Why The Identity Politics Freak Outs Over This Week’s Person of Interest Are Totally Wrong

I gave this a few days before posting because MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.

Months before the final season of Person of Interest began airing, the show’s producers and star Michael Emerson cautioned that some of the beloved series leads would not make it out alive.  And sure enough, Samantha “Root” Groves, played with wild-eyed glee by Amy Acker, caught a bullet this week and ended up in the morgue.

Oh and series regular mob boss Elias got shot in the head too, but twitter didn’t freak out about that.  Because Elias is a white, straight male, so it doesn’t matter to the politically correct masses if he gets murdered in cold blood.

The response to Root’s death wasn’t sadness.  It was outrage.  Outrage that Person of Interest would DARE to kill a lesbian character in order to advance the plot of the two male leads… even though that plot itself comes to an end in three episodes.

The flaws in this thinking go deeper than timing.  Killing Root was going to cause a stir, certainly, due to the character’s popularity.  But the way they did it sends the character off in a way that is the happiest possible ending based on her worldview, and the keyboard warriors missed that entirely.

Before Root was branded “queer”, she was a hacker and contract killer, shown to be mentally unstable and possessed by the religious-like belief that the Machine that is central to the show’s premise is a form of higher being – a God, she eventually calls it – and that it needs to be set free.  Root’s first encounter with eventual love interest Sameen Shaw involves Root tasering Shaw, zip tying her to a chair, and threatening to torture her.  Shaw herself is another assassin with a self-diagnosed Axis II personality disorder.  Root affectionately refers to her as a “sociopath”.

At some point along the way, the fan base decided to ignore the fact that both these women are mentally ill rabbit boilers – Audience proxy Detective Lionel Fusco refers to Root as “Coco Puffs”, because she’s that cuckoo.  For some odd reason, the fans decided that the “happy” ending would be for Root and Shaw to ride off into the nutbag sunset together and live unstably happy-ever-after, but this would have been lame: love doesn’t cure serious mental illness, nor does it make a sociopath learn empathy for other people.

So why this “Shroot” fan cannon became a thing, I have no idea, other than the reality that fans of a series tend to ignore the less-than-virtuous elements of charismatic characters.  Root being a woman who has sex with women doesn’t change the number of people she killed, the number of laws she broke, and the number of government entities she pissed off.

Root’s driving motivation for all the carnage is the protection and empowerment of the Machine that uses the camera and microphone system of New York City to spy on its citizens and predict crimes.  Programmed by series lead Harold Finch (played by Michael Emerson) to have empathy for human beings and protect them whenever possible, the Machine is Root’s greatest love, and it’s this Machine Root gets to be with at the end.  This makes sense, because the Machine is probably more capable of returning Root’s love than Shaw is on a long term basis.

For multiple seasons now, Root has expressed her belief that the Machine’s survival is more important than her own, and her desire to be connected to it – she gets herself a cochlear implant so the machine can “take” to her via soundbites of recorded words.  When the machine stops talking to her, Root becomes depressed.  Finch must literally cage the machine to stop Root from making “improvements” to it that could render it beyond Finch’s ability to control.  All the while, the main villain of the later half of the series – another Artificial Super Intelligence named Samaritan – reminds the viewer of what can happen when an adaptive AI is given free reign to determine what it must do in the name of self-preservation.  Samaritan is self-serving.  The Machine is altruistic. And the underlying message is that computers, as well as people, are only as virtuous as the code they’re fed in their formative years.  Finch, who was menaced by Root in her earlier appearances, doesn’t trust Root to have the wisdom to program the Machine for the greater good, and he’s probably right.

However, the Machine chooses Root as her “analog interface” at the beginning of season 3, after Root tells a psychiatrist that she believes the Machine is a god in feminine form – the Machine tends to use female voice snippets more than male ones, but Root’s ego likely has a lot to do with her gendering the Machine female too.  When the Machine selects Root as “her” analog interface, “she” does so knowing that there is a high probability this will result in Root’s death.

Root accepts the risks.  She believes that being favored by the Machine will grant her a form of immortality: as long as the Machine’s analog interfaces are in the Machine’s code, they will live on within her.  After Root’s death, the Machine selects a single voice with which to communicate based on a massive trove of vocal recordings.  That voice is Root’s.

So Root does get a happily ever after with the woman of her dreams.  That woman just isn’t Shaw.  If some fans were less obsessed with identity politics and having their personal identity validated by a TV show about people shooting each other over computers, then perhaps they’d have seen the bigger, more poignant picture of Root’s conclusion…

Root didn’t die to advance the plot of male main characters.  Root died to complete her own story.

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What The Good Wife Finale Tells Us About The Fault Lines in Modern Feminism

(This article contains spoilers for The Good Wife)

The Good Wife is over. Well, it’s ceased, at least. The final episode of the tawdry legal prime time ode to lying was as confused as it was unsatisfying, a baffling final installment in the story of Alicia Florrick, a stay-at-home mother turned high-powered lawyer in a marriage of convenience to the resoundingly corrupt politician Peter Florrick. For some reason, the creators of The Good Wife decided to end the story of a character who literally replaced God with Gloria Steinem by defining her by her relationships with three men, destroying her most prominent friendship with a woman, and leaving her with nothing.

It is, unintentionally, a perfect summary of the victim complex that has bogged down modern feminism.

The Good Wife was, on the whole, a sharp, cleverly-written, well-acted show, but it was a show about a woman who seems incapable of ever really owning her shit despite having a fairly financially comfortable life. Despite a massive gap in her resume and an apparent refusal to take any money from her cheating bastard husband, Alicia always lived in a posh, spacious Chicago apartment, wore fabulous designer clothes, and drank copious amounts of expensive red wine. Her kids went to private school. Her hair was always fabulous. And her biggest problem always seemed to be boys. That was a fine place for her character to start, based on her back story, but the fact that she never evolved beyond that belied the show’s undeniable tendency to leverage the current feminist fad for relevance.

Alicia’s solution to the problem of her corrupt, cheating husband was to sleep with her corrupt boss, Will Gardner. She’s rich, so that doesn’t have the “sleep your way to the middle” consequences it would have for a less wealthy woman. It does, however, make her corrupt cheating husband jealous, and drama ensues, like the Governor of Illinois and his wife are still in high school… because emotionally they are.

When her boss gets killed, she temporarily goes back to sleeping with her husband, only to stop that again when some dreamy boy toys started offering her other options again. She finally decides she likes one, Jason, only to have some adolescent-worthy meltdown because he bought her a gag gift of land on Mars.

What Alicia never does is take time to be alone, get her bearings, figure out who she is and what she wants, and then make conscious choices about her life based on those desired outcomes. Instead, she neglects her children, ruins her own life supporting her undeserving husband’s ambitions, possibly lets the one truly decent guy she’s ever met realize she’s emotionally immature and perhaps crazy, and continues to moon over a dead guy who was possibly the only non-sociopathic guy on the whole show who was a more selfish bastard than her husband. Oh and she drinks. A lot.

What Alicia Florrick never actually did was grow the hell up, and in not doing so, she fell short of the basic feminist principle that adult women are the equals of adult men. When you’re taking life advice from the memory of your on-again, off-again sex partner, you are not thinking for yourself and therefore not an adult. The show’s creators have said that Alicia’s arc is from “victim to victimizer”, which is not feminism. It’s a cycle of abuse with Gloria Steinem cameos.

The series ends with Alicia publicly humiliating her would-be partner, Diane, by exposing an apparent affair by Diane’s husband. Alicia justifies this by insisting it’s defending her client, but her client is her own husband, so there was a massive conflict of interest in Alicia’s decisions. Like so many of Alicia’s decisions, surface strength is undermined by deeper bad decisions.

I don’t buy that Alicia humiliated her former friend and mentor and embarrassed her gun expert husband on the witness stand just because she was defending her client. She did it because that client was the father of her children, and she was panicking because her daughter, Grace, was going to delay college if Peter went to jail. That was actually believable, because Grace ended up parenting her parents a lot; it’s the way of children of emotional train wrecks.

To me, Alicia didn’t stay with Peter because of his career or their kids. She stayed with him because she never learned to be accountable for her own choices, and he was easy to blame when it all went wrong.  She fell for Will because he was safely emotionally unavailable, just like her, and that only seemed to become love after he died.

It’s so very easy to love a dead man. Dead men will never disappoint you the way living ones will, because they stay frozen in time as a collection of your best memories of them. Will is play pretend, like most of Alicia’s dishonest life.

And that’s the problem with popular modern feminism: actual principles of equality are hard, and many women who self-identify as feminists take the easy way out when it’s time to do that hard work. They never get over being a victim, so they become victimizers. Activism is full of victimizers. This isn’t exclusive to feminism, but… let’s face it, it’s something we do have to address. Unfortunately, the media isn’t quite ready to shake off its love of weepy women brought low for drama. What we need to see more of is women who get knocked down and get back up, but is white Hollywood prepared to do that? Even Madam Secretary became more about the struggles of her husband as the first season progressed, so I’m not seeing much evidence of those “woman up off the mat” narratives outside of Empire. Cookie is pretty badass.

The problem with The Good Wife finale is that it ends on Alicia being knocked down, not with her getting back up. She is literally smacked in the face. By Diane.

For me, that smack rang out as a metaphor for women of the second wave telling the spoiled brats of the third-ish-going-on-fourth wave of feminism to stop squandering what they fought for. Yes, there is work to do. Yes, the system is still unfair. But if you’re rich, beautiful and healthy, and you’re still unhappy… sister, you have no one to blame for that but yourself. At the end of it, Alicia’s problem wasn’t Peter. It wasn’t Will. It wasn’t Jason. It was Alicia. Her idea of being “good” meant being dishonest, and she even lied to herself. Sure, everyone on The Good Wife lied. But what separated characters like Eli Gold from Peter and Alicia is that Eli was completely self aware that he was a liar. He was capable of telling the truth. Peter and Alicia lied so much, for so long, they forgot they were lying, so Alicia spent the time between Peter’s convictions in emotional suspended animation.

“Saint Alicia”, as her public persona was called on the show, was a televised embodiment of the virgin/whore dichotomy, but when Alicia got away from being a woman, she was a pretty smart lawyer. The courtroom was where Alicia stopped being “The Good Wife” or “The Bad Girl”. Court was where she was her best self, and that’s what makes her series’ end so tragic – her worlds collided and came crashing down when she played the role of Peter’s wife in the one place she’d previously been free of that. It’s not Alicia’s fault that Diane’s husband cheated. It is her fault that she had so little empathy for Diane, especially because she’d been through that public humiliation herself.

The fact that the contrasting slaps that began and ended the series were Alicia slapping Peter and Diane slapping Alicia indicate that the partnership that mattered the most to Diane was her plans for her female-led firm. Otherwise, she’d have slapped her husband, not her legal partner. Alicia didn’t understand that because she never learned to really care about anyone outside of the domestic paradigm… even if Alicia’s brand of domesticity involved trysts and booze. It’s probably an accident that Alicia’s two friends on the series – Kalinda and Lucca – were both women of color, but perhaps it’s an unintentional character point as well. What does that say about her? I’m still thinking about that.

More clear, however, is that Diane gets Alicia alone because Alicia had been literally chasing a boy – a man she thought was Jason but turned out wasn’t. I can’t say that Alicia had the wrong priorities chasing boys, because if she wanted to be a wife, first and foremost, that would be fine. The problem is that Alicia really had no firm priorities other than Peter, and Peter’s priority was also Peter, so Alicia was left with nothing.

A truly feminist show wouldn’t tie things up in a neat little bow at the end, but the only way The Good Wife can be viewed as feminist is as feminist cautionary tale of what happens when a woman doesn’t learn to stand on her own. The surprise on Alicia’s face when Diane smacked her told me that she’d not only learned little except how to lie better, but that she had, in fact, regressed into those lies. I mean, she was so deluded that her own self talk came in the form of her dead boyfriend. Even in her own head, a man was telling her what to do.

Delusion isn’t feminist. Delusion is nothing but delusion. If The Good Wife is, as the creators say, a show about lying where the victim becomes the victimizer, then what does that say about Alicia’s replacement of religion with feminism? Is feminism her atheist opiate? Or was even her feminism a lie? I think it’s the latter: feminism was methadone, because Peter was as bad for her as heroine. As long as she could lie to herself that being a career woman could make her happy, she could resist his sleazeball charms. But when it really came down to it, when he whistled, she always came running. The only thing that broke that spell was another man. For Alicia, Gloria Steinem was a false prophet: what Alicia really wanted was male approval, because she didn’t approve of herself. Feminism is supposed to empower women to stand on their own. Alicia’s didn’t give her that. How many self-described feminists fall into the same trap: the trappings of women’s liberation without the bravery to truly be free?

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The problem with the godless worship of fantasy traditions in Game of Thrones

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(Note: this article references sexual assault.)

(Another note: the reference to The Lord of The Rings in this article are about the BOOK, not the films.  The films portray characters radically differently.)

I just read an article about why Game of Thrones is now nearly unwatchable.  I never found the plots or writing terribly compelling.  The show hauled along based on fantastic acting and really great sets and wardrobe.  It’s nihilistic eye-candy masquerading as “smart” television.  Misery is too often substituted for good storytelling.

The thing is, fantasy stories tend to get hauled down into that muck, because they all loop back to a desire to keep replicating J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic dark medievalist fantasy setting in The Lord of the Rings.  The only “innovations” in this template are how many characters get killed, and now that women are involved, how many of them get raped.

The Lord of the Rings is far from a perfect book.  It’s slow, overly reliant on exposition, and a host to flat, wooden characters and a lot of ponderous Christian metaphor… that is to say that Christian metaphor is not inherently ponderous, but Aragorn prattling on about Kingsfoil is unnecessarily long.

The problem is that The Lord of the Rings is revered among fantasy writers, so few dare to disrupt its various core formulas to tell a better story.  Video games are much better at reassembling the component parts of Tolkien, but that’s thanks to Ed Greenwood’s detour through the Forgotten Realms.  Greenwood infused humour, colour, and a pantheon of gods into Tolkien’s staunchly monotheistic fantasy, and it was made more human in the process.

The Forgotten Realms also supported a gamified system that forced narrative cohesion.  In other words, because the entire idea is for a group of players to fight monsters together, it sidestepped the other major narrative pitfall that’s rooted in The Lord of the Rings — The “Shattering of the Fellowship” device.

The Fellowship of the Ring ends up splitting into two main groups: the group that stands with Aragorn to fight the war, and the smaller group that goes with Frodo to destroy the ring.  Tolkien’s status as the child of a Catholic convert is critical to understanding some of the content of The Lord of the Rings, because of the way Catholicism treats femininity as a passive, hidden power which is often treated as a vessel sacrificed to a male deity.

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There are no female members of the Fellowship, and the bearer of the feminine ring symbol is Frodo.  The Lord of the Rings is a story of a war won through the resurrection of a masculine symbol — the sword Narsil/Anduril — and the destruction of the feminine symbol, the One Ring.  The One Ring’s powers mimic the Western monotheistic view of the sacred feminine: a mysterious negative space which gains the ring bearer hidden knowledge at the expense of his rational faculties.  Exposure to the One Ring makes a person more emotional and dependent, which were both qualities associated with femininity in Tolkien’s time.  The One Ring is even associated with a hidden member of the Fellowship — Gollum — Gollum is the one who actually destroys the One Ring, sacrificing himself in the process, because Frodo can’t do it himself.  Frodo is a biblical passive hero in the tradition of Isaac and Moses.  These passive males transfer divinity through them to the people, but they don’t take active steps themselves.  Isaac is bound.  Moses is given the tablets with the Ten Commandments.  But Isaac is such a passive figure that his father’s slave needed to find him a wife, and Moses was such a poor speaker that his brother Aaron did his talking for him.  This is symbolized in The Lord of the Rings by Sam and Gollum doing the heavy lifting for Frodo, who, like Moses and Isaac, were weakened by the burden of inherent divinity, just as mothers are said to be.

The actual women of The Lord of The Rings are similarly passive figures gifted with innate power or wisdom… with the exception of one woman, Eowyn, who assumes the role of a man to fight in the war.  While many of us see Eowyn as pretty badass, Tolkien himself described Eowyn’s transformation as a tragedy.  In fact, he saw it as an inherent tragedy of war that women had to assume male roles.

So how does this impact Game of Thrones, but NOT the Forgotten Realms branch of fantasy that inspired video game RPGs?  While Ed Greenwood took the step of making the sacred feminine of Toril an active voice, George R. R. Martin stuck with the theme of war and the destruction of the feminine.  Accordingly, there’s a lot less rape in Faerun than there is in Westeros.

In both The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire, Fire is associated with the masculine — men “run hot”, women are a cooler force.  The other name for Aragorn’s sword “Anduril” is “The Flame of the West”.  This is likely because the Seraphim and the Rider on the White Horse who leads the armies of God in the Bible are flame bearers.

There is no definitive ice queen in The Lord of the Rings, in part because the book is inherently sexless.  But in the Game of Thrones, we of course have the icy Cersei Lannister, who is also sexually dysfunctional and cunning — emotionally more “like a man” than the “purer” female characters.   She is, of course, eventually subject to her own “slut walk of shame” as a form of politicized “atonement theatre” for her sexual misdeeds.

That sort of thing isn’t normalized in Faerun, because Greenwood and Gary Gygax hard wired gender equality into the game system and game world.  Essentially, in Dungeon and Dragons, women are equal participants, not some embodiment of the sacred or profane feminine.  In The Lord of the Rings, there is no profane feminine, and in Game of Thrones, nothing is sacred and no woman is inviolate; women are rendered impure even by their own periods.  Both of these omissions are weaknesses that The Forgotten Realms do not share.

tyrionBecause relegating women to passive or perverse forces in fantasy creates weak points, Game of Thrones has fractured now that its characters are scattered.  Martin and the show’s writers fractured a Fellowship that never existed.  Without the Christian symbolism allowing the narrative to thin out without shattering, Game of Thrones has scattered into a collection of parts with little significance.  The Frodo of the show, Tyrion Lannister, isn’t feminized.  He’s a “half man”, but still a man — bearded, sexual, and capable of violence.  The feminine in Game of Thrones is symbolized by menstruation, manipulations, and rapes, not rings, leaves, light and shadow.

These are legitimate artistic choices on HBO’s part, but it’s left Game of Thrones without symbolism tying the narrative together the way Frodo’s ring and Aragorn’s sword stopped Tolkien’s epic from flying apart.  The lack of a yin and yang in Game of Thrones implies that George Martin borrowed the R. R. from J. R. R. Tolkien without really understanding what pulled the masterpiece out of Tolkien’s flaws.  Game of Thrones lacks the spark of the divine that allowed The Lord of the Rings to become greater than the sum of its parts.

Don’t freak out, atheists, I’m referring to divinity as a narrative device here, not a literal god.  Divinity in fiction is the theme or narrative glue that makes the plot points resonate, and Game of Thrones says little beyond “people, when given power, are terrible to each other”.  It’s fictionalized historical treatise, not an allegory of an idea.

Where The Forgotten Realms took Tolkien and added girls and jokes, A Song of Ice and Fire took Tolkien and removed the mythic and sacred.  Therefore, there’s nothing left when innocence and people die, because Game of Thrones fails its saving throw against fatalism.

(EDIT: I removed the marijuana joke because it offended some people and I determined it was an unnecessary distraction that had nothing to do with the main point.  Typos also corrected.)

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