Who is the seven kingdoms’ worst fanatic? Religion and atheism in Game of Thrones

If like the Internet you’re a Game of Thrones fan, last week’s episode may be weighing on you. (I’m about to discuss it with spoilers. If you’re not up to date, stop reading now.) About two thirds of the way in, Stannis Baratheon, now with an evil beard, makes a burnt offering of daughter Shireen, desperate to improve his army’s odds somehow. Elsewhere during the hour, Myrcella Lannister avoids being killed and Arya Stark comes close to a man who preys on the underage. Juxtaposed with these plots, Shireen’s death proves one character to have been right last year: everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls.

000With Stannis all but silent throughout, it’s noticeable how, amid his faceless mob of troops, the sequence shows religious cruelty from three female viewpoints: the girl Shireen’s, ambushed by the reality of martyrdom; mistress Melisandre’s, lighting the pyre with strange lyricism, and wife Selyse’s, caught between the two. As Shireen’s mother, until now more of a believer than her husband, comes to her senses all too late, emitting a low, guttural scream, her character appears partly redeemed, delusion vapourised in contact with a flame. It is she more than poor, deceived Shireen who undergoes a baptism of fire – and, indeed, blood.

The scene, a deviation from the source novels, feels lifted from the Book of Judges, where Jephthah, also a would-be ruler, trades in his daughter’s life for victory. (We can but guess whether she, like Shireen, changes her mind on the way to the stake.) Game of Thrones’ fifth season has scrutinised religion more than any before, and the princess’s death puts me in mind of how the series treats belief. Before acting, Stannis gets rid of Ser Davos Seaworth, who thinks ‘mothers and fathers made up the gods because they wanted their children to sleep through the night’ – a tactic that seems to have backfired in at least one case.

Seaworth’s philosophy is the unbelief of an everyman: when Stannis sends him from the camp refusing to argue, he banishes a voice likely to erode the belief that proves both cause and consolation for infanticide. Beside Ser Davos, I can think of just one character to claim atheism outright. In season three, Petyr Baelish memorably declares the gods an illusion, rubbishing all ideas of a natural order. A classic Machiavellian, he is the mirror image of Davos – both are well worn atheist tropes, and while Littlefinger is the more negative cliché, I have a lot of time for him, as I did for the nymphomaniac bisexual Oberyn Martell.

The real secular viewpoint in Westeros is George R. R. Martin’s. Asked his religious stance, the author calls himself an atheist or agnostic, and like his Catholic past, it shows. None of the series’ many believers, even the worst, are cardboard characters – there is a kind of social realism in how Martin shows religion, as there is in his choice (unlike Tolkien) to show it at all. At the same time, none of this world’s many faiths appears truer than the rest. Competing religions seem equally able to perform miracles, perhaps implying some shared power source in the natural world, and each is shown as a product of its society more than vice versa. [Read more…]

(Almost) live tweets from the leaders’ debate

In case you didn’t know, the UK has an election next month. Just under an hour ago, the first-ever debate between seven of our party leaders finished. (Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party has been called the winner. I don’t disagree, but more on that soon.) Video is below – skip to 4.05 for the debate.

Since our site doesn’t let me live-blog, here are my tweets from during the programme from those who care.




“We find them everywhere” – fundamentalisms and BBC One’s Big Questions

Is The Big Questions a good or bad thing? Maybe.

In February, ComRes polled British Muslims for the BBC. Predictably, the more dramatic data points were sensationalised; amid the headlines, two interesting questions got ignored. How many respondents, they asked, sympathised with people who fought ‘against western interests’ – and how many knew other Muslims who sympathised with Al-Qaeda or IS soldiers? Results came in respectively at 11 (compared with 85) and 8 (compared with 89) percent, figures within each other’s margins of error. This might not seem much on the face of it, but depending on what further research turns up, it could tell us something about the human geography of jihad.

Polls have long shown support for groups like Al-Qaeda is low in the UK, but to my knowledge, no measure has been taken of how diffuse it is. To give an example of the difference, something like eight percent of people plan to vote Lib Dem, but that group is spread out enough that most of us still know someone who will; conversely, only slightly fewer intend to vote Green, but they’re less evenly dotted around. The ComRes poll suggests Muslims who sympathise with the Islamic State are more like Green Party voters, a tight-knit clique known mostly to each other rather than a fringe across Muslim communities.

Why do I bring this up? At Leaving Fundamentalism, Jonny Scaramanga writes about appearing on The Big Questions, BBC One’s Sunday morning show where religious and secular guests debate ‘ethics’. (I was invited on two years ago, only for the message to sit in my undiscovered ‘Other’ folder. Thanks, Facebook.) The format, to an infamous degree, is what broadcasters tend to call ‘robust’, never less so than in the political rows that, as Jonny attests, predominate. Perhaps because priests and imams aren’t the best people to consult on climate change, more blood is sometimes shed than light, such that it’s tempting to suggest the series be renamed The Short Answers. What about the guests, though? [Read more…]

Kasterborous calls me a ‘heavy-duty blogger’

If you like Doctor Who and use the Internet, there’s a fair chance you know of Kasterborous, the fanzine for Whovian news and discussion. Writer James Lomond cites a post from this blog in a piece from Wednesday.

Someone’s dropped the S-Bomb on the Moff. Again. In fact it’s the third accusation of sexism from this particular chap… Heavy-duty blogger, Alex Gabriel, has given a rather damning appraisal of women in Moffat’s writing – and not just in Doctor Who. This will be familiar ground for most Kasterborites.

Showrunner and BAFTA award winning writer, Steven Moffat has been charged with portraying women in an inherently sexist, or even misogynist, manner before. Previous attacks have pointed out how many of his female characters seem to deliver one witty one-liner after another following a sassy-feisty-sexy format. In short they’re not real women.

‘Heavy-duty blogger’? I’ll take that.

Lomond goes on to discuss in depth a post of mine from November – it seems to’ve become my third most-read blog entry – where I talk about the interchangeability of Steven Moffat’s female tropes characters.

In particular, I argue Michelle Gomez’s Missy – as she appears in ‘Dark Water’, then the most recent episode – is ‘a feisty, morally ambiguous adventuress and femme fatale with a murky past who flirts with everything and controls men through sexuality, boasting a hands-on relationship with the [hero]’, the same woman Moffat has written again and again.

It’s worth pointing out that a week later, on reviewing follow-up episode ‘Death in Heaven’, I was impressed with how Missy and other female characters were developed. My problems with her in ‘Dark Water’ haven’t changed, but the character’s since grown more distinct.

Gabriel does also imply, though doesn’t state outright, that there is something pervasively negative about Moffat’s take on the female sex.


One way to assess Gabriel’s claim would be to see if we can produce a similar list of male tropes and repeating collections of character traits. It’s certainly interesting that both Sherlock and the Doctor are ultimately isolated super-intelligent men who have difficulty maintaining non-hazardous relationships with women and their male side-kicks (Watson and Rory) both get mistaken for being gay.

Not just that. Rory, John and Danny Pink are all long-suffering ex-soldiers devoted to more adventurous women.

do think Moffat’s men are tropey too, and that he’s a tropey writer in general – it’s something I thought about while writing the post on his female characters, wondering if I was being fair. I think I was: there’s still much more distance between, say, Rory Williams and John Watson than River Song and Tasha Lem, largely because Moffat’s stories are about their men. Rory and John both get a great deal more exploration than River and Tasha, whose entire lives the Doctor defines.

Read Lomond’s piece.





What happened when I wrote about the rape scene in Russell T Davies’ gay drama Cucumber

In the first episode of Russell T Davies’ new drama Cucumber, middle aged Lance finds a much younger man in a nightclub who has no money and nowhere to spend the night. ‘You can stay at ours if you want to fuck,’ Lance tells him. ‘No hassle. Just sex with the both of us. And then you can stay the night.’

‘Yeah,’ the younger man replies, ‘that’s cool’ – but it’s clear, including to Lance’s uncomfortable partner Henry, that he’s ‘off his head’ on some substance or other, wide-eyed and slurring out fantastic images of kings and cowboy-men and nodding in and out of consciousness during their taxi ride. At their house, he appears not to register most of what Lance and Henry say; he walks off-balance and seems to have trouble standing up, sitting down at the first opportunity and collapsing half-asleep minutes later onto Lance’s bed. By the time Lance performs out-of-shot what looks and sounds like oral sex, he can no longer speak coherently. Five to ten onscreen minutes later, presumably once Lance has had anal sex with him as he says he means to (‘[He’s] gonna fuck my arse’), Henry brings police officers to the scene. The younger man, now fully naked and seemingly unaware of it, is no more lucid when they confront him, gripped in a haze of drug-induced visions with no idea what’s going on.

The above scenes, if anyone contests this description, can be viewed here.

There are two ways to argue what they show isn’t (at minimum attempted) rape. The first is to say the man Lance has sex with is lucid enough to consent to it – in which case, you’ve the narrative above to explain. The second is to say consent doesn’t require lucidity – in which case, the Sexual Offences Act disagrees, deeming consent impossible if ‘by reason of drink, drugs, sleep, age or mental disability [someone is] unaware of what [is] occurring’. The Crown Prosecution Service further acknowledges meaningful consent to ‘evaporate well before [someone] becomes unconscious‘ if mind-altering substances make them incapable. [Read more…]

Cucumber’s “radical approach to sexuality”, and its normalisation of rape and relationship abuse

I hoped Cucumber and its partner shows would be as good as Queer as Folk. I feared they’d be nothing like as good. As it turns out, Cucumber is a show you need to watch – at least, that is, if you thought Looking‘s characters were unlikeable, Vicious was the nadir of queer TV or having your molars slowly drilled without anaesthesia was excruciating.

For its entire 45-minute running time, I cringed. Episode one of Cucumber was so non-stop wince-inducing that by the time its credits rolled, I found myself feeling the weight of my own face. I knew there and then that I’d pay a considerable sum never to see another episode – yet also that I’d rewatch it this morning, cataloguing every last thing I hated about it.

Because Cucumber isn’t merely crap. It’s a well written, well-produced, well-executed show that achieves its apparent aims. The trouble is, its aims are fucking regressive – at times even outright dangerous. [Read more…]

“Death in Heaven”: when Steven Moffat listened to his critics

Spoilers follow.

About a week ago I said Doctor Who‘s Missy was another Moffat clone: a femme fatale adventuress totally indistinct on paper from River Song, Irene Adler and many of his other women. That post’s done well – embarrassingly well in fact, because this is the one where I eat my words.

Alright, not where I eat my words: my criticisms of her past appearances stand, as do my general comments on Steven Moffat, but having now seen ‘Death in Heaven’, Saturday’s follow-up to ‘Dark Water’, I’m won over. As of two days ago, Missy is in every way the Master… on top of which, this was NuWho’s best finale yet, one of Moffat’s best episodes and – just possibly – the one where he listened to viewers like me. [Read more…]

And Doctor Who’s Missy is… one more of Steven Moffat’s interchangeable women

Doctor Who Series 8

If like me you watch Doctor Who, you may have seen last night’s episode ‘Dark Water’, which revealed who series eight’s villain Missy (above) is. Actually, it revealed her back story – it was clear who she was the moment photos of Michelle Gomez in character emerged.

Missy, as fans have guessed all series, is River Song: a feisty, morally ambiguous adventuress and femme fatale with a murky past who flirts with everything and controls men through sexuality, boasting a hands-on relationship with the Doctor. [Read more…]

Buffy, Project Runway and queer politics: Greta Christina and Alex Gabriel in conversation

Greta and I did another of our Google Hangouts – this time on vampire-reensoulment ethics in BuffyProject Runway and Under the Gunn; horror in the queer imagination and arguments about assimilation.

Annoyingly the Google elves cut us off just over an hour in, but the plan is that we’ll reconvene shortly and talk more on assimilationism – as well as the Oxford comma.