Drama queens: why it’s all about women and power on screen right now

5 months, 6 days ago

From George RR Martins Game of Thrones to Margaret Atwoods The Handmaids Tale, fantastical narratives with women centre stage are everywhere. Feminist? Misogynist? Thats not the point

Fictions set in alternative realities have enjoyed huge popularity recently, which is perhaps unsurprising in a post-truth world. For the past decades or so, Hollywood appeared to have almost given up producing any cinema that was not about a comic book superhero opposing a CGI apocalypse: Thor , The Unbelievable Hulk , Captain America , Iron Man , Superman , Batman , Spider-Man , X-Men , even Ant-Man . Some might wonder if Hollywood was over-compensating: if you want to know what a crisis in popular masculinity looks like, appear no farther then all those super, super men. Even groups of superheroes, such as Guardians of the Galaxy and the Fantastic Four, rigorously preserved the culture statutory maximum of 25% female population for any group of leaders. The most realistic part of superhero movies, in fact, is that all the power is generally in the hands of white humen; physical laws might get overturned, but not political ones.

Gradually, however, females are pushing their way into the cultural tale on terms other than those defined by humen. Last summertime brought an all-female Ghostbusters , followed this summer by Wonder Woman , who leapt off a cliff and landed squarely, bow depict, in the centre of this masculine ground. From The Hunger Game to Game of Thrones , audiences have demonstrated a growing appetite for allegorical tales about women with political and moral authority: after more than 50 years and 12 incarnations, even Doctor Who s Doctor is ultimately about to become a woman.

Superhero movies are conspicuously allegories about power: they are preoccupied with its sources, how to control it, how to justify it. They are the fantasies of superpowers. What made Wonder Woman seem so different, and such a pleasure to so many spectators, was that its narrative remained focused throughout on the question of womens relationship to power. Induced by and starring females, the cinema has been a global blockbuster, dedicating the franchise commercial power, which is the only kind Hollywood pays attention to; but the cinema itself has provoked a debate over what this allegory of female power is actually saying. Meanwhile, one of the years most-discussed television series was also about women and power, albeit in a much less celebratory mode. The Handmaids Tale asks explicit questions about what happens in a totalitarian patriarchal society that denies girls access to all economic, legal and political rights. And now Game of Thrones , which is equally very interested in women and power, has finally premiered its seventh series to its tenterhooked fans.

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. Photo: Clay Enos/ AP

All of these stories have inspired vigorous arguments about whether they are as feminist as they think they are, or as some viewers thought they were, or ought to be. In such debates there tends to be an implicit acid test, as if Wonder Womans golden Lasso of Truth might ascertain the measure of a dedicated storys feminism. But feminism is not a monolithic creature. It does not submit to identity exams, because neither do the women it speaks to, and about. Less a motion than a set of notions or topics, feminism might be called an attitude, if that didnt make it sound superficial and flippant, like a lifestyle option. So call it instead a perspective, a point of view, one defined by the recognition that the worlds power structure are unequal along gendered lines, and that such a situation should be challenged. How, and to what extent and with what intent we do so: these are entirely different questions.

Feminism can only be protean: its an attempt to think systematically and critically about the relationship to power of half the human race. Thats never going to be easy to encapsulate, even when the heroine is half-divine, the daughter of a deity and an Amazon queen. In Wonder Woman s opening scenes, Diana lives in a feminist island paradise among the Amazons, who neither miss nor desire men for about 20 minutes, which seems to be as long as Hollywood can manage before a random man arrives and Diana decides she needs to follow him( her reasons are altruistic, but still ). Given that “shes never” even find a human, much less submitted to male authority, its somewhat hard to understand why she accepts Steve Trevors instructions for so much of the cinema, including the need to cover up. In part, this is clearly so the film-makers can have some fun sending up the movie makeover: instead of adoring her new attires, Diana dislikes them, as the film highlightings the absurdity of crinolines, hats and corsets. She prefers her iconic strapless corset and boots, but this option has provoked its own debate: is this internalised misogyny, in which viewers are encouraged to see Diana as choosing to be the fetishised object of male longing, or is it subverting such sexualisation by letting her kick off such constraints of traditional feminine dress and oppose as close to naked as a PG-1 3 rating will permit? Nor is Diana the only powerful woman on screen. Robin Wright, playing her ultra-warrior aunt, steals all the opening scenes, while one of Dianas antagonists, Doctor Poison, is a female mad scientist bent on vengeful genocide. Doctor Poison has also been hailed as a feminist touch( even the super-villains are women !), which might be more persuasive had the cinema not chosen to emphasise that her evil is motivated by her facial disfigurement. Because if a woman isnt a beautiful object of longing, life is meaningless, and merely Armageddon will do.

Elisabeth Moss as Offred in The Handmaids Tale. Photo: MGM/ Hulu

Wonder Woman is a cartoon, building it easier to offer a fairytale feminism that they are able to delight some and fall short for others: it all depends on what your vision of female power looks like. In The Handmaids Tale , by contrast, there is no such thing, while some of the cast controversially disavowed the word feminist in its relationship with it at all. This struck many observers as odd , not to say apologetic, dedicated how explicitly the series challenges patriarchal power and defends the sex and political rights of its female characters. Margaret Atwoods 1985 novel goes so far as to blame, at least in part, second-wave feminists for the totalitarian regime of Gilead, the puritanical, fundamentalist society that deposes the American government: both Offreds mother and her friend Moira are revolutionary separatist feminists, asserting that men are unnecessary except for procreation. The tables are turned on them when Gilead reasserts patriarchy, literally colour-coding women in terms of their reproductive and social status: they are either handmaids( red ), wives( blue ), maids( green) or whores, literalising neo-Puritanical gender categories. Female stereotypes become social iron damsels, instruments of torture and restriction that ensure females can only be defined by one socially enforced aspect of their whollies sexualised identity.

The television series expends less hour blaming bad feminism for this outcome, and more day blaming bad patriarchy, which seems rather more reasonable. But it certainly tackles the question of female complicity in patriarchal systems. More than the fiction, the series illustrates close female relationships( both platonic and sex ), but it also recognises how girls might betray one another to protect themselves. So might any woman, the present suggests, under difficult enough circumstances.

Gileads enforced piety increasingly becomes a pretext for authoritarianism, as symbolised by the regimes mandatory greets: hello and goodbye is hereby replaced by under His eye and blest be the fruit. Both phrases serve as constant reminders of the two new social imperatives: masculine surveillance and compulsory reproduction. The secret police are also called Eyes, reinforcing the surveillance state, while the monthly rape of the handmaids is euphemised, and aggrandised, as the Ceremony. Language is a totalitarian weapon, as all who write about it understand; this is why the women are forbidden from reading and write. All are also renamed as the possessions of their masters Offred, Ofglen, Ofwarren their identities as individual females erased. The female servants arent even dedicated patronymics, but merely dismissed as interchangeable Marthas, while the women in the brothel are Jezebels.

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones. Photo: HBO/ 2016 Home Box Office, Inc. All

One of the greatest changes between fiction and series is made to the character of the Commanders wife, Serena Joy. In the series she is young and beautiful, a direct sex contender to Offred; in the fiction, she is an older former televangelist celebrity whose insisting that girls stay at home is belied by her own political activity, as Atwood plays out the consequences of intergenerational feminist battles: the sins of the mothers are visited on the daughters. In the television series, by contrast, Serena Joy is the author of her own destruction, a writer who generates the rules that forbid all women, including herself, from reading( a less plausible decision, arguably ). In the novel, she is a straightforward phony; in the series, she becomes someone more conflicted about her own selections, a passionate disciple at first in the doctrines she generates, of which she becomes a victim. Thus the story becomes less about what feminism should look like, and more an exploration of female complicity and resistance.

Like The Handmaids Tale , and unlike Wonder Woman , Game of Thrones also explores women relationship to institutional power in a variety of ways while acknowledging that whatever this relationship might be, it is always categorically gendered. If Wonder Woman is a celebratory story of warrior queens, and The Handmaids Tale is a cautionary narrative of female enslavement, Game of Thrones offers women who are rulers, slaves and everything in between. It is a world in which women who seem to be pawns have a style of turning out to be queens; but it is also a world that knows queens can always be taken.

Each of the women in Game of Thrones might be said to represent a certain archetypal female experience in its relationship with power. They encompass the spectrum: from the initially conventional femininity of Sansa Stark, submissively learning needlepoint and manipulated by those around her; to her sister Arya, who repudiates this sort of femininity in favour of a sword she ironically names Needle; to the knight Brienne of Tarth, who is mocked for her absence of femininity but lives like a human in a male-dominated world; to the priestess Melisandre, a fanatic who uses sexual power in the name of religious power; to the heroine Daenerys, whose story arc takes her from rape victim to conquering ruler; to the queen regent Cersei, whose evil is contextualised, if not justified, within a story of fury and thwarted ambition. Yara Greyjoy is a daughter trying to be like a human to please her ferociously misogynist father; Margaery Tyrell is a post-feminist pragmatist, utilizing whatever power she can find to achieve her aims, while her grandmother Olenna( played to the hilt by Diana Rigg) is a cross between Catherine de Medici and the Mother superior from The Sound of Music , wimple and all. And as the tale has evolved, even the most submissive girls, like Sansa, are emerging from their violent experiences with a survivors sense of strength and vengeance.

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones. Photo: HBO

Countless terms of journalism have debated whether Game of Thrones is feminist or misogynist; that either supposedly mutually exclusive stance can be persuasively argued should suggest something of the presents complexity. The misogynist example presents the series reliance on so-called sexposition( plot revelations made amid gratuitous sex backdrops ), its( perhaps lessening) penchant for depictions of rape and violence against women and its repudiation( in so far) to give any female characters full power. Those who defend the series as feminist argue that the violence against women and the limitations of their power are part of the depicts quasi-realistic exploration of political power in an early modern world. The counter debate points out that if rape is going to be justified on the basis of historical verisimilitude, we should expect to see a lot more rotten teeth and bad hair.

But theres another way to look at the question. George RR Martin has explicitly identified as feminist; the series producers have explicitly not. Certain feminist subplots in the novels have been entirely jettisoned from the series, much to the dismay of some fans. The audience is more or less evenly divided among those who believe the series gender politics are progressive, those who think they are reactionary, and those who dont think about them at all.

Watching Game of Thrones play out the storylines of all its varied, fascinating women, in other words, is like watching the culture do battle with its own notions about girls: overt misogyny, internalised misogyny, at least three waves of feminism and post-feminism are all opposing it out before our eyes. It is by no means clear who, or what, will win. What we see is what the fight over women and power looks like.

Take Cersei Lannister: her actions are often wicked, but she has become one of the most sympathetic and fascinating of Game of Thrones characters, devoting voice to many of its most feminist utterances. In season one, she tells Sansa Stark that when her brother was taught to fight, I was taught to smile. He was heir to Casterly Rock, I was sold like a horse. When Margaery coos that they will be just like sisters, Cersei snaps: If you ever call me sister again, Ill have you strangled in your sleep. When a warrior from another land informs her that in his kingdom, We dont hurt little girls, she responds: Everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls.

Serena Joy( Yvonne Strahovski) and Commander Waterford( Joseph Fiennes) in The Handmaids Tale. Photo: MGM/ Hulu

To objections that the series is not really feminist because there is no female power that is not compromised in some way, one might answer that this is its most realistic facet of all. It can also be said of the men. The story does recognize that power is dark, debasing, necessary and impossible. And it allows girls the same problematic relationship to power as it does humen. There is a saying in Game of Thrones : valar morghulis, which means all men must die. But as Queen Daenerys points out to her handmaiden: Yes, all men must die. But we are not men.

And it is certainly true that the series famed willingness to kill off major characters is overwhelmingly( at the least thus far) directed at men. Merely three central female characters, as opposed to around 20 central male characters, have died to date by my counting. This is a show in which humen demonstrate far more expendable than females. Women are exploited but they survive, and they increasingly drive the plot. This stimulates the storys energies feel basically feminist: it detects all its girls equally interesting, and they all turn out to be forces to be reckoned with. Good, evil, as yet to be morally determined, it doesnt matter: none of them is negligible , not even the whores who are murdered or appear to be exploited early on. They are not all rewarded or liberated or empowered. But they are all significant.

By a similar logic, while there is a tiny bit of hocus-pocus, most of the supernatural power in Game of Thrones is prosthetic, rather than symbolic. Women dont have internal magical power, because they operate in a recognisably realistic political world but they can acquire power externally( from dragons, potions, weapons or deities ). And any power will do. In one of the best moments of the entire six series in so far, Cersei is informed by an adversary that knowledge is power. With a signal, she has her guards put a sword to his throat before correcting him: Power is power. Game of Thrones is not a story about dragons. It is a tale about power.

One can induce the lawsuit that all these tales are ultimately feminist, despite occasional shortcomings or even consistent ones, because all their women are fully realised human being; they all pass the Bechdel test a movie must have two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man with flying colours. In fact, the women in these stories rarely talking here men, except as political or military adversaries, and hardly ever about love. The ones who do tend not to survive very long.

That said, all these stories do still assume that a womans primary emotional drives are toward humen, and perhaps motherhood. Only The Handmaids Tale fully allows for queer female desire, in not one but two major subplots, with sympathetic characters. Wonder Woman starts out in a strictly queer surrounding before ruthlessly stamping out any hint that Diana might have picked up savors from her fabulously butch upbringing. Game of Thrones doesnt actually, or hasnt yet, allowed its women to express sexual desire that isnt normative( unless you count Cerseis definitely non-normative long-term incestuous relationship with her brother ), although Yara Greyjoy might be said to have come out to the audience last year. Queer male desire, by contrast, is taken far more seriously by Game of Thrones : it is a matter of male subjectivity, rather than female objectification, and therefore is sympathetic, characterised, rounded. Queer female longing remains mostly a political gesture, or a passing erotic fiction for the gratification of the viewer, who is presumed to like looking at female nudity much more than male nudity.

In the end, the fact that all these tales inspire debates about how feminist they are is actually the answer to the question , not the question. Feminists dont share the same answers to complicated questions about females, power, patriarchy, matriarchy, sexuality and longing. But it took feminism, and feminists, to insist that we should all be asking the issues to. Challenging power is itself a liberal, anti-authoritarian act, which means that powers answer is much less important than the purposes of the act of posing the question, because thats what speaking truth to power looks like. The feminist topic is how much our culture is prepared to reconcile women and power. And on that topic, the jury is very much out.

Series seven members of Game of Thrones is out now on Sky Atlantic.

Read more: www.theguardian.com