Professional pounder of the patriarchy.

Posts tagged ‘literature’

Is Ross Poldark A Hero?

If you’ve read the novels or seen the original series (I have done neither), then you probably saw the events of last week’s episode of Poldark coming. In Series 2, Episode 8, we saw the tension between Ross and his former lover Elizabeth come to a head… and it was less than romantic. Let’s be real: it was a rape scene. There is no getting around that, there was nothing consensual about it. No matter how the BBC or the fans dress it up, Ross was firmly in the wrong. He was aggressive (he had the air of a fairly dastardly Bond villain when he entered the room). He ignored her wishes (she asked him to leave her bedroom and he refused). Finally, damningly, she plainly and repeatedly said “no”. It was rape. But the handling of the scene seems to suggest that those involved think otherwise. The BBC haven’t bothered to try and contextualise it, the author’s son has praised their faithful attitude to his father’s text – written in 1953, I might add – and even Aidan Turner, Cap’n Poldark himself, has weighed in on the issue. He said of the scene in a statement made to the Sun newspaper: “It seems consensual, and it just seems right. He goes to talk. He doesn’t go to commit a crime. They talk and it seems like there is still this spark between them, this unfinished business emotionally. Certainly, that’s how Ross feels. He doesn’t force himself upon her. He is emotionally quite inarticulate. I don’t think he quite understands himself.” He elaborated: “It would be boring to play a character who’s just a do-gooder”, which I think is in somewhat poor taste. This isn’t the excusable behaviour of a rogueish ne’er-do-well. It was a calculated attempt by a male protagonist to intimidate and control a leading female character. In a popular TV series, to cast that man as a hero is unacceptable.

The response from the cast, the crew and the fans begs the question: why are we so willing to excuse the flaws of our heroes? Furthermore, is Ross Poldark a hero at all?

The answer lies both in how the narrative unique to Poldark treats its protagonist and in how fiction at large treats rape and sexual violence.

First and foremost, Ross is not a nice character. He is a terrible person dressed up by the narrative and the cinematography to seem like a lovely ray of sunshine. Oh wow, look at his Adonis-like bod… whoops, you missed him being an abusive, unfaithful shitbag. At this point, he is as bad as the series’ villain George Warleggan. George is violent, emotionally manipulative and arrogant, and we as viewers are encouraged to hate him for it. All those qualities could be said of Ross too. We are not, however, expected to hate Ross, because he doesn’t know he’s doing wrong, poor boy. I think this ties in with the comments Aidan made – that Ross didn’t intend to commit a crime. The implication there is that, because he didn’t really mean to violate both her body and her autonomy, it isn’t actually that bad. 

This is the same thing survivors of rape are told in real life. Rapists are constantly leaving court without a conviction. They didn’t mean to, you see, they didn’t know. They thought they had the victim’s consent, because “no” really means “yes” in the throes of passion, doesn’t it? That’s my real issue with this scene. I get why it happened. Ross Poldark, a desperate, angry man with a big, control-freak ego, feels betrayed and confused. Elizabeth is torn, caught between the man she really loves and the man she must marry to secure her son’s future. Something catastrophic and ugly needed to occur at this point in the plot – as a writer, I know that. I’m also aware that the BBC are adapting a book series from over 50 years ago which is set in the 1790s; of course there will be iffy ethics and dodgy morals. However, there are ways to present this scene without condoning what happens. They needed to pick a point on the spectrum, frankly – either she consented enthusiastically or Ross forced himself on her. Yes, there might have been a grey area; perhaps Elizabeth was simply overcome with her long held passion. But, unfortunately, there is a long history in cinema of what amounts to a rape fantasy, in which the victim will eventually enjoy an unwanted encounter if the perpetrator is pushy enough. Poldark, unwittingly or not, has signed its name on that list.

We’re at a point in the evolution of pop culture that, by now, we should have grasped that you can enjoy something and still be deeply critical of it. Poldark is not a bad TV series, nor am I crediting it with being some kind of moral touchstone for the masses. The cast are fantastic; the plot is (generally) well-crafted and engaging. The Cornish coast is the real star of the show, obviously.

However, my enjoyment of it doesn’t diminish the discomfort I feel. We excuse the faults of fictional men – and often those of real ones too – all the time. In a way, that “Oh, but he didn’t know” (which we’re all so fond of) is rather infantilising to men and it’s deeply violent towards women. Our media and our visual culture is saturated with this idea that all can be forgiven because he’s the hero. Ross, in my opinion, is very much a Homeric hero – an Achilles or an Odysseus. In ancient Greek culture, a “hero” achieved incredible feats, but always for personal gain. Our modern heroic qualities are normally more along the lines of selflessness and compassion. There’s a real clash of ethics there. We’ve blurred that line, I think, and now we don’t really know what we want or deserve from our fictional protagonists. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t portray bad people on screen. I’m also not saying that the main character of a film or book should always be a saint. Real people are flawed and they do terrible things.

We just need to be honest about that.

Still thought Demelza was justified, tho

Please like and share if you enjoyed! 

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Agathon and the Women: Effeminacy and Femininity

There is a definite prejudice towards men who use femininity as part of their palate; their emotional palate, their physical palate. Is that changing? I’m not talking frilly-laced pink things or Hello Kitty stuff. I’m talking about goddess energy, intuition and feelings. That is still under attack, and it has gotten worse.

– RuPaul

I want to talk to you about Agathon.

Agathon was an Athenian tragic poet and playwright, who lived from (roughly) 448BCE to 400BCE. None of his own works have survived in their entirety – we know of six titles and we have 31 textual fragments – although he appears as a character in Plato’s Symposium and in Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae (Women at the Thesmophoria). Neither of these depictions are very flattering. He appears in the first act of Thesmophoriazusae. In the play, the tragedian Euripides is accused of misogyny, and the women of Athens have had it up to here with him. At the Thesmophoria, a women-only festival, they plot their revenge. Euripides plans to have Agathon – a man notorious for dressing as a woman and for his submissive sexual exploits – infiltrate the festival for him (although this doesn’t work out and Euripides’ relative Mnesilochus goes instead).

Agathon is mocked pretty ruthlessly throughout his appearance in the play, although you could argue that he gives as good as he gets; honestly, I wish he was in the play more. He’s heavily coded by the narrative as gay, he dresses as a woman (for writing purposes) and it’s implied that he works as a prostitute, but it’s the latter two of these qualities that seem to qualify him for mockery. Nobody would have had a problem with him being gay; the Greeks didn’t really have a concept of homosexual or heterosexual. You were either dominant (penetrator) or you were submissive (penetrated). Agathon falls into that second category – the category reserved for pubescent boys and women.

The reason I bring up Agathon (aside from his general brilliance) is because he exemplifies how masculinity and femininity intersected in ancient times, and there’s a lot we can learn from his portrayal about how the ancients – and how we – approach femininity and also what we might call effeminacy. Homophobia and sexism are both social justice issues. We don’t necessarily lump them in together or deal with them in the same way, but I often find that people who are passionate about fighting one of those causes feel some affinity for the other too. I also think many homophobic stereotypes and cliches which accompany depictions of gay men in media have their roots in misogyny and anti-femininity. That’s not to say the LGBT+ rights movement owes anything at all to feminists or to straight, cis women, but I do think there are some similarities to be acknowledged.

I’ve often argued that plenty of men’s issues are a direct result of our society’s demonisation of femininity. Men don’t have the opportunity to access domestic violence services and, even when they do, they don’t feel as though they can and still retain their masculinity. There’s a high suicide rate among young males, another result of constant social pressure to conform. This is when masculinity becomes toxic, something men have to labour under all their lives rather than something they settle into comfortably.

Perhaps this contributes to homophobia, particularly to femmephobia (discrimination towards feminine-presenting individuals, something that is perpetrated by gay men too, not just heterosexuals). Perhaps this insecurity manifests as resentment towards men who confidently, comfortably inhabit the space (a gap which is rapidly closing) between masculinity and femininity.

You might have seen an image that did the rounds on the internet recently, of a man wearing a “No fats, no fems” shirt.

no fats no fems

Yeah, okay, it’s a hella cute shirt. Yeah, it was meant to be ironic. But it highlights a massive problem in the gay community, this idea that “twinks” – feminine gay men – are letting the side down and giving in to stereotyping. In a way, it contributes to both homophobia and misogyny in one fell swoop. You can read a gay man’s perspective on “anti-campness” here, from Guardian columnist Owen Jones. In the article, Owen states: “This anti-camp hostility partly comes from a desire to conform to traditional gender roles, which gay men have already subverted whether they want to or not.” It’s all part of “internalised homophobia”, in which gay men (and gay women!) perpetuate harmful stereotypes out of fear and insecurity. However, this is steadily improving. I quoted RuPaul earlier. He’s a prime example; his series RuPaul’s Drag Race has been a smash hit with eight seasons (and two seasons of its spin-off All Stars) under its belt. As drag has entered the mainstream consciousness – via the accessible “talent show” format that RPDR employs – so has the idea that mixing masculine and feminine gender expression is totally acceptable.

On a broader level – beyond just the gay community – I think we’d solve a lot of men’s issues far more quickly if we stopped enforcing this idea that feelings = femininity = weakness. Even now, being called “a girl” is a grave insult for many boys and men.

Feminists have always had a complicated relationship with both masculinity and femininity. When feminists critique masculinity, generally what they mean is more along the lines of machismo – a word of Spanish origin that denotes hypersexual manhood, denigration of women and adherence to a strict set of “masculine” traits. Men also put up with some pretty hellish expectations regarding their bodies and their lives. I – and most other feminists I know – give a whoop and a cheer when a plus size man is hailed as a modelling icon or when the internet’s latest sweetheart is “unconventionally attractive” (whatever that even means).

Owen Jones – I know, him again! – also wrote a piece for New Statesman about masculinity. I used a quote from that particular post in my Quotes series. He wrote in that article: “…the point is this. Being a man is not static: it can change and be redefined.” I think that’s the crucial thing. The more we encourage people, especially young people, to see masculinity and femininity as fluid, the better our society as a whole will be. The pressure to conform to a rigid gender role can be so damaging and dehumanising, and it causes a massive disconnect between a young person’s inner identity and their outward expression. Imagine a world without that self-sabotage.

Really, we should see gender as a painter’s palette. Blend. Experiment. Why use just one colour for the masterpiece that is your life?

Finally, I’d like to leave you with a quote from Thesmophoriazusae, spoken by Agathon. He has a lot of good dialogue in the play, but, after studying the play for my AS Level, this line stuck with me. I think it’s apt for what I do.

What you write depends so much on what you are.

People I mentioned/cited:

Owen Jones, How To Be A Man, New Statesman (x)

Owen Jones, What Alan Carr Taught Me About Gay Men’s HomophobiaThe Guardian (x)

RuPaul, RuPaul speaks about society and the state of drag as performance artWikiNews (x)

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 6, Section 2 (x)

A little more about Agathon:

Agathon is credited with being an innovator in the world of Greek tragedy. Athenian plays were almost always based upon mythology, although they occasionally had their origins in history. Agathon is thought to have been the first playwright to have written an entirely original play, Anthos (“Flower”). The reason we know about him – aside from his roles in Symposium and Thesmophoriazusae – is because he won at the Lenaean Festival in 417BC. Greek playwrights competed at these festivals, showcasing their latest works, and it was a great honour to be awarded first place. I was especially surprised to learn that, as, in Thesmophoriazusae, Aristophanes depicts him as being an incompetent writer.

For more about him, go here, here and here. You can find PDFs of Thesmophoriazusae online, although a published translation is generally a better bet (we used this edition at college).

Quote #16

Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals the fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

– Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States

5 Smashing Shakespearean Ladies

It’s Shakespeare Day here in the UK, the 400th anniversary of his death in 1616 (and arguably his birthday, although we don’t have a definitive date of birth). The works of William Shakespeare cover a whole range of themes and span the breadth of human emotion, from love to hatred, from grief to vengeance. The portrayal of women in his plays can tell us a lot about the attitudes of the time, as well as presenting challenges for directors and actors performing for a modern audience (looking at you, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and your weird “I’ll force thee yield to my desire”).

You might not think of Tudor England as a utopia with a progressive outlook on life, but Shakespeare was a man who wrote about racism 350 years before the Civil Rights Movement took off, a man who wrote about a mentally ill prince – I read Hamlet as clinically depressed, personally – before the complex field of psychiatry was even a concept.

He was also the creator of some of the most wonderful women in literature.

So, without further ado (about nothing)*, here are my five favourite Shakespearean ladies:

5. Ophelia, Hamlet

“Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty?”

Ophelia might not strike you as a particularly feminist character. She is one of just two female speaking roles in the play (indicative of the fact that Hamlet is not a particularly feminist play, either). She is in love with Prince Hamlet, but when it seems that he loves her no longer, she kills herself in his absence. Not exactly what you’d call a role-model.

However, I still like her very much. It’s very easy to empathise with Ophelia – she’s caught between all the influential men in her life: her father, her brother, and the man she loves. There’s also an interesting gendered distinction drawn between the madness of Ophelia and the madness of Hamlet. You’re probably familiar with the “flower” scene, in which Ophelia sings and hands out flowers. Her madness is depicted on a starkly emotional level, but Hamlet’s status as an intellectual means we’re never sure if he truly has gone mad. It’s worth mentioning that, up until the 20th century, “hysteria” – an alleged (and fictitious) mental illness caused by the uterus – was a common diagnosis for women. The artist Emilie Autumn explored these themes in her song Opheliac, which gives you an idea of the enduring symbolism Ophelia possesses as a woman struggling to fulfill an ideal.

Ophelia

Sian Brooke as Ophelia, Barbican Theatre (2015)

4. Mistress Quickly, Henry IV (Parts 1 & 2); Henry V; The Merry Wives of Windsor

“Pray ye, pacify yourself, Sir John: there comes no swaggerers here.”

Mistress Nell Quickly is totally dissimilar to all the other women on this list. She’s no noblewoman or queen; she’s the landlady of the Boar’s Head Tavern, the usual haunt for Falstaff and crew. True to her name, she’s a lively lass (she’s practically the medieval Peggy Mitchell). She’s closely linked with the criminal underworld, but, nonetheless, you’ll find no woman with a more *ahem* respectable reputation.

Honestly, she’s just great. I often find that the women in Shakespeare’s comedies are depicted far better than in his tragedies – none of that damsel in distress nonsense! They’re just ordinary, lower-class women, brawling and gambling and double-dealing with the men. And if that’s not equality, I’ll eat a leek.**

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Sarah Parks as Mistress Quickly, RSC (2015)

3. Desdemona, Othello

“I am not merry; but I do beguile
The thing I am, by seeming otherwise.”

In Othello, Desdemona elopes with the eponymous general, much to her father’s dismay. They leave for Cyprus, where Othello takes command of the troops on the island. Throughout the course of the play, Othello’s close friend and comrade Iago persuades him that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio – a white soldier – and Othello, consumed by jealousy, eventually murders his wife. At the discovery of her innocence, he commits suicide.

Desdemona falls in love with Othello after listening to his life story. I think that’s beautiful – she falls in love with, not despite, his humble beginnings. But it’s her willingness to disobey her father that unsettles Othello; he fears she might just as easily betray him and this is ultimately her undoing. It’s a story reflected throughout history – take Anne Boleyn, for example. Her boldness is what attracted Henry VIII to her, but it was also the thing that led to her execution.

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Irene Jacob as Desdemona (1995 film)

2. Titania, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

“But she, being mortal, of that boy did die;
And for her sake do I rear up her boy,
And for her sake I will not part with him.”

Titania is the queen of the faeries in the play. In a parallel plotline – the main plot concerns four Athenian lovers – her husband Oberon tricks her into falling in love with Bottom, an amateur actor with (courtesy of the mischievous Puck’s magic) a donkey’s head. She and her husband make amends by the end of the play, fortunately enough for everyone else! It’s their refusal to yield to one another that causes much of the chaos that ensues.

I really like Titania (although I like Hermia and especially Helena too, who are the play’s other female protagonists).  She’s stubborn and she doesn’t back down. And why should she? She’s the faerie queen, after all. It also amuses me that Benedict Cumberbatch played her when he was at school. 🙂

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  1. Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing

“I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.”

Beatrice isn’t just my favourite lady on this list. She’s my favourite Shakespearean character of all time. She’s witty and she takes exactly zero shit from anybody. It’s definitely worth noting*** that Much Ado About Nothing is fantastic at turning gender roles on their head. Beatrice and her love interest Benedick make jokes at each other’s expense and their conversations are barbed. Beatrice gives as good as she gets, and it honestly feels more like a quirky modern rom-com than a 16th century play.

You could argue that the fact that Beatrice has to change herself and accept marriage, rather than continuing self-sufficiently, isn’t very progressive. It’s not perfect. But Benedick has to change too – it’s not a play about a woman realising that marriage should be her aspiration, it’s a play about two people learning to compromise, cultivating not just a relationship but a friendship too.

meerasyal

Meera Syal as Beatrice, RSC (2012)

Shakespeare is a defining figure in this country’s literary heritage. What we should take away from his work is that we are not so different from his contemporary Elizabethan audience. His work endures because of its innate humanity. We can perform his plays anywhere, anytime, to any audience. No matter if it’s a traditional production or one set in India or Afghanistan or the Second World War, the Bard’s words will always ring true.

As his friend and rival Ben Jonson once said, “He was not of an age, but for all time!”

Thank you for reading! As you can probably tell, I’m passionate about Shakespeare! I’d really appreciate it if you would share this on Facebook/Twitter/Google+!

Glossary of geeky jokes:

* From Much Ado about Nothing

**From a brilliant scene in Henry V, in which the Welshman Fluellen makes Pistol eat the leek on his cap

***Really nerdy joke. In Shakespeare’s day, “nothing” would have been pronounced “noting”, which adds a whole new level of pun to the play.

You can find out more from the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

UPDATE: “The Song of Achilles”

“In the darkness, two shadows, reaching through the hopeless, heavy dusk. Their hands meet, and light spills out in a flood, like a hundred golden urns pouring out the sun.” – The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller

Finished reading it today and oh my Zeus it was spectacular. So beautiful. I genuinely burst into tears reading the final chapter; it’s so… ughhh, I have no words.

Update on the women front: Briseis was introduced since I last posted, and she was portrayed so well. I really love Briseis, and she was far more active in this novel than she was in The Iliad (although I can forgive Homer for that, as it’s the oldest book in Europe and all). She’s a bit of a sass master, frankly, but her relationship with Patroclus is so cute. Love ’em. Also, Patroclus is a feminist; don’t you DARE tell me otherwise.

I also really like the depiction of Thetis, Achilles’ mother. She’s so harsh to Patroclus because of her bias against mortals, and you could mistake the portrayal as a negative one (the novel is from Patroclus’ perspective and I found that I empathised with him so much). But she definitely redeemed herself for me as a reader, and it’s actually very easy to empathise with her too. She’s not a nice character, I don’t think, but that’s pretty inkeeping with the depictions of the gods generally in the book.

ALSO NEWSFLASH: ACHILLES AND PATROCLUS ARE SO FRICKIN’ ADORABLE

Stab me in the heart with a spear, Ms Miller, it would be less painful.

So that’s it, I’m at the end of the novel. It’s been a rollercoaster of a read. Gorgeous prose, fantastic character development, beautiful imagery. Madeline Miller is a goddess in her own right.

“The Song of Achilles”

“I could recognize him by touch alone, by smell; I would know him blind, by the way his breaths came and his feet struck the earth. I would know him in death, at the end of the world.” – Patroclus, about Achilles

I’ve started reading The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller and it’s so good. It’s utterly beautiful and so heartbreaking. I’m honestly dying a little inside with every chapter I read.

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Me when Patroclus says something overwhelmingly sad:

It tells the story of Achilles and Patroclus, in the years before they leave for Troy. The Trojan War tests the relationship they have built since they were boys to its absolute limits. If you’ve read The Iliad, you’ll know exactly how their love story ends. Also, I can relate to Patroclus on pretty much every level (except for the murder thing). It’s totally believable, and Miller has managed to seamlessly blend the romance with historical context (she’s a lecturer in Latin and Greek). I particularly like the acknowledgement of the treatment of women in ancient cultures. The women in the novel aren’t unrealistically active (by ancient Greek standards), but they’re certainly not as passive as in The Iliad; personally, I think that’s an admirable feat.

So yeah, you should definitely read it. You will cry.

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Surrounded by the revision I should be doing…

 

 

 

Quote #14

The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.

bell hooks, American author, feminist and activist.