[personal profile] lemonbella
Dubious Sexual Politics in TV Shows or Why The Almighty Johnsons is Okay with Me when Game of Thrones is a bit Problematic.

AKA: A guide to help [livejournal.com profile] indian_skimmer decide which shows I might get ‘funny’ about.

(please note, at one point in promising this post to [livejournal.com profile] indian_skimmer I confused the term ‘dubious sexual practices’ with ‘dubious sexual politics’. I would like to emphasise that I am firmly in favour of dubious sexual practices, particularly in relation to gods and/or men with swords. It is the dubious sexual politics I am addressing here.)

Okay, so I’m a feminist. A pretty strident one. That means I have a radar that pings about things and makes me want to hold a placard and shout slogans whilst wearing sensible shoes, (don’t anybody dare come back with a “feminists-can-wear-high-heeled-shoes, you know, high- heeled-shoes-are-an-expression-of-my-sexuality-and-I-own -my -sexuality-as- I-am-a-Powerful-Woman” bit They can’t. High heeled shoes are fucking ridiculous and you are a fucking idiot. Also, the shoes are not important in this context.)

I am also a sci-fi fan, and this often makes being a feminist quite difficult. Particularly if I want to see people blow shit up on a weekly basis, or whilst eating popcorn. I really, really like watching shit blow up. Watching shit blow up often wins the day if I’m honest. I do not claim any moral high ground here.

So, I got Angry at Game of Thrones and refused to watch it after four or so episodes. It took reading all the books and some pestering for me to return to it (see love of watching shit blow up and lack of moral high ground for justification). I still feel uneasy about it a lot of the time.

Then, [livejournal.com profile] indian_skimmer vaguely mentioned The Almighty Johnsons when I asked for recommendations but gave a caveat of “but you can be ‘funny’, so you might not like it”. This led to me not bothering for quite a while. Then I finally did watch it and it is awesome and I regret the 6 months of my life where I was not aware of The Almighty Johnsons and its awesomeness. [livejournal.com profile] indian_skimmer expressed relief that I liked it, a little confusion and I offered to provide her with some guidance to avoid similar missteps in the future. This is it.

Firstly, let’s clear something up. This is not a post about the misogyny of Sci-fi, about why no one questions the patriarchal nature of the fictional fantasy GoT world when a universe which turned that on its head would never even get to print, let alone commissioned by HBO. About why the Johnsons are brothers not sisters and if they were sisters why the storylines would require them all to have legs up to their armpits and contain none too subtle cautionary tales of female sexuality and its consequences. About why we still have to endure endless fascination with ‘strong female characters’ (aka “women” or “characters”) as if they are the sudden appearance of a polar bear on a tropical island (A rare Lost mention. There will be no more. “it’s a metaphor for lack of payoff”). They are issues that make me angry, and they are issues that continue to perpetuate an insidious acceptance of societal male privilege and this is harmful. It also leads to quite intelligent women thinking that Vala is a well-written female character. Don’t get me started.

This is a post to explain why GoT (as a representative rather than specific example) is problematic and The Almighty Johnsons isn’t and to help [livejournal.com profile] indian_skimmer understand when I might get ‘funny’ and when she will need to calculate the appropriate amount of swords and/or explosions which may make me forget my principles, (note: it’s not actually that many) .

So, let’s summarise through example what is problematic in GoT and what one may assume would be problematic in TAJ, but isn’t for me.

GoT: In an early episode, Danaerys, having been given to Ronan (I know, I know) in marriage, is then raped by him, (side note, I would lay money on the fact that this was described in the script notes as “taken”). This is rape because Danaerys has had no say in the marriage or the act, (she is also crying, although this is by the by). This scene (and many, many others in which consent is absent or doubtful) is staged, acted, shot and edited as a sensual sex scene. It is supposed to be titillating, to show a ‘soft’ side to Ronan (I know, I know), to set up the transition-to-love that Danaerys makes. Watch it and compare it with any consensual love sex-scene and you will see the similarities. (TAJ has plenty of these you could use, Axl and Gaia springs to mind. Actually, go and watch Axl naked, people should do that more. I’ll wait here.)

TAJ The problem in TAJ is not a particular scene or scenes, it‘s Anders. Anders uses his god-power to make women have sex with him. This is, to most intents and purposes, rape. There is a bit of discussion to be had about their enthusiasm at the time, but I think that misses the point.

So, why be okay with the second example of dubious sexual politics but not the first? (aside from the fact that my moral principles do not hold fast against cupcakes and stupendous swearing). Essentially there are two domains that matter: the internal world context of the dubious sexual politics and the real-world portrayal of the dubious sexual politics. They’re linked, although the second is perhaps the most crucial for me when it comes down to it, (not least because they can distract me with explosions).

Internal world context

The context within which the dubious politics is occurring affects my level of comfort with it. This is not about wanting a fantasy-world to be post-feminist in its portrayal of women, sex or gender relationships, (or race and race relations for that matter, but I still have the post-traumatic stress from the SGA Race Kerfuffle so let’s leave that one for now). Although, when this happens, even in glimmers, it brings me joy. Much of what I like about sci-fi is the perspective that translating real-world stuff to a fantasy context brings, (and the swords, I like the swords) and so I have few problems with a world being sexist or objectifying women if that is contextually relevant, necessary, acknowledged and consequential.

The GoT scene I described above has to be watched in the context of regular scenes of similar type, of an obsession with exploitative sex-as-background that is unnecessary, irrelevant to the story, unacknowledged in the story and inconsequential for characters and the storyline. It is watched in the context of a highly gender-biased approach to the use of sex and sexuality. The issue with GoT is not that objectification and exploitation occur, it is that it occurs disproportionately to women and for the most part is unnecessary to the story in the form that it occurs, (you can show that this is a misogynistic world without having two prostitutes fuck each other as wallpaper to an exposition scene).

This issue actually explains why I have been able to come back to GoT, despite my misgivings, since reading the books. The books portray the internal context without the unnecessary, irrelevant, inconsequential aspects shown in the TV show, (although, granted, this is substituted with the addition of 17 unnecessary characters whose names all start with the same letter and I suppose the teleplay writers had to replace them with something). The 2nd and 3rd season character and storyline development for the female leads has also helped, because it evens out the exploitation a bit.

In contrast to GoT, with TAJ the internal world context makes Anders’ exploitative behaviour absolutely contextually relevant, necessary (for a given value of necessary), acknowledged and consequential.

Relevant? This is a series about the danger and pull of power (well, mostly it’s about drinking, fucking and swearing but we were being all meta… ) Anders is the brother who chases and embraces his power and it makes him both a cock and a cautionary tale.

Necessary? There is a lot of sex and nakedness in TAJ. Anders has lot of sex and makes a lot of women get naked for him. However, he doesn’t have more or less than anyone else. His exploitative behaviour is watched in the context of much non-exploitative sexual behaviour and in the context of other types of exploitative behaviour related to god-powers (because that’s the *point* of the god-power). It is also watched in the context of some really fabulous female characters who engage in their own exploitative behaviour (gender neutral exploitation is fine by me), are diverse examples of their gender (for TV land anyway, two of them sometimes wear flat shoes!) and with a series arc that is an explicitly feminist goddess quest.

Acknowledged? On two occasions (at least) Anders’ behaviour is called what it is: Rape, and it is called by major characters. On an almost episodic basis Anders’ behaviour is called more generally for what it is: Dickish. The issue of exploitation of power more broadly is an arc of the show.

Consequential? : There is an entire episode dedicated to Anders getting consequenced, (what?). There is an entire character created to give Anders a taste of his own medicine (2 actually, if you count Loki) . He and the world are constantly dealing with the consequences, for better or worse. Anders himself deals consequences to Loki when he does an Anders on Dawn.

So, the internal world context for TAJ allows me to live with the dubious sexual politics without feeling conflicted. Handily, that also allows me to admire Mike in a tool belt. The internal world context for GoT (and other shows its representing here) makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. Although not uncomfortable enough to stand by my principles, clearly.

Blimey, if the internal world context is the less crucial aspect, how long is the next section going to be?

Real World Portrayal:

This is the biggie for me, because this is about what the programme makers are trying to say with the story, beyond the weekly character-romp (and how apt a descriptor that is….)

The issue in GoT is not that the context-specific world demands woman as objects or that a woman is sold and raped. The issue here is that it is portrayed as something other than that to the audience, that the exploitation and objectification are not about the story or the world but about selling that world to the audience. That, there, is your insidious, creeping, misogynistic, patriarchy-maintaining problem. So, the external world portrayal of GoT is selling the idea of gender-biased sexual exploitation over and above that necessary to allow us into the GoT universe. They do that because it sells and it is accepted as the norm and that is the source of my discomfort.

The real-world portrayal for TAJ is anything but problematic. The world is as it is and it is shown in all its gender-neutral exploitative glory. The men are as exploited and exploitative as the women, they all have a lot of sex, they all have a lot of dubious sexual politics (they also carry out a fair amount of dubious sexual practices, but we know I’m fine with those). There is also, crucially, a lot *not* shown. If TAJ was GoT, you think we wouldn’t have seen the lesbian sex in the body-swap ep?

Also, there are cupcakes.

I think I might be done. Any clearer [livejournal.com profile] indian_skimmer?

March 2014

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