Tag Archives: Game of Thrones

A (K)night of a Thousand Butches by Jack Halberstam

21 May
Brienne of Tarth

A Butch Knight complete with large sword

TV giveth and TV taketh away. Over the course of a few memorable evenings of television viewing recently, millions watched as Arya (Maisie Williams) and Brienne of Tarth (Gwendolin Christie) on the final season of Game of Thrones, lost their virginity to men.  Meanwhile over on Gentleman Jack, an aristocratic female-bodied lord (played by Suranne Jones), took the maidenhead of her neighbor, Miss Walker (Sophie Rundle). I guess being mainstream means that queer viewers can switch channels back and forth between compulsory heterosexuality in the form of pre-war sex on Game of Thrones, and pre-modern butch-femme sex with a little patriarchy smashing thrown in for good measure on Gentleman Jack. While Miss Walker, the object of Anne Lister’s desire on Gentleman Jack, makes it clear that once she has tasted the forbidden fruit offered by her butch paramour, men become increasingly unappetizing, Arya, at least, on Game of Thrones, tries out heterosexuality only to throw it back onto the pile of “thanks but no thanks.” Brienne of Tarth, on the other hand, and hands are key here, seemed to be a true convert to the faith, although, given her partner, it is not clear whether she is in love with prosthetic sex or what Paul Preciado calls counter sexuality, or whether she was just waiting for the right man, as the sad stereotype goes. Arya was at least the aggressor in her disappointing sex scene with Gendry but Brienne of Tarth was all submission and virginal modesty. What do we think about the abundance of butches on television on Sunday nights right now and is there anything to celebrate here? Or, rather, is the masculine woman only trotted out on mainstream television as a form of titillation and sensation?

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As Anne Lister, the eighteenth century masculine woman who conducted business and bedded local married women with equal gusto, Suranne Jones is (mostly) a marvel. Her wooing of her tremulous neighbor, Miss Walker, is a veritable lesson in the art of seduction and, after many a drawn out session of hand-holding and mutual exchanges of meaningful glances, Lister finally gets what she has been angling for – an invitation from Miss Walker to come for dinner…and spend the night!

It would be churlish to complain about watching such luscious scenes of playful and erotic queer flirtation play themselves out, however, quibbles are certainly in order. For, while I love Suranne Jones, who plays Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack as much as the next man, and I admire the way the series depicts her as a can-do, masculine butch, I wish we could see more…shall we say…results for all the erotic back and forth. Instead, at critical moments of encounter, particularly when a long and luscious, open mouthed kiss might be called for, we watch as the studly Lister diverts from her target at the last minute and begins to nuzzle her amour’s cheek! After watching a few of these scenes, my close reading skills confirm that either the lady or her lover is ducking out at the last minute so that in the place of deep lez smooching, we get way too much cheek brushing. And for the novices out there, no, cheek brushing is not a lesbian thing! After a few too many of these neck nuzzles, you, like me, might begin to wonder why TV wants to raise the erotic possibility of the armed and dangerous butch only to immediately turn her back into a pussy…cat.

il_794xN.1466167697_boi4Speaking of armed butches, let’s return for a moment to Brienne of Tarth, who, let me be the first to say, as a female knight in shining armor, surely deserved better than Jamie Lannister! While his prosthetic arm offers some interesting prospects for queer sex between a heterosexual guy (or, given his other lover, shall we say “family man”?) and a giant butch, Jamie seems clueless about his golden glove. The metal hand that he uses to cover over the site of his castrated arm, can easily be resignified as (what we queer theorists like to call) a lesbian phallus! Indeed, the shape of his prosthetic hand lacks imagination – imagine if the Lannister arm had been shaped like a dildo, not necessarily an anatomically correct one – how about a dolphin shaped phallus courtesy of a medieval Babes in Ye Olde Toyland? Or just a fist? With such a weapon on hand, I would have been willing to grant this union some credibility!

But, sadly, the quick and seemingly normal bedding of Brienne by Jamie, and the as-quick abandonment of her by the one handed bandit was disappointing for all who have followed her long character arc through many battles against precisely such men on behalf of much more appealing maidens! Sex aside, Jamie, the King Slayer, could have been an interesting friend for Brienne, indeed he recognizes her knightly qualities and approaches her as his equal. But queer relations is a real failing of Game of Thrones, and I say this as a fan, and so, the show’s heteronormative limit meant that we could not be treated to a straight man/butch friendship. Instead, the bond between butch and bad guy was all just grist for the old hetero mill, and so to bed…

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Dragonglass prosthetics

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Another butch in Game of Thrones left nothing to chance when it came to prosthetics. Before Arya gives Gendry her virginity, she commissioned him to make her a dragonglass weapon of some kind. The sketch she presents to him, indeed, an image much debated online in terms of its form and purpose, looks like nothing so much as a Paul Preciado style contrasexual prosthetic dick! I believe if we said it was a dildo and harness, we might have resolved one of the great mysteries of Game of Thrones – forget who will sit on the Iron Throne, which turned out to be a big anti-climax anyway, the question is who has the best weapon? While Jamie’s aforementioned metal hand is definitely a contender, Arya’s detachable weapon seems to have the edge on all the other valerian steel. And yet, despite long sequences in which Arya encourages Gendry to make this weapon for her, in the end, she does not use it to kill the Night King! This leaves the question open as to what the dragonglass spear might be used for!

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Perhaps when Arya beds the eager Gendry, she was merely looking for a place to try out her dragonglass toy. And, as quickly as she sleeps with the lad, she realizes that heterosexual love is not for her– “that’s not me…I am no lady”– and she rejects her enamored suitor. Brienne of Tarth, on the other hand, having given up her blue-ribbon lesbian status to Jamie Lannister, seemed crest-fallen when the King Slayer rode off to be with his sister/lover in her hour of need. A quick summation of Jamie’s rather unappetizing sexual history – incest, child killer, etc. – should make viewers pause and wonder why Brienne is so often represented as the freak in this duo, but the hasty departure by Jamie suggests that his metal arm may not have measured up to the prothesis Brienne was expecting!

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Like Arya, Brienne carries a big sword, her own Valerian steel (maybe Valerian steel is the medieval equivalent to silicon?) called “Oathkeeper.” In Game of Thrones, Brienne of Tarth, according to wikipedia is described as:

“…unfeminine in appearance, and is considered unattractive. She is very tall, muscular, flat-chested, and ungainly, with straw-colored hair and broad, coarse features that are covered in freckles. Her teeth are prominent and crooked, her mouth is wide, her lips are swollen, and her nose has been broken more than once. However, her large blue eyes are described as beautiful.”

Wow, like a straight man condescendingly paying a masculine woman a “pity compliment,” this description offers the beautiful blue eyes as the only compensation for crooked teeth and a broken nose. World to medieval fantasy writers – probably everyone had crooked teeth before about the 1980’s when orthodontics became a thing and hey, when you are fighting off rapists at every turn, you may sustain a broken nose every now and then. But of course, it is not what she looks like that makes Brienne of Tarth unappealing to men, it is her dogged, unrelenting defense of women and her unapologetic use of her size and her brawn.

Like most heterosexual narratives, Game of Thrones has little to no idea what to do with “Brienne the Beauty” as she is sarcastically called, and so, as the denouement approaches, she is thrown a couple of masculinist bones in the form of Tormund, who calls her the “big woman,” and Jamie, who is marginally more appealing because he seems to genuinely like her. Brienne’s love options had fans giggling with joy over the idea that the seemingly unattractive woman might, as one writer in Marie Claire puts it, “find true love.” Other clueless articles call her a feminist icon (maybe but feminist here is just a nice word for lesbian) but the whole lesbian thing is only addressed by a few smart .queers on social media. Hopefully there is fan fiction out there pairing Brienne up with an unarmed (as opposed to one armed, but nothing wrong with one armed either) lady.

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Meanwhile, over in Halifax, circa 1803, Anne Lister, also known as Gentleman Jack, also unattractive and no doubt, also, if pictures are to be believed, featuring bad teeth and “swollen lips,” possibly even a broken nose, was despite her lack of conventional beauty, wooing and bedding ladies on the local estates. And in her spare time, she intimidates, harasses and tops local men in relation to the business of running her estate. Suranne Jones is a fabulous flirt and very good in this role which finally gives her room to express something other than toxic femininity (see her in Dr. Foster and Scott and Bailey). The ‘real’ Anne Lister (1791 – 1840) was an aristocratic lady lover who traveled around Europe bedding married women and then wrote about all her experiences in an elaborate code in her diaries! There is a tendency now to regard Lister as a “lesbian,” and this show makes that same mistake, but (reference LGT History 101) no such word would have been used during Lister’s life-time and the markers of Lister’s difference from other women concerned his/her cultivated masculine appearance and his/her desire for women. S/he did not understand herself to be part of a community of others like herself and s/he considered her partners to be women while s/he was something else, something closer to manhood.

The show Gentleman Jack is good fun — not good fun in the way that Game of Thrones is good fun with sex, violence and armies of the dead! — but good fun as in amusing and if not quite historically accurate, still insistent enough about Lister’s masculinity to offer some succor to those of us waiting for Arya and Brienne to find their own lady loves! And by the way, according to many fans of Game of Thrones, Sansa also might have been ready for some queer action and now that she is Queer/n of the North, I sincerely hope she finds it!

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There were, indeed, plenty of opportunities for some authentic medieval tribadism on Game of Thrones, but neither George Martin nor the show runners on HBO had the know how or balls to really figure out how to tell a good story about masculine women with weapons. As Game of Thrones winds down and leaves us pondering big questions about sovereignty, rule, governance and war, and even bigger questions about dragonglass dildos, it is time to hope that someone, somewhere on line is bringing into being a fan/fiction universe where we can reimagine queer characters outside of their function as local color or titillation and see them as amazons, witches, bitches and butches.

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Winter in America by Jack Halberstam

10 Nov

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“And now it’s winter

Winter in America

And all of the healers done been killed or sent away

Yeah, and the people know, people know

It’s winter Winter in America

And ain’t nobody fighting

Cause nobody knows what to save.”

Gil Scott Heron, “Winter in America” 1974

 

“Winter is Coming.”

Game of Thrones, 2011

 

We do not know what to say or do. We who are usually so full of words, ideas, programs and plans of action, we too fall silent in the face of such devastating news. Donald J. Trump, the clownish buffoon who has been caught on tape berating people of color, women and even babies, for God’s sake, will be the next president of the United States of America. If we thought George W. was bad, wait until we see what a government stacked with right wing Republicans and led by an egotistical fool might do to all semblances of intellectual exchange, economic redistribution and racial justice.

 

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Is this how the Fascism starts, as a creeping, insidious mood of hatred slipping into everyday conversation? Does it begin with the eschewing of complex explanations in favor of simplistic ‘us against them’ accounting? Does Fascism begin when white supremacy is courted, relied upon, solicited but never named as such? Or did this particular political disaster begin when Donald Trump’s outrageous, sexist, misogynist, racist comments were played for the whole nation…and many people did not care because they hear worse everyday, in their homes, at their work places, in public? How about when FBI Director, James Comey, decided to revive the inquiry into Hilary Clinton’s email despite no new evidence compelling him to do so? Has this all been a coup initiated by the FBI, ratified by law and carried out by a rabid group of white men, endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, cheered on by David Duke and involving millions of mostly white voters, including a majority of white women, who happily, cheerily cast their vote for a liar, an avowed racist and a failed businessman who has cheated, shouted and shoved his way into the spotlight?

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We are in checkmate because we turned our backs for a moment and when we did Donald J. Trump moved chess pieces at will, taking the queen and cornering the king. We are down for the count, lost in translation, behind, bewildered, frustrated and legitimately scared. Trump’s election is bad for women, bad for all people of color, bad for business, bad for immigrants, bad for the environment, bad for the economy, bad for babies, bad and getting worse. Donald Trump is good for himself, good for his scary and much more ideologically extreme running mate, Mike Pence, good for angry white men, good for tax dodgers, global warming deniers, corporate elites, unrepentant white supremacists, good for nothing.

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As we near the end of the first day of the new order of Trumpocracy, we better ask ourselves what is to be done. We better meet and sound our outrage, we better establish a plan of action. We need to find better leaders – Hilary Clinton was not the leader many of us wanted even as we felt she would be a capable and reasonable presence in the White House. Where are the young, impassioned, visionary leaders who can, unlike Hilary, outline a detailed opposition to Trumpocracy, give people the argument for universal health care coverage, arm people with not statistics but a critical way of thinking? We need a representative who will actively assuage working class resentment without stirring up racial antipathy; someone who will explain why we pay taxes rather than boast about not doing so. We need someone who does not feel entitled to win office but who rides to victory on a coalition of explicitly leftist platforms. We need a smart, informed speaker who understands the history of race in America, who opposes prisons and demands gun reform and who refuses to apologize for working on behalf of the most vulnerable populations and in opposition to the most entitled.

Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump’s Rally in Mobile Alabama

There have been many shocks this week, shocks that reminded us that “we” are not at all united and “we” will often be defeated. For example, Five Thirty Eight reports today that while Hilary Clinton won women’s votes by 12 points, she lost the votes of white women overall. This is a devastating reminder of how effective compulsory heteronormativity is in this country. Heterosexual white women, despite being regaled by audio tapes of Trump boasting about “grabbing pussy,” despite numerous women stepping forward to give accounts of being molested or harassed by Trump, despite his public and open contempt for women he dates, women he rejects and women he would not even consider, many of these women voted willingly for boorish, violent, contemptuous masculinity. They voted with their men; they voted their racial investments in whiteness, they voted against the security of Roe v. Wade, they voted to continue being helpmates rather than agents, they voted to be cheerleaders and mascots rather than players in the game, they voted against the first female president of the United States. They voted to continue being what Simone De Beauvoir called “the second sex.”

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We have faced political winters before and winter will come again. In 1974 in the wake of a horrifying series of political murders in the US, after the deaths of Martin Luther King, JFK, Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X, Gil Scott Heron penned, “Winter in America,” an anthem for dark times. Shana Redmond’s book, Anthem, provides a rich account of the adoption of anthems by Black groups in the diaspora. In the history that Redmond provides, the anthem is wrenched out of its role as a universal statement of belonging and national aspiration and transformed into a rallying cry for a disenfranchised group and a spiritual call to action. We need an anthem now and “Winter in America,” unfortunately, has become relevant again. In the liner notes for his album, Gil Scott-Heron explained his title and connected his music to the political climate around him:

Winter is a metaphor: a term not only used to describe the season of ice, but the period of our lives through which we are traveling…Western iceman have attempted to distort time. Extra months on the calendar and daylight saved what was Eastern Standard. We approach winter the most depressing period in the history of this industrial empire, with threats of oil shortages and energy crises. But we, as Black people, have been a source of endless energy, endless beauty and endless determination. I have many things to tell you about tomorrow’s love and light. We will see you in Spring.

We are now facing our own winter; we too have just put the clocks back to save Eastern Standard time; we too approach a deeply depressing season run by snowmen buoyed by a “whitelash” (Van Jones); we too want to believe that Spring will come but fear that only more winter lies ahead. In this our own “most depressing period,” we watch bankers and realtors and politicians convince working class people that callous disregard for the public good, outrageous extravagance and corrupt racially skewed economic practices will “make America great again.” They will not. They will confirm us as a confederacy of rogues, a global bully, a white supremacist nation committed to rewarding the rich, locking up the poor and handing everything to the clowns, the snowmen, the would-be kings, the small minded men with small hands, big wallets, self-centered dreams and willowy, empty women on their arms. Gil Scott-Heron looked to Black community for hope and termed Black people as a “source of endless energy, endless beauty, and endless determination.” He promised “love and light” in the potentiality of tomorrow even as he mourned the experience of “living in a nation that just can’t stand much more.” Now that democracy is once more “ragtime on the corner,” now that peace is out of reach, now that white men have their fingers on the scales of justice, now that white heterosexual women are standing by their men, now that we know that many gay people and some people of color must have voted for Trump, we better find some coalitions that will still offer the possibility of “energy, beauty and determination.”

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As Game of Thrones warned us in season one, episode one, 2011, “Winter is Coming.” For the House of Stark, this was a warning that political peace is fleeting and unreliable. For us it is a terrifying future that we now confront. In Game of Thrones, winter came and went, men were slaughtered, spirits raised the dead, and women rulers rose up as fighters, witches, as young queens, as rape avengers. Even in this most patriarchal of medieval fantasy worlds, there is space to imagine female sovereignty and a better world forged out of a coalition of the very old, the very young, women, queers, native peoples, people of color, trans people, disabled people, wildings, wolves and dragons. We need to tap into our utopian fantasies now, our freedom dreams (Robin Kelley) to find small channels of potential running through the political architectures in which we are currently imprisoned. I am worried we will not find a way out, and I know you are too; but I also know that we are all ready for the fight of our lives.

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