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THE LEFTOVERS: The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)

The Leftovers, Kevin Garvey standing in white suit in front of portrait of himself

“This isn’t my first visit to the other side of the world. Each time I’m here, it gets harder and harder to leave.” — Pres. Kevin Garvey, The Leftovers

“Of course this is all happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it isn’t real?” — Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

“Everything is… just comes together.” — Aron Ralston, 127 Hours

The penultimate episode to the fantastic and under-appreciated series, The Leftovers, was the most enlightening, explanatory episode of all three seasons (which is no small feat, considering the majority of it follows Kevin through the world of the dead). It also is, quite possibly, the most explanation we may ever get about anything. Take the Departure, the event the series is born from: 2% of the population of Earth suddenly disappears one day. What the foop?! (As Titus Andronmedon would say.) But the series has never really been about where those people went, but about those left behind. How do you cope with an event that no one will ever be able to understand? How do you live with just never knowing why? I don’t think we can expect answers to those questions. And, honestly, I don’t really want them–I feel certain that any explanation would be an underwhelming disappointment.

Co-creator of the show, Damon Lindelof, is no stranger to the grand themes explored in The Leftovers, nor to a show that presents mysteries with clearly no intention of ever solving them. This show has so many echoes of his other series, LOST, that it captures both what was great and what was completely infuriating about that series.

But those themes lend themselves quite well to this story, based (kind of loosely) off of a book by the same name, by author (and series co-creator) Tom Perrotta. The show’s protagonists grapple with faith, existentialism, belief, higher purpose….all with a kinda-maybe-sorta mystical science-fiction thing going on. Is the show going to explain how Kevin can die and come back to life? Apparently not. Does this mean that Kevin is important at all? Maybe not. Do random occurrences just happen, with no meaning behind them whatsoever? Probably. Is that infuriating to learn at the end of the series, once you have already theorized online with other people and have a million questions? KIND OF.

Like LOSTThe Leftovers has relied on creating intriguing mysteries that, ultimately, really have nothing at all to do with the story. LOST never told us what the Island was. It led us on a series-long path to the god-like character of Jacob, only to take him away almost immediately and show how little he mattered to the whole story. But a show filled with characters who have faith in something that maybe isn’t there is a compelling story to tell. It’s just, when Lindelof tells it, you have to wait until the very end to learn that all of those questions you have? Yeah, they don’t have answers. They’re simply catalysts. Like I said…infuriating. 

But he does it so damn well.

The choice of faith.

The Leftovers, Matt Jamison

The Leftovers has presented a dichotomy between choosing to believe in a higher purpose, or choosing to believe in nothing at all. We turn to faith for answers about the world, or we see the events of the world as a random occurrence, and we react accordingly. Following the Departure, Pastor Matt believes even more than he ever did before that he is God’s instrument. Whereas Kevin’s ex-wife, Laurie, joins the Guilty Remnant cult, where they believe that nothing matters at all. Matt searches for a reason for the Departure. The Guilty Remnant sees no reason in anything, including being alive.

Nora, whose entire family departed, works for the Department of Sudden Departure, an agency investigating whether there are any links between the people who departed, in order to find any kind of explanation whatsoever. Her job is to visit the homes of people whose loved ones Departed and ask them a series of questions from a questionnaire. She asks questions as seemingly inconsequential as, “To your knowledge, did the departed have any food allergies,” or, “To your knowledge, did the departed enjoy cooking;” questions that suggest a scientific approach, “To your knowledge, did the departed regularly use aerosol hairspray and or deodorant;” and questions that insinuate that a higher power may have had a hand in this, “To your knowledge, did the departed ever attempt suicide,” or, “in your opinion, was the departed a charitable person?”

Nora leans in to her pain. In season one, she puts on a bullet proof vest and regularly hires hookers to shoot her in the chest. And while she investigates fraud following the Departure (people who claim they have some sort of answer), she also participates in it (hugging Holy Wayne of season one, and now entering a machine in season three that claims to Depart people using radiation). But she also only wants to believe it. She’s furious at the world–her job in the Department of Sudden Departure demonstrates how hell-bent she is on exposing fraud, and how offended she is that anyone would try and capitalize on her pain, which she clearly believes she has more of than anyone else.

There is simply too much about this show to unpack in one essay. And this particular essay is about the episode, “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother).” Like I said, this episode provided answers. For three seasons, we’ve been following Kevin Garvey through his seeming psychosis, consistently speaking with a dead person tethered to him (the inimitable Anne Dowd, as Patti Levin, the leader of the Guilty Remnant). Through Kevin’s character arc, we are exposed to many of the mysteries of the show. In season one, we see him black out for long periods of time, not knowing what happened to him, and not knowing what is and isn’t real. In season two, we see him take increasingly more dangerous measures to rid himself of the dead Patti, culminating in his death and rebirth. And in season three, we see a Kevin who seems to have it together on the outside, but is also duct-taping a bag to his head when he’s alone in his bedroom.

And we see him come to the conviction that he has a Messiah-like purpose; a mission, a reason.

“Why does it matter?”

And that’s where we open in “The Most Powerful Man in the World.” Kevin, who told Laurie an episode earlier, that he had never felt more alive than when he had died the last time, is convinced he must drown, return to the other world he visited to rid himself of Patti in season two, and learn a song that will stop a flood that may or may not be coming to destroy the world. Kevin feels a sense of importance, ready to drown with a series of tasks that he goes over before submerging–find Evie and tell her she was loved (the message from John), find Faith’s children and ask them where their shoes went when they died, and most importantly, find Christopher Sunday, the aboriginal Kevin Sr. sought out, and learn the song that will stop the rain. And so, with these missions and a staunch dedication to a purpose he believes he has, Kevin allows himself to be drowned.

And now we’re seeing a sequel, of sorts, to the season two episode in which Kevin dies the first time, “International Assassin.” Post-death, he emerges from the ocean on a secluded beach in Australia. Once again, no clothes (which we’re all okay with). Immediately, a Russian man tries to kill him. He is saved by, lo and behold, good-old dog-killer Dean, who takes him to a hut a ways down the beach and gives him his assignment–he must assassinate the President of the United States. But first, he must destroy all reflective surfaces, as that is how “they found him” at all to begin with (“they” being the enemy we haven’t been introduced to yet). Shoving an earpiece in Kevin’s ear, we hear the voice of “God,” AKA David Burton, the man mauled by a lion two episodes prior to this, and the man who met Kevin on the afterlife bridge right before he pushed Patti into the well.

The Leftovers, David Burton talking to Kevin on bridge

And guess what? We finally learn what he whispered in Kevin’s ear on that bridge! He whispered, “You’re the most powerful man in the world.” You’ll also remember that he told Kevin on that bridge that what was happening was more real than Kevin even knew. This is an important piece of the puzzle.

There’s also a typewriter in the room with him, where Kevin is apparently writing a romance novel. Dean reads out loud the line, “He stood on the bow of The Merciful. The water endlessly stretching to the infinite horizon as he contemplated the impossible distance between them but he would not stop until he found her.” More on this later.

Kevin notices a scar on his chest as he is informed that his target is getting ready to launch a nuclear attack that will destroy the world, and he must put a stop to it. But Kevin demands something in exchange–he needs to talk to Evie, Faith’s children, and Christopher Sunday, who is the Prime Minister of Australia in this world. Cue God in Kevin’s earpiece: Look into the shard of the mirror that Dean smashed.

Kevin does, and we cut to a clean-shaven Kevin, standing at a podium in a white suit, addressing a cheering crowd. With teleprompters feeding him a speech, Kevin realizes that he is the President, and that he speaks on behalf of The Guilty Remnant. And there, in the front row, are Faith’s children, dressed in white, ready to perform a skit they prepared on the futility and pointlessness of the family. None of them are wearing shoes.

So Kevin, ready to accomplish his first important mission, asks them why they aren’t wearing shoes. And one of the children, a boy, responds, “Why does it matter?” And because in this world, Faith’s kids are in the Guilty Remnant, nothing matters, especially a family member who wanted to know. Here is the first crack in Kevin’s belief that he is important–his first mission doesn’t have a reason. Or an answer.

Time for crack two.

“That was just a pickup line.”

Evie appears in the crowd, in a red shirt that says, “I remember.” She is singing Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together,” into a megaphone. As Kevin is whisked away by secret service, he ensures Evie gets in the car with him, so he can complete his second important mission. He tells Evie that her father wanted her to know that she was loved. But in this world, Evie’s entire family was blown up by the Guilty Remnant, not the other way around. She doesn’t know what the hell Kevin is talking about. There is no closure here, no meaning behind Kevin’s delivering of her message, no point to the Evie mission. On to crack three.

Kevin begins to throw up water, and is briefly pulled back into the world of the living, as the ranch is flooding. He lets John know that he delivered his message to Evie (but leaves out the part where it didn’t mean anything). He also tells Faith that her kids had no answer about their shoes (but leaves out the part where they don’t care about family at all). As Kevin is carried inside, John and Michael start to question whether they’re taking this too far. Kevin Sr. locks them all out of the bathroom, fills the tub, and drowns his son.

And it’s back to the world of the dead, with Kevin as President. The secret service takes Kevin to a secret bunker that only he can access. Unless, of course, he has “an identical twin brother, which would be ridiculous,” as his chief of staff quips. Haha. Kevin knows he’s the assassin that is coming to kill himself, the President.

In order to enter the bunker, Kevin has to have his face scanned, and his penis scanned (more on that later), and he has to answer three security questions, the final one being, “Who is your Secretary of Defense?” Kevin thinks. He chooses here. He names…”Patti Levin.”

The Leftovers, Patti Levin

Enter: Patti Levin. Dressed in her white Guilty Remnant garb, the politician that she was in “International Assassin.” She informs Kevin of the mission that he is to carry out: He needs to launch a nuclear missile at Russia, who will retaliate with a nuke of their own, and then that will be the end of the world. Patti says that this is the ultimate purpose of the Guilty Remnant: “We give the people what they’re too chicken-shit to do themselves, what they elected us for. We give them what they want. And they want to die.”

BUT before any of this Armageddon can go down, they will need to follow what is called, “The Fisher Protocol,” an ethical deterrent where the nuclear launch key was surgically embedded into the heart of a volunteer, so the President has to murder that volunteer himself in order to launch the nuke. We learn this because the Vice President arrives to tell us, and it is Liv Tyler’s Meg, the one who inherited the Guilty Remnant from Patti and who, I think we can all agree, was a total bitch. And whose heart is the key in? Someone who discovered a scar on his chest in a hut on the beach. And he’s 15 minutes away!

Kevin looks at his reflection in Patti’s glasses and we’re back to International Assassin Kevin, who passes the security measures with flying colors, being identical in every way to himself.

Turns out, Meg is on Kevin (and God’s) side; she’s here to help. She tells Kevin that she is in love with the most wonderful man, and that man is…God. Kevin then shoots Meg, killing her. God, on his earpiece, asked what the noise was. Kevin says that he should know, if he’s God. David Burton replies, “That was just a pick up line.” While it seemed pretty clear that David Burton wasn’t really God, it’s nice to have this overt confirmation that he is a fraud. Kevin then removes his earpiece and destroys it; no Meg and no “God”–now he’s on his own.

Kevin is now hell-bent on finishing mission three (this one HAS to be important, right?): talking to Christopher Sunday, who is the Prime Minister of Australia here, remember. He video chats Sunday, who is aware that they are dead. International Assassin Kevin tells Christopher that he needs to learn the song. Christopher informs him that he already told Kevin’s father that his song brings the rain, it won’t stop a flood. Furthermore, he asks Kevin if he truly believes that his father can sing a song that will stop a flood coming to destroy the world. And you know what? Kevin actually doesn’t believe that. Crack three. Chicka-plao! (Just gotta throw in a Hamilton reference there, sorry not sorry.)

So, if Kevin isn’t here to tell Evie she was loved, or learn from Faith’s kids where their shoes are, and if he absolutely isn’t here to learn a song then, as Christopher Sunday asks Kevin: why is he here? At this point, Kevin is attacked by security. He looks at himself in the computer screen and now he’s back as Kevin the President, with Patti pressuring him to launch the nuclear missiles. But Kevin says all he wants to do is go home, to which Patti replies, “Do you? Because you keep coming back here.” And now here is the crux of the episode: Why is Kevin back here? What does he really want?

The bow of The Merciful

Enter International Assassin Kevin, brought in as a prisoner with a bag on his head. Sitting at opposite ends of the table, the two Kevin’s finally come face-to-face.

Both Kevin’s say they don’t want anything to do with the removal of the key. Patti pulls out Kevin’s untitled romance novel, a page of which was on the typewriter back at the hut on the beach. Both Kevin’s insist they didn’t write it, but Patti suggests that both of them wrote it. As Kevin reads aloud the last page, he begins to cry. The ending of his book has Kevin on a ship, alone, sailing and thinking of a woman he lost, who he drove away. It is filled with tragedy, and doubt, and fear. And it ends with the woman being alone, far away from Kevin, and because she is far from him, all is well. Kevin finishes reading and stands up and says, through tears, “Take the thing out of me… so we can’t ever come back here ever again.”

So President Kevin cuts himself, International Assassin Kevin, open, and digs around in his heart until he extracts the key. And the International Assassin bleeds out and dies, but not before telling Kevin, “We fucked up with Nora.” Kevin takes the key, launches the missiles, and stands hand-in-hand with Patti as they watch them fly across the sky.

The world ends.

The Leftovers, Kevin and Patti hold hands look at missiles in sky

Kevin wakes up back in the world of the living, covered in a sheet, outside on the church that was being built on Faith’s farm. He is calm. His agony seems to have dissipated. John and Michael are asleep and his father is on the roof of the house (which harkens back to the opening scene of the season, where we see a woman in a cult continue to stand on top of her house, awaiting God, and God continues to never show up). Kevin Sr. tells Kevin Jr. that he thought that he had lost him (it seems they had covered him in the sheet believing he wouldn’t be coming back to life this time around). And that now he doesn’t know what to do. “Now what?” he asks. And Kevin smiles, a face of hope.

“Now what?”

In this episode, we have here a group of characters who believe they are working towards a higher purpose, only for them to discover that they are not. A tale as old as time, when you consider the cult woman on the roof all those years ago. Kevin, especially, believes he is important on a grand scale. And can you blame him? He did die and come back to life, after all. David Burton told him that he was the most powerful man in the world; he told him that all of it was real even when Kevin doubted it.

At this point, there is no disputing that Kevin has died and come back to life. He’s done it four times. But the things Kevin encounters on the other side are simply versions of things Kevin has already experienced, in the world of the living. The people on the other side are people Kevin knows or has met–Patti, Meg, Dean, David Burton. They are just playing different roles than their living roles. This other side is a Kevin-specific other side. And Kevin chose his role. The first time Kevin dies, when he emerges naked from the tub in the hotel room in “International Assassin” and opens his closet to grab clothes, a note tells him,

“Know, first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.”


Kevin passed over his police uniform, which was also hanging in the closet, and donned a suit. He chose International Assassin. Which means Kevin sees himself as some harbinger of justice, revenge. He’s powerful, skilled. James Bond. And when he returns to the other side in “The Most Powerful Man in the World,” he is the International Assassin again, and the President of the United States. Double power and importance!

One by one, Kevin’s belief in his importance and his higher purpose is systematically torn down. As Faith’s son says to him, “Why does it matter?” It doesn’t. Kevin is not as important as he thinks he is. The whole thing where he has to pull out his penis and have it scanned to get into the bunker? What a display of ego! Every part of this world puts Kevin at the center of his own greatness, his superior skills, his savior-complex.

But maybe there is nothing important about Kevin. When David Burton told Matt that he was God, he also said that nothing mattered, and he didn’t even care about Matt, who spent his life trying to get God’s attention. Why is Meg the Vice President in Kevin’s dead world? Why does it matter? Why is Evie’s whole family dead from a bomb? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean anything. Even Kevin doesn’t believe that a song his father sings will stop a flood. Why is it that Kevin can die and come back to life? It doesn’t matter! He’s not the only one able to do so–David Burton has done it several times as well, and Evie’s grandfather. Who knows why. But he’s not special.

Kevin’s death trips to the other side have served one purpose and one purpose only: For Kevin to rid himself of something. He died and released himself from Patti’s hold on his life. And then as President, he brings her back to help him release the part of himself that feels guilt and fear, that pushes other people away, that can’t be satisfied, that sails off on The Merciful in the end of his romance novel, without Nora. He tears that man’s heart out, he takes the key, and he blows up the whole goddamn world to make sure that part of him is gone forever.

The Leftovers, Kevin and young Patti at well

And now, Kevin seems to finally be at peace. He destroyed the world that allowed him to die and come back to life; he doesn’t need it anymore. But Kevin Sr. isn’t ready to let go yet, he’s not ready to come down from the roof yet, to accept that he has no grand purpose. Kevin Sr. asks, “Now what?”

Next week, we’ll find out. Or not, it’s Damon Lindelof so who knows. But I think what we should all prepare for, just in case, is the show’s Departure, of sorts: How do you cope with an event that no one will ever be able to understand? How do you live with just never knowing why? Because that might be what The Leftovers leaves us with–questions with absolutely no answers. Adorn yourself accordingly.


#TBT Completely Valid and Legitimate Ramblings about ‘The Bachelor’ (from 2 years ago)

It’s been a long time since I posted and I very much want to get back into writing about things. So I’m sharing with you thoughts on The Bachelor that I posted to Facebook on this day 2 years ago. Remember the season with Juan Pablo? Yeah, me either. Timehop had to remind me.

February 26, 2014


Douchebag alert, douchebag alert.

You should know that I only watch The Bachelor during Fantasy Suite episodes and for purely sociological reasons. I’m being serious when I say I don’t watch for entertainment value (though I’m not proud to admit that I do laugh at it). I don’t like the way it portrays women, nor glorifies a man who is a self-important douche, and I understand even less how all of the women proclaim to “fall in love” with him. Most of all, I just do not understand how this show happens. Last night, one of the women was a pediatric nurse, and the other an assistant district attorney. These are intelligent women, with a lot going for them.

The Fantasy Suite episodes are the most fascinating of all though because it’s the episode where each woman in turn gets to publicly decide whether or not she’ll have sex with the guy by spending a night in the “Fantasy Suite.” I was appalled last night that all three women chose to have sex with Juan Pablo (single most ridiculous Bachelor name ever) after the conversations they had with him. Every time one of the women would try and talk to Juan Pablo, he would say, “You’re doing a lot of thinking tonight,” and then start to kiss them. (Because thinking would definitely lead to the obvious conclusion that Juan Pablo’s a piece of shit, and he can’t have that.)

One woman said, “I’m in love with you” and when he said nothing back, she quickly said, “I understand that you can’t say anything right now!” and started kissing him before deciding that, yes, she would go to the Fantasy Suite with him. The self-consciousness it must take to be on this show. The fear of rejection so vast that she would rather end all conversation and have sex with the man, than maybe hear that he doesn’t love her. It’s delusional and it’s sad and I think it’s how many women in America approach and react to love, or the desire to be loved.

Another woman said, “I’m in love with you,” and Juan Pablo said, “I didn’t know that. I… you. Like……” and then kissed her and then SHE had sex with him. These women delude themselves into thinking they are in some kind of relationship with an emotionally unavailable man who wouldn’t even be available if he was dating ONE woman. But the women just can’t or won’t see what’s in front of their face.

The MOST frustrating thing in last night’s episode, though, was Andi. Who did go to the Fantasy Suite but woke up the next morning proclaiming to the cameras that it was a “nightmare” and that she was “Not in love with Juan Pablo, and never will be.” And I’m sitting on the couch like, “All right! Finally! Bring it, girl!” But THEN, when she confronts JP about it, he simply says, “Okay. If you don’t feel it, you don’t feel it. I respect you.” Which I thought, okay, that’s legit. But then Andi started to get ANGRY because Juan Pablo wasn’t upset that she wanted to leave. And she started to get into an argument with him, trying to get some sort of emotion out of him when it was clear that he didn’t care and wouldn’t ever care. I mean, it was her own damn fault for sleeping with him, I’m sorry it took her so long to open her freaking eyes.

I instantly started to lose respect for as she pathetically tried again and again to get him to feel sorry that she was leaving. She got hung up on the semantics–she claimed he said she was in the top 3 by default, but he claimed he never used that word and told her she “BARELY” made it to the top 3. Which, in my opinion, is WAY more offensive. She just kept bringing up, “You SAID ‘default.’ You said it.” And I think this is what’s happening to these women on the show. They get so caught up on a tiny, trivial thing that they fail to see the huge picture (in this case, that he actually said something way more offensive than what she was offended about).

Glaring communication errors aside, I think the reason the women act the way they do (participating at all, catty competitiveness towards the other women, agreeing to share a man with 27 other people, claim that they are “falling in love” with this man–and maybe even believe it, agree to have sex with him, desire a proposal from him) is most closely related to the cognitive dissonance theory that is used to explain why normal, intelligent people who also have a lot going for them would participate in crude and violent hazing rituals (either as the one being hazed or the person doing the hazing) to gain acceptance and entry to a fraternity or sorority.

In these women’s desire to find “love,” what we’re really talking about is the desire to not be rejected. To have validation. They’ve come to the wrong place. Because the very act of appearing on The Bachelor–manipulated and edited to portray the worst about women–gives you a huge audience. And everyone in it is judging and rejecting you. Not just Juan Pablo.

Another Year, Another Controversial Rape Scene on ‘Game of Thrones’

Sansa and Ramsay

Some things come around every year. Birthdays. Holidays. Paying your taxes. Uncomfortable rape scenes on Game of Thrones. This most recent rape scene (yes, these are sentences we write now when talking about Game of Thrones) occurred in the 6th episode of season 5, entitled, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.”

The victim was the unfortunate and forever-tormented Sansa Stark, whose storyline throughout the show takes her from bad situations to worse ones. The rapist is her new husband, Ramsay Bolton, whose onscreen time has been used to demonstrate how sick, twisted, sadistic, sociopathic, and cruel his character is. The additional uncomfortable element added to this scene is that Theon Greyjoy (also named “Reek,” the man who Ramsay tortured, imprisoned, and psychologically broke) was forced to stand and watch it happen.

I have to say, I was really surprised that this particular rape scene elicited any sort of controversy. What did viewers think was going to happen? That Ramsay—who cut off Theon’s penis, who literally hunts the women in his life down and kills them because they’re boring—would marry Sansa and suddenly be a loving and gentle husband?

Game of Thrones has always been pretty liberal with their rape scenes. The show has been criticized heavily in the past for its gratuitous depictions of sex and women’s bodies, and for its numerous (numerous!) depictions of rape. And in the past I’ve been on board that ship, at the helm, with my arms flung out wide like, “Jack, I’m flying!” with my opinions on the problems with these particular scenes. However, the rape of Sansa Stark made sense narratively; it wasn’t gratuitous, and it had a purpose to the character’s arc and this season’s overall storyline. Did I want to see Sansa raped? No. But it certainly made sense to the narrative. And besides, was there any doubt that’s what would happen upon seeing Ramsay’s “I do” face?


Of course, though, I do have teensy problem. As Sansa is getting brutally raped, the camera zooms in on Theon, who was forced to stand there and watch. We, as the audience, can’t see Sansa’s rape, we can only hear it and interpret it in the horror, anguish, and turmoil on Theon’s face.

I’m down with this scene portrayed as it is but I do take issue with rape being used as the catalyst for a man’s storyline and personal character growth. Because watching that scene, we are to assume that the show is leading Theon toward some kind of redemption story, one in which he takes revenge on Ramsay, or at least tries SOMEWHAT to help Sansa. Either way, the focus of that scene was not on Sansa’s pain, but on Theon’s.

And this is always how it seems to go down when it comes to rape on Game of Thrones. Rape or almost-rape are used on this show in one of two ways: It happens but we all just pretend it didn’t, or it is a catalyst for a male character’s story development. And that really grinds my gears. As if I’m not sick enough of male narratives, they also get to have a better storyline than a woman because she was raped? Games of Thrones has often been criticized for using women’s bodies as props and set dressings, and to use violence against women as a backdrop to a man’s storyline is…ugh, just ugh.

Let’s look at the evidence. In season 1 of Games of Thrones, Daenerys is consistently raped by her husband, Khal Drogo. How does this plot progress? It finds Dany having a pretty girl-on-girl moment with her handmaiden in which she is instructed on the ways to please a man. During the next rape session with Khal Drogo, Dany tells him, “No,” while getting on top of him and taking control of the situation. Drogo then falls in love with her and then it was like, “Hey, she was never raped, Drogo was just doing sex all wrong lol!” Ah, love.

In season 2, Sansa is almost raped during a riot in King’s Landing, but in swoops the Hound to save her. The Hound is mean, and terrifying, and just so complicated, and his rough exterior seems to soften only for the beautiful and innocent Sansa Stark. What will happen with the Hound next? I mean, he saved a girl from getting raped! He has depth!

In season 3, Jamie lies to his captors that Brienne is very wealthy and will fetch a handsome ransom price, so no one should rape her. Brienne is the strongest woman in Westerns, hands down, but she is never given the chance to take control of a situation in which she is victimized, because Jamie is always there to save her. He ensures she does not get raped while they are being held captive, and he also risks his life by jumping in to a bear pit to save her life (though she was probably capable of saving it herself, but I guess we’ll never know). Am I saying I want female characters to be raped? No. Am I saying I don’t want male characters to stop a rape if they can? No. I’m just saying I’d like female characters to be able to command their own storylines for once. Jamie going out of his way to help Brienne is a huge part of his redemption storyline. It’s where we finally see that he is a good person inside, even though he’s done terrible things. Seemingly, in the books, Brienne exists just to propel  Jamie’s story forward. (Mercifully, the show is giving her her own independent storyline this season.)

And there was season 4’s rape of Cersei Lannister. This one was the worst rape scene because the showrunners insisted that it wasn’t even rape, c’mon. The problem that I had—well, the BIGGEST problem that I had—with this rape scene was that it was purposeless. It didn’t happen like that in the book. And while the scene we saw on television was exactly the same scene from the book, the exception was that in the show Cersei was raped and in the book it was consensual. To change just this one factor was very jarring and it challenged the integrity of the character of Jamie as a whole, and destroyed all of the character building that we had to have Brienne almost get raped like 12 times to get! And for what? That scene made no sense, and then it was never brought up again.

And just this past week, we had yet ANOTHER attempted rape. Sweet Wildling Gilly was almost raped at the hands of two brothers of the Night’s Watch. But poor, sweet, weak Sam stepped in and saved her (but not before getting the crap beat out of him). As Gilly nurses Sam back to health, she admonishes him for trying to save her and makes him promise that he will just be sure to take care of her baby should anything happen to her (anything being, we can assume, rape followed by death). And then, as a reward for Sam’s bravery and character development, she climbs on top of him and has slow, awkward, fully clothed sex with him. The story here wasn’t about Gilly at all. The story was about Sam showing his strength and courage and how that should be rewarded.

And see, it’s just a damn shame. The females of Game of Thrones have great stories in them. But the show seems determined to have them resigned to the reality that they might get raped, and to exist mostly to drive a man’s story forward.

As I said before, I support the narrative choices the showrunners have made in having Sansa be raped by Ramsay Bolton. I’m just crossing my fingers real hard that the story be Sansa’s to tell, and not Theon’s or anybody else’s.

Check back for next week’s essay: Even More Objectification on Game of Thrones or, Why Did That Sand Snake Take Off Her Clothes? C’mon.

The Weird and Wonderful Sub-World of Internet Shipping

Daryl and Carol

No, I don’t mean shipping as in FREE with a purchase of $35 or more from

Nor do I mean ship in the Titanic sense of the word (though that is closer, more on that later).

I’m talking about a “shipper,” that is, a fan of a television show who very strongly supports the relationship union between two characters.

The term “shipping” (“shippers” are those who ship) originated in relation to television characters as early as 1996, when it was used within an X-Files newsgroup in reference to Mulder and Scully, one of television’s most famous Will They/Won’t They couples. “Shipping” is derived from “relationshipper,” a word used to describe someone who avidly wishes for a romantic relationship between characters to occur.

Shippers range from the enthusiastic, to the fanatical, to the delusional. The practice of shipping imagines that fictional characters get together, but sometimes these imaginings are canon (that is, they do occur on the show). Other shippers ship unions between characters that are likely to never happen for a variety of reasons within the storyline. But most are so insistent in their belief that characters should get together or will get together despite what may be happening on the show, that they absolutely won’t hear otherwise.

I’ve dangled on the outskirts of this interesting little planet for about 2 years and have dabbled in immersing myself in the culture that is rampant on websites like Tumblr. It’s a fascinating place to be. Shippers have their own language they use and they have their own battles. The acronym “OTP” or “One True Pair” is used to label a ship. OTP’s are the only acceptable pairing, the ship of ships, and usually the person’s favorite pairing of all the various ships they might be invested in (though fans can have multiple OTP’s).

“Slash” is used to refer to homosexual pairings. These pairings usually occur solely in fanfiction. The most famous (and arguable first) slash pairing was Kirk and Spock from Star Trek. The “slash” refers to the punctuation between the character’s names to identify them as a pairing (Kirk/Spock, for instance).

Kirk and Spock

Then there are “Shipping Wars” which occur between supporters of contradicting OTPs—two relationships featuring the same character paired with different love interests. These shipping wars are exacerbated with shows that have a love triangle, such as The Vampire Diaries, which has as many die-hard supporters for Stefan/Elena (Stelena) as it does for Damon/Elena (Delena).

Shipping truly is its own sub-culture on the internet. Fans will write fanfiction featuring these characters, will photoshop their heads onto bodies of people actually embracing, and if the show in any capacity puts these characters together in an episode (even if they’re only sharing the screen and doing nothing else), the fandom will EXPLODE with screencaps and gifs and long posts analyzing every single thing that happened between these two. They’ll include reaction gifs of things like the Titanic sinking with Dido’s White Flag lyrics superimposed, “I will go down with this ship.”

I will go down with this ship

It’s hilarious and wonderful and so intense.

And it’s the intensity that I find fascinating. My interest with shipping was recently piqued with the return of The Walking Dead and subsequently the return of the Daryl/Carol shippers (referred to simply as Caryl). Women love (I love) Daryl. He’s a bad boy with a leather jacket and a crossbow and a motorcycle and a secret, hidden heart of gold. We have maternal, protective instincts about him as we watch his character development slowly progress through now 5 seasons of the show. We love him. And because we love him, we want him to find love.

Enter Carol, who had a storyline with Daryl during season 2 and so it begins. Carol appears a lot older than Daryl, and has had her fair share of excellent character development. Their relationship has certainly been a slow build but my question is: Is the show even taking them towards a relationship?

Daryl and Carol

I’m kind of thinking no. I’m thinking the showrunners put these scenes in because they know it will drive the shippers crazy and they know the shippers are an important demographic of their audience. I think Daryl and Carol share a friendship and a connection but it’s not going to be a relationship. But if you look on Tumblr, these shippers won’t hear of it any other way.

Immediately following every episode of The Walking Dead on Sundays you can find gifs upon gifs upon gifs of mere moments between Daryl and Carol. They’ll analyze each facial expression, each camera angle, each gaze and breath and movement. They’ll caption it with things like, “YOU CAN’T TELL ME THIS ISN’T LOVE” or “IT’S COMING. MY OTP IS HAPPENING” (forever in caps for particular emphasis).

How this scene didn't break the internet, I'll never know.

How this scene didn’t break the internet, I’ll never know.

And the thing is, even if I think they’re wrong, they’re so much more invested in the show than the average viewer. Their emotions are higher, their excitement is greater, and their desire is fiercer. They don’t just watch TV shows, they consume them. They pick them apart, they talk to each other about it, they care more. And in doing so, I would argue, they enjoy the show more. They are more of an active audience and they’re having fun. Even if it’s agony to wait and see if two characters will get together, they’re experiencing shows on a level that showrunners can only dream their shows will one day be experienced. I would liken it to the sense of community and the emotionality someone might feel about their favorite sports team winning. It seems crazy. But it’s not crazy, it’s just love. Fanatical love. But love nonetheless.

And isn’t that kind of great?

Why Are So Many Women Attracted to Emotionally Unavailable Men/Dragons?

I should lead with the dragon thing, yeah? Recently my friend confessed that she had to tell of a developing celebrity crush and she was kind of embarrassed by it. Since I don’t really understand the concept of embarrassment, my mind started running through a list of names she might say. Tom Bergeron. Kevin Bacon. The Hound on Game of Thrones. (Not that…I’m attracted to…them…or anything.) My daydreamed rolodex of embarrassing celebrity crushes was interrupted by one name: Smaug.

As in the dragon, Smaug, from the second Hobbit movie. As in a CGI mythological creature. Her burgeoning celebrity crush was Smaug.


Mmm. Just mmm.

Once I was finished spitting out all of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Puffs in my mouth, I listened to her reasoning. Smaug has a sexy voice. And that sexy voice belongs to Benedict Cumberbatch. And Benedict Cumberbatch plays a neurotic, slightly autistic, slightly sociopathic, emotionally unavailable, genius mastermind on the BBC’s Sherlock series. Where he is incredibly attractive.

Jawline. Cheekbones. Hair poof. Yes. Yes. Yes.

Jawline. Cheekbones. Hair poof. Yes. Yes. Yes.

(Also, of note, Benedict Cumberbatch did motion capture for Smaug. But examining the attractiveness of CGI characters because their movements were captured from real human beings is a different essay entirely. Can we be attracted to the humanity we see underneath the CGI? Based off of Smaug, who is a dragon, I’m going to say…yeah, at least some people can.)

What is it about Benedict Cumberbatch? Because he is incredibly popular. And I’ll admit that I recently jumped on this train as well. It took me awhile, but for some reason during my second viewing of Star Trek: Into Darkness I suddenly understood his appeal.

Benedict Cumberbatch: A deep and ultra-masculine voice (with primal undercurrents of a growl), physically slightly androgynous, with angular, almost alien-like facial features. A bit strange looking, yet still incredibly attractive to much of the female population, I have heard him described as someone who “looks like they will form the master race.” He’s almost super-human looking. And I think there has to be something evolutionary in the attraction to that, because animal instinct dictates that women would desire the strongest and most powerful male amongst them all to father her children. Perhaps surprisingly, despite his thin frame, Benedict Cumberbatch (more accurately, his characters) seems to exude raging testosterone and the kind of power that would be most desirable to women in the 21st century—supreme intelligence. Survival of the fittest is no longer about physical strength and endurance, but cleverness, intellect, and aptitude. It’s why the most powerful men in the United States are nerds who built computers in garages and now sit atop billion dollar empires. And women date them even though they play segway polo because (I mean, I’m sure they’re nice guys too but mostly) they’re rich and powerful and that’s attractive.

In Star Trek: Into Darkness, Cumberbatch plays Khan, who literally is part of a master race—he’s infinitely faster, stronger, more powerful, and more intelligent than humans. He’s just better, and even though he’s evil kinda, he’s like really hot when his hair falls in his face.

Exhibit A.

Exhibit A.

When you frame it all like that it’s not hard to see why I would suddenly be attracted to him in this role (or why seemingly everyone, including myself, is attracted to him as Sherlock Holmes). Physical attraction is animalistic and everything about his characters in this show and this movie prove that he is superior to other men. We’re attracted to his power and (in Star Trek) even if he’s using it to do bad things or (in Sherlock) he’s a complete asshole, we still find it totally hot because he’s better and more powerful than all of the other options. Hey, it’s in our DNA, you can’t blame us.

(Of note: My friends and I have discussed Benedict Cumberbatch as a person in real life and: Not that into him.)

But while it’s easy to understand how intelligence and power would appeal to most females, what is it about emotional unavailability? Because that is also one of the traits that makes Smaug so hot (you know what I mean). The character of Sherlock is, amongst other things, emotionally unavailable, which instantly makes him more attractive.

Why are so many women attracted to emotionally unavailable men? So much so that you see it everywhere on television, in books and movies, and in our own freaking lives? What is the appeal of a man who can’t love you the way you want and need, why do we love to watch it play out in the media we consume, and how does it all impact our own relationships in real life?

The emotionally unavailable man involved in a love story can be found practically everywhere (and is found with shocking frequency in the young adult genre). They’re one half of the love stories that are considered the most epic (by internet standards). Internet shippers ship them harder than anyone else. Recently, the most famous of course is Edward and Bella of Twilight fame. But there’s also Damon and Elena (of The Vampire Diaries), Klaus and Caroline (also of The Vampire Diaries), Chuck and Blair (Gossip Girl), Sawyer and Kate (LOST), Daryl and Beth (or Carol depending on how into recent developments you are, on The Walking Dead), Adam and Hannah (Girls), Eric and Sookie (True Blood), Spock (a person whose culture literally values the suppression of emotions) and Uhura (in the recent Star Trek films), Khal Drogo and Daenerys (Game of Thrones)…and this is just to name some of the most recent ones in popular culture.

These are men who are literally evil predators who murder people (Damon, Klaus, Eric), who do bad things to other people because they don’t care and because they can (Chuck, Sawyer, Khal Drogo), who put up walls and never let anyone in (Daryl, all of the above), who are strange and treat women poorly (Adam), who make it their mission to be unfeeling (Spock, Daryl, all of the above), who are inherently damaged (all of the above). And yet women love it. They eat it up, and I include myself in that vast estrogen pool.

To start, let’s take a look at one of the most popular trends in young adult right now: The supernatural teen romance.

The appeal of the supernatural teen romance to its intended audience is easy to understand. Here we have a girl not unlike the girls reading the stories (or watching). She is usually average, kind of personality-less, and predominantly uninteresting. She flies under the radar, is maybe kind of a loser, and pretty much unappealing. She is how most teenage girls with low self-esteem see themselves. She lacks personality enough that young girls reading these books or watching these shows can insert themselves into this role and live the fantasy. When they cast the Twilight movie, the biggest complaint over Kristen Stewart’s casting as Bella was that “she doesn’t look like me.” Girls read about these average girls in these books and replace said girl with themselves. I’d like to say the authors write the characters this way on purpose, but it could really just be chalked up to bad writing.

Then enter the supernatural love interest. He’s usually incredibly attractive in a super-human way. He’s strong. Powerful. Intelligent. More skilled at everything. Usually insanely rich. Damaged. Dangerous. Emotionally unavailable. Then he meets the average girl, and almost always inexplicably and for no reason falls in love with her. Their lives become intertwined. He rescues her a lot. Takes care of her. Protects her. And through knowing her becomes a better person. She makes him more human. She takes a non-human character and finds his humanity. This person who didn’t know how to love suddenly only loves her.

It’s the formula for so many of these supernatural teen romances. These girls who are the light in the darkness of this man’s life. These completely ordinary females are the objects of desire to these super-human, powerful beings and they are so desirable that they manage to change a man and fix them.

These are the stories that gain popularity in young girls. The ones that, I admit, I have always liked to read and watch too. There is an immense appeal in the idea that a woman—and not just any woman! A girl just like you!—can be so worthy of love that they can fix what’s broken about a man. That they’re so special, they’re the only person in the entire world who can break down this man’s walls and defenses and turn him into the perfect person.

It’s true that we’re seeing a surge of these stories in supernatural teen romance (and teen books and shows in general) but it appeals to an older audience too. Take R-rated As Good As It Gets.

In 1997’s As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson plays neurotic and obsessive-compulsive recluse, Melvin. Unpleasant, highly unlikeable, and rude, Melvin alienates everyone around him. The only person he truly likes is Helen Hunt’s Carol, the only waitress in Melvin’s favorite restaurant who will interact with him. Much of the movie is spent with Melvin trying to woo Carol, who doesn’t want to have really anything to do with him. As the movie progresses, Melvin changes his behavior slowly, all in an effort to win Carol over.

The movie climaxes with a famous restaurant scene in which Carol asks Melvin to pay her a compliment. Melvin tells her that he hates taking pills, even though his doctor assures him that they might help him. He stresses how much he abhors taking medication. Then he tells her that after she told him that they would never be together, he started taking the medication. Carol responds that she doesn’t see how that’s a compliment to her, and Melvin pauses before saying bluntly, “You make me want to be a better man.” The camera zooms in slowly on Carol’s face as she says, ‘That’s maybe the best compliment of my life.” The movie ends with Melvin and Carol kissing, despite everything. Despite the fact that she seems to never really like him, despite the fact that he’s mean and arrogant and rude, despite the fact that even though he changed a little bit there are still so many problematic things about him.

But he won her over by telling her that she has changed him, is fixing him. Carol is literally so desirable that she can make a man overcome mental illness. And the exchange is considered one of the most romantic scenes in cinema.

Variations of this are everywhere.

In The Vampire Diaries, Klaus is literally supposed to be the oldest and most evil creature on the planet.

(But of course he’s dashing.)

(But of course he’s dashing.)

Unable to be killed, he began on the show as the world’s only hybrid (part vampire, part werewolf…I didn’t say this stuff wasn’t stupid). Physically stronger than every other supernatural being, and infinitely more cunning, his only goals are to further his own power and agenda. Enter sweet Caroline—blonde, ditzy cheerleader—and suddenly the most evil and powerful person in the world is giggling at her jokes and leaving him breathless. In order to be worthy of her, he slowly shows compassion, kindness, and mercy (he also tried to kill her twice and killed her boyfriend’s mother but everyone just overlook those plot points!). The end result? Caroline can’t resist, and she eventually has sex (in the forest!) with Klaus.

In Game of Thrones, Daenerys is sold by her brother into marriage to savage Khal Drogo, in exchange for an army. Khal Drogo spends the beginning parts of their marriage consistently raping her, but despite this Daenerys decides she wants to learn how to please Drogo. One session with her handmaiden on how to please a man, and Drogo is suddenly putty in her hands. He goes from raping her, to listening to her when she says no. She uses her magical vagina (I guess) to tame the wild beast inside of him, and he falls in love with her. Daenerys’ kindness and innocence turns a violent and savage man into a loving husband and future father who respects his wife.

The final example I’ll give is Chuck and Blair from Gossip Girl. This one is a little different, as Chuck and Blair were always equally matched in every way—both rich and powerful, both cunning and manipulative, both a little bit despicable. In terms of emotional unavailability, Chuck spent an entire season unable to say the words “I love you” because he was scared. One of the worst things Chuck did was try to sell Blair to his uncle in exchange for a hotel. Blair did awful things, too, but the audience was never supposed to view them in a light quite as terrible as what Chuck did. This audience manipulation, if you will, was accomplished by having Chuck be the one often chasing after Blair, and having Blair often rejecting him. Chuck’s redemption story is a long one, spanning the entire 6 seasons that the show aired, with Blair being his ultimate salvation. Their story (and the series) ended with Chuck and Blair married, with a son.

But if we think the women of these love stories couldn’t resist the allure of a changed man, that’s nothing to the women consuming these stories. Here are characters that are horrible people and yet at the slightest inkling of emotional vulnerability, women in the audience latch onto them in an almost maternal way. Women romanticize them so quickly and insist that they aren’t really bad, not really, these poor babies are just so misunderstood.

These emotionally unavailable men that women are so keen on watching and reading are also known by a more popular term: the Bad Boy. Women have always loved the Bad Boy. Admittedly, damaged characters capable of redemption make for interesting characters (though there are other ways of finding redemption than to be saved by a woman, or a man). They are far more interesting than the alternative archetype: the Nice Guy. The Nice Guy is the beta to the Bad Boy’s alpha; the one in the love triangle that usually isn’t chosen. The Nice Guy is typically the heroine’s friend, often for a long time, and has loved her secretly for nearly as long. The Nice Guy is habitually by all accounts better for the heroine than the Bad Boy, but he lacks passion. He is stable, reliable, and practical. He’s very real life in a story where women seek fantasy.

There should be nothing inherently wrong with fantasies. But the problem is that the Bad Boy and the Nice Guy are just that—fantasies. When these tropes play out in real life, they are often fraught with consequences, because in real life there are very real problems and a distinct lack of fairy tale. In real life, you really can’t fix an emotionally unavailable man—only he can fix himself. In real life, damaged men can be abusive, they can be alcoholics or drug addicts, they can cheat on you, they can be dangerous. And you loving them won’t save them. But maybe you believe that it will. After all, you’ve seen it so many times before.

Conversely, the Nice Guy of real life isn’t really what women are looking for either. There’s a difference between being a nice guy and being a Nice Guy. The Nice ones think you owe them something, because they love you and have cared for you for a while. They feel entitled to you. They blame you for not loving them. They don’t understand why you would pick a jerk, a Bad Boy, over them. That’s not the kind of man women are attracted to. (Yes, I know I’m making sweeping generalizations here, obviously there are exceptions to everything.)

But to see these tropes used so widely in mediums that are meant to serve as escapism: Is that necessarily bad? I think the answer is yes and no. People like these stories. I like these stories. I do believe that women may be inherently wired to find these kinds of stories attractive. Even without living in the wild, perhaps our basest instincts still lead women to be drawn to power, protection, strength, and good genes. Perhaps all we’ve done is romanticized primal longings that we don’t necessarily understand because we don’t necessarily have need for them anymore. The romantic version of wisdom teeth. And when it comes down to it, fantasy is fun. There should be nothing wrong with using these stories to fulfill a little bit of fantasy.

Where I think it starts to become problematic is the continued exposure of it to impressionable young girls. Young girls receive mixed messages from the media every day in their formative years. (And, indeed, it continues into adulthood.) Magazines like Cosmopolitan claim to be directed at 20-year-olds and older but the core audience of readers are sexually inexperienced teenage girls who look to these magazines for guidance. They tell girls that pleasing a man is the most supremely important thing a female could ever do. They offer tips and tricks on how to do this (often wildly bizarre and baffling recommendations to get him off) segmented by beauty articles on how to make yourself look good (what other conclusion can you come to except that you have to make yourself look good for him, whoever he may be?). The magazines are filled with photoshopped images of impossible beauty standards, bodies that couldn’t ever even possibly exist in nature, and a young teenager with low self-esteem (is there any other kind of teenage girl?) measures her self-worth with this as her compass.

One might argue that truly the ultimate desire for an American girl is to love herself, and to feel accepted by the society that she lives in. And the only way society tells her she can love herself is to let a man love her enough for the both of them. Man as the solution to self-loathing, as taught to the American female subconsciously her entire life. After all, Twilight’s Bella Swan never ever thought she was worthy of Edward, even after he told her she was perfection a million, billion times. Even after she became a vampire and was his equal in every way. She still felt unworthy. His love never made her more confident—it simply replaced the need for her to have self-worth.

Enter these Bad Boys, these emotionally unavailable men. Girls put down the magazines telling them on every page and in every way that her job is to please a man and pick up a book or turn on the TV and read and watch stories in which women who believe they are ordinary are seen by impossibly perfect men to be extraordinary. I mean, no wonder The CW is still in business.

You might say, “Oh, come on, these magazines can’t have that much of an impact on somebody.” But let me tell you a story. When I was a teenager, I read in one of these very magazines that when buying flats, you should always have them fit so that you’re showing a little “toe cleavage” (in other words, when wearing the shoes, you can see the part of your foot where your toes begin). The reasoning, they said, was because men are always attracted to the suggestion of cleavage, no matter what part of the body they are seeing it. And to see it on your feet would make them think of your breasts and instantly make you more sexually attractive even though they wouldn’t understand why. Writing this now as a 25-year-old, I see the complete ridiculousness of that advice. But I will also tell you, as a 25-year-old, when I look down at my feet when wearing flats, guess what I see? Toe cleavage. I do it with every pair of flats I buy. I do it without thinking.

I’ve come to realize that every single one of my “beauty regimens” I read in a magazine as a teenager. Washing your face last in the shower. Shaving with the hair not against it (though that is good advice). Making sure to pat makeup under your eyes to reduce wrinkles. I know what tricks to use to check if your breath smells before you meet up with a guy (lick your wrist, wait 10 seconds, then smell it. Side note: Don’t ever to this, it’s gross, just chew gum). I know you should limit how often you drink from a straw, as it will produce wrinkles around your mouth (jesus, I was a teenager, why was I worrying about wrinkles?!?). I know 3 different tricks on how to curl my eyelashes. I know exactly what tools you need to give yourself the perfect manicure. I know what to pack in your bag for prom. I know exactly what these magazines want me to believe beauty is. And I do believe it. Without even thinking about it. These things are so ingrained in me because I read them in magazines when I was a teenager. So yes, this kind of stuff really does have an impact on young girls.

Books have already been written about the problems with shoving Disney princesses down a little girls’ throat and how that might impact how she sees herself. Every women’s studies class out there at one point or another talks about the way magazines and advertisements tell women how they should see themselves. Everything in American culture teaches women how to think less of themselves, how to always strive to be better—how to be skinnier, prettier, smarter, more confident…all for the benefit of getting a man to love you.

So it’s no wonder that when you combine animal instinct and low self-esteem, women of the 21st century would find it so mouth-wateringly alluring that an unattainable man could find a woman (just like her, with all her self-loathing and ordinariness) so irresistible that he becomes a better man. After all, the happily ever after of these stories satisfies the internal cravings of potentially all women as well as the societal demands placed on them: Acceptance for who she is as a person, and successfully fulfilling her role as a woman by pleasing a man.

Like I said, I like these stories. But I just worry that they only further the harm to women’s self-esteem. Too many of these stories exist. Too quickly do we forgive the transgressions of the male characters at the slightest sign of romantic vulnerability. And too often do we think so little of ourselves, that perhaps we’d be willing to overlook problematic faults of real men in our lives because we think we could save them, only to our detriment. I’d like to think that we are all above this, but women stay with horrible men all the time. And while there isn’t anything wrong with fantasy, we should be vigilant that what we’re consuming isn’t harming our self-esteem without us even knowing it.

After all, I have like 7 pairs of flats that show off toe cleavage. My only hope is if I ever meet Smaug, he would find that utterly irresistible.

The Rape of Cersei Lannister


A lot has been said about this past Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones entitled, “Breaker of Chains.” The episode depicts a famous scene from book three of the A Song of Ice and Fire series from which the show is based, yet changed one key element from the book, and caused an internet uproar.

The scene in question involved Cersei and Jamie Lannister, twins and lovers. In the book, Cersei stands in a Sept (a holy house in this universe) over the corpse of her dead son (fathered by her brother, Jamie). Jamie, who until that point had been kidnapped and tortured and absent from King’s Landing for quite some time, arrives on the scene. Cersei is overcome by relief at seeing Jamie and passion because she’s all hot for her brother. And although at first she thinks it would be wrong to have sex with her brother in a holy place beside the corpse of their dead son who was the product of incest (and I would agree with her for so many reasons), she willingly and consensually and happily does end up having sex with Jamie. She also is on her “moon blood” during the process, meaning she has the Westeros equivalent of a period and the whole scene in general is gross for every reason I just listed above.

The show took this exact scene and changed one very important part: The part where Cersei gives consent. In the book Cersei literally guides Jamie into her with her hand. In the show, it was nothing short of rape, with Cersei consistently saying no and trying to push Jamie off of her, to no avail.

People are not happy, but maybe not entirely for the reasons that you would think.

My initial reaction to this scene was one of shock followed by anger. The scene itself was very difficult to watch (as all scenes of rape should be) and I was quite flabbergasted and confused as to what I was witnessing, as I am someone who has read the books.

I was really excited when I saw Cersei in the Sept and it looked exactly like I pictured it. Then Jamie walked in, just like in the book and everything was going kind of word for word, and I was sitting on the couch crunching on potato chips and thinking to myself, “I wonder if they’re going to be bold enough to show her moon blood” and then all of a sudden Jamie is raping her. And I’m sitting there wondering when it’s going to turn consensual because that’s what a reader of the book would expect but it never does. And as soon as the scene ends, I turned to my roommate aghast and said, “THAT didn’t happen in the book!”

Which seems to be the predominant reaction that people are having: That it didn’t happen in the book. This article from The A.V. Club posed the question that I immediately asked as well which was: While inevitably television or movie adaptations of books have to change scenes in order to work in a different medium, why change this particular scene? Everything else was exactly the same as the scene in the book except for the question of consent. But what was the motivation behind taking an act of consensual sex and turning it into an act of sexual violence? Because upon doing so, the showrunners have changed the very integrity of the characters themselves.

In the books and the show, at this point Jamie is well into his redemption story. He is a man who has done terrible things but is beginning to recognize that about himself and take measures to change. He is misunderstood in a lot of ways, and although his relationship with his sister is incestuous (and therefore really gross), he is honorable in his love and devotion to her. The choice on the part of the show to have him rape Cersei throws a wrench in all of that previous character development. And I understand why fans of the book are angry because it is my belief that Jamie would never rape anyone, especially not Cersei, no matter what other horrific things he may have done. The show essentially destroyed the very integrity of the character with this one very violent and disturbing scene.

Granted, the show is in no way required to stay so close to canon, but it’s disturbing because the motivation behind altering the character in this way is unclear. And while it’s possible that in the coming episodes it will become clearer why they chose to take this character in this direction, as it stands it’s a hard pill to swallow.

This article from Wired included a quote from the director of the episode, that suggested that the scene they filmed wasn’t even really a rape scene (at least not to their knowledge), but a power struggle, with Cersei ultimately wanting it, and one that ended in consent. This is disturbing in so many ways, because it suggests that the power that the showrunners wield (which is to entertain and influence an audience of millions of people) is abused in ignorance of the scenes that they are portraying. Perhaps when it was filmed it was a power struggle and not a rape scene but that’s not how it was edited and not the final product, as the scene cut away before Cersei ever consented (if that was a thing that was supposed to happen). Game of Thrones is a show that depicts a lot of violence and a lot of sex, often for no other purpose but to be exploitative and titillating and shocking. I would hate to think that this scene was used for the same purpose, or to prove that this is how the world of Westeros works—it’s a dark and particularly dangerous realm and the rules of existence are different there.

Because the rules are different when watching a show about a fictional universe. The world of Game of Thrones is filled with war and ruthless murder and rape. With the killing of children, with the marriage of siblings and 13-year-olds to 30-year-old savages, with eunuchs and slaves. There are also dragons, and zombie-like creatures that can only be killed by fire. It’s mystical and twisted and dark. It’s also completely fictional and therefore I think it’s a safe space to examine something I found very interesting about the reaction to this episode.

I’m very interested in the reaction of the audience to violence in Game of Thrones versus violence against women in Game of Thrones. Particularly the dichotomy between the reaction to Joffrey’s death and the reaction Cersei’s rape. Because by all accounts Cersei is a terrible person. She is cruel and manipulative and hateful. She has murdered and she would step on anyone to rise to the top, including her own younger brother, Tyrion. She has an incestuous relationship with her brother, all of her children were the product of that relationship, and she helped to murder her husband in order to keep that secret. Basically everybody in the audience hates her. And the same was true for Joffrey. He was a spoiled, sadistic brat who murdered and tortured. He was cruel and impulsive and maniacal. And when he was killed last week, everyone in the audience cheered and celebrated.

Now before I continue remember that I am speaking here entirely of a fictional world. I don’t think that anyone deserves to be raped. I don’t even think Cersei deserved to be raped, and she’s a horrible person. But I thought that Joffrey deserved to die, and I’m pretty sure everyone else did, too. Are we not the same audience that just last week threw a Twitter party upon Joffrey dying in a truly gruesome and graphic and horrific fashion? But in this fictional world where the rules are different, we feel outrage at Cersei’s rape. If Jamie had walked into that Sept and stabbed her in the heart, we would be celebrating again this week. But because he raped her, we are angry.

And don’t get me wrong, I think we should be angry. But where is the source of that anger? We are desensitized enough to violence that we applaud it when distributed upon a truly heinous character. But sexual violence is enough of a taboo in our culture that there is a public outcry when a character who most would say deserves to die is raped. I think it is very interesting but I also see it as problematic. Because if rape and sexual assault are such a taboo that it pains us to witness fictional characters who we hate experience it, then why is it that when you pull back and examine real-life rape in our society, victim-blaming and other facets of rape culture still run rampant with not as many people as the audience of Game of Thrones (which is millions) caring as much about real rape as they do about Cersei’s rape. You would think that the outrage on behalf of a fictional character would translate to outrage in the real world but it really doesn’t.

If we believe as an audience that rape is inexcusable no matter what the crimes of the victim may be, then why doesn’t that concern for a horrible person of a female character extend out of pop culture and into our own culture towards real-life victims of sexual violence? Do we care more about the fictional rape of a fictional person than we do about the actual injustices that happen to real people?

I don’t know the answer to that. But I am happy that so many people are asking these kinds of questions and talking about depictions of rape in popular culture and storytelling through the medium of television. I think it’s important to hold showrunners accountable for their choices, because it seems to me that they chose to have Cersei raped for no other reason except they kind of didn’t even realize that’s what they were doing? Which opens a giant can of worms regarding misogyny, the way rape is viewed in America, and the treatment of women on Game of Thrones especially. This show has come under fire for this before, which is such a shame since George R.R. Martin’s female characters in the book are some of the strongest and most complicated female characters I’ve ever read, and they’re written with respect.

But I also think we should see where they take these characters this season. Because rape as a storytelling device isn’t inherently wrong and can be used to a very powerful effect, but it’s very tricky to do so, and I feel that it is often used lazily and as a throwaway character arc for women. Perhaps this particular rape scene will create an excellent story for Jamie and Cersei’s characters (though I wouldn’t count on it) and we should wait to see if that happens (but I really doubt it will). In the meantime, I hope the discussion about rape depictions in popular culture continues because while I think the showrunners have done all of it inadvertently, they opened a really great national dialogue, so applause to Game of Thrones for doing something great by doing something bad, while both were probably unintentional.

A final interesting thing to note: Author George R.R. Martin posted something about this episode and this scene in particular on his blog, in response to fan criticism over the whole thing. In his response, GRRM spoke of the difference in where the characters were in the books versus the show (in the book, it was the first time Cersei was seeing Jamie in a long time, and in the show he had been there with her for a few weeks with mounting tension). He also said the scene in the book was always intended to be disturbing and that he wasn’t brought into discussion for this episode but that he apologizes if anyone was disturbed by either scene.

First of all, George, you are the father of the REALM, you bow to NO ONE. I’m not into the idea that artists should apologize for their work (though that seems to be happening a lot lately). But more than that, people SHOULD be disturbed by those scenes, whether it was the one in the book or the one on television. People SHOULD be disturbed when they’re watching a rape scene! If you’re not disturbed then you’re probably a rapist or the director of this episode. Furthermore, if GRRM is going to start apologizing for things in his books that disturbed me, I have a LONG list starting with his synonyms for “vagina” which include “lower lips” and “the wetness between her legs.” Please apologize for that, forever. Thank you.

Series Finales Bring Us Together…But Mostly Just in Hate


Last night on Facebook, I watched an interesting phenomenon unfold before me on my news feed: That of the instant status reaction to a series finale. I always love when this happens (also applicable are season finales and any game changer episode), because the reactions are so varied and colorful in their sameness. There are the people who hate it so violently they just blurt out what happens, and the other people who angrily admonish them in the comments (“Nice spoiler alert, asshole”). There are those who praise it for its perfection or just defensively and defiantly state, “I liked it.” And there are also those who are sort of just checking in to let us know they watched it but, y’know, aren’t sure how to feel about the whole thing just yet.

Last night, on the heels of the How I Met Your Mother finale, there was really only one camp cropping up. While I know the other exists, the majority was leaning heavily towards, “That finale was a piece of shit and I am angry in ways I never thought imaginable.”

And this led me to think about series finales in general, and whether as a whole they are more widely hated than they are loved.

A bit of background: How I Met Your Mother is a show that I have never watched but have been forced to listen to people quote Neil Patrick Harris’ character lines from it for, oh, it feels like a million years. It’s one of those shows, which, when mentioned, I usually responded with a disinterested, “Oh, is that still on?” Personally, I could care less that it ended or even that it existed in the first place, such is my neutrality on the matter. But today, my friend and co-worker gave me a recap of the whole finale and now I concede that, yes, that was a terrible finale. Granted, her recap was dictated to me intermittently between vitriol-laced expletives and wild hand gestures, so the fact that I feel anger about the finale now should be viewed through that lens. What I’m saying is: How I Met Your Mother folks who are angry? I get your pain. I am on your side here.

But back to series finales in general. I polled the Facebook community at large: Name a series finale that you actually thought was good. What resulted was an 82-comment thread that proved that there are good series finales out there. It also demonstrated how varied we can each feel about a particular series finale. There are series finales that seem universally liked and ones that appear pretty universally hated . And series finales that are so polarizing, people may never stop talking about them.

But how does that work?

Demanding a series finale that leaves everyone satisfied is like asking a funeral to have a happy ending. It just won’t happen, unless maybe you’re a sociopath. No one will be happy if the ending is too happy. No one will be happy if the ending is too sad. No one wants it to end predictably. But no one wants it to be a cliffhanger, either. No one wants to accept that a character might die. But you also can’t just have some characters live out their lives after what they’ve done either. It needs to stay true to the story, the integrity of the characters, and the overarching theme of the show. It needs to move you and provide closure. It needs to do a lot of freaking things in not a lot of time and if the show winds up just wrapping things up like a half-eaten Chipotle burrito and tossing it in the back of the metaphorical refrigerator that is the hearts and minds of the fans at home…well then, people will not be pleased.

Series finales demand that the stories for the characters end right. But they also impossibly demand that there is one singular path that will make everyone happy. That years of expectations for millions of people will pay off in a way that every single individual is left satisfied. You want to leave an image in the minds of the audience that this is where this character went. You want people to stand at the water cooler (do people stand near those anymore?) and shake their heads passionately and say, “It couldn’t have been any other way. This was how it had to be.” But more often than not, series finales leave a bitter taste in many people’s mouths. Fans are divided into post-show camps. Writers make the rounds and give interviews and swear, “This is the way we always envisioned this show ending.” People take to fanfiction to right the wrongs done upon them by the writers and producers. We complain in Facebook statuses, slapping a lazy “spoiler alert” before or after our fast, angry, one-minute-has-passed since the conclusion opinion.

Because what we really want is for the series to never end. Or we wanted it to have ended 2 seasons ago, or before they killed that character, or gave this one cancer, or they switched showrunners. What we really want is for the show to have peered inside our individual hearts and produced an ending that is in a lot of ways a reflection of us. When you love something like this, you claim ownership of it in your heart. This is the reason why, throughout the years, when asked who should direct the next Harry Potter film, my answer was always, “Me.” Because as a devoted fan, you’re the only one who knows how it should look, and the only one who could do it right.

And think about it: We spend the time to watch something, because it speaks to us for whatever reason. But in that process of consuming something, we also allow it to define us in a way. One of the ice breaker “get to know you” questions typically asked is, “What is your favorite TV show?” It appears as a field to be filled out in virtually every online profile you can create. It says something about us. We use it superficially on the surface to help describe to other people who we are. And then we take that acquisition and we project it back onto the thing that we watched, so now the relationship between the show and the viewer is more complicated than you would think. It’s the reason people feel frustrated and angry when How I Met Your Mother didn’t end a different way, and why an emotion as strong as betrayal can creep to the surface when we’re really talking about a television show that we could have actively made the decision to stop watching at any point in the series.

So you watch a show and you feel like you emotionally stake claim to it. But there are also millions of other devoted fans who have their own vision for how it’s supposed to be. And sometimes those visions line up and we have these universally “good” finales. But a lot of the time, there are subtle nuances between personal tastes that can make one person love it and another hate it. And when you look at it like that, it’s a wonder that these television shows can unite an entire audience at all. But this is what’s magical about television (and movies). These stories can make us feel something, and not just that, they can make us feel it all collectively. To make us part of a “we.” It’s why people choose Team Edward or Team Jacob. It’s why we amalgamate two characters’ names because we ship them. It’s why fans of Hannibal call themselves “Fannibals,” why women who love Daryl Dixon on The Walking Dead hashtag themselves as “Dixon’s Vixens,” why Lady Gaga formed an entire culture around her fandom simply by calling them “Little Monsters.”

We crave the unity. We want connection. But where we separate is how a story should end. Because finality is unbearable. We have to face finality in our lives all of the time: Breakups. The end of high school or college. Leaving a job. Simple moments fading away. And the ultimate finality of all—death. In media, there is a slighter sense of control, because while we can’t take the helm on how a show might end, we can keep the ending in our mind. So if Ross and Rachel end up together, we can always remember that Friends had a happy ending. And if Walter White dies at the end of Breaking Bad, we can take comfort in knowing that’s exactly how that story needed to end. Betrayal is when we feel that the writers didn’t honor these characters, and the legacy of a show we loved was a disappointing ending that can never be undone.

And that utter finality is why emotions surge higher during a series finale than, say, season 2 episode 11 (although, I don’t know, depending on the show maybe that was a particularly emotional episode for you).

But whether you liked the ending of How I Met Your Mother or you hated it, the important thing is that you emotionally shared an experience with an incredibly large amount of people. People you don’t even know and will never meet. People all over the country, of all ages and races and genders and sexual orientations. Even if you felt something good and someone else felt something bad, you felt it at the same time, over the same thing, at the same moment. And when you stand in awe at that reality, does it really matter what happened in the end? Does it really matter that the mother died?

Yes? Okay, fair enough.