratuitous nudity and sex on the US version of Queer as Folk. What made The Good Wife good, besides the brilliant cast and their on-point acting skills, were the stories it spoke of—the flawlessness in every episode’s script, every season’s arc and in the series’ overall progression. But I also realized that good television was not just about what the show creators put on our screens. It was also about our critical appreciation of them.

As a teenager, Friends used to be my favorite show. I loved each and every thing about it. I can still repeat most of the dialogues without the slightest hesitation. But as I have grown, something changed. I still love the show and its many situations, but it’s not my favorite anymore. Throughout the series, one joke was constant: being ‘gay’ in any way was laughable and mock-worthy. Chandler had a bad childhood because of his parents and yet, somehow, it is always easier for him to forgive his cisgender straight mother than his father who came out as a transgender woman while he was still a kid, even though he is embarrassed more than once about his mother’s “promiscuous and unruly” persona. Ross has always been less than thrilled about Carol leaving him for a woman and has never hidden his discontent with her “lesbian status”; even after giving her away at her wedding, Ross consistently treats Carol’s wife, Susan, as something less than human.

And yet, Friends is also a champion of myriad social issues of the time. The show broadcast one of television’s very first lesbian weddings that transpired from a long-standing and successful relationship. It wittily showcased the awkwardness of the heteronormative concept of “coming out” when they turned the tables and made Phoebe’s presumed gay, green card husband come out as straight. Phoebe went against all sorts of societal pressures and decided to turn the stigma of surrogate motherhood of the 90s on its head by carrying her brother’s triplets in her womb. Rachel showed the world that it is not easy being a single mother, but it is definitely not impossible; she raised her daughter as a single woman and went on to have a successful career in the fashion industry. Chandler’s father showed the world that there is absolutely nothing wrong or embarrassing in being a transgender woman. You have just got to know how to own it with the right sequins and a hat to match. To tease out this tension is to appreciate, but appreciate critically—to enjoy, but to think.

After accepting her GLAAD Vanguard Award at the GLAAD Media Awards this year, Kerry Washington said, “There is so much power in storytelling, and there is enormous power in inclusive storytelling, in inclusive representation.” Compound that with the skill of critical appreciation and a whole new world of perspectives comes alive. For me, graduate school and the different individuals I met on my journey here made all the difference. I mean, for God’s sake, I don’t watch Queer As Folk for the sex anymore.


Image from tv.com

Aishik Barua is a 2nd-year MBA student concentrating on media marketing. He is particularly in love with TV shows (from The Sopranos to The Flash), books (from The Little Prince to the Harry Clifton series) and a myriad number of modern era conspiracy theories. When he is not screwing his eyes at some website’s Google Analytics page, he could be found doodling with his sketch pencils, cooking a new dish or simply engaging in general goofiness.

Nasty, Brutish, but Definitely Not Short: Game of Thrones and the History of Power

It might seem counter-intuitive to talk about a fantasy television series as having anything meaningful to say about history. But Game of Thrones‘ self-conscious evocation of the medieval world, as well as the fact that so many of its storylines are drawn from historical events in our own world, suggests that it does indeed have something it wants to tell about history—about the ways in which individuals engage with the social and cultural forces that seem to move times, societies, and cultures forward. In the clip shown here, Petyr Baelish, the corrupt and ruthless Master of Coin, explains to Varys his vision of the world and the rules that govern the way it works.

In essence, chaos provides cunning and ruthless people the ability to rise to the top; not for him the illusions and grand visions of a just society. Power, and the ability to seize it, are the things that matter most to Petyr, and indeed to many of the characters of the series. Baelish’s words could also just as easily describe the vision of history that the whole series articulates (and to an even greater extent A Song of Ice and Fire, the epic fantasy novel series upon which it is based). In this framework, the sense and order that we attempt to impose on the past are necessary fictions designed to paper over the bloody, visceral, and terrifying truths that remind us as viewers and readers of our fleshly mortality.

The St. Sesbastian-like body of the prostitute Ros, pierced by the arrows wielded by the supremely sadistic Joffrey, in many ways stands as the ultimate expression of Game of Thrones’ theory of history. The actions of the great and powerful, the Lannisters, the Tyrells, the Targaryens, the Starks, become the ones recorded in the great books of learning. The lives of those affected, their bodies left broken and bloody, even the very narratives of their deaths utilized for those who seek their own aggrandizement, are a potent reminder of the price of history. They are the grisly detritus of the actions of these lords and ladies and kings who wield the power. The spectacle of Ros’s death is an unpleasant and viscerally shocking reminder of just how violent and unsettling history can be. For women and the poor, who have little agency or voice of their own, their bodies become the only way they can communicate their historical presence.

The series constantly begs the question: who is to blame for this horrific and chaotic state of affairs? Eddard Stark, for not doing the pragmatic thing and joining his force with Renly’s, thereby possibly averting the civil war, his death, and the ruin of his family? Robert Baratheon, for so many things: his bitterness at being forced to wed a woman he didn’t love, all for political expedience, his mistreatment of her (which leads to her successful plot to kill him and plunges the kingdom into chaos?), his unwillingness to take an actual hand in governing? Varys the Spider, the eunuch who has secretly plotted to bring back the exiled Targaryens, all the while claiming that he only wants what is best for the kingdom? All of the above? None of the above?

In this world, everyone is guilty and yet all are, paradoxically, somewhat innocent. At least, their actions can in part be explained by the forces, social, cultural, personal, that undergird and seethe beneath the surface of Westeros, that always threaten to burst free and plunge everything into chaos. The actions of the past are not contained there, discrete and easily deciphered, but instead continue to mold the present. Characters frequently find their actions circumscribed by the legacies left them by their parents, or by ancestors who have been long dead. The political chaos that erupts from the second season onward is just as much a result of the wars of centuries past as it is of the actions taken by the characters in the present.

Game of Thrones attempts to do away with the neatly defined explanations for what causes significant political and social change. The many competing plot-lines that nearly constantly intertwine and intersect with one another create an incredibly complicated skein of cause-and-effect that make it nearly impossible to impose some sort of large, explanatory meta-narrative on the events that unfold. All that can be said with any certainty is that the world that emerges from the convulsions of the end of the previous era is one characterized by even more political and social violence than the admittedly bloody ones that preceded it.

The historian Robert Rosenstone has compellingly suggested that the filming of history is “about loss of control; loss of sense; loss” (236). Game of Thrones, whatever its flaws and however troubling its representational politics, nevertheless challenges its viewers to come to grips with this powerful, almost sublime, sense of history. In a world that seems to live in a perpetual present (to riff off of Jameson’s claim), Game of Thrones stands as a potent reminder of the unsettling nature of history and that, I can’t help but think, is a good thing.


T.J. is a Ph.D. Candidate in Film and TV Studies in the Department of English. His dissertation examines theories of history as articulated in epic films and TV series set in antiquity. He teaches courses on film, popular culture, race, and gender, and in his free time enjoys watching The Golden Girls and nerding out over the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and their various adaptations. He frequently blogs at Queerly Different. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.

Regeneration, Rebranding, Republicans; or, Reince Priebus is not your boyfriend

In case you were camping over the last three days, the Republican Party took control of Congress on Tuesday night. To paraphrase an oft-heard line on the Capitol floor, I’m not a social scientist—so I’m not interested in the actual, complex causes of the victory. I am, however, interested in the rhetoric around the victory, particularly the conversation about Republican “rebranding.” On 2 October 2014, Reince Priebus, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, introduced the next in the cycle of what MSNBC called “A Perpetual State of Republican Rebranding”:

 Republicans will unveil a rebranding effort Thursday aimed at changing its image as a political party focused solely on obstructing President Barack Obama’s agenda to instead a champion of ideas and action.

The idea that a party is a brand suggests that voters are consumers, that politics is a commodity to be sold and bought. To think about rebranding and the rhetorical commodification of politics, I turn to an unlikely pairing: the BBC’s Doctor Who.

A little more than a month before Reince Priebus rebranded the Republican Party for the umpteenth time, the Doctor rebranded for the twelfth. A core mechanic of Doctor Who is the Doctor’s “regeneration,” his ability to reincarnate whenever he suffers serious injury in the plot—or more importantly, when the actor playing the Doctor changes. Between series 7 and 8, the 11th Doctor (Matt Smith) gave way to the 12th (Peter Capaldi), to the chagrin of many (shallow) fans who resent Capaldi’s age (he’s all of 56-years old). Though the 1st Doctor was portrayed by the then 55-year old William Hartnell in 1963, the show’s reboot saw 34-year old David Tennant and 26-year old Matt Smith change the role of the Doctor into a character surrounded by discourses of sexiness. The show itself deepened this association through romances between the Doctor and the young (emphasis on the coded-as-young) women who played his companions: an explicit relationship between the 10th Doctor and Rose Tyler (23-year old pop-icon Billie Piper), and ever-present sexual tension between the 11th Doctor and his companions Amy Pond (21-year old Karen Gillan) and Clara Oswald (26-year old Jenna-Louise Coleman).

In Capaldi’s first episode, the show rather heavy-handedly responded to fans’ ageism. The villains are ancient robots who have repaired their cybernetics with human organs for millennia in order to survive; their predicament prompts the Doctor to wonder if one is still the same individual if one replaces all one’s parts. Clara insists, “I don’t think I know who the Doctor is anymore”—and the show spends the rest of the episode berating her for it. The coldly pragmatic moral compass of the episode, Madame Vastra, castigates Clara: “He looked like your dashing young gentleman friend. Your lover even. […] But he is the Doctor. He has walked this universe for centuries untold. He has seen stars fall to dust. You might as well flirt with a mountain range.” The most telling moment, when the Doctor seems to speak directly to disappointed fans, comes at the tail-end of the episode:

The Doctor: I’ve made many mistakes. And it’s about time I did something about that. Clara, I’m not your boyfriend.

Clara: I never thought you were.

The Doctor: I never said it was your mistake.

I’m not the only one to recognize this as a gesture outside the text, but I would like to particularly call attention to that final line. The show passes some of the blame on itself: it coded the Doctor as sexy, and now, it has to step back from that.

capaldi-space-bg

Devotion to fans aside, capital is the core motive behind the message that the Doctor is still the Doctor even if he’s replaced all his parts. The franchise needs consumers to retain its enormous profit margin. To keep viewers tuning in (and buying commodities like my 10th Doctor Sonic Screwdriver pen), the message must be clear: we’re different, but we’re still the same; buy us.

The Republican Party has walked this tightrope for the last several years as they simultaneously cater to their base and try to attract new voters. A series of wonky and casually misogynist ads targeted women by painting Obama as a bad boyfriend, or Democratic candidates as hideous old wedding dresses that women need to cast off in favor of the sexy new Republican dress. I’ll leave out any actual discussion of the party’s thinking on race, class, and gender because in fact, as The Daily Show’s coverage of the election suggested, when it comes to branding, ideas don’t matter—money does.

This is not merely a matter of removing money from politics. When an election costs about $3,670,000,000 (writing it as $3.67 billion obfuscates the immensity of the cost), we’re talking brand marketing, not politics. Capitalist democracy gives the lie to arguments like Michel de Certeau’s theory of consumption as resistance, because here, consumption remains just that: consumption. Republicans offered a “new look, same great taste,” and voters happily purchased it. The parts are new; the Doctor is the same.

But Reince Priebus is not your boyfriend.

 


Peter Katz is the editor of Metathesis and a fifth-year Ph.D. student in Victorian Literature and Culture. His dissertation focuses on sensation fiction, the history of science, and the history of the novel.

 

Queering LGBT History: The Case of Sherlock Holmes Fanfic

This summer, I fell for BBC’s “Sherlock” hard1 — hard enough to drive me back to fanfic. Fanfic has grown up in the past decade: it now has activists, “aca-fans” (academic fans), and copyright lawyers, and a nonprofit defending artists’ rights to disseminate transformative works, including fiction. My casual intention to fill the wait till next season with fanfic rapidly developed into academic fascination, especially because I discovered that its writers are challenging traditional notions of sexuality and narrative in ways that mass media and even academia aren’t.

In fact, I’d like to suggest that some of the problems about LGBT historiography I discussed last week could be mitigated by our adopting a transformative fiction philosophy. Allow me to map the landscape of queer fanfic, using Sherlock as an example, before I argue that point.

Sherlock fans have been writing fanfic ever since Arthur Conan Doyle (or ACD, as fanfic writers call him) was still writing. Anne Jamison, an English and fan-culture scholar, has described the output of the Sherlock fandom over the past century as essentially transformative works. This includes not just unpublished fanfic but also myriad films, novels, and TV programs, because they all transform the canonical ACD stories, in form and content, with a fan’s devotion to “writing that continues, interrupts, reimagines, or just riffs on stories and characters other people have already written about.”2

The genealogy of fanfic for BBC’s Sherlock is particularly rich for my interest in transformative fiction, because it’s a nesting doll of referentiality. BBC Sherlock fic riffs on Moffat and Gatiss’s twenty-first century reincarnation of Sherlock, which itself riffs on ACD’s Victorian Sherlock and the many twentieth-century reincarnations which the program’s creators have declared canonized.3 Fic writer A.J. Hall, as Jamison points out, can make reference to BBC’s Sherlock, ACD’s Sherlock, and a 1950’s “fan-authored pastiche” Sherlock all in one fic4 — yet no one would mistake that fic for any of its source texts.

This is the difference between “canon” and what fans call “headcanon.” Canon is the Ur-text, a status to which fan writers make no claim of aspiring. There is a certain playful value attached to incorporating elements from canon (Sherlock’s affinity for bees shows up in many fics, as well as the TV program), but these nods exist within “headcanon” — a fan’s personal parallel world(s). “Headcanon” exists alongside “canon,” depending upon the source for basic inspiration (usually its characters) but freely recreating the source in a conscious departure from it.

Fans use these parallel worlds to explore what could have been or might be, especially as regards sexualities that have not found mainstream representation. There is no conclusive literary evidence that ACD conceived of his Sherlock and John as “homosexual”; their relationship presents as a romantic friendship, although those were going out of fashion when he was writing. Likewise, despite queerbaiting, Moffat insists that his Sherlock is not gay, let alone ace. In fanfic, however, literally any interpretation goes.

Myriad fanfic categorizing tags allow readers to find what version of Sherlock’s sexuality appeals to them: gay “Johnlock” and asexual!Sherlock/bisexual!John cover some of the more popular ones, in addition to “OT3s” (One True Threesomes) and a plethora of kinks (the usual varieties, along with furries, fauns, and male pregnancy). While these labels can flatten the contours of the actual uniquely queer praxis within individual works (in the same way that LGBT labels can elide sexual and gender complexities), word-of-mouth reviews of the ways in which a writer imagines two characters negotiating an unprecedented relationship reminds me to keep an open mind about my expectations when see a fic’s tags.

Although authors and readers both have pet theories about what Sherlock’s sexuality “really” is, the fan writer’s explicit self-distancing from “canon” means that a plurality of “headcanons” co-exist on the periphery of the source text. My friend can ship gay Johnlock, I can ship bisexual!John/straight!Mary/asexual!Sherlock, and fanfic satisfies both our preferences without (much) argument between us.

In this way, we might think of historical LGBT icons as personal role models without needing or intending to make claims about their “canonical” sexuality. In my parallel narrative, Joan of Arc is patron of trans* rights and John Henry Newman is patron of asexuality. Neither of these is true in historical reality, and I would never write an essay to “prove” it, but that’s my “headcanon,” and (if I may abuse a neologism) — I’m shipping it!

Next week: a coda in honor of Asexuality Awareness Week


Notes

  1. Apologies for the Reichenfeels.
  2. Anne Jamison, Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World (Dallas: BenBella, 2013), 17.
  3. Ibid. 11.
  4. Ibid. 9.

Ashley O’Mara is a first-year PhD student and University Fellow in the English department. She studies Ignatian imagination and representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern poetry. In her free time, she writes creative nonfiction and reads BBC Sherlock fanfic “for research.”

The House Wife and The Good Wife

In a compelling and rich analysis of serial melodrama, Jason Mittell offers up a reading of the series in his new book on complex television.  He claims that the series “complicates its gendered appeals through innovative genre mixing and storytelling strategies” (¶ 41).  By this, he means that the show offers up stereotypically masculine and feminine viewing pleasure in order to open up more “fluid possibilities of gender identification” and challenge “rigid stereotypes of gendered appeals” (¶ 23).  He notes that, “[t]he personal and professional, effeminate and masculinist, melodramatic and rational are fully interwoven and inseparable both in terms of storytelling structure and affective viewer experience” (¶ 43). While I agree that The Good Wife holds cross-gendered appeal and blends traditionally feminine (emotional and relationship-based) and masculine (rational and action-based) traits, I propose that it works to destabilize these very categories as opposed to only blending them by calling into question the gendered category of “wife.”

Mittell notes that the series is “explicitly gendered by its title, the premise suggests a melodramatic, effeminate focus: a political wife is humiliated by a shameful sex scandal, and forced to both establish her own career and publicly redefine her relationship with her estranged husband” (¶ 41).   While the title is explicitly gendered, it also self-reflexively refers to figures of “the good (house)wife” that have peppered the landscape of television. Think of June Cleaver (Barbara Billingsley)​ of Leave it to Beaver, Carol Brady (Florence Henderson) of The Brady Bunch, Clair Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad) of The Cosby Show, Vivian Banks (Janet Hubert) of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Annie Camden (Catherine Hicks) of 7th Heaven.  One might also think of the roles that progressively worked to call into question the constraints outlined for the on-screen wife: Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) of I Love Lucy, Peggy Bundy (Katey Segal) of Married With Children, Roseanne Connor  (Roseanne Barr) of Roseanne, Debra Barone (Patricia Heaton) of Everybody Loves Raymond, Carrie Heffernan (Leah Remini)  of King of Queens, Lois (Jane Kaczmarek) of Malcolm in the Middle,  Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) of The Sopranos, the Desperate Housewives, or the Army Wives. (Check out this list or this list of memorable TV wives.)  One might notice that the majority of these wives populate sitcoms (although the women of Showtime’s dramedies serve as a counterpoint to this observation—Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) of Weeds, Jackie Peyton (Edie Falco) of Nurse Jackie, Tara Gregson (Toni Collette) of United States of Tara, Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney) of The Big C).  The wife of primetime broadcast television is primarily confined to the sitcom format and to the home. The majority of dramatic wives live on cable or premium channels.

thegoodwife_alicia

CBS’s The Good Wife, though, begins by uprooting its protagonist Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) from her role as housewife and from her cozy Highland Park home in the very first episode.  After Peter’s (Chris Noth) press conference in which he publicly admits to having an affair with a prostitute and subsequently goes to jail on allegations of using government funds for illegal purposes, Alicia moves into her own apartment with her two children and joins a law firm. She bids farewell to her thirteen years as a housewife and stay-at-home mom as she enters the workforce.  The viewer only glimpses the house and Alicia’s previous life in it through flashbacks or when Alicia visits it in the episode “Long Way Home.” The series doesn’t restrict Alicia to her job, though.  The viewer spends a lot of time with Alicia in and outside of work, in and outside of the home.  The viewer watches Alicia interact with her mother and mother-in-law, her husband, her co-workers, her children, her lover and her friends. The series demonstrates the complexities of motherhood and marriage by defining Alicia by attributes other than “mother” and “wife,” yet still grants a nuanced portrayal of both of those roles.

While the series intrigues the viewer with its case-of-the-week structure, the show also builds a complex world of interwoven personal and professional relationships through its serial storytelling (as Mittell also notes). In doing so, it offers up multiple pleasures to the viewers, pleasures that can very well be defined by their cross-gendered appeal. Though that is true, this format and the extended duration of the television serial also allow the show to slowly deconstruct expectations of stereotypical gender roles as it respectfully revises the figure of the TV good wife. The Good Wife, returning to CBS next Sunday (September 21), promises to deliver more of the same in its sixth season as Alicia considers an offer from Eli Gold (Alan Cumming) to act as State’s Attorney, continues to deal with the fallout of her former lover’s death and her for-appearances marriage, and further negotiates the boundaries of what it means to be “the good wife.” (Other reasons to look forward to Season Six include Elsbeth Tascioni (Carrie Preston), Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi), Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) and all of her necklaces, and all of Alicia’s fantastic outfits.)

Images from cbs.com


Staci Stutsman is a fourth year PhD student and teaching associate in the English department.  She will be taking her qualifying exam on film and television melodrama this fall.  She teaches introductory level film and popular culture courses and spends her free time binge watching TV, board gaming, and working out.

#WhyINeedFeminism

 #WhyINeedFeminism – Staci Stutsman (5 September 2014)

Recently, the anti-feminist movement has gained increased visibility thanks to the popularity of the tumblr #WomenAgainstFeminism.  Women have submitted photographs of themselves holding up signs that list all of the reasons that they don’t need feminism. These reasons range from “because no one should be shamed for being a stay at home mom” to “I don’t like to degrade men” to being tired of being “represented by hysterical hipster whores.” The two reasons that I saw most often repeated were that “I am not a victim” and “not all men rape.”  It would take a much longer post to fully theorize and explain the reasons why I disagree so heavily with many of these posts, and I don’t want to “fem-splain” why I think they’re wrong about the goals and aims of feminism. But I do want to take the time to outline one of the reasons why I do need feminism in my life, and why it’s important to my life and to my teaching.

As I was keeping up with reports on this tumblr trend a couple of weeks ago (and loving the cat parody rebuttal), I started watching the first season of HBO’s True Blood.  I know I’m about six years behind on this, and I know that much has been said about the intersection of vampire narratives and rape discourse, but one scene in particular struck me as particularly horrifying and relevant to this debate.  In the episode “The Fourth Man in the Fire,” Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) visits the graveyard to visit her vampire boyfriend Bill Compton’s (Stephen Moyer) human grave.  She thinks he was caught in a house fire the night before and has “officially” died. While she exits the gravesite, a hand thrusts from the ground, grabs her leg, and attempts to pull the screaming Sookie into the ground.  A low voice says her name, “Sookie.” The viewer and Sookie realize that her attacker is Bill, and that he is not attacking her but is instead rising from the grave. Sookie’s fear of attack and death transforms into relief and, incidentally, lust. Sookie embraces Bill’s dirty, naked, and newly resurrected body as he raises her hemline and roughly enters her.  This scene feels uncomfortably akin to a rape sequence.  At the moment that I think this, Bill bears his fangs and moves to bite Sookie to suck her blood.  A breathless Sookie says “No, not the neck.” After a beat, Bill does it anyway and Sookie throws her head back in raptured lust and pain. The scene is no longer ambiguous; it is definitely plugging into rape discourse and the close-ups on Sookie’s orgasming face assures viewers that, even though she explicitly said no, Sookie wants it.

trueblood2

I need feminism because images like this have become so prevalent and so naturalized in media and popular culture. I need feminism because I need the tools to understand the discourse that this is tapping into. I need feminism because I need a way to teach my students how to recognize these codes and think critically about the images being handed to them on a daily basis.  To deny victimhood is to deny the daily traumas forced upon both women and men. It’s not as simple as declaring yourself “not a victim.” Yes, not all men rape and yes, some rapists are women.  Among many other things, feminism is interested in helping rape victims find a voice, regardless of the gender of the attacker or the victim.  I need feminism because it helps me process and respond critically to a scene like the one from True Blood, a scene that is just one among many in the sea of popular culture.

Images from hbogo.com


Staci Stutsman is a fourth year PhD student and teaching associate in the English department.  She will be taking her qualifying exam on film and television melodrama this fall.  She teaches introductory level film and popular culture courses and spends her free time binge watching TV, board gaming, and working out.