Friday, April 21, 2017

Magicians and Gender

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Magicians is a show with so many problems. Oh, so many many problems.

But as this season, and Julia’s unrelenting suffering continued, it was clear we were going to have to talk about the women of Magicians

And for some of these women the main problem with them is just not getting the screen time to develop their characters. Take Fenn - a woman who entered this arranged marriage with a clear agenda: to save Fillory and make sure Fillorian views are represented by the High King - or to kill him if necessary. Far from the ingenue she was originally portrayed as - she was clear eyed and determined. And her storyline would have been a thousand times better if we’d actually had chance to see more of this. If, in fact, we’d seen any of it beyond what is described by her imprisoned brother. It’s an excellent concept… but sorely undeveloped and displayed

A large number of other women have been killed off - Renard’s killing spree honed in on women to a vastly disproportionate degree. Jane was a mysterious figure who was more of a plot point than a person before dying. Marina was an antagonist in Julia’s eternal suffering before being sacrificed to more brutal murdering off (along with so many of other women) to establish Renard as evil (joined by Dana, Renard’s previous rape victim). Even Sylvia was a character with an interesting concept with the potential for a great back story - and she died after being little more than an exposition tool for Penny

There’s a lot of death and a lot of loss and a lot of women as disposable tools here.

At least Kady wasn’t a disposable tool, but beyond being attracted to Penny and being sympathetic to Julia (the only one, ever) what was she actually doing in season 2? Anything? At all? There were episodes where I literally wanted to ask “why are you even here?”

If I had to sum up Margo in one phrase it would be: Spunky Agency. At first glance she seems to not fit the bill because she manages to cover a lot of the usual markers with huge amounts of snark, style and enormous confidence (all of which are excellent traits). She is sexual, revels in her sexuality with a powerful, magnificent joy that is excellent to behold. Margo is confident, in charge and even without a crown was always the queen of any room she stepped in. She’s shameless, proud, knows what she wants and goes for it - while being utterly awful and incompetent while doing so. The season finale made a joke of it: “Act out with a total lack of empathy and impulse control”. But it’s depressingly accurate

Which is the very essence of Spunky Agency. A female character with agency who constantly uses that agency to screw up or otherwise be terrible. A female character whose agency ends up being a CAUTIONARY TALE about women in power. In season 1 this was limited to the grossly homophobic and appallingly selfish way Margo treated Elliot, but in season 2 with an actual crown on her head, we see her take this to the next level. Margo's ruthlessness comes to all new levels - she’s happy to provoke wars, sentence people to death, to torture, to brutal oppression, to selling babies. By the end of the season, even the most terrifying of Roman Emperors would ask her to tone it down a bit.

I don’t mind Margo being ruthless. But she could at least be ruthlessly EFFECTIVE.

This becomes far more problematic when we consider that one of Margo’s oh-so-tiny plot line elements is that sexist Fillory society sidelines her as the High Queen and lauds the High King above her. She is perfectly positioned to challenge this, to smash this royal glass ceiling - but instead everything she does, every decision she makes, seems to come with the subtext of “and thank gods the High King can overrule her!”. The sexist society that makes Margo secondary looks less like something for her to overcome but a desperate safeguard everyone should be happy is in place! We couldn’t present a better poster child for the Spunky Agent.

Looking at Alice, what I think more than anything else is that she should have been the protagonist (Or Julia). She was the strongest magician. She was the smartest Magician. She was better than Quentin - she was better than everyone. At every stage of season 1 she made it clear time and again she was the one who could drive this story. Alice even had a defined motive to be at Brakebills and an actual goal (Which kind of just fell by the wayside) while Quentin was just “yay magic”. She was vastly more interesting and for a brief moment it looked like the show was going to recognise this by making her the Chosen One. It was done through a typical Magicians disgusting manner - by making Alice drink semen (Because this show loves to present “empowered” women through sexualised trauma) - but it set her up to be the Chosen One.

And then had Alice sacrifice herself for everyone else. We could probably live with that with her resurrection- after all a noble hero who dies for her fellows and then crawls back from the grave? That’s an epic storyline. But no, we had Alice the Niffin - even that could have been fascinating. Alice, the magically powerful, the random, the quixotic, but still the mighty, the driven, pursuing her own agenda and with more than enough power to pursue it.

Instead we got Quentin’s project. We didn’t get to see any of Alice’s powers, her adventures as a Niffin, anything she did, explored, nothing she achieved, nothing she experienced. Because Niffin Alice wasn’t a character - she was Quentin’s motivation, Quentin’s project. She becomes Quentin’s possession: something he controls, something he views as his to control and act on. She became the threat for him to control, the damsel for him to rescue (Despite her repeatedly saying she didn’t want “saving”, that she wanted to live her life her way. Nope, Quentin knows better what Alice needs). Not only does he “save her” despite her kicking and screaming against him every step of the way, but we close the season with her accepting this thanks to his penis (ok, and bacon. But, still - She was adamantly opposed to what he did to her but came round because they had sex).

The side effect of this constant disempowerment and removal of any kind of control or choice from Alice? It also removed her character; for most of season 2 Alice wasn’t present. She went from being the potential protagonist of season 1, to an almost side character in season 2. It finally concludes with Alice scared and running from the monsters she ran into while having her niffin adventures - which was so annoyingly brushed over. That’s Alice’s complete arc - depowered controlled, choice removed and now helpless and running scared.

While all of these have been problems, they all somewhat pale beside Julia. The martyr.

From the very beginning of season 1 Julia has existed for one reason - to suffer. Supportive friend of Quentin, she was the one who didn’t get the privileged Brakebills education. She was the one thrown to the streets for the Hedgewitches, introduced to magic with them via sexual assault (a horrendous theme of her storyline). Every move was about scrabbling desperately for what was handed so casually to Quentin and at every step she was disappointed. And disappointed is a very low key word for the despair she felt being rejected and cast out by Marina, her boyfriend, the Hedgewitches, Quentin (who casts her off like she was yesterday’s news as soon as he finds his new fascinating world and no longer follows her around like a desperate friend-zoned, stalking love interest), her supposed best friend who she has supported so much for so long while he struggled in the non-magical world, and every magical community she tried to be part of. At every step of the way Julia suffers, it’s unrelenting in its grimness. And to rub salt in the wounds, she’s a side note. Her storyline is a footnote to the main plot - all of her suffering is in the background again, like Alice, despite her being a vastly more intriguing character than Quentin

This unrelenting litany of suffering escalates when her circle of followers summons Renard - resulting in the true friends she finally made being murdered. Ending up with the magic she finally finds turning against her. And, most brutality of all, ending up with her being raped.

This whole series of events is a long litany of suffering is torture porn. We’re dragged along to watch Julia suffer in endlessly awful ways, seeing her crushed over and over again and at no point are we really encouraged to rally round her; nor do the other characters ever do so. The closest we get is Kady. When do Quentin, Eliot, Margo, Alice - any of them - make time for Julia and what she’s gone through?

Salt is poured onto this wound when we learn about the time travel, the reset time loop where Henry and Jane continually rewound time to find a way to defeat the Beast until they found the magical key: Julia suffering, Julia lost, Julia raped. Julia’s rape is quite literally the salvation everyone was looking for. At no point does anyone consult Julia about whether she would walk this path, whether she would sacrifice herself for this, whether they could torture her for their salvation (and with her willingness to sacrifice her shade for Alice’s we know she is deeply selfless and may have chosen that path. But it would be chosen) - at no point does anyone even apologise or commiserate with her for what she does. Do they even acknowledge what she went through for them? All through season 2 does anyone turn to Julia - or even turn to each other - and acknowledge what resetting time did to her, what she endured for them to find that way out, the salvation.

This lack of acknowledgement - along with the Magicians deciding to use Alice’s sacrifice to kill the Beast rather than her suffering - downplays a lot of the background reason for her suffering. Even renders it moot and pointless - because all that she went through doesn’t even win the fight. It just becomes background noise for the season - everyone follows the storyline and behind it all, Julia suffers

A suffering - and a separation - which follows in season 2. While Alice is sidelined as a Niffin, Julia is sidelined by, again, having an entirely separate plot line to everyone else (which drags Kady in and scatters more female death with Marina and more of Renard’s victims). Again, only Kady cares about what Julia is going through, no-one else stirs except to try and sabotage her plans for vengeance and safety. Even when they help her to get her abortion (another plot line of struggle and pain for Julia) it is only because there’s something in it for them.

And we have to talk about that storyline. Julia abortion removes her Shade - her soul - and her conscience. Her abortion turns her into a dangerous, lethal monster who only then joins the others to BE that monster, to be the one who nearly kills Quentin. She rejoins the group expressly to be a threat to be controlled and feared. After all she’s suffered, she’s remembered and joined by the rest of the cast only when she is firstly a threat - and then a penitent, considering herself too damaged and dangerous to be around Quentin, begging for forgiveness, asking for him to be her moral compass and make her choices. And even that moment - that brief brief moment when Quentin actually tries to help her get her shade back - ends with Julia sacrificing for him, again. She returns with Alice’s shade - which, we say again - is for Qunetin, not for Alice - her own goals and hopes sidelined.

This is getting heartbreakingly long but it really does sum up Julia’s storyline - as something heartbreaking, long, painful and even largely pointless. It’s a litany of pain and loss without purpose and frequently without any real connection to the greater plot line and certainly to the other characters. One shred of redemption for his could have been a decent revenge ending - Julia pulling that trigger and Renard dying. It wouldn’t have made up with for a tenth of what he did -but it would have been something

But no, we get a throwaway female character, a token Black woman playing a Greek goddess, there to save her son from the consequences of his crimes. It’s nauseating, piles of murder victims, of raped women, have been left in Renard’s wake but she comes in and is “disappointed” and that’s it. And Julia let’s it go - like she’s ok for there to be no punishment, like what happened to her didn’t matter. He’s a piece to remove from the board, not a perpetrator of unforgivable crimes. Again, we can’t get past the incredible amount of pain that has been inflicted on Julia as well as the ridiculous amount she has struggled - and “I’m so disappointed in you” gross handwave of the whole litany.

Even this decision isn’t without consequence - as the one person who has actually supported Julia - THE ONE SINGLE PERSON - turns on her. And, yes, we totally share Kady’s anger - but to throw that at Julia, the actual victim? No, really, no. Does everyone and every thing have to attack her? It’s a terrible decision - but it was Julia’s decision, not Kady’s; her very personal decision as the one who has suffered for this - but Kady is going to punish her for this?

This is the story of Julia. Suffering, struggling, sacrificing endlessly for others, being punished at every moment she sought power or freedom. Demonised when she isn’t hurting, and even in the depth of her suffering expecting to put aside her wishes and her goals and focus on other’s needs while always being at the periphery of everyone else’s story. It’s torture porn, unrelenting, cruel, dehumanising torture porn without a pause to encourage us to support her or sympathise her. And not one moment of triumph, not killing Renard, not sparing Renard, not even killing Ember. She never wins. She never catches a break. And no-one cares. She is an endless martyr - but even then, martyrs are revered for their sacrifice; Julia never is.