Why I Turned Down a PhD

This isn’t an article I ever thought I’d be writing. For a long time, a PhD was my dream, my ultimate academic goal. To enter the world of those three extra letters neatly placed after my name, to command academic respect from your peers, who too knew the trials you had put yourself through in getting to the status of ‘doctor’. I knew exactly what taking on a PhD meant; long lonely nights researching, isolation, self-doubt, crippling stress and anxiety…I knew all of this and still believed it to be right choice. Yet here I am, having sent the official refusal of offer email just hours ago.

Writing and submitting my application for this year’s batch of studentships was actually my second time around already on the PhD application front. I’d attempted to leap straight from my third year of my Bachelors into a PhD, and naturally, I fell short that year. I collected myself, began my masters, and poured my efforts into that, developing my PhD application more so after the completion of my MA dissertation, having had more time to grow as an academic and develop the research project itself.

I spent a lot of time juggling my new full-time job in marketing with developing my PhD application. I’ll admit, there were a lot of tears, a lot of stress, and a lot of frustration. Having to keep it secret from the majority of my colleagues didn’t help the situation either, as I was afraid of being made redundant during my probation period if they thought I would be leaving soon anyway. While I was attending a lot of conferences during the summer, reading extensively, and generally keeping myself up to date with my field, by the time Christmas 2016 rolled around I was feeling more deflated and conflicted about it than I wanted to admit.

I was enjoying my job, more than I had expected to enjoy a generic office job in marketing, something that was distinctly outside of my media specialism. Equally, I was enjoying being able to live in a nice house (with heating! and no mould! and no mice!) for the first time in two years. I liked the freedom to make plans with my money, to book holidays to visit friends abroad, to have fun new experiences without worrying about my overdraft or not being able to afford food or clothes. For the first time since I was 18, I had savings. When I finally submitted my research application in mid January, I’m almost ashamed to admit I felt relief that it was over and out of my hands for a few months while I took time to think about my future.

If I’m honest with myself, I think even by the time I handed it in, my decision to turn down the PhD offer was already forming in my head. I wrote countless for and against lists, researched extensively on what doing a PhD was like to live and breathe, and what the job market was like for new PhD graduates in the UK HE sector. The more I researched, the more disheartened I felt. I struggle badly with anxiety, and everything I read seemed to reaffirm my fears that the PhD would be the most stressful thing ever undertaken willingly. The job market for young academics is horrific; zero hour contracts and a massive lack of support and permanent roles seemed common. With universities increasingly acting like businesses and taking education as a means of money-making opportunity. thanks to our Tory government, placing inherent value on knowledge is becoming less and less guaranteed. I couldn’t help but think; what would a PhD even be worth if I did it?

The decision to refuse the PhD offer came long before that email dropped into my inbox today. I spoke with friends, family, my boyfriend, looking for advice from each of them on what to do. But ultimately, I could only make the best decision for me, with the information I had. I couldn’t risk lack of job security, lack of finances, and increased stress and anxiety on a three year long project which wouldn’t see me graduate until I was in my late twenties. It sounds awful, it sounds shallow, it sounds materialistic and like I’ve embraced the shackles of neoliberalism – and maybe I have, and maybe it is all of those things. But I like being able to make plans for a future I have a lot more certainty about. I love being able to go on holiday and explore new parts of the world. I like being able to buy clothes and shoes before they are completely falling apart. I like to know that at the end of the day, I can have food in my fridge and cupboard as a guarantee, not as a hope. Many people who take PhDs have some kind of support network: maybe they live at home with parents, maybe their partner supports them by working, or maybe they just have parents who can afford to support them. I live as a lodger, my parents are divorced and neither could ever support me, and while my partner is fully supportive, it’s not in a financial sense. I’m absolutely fine with this entire situation, but taking on a PhD would mean I would be forced to move somewhere cheaper, borrow money from my already stretched parents, and put strain on my relationship – I’m not willing to go back down that route.

One thing that always sticks out to me as a pinnacle of student life is this. When I was between my third year and my masters, I worked as a cashier at a supermarket. It paid my rent and some of my bills, but not much else, so I ended up digging deep into my overdraft between pay checks. I was busy preparing for my Masters in my free time, so I still felt like a student. We were a house of three, and we were all very, very poor. We used to take it in turns to buy key household essentials, like milk, sugar and toilet roll. On this occasion, it was my turn to buy butter. And I couldn’t afford it. I didn’t have £1.20 to spend on a tub of generic butter spread. I have never forgotten that moment of pure helplessness and frustration when I realised I couldn’t afford a basic necessity. I knew that I couldn’t go back to roughing it in student life. Taking a PhD would mean exactly that.

I’d like to clarify; I still love academia, and deep down I think it will always be a passion of mine. I have nothing but immense respect for those who do take on the challenge of a PhD – in a way, you are stronger than me to see all of this around you and still bite that bullet. I’m not saying I’m never going to go back and study, because in the future I absolutely would love to take up another MA or even an MRes. But to me, a PhD is just too daunting, too big, and too full of uncertainty to make it worthwhile for me. I’m happy in my career, and even taking steps up the ladder as I recently got a new position which is a small promotion on my current role. I’ll still keep reading and writing academically, but it won’t be my work – it’ll be my hobby. I’m okay with that. I’m happy to be a hobbyist rather than a professional. At the end of the day, I have to do what feels right for me, and while I am sad to be turning down what once would have been my dream, it feels right.

Coming to this decision isn’t something I’ve taken lightly, and I’ve spent a good few months reaching it. I can only hope that ten years down the line, I can still look back and say that I made the best decision possible for myself at this point in my life.

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Assassin’s Creed: Historically educational or fact-twisting showmanship?

Note: This article will primarily focus on Assassin’s Creed 2.

 

The idea for this article struck me a few weeks back when I was visiting The National Gallery in London. I was admiring a series of paintings depicting Renaissance era Italy, in particular the cities and architecture. While I should probably have been thinking about the skill of the artist and the captured history in front of me, my first thought was ‘It looks just like Assassin’s Creed 2.’ This train of thought reminded me also of when I visited Italy myself in April 2013. Again, I was struck by how well the buildings in Assassin’s Creed 2 resembled the real-life historical buildings of Italy. All of this led to me think about the historical accuracy and fact wrapped up in the Assassin’s Creed franchise. But are they using the games to deliver entertainment and education, or simply taking a fascinating historical time frame and twisting it to make it more appealing for the audience?

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Artwork for Assassin’s Creed 2 featuring Ezio Auditore, the protagonist assassin

 

Let me be clear: I am not saying the audience of Assassin’s Creed 2 are uneducated and accepting everything in the games as historical truth. But I wonder how many of those playing have an in-depth knowledge of Renaissance Italy, in terms of it’s politics, religious infrastructure, architecture, nobility and so on. Given that Assassin’s Creed 2 is after all a video game, and therefore a form of entertainment, is it so strange to suggest that the creators would have slipped in a number of historical inaccuracies to make gameplay more exciting? Aside including from a secret order of Assassins, which I think we can accept as a given.

Many of the buildings in the cities throughout Assassin’s Creed 2, and Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, are still standing and recognisable, like the Pantheon, the Colosseum, Basilica de San Lorenzo, Ponte de Rialto and the Castel Sant’Angelo to name a few. All of these appear in Assassin’s Creed 2 and are rendered with surprising historical accuracy. Naturally it can be assumed that Ubisoft did not want to be seen butchering such prized historical architecture in creating the game (although clearly this attitude for detail has not been carried on with their recent announcement regarding the lack of female assassins in Assassin’s Creed Unity). And yet I cannot help but wonder how many liberties were taken in designing them in-game to enhance the gameplay. How many ledges and handholds were added, how many ladders and steps and neatly fitting roofs were jammed together? However I cannot deny that the settings are beautifully designed and very rich in detail, which makes for a very good gaming experience, whatever inaccuracies may be present. I am not a historical expert in Renaissance Italy though – I have no idea what is accurate and what is fake or added or altered. 

The idea of historical inaccuracy becomes a little clearer when the game begins to incorporate famous historical figures. Leonardo Da Vinci is the most prominent, acting as a friend and inventor for Ezio (the protagonist assassin) throughout Assassin’s Creed 2 and Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. While many of the inventions used are drawn directly from Da Vinci’s original designs (like his flying machine and prototype tank). It is more the actual character of Da Vinci that makes me question accuracy. How can we possibly know what he was like? Why doesn’t he seem to age over the course of Assassin’s Creed 2 despite such a long time frame of the game? Of course, creative liberties have to be taken with things like this, but the whole idea of using figures relative to the time seems a little…tacky to me. Why not have an invented Renaissance inventor specific to the order of Assassins to serve them? After all, there were many inventors and ‘Renaissance Men’ at the time, if you are already going to include a fictional assassins order you may as well give them their own engineer rather than shoehorning in Da Vinci. I noticed this happening again in Assassin’s Creed 3 with Benjamin Franklin appearing. It feels like showboating historic figures for the sake of it. Any fictional character would have served as well in their place.

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Ezio Auditore, left, and Leonardo Da Vinci, right, depicted in game in Assassin’s Creed 2

Ubisoft does recognise that it takes liberties with the history surrounding the game, and makes effort to point out the differences on their Assassin’s Creed Wikia page. Their disclaimer at the start of the game regarding the creative development team and that the game is a work of fiction ‘inspired by historical events and characters’ does provide cover for any inaccuracies they had to or wanted to use in the game. Yet they seem to spend the game hedging between committing to a greater level of historical accuracy, and taking liberties with the gaps in history and their own creative ideas. While part of me wishes there were a greater sense of factuality behind the game, I do still enjoy Assassin’s Creed 2 very much, and whatever inaccuracies it uses, I am happy to overlook them for several hours of quality gameplay.

 

Are video games a haven for representations of women who kill?

Last year I wrote an essay entitled ‘Media representations of women who kill portray them as mad, bad and non-woman’. Throughout the essay, I readily agreed that the media portrays women who kill as these things, with arguments supporting gender role disobedience, monstrous femininity and the removal of femininity, and the uncanny valley of the attractive female killer. However, my recent work on Lara Croft from Tomb Raider had made me see this argument in a whole new light. In the original essay I did not think to consider video game representations of women, and focused instead in film, TV and news for representations. Yet I have realised that in video games there seems to be a different, almost totally contradictory, representation of women who kill.

In my original argument, the only point I had that argued against women who kill being portrayed negatively was that of the femme fatale. These representations of women retained their femininity and womanhood, despite being characters who were doing wrong, either in killing or another criminal activity or act of deception to the main character. However, I think this warrants more discussion than I first gave it. The femme fatale is a sexy woman who can handle herself and isn’t afraid to break the rules a little – think Black Widow from The Avengers. The femme fatale has permission to kill, lie, and otherwise injure characters without losing her femininity or her identity as a woman having to be otherwise justified for these actions. For example, oftentimes women who kill gain ‘justification’ for their actions due to hormonal instability, lesbianism, childlessness. The media feels the need to highlight these ‘problems’ in the female character to the audience can then regard her as non woman, putting them more at ease with the idea that she had killed, and therefore broken the dominant hegemony surrounding women in that they are weaker and not violent. But with the femme fatale, she is cool, calm and collected, stepping over the body and plucking the prize without smudging her lipstick or getting blood on her outfit. With the Black Widow the only concession she has to being ‘non woman’ is her status as a superhero with powers, having been genetically engineered to some degree, making her beyond human. However, in the 2012 film The Avengers, there is no doubt that she is represented as a sex symbol in the film, no matter what actions she undertakes. Her status as a superhero does not detract from the fact she is a woman who kills, and she is not represented as non-woman, mad or bad. She is very feminine in appearance, and takes full advantage of her status as a woman (and an attractive one at that), she fights on the side of good (no matter what her initial introduction was) and she is in no way represented as being mad or mentally incapable.

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Scarlett Johannson as the Black Widow in the 2012 film The Avengers

While the femme fatale is an important figure in the argument against this media representation of women, it is not the only one. As mentioned before, video games seem to have a niche for women to be killers and remain women wholly, rather than having to be labelled as something else for justification of their actions. Lara Croft here is an absolutely prime example of a woman killer. I am using the 2013 game Tomb Raider as my main example for this discussion. In the game, Lara is first introduced as young, naïve, and firmly not a killer – she is far removed from the pistol-toting adventuress she becomes in her later. However, she quickly learns in the game how to handle weapons, and herself, in dangerous situations. Although her first human kill in the game is given the suitable amount of emotional depth necessary to her character development, she goes on throughout the game becoming more determined to rescue her friend and less traumatised by each one. However, this change in attitude does not make her any less of a woman. She retains her femininity despite her status as a murderer now (albeit in the name of rescue and survival). The audience knows what Lara has to do, and does not judge her for it. I would even say that killing is expected in Lara’s character, and yet there is no justification needed for her doing this, other than survival, which is common theme not just to this game but to hundreds of other games which involve killing. In spite of her status as a killer, Lara remains a woman, she is not retracted from this in any way, and her appearance is sexual and attractive, with no hint of the monstrous feminine that is so often ascribed onto female killer to make them more acceptable to the audience. Lara is unique in that she fulfils a number of female gender roles, including the caring role (throughout the game she attempts to help and rescue a number of her friends), is recognised as a video game woman, not just a female character (she is undoubtedly a sex symbol of gaming), and alongside all this, she is a killer – yet it does not matter nor really impact on her representation as a character, making her woman, sane and good, rather than non-woman, mad and bad.

Continuing with video game characters, my thoughts turned to the female character in fighting games such as Street Fighter 2 (Chun Li), and Mortal Kombat (Kitana, Jade, Mileena). Chun Li from Street Fighter 2 stands out to me as the least sexualised character from the examples I have given here. She is widely known and loved in the Street Fighter franchise and continues today to be one of the most popular characters both in game and in other parts of gaming culture. Again, she is a woman who kills (or at least severely injures), but this time in the ring, not just for survival like Lara. Chun Li may only injure her opponents to the point of being unable to stand/fainting, but the standards are much the same as for women who kill. She inflicts as much damage and is perceived to be as deadly and dangerous as any woman murderer. But yet again, this does not impede her character – if anything it defines her as a female fighter in the gaming world. Chun Li is not weak by any stretch of the imagination (her legs are always depicted as incredibly muscular), and she is taken seriously as a fighter and opponent in video games, indicating that while she may be a woman who kills (or is implied to at least), again her character suffers no negative media representation as a part of this, and indeed her strength and prowess as a fighter capable of killing makes her more appealing to the gaming audience – along with her sex appeal as a character.

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Chun Li, first debuted in 1991 Street Fighter 2

Kitana, Jade and Mileena from the Mortal Kombat series can be grouped together as female assassins. They are all highly sexualised in appearance, with very skimpy outfits, enormous breasts and attractive features (with their masks on at least – particularly true for Mileena). All of them are classed as assassins, and each of them has unique brutal fatalities to finish off their opponents in a morbid display of blood and gore. These ladies are most definitely women who kill; there is no question there. While Mileena can be considered ‘non woman’ due to her monstrous teeth and ability hidden beneath her mask, Kitana and Jade retain their status as women completely, and have no questions thrown up about their sanity or goodness to justify their ability and readiness to kill. Kitana and Jade are regarded as very popular characters within the series and are often seen as some of the sexiest in video gaming (Mileena is often credited with this too but she is sometimes ranked down because of her hidden appearance). Even if one of this trio can be seen as ‘non woman’ in certain respects, all three are regarded as sex symbols of gaming, and their femininity, sex appeal, and womanliness are all very prominent alongside their deadly fighting and fatality skills. There is story yes, but ultimately they are characters in a fighting game, and they do exactly that – fight and kill. They retain their status as women without the need to be justified. Although they may be ancient and not true residents of Earth, or incorrect copies of another (Mileena and Kitana), they are still depicted as human female women with a huge amount of sex appeal, and it is this that rises above their non Earth residency and their murderous tendencies, much like the femme fatale, only with less clothes and a lot more blood.

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From left to right: Jade, Kitana, Mileena, from the Mortal Kombat series

Women who kill do receive negative media representation, and are often depicted as non woman, mad and bad to help ease the audience with that they are seeing and to help prevent hegemony from being broken down (especially when you note that hegemony supports patriarchy, so it is even more important that is sustained in the face of female murderers).  However, it is clear to me now that video games, and some film representations such as the femme fatale, provide a niche where women can be killers and not be judged for it. They can fight and kill the same as any man in a game, film or TV programme would, and yet there is little to no justification needed as to why they do this. They are simply part of the game and that is the end of it – total acceptance from the audience of the game and the gaming community at large. In fact, female fighting characters often attract more attention than male ones, partially due to their typically sexualised appearance, but also due to the fact that they are not only women who are sexually attractive, but they are women who can fight and kill with the best of them. The haven video games provides for more positive representations of women who kill, and the representations of them as women, rather than the non woman, is interesting to see and allows for a richer variety of female characters with more complex stories and personalities.

 

Disclaimer: I do not support murder in any form, this is a theoretical discussion regarding fictional characters and their representations and impact.

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Saying goodbye to the ‘cyberbabe’?

Lara Croft of the Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix/Core Design, 1996-present) franchise, has been recognised since her first appearance in video games as a sex symbol: a fighting, fierce and capable heroine, who happens to wear hot pants, a crop top and have enormous breasts. She walked into video games fully realised as a sexy heroine everyone quickly loved, both for her looks and her bad-ass attitude in game.

Although female video game protagonists had existed prior to Lara Croft (Samus Aran of Metroid, for example), she struck a chord with gamers everywhere (no doubt in due part to her appearance, triangular as she may have been). People loved having a woman to play as who fought as hard as any male protagonist. Her love of adventure and fighting/survival skills have carried her through 18 games since 1996, and more planned in the future. Clearly, she is well loved by gamers, in several aspects.

Her appearance and sexualisation as a character has caused many debates over the years, leading to the rise of the title ‘cyberbabe’, first thought to have been coined with Lara herself. She is frequently cited as being one of the ‘hottest’ female characters in video games. An air of sexualisation, with her short, tight revealing clothes, tiny waist and large breasts, dominates her appearance, and she is obviously designed to look attractive to the predominant male gaming audience. Combining with this appearance her Indiana Jones style adventures, and it is little wonder why the games became so popular. A male audience already loves an intense action-adventure game, and having something sexy to look at while they do just makes it even better. Lara acts as multiple things: sex symbol, feminist empowering action character, and sexualised woman in video games. It is often cited that her appearance, which makes her so successful and has allowed her to become the huge gaming industry icon that she is, also is her downfall, given it is so heavily sexualised. It is a catch 22 for her. She likely would not have been as successful without her appearance being so, but in appearing as a woman of unrealistic proportions and sexualised by her creators, she has broken through into gaming and become a female character loved and recognised for almost 20 years.

However, with the recent reboot of the franchise with the 2013 release Tomb Raider, her appearance has caused controversy again – but not for the reasons you might expect. The reboot of the series focuses on the origin story – how did Lara Croft become an accomplished ass-kicking explorer? Naturally, she is depicted as much younger than in her previous games (cited at being around 21). This Lara looks much different to the old Lara.

Gone are her hot pants and crop tops. Instead, full-length cargo pants and a standard tank top replace them. Her breasts have reduced in size considerably, are more covered by her clothing, and in the promotional artwork and cover artwork for the game, they are not front and centre as in her old games – in fact the gamebox artwork shows her holding her arm across her chest, protecting them from the gaze of the viewer. Her figure proportions are much more realistic too, with a wider waist and less dramatic curves, plus thicker thighs and calves. In addition to having a much more realistic appearance, her in game appearance is not clean and lovely. She is constantly splattered with mud, blood, grime and gore, receives injuries that remain throughout the game (covered by ever grubbier bandages), and even appears to make repairs to her clothing to prevent it from becoming too revealing (string wrapped around her boots and a bandage tied over the trousers later in the game are noticeable).  Granted, Lara is still beautiful and above average in her appearance but the game developers have made her look like she could be a real person now, and not the cyberbabe of impossible proportions she once was.

Despite her new appearance being generally well accepted, does this mean it is the end of Lara Croft being a true cyberbabe? She still fights, adventures, handles weapons and acts in the spirit of a true game heroine. But without her super sexualised appearance, is she now just a female game protagonist? Since Lara made her debut in 1996, women are now more prominent as characters than before, and often just as hard hitting as her (Female Commander Shepherd from Mass Effect and Lightning from Final Fantasy XIII as examples). But these are not cyberbabes. They are very attractive female protagonists, yes, but not cyberbabes as Lara appeared. Both of these examples are clothed from head to toe in armour, and although they have concessions to make them more sexual (particularly Lightning), they are not nearly to the same extent that Lara was once portrayed.

The 2013 Tomb Raider was the first game in the series I had ever played, and I enjoyed it immensely. I liked that Lara showed moments of weakness, had to learn how to cope with a terrible situation; to learn how to survive. She got injured, she got dirty, she cried and screamed, she grappled with her morals – and then went on to shoot and kill (after some practise and training). I was aware of the previous Tomb Raider games but I had never gone near them. Lara’s intense dark eyebrow stare and very dominating sexual appearance put me off to some degree. But this Lara feels relatable, feels real, both from her appearance and her reactions in game.  Above all, I felt at no point was her appearance detracting from the storyline or from her as a character. I found it very heartening to see such a prominent female character appear realistic, and if anything my awareness of this actually furthered my game enjoyment. Although Lara broke through as a sexualised cyberbabe, given the gaming advancements and attitude changes both in the gaming industry and audiences, she no longer needs to be throwing her gigantic breasts straight at the camera. Instead, she can simply be a realistic female adventurer, fighting hard and surviving, and hopefully she will be appearing this way in many more games to come.

The new look Lara Croft from the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot

The new look Lara Croft from the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot

 

Sources

http://www.tomb-raider.wikia.com/wiki/Tomb_Raider_series

http://herocomplex.latimes.com/games/tomb-raider-sequel-well-into-development-square-enix-reports/#/0

http://www.forbes.com/sites/insertcoin/2014/01/12/whats-going-on-with-lara-crofts-new-look-in-her-ps4xbox-one-revamp/

http://www.gamespot.com/articles/its-hard-to-believe-in-the-new-lara-croft/1100-6401083/

http://www.forbes.com/sites/carolpinchefsky/2013/03/12/a-feminist-reviews-tomb-raiders-lara-croft/

http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/03/even-lara-crofts-grown-makeover-cant-hide-tomb-raiders-lack-ideas

http://www.siliconera.com/2013/01/06/tomb-raiders-new-lara-croft-is-still-rich-but-theres-a-catch/

http://www.8bitgamer.com/article/editorials/old-vs-new-lara-croft/

http://www.spearswms.com/news/lara-croft-gets-new-breasts-and-feelings#.U70_WI2Vnt4

Game of Thrones Essay Collection: Women, Sex, Exploitation and Empowerment Volume 2: Brienne of Tarth

Brienne of Tarth, also known as Brienne, Brienne the Beauty, or Brienne the Blue, is one of the more popular female characters of the series, and one of the more physically distinct. From her first appearance in the novels Brienne is described in a very prominent manner, as George R.R. Martin introduces her as a female knight who struggles to walk the line between being a woman and being masculine. As Brienne’s struggles with this are so clear and conflicted within the series, she makes an excellent example of gender subversion and how women have difficulty breaking away from set sex roles.

‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’ (1949: 281). De Beauvoir’s simple statement holds a great deal of power and meaning, especially when applied to Brienne. Biologically speaking, Brienne is a female: her physical form is one of a woman (no matter how ugly a woman Martin paints her as). Yet Brienne’s gender is male. She is a knight, she dresses as a man, and she demands equality in her rights (most notably in her challenge to a man who wished to marry her that she would if he could beat her in single combat her, resulting in her defeating him), which is most unusual for the time period and relating to the status of women in the novels. Her prowess and confidence in battle is as great any other knight in the novels – yet still she is mocked, belittled and otherwise shunned by her peers. It appears that Brienne did not become a woman as De Beauvoir predicted, and instead opted for ‘Embracing her masculine traits, Brienne directly defies her place in society and asserts her power through her sword and fearlessness, as a role outside her gendered caste.’ (Keyhan 2013). From her first introduction, Catelyn Stark is horrified to learn that Brienne is a woman, after having watched her fight ruthlessly in an enormous melee and emerged the victor with her Morningstar. It is interesting to point out that initially Martin deceives the audience into believing Brienne is a man. During the description of the fight he refers to her in male pronouns, and as such the reader gains a large amount of respect for Brienne before her true identity is revealed. Such a trick on the audience enables them to break down the sex and gender barriers much more easily. Had Martin introduced Brienne as the ugly female warrior without showing her skill, she would not have been taken seriously, and nor would she stand out amongst a field of male knights quite so much.

Martin makes Brienne ugly for the sole reason that he does not want her to be an object of desire. She is not a ‘woman warrior’, who enchants men on the battlefield. She is a knight: genderless, protecting and fearless. ‘Her features were broad and coarse, her teeth prominent and crooked, her mouth too wide, her lips so plump they seemed swollen. A thousand freckles speckled her cheeks and brow, and her nose had been broken more than once.’ (Martin 1998:312). Brienne is indeed unfortunate looking, but that she has risen to such a status (becoming part of the King’s esteemed Rainbow Guard, something few knights achieve) indicates that she is able to overcome all the hardships directed towards her, including the scorn of her peers, the disappointment of her father and her isolation from other women. It is also possible that as ‘the situation for women, with Westeros’ unbending gender roles, rampant prostitution, and ubiquitous culture of abuse and rape, is obviously much worse’ (Wohl 2012), Brienne inadvertently escaped from this life of immense hardship and lack of power through her genetics. Brienne’s lack of femininity in her appearance allowed her the chance to take another path, one that deviated from the usual roles of women but simultaneously allowed her to establish herself as a man in a world that scorns gender subversion.

Martin’s deliberate description of Brienne as an unattractive woman relates to the Male Gaze Theory (Mulvey 1973). Brienne is looked upon as sexually undesirable, and so the audience view her as such in accordance with the theory. First and foremost Brienne is known for her features, and her lifestyle choices and battle skill second. It seems as though the appearance of the characters is the most important factor in their relationship to the audience, rather than their personalities. This is reflected onto the other female characters as well – Martin tends to describe Cersei, perhaps the most notorious female character, as incredibly beautiful before he launches into her latest manipulative scheme. By making her beautiful first and evil second, it warms the reader to her despite such awful characteristics. With Brienne, making her ugly first and good second, it enables the idea that only beautiful women can be ‘good’ irrelevant, as these two characters prove that the polar opposite is true, at least here. If anything, the Male Gaze here views Brienne as an equal male character, rather than focusing on her sexuality. Martin makes it clear that Brienne is not to be regarded with any form of desire, and as such, the audience view her in the same category as the male characters.

However, considering the implications of the Male Gaze on Brienne’s character, it is interesting to note that the other characters (as opposed to the audience) treat Brienne as inferior. They mock her repeatedly, despite knowing her skill as knight, and when she is captured with Jamie Lannister, her captors make threats to rape her. Bringing up this inherent threat to the female side of Brienne reminds us that despite all of her attempts to become a gendered male, she cannot escape her female biology, and the other characters are unlikely to forget this either. However, that Brienne’s sexuality is only discussed here in such a negative term again repels the audience from thinking of her as a sexualised being. Considering that the males of the novels have a fixation with Brienne as a woman (particularly in the sexual sense), it is interesting to note that her fellow females treat her a kind of hybrid that they cannot tolerate, thus leading to further isolation as Brienne falls out of touch with both gender groups. ‘Rather than an exclusive tactic of masculinist signifying economies, dialectical appropriation and suppression of the Other is one tactic among many, deployed centrally but not exclusively in the service of expanding and rationalizing the masculinist domain.’ (Butler 14:1990). Butler argues that the male viewpoint of a specific trait or character can have a much wider circle of influence than originally intended, thus leading to great suppression and gender based power over those who opt to break from the pattern of the norm. Despite this, Brienne retains her male gender in the face of such inherently female threats. She holds her own, if with difficulty at times, but overall she maintains her status as a gendered male. The rape threat incident truly highlights how Brienne has managed to achieve such a level of gender subversion that no other character does in A Song of Ice and Fire. She establishes herself as a man, and maintains this in the face of scorn, difficulty and hardship.

Considering the amount of effort Martin puts into establishing Brienne as a gendered male, it is interesting to note that she retains a more feminine slant to how she conducts her personal relationships. When first introduced, it is obvious that Brienne is deeply in love with Renly Baratheon – however, she is mocked for such a fact, which could indicate that on some level the other characters have accepted her masculinity and thus see her affection towards Renly as homosexual. Brienne’s interactions with other women, however, immediately place her back into the awkward situation of being regarded as a woman and yet asking to be treated as a man. No better example of this is Brienne’s relationship to Catelyn Stark. Brienne becomes her ‘sworn sword’, and acts every inch the gallant knight, defending Catelyn and later going on to search for Catelyn’s missing daughters. All of the interactions between the two places Brienne in a distinctly masculine light, and Catelyn learns to treat her with the same respect as any knight, allowing Brienne to relax into her preferred gender role. Her relationship with Catelyn is her only true contact with another woman who treats her equally, which makes it unique, especially as Brienne and Catelyn seem to form an almost mother-child bond at times, with Brienne holding Catelyn in highest regard and obeying her without question, while Catelyn feels affection for this woman she sees as being shunned from her ‘true’ world and wishes to help her in any form she can. This bond of genuine respect between them builds more sincerity into their interactions, and further helps develop Brienne as a character, rather than trying to force through her gender subversion choices, which in turn makes it easier for Catelyn to accept Brienne as a man, something she initially finds difficult. Yet with time and greater knowledge of Brienne as a person, rather than a sex, Catelyn learns that Brienne is a knight, and this cannot be changed. Her acceptance is a milestone for Brienne, as few women accept her for who she is without mocking or scorn, indicating that gender subversion is indeed possible in this highly gender-role led society.

Brienne spends more time around males and seems more at ease in their company, most likely because she has adapted herself to fit into their hierarchy and is therefore more comfortable in holding herself there, rather than circumnavigating the rules of the female world she dislikes. The best example of this is Brienne’s relationship with Jamie Lannister. Although they begin as prisoner and captor, eventually their relationship evolves into one of respected, mutual companionship, with Jamie going so far as to entrust Brienne with his sword Oathkeeper, saving her from rapists and his own men. Similarly, Brienne defends Jamie during their time together, and they become honest friends. This relationship is particularly interesting as it is one of the very few examples of Jamie Lannister treating a woman as both an equal and a friend, without a hint of sexual desire or misogyny. Even during a scene where they share a bathouse together, there is no sexual tension between the two. Brienne’s masculine gender could well be the cause for this, as Jamie sees past her as a biological woman and learns to view her as the knight that she is. Here, Brienne’s gender subversion is truly realised, and she earns her respect in being viewed as an equal. As time passes and Brienne becomes more prominent within the novels, the audience accepts her more and more as a gendered male, and the characters around her also seem to take on this too, accepting her slowly, although with grace, allowing Brienne to finally achieve the masculine gender role she desires with ease and respect

Brienne is a fascinating character with A Song of Ice and Fire, and her hardships and choices along the way, as well as her personality, make her one of the most memorable characters in the series. Brienne’s immense popularity within the television show Game of Thrones reveals that audiences are not only willing to accept so called gender-bending females, but that they wholly excited and ready for them in the media landscape. Brienne’s male gender marks that females do not need to use their sexuality in order to establish themselves, and that she eventually earns genuine respect and honour from the other characters only makes her triumphs better earned. Brienne is not the first female character to subvert gender roles, but she is most surely one of the most recognisable and one of the most popular to do so. Her rise to fame only proves that audiences are more accepting of ‘different’ women these days, and it can only be hoped that media producers will begin to explore more gender subversion in women with the same level of success as Brienne of Tarth.

 

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Bibliography

Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge: New York

De Beauvoir, S (1949) The Second Sex Trans. Parshley, H.M. London: David Campbell Publishers ltd.

Keyhan, R (2013) Brave Gender Bending Arya VS Masculine and Mocked Brienne of Tarth < http://hbowatch.com/why-we-love-brave-gender-bending-arya-but-we-dont-really-notice-brienne/> [2.8.2013].

Martin, G. R.R. (1998) A Clash of Kings. Voyager Books: UK

Mulvey, L. (1973) Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Available on <http://artsite.arts.ucsb.edu/~arts1a/outlines/Visual_Pleasure_Mulvey.pdf> [24.6.2013]

Wohl, D (2012) Is Historical Accuracy a Good Defense of Patriarchal Societies in Fantast Fiction? <http://www.themarysue.com/sexism-in-historical-fantasy/> [2.8.2013]

Photo Credit to HBO, Game of Thrones and their associates, partners and producers.

Game of Thrones Essay Collection: Women, Sex, Exploitation and Empowerment. Volume 1: Daenerys Targaryen

The immense popularity of the television adaption of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, generally known as Game of Thrones, has caused many controversies to arise. The show is well known for its strongly adult themes, and in particular has been criticised for its highly sexualised portrayal of women and excessive violence. The television series is not taking many liberties with the original material either – Martin’s novels are all focused on a misogynistic, sexual portrayal of women. As such, a huge argument over the female characters of the series and whether or not Game of Thrones is at all feminist has arisen.

The argument for the feminist and the sexist portrayals both hold validity in their points. Many of the female characters in the world are used as tools for men to achieve further goals; ‘Women are very regularly subjected to physical and sexual violence and are largely used as pawns in the “game of thrones” for marriage and childbearing’ (Mulhall 2013). Clearly, the kingdom of Westeros is not a place in which women can be equals to men. However, Martin includes many females as lead characters, despite their subordinate and relatively powerless roles in the universe he has created. Yet of them all, perhaps only one can be considered a positive female role model, and that is tenuous at times. Daenerys Targaryen is often called out as the feminist of the series, dominating over the manipulative Cersei, weak Sansa, tomboy child Arya, and knight Brienne, who will be discussed in future essays. Yet still arguments remain for each, in their representation and roles within the series, as to whether or not they represent feminist ideals, or are simply too held down by the male dominance of the Game of Thrones series.

Daenerys Targaryen is the most prominent female character of the series. When first introduced (in the novels) she is merely 13 years old, and yet within pages of her introduction, she is sold by her brother to man twice her age whom she then marries, and in each chapter concerning her Martin makes sure to include references to her sexuality and sex scenes (bearing in mind she is 13, barely into adolescence). Martin’s constant reminders of Daenerys are all highly sexual, linking very closely to Mulvey’s idea of the Male Gaze (Mulvey, 1975), along with the idea that ‘she is simply what man decrees; thus she is called ‘the sex’, by which is meant that she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being.’ (De Beauvoir 1949: 44). Of all the female characters, Daenerys is exposed to the most sexualisation, both in the books and series. She is used sexually by her husband (frequently in graphic scenes), manipulated by her brother through fear, and treated as a completely weaker being who only serves purpose as a sexual object. It is here that the argument for Game of Thrones as a misogynistic text begins to become better supported.

As Daenerys grows into her new role as a barbarian queen, she begins to become more empowered. She starts to take control of her sexuality and in turn she becomes more of an equal to Khal Drogo – although it smacks of inequality that the only way she can become his equal is to manage him sexually, thus using her own body as currency over him. Perhaps most importantly she breaks free of the violent fear and control her brother holds over her, helping her to become more aware of her own power and influence (as she becomes the sole heir to the throne she considers rightfully belonging to the Targaryens). Daenerys becomes much stronger, more willing to stand up for herself, and emboldened to protect the things she cares about. Still, you cannot escape the fact that by the end of the first book, Daenerys is 15. In this time, she has been married, become sexually aware and active, given birth to a child (which then dies), had her husband die, and become mother to three dragon hatchlings. While this is in-keeping with the time period in which the series is somewhat based (early Medieval), Martin is continually unnecessarily sexist. She struggles to maintain her place of power in the world purely because she is a woman. ‘They never saw me for a queen. She thought bitterly. I was only an afternoon’s amusement’ (Martin 1998:519). Her enemies and potential allies look down upon her and see her as able to be used, rather than a force to be taken seriously. ‘Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions’ (Mulvey 1973:7). In a sense, Daenerys is so strongly subjected to the Male Gaze by the reader that she cannot be taken as a serious feminist character, despite her good leadership and sense of independence; she is merely depicted as what the male characters of the story wish her to be seen as, the same as with Martin’s fantasy.

Daenerys can be seen as surrendering her femininity following Drogo’s death in order to become the strong leader her people need (namely taking on previously male dominated characteristics), however, Martin’s constant reminders of her gender and form keep the reader thinking about her sexuality, thus never allowing her to step away from the sexualized portrayal of women, despite the fact that Daenerys is more of a leader and less of a sexual object following the death of her husband and child. From A Clash of Kings (Martin 1998) onwards, Daenerys becomes a less feminine character, and aspires more to be the all-powerful leader that is regardless of gender. Butler’s ideas on gender become particularly relevant when discussing Daenerys’ shift away from her female side to becoming a leader in a man’s world. ‘The construal of “sex” no longer as a bodily given on which the construct of gender is artificially imposed, but as a cultural norm which governs the materialization of bodies.’ (1993: 2-3). Butler theorizes that gender is something that is built via cultural incidents and ideas. Daenerys becomes a woman and a queen because the culture around her dictates it to be so. When Khal Drogo dies, she takes up his mantle of leadership and attempts to act in his stead for the good of the people she now leads. Therefore Daenerys moves away from the previous gender construct of being a woman and into one of being man. However, those around her and the social cultural pressures prevent her from fully breaking her previous constructs. Daenerys, try as she might, cannot break the gender boundaries laid down before her.

While it is obvious that she is striving towards longer-term goals of retaking the throne, Martin’s depiction of her undermines the image he is simultaneously trying to create of her as independent and determined. In many instances of her trying to gain allies, for armies or wealth, while she attempts to intimidate, dominate or diplomatically reason, the male characters with which she interacts push aside her words, berating her for being a woman, weak, young, or a combination thereof, and Martin backs up their opinion of Daenerys as weak and female with his constant descriptions of her in a sexual manner. Daenerys is consistently portrayed as a sexual object who cannot hope to break free of the rules of man in her world. It is an odd conflict between author and character with the case of Daenerys. Martin writes her character as strong, independent, trying to fight against the male patriarchy of her world and attempting to negotiate politics and power. However, his constant descriptions of her as a sexual object, and the way in which the other characters treat her (namely demeaning and dismissing her for being a woman), completely undermines Daenerys’ attempts to break the gender and social boundaries of A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin has created a most complex character who not only must fight against the sexism of her own world, but also the traits of her writer. ‘Daenerys Targaryen is, in many ways, the archetypical Western feminist’ (McGinnis 2013), but she is also a feminist fighting very much to hear her own voice.

Bibliography

Benioff, D and Weiss, D.B. (2011-) Game of Thrones. HBO, Television 360, Grok! Studio.

Butler, J. (1993) Bodies That Matter. New York: Routledge

De Beauvoir, S. (1949) The Second Sex. Trans. Parshley, H.M. London: David Campbell Publishers ltd.

Martin, G. R.R. (1995) A Game of Thrones. Voyager Books: UK

Martin, G. R.R. (1998) A Clash of Kings. Voyager Books: UK

McGinnis, A. (2013) How Game of Thrones Depicts the Ultimate Feminist. Available on <http://www.returnofkings.com/12594/how-game-of-thrones-depicts-the-ultimate-feminist> [24.6.2013]

Mulhall, E.  (2013) ‘The fans doth protest too much, methinks: Is Game of Thrones Truly Feminist?’ available on <http://www.theliteraticollective.com/the-fans-doth-protest-too-much-methinks-is-game-of-thrones-truly-feminist/> [24.6.2013]

Mulvey, L. (1973) Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Available on <http://artsite.arts.ucsb.edu/~arts1a/outlines/Visual_Pleasure_Mulvey.pdf> [24.6.2013]

The Legacy of Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Katniss the Successor and other Feminist Icons

When Joss Whedon bought Buffy The Vampire Slayer[i] to the screen way back in 1997, it was to become an iconic feature that he could never have expected. He twisted the convention of the weak blonde girl (always the victim in horror movies), and instead made her a strong, fighting, independent character, still relatable through her teenage troubles and problems. Whedon made Buffy into an incredibly powerful force of the time, and the popularity of the show, both at the time and still continuing today, proves the longevity of the series.

Literature abounds regarding Buffy and her role as a feminist character, which is undeniable, and tantamount to Whedon’s excellent writing skills through seven years of TV. However, she has been gone from our screens for ten years now, and for a while there was no clear successor to her crown as Modern Feminist Icon. However, possibly in a sudden rebound against the Twilight movement, film and TV is suddenly flooded with characters snapping for a chance at taking up her mantle.

The most obvious (and likely the most popular) successor is Katniss, from the massively popular Hunger Games [ii] series. In many senses, she is the perfect fit to take up the throne. Her determination to save her family, her friends, and ultimately her country, along with her immense independence, make her ideal. She has been heralded as a modern feminist icon in many senses, particularly the way she has been noted to use her relationships and bonds with others to strengthen herself throughout the series. Katniss changes and grows over the course of the books, and learns to be both fighter and carer, realising the strength and benefit of allowing herself to be emotionally attached and bonded. She upholds De Beauvoir’s[iii] ideas of women refusing themselves to be defined by their male counterparts – if anything, Katniss defines Peeta, keeping him alive, defending him, and using him to her advantage in the Arena. Katniss holds on her femininity strongly, but she is unafraid to take on male roles as well, particularly seen in Mockingjay[iv], when her leadership and more ‘male’ aspects of her personality come across, still combining with her feminist side. Combining her strength drawn from relationships, and her fierce fighting nature, she is a natural fit to take over Buffy’s throne. However, she is not the only contender.

Warm Bodies[v], both the book and the film, features Julie, the female protagonist as an incredibly strong willed and practical character. At the death of her boyfriend Perry (by the hands of R), she is accepting of it, realising that trying to maintain the relationship was beyond her. Instead, she begins to look ahead, wanting to keep protecting her friends, and later, wanting to help R rediscover his humanity. Julie, in a sense, does not really act as a female character. Although she and R undertake a romantic relationship, in a way they are both gender neutral. Julie makes places little emphasis on her femininity, and combining her strong independence with her willingness to do what she feels is right, rather than what others want her to do. Like Katniss, she refuses to take a path she does not want to, and the strength of her relationships – from Perry, to her father, to R – are used to her advantage, never to her detriment. As proof of this, she accepts Perry’s death, she defies her father and his ideals, and while she maintains a strong relationship with R, she is prepared to leave him and send him away. Julie, while perhaps not as dominating or immediately obvious as Katniss or Buffy, she is still a feminist icon, taking on a subtler role than these two trailblazers.

Decidedly one of the far less known feminist icons is Vin, from Brandon Sanderson’s The Mistborn Trilogy[vi]. Vin begins her journey as a scrawny 16 year old girl who has suddenly discovered her immense and rare magical talent. Over the course of the three books, she becomes a powerful and determined fighter, more feared than any other magic user, and often takes massive risks to help save others or to aid their rebellion. Sanderson develops her as a character through her relationships, just like Julie and Katniss are. She learns to embrace her feminine characteristics and stops fearing that side of herself, instead realising that she can be both feminine and a fighter, and that she does not have to compromise in order to personify both. Her relationships with Elend and with Kelsier allow her to draw strength from them, to develop herself as a character – it enables her to ‘come of age’ and to finally discover who she wants to become as a person. Vin is a definitive feminist character, and her relative anonymity in mainstream media is a shame, as she fully embodies the modern feminist principles seen in the other examples here.

Of course, these three examples are only a selection of many. In deciding whom to choose to write about, I drew up a list of more than ten popular icons, and had I taken the time to explore, I am sure I could have come up with many others. It is refreshing to see feminist icons becoming so prominent in modern media, and the variety and abundance of them means there will soon be more and more choice for fans. Such a range of feminist characters could well shape the next few years of popular media, and finally sweep away the remnants of the Twilight movement, to replace them with more positive, realistic and frankly, exciting characters and texts for the next generation.

 Readings:

Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale, Ed. James B South, 2003, Open Court Publishing Co.

‘Why Katniss is a Feminist Character (and it’s not because she wields a bow and beats boys up)’ Rachel Stark http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/03/why-katniss-is-a-feminist-character-and-its-not-because-she-wields-a-bow-and-beats-boys-up

‘Feminist Icons’ http://www.mookychick.co.uk/feminism-politics/feminist-icons/

‘The Problem with Katniss’ http://www.shelaughsatthedays.net/2012/03/problem-with-katniss.html

‘Top 12 Characters who should be considered Feminist Icons in Comic Book Movies’ http://www.comicbookmovie.com/news/?a=66184


[i] Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon, 1997-2003, Kazui Productions, Mutant Enemy, 20th Century Fox

[ii] The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins, 2008, Harper Collins and The Hunger Games, Dir. Gary Ross, Lionsgate, 2012

[iii] The Second Sex, Simone De Beauvoir, Trans. H.M. Parshley, 1949, Everyman’s Library

[iv] Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins, 2010, Harper Collins

[v] Warm Bodies, Isaac Marion, 2009, Vintage, and Warm Bodies, Dir. Jonathan Levine, 2013, Summit Entertainment

[vi] The Mistborn Trilogy, Brandon Sanderson, 2006-2008, Tor Fantasy