‘A Song of Ice and Fire’, ‘Game of Thrones’, and Arianne Martell: How Arianne’s Absence Explains Why The Story Needs Her

Now. I showed up to the whole A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones thing about ten years late. That may make me unqualified to talk much about it. But earlier this year, I read all the books and watched all eight seasons in the span of, like, three weeks, which has the benefit of leaving everything very clear in my mind. So I really want to talk a bit about how huge of an impact Arianne has, even though she didn’t show up until the fourth book.

From what I understand, there was a huge outcry over Arianne’s absence from the show. As there should have been – she’s fantastic. And the irony in excluding not only the character whose greatest fear was that her father intended to disinherit her in favour of her brother but said brother as well, only to make the sibling that has the greatest place in the narrative the youngest one, whose only contribution in the books that have been released so far has been to play board games with his fiancée and cry one time…well, it’s painful. But excluding her had ripple effects throughout the entire plot, even well after the show wrapped up their version of the Dornish storyline.

The problem with excluding her goes beyond just Arianne, of course – equal primogeniture isn’t just a world building detail included for the sake of the plot, it’s the beating heart of the Dornish narrative, just as much as Arianne herself is. The House Martell of the days in which the main story takes place was cofounded by a woman, with her name passed down to her descendents. It was a woman that ruled Dorne when they resisted Aegon’s Conquest. It was a woman who arranged her daughter’s marriage to the future King of the Seven Kingdoms. From the cofounder of House Nymeros Martell all the way down to Arianne, nearly all of the most important, in a historical sense, members of this family – and nation state –  are women. Game of Thrones completely disregarded all of that.

The show did more than just remove Arianne. It entirely gutted Dornish culture by changing references to Oberyn, Doran, and Elia’s mother – the ruling princess of Dorne in her own right – to being about their father. It made Doran’s heir a son, rather than a daughter. In the final season, they had the new ruler of Dorne be some random man. There was no reason to do any of those things – hell, there was less than no reason. Because the women in the Dornish story matter. The Unnamed Princess of Dorne is important. As a political player she was enormously effective! Tywin Lannister’s victories were a result of brutality – the Reynes and Tarbecks, Elia and her children. The Princess of Dorne’s were a result of politics, not war crimes. All of this is a major part of the political state of Westeros at the start of the series.

So why does this matter and how is it relevant to Arianne and the rest of the story? It matters because of what the story is missing without her: without Arianne, the story doesn’t have a woman that is her father’s heir at the same time as she lives in a sexist world. It doesn’t have someone who has a functional relationship with a parent, not because that parent did everything perfectly, but because they both worked to fix it and start being honest each other. It just doesn’t have the adult woman that’s an unambiguously good person taking on a leadership role.

The age changes and casting of older actors obfuscate the issue. But in the books, there are clear distinctions between the adults and the children. Sure, there’s some gradation – the few years between Margaery and Sansa matter, Brienne isn’t a child anymore but she’s still young, and so on – but you can easily categorize the characters into child and adult. And after Catelyn’s death, the two main adult women in the story are Arianne and Cersei (I know Asha probably counts, given that she’s had more chapters than Arianne, whom I’m counting, but still, she bores the hell out of me, so I’m ignoring her for now). What makes that powerful is that they are absolutely two sides of the same coin. Arianne is a better foil for Cersei than any other character could ever be.

Neither of them are fighters in the physical sense. They both crave their father’s approval. They were both extremely close to their fathers as children, only to grow away from them as they grew up. They’re both ambitious and intelligent. But while Cersei wants Tywin’s approval for the sake of Casterly Rock and her inheritance as his eldest chlid, Arianne wants Dorne largely because it’s representative of Doran’s love. Tywin had a “secret smile” for Cersei when she was a child, and Doran has one for Arianne when she’s an adult. Cersei never repaired her relationship with Tywin, while Arianne did with Doran. Hell, even their respective relationship with two of Cersei’s children demonstrates their differences – Tommen is afraid of Cersei, but Myrcella adores Arianne. These are characters whose stories parallel each other with the arguably primary difference being…Arianne doesn’t alienate everyone around her by being a dick.

The show doesn’t have that character that can balance Cersei. Not after Catelyn’s death. And because of that, there’s no one to drive home the idea that as understandable as Cersei’s misanthropy is from  a woman in a patriarchal society, it’s not excusable. Arianne is in a similar position, but manages to still care about other people. She demonstrates better than any other character that none of Cersei’s character traits are inherently wrong. She also uses sex to manipulate, but with much better goals and not without getting emotionally invested in return. She has just as much ambition and determination to prove herself, but she believes firmly that there are lines that she should not cross – she wants to be a good ruler, not just a ruler. Cersei claims, both to other people and to herself, that it’s about self defence and defence of her children. That’s not entirely a lie. But it’s also demonstrably not the entire truth because of how she refuses to actually return to the Westerlands and do her job as the Lady of Casterly Rock, how she flat out refuses to let Tommen learn the things he needs to learn, how her love for Joffrey came at the expense of her other children in very real ways.

The problem with society’s treatment of women, as the show presents it, is that they don’t have the right to rule. It doesn’t actually show that, though, because even though we don’t see any of the female heads of houses, by season eight, no one actually raises any objections to women as heads of houses. But through erasing Arianne and Dornish equal primogeniture, they erased both the complexity and the precedent for accepting women leaders, which results in that casual acceptance of Sansa, Yara, and the like not actually making much sense. Either there were cultural obstacles that needed to be overcome or there weren’t. But the writers tried to have it both ways, which was incoherent.

The thing is…no one actually cares if women rule as regents. Not really. Whether it be Lysa in charge of the Vale after her husband’s death or how Ned intended for Catelyn to govern at Winterfell in his stead while he was off in King’s Landing until Robb was older, it’s not an unusual position for women to be in. Women do have some degree of political power here. The real issue isn’t that they have no rights. It’s a two fold problem – first of all, it’s about how men are prioritized in terms of inheritance. And secondly, it’s about how the control that women have is usually fragile and unsustainable.

Ned left Cat in charge. But when war broke out, Robb was the one that took command. When Robb drafted his will, he pushed Sansa down in the line of succession in favour of Jon, who had specifically taken an oath not to inherit anything. Even though Cersei is queen regent, Jaime has the power to dispace her and send her back to Casterly Rock, pretty much because he’s a man. And that doesn’t even get into how she became the Lady of Casterly Rock by default – Tywin was dead, Tyrion was on the run after killing him, Jaime was in the Kingsguard. Arianne calls attention to that women’s fragile and unsustanaible power by having her story start off as explicitly about it.

Arianne is in the best possible position for a woman anywhere in Westeros. She’s Dornish and an eldest daughter, meaning she can inherit; she’s the daughter of the ruling prince of Dorne; and she’s beloved by her people. She stands to become one of the most powerful people on the continent. But she’s still a woman in Westeros, and since she’s not stupid and can see how other women are being treated in the world…she is rightfully scared of being cast aside for Quentyn! Getting Dorne isn’t just about a castle and power for her, it’s about safety. Women do not have a lot of options in Westeros. Arianne losing her inheritance means she loses her power. It means she could be pushed into an unwanted marriage. She could end up like Lysa, married to an old man, or Cersei, to an abusive one, and she wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

The character whose story is closest to Arianne’s is Sam, what with his father passing over him in favour of his younger brother. And because he’s male, there are clear differences. Sam could go to the Night’s Watch. If he really wanted to, he could have fled and gone anywhere else, while remaining reasonably safe by virtue of being a man. Arianne could…what, join the Faith? Her options are a lot more limited.

Arianne being Dornish puts her in a better position than anyone else. With just about everywhere else, even if a woman is her father’s heir, she only rules in her own name if she’s not married. Otherwise, her husband is in control of her lands. That was the reason Robb passed over Sansa in the line of succession, after all – he didn’t want Tyrion to get Winterfell. The fact that Arianne is Dornish means that that doesn’t hold true for her. Her inheritance is hers. So long as she actually gets it. If she doesn’t, she’s just as trapped as any other woman. As I said before, Dorne represents to Arianne her father’s love. That’s true, and it’s the forefront thought in her mind. But there are practical reasons for that fear as well.

Arianne very much does have the skillset required to govern. She dismisses her purview as “feasts and frolics”, and longs to be responsible for taxes, hearing out petitioners, but her perception of that is largely a confirmation bias. The letter Doran wrote – which he almost certainly never sent, but that’s a different story – made her view everything as evidence that her father didn’t love her and wanted to circumvent her to make Quentyn heir. But organizing feasts and coordinating visitors is no small task. It requires a lot of work and planning, as well as knowledge of all the guests. It’s not a bad use of Arianne’s strengths, but she can’t see that because she’s too worried that it means she’s being cast aside.

She’s not one of one to think too highly of herself and her abilities. If anything, Arianne has a tendency to downplay her own skills. She doesn’t seem to realize how valuable her ability to convince is. Myrcella will do pretty much anything she asks. She got Cedra on her side while literally imprisoned in a tower using nothing but words. She managed to calm down an angry Obara that had just stormed out of a feast. These aren’t small feats, they’re big – the second didn’t pan out for her, but the first and last? Those are what salvaged Doran’s plan and stopped him from crashing and burning. From the moment he told her the truth, Arianne and Doran became a team. And unlike Robb with Catelyn or Tywin with Cersei,  Doran knows damn well how to use his daughter’s strengths.

She’s patient, she’s loving, she is remarkably talented at convincing people to follow her. She is capable of more than she realizes, and she demonstrates better than any other character the power of women and the skills a good leader has. It’s not Dany. It’s not Sansa. It’s not Cersei. It’s Arianne with the collection of traits, learned and innate both, that would make her an amazing ruler. She has the experience with organization, what with her work in event planning. She’s spectacular at making friends and is beloved by the Dornish. She understands people and knows how they think. She’s patient enough to wait for more information before acting. She knows intuitively when she should make decisions and when she should defer to people with greater expertise in the subject area. Erasing her, and the competence of her Sand Snake cousins, is harmful.

Not only does Arianne herself provide the example of a woman ruling in her own right, her entire story revolves around women in power. She wants to lay the groundwork for people accepting a woman on the Iron Throne by championing Myrcella’s claim. Tyene gave her the idea for that in the first place. Her cousin Nymeria is going to represent Dornish interests in King’s Landing by claiming their council seat. And to top it all off, Arianne will represent Dorne by going to parlay with Aegon herself. The show cut all of that. And what does that do? Well…it brushes aside the hows of the matter, ignoring all the ways in which characters would have to fight and plan to get what they need and want. It’s like what they did with Sansa and the Vale. In the show, she didn’t make friends or anything, the only reason she could get their army to ride to her defence was that Littlefinger was obsessed with her! It’s a cop out written by people that value military power more than diplomacy.

Women in power is an actual theme in the story, not just something tangential. But the show doesn’t explore that in any depth. It cut out mostly everything about Maege Mormont, including her elder daughters. It ignored the fact that Brienne is her father’s only heir and the implications of that in terms of marriage. It disregarded how Jaime and Kevan both planned to set Cersei aside and had every reason to believe it was possible because they were men. All these are different facets of the same issue of the role of women in politics that’s anchored by Arianne, whose story is specifically and explicitly about institutional sexism. And it leaves all these moments that the Game of Thrones writers seemed to want to mean something feeling very hollow.

Brienne as Lord Commander of the Kingsguard was supposed to be a triumphant moment. Most of the criticism I’ve seen towards it has been about how it would have been more satisfying for her to be on Sansa’s Queensguard, but I think that also misses the point – either way, she’s committed to a life as a glorified bodyguard rather than taking on her own leadership role. There’s no character growth there. Sure, she was knighted and had her value acknowledged, but she’s still pledging her life for other people’s as from the moment we met her. She never had to face the same kind of challenges she did in the books, so she ended the story with the same beliefs as she started it with.

For Benioff and Weiss, no one mattered except the lead characters, and that leaves a much flatter story – the Dornish characters’ actual goals don’t matter, just how they can be vilified or turned into Dany’s sidekicks. Brienne’s conflicted feelings on what she wants out of life and longing for love don’t matter, she’s just there to support the Starks, even though the only Stark with whom she had more than a one sided relationship where she contributed for nothing in return was Catelyn. She had no relationship at all with Bran. Her relationship with Sansa was basically just one between an employer and an employee. So after Catelyn, the show’s dynamic between a sworn shield and the person they swore to protect became just…servitude. Nothing complicated or two sided. Which is again, something Arianne could contribute to expressing beautifully, because of how much more nuanced her relationship is with her sworn shield.

Daemon loves her. He’s sworn to protect her. But he also has his own shit going on, his own sense of right and wrong, and he is not a blind sidekick. His life is about more than just slavish devotion and pining. He’s allowed to have wants and needs of his own, which show Brienne is really never afforded. And he challenges Arianne, tells her things she doesn’t want to think about, has close relationships with her cousins – it’s not quite that their relationship is one of equals, because that’s overly simplistic, but they’re on the same level. She trusts him. She neither wants nor expects a voiceless protector, she wants an advisor, and that’s what he is.

So why is Arianne’s relationship with Daemon important to lending insight to Brienne’s position, you ask? Why not just actually express some more complexity in Brienne’s arc without it? Well…because she shares similariites with them both while also being in a very different position than either of them. Let’s start with Daemon. Daemon was very close to Oberyn, and is still close to Oberyn’s daughters. House Martell is extremely important to him, even outside of his relationship with Arianne. And he’s a bastard born to a father with trueborn children. So him swearing his sword to his princess…well, it makes a lot of sense for a man who has clearly been shown to make his own decisions. It’s an extremely respected vocation for someone that won’t inherit; it means that he has the ear of the most powerful people in his homeland; and it lets him be close to the woman he loves. Brienne, though, she’s her father’s heir. She has her own responsibilities that she will, at some point, have to return to. She swore herself to Renly, she swore herself to Catelyn, she’s practically killing herself trying to fulfil her oaths, and sooner or later, she’ll need to question whether she’s like Daemon or not. Whether being a bodyguard is really what she wants out of life. And if she decides no, the contrast between her and Daemon can make it clear just why that decision makes sense. Which in turn allows for contrasting her with another female heir – Arianne.

If Brienne’s story is in equal parts about womanhood and knighthood, Cersei’s story is about power and motherhood, Sansa and Arya’s stories are about growing up…Arianne’s is about family and choice. And those are themes that are present to a greater or lesser degree everywhere else in the story. And by ignoring how central Arianne is to those themes, we have many of the same events, but no themetic coherence linking them all together in a way that makes sense.

The scene where Cersei argues with Tywin about remarrying is in the show, and that version is phenomenal. I would never deny that. Lena Heady killed it. But it fell so flat compared to the books because of the lack of context – how Tywin considered marrying Cersei to a Greyjoy and shipping her off to the Iron Islands. How Brienne’s third betrothal was to a man thrice her age who told her outright he intended to beat her. How Lysa underwent a forced abortion and was married off to an old man. How one of the things Arianne takes as evidence of her father’s lack of love for her is the insulting suitors she’s offered – old men without teeth – and the way Doran actively refused offers from younger men. Arianne’s story is extremely explicit about all of this and why it matters! In the eyes of teenage Arianne, not only does Doran not want her to succeed him, he doesn’t want her to marry anyone powerful or important – refused to let her meet Edmure Tully and Willas Tyrell – or even that loves her – refused Daemon Sand her hand. She becomes the connective tissue between all these women facing marriages they don’t want. It’s not just cruel women or ugly women or weird women; it’s not just a consequence of a time of war. It’s misogyny, plain and simple.

An argument that I remember seeing for years before I started reading the books or watching the show was about who has it “worse”, feminine women or masculine women, especially through the lens of Sansa and Arya. And that’s just so reductive. It’s the gross argument that there’s a way for women to win, that misogyny only applies to some women, that others have it easier. That’s not true at all! And it relies on viewing “masculine” and “feminine” as two diametrically opposed things. In this case, I think the obvious non-Arianne example is, again, Brienne.

The show erased a lot about Brienne’s character, and the most important part, I think, is just how much of her story involves love and romance. Her loyalty is incredibly easy to win, to the point where all it takes is the slightest kindness. When it comes to what we know of her past, it’s pretty much all to do with romance – her failed betrothals, how she’d been in love with Renly from pretty much the moment they met, the people in Renly’s camp that courted her for a bet. We don’t know when she first picked up a sword or why. We barely know anything about the kind of man her father was other than what we can infer. But we know about her romantic history, because it’s that important. Even into the present, we see her relationship with a man that wants to marry her for her island and the way Jaime takes over from Renly in her thoughts, we see how her initial swearing herself to Renly had more to do with being in love with him than it did anything else. It’s not possible to remove the romantic element from her story. Her story is every bit as much about womanhood as it is knighthood. Arianne is the other side of that, just as she is the other side of Cersei. Where Brienne’s story revolves around romantic love, Arianne’s is about familial. Yes, she has love interests that matter to her, but they’re not nearly as important as Doran, Quentyn, the Sand Snakes, and that makes her just as important as Brienne in terms of preventing the story from splitting the women into “masculine” and “feminine” categories.

She’s the beautiful woman that wears silk and jewels that’s also very much a believer in dressing practically for whatever the task at hand is, wearing a veil to keep the sand out of her eyes and mouth. She’s not a fighter, but she knows the desert as well as Darkstar, keeps the knife gifted to her by her cousin in her boot, and is a skilled enough horsewoman to be able to vault onto her horse when she’s exhausted after a long day of hard riding. She’s the femme fatale that’s in complete control of that as a role she plays. She’s actively involved in wartime negotiations in a way that no woman has been since Catelyn. She’s both the former teen rebel and the dutiful daughter, loved by bastards and nobles alike. She’s vividly real, and she makes the story so much better through her presence.

In the released books, Arianne has two chapters from her point of view. That’s nothing! That’s fewer than Quentyn! I was talking to a friend pretty soon after I finished reading the books, and our conversation went to House Martell and the different roles the members of the family play in the overall story. It had been several years since she had last read them, and she was shocked to realize that Quentyn had more chapters from his perspective than Arianne. Arianne’s impact is so much that she feels so much bigger than she is. She’s so human that it’s hard to look away.

She’s logical and dutiful, but she often thinks with her heart instead of her head. She’s smart, but still has a lot to learn in terms of carrying out plans in a non-controlled environment. That combination of innate intelligence, knowledge, and experience makes her perspective completely unique in the story. No one, not one person, can fill that void, no matter how many similarities to her they have.

Take Cersei. Cersei isn’t stupid! She’s not. But she is kind of inept. She doesn’t pursue knowledge. She doesn’t try to learn more. She makes dumb decision after dumb decision because she acts without thinking; she doesn’t actually learn when they blow up in her face; and she doesn’t at all understand why, beyond run of the mill misogyny and her conviction that she’s smarter than everyone, people would prefer to have Tywin or Jaime in charge. That’s very different from how Arianne watches and waits and gathers information for as long as she possibly can before she does anything, how she’s politically savvy enough to understand why Lord Yronwood would prefer Quentyn as Prince of Dorne to her and wrap that into her understanding of the situation. Yes, Arianne reached the wrong conclusion. But it was a very understandable conclusion to draw from the information that she had. And because Arianne is the type of person taht’s actually capable of learning from her mistakes, experience is helping her make better decisions and better conclusions. She and Cersei are both smart, ambitious women with issues with their fathers, but Cersei could never make her redundant. That same thing holds true for every other character.

People are always talking about how smart Tyrion is, right? But the issue there is…he thinks he’s smarter than he is. He is incapable of keeping his mouth shut when it would be the smart choice. He has to have people know how smart he is. Arianne’s intelligence doesn’t stem from a classroom. It comes from observing and experiencing, erring and fixing it. What she does is provide insight on just about every other female character in the story. She adds depth to the narrative and fills in the gaps so that the themes are fully articulated, rather than just disconnected pieces of a motif. She’s who many of the younger women could one day grow up to be. She has Sansa’s femininity and compassion, demonstrating what an adult Sansa could be like. She has Arya’s frustrations with a father that doesn’t give her the same freedoms she knows other people have. She has Cersei’s ambition, but more kindness.

The show felt hollow at many points for many, many reasons. One of those reasons was the lack of Arianne Martell. She unapologetically takes up space. She doesn’t ever try to shift blame onto other people. She’s harder on herself than anyone else could ever be. And she forces everyone else to face the fact that she matters, that people from other houses and other parts of the continent are important. It’s not just the Starks, Targaryens, and Lannisters that are important; it’s not just characters that have been around since the first book. The themes that are supposedly expressed fall flat without her.

The Problem With Fanboys Running the Asylum and the Importance of Critical Nostalgia

I will absolutely never say that nostalgia is a bad thing. It’s a major part of why we continue to love things as we get older, even as our tastes evolve. It’s what leads us to revisit works we enjoyed as children and, if we’re lucky, get something new out of them. To an extent, it’s why a lot of us love superhero comics. It’s why those characters survive.

The problem arises when the nostalgia filter makes us blind to the flaws of a work in the past and closed off to any changes. It’s common in sci fi, and it’s common in comics. I’ve noticed that when start talking about when a piece of media was at its best, they’re often not talking about the original themes of a work. What they’re usually talking about is the way they remember it – often inaccurately – before someone decided to take a different approach or introduce new characters and concepts. They don’t want characters to develop because they prefer archetypes rather than actual characters with arcs.

These forms of media have become an echo chamber, filled with writers addressing people like themselves. It’s a vicious, endless cycle. A vocal minority of white male fans jealously guard something they consider theirs by right. They’re the root of a lot of backlash against anything that dares to be different. This includes – but is by no means limited to – new characters, new interpretations of old ones, and challenges to the status quo. It further propagates the idea that comics are for white men and alienates other people that would enjoy it and that could contribute to bettering the genre.

Star Trek

The Original Series is seemingly paradoxical. It’s mired in the 60s at the same time as it was ahead of its time. It defined modern science fiction and influenced countless other pieces of media at the same time as its fans were considered the geekiest of geeks. It was Fair For Its Day and still is adored for it, while also standing as an example of something out of date that should be adapted to better suit our more evolved society, and appreciating the show requires the modern viewer to remember the historical context of when it was made.

Yes, at times, Uhura was basically a glorified secretary and she didn’t get an official first name until long after the series first aired. Yes, all the women were wearing short skirts with most of them seeming only to be around to look pretty. Yes, Chekov was a bit of a caricature. But Uhura was – still is – an icon. She was a Lieutenant that repeatedly demonstrated her ability to man other posts besides her own. She was involved in what wasn’t the first interracial kiss on television, but certainly the most remembered. She inspired Mae Jemison, Whoopi Goldberg! The actresses wanted the miniskirts. They liked showing off their legs, and besides, the miniskirt was a trademark of that second wave feminism. According to George Takei, every Asian actor of the time was clamouring to play Sulu because he wasn’t a stereotype. There was no call for a heavy accent. He was a pilot, a botanist, a fencer – he was at heart, a Renaissance Man. Chekov wasn’t any kind of villain, he was there to appeal to teenage girls. The Original Series presented a black woman in a major role during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, a Japanese man twenty years after the US had stuck all Japanese people in internment camps, a Russian character that wasn’t a villain played by the son of Russian Jewish immigrants during the Cold War. It was imperfect – especially the treatment of women – but that doesn’t change the fact it was revolutionary.

I didn’t mind Star Trek (2009). I thought it was a decent movie. But, like others have pointed out, it felt like the work of someone that would have much preferred to be making a Star Wars movie – which, five years later, he’d be doing. I got the feeling that the people involved had a general understanding of the source material, a vague knowledge of what a Star Trek movie should be…but that knowledge is so coloured by the way Star Trek is perceived in popular culture, it didn’t feel authentic.

The macho womanizer Kirk was depicted as in the 2009 film, that he’s remembered as, really doesn’t have much basis in canon. In TOS, he was the balance between Spock’s logic and McCoy’s emotion. He wasn’t nearly as rash as some would have you believe. And the claims that he was a womanizer takes away a lot of the agency these women have. He was a charmer, and he flirted with a lot of women, but there really isn’t much canonical evidence for him having the degree of chauvinism required for him to be an actual womanizer. Kirk was attracted to smart, driven women that he usually developed genuine feelings for. I seem to recall an episode where a character mentioned that they tried to distract him from a class he taught by orchestrating a meeting between him and some technician that he wound up nearly marrying. He respected the women on his crew and fell in love easily. The idea that he just slept his way through the galaxy because every woman fell for him came more from people that wanted to live vicariously through him than the actual character.

In some ways, the 2009 movie is a step up from the misogyny of TOS. But it wasn’t done thoughtfully. Uhura got to do more than just answer the phones, which was great. Both Kirk and Spock were far more demonstrative of toxic masculinity in the 2009 movie than in TOS. Reboot Kirk was prone to violent confrontations and with much less respect for women. He got into a bar fight, ignoring Uhura when she told him to stop. He hid under Gaila’s bed while Uhura undressed. There was more focus on Spock’s anger at the claim he’d never lost his mother than on his grief for her passing. It felt as if J.J. Abrams had known enough to keep the Star Trek trappings…but not the soul.

To me, it felt like kind of a homogenization of Star Trek and Star Wars. Those stories are so different, trying to blend them together results in something utterly generic that doesn’t have what makes either of them good. Star Trek (2009) was missing something special. It was missing some of the heart. It lacked the social messages, the pacifist ideals, the recurring idea that we can build a better tomorrow. And in terms of the diversity themes…Society has caught up with Star Trek as it was when it first aired. As such, the alternate origin movies just aren’t the same kind of progressive. Sure, Uhura and Sulu are still there, and Uhura has a more important role than she did in The Original Series, but that’s no longer revolutionary. Chekov was still there – though Abrams saying they won’t recast after Anton Yelchin’s tragic death means he won’t be there in future movies – but without the real world backdrop of the Cold War, the fact that he’s Russian no longer means as much. Star Trek: Discovery is lacking in some departments – the core of idealism that is absolutely integral to the franchise doesn’t exist to nearly the same degree – but is doing more to further the diversity at the heart of Star Trek than the movies have.

The Original Series was, in part, about the wonder of the world. It painted an image of a future worth dreaming about, worth fighting for, worth building. I don’t see much of the point in making a Star Trek movie if you’re not a fan of that message. You can study it, delve deeper into it, deconstruct it…but if that kind of thing bores you, you should be making something else. Nostalgia matters a great deal when it comes to Star Trek. Star Trek Beyond managed to strike what I thought was a good balance between nostalgic respect for what Star Trek: The Original Series represented and making critical changes that updates the concepts to become better suited for today. It did a good job of translating the spirit of Star Trek. It stands as a pretty clear example of how future instalments in the franchise can honour that long legacy. To be true to what Star Trek has always represented, the Star Trek movies, books, and shows of today must keep pushing. They need to become more inclusive. They need to normalize diversity and push for a better tomorrow at the same time as they respect the core ideals of TOS. There’s no place for either creators who don’t respect the franchise history nor those that are determined to keep things precisely as they were in the 60s.

X-Men

We really, really need more diversity in comics. Like I said at the beginning, comics fans aren’t just white men, but that’s who comics are perceived to be for, because that’s who most of the writers are and to whom they’re talking. One of the consequences of that is how it results in a lot of characters that don’t appeal to that demographic being underused and poorly treated.

You can often get a pretty good idea of who a writer’s favourite characters are if you think about how old they are and what characters were popular around the time they were about ten. Nostalgia makes it a pretty safe bet that those characters will be treated well in the writer’s issues. A good character stands on their own without needing propping up. Fanboy writers, though, feel the need to completely disregard characters that aren’t their favourite in favour of trying to make their favourite look better. This can include writing characters they dislike badly in an attempt to make readers hate them, characters getting derailed to make the writer’s favourite look better, and more. The most obvious example of this I can think of is the eternal white boy favourite: Wolverine.

There’s something so…white dude about the fact that so many writers are determined to make Wolverine look better. Which is weird. Not all white dude characters lead to the same feeling of, oh, dear god, this is too much white male for one issue. Like, take, I don’t know, Colossus. He is white and he is a dude, but he doesn’t come across as nearly as much of a white dude as Wolverine does. That’s largely because Colossus is a genuinely good guy, not a designated hero who can only be viewed as a good guy because of major Protagonist Centred Morality. But Wolverine? Oh, boy.

When he’s written well – preferably in a more minor role – Wolverine is fine. He was fine back when he was first introduced and used as more of a Lancer, or just the guy whose impulsive running off and insistence upon doing things his way landed him in trouble that had to learn how to follow orders. The problem arose when people that read about him and thought he was cool when they were kids grew up and became writers themselves. Unfortunately, that’s most of today’s writers.

Because Logan is considered “cool”, he gets to be a huge hypocrite. He does any number of terrible things without facing consequences for them. He’s a self righteous jerk. And he’s straight up over exposed. Wolverine fans complain every time he demonstrates interesting flaws. So none of his myriad of character defects ever gets portrayed as a bad thing. He ends up winning every fight, even against opponents that should, by all logic, defeat him. He gets to lead teams and head the school despite his character being utterly unsuited for the job. He promptly forgets every lesson he’s ever learned. He very rarely has any lasting development. It’s incredibly irritating.

Beyond my issues with fanboys writing Wolverine, a lot of writers seem to be kind of missing the point of the X-Men – that or not really understanding the mutant metaphor, because again, most of them are white men. The introduction of the timeshifted original X-Men seems kind of like the result of writers longing for the version of Scott before all his years of character development, because that’s the version of the character they first got to know. That feels wrong to me on a visceral level. Scott becoming angrier and more driven to fight for a place for mutants is immensely relatable. He’s been told for years that what he has to do is play respectability politics and show repeatedly that he means humans no harm, only to learn from hard experience that that doesn’t work.

Nostalgia is all well and good. Longing for that more innocent version of the character is understandable. But to suggest that it would be better for Scott to go back to that version of himself is an affront to all those people that see themselves in the X-Men and in Scott’s growing cynicism and persistent idealism.

DC

Infinite Crisis is pretty much my favourite crisis story. And mostly, that’s for shallow reasons – Dick Grayson is pretty much my all time favourite comic book character; his relationship with Bruce is amazing; and the “what about Dick Grayson?” scene where Bruce is on the verge of giving up but believes that any universe with his son in it is worth fighting for and where thinking about how good a man Dick is makes Earth-1 Superman question what he’s doing is one of my favourite scenes ever. But it’s also for a deeper reason, and that’s that it’s critical of looking at things through the nostalgia filter. It’s critical of the idea that the Golden Age was fundamentally better. Which is why I find it all the stranger that it was written by Geoff Johns. Johns weirds me out, because he stands both as an example of the positive and negative aspects of nostalgia. That results in some of his stuff really working, and others…not.

The Good: respect for the past and existing characters, like the importance of Dick Grayson and Barry Allen, without denigrating them to make newer creations look better; creating some great characters, like Kate Kane and Jessica Cruz.

The Bad: his sense of nostalgia and love for old characters resulted in him doing dumb things, like erasing legacy characters for the sake of bringing back his old favourites and, well…Justice League. I think that movie shows off the flaws in his approach pretty well.

Geoff Johns is, in a sense, the opposite of Grant Morrison. As I said in this post, Morrison is completely unafraid of making big changes, regardless of how far from convention they be. His Batman and Robin took place without Bruce, the character that even people like me, who loved Dick as Batman, recognize as The BatmanTM. He introduces new characters and concepts, blows up the status quo. He makes his own world without ever looking back. And while that sometimes works, it sometimes really doesn’t. Everyone draws the line somewhere different, and for me, Morrison crosses it – he doesn’t have as much respect for the work of others even as he operates under the idea that everything that’s ever happened is in continuity. Johns, on the other hand, goes back to what’s familiar, when concerning characters he didn’t create. To what’s safe. Is that necessarily a bad thing? No, of course not. There’s a reason there’s so much love for his Green Lantern, his Aquaman. He likes the classics and is very much a fan. But his love for the classics involves doing things like kicking Wally West out of continuity to bring back Barry Allen, who at that point hadn’t been the Flash for over two decades.

This is similar to what happened with Cassandra Cain, Bruce Wayne’s only daughter and the second Batgirl. The New 52 erased her, a move comics still haven’t fully reversed. While Cass exists again, and while she’s loosely affiliated with the the Bats, she’s not a member of the family in the same sense as she used to be. She’s not being used as one of Bruce’s children, which was made painstakingly obvious by the fact she – like Tim, actually – didn’t get an issue of her facing off against a member of the Batman Rogues Gallery during Prelude to the Wedding. Her identity just rubs salt in the wound, because it wasn’t enough to strip her of her Black Bat mantle, wasn’t enough to make her the only member of the family without a bird or bat motif in either her code name or costume. No, they had to rename her Orphan. That’s adding insult to injury – before the New 52, she was happily adopted with a family that loved her.

While I can’t be certain as to why Cass and Steph were temporarily removed from continuity, the only reason I can think of is that it was about making it easier to return Barbara to the Batgirl mantle. In that one fell swoop, the writers took away the only Asian member of the Batfamily and one of the most popular disabled characters in all of comics. Which…thanks, I hate it. Barbara has outgrown Batgirl, but the writers are so nostalgic and change-averse, they don’t want to believe it. They don’t care about the close to thirty years she’s spent as Oracle and all the character development since her paralysis. They just immediately associate Batgirl with Barbara and because of that, are willing to toss aside years of content to go back to that without regard for what it’ll say to the readers. It’s unthinking nostalgia that does nothing to better the genre.


Works are best when they both respect the past and look to the future. Writers in shared mediums need to hold on to some level of nostalgia and respect the worlds built by others, but they can’t let it hold them back from trying new things and pushing boundaries. I want all writers in these mediums are fans – I just hope they aren’t fanboys about it, unable to let go of what they love for long enough to make changes.

The Women In ‘Gotham’ Deserve Better

I adore Gotham. I really do. But the way the women are treated bothers me.

I’m not opposed to bad things happening to female characters. Really, I’m not. Not if bad things are happening equally to the male characters. I support equal opportunity suffering. And to an extent, Gotham has that. It’s not that the characters dying are only women. Plenty of bad things have happened to the male characters. Arguably, some of the most uniquely degrading scenes have been involving men. Ed spent months frozen in a block of ice as the centrepiece for Penguin’s club, I mean, damn. And with revenge, it’s often an eye for an eye. Tabitha killed Oswald’s mother. Oswald retaliated by killing Butch. One woman, one man. But the women usually have significantly worse writing. Butch got shot after four seasons of development because Penguin wanted revenge on Tabitha for killing his mother, who had no development. Kristen and Isabella were shoved in the fridge for Ed’s character development into a villain. The sexualization of Ivy has been creepy and gross. Alice Tetch was only around for about two episodes, after which her blood played a more important role in the plot than she herself did. Valerie got shot because Gordon loved Lee. It’s not about them outside of their relationships with male characters.

Isabella’s few episodes were some of the worst writing Gotham has ever had. Gotham‘s primary strength has never been good writing – the  writing is usually decent, and at points, excellent, but what makes it stand out isn’t a clever script so much as good performances, gorgeous settings and visuals, just how much it commits to the “love child of the Nolan and Burton movies” aesthetic. But Isabella’s episodes? Just some random woman that liked riddles, happened to look exactly like Ed’s dead girlfriend, and didn’t pay attention to the news enough to know who the guy she was seeing was? It was sloppy. She existed for the sole purpose of driving a wedge between Ed and Oswald.

A similar point can be made about Valerie. Her whole storyline was basically being Jim’s rebound girl that helped him investigate a case, and it culminated in her never showing up again after Jim got her shot. She deserved a whole lot better than that. It would have been bad no matter how else they wrote it, but had they instead gone the route of it not being about Gordon preferring her to get shot because he loved Lee but because Lee is a doctor that could keep her alive until the ambulance got there, it would have felt way less sexist (Not really, because Mario was also a doctor and locked in the bathroom, but still). The way it actually went, it felt like the show was saying that neither she nor Lee really mattered as a character outside of Gordon’s interest in them.

Lee was once the heart of the show – she wasn’t the main character, and one could even make the case she was a minor one, but she was the conscience. That went off the rails in seasons three and four, especially once she teamed up with Nygma. And don’t get me wrong – I love vastly unhealthy relationships in fiction. Relationships featuring characters that are an absolute toxic trainwreck together can be enormously entertaining. But I don’t think that’s quite what Lee and the Riddler were, and that’s because their negative history wasn’t mentioned at all while they were together.

Season four was something like Lee’s rebel phase. Gordon had his in the first half of season three, when he quit the GCPD to be a bounty hunter/private investigator and spent most of his time getting drunk. Lee spends season four trying to figure out what the hell she wants out of life and trying to atone for what she did after Mario’s death. From that perspective, it makes sense that she’d do things like get involved with a murderous supervillain.

Lee and Ed could actually be interesting. She’s gotten darker, what with everything that happened with her soap opera relationships – between dating and breaking up with Gordon, her miscarriage, marrying a Tetch virus infected Mario, her ex killing her new husband, infecting herself with the virus, and her sister in law bashing her hand in with a hammer, she’s had a really rough few seasons. And after Ed got off ice, we saw glimpses of the person he used to be – the person Lee once considered a friend. I’ve seen a lot of people say that Lee would never forgive Nygma after everything he did to her, and I get that, but I also think that after her experience with the virus, she would try to see the good in him. Instead, their relationship involved a lot of focusing on how Lee “likes danger”. Their whole thing in the season four finale was weird. And Lee’s reasoning for stabbing him, while not invalid, had nothing to do with all the ways Ed had screwed up her life, just that he has a history of killing people and she didn’t want to be on that list?

Most of Lee’s season four story arc could have happened without the romantic element to her and Nygma’s relationship, or even if said romantic element got introduced more slowly. That would have given it a very different connotation and put them on equal footing. It would have probably ended in a pretty similar way – Gotham has established itself as very much an Elseworlds take on the Batman mythos, but traditional canon is still the best guide, so a Lee Ed relationship, whether romantic or platonic, would probably end with her on the side of justice and Batman, and him as a super villain no matter what. But as it was, it felt kind of like Isabella did – more about him than her and about driving a wedge between him and Penguin than developing her. Lee deserves more than that. She deserves a storyline of her own, one that isn’t tied to a male character.

Sofia could have been a clear way to do that. It would have been a callback to season one and the crime drama roots of the show. But her and Lee’s conflict only lasted a couple episodes. Lee did get to shoot her, but it falls kind of flat compared to the seasons long revenge plots other characters get. Sofia herself didn’t get to be nearly as competent a villain as she should have been. Yes, she managed to meteoric rise to power and gained control of the underworld faster than any other character, but her rise and fall took place over the span of like five episodes because while she was cunning enough to gain power, she was also dumb enough to piss off everyone in the city while doing so.

I think Selina, ironically enough, is the female character whose storylines have been the least dependent on a male character. That is, until the last few episodes of season four. Season four is my favourite season. Every episode has been great. I’ve seen people calling it messy, and I’m just…what? And I thought the last couple episodes were especially good. But I’m really not a fan of the “she might not walk again” thing.

I hate The Killing Joke on principle. I always have. I thought it was gross and sexist and involved treating Barbara as an extension of the male characters in her life instead of as her own person. But I have mixed feelings about it when I think about it more. It’s because of The Killing Joke that we got Barbara as Oracle, but that was never the intention of the story. The story wasn’t about her. If it had been, if it had been intended as Barbara’s Oracle story, then yeah, I’d have liked it a lot more. But it wasn’t. And I think that using that story is even grosser when it’s not about Barbara.

I’m confident Selina is going to make a miraculous recovery, despite the fact the doctor told Bruce she wouldn’t walk again, because she’s the future Catwoman, not Oracle. Gotham may make a lot of changes to the mythos, but I very much doubt they’d go the Selina as Oracle route. I’d be pretty upset if they did, actually – I like what if stories where different characters become different heroes, but the thing about those is there has to be work put into it. A change in circumstance, a new character in their life, something. That’s not the case with Gotham. For the past four seasons, Selina’s clearly been building to becoming Catwoman. Living on the streets, becoming a better thief, learning to use a whip. Her becoming Oracle just because she was shot? That would just be bad writing.

While the Gotham writers aren’t above an occasional cop out or avoiding consequences, they’re certainly better than to not give a character an actual arc. Especially if they want it to be believable that said character takes on a different role than they do in the comics. Meaning this story – Selina getting shot, her and Alfred leaving Gotham while Bruce stays behind – wouldn’t even serve that purpose of giving her a hero origin story. It would just be hurting her for the sake of Bruce’s angst. Or not even that, really, with what we’ve seen so far – hurting her to get her out of the way of the story. It would be pointless. It would have been one thing if she just got shot. But they just had to reiterate the fact that she may never walk again. Yeah, that was probably just a mythology gag, but seeing as it’s almost certain that she will, it just comes across as pain for pain’s sake.

I loved the last two episodes of season four. I thought they were gorgeously done. But they don’t exist in a vacuum, and when considered alongside the rest of the show, they drive home the point that Gotham doesn’t treat its female characters very well. I adore the show, I know I’m in for a good time every time I sit down to watch, but I would really appreciate the women getting a bit more agency.

The Importance of ‘Nancy Drew’

The Nancy Drew franchise has lasted decades. There have been countless books in a variety of different series, including a spinoff series about her as a kid. There’s been movies and video games and a TV show. Nancy is an icon, and I thought it would be interesting to discuss why that is.

I know a lot of girls who had a Nancy Drew phase. I didn’t exactly have that, because I kind of skipped over the children’s book section. I read a lot as a kid. I’ve always been a fast reader, and when I was younger, I had a lot more time to do it. I recall being given a boxed set of the books – I think 1 through 55, or something like that – and I blew through them in a week or two. I’d maybe read another on occasion, but for the most part, my “phase” lasted all of about two weeks. I never had a period of time where that was all I was obsessed with. That’s not the kind of book Nancy Drew is. The series doesn’t lend itself to an obsession. Maybe in the, rush to get every book you can get sense, but not in the need to gush with someone about them way. They don’t have interesting and well developed characters. They don’t have deeply emotional scenes. They aren’t where you go if you’re looking for well crafted prose. They’re formulaic. They’re essentially airport novels for kids.

People love series – you don’t have to think about what to read next, you just go down the list. Nancy Drew is one of those long runners people read to take up time, not necessarily because they’re good – even though it does have many devoted readers. But they stuck with me all the same, and that’s because of Nancy and what she represents.

The series resonated and appealed to girls since its conception because it was aspirational. Nancy was eighteen and never had to answer to anybody. She was a female character getting to have adventures with the romantic aspect of it barely even an afterthought. Ned – and the random other guys from when Ned wasn’t around – was her sidekick. Nancy casually dated throughout the series and that was never portrayed as something she shouldn’t do. She and Ned went out a lot, but there wasn’t any kind of commitment. The books were all about her and what she wanted to do.

She always seemed much older when I was reading the books. How could she not? Nancy at eighteen had fewer responsibilities and more freedom than I do now. She was out of school. She was independent, with a level of independence and autonomy kids dream adulthood will bring. Maybe it didn’t make much sense. She was a high school graduate and an amateur detective that never went to college or got a job or even got paid for the cases she solved. We never saw her learning a lot of the skills she had, but she always conveniently could solve every problem. She never cooked or cleaned or paid bills. Her housekeeper did the first two and her father the third. She seemed to just live off her father’s money.

When you read a Nancy Drew book, what you see is what you get. No matter how many times you read it, you won’t find new layers. They’re tailored for children and in a way that means you won’t get much – if anything – new out of it as an adult. Nancy Drew is a character that people grow up past. That’s not necessarily bad – the books have a specific purpose and they fill a specific niche – it just is. She’s a static character. The Nancy in the last book of the original run is the exact same as that in the first. That’s why people always outgrow her. But despite that, you’re not going to find many women out there that say, “oh, Nancy Drew is stupid and childish, kids should be reading better books” the same way people do about a lot of kids’ books. That’s because Nancy isn’t a character so much as she is a cultural icon.

She was a smart, tough woman that rescued herself, and maybe the versions of the books updated in the 50s or 60s washed some of that out and rendered her a more sweet, polite, milquetoast sort of person, they couldn’t erase it completely, because the very premise of the series is a competent woman that can solve crimes better than all the police detectives around. She has a place in history. Generations of girls have read about her and been inspired by her. She’s probably not a character that got many people into reading in the first place. She certainly wasn’t that for me. But at the time of her creation, she was revolutionary. She’s no longer unique, which is great. Modern children’s fiction has a lot more capable and independent female protagonists, many of whom are better written than Nancy ever was. But Nancy was a crucial step in the development of strong female characters in popular fiction, and one of the reasons we can now so easily criticize the idea of a Strong Female CharacterTM by pointing out that being able to do stuff isn’t the same as being a good character – partially because of Nancy, we now have an abundance of capable women, and now the goal is to make them more interesting. She’s not as necessary as she once was, but forgetting her would be like forgetting Anne Shirley, Jo March, or Hester Prynne.

There’s a lot of discussion to be had about the original versions vs the updated, the first run vs the later books and series, like how the original versions of the books were filled with unfortunate stereotypes about people of colour, and the updated versions “fixed” that by just removing all PoC completely, or the previously mentioned shift into sweeter, more accommodating, and less independent territory,  or how Bess and George are usually just portrayed as complete stereotypes rather than characters in their own right. None of that changes the fact that Nancy still matters. Maybe her books aren’t what we want now, and she isn’t the heroine that interests us, but for a long time, she was what we needed.