Category Archives: Women

Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #9: Haunted Theaters of the Carolinas



Check out the rest of the month’s reviews here, and last year’s reviews here. If you enjoyed this review and want to help out with my folklore research, head on over to my Patreon page and join up, make a one-time donation on this site or directly through Paypal, or send me a coffee.

Lambeth, Cheralyn. Haunted Theaters of the Carolinas. Schiffer, 2009.

I interviewed the author for Innsmouth Free Press right after this book came out in 2009. You can still find the interview here. I am, however, a bad and lazy reviewer with a metric ton of books to review all over my house. So, I only got to reading and reviewing this one now. Ten years later. Sorry.

Anyhoo, I thought this book was a fun romp with some creepy photos and layout (that cover – [shudder]) and an interesting premise. Though there are other books on haunted theaters out there – such as the imaginatively named Haunted Theaters (2002) by Barbara Smith and Haunted Theaters: Playhouse Phantoms, Opera House Horrors, and Backstage Banshees (2009) by Tom Ogden – Lambeth’s book offers two unique features. One is that it’s the only book about haunted theaters in North and South Carolina. The other is that Lambeth has worked in the field for decades. This means she hears rumors and accounts that someone outside the theater wouldn’t ever know about.

To be honest, I found the introduction about theater history, terms and customs a bit slow. That said, it was also necessary to get one’s bearings and it did introduce me to the rather creepy tradition of the ghost light (AKA the Equity Light). Unlike the ghost lights of the book I reviewed the other day, this is a single light (often a bare bulb) intentionally left onstage (usually downstage right) whenever the theater is closed. The safety angle is that it provides illumination for anyone working in the theater after hours to see their way around. Hence the alternate name.

But there is also a folkloric element. Some theater people believe that every theater is haunted by at least one ghost. Why the light would be left on for them is less clear. Obviously, with the safety element, you’re actively trying to avoid creating one more ghost for the stage. But whether the light is left there to placate them, comfort them, or keep them out depends on your source.

Of the 21 theaters discussed in the book (starting, fittingly, with the Waterside Theater for The Lost Colony Outdoor Drama on Roanoke Island in Manteo, NC), 16 are in North Carolina and 5 in South Carolina. One review on Amazon complains that there are a lot more theaters from North Carolina in the book than in South Carolina. While this is true, it’s usually the other way round in collections about both states (Charleston and Columbia tend to hog the spotlight), and I’m looking for NC folklore, anyway. So, it depends on your preferences.

It also makes sense if you consider that Lambeth is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and was living in Charlotte when she wrote the book. Nor is she a live theater snob. Some of the theaters covered either started life as movie theaters or were later converted into them. Live theater hit hard times a while back, as vaudeville faded.

Stories in the book range from the unsettling to the hair-raising. The Dock Street Theatre in Charleston, SC, for example is haunted by the ghost of an escort named Nettie Dickerson. It seems Nettie was unhappy about being considered little better than a high-class prostitute and was also a bit reckless. She liked to lean against an external iron balcony of the hotel during thunderstorms. One night, a bolt of lightning struck the balcony, “killing her instantly.” She’s been there ever since.

Many of these theaters are in older buildings that were allowed to fall almost to ruin at some point. They have a lot of history and, doubtless, lingering structural issues. However, Imaginon: The Joe and Joan Martin Center for children’s theater in Charlotte was built in 2005 out of recycled materials – and there are many reports of it’s being haunted by at least one child or teenage ghost. So, age and relative decrepitude don’t always have anything to do with it.

Employees and visitors in these theaters report a variety of phenomena such as cold drafts, disembodied voices, paintings that fly across the room, lights, rattling keys, and pianos playing by themselves. One alderman who died in the 1918 Influenza Epidemic plays the pipe organ in the Old Court House Theatre in Concord, NC.

Patrons can also end up checking in and staying forever, such as an African-American woman who was raped and murdered in the upper balcony of the Powell Theater/Chester Little Theater in Chester, SC sometime during the 1950s (according to local legend). She reportedly causes nausea, cold spots and the sense of being choked in that part of the theater.

The author herself heard some strange banging noises when taking photos in the Dana Auditorium at Guilford College in Greensboro. She also includes a ghost orb photo from a backstage stairwell in The Paul Green Theater/Center for Dramatic Art at UNC-Chapel Hill, and another one in the house right section.

All in all, this is a fun collection for this time of year. But I wouldn’t suggest reading it after midnight or in the dark. That cover alone is super-creepy and the contents deliver on it!

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #5: North Carolina Ghosts & Legends

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Roberts, Nancy. North Carolina Ghosts & Legends. University of South Carolina Press, 1959, 1967, 1992 (second edition).

We’re back with another Nancy Roberts book (according to her introduction, she had done ten by 1992). This one, however, is a special one for her. It’s her first book (originally titled An Illustrated Guide to Ghosts & Mysterious Occurrences in the Old North State) from 1959, but with a new introduction and six new stories. Otherwise, everything appears to be the same as the original.

Case in point: Remember that book I reviewed last year that investigated the Haunted Hitchhiker legend of Lydia? That story is here in its most famous early form as “The Lovely Apparition.” In retrospect, it’s not terribly hard to dope out that “Burke Hardison” is a fake name for the supposed informant (the young man who drove her home).

Lydia is not the only familiar ghost between these covers. The Maco Light, the Devil’s Tramping Ground, the Music of Roan Mountain, the Hoofprints of Bath, the Dromgoole legend, and the Little Red Man of Salem, among others, are all here and likely in the form that many North Carolinians read for the first time. There is also the story of the old slave who killed his master and buried him under a bridge, that I mentioned the other day.

In Roberts’ defense, her book was one of the earliest popular ghost story collections for North Carolina, at least for the 20th century. Her ex-husband’s atmospheric photos no doubt helped seal the deal for a lot of readers looking for an October chill. I would be very surprised if she had not pillaged the (then very recent, and not quite complete) Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore for fresh material.

I rode pretty hard on Roberts last year, especially her newer collection, but there’s little doubt about the influence she had on the spread of popular North Carolina folklore in the past half-century. I also have to say that her storytelling was better early on, albeit it was always high on atmosphere and low on concrete facts.

One thing that bothers me a tad about this revised edition is that it’s not entirely clear which stories are new and which aren’t. It appears that all of the coastal tales are new (I guess this includes the Blackbeard one). Maybe I’ll get a hold of the first edition and see how it differs from this one.

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St Andrews Day: The Witches of Fife


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MacDonald, Stuart. The Witches of Fife: Witch-Hunting in a Scottish Shire, 1560-1710. John Donald, 2002; 2014.


This was one of those books I was excited to read before I actually read it. I had (as most of you probably know by now) lived in St Andrews for six years and St Andrews was the primary town in Fife, even during the town’s low point in the 16th and 17th centuries. Today is St Andrew’s Day, the day for the saint who gave his name to the town for reasons rather legendary and complicated (they involve a shipwreck with the saint’s bones and a saint who may never have existed named “Regulus”).

St Andrews was a major hotbed for witchcrazes in the 16th and 17th centuries. According to MacDonald, over a thousand people (most of them women and most of them by burning) were executed for witchcraft in Fife over the course of about a century and a half, and a total of over three thousand were accused, some of them by “dying witches” who were either delusional or vengeful. Those are the low-ball numbers. We don’t know the real count.

Religious authorities were heavily involved, though local nobility participated. The rocky relationship involving the slow and not-so-willing union with England under one king (still nominally Scottish) turned the screws. But MacDonald tends to agree with other historians of the period that the witchcrazes in Scotland were mostly about “hunting women.” Can’t argue with that.

When I was in the Mediaeval History program at St Andrews, the Scottish History department was totally separate from us. Despite being right across the hall and up the stairs, they did an excellent job of utterly ignoring us. Something-something about us not being Scottish and being a bunch of total nutters. The upshot is that while I picked up a lot of local popular history and had chats with some notables like Peter Maxwell-Stuart, I got most of my impressions about the history of the Fife witchcrazes from looking around town.

What I found was bloody and ugly and scary. The Covenanters under people like John Knox who launched the religious sect of Presbyterianism had a passionate and stirring dream of a new society completely reoriented to God. Too bad that dream was twisted and fundamentalist and truly misogynistic to the core. MacDonald actually compares them at one point to the Taliban and that is not an exaggeration.

The Covenanters covered the Reformation period in Scotland in blood and no more so than in Fife (probably because St Andrews had been the ecclesiastical capital under the previous religious regime). The presbyteries of Scotland enthusiastically used accusations of witchcraft and the process of witchfinding to suppress all religious dissent. There is literally one woman in the book who was accused because she cursed out the minister and his wife. In another case, a man was convicted in the presbytery court of violating the Sabbath because he was riding on a Sunday to seek a pardon for his wife who was a convicted witch.

And a lot of people who weren’t quite accused (or whose accusations didn’t rise to conviction and execution) were denied the sacrament of Communion for years at a time by petty and spiteful religious authorities. Other people were “watched and warded” (a sort of torture that wasn’t actually considered torture in which people were kept awake and isolated from their families for days or weeks at a time) until they confessed, then executed within days of their trial with no appeal. The sheer viciousness, pettiness and self-righteousness of the Covenanters would be breathtaking if it weren’t repeated in so many situations and cultures over the course of history. Nothing scarier than a sadist who thinks God is on their side.

The scars of both the Reformation (when mobs stripped churches of their vestments and icons and even damaged the buildings) and the witchcrazes are visible in St Andrews to this day. There is what used to be a walled off area that had been a tidal pool for recreational swimmers. It’s near the St Andrews Aquarium, next to West Sands. The legend was that back in the 16th and 17th centuries, it was called “Witch Lake.”

Women were taken down there and “dunked” (in this case, tossed into the water with a thumb tied to the opposite toe). If the woman drowned and sank, it was assumed she was innocent (oh, well!), since witches floated and could not be drowned. If the woman managed to survive and float, she was dragged out and up to a nearby hill known as Witch Hill (also, Martyrs’ Hill, as some Protestant martyrs had previously been burned at the stake there) to be burned alive. Charming.

Unfortunately, one of the limitations of MacDonald’s book, which is rather short, is that it restricts itself to taking cases in Fife from a massive, country-wide compilation of cases created in the late 1970 called A Sourcebook of Scottish Witchcraft (1977). MacDonald himself admits that it doesn’t always deal with the most local cases, let alone the extra-legal executions, so we only get to hear about one such lynching from near the very end of the period, in 1710. No confirmation one way or the other about Witch Lake/Hill. So, that was disappointing.

Another disappointment was that MacDonald seemed to do a lot more scene-setting than he did actual analysis. Sure, I get that it’s an academic book (that’s why I bought it), that it’s got a specific focus and that we’re missing a lot of information about the cases (including, for many of the accused, whether or not they were ever executed). Even so, I felt he got bogged down in the geographical studies early on and rushed the general analysis of motivations and patterns at the end. I felt it would have worked better if he’d flipped that around and and that he chickened out a bit on extending his analysis as far as the information could have borne.

I also felt he left out a lot of potentially important context. If you didn’t know about Scottish history, and especially if you’d never been to Fife, you might well get very lost with this book. Even knowing about the period and having lived there for six years, I felt there were points where MacDonald could have fit his localized analysis into a more in-depth framework. I kept wondering what effect James I/VI’s obsession with witches had on the Fife witchcrazes, but found MacDonald’s suppositions too vague and unsatisfying. He seemed uninterested in looking too much at the few cases with lots of detail, with the excuse that we don’t have enough information on enough cases in general to tell if these more-famous cases were typical or not. This struck me as a cop-out. Nobody’s asking to invent information, but get wacky and take a risk or two, son. Come on.

I also found his conclusion that the witchcrazes fell apart in Fife because the coalition of religious and secular authorities responsible for them collapsed was too Captain Obvious. Well, duh, but surely, the repression of the Covenanters in the 1680s following the Restoration of Charles II had something to do with the timing of that collapse. Their successors called it the “Killing Time” because, like all fanatics, they would have to cast themselves as the victims, wouldn’t they, not all those poor women they burned? But their repression was a natural result of a bigger bully coming in and smashing the previous bully. Both the Covenanters and the lairds who supported them were crushed or at least diminished by the increase of English power over the country, so there went the coalition that created recurring witchcrazes.

I’m no fan of the English takeover of Scotland following the reign of James I/VI, but in this case, it appears the English invaders may have done the poor women of Scotland a favor.


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Halloween in North Carolina, Day #26: Ghost Stories and Legends of Murphy, NC (2015)


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Ault, Marie. Ghost Stories and Legends of Murphy, NC. 2015.


Murphy is the county seat in Cherokee County, in the Mountain region of the far-western part of North Carolina. The county is so-named because it was heavily populated by the Cherokee, most (but not all) of whom were forced to leave on the Trail of Tears. It has a lot of Appalachian history to it.

I wasn’t too sure what to make of this one, at first, whether it was genuinely a collection of ghost stories, a novel, a family memoir, or what. It turned out to be a collection in two main sections with a distinct literary conceit, and a non-fiction epilogue.

In part one, several children taking refuge upstairs in a house during a storm in the 1920s (for fear of the many floods that used to plague the area before several dams were built) decide to tell each other ghost stories to pass the time. One of the saddest tales involves a haunting sparked by a mother and her son who were swept away by a waterspout in 1906.

Many decades later, in part two, a bunch of teenagers around a campfire decide to trade some updated versions of these stories, as well as some new ones. The creepiest one, by far, in the second section, Prohibition era “Moonshiners and Police Shootout,” the author later exposes as mostly an urban legend. The shootout occurred, but though the legend has the moonshiners dying in a swamp and haunting/guarding it in a most deadly manner, it turns out they were later captured and put on trial for killing two policemen. So, no lethal ghosts as the two who appear in the story.

I’m not a huge fan of heavily fictionalized folklore (as is probably clear at this point), but something about using a campfire tale frame works for this book. Ghost stories, after all, are told and retold over the years, changing as they go. It helps immensely that while the characters Ault has tell the tales are fictional (she makes this clear at the beginning), the details they mention come from the research the author includes and discusses at length at the end. If you are looking for a folkloric and historical background to Murphy and Cherokee County, so the stories make more sense, you could do worse than to read the last part first.

Some of the stories are well-known, particularly the Cherokee legends of the Moon-Eyed People, the Great Leech, and Spearfinger. But even so, Ault manages to dig up some new details. There’s a photo of a sculpture in a nearby museum allegedly by/of the Moon-Eyed People and I didn’t realize Spearfinger had a male counterpart known as Stone Man (Nun’yunu’wi). Nor had I heard of the Legend of Hanging Dog, where a hungry young Cherokee hunter chooses to give up a chance to track down a wounded deer to save his trapped dog. He is then rewarded for his kindness when the grateful dog promptly finds the deer for him.

But there is more to this collection than Cherokee legends. For one thing, Ault digs fairly deeply into the checkered Civil War history of the area (the residents were about evenly divided between Union and Confederate, and bushwacker gangs terrorized the area during and immediately after the war). She also relates its bloody history of lynchings and even which trees are famous for their occurrence. Unsurprisingly, these parts of Murphy and its environs are reputed to be extremely haunted, usually by hanging specters.

Probably the ugliest story (though “Carson Lane Ghost” gives it a run for its money) is about a local slaver, Joshua Harshaw. Slavery was apparently unusual in Murphy, so Harshaw’s reputation was perhaps not the best with his neighbors. A legend that grew up after his death didn’t do it any favors. Like a real-life Ramsay Bolton, he reputedly would set his dogs to hunt down and eat alive slaves who were too old and/or weak to work. This may have been confirmed as a real story by recent archeological digs in a local cemetery that discovered bones gnawed by dogs.

It’s kind of a shame the author self-published, not because self-publishing is bad (I do it where it works for the material), but because the book looks self-published. The cover’s a bit too 1970s conspiracy theorist paperback basic, some of the typesetting is a little wonky (especially where the photos come in, though I liked their inclusion), and it could have used a good copy edit. I can’t help imagining this getting the Cursed in the Carolinas or the Haunted Hills treatment.

Nonetheless, there’s a lot of good stuff in here, with sources, and Ault is an engaging writer (now I’m all curious about the one she did about Helen, Georgia). If you’re looking for a good overview of the history and folklore of the area, or just a good and creepy campfire tale, pick up this book.


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Halloween in North Carolina, Day #6: Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and the Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era (2014)


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Miles, Tiya. Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and the Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era. The University of North Carolina Press, 2015.


I was looking forward to this academic analysis of how ghost tours create and distort African American Antebellum history as soon as I found it on Amazon. For the most part, it delivered. Tiya Miles (1970- ) is an African American historian and professor at the University of Michigan. In Tales from the Haunted South, she explores the industry of “dark tourism” (tourism centered on death, disaster and other such tragedies) as it relates to ghost tours in the South. As you may have already noticed, Southern ghost tours (and ghost collections) usually like to go Gothic and indulge in Lost Cause romanticism, especially when it comes to the Civil War. Dr. Miles’ acerbic academic study is a bracing antidote to all that.

Dr. Miles comes into this field, not only as an African American historian focusing on the stories of the slaves who have become mere props in the tales of Romantic and Stupid Dead White People of Times Gone By, but as a “Yankee” outsider who isn’t very sympathetic toward the gauzy view Southern historians and storytellers may still hold toward the Civil War and Antebellum South. She also uses a narrative frame for the more academic discussion, in which she develops and gradually explores an equal fascination and repulsion regarding the supernatural and the ghost tour industry.

Dr. Miles comes from a Baptist tradition that appears to regard all truck with the supernatural world as not only unsavory, but spiritually dangerous. This adds a heightened and personalizing sense of guilt as an undercurrent to her journey from Charleston, SC to Savannah, GA to New Orleans, LA to the infamous Myrtles Plantation upstream from NO. Sadly, she never steps foot in North Carolina. In her defense, it’s also outside her intended geographic scope. It’s a short book that requires a sharp focus. As we get to know the subject matter, we also get to know her as a person exploring a shadowy corner of her cultural heritage.

Sometimes, this personal subtext works very well. Sometimes, not so much.

This is an essential book in any bibliography of Southern folklore. Dr. Miles does an excellent job of showing how white people in the Southern ghost tourism industry are stuck in a Gone with the Wind narrative of mossy Greek Revival plantations, in which they use the real-life sufferings of African slaves as a spice and hors d’oeuvre. Shadowy slave ghosts are trotted out as an exotic feature on these tours for a largely white audience. This distorts popular teaching of African American history and re-victimizes historical slave victims, on whose bones America was built, all over again.

She also tells a rousing good ghost tale (has even authored a novel or two) and is quite able to insert some creep into all the standard academese. There’s the Savannah ghost tour of the Old Sorrel-Weed House she and her husband attend. Later, they do some research and find that the compelling tales of slave suffering they encountered on the tour have no known basis in fact. The stories and characters are fiction. Obviously, this disappoints them after the properly chilling tour.

But back home in Michigan, Dr. Miles finds that one of her photos (of an alleged slave cemetery buried under Calhoun Square) unexpectedly shows an orb. Orbs are soap-bubble-like distortions that appear on digital photos. They are usually tricks of light reflection or refraction, dust motes, water droplets, or insects, but sometimes, they have no discernible cause. As she and her husband, rather creeped out, are trying to explain this digital artefact away, Dr. Miles’ young son comes in and sees the photo. He then starts talking emphatically about a “thing” in the photo that is not the orb and that neither of his parents can see.

Doo-doo-doo-doo.

However, Dr. Miles has a tendency to acknowledge the corrupting influence of slavery as an institution (something even its proponents knew by the 1850s), while ignoring the fact that its corruption was so terrible in its effects because it was universal. For example, she talks about Native Americans in rather distant terms, as victims of European expansion and aggression (and even mentions the Vann Plantation, about which she has written elsewhere), without ever really digging into the aspect that Cherokee plantation slave owners like the Vanns and Stand Watie fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Their descendants were anything but sanguine about sharing tribal identity with the descendants of their freedmen in the late 20th century. Like white plantation wives, Native Americans were both victims and abusers in the Antebellum South.

There are some other odd blind spots. After clearly establishing that the teenage slave “mistresses” Molly (Sorrel-Weed House) and Chloe (Myrtles Plantation) probably never existed (though women like them certainly did), Dr. Miles spends a lot of time on their apocryphal suffering while ignoring real-life women like Marie Laveau in New Orleans who held leadership roles in African religion and the local African American community. These women negotiated a very delicate balance with the dominant white culture to avoid extermination as an early American type of heretic. I was disappointed that Dr. Miles discusses Laveau mainly in passing when she spends a great deal more time (and, frankly, more sympathy than I ever would) on the monstrous New Orleans society dame Madame Delphine LaLaurie, her Creole heritage, her abusive final husband, and her Frankenstein complex. In the process of trying to unearth real African American history, Dr. Miles sometimes contributes to burying it further.

Her point – that LaLaurie’s brutality likely wasn’t really all that remarkable in the Antebellum South among the angry white plantation wives who had to negotiate their own precarious and unfree status not so far above enslaved black women their husbands owned and sexually exploited – is well taken. However, she doesn’t appear to have made a connection that LaLaurie’s myth does not come from whole cloth. It is very close to the story of Elizabeth Bathory, a liminal European female serial killer of high status, and contains elements (the abusive younger husband) from Chaucer’s notorious Wife of Bath. These possible literary allusions suggested that Madame LaLaurie’s story has been greatly heightened, beginning immediately after her flight from New Orleans.

Dr. Miles also implies that quadroon balls (in which biracial women sought white male protectors) were likely an invention of Spanish rule, but appears unaware of a similar tradition of “temporary” wives involving Christian men and Muslim women in late medieval Castile.

It’s interesting that Molly and Chloe are two apparently fictional characters introduced into real life tragic mysteries surrounding the sudden deaths of two white wives of plantation masters and used to excuse the possibly culpable actions of those real-life men. It’s also interesting that Chloe was apparently invented by a white woman in the late 20th century who was paranoid that her husband was cheating on her. I would have liked to have heard more about some of the real-life Mollies and Chloes, but most of that part of the book is about Madame LaLaurie and her abusive white counterparts, instead. LaLaurie’s victims never get a proper voice.

Also a problem is that there are times when Dr. Miles makes some rather visible goofs and omissions. For example, she mentions Supernatural and Ghost Hunters early on as reality ghost shows when Supernatural is most decidedly horror fiction. She does discuss Toni Morrison’s Beloved and mentions Tananarive Due in her end notes. But she never mentions that important and well-known African diaspora writers like Octavia Butler (Kindred) and Nalo Hopkinson (The Salt Roads), and movements like Afrofuturism, Steamfunk, and Sword and Soul, already deal with the issues of slavery and ghost tales the way she says African Americans should. It doesn’t feel so much that she ignores them as that she simply isn’t aware of all the people of color writing horror out there because (as she admits at the beginning), she herself has a horror of horror.

Toward the end, in her rather incoherent final chapter, she claims that she encountered no African American tour guides on any of her tours. Just the chapter before, she spends considerable time describing a young, openly gay African American tour guide at Myrtles Plantation.

She begins the book with a white tour guide on a standard historic house tour speaking rather sarcastically about the popularity of ghost tours. This makes her rather uneasy (since the potted history of the historic Southern house tour often has precious little African American content). Yet, she ends the book settling comfortably back into her previous contempt for dark tourism, with an African American historical tour guide who so assiduously avoids commercializing influences like ghost tours that he doesn’t even explain the history behind the use of haint blue in Savannah. This color was used on houses (particularly porch ceilings) by the African American Gullah people, probably to confuse spirits (who could not cross water). It likely became used in Antebellum Southern plantation houses because the people building them were African American slaves and freedmen. Far from a silly stereotype about the South invented by white ghost tour operators, haint blue illuminates a pretty major part of African American contribution to Southern architecture that the author appears to have missed.


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Review: Supernatural: “Wayward Sisters” (13.10)


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My collected recaps and reviews of season one, which first appeared on Innsmouth Free Press, are now up (with a few extras) on Kindle and are currently on sale through this Friday (May 18). The Kindle version is available through Amazon. The print version is also up. If you buy the print version, you get a Kindle copy thrown in for free. I also get paid if you get it on Kindle Unlimited (for free), read the Kindle version, or lend it to a friend via the Kindle Owners Lending Library. Just FYI.


[lots o’ spoilers ahead]


I’ve been dawdling over this review for months, largely because, on top of working full-time as an English tutor and museum science educator, I just finished a semester full of an internship for finishing up my Historic Preservation Technology degree and College Algebra (for my sins). Well, I passed those classes and graduated on Friday – and the CW has passed on picking up Wayward Sisters after months of strongly implying the series was practically a go for launch. And the season 13 finale is on Thursday.

So, now seems like a good time to revisit this episode.

I usually try to start with something positive in reviews and get to the critical stuff later on. There are some episodes where it’s more difficult to find the positive than others (translation: almost all of the Nepotism Duo entries). However, with this one, I’m going to spin the format around and go with the critical stuff first, then the viability of the characters, then the viability of the spin-off this backdoor pilot was intended to introduce. I think this spin-off’s actually pretty doable, with some tweaks, but it’s going to take a bit to explain that, and why the potential spin-off is fairly unique. I’ve seen some concerns by posters (legit concerns), though, and I want to discuss them first. Not everyone would want to sit through the viability discussion on the spin-off to get to the review of the episode itself.

Also, I’ve been trying to go in order with the episode reviews, but since there’s a whole lot of talk about the spin-off right now, I’m going to talk about this one and then go back to catching up with the other episodes I haven’t reviewed yet, this season. Also, it means I can put off reviewing yet another dull and cluttered episode by the Nepotism Duo (“War of the Worlds” (13.07)) a little while longer.

So, here’s the Bad, the Mixed and the Good.

waywardsistersnew

The Bad

Let’s talk about why some posters weren’t overly thrilled with the way the episode was set up. They were on to something. The basic premise is a hoary Western cliché that was old when Gunsmoke was on. It’s called “The men are incapacitated/out of town, and the wimminfolk have to step in and save the day.”

A signal example of why this isn’t exactly the most feminist trope ever popped up in 1978 in the original Battlestar Galactica‘s early episode, “Lost Planet of the Gods, Part I.” In it, most of the fleet’s (male) Viper pilots fall ill with a mystery virus, forcing a reluctant (and sexist) Apollo to rely on a bunch of new recruits. Most of them are young women and one of them is his new bride, Serena.

Lots of strident faux-feminist speechifying from the female characters and “down to earth,” condescending sarcasm from the male characters ensue. Naturally, as soon as the men are back on their feet, the women revert to being helpers and girlfriends, and fade into the background once more. In Serena’s case, she straight-up gets killed off in a Doomed Girlfriend in a Coma plot.

That’s the problem with the trope. It’s based on the idea that women are inherently weaker (and dumber) than men, and will only be called upon to engage in such heroic measures in an emergency when the men can’t protect them. As soon as the emergency is over, traditional gender roles snap right back into place and the women return to their kitchens. I’ll bet women who worked in the factories and trades during WWII, and lost their jobs to returning (male) GIs, cringed every time they saw this trope.

Now, obviously, the Wayward Sisters don’t quite revert to their previous roles at the end of the episode. In fact, part of what makes using this trope so awkward in this case is that it’s simply unnecessary for bringing these particular women into action. Jody, Donna, Alex and Claire are already actively Hunting. They’ve even specialized, Donna with Vampires and Claire (apparently) with Werewolves, aside from a smattering of other monsters (ghosts, not so much). Meanwhile, Alex has acquired a certain expertise in autopsying the supernatural.

This is all something of which the Brothers are well aware, having worked with Jody and Alex as recently as episode three of the season because they trust these women and their skills. Only the two new characters, Patience and Kaia (who have superpowers, but are otherwise total newbies to the Life) struggle to fit in. When Patience goes into battle with the other women, a gun is shoved into her hands and she gets offhand noises of approval when she finally manages to kill a monster.

So, why the condescending nonsense about the Little Women riding to the rescue and the dumbing down of the Brothers to accommodate the introduction of the women’s new team? Lousy, tone-deaf writing, that’s why.

Even the task the women have set themselves basically involves their staying at home in one place, waiting for the monsters to come to them, as opposed to the Brothers’ traveling around the country, putting out supernatural brushfires. Not so feminist and progressive, Show. Just sayin’.

This pops up repeatedly in the wheel-spinning the show has Sam and Dean do in the Bad Place. I saw a lot of spec that the mothershow would get canceled midway through season 14 to make way for the spin-off (pretty darned unlikely now). I think that would have been a very, very bad idea if the network wanted the mothershow’s core audience to accept the spin-off (and, at least a few months ago, it seemed apparent that they did).

Ever since the Dawn Ostroff era, saltgunners have been extremely sensitive to any hint that the CW is trying to kill off Supernatural (not least because Ostroff repeatedly did try to do that). Replacing it directly with a spin-off involving a different cast and premise would bring down that paranoia and wrath on the new show. It would kill the spin-off right at the start.

If they had taken this to series, unless Padalecki and Ackles had wanted out right away, I didn’t see the mothershow checking out before the end of season 15, in order to give the new show a good boost and remove any sense that the mothershow was being summarily replaced. Granted, that’s all moot now, unless the CW actually listens to the fan backlash over its failure to pick up the series. But this is a network where its ostensibly female-lead series are even more misogynistic than its male-lead series, while touting the mere fact it has any female-lead series in the first place as something great and progressive, so you probably shouldn’t hold your breath.

Do the showrunners and network understand this dynamic, especially after the ignominious crash-and-burn of previous would-be backdoor pilot, “Bloodlines” (which fans roundly hated for being terrible storytelling and barely even fitting into the SPNverse)? Well … some of the writing and direction this episode could have been a lot more reassuring on that level (and the network’s decision to pick up Yet Another Spin-off of The Vampire Diaries that is even less female-lead than the previous two shows kinda says it all for them).

If the Bad Place really was as deadly as Kaia kept saying it was (she claimed the Brothers wouldn’t last more than a few hours and they made it at least two days), there were better ways to show that than to write Sam and Dean as plot-stupid and suddenly unable to fight their way out of a wet paper bag with a hole in it and a pink neon sign in Kidprint font saying EXIT HERE. There simply was no way that EVOL!Kaia could have taken them both down, even though the plot was writing them as too stupid to pull out their angel swords (which EVOL!Kaia apparently never thought to take from them) until they reached the rift, let alone their guns. Guns trump a cute stick with a blade on it 99% of the time.

Sure, Meg managed it in season one. But she’s a demon and she enlisted help. Plus, that was season one.

Even the figure taking them by surprise was a dumb idea. That whole sequence failed to do what it was supposed to do – make EVOL!Kaia look badass – and just served to irritate the mothershow’s usual audience. I get that the Brothers couldn’t be the focus of the story in the sense of screentime, but their sojourn in the Bad Place could have been written a lot better. A few cute bits about Dean automatically going survivalist and Sam (unrealistically) being squeamish about eating a lizard didn’t cut it.

I mean, come on, writers. The Brothers spent most of season one looking for their father, but that was because he didn’t want to be found, not because he was too dumb to get out of his own mess.

Also not cutting it were a few random and vague references to the importance of the Brothers to the new team. Padalecki and Ackles could easily have had more time off, and the focus could still be on the women, without making the connection between them all so damned generic. This was a golden opportunity to show how much influence the Brothers have had on the next generation of Hunters, and deflect fan anger away from the new interlopers, by showing that the Sisters had an emotional connection with Sam and Dean.

Instead, the writers blew it with a few platitudes that made Claire’s motivation, especially, seem as shallow as a kiddie pool. They wouldn’t have even needed to invent a Woobie character for her to lose if they’d done a little more digging into why she would want to rush off to save Sam and Dean.

I wasn’t wowed, either, by the equally-lazy cliché of Jody and Donna (the adults) going off to investigate the boat and then having to be rescued by the teen girl pack. Well … more like Claire with a flamethrower while the others stood around looking awkward. The image definitely cut down on the danger vibe at the end of the scene.

Admittedly, part of that was another fail of the Bad Place set-up. Those creepy monsters that came through were not even remotely scary. They looked and were filmed like exactly what they were – athletic stunt guys doing parkour in creepy monster suits. The only time one looked cool and like an actual MOTW was when Alex was cutting up a dead one and removing its Mad-Max-style facemask.

Another problem with this was all the mucking about with Kaia and her character development (or sheer lack thereof). I’ll talk a bit in the section on characters about why making her and Claire a romantic couple was actually the most successful (or, at least, the least unsuccessful) aspect of their dynamic. For now, let’s focus on why that twist at the end was oh-so-not-good.

There was a common tactic in action and syndicated fantasy shows of the 80s and 90s to introduce a likeable character who appeared to be part of the main cast and then kill that character off right away, either in the pilot or the next episode or two. Basically, he or she was a disguised Red Shirt. The intent was to give the illusion that anyone could be killed off, even though everyone else usually proceeded to have adamantium plot armor until at least the end of the season.

With Kaia, they seem to have added on the cliché of replacing a likeable auxiliary character (especially one played by a PoC) with an EVOL version. Remember Sydney’s roommate in Alias? Like that. Sometimes, this works (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had a doozy of a reveal involving Doctor Bashir, and I don’t mean the part about his being Khan-adjacent), but more often, it doesn’t, especially if the switch is permanent.

Part of the problem is that we just barely met Kaia and already, they’re rebooting her. Even if this person wearing Kaia’s face is really her with a personality change, as opposed to an EVOL alt-version of her or a monster taking on her appearance, she’s been rebooted. And it’s not as though we were especially attached to the person they just killed off, so there’s even less emotional investment in the reboot.

You have to care about an original in order to care about a reboot. This isn’t a situation like Fred and Illyria in Angel. We’ve barely met Kaia, so there’s little reason to care about her fate.

It just feels like a cheap way to introduce a really powerful character (at least, in terms of superpowers) very briefly to scatter characters into new configurations and then kill her off because she’s too superpowerful for weekly MOTW use. Plus, Dean would totally have wanted to go after his mom right now at the end of 13.10 if the Kaia of 13.09 were still alive.

So, the whole episode was locking down the new team and the premise, and not only was one character left swinging in the wind, but the writers intentionally did that. Rest assured that as this backdoor pilot isn’t going to series, we’re not likely ever to see a resolution to what happened here, any more than we had any resolution to the twist at the end of “Bloodlines” (not that anybody cared about that, but still). Look at how Jody and Donna and the rest of the crew just up and disappeared after the Donna-centric episode following this one.

Kaia’s been the focus of two episodes now and she still doesn’t feel like a real person. She feels more like a checklist of attributes, most of them making her a victim rather than a character. I feel as though the writers keep shoving her in my face (LOOK, LOOK, SHE’S A POOR INDIGENOUS STREET WAIF, FEEL SORRY FOR HER, HOW DARE YOU NOT FEEL SORRY FOR HER?), which gives me a headache and irritates me with the writers’ constant attempts to handwave their own sketchy writing. Don’t give me retro characterization and then try to guilt me into accepting it as groundbreaking writing in diversity.

While her bonding with Claire was a nice idea, it felt extremely rushed (especially with all the slashy overtones). I could see Claire feeling bad that she’d failed to save an innocent she’d sworn to protect (like the little girl at the beginning), but flinging herself into Jody’s arms and weeping as though she’d lost the love of her life after Kaia’s death? That I don’t get.

I could see her grieving over Dean like that, or Castiel (who gets zero concern from Claire or anyone else this episode, despite also being in the wind at this point as far as they know). It’s certainly how she grieved over her mother. And in the episode where she gets turned into a werewolf, we see Dean leave the room when he believes she is dying because he can’t watch. So, there is a bond between those two. But Kaia? Claire knew her for all of five minutes. Where is all of this emotion coming from?

And why does Kaia suddenly decide to trust her after flatly refusing to help Jack or the Brothers? That seems vaguely misandrist. It’s the same lesbian-knight-saves-superpowered-damsel-in-distress conflict as the one involving Charlie and the fairy in “LARP and the Real Girl,” except that this time, the fairy dies and is a WoC (Woman of Color). The plot eventually resolves into a case where a WoC with sparkly powers gets fridged to motivate a white character who is being presented as the episode’s Hero. Hmmm, yeah, nope, not so progressive.

Also, Kaia wasn’t very sympathetic in either of her episodes. She was whiny and helpless and not even very good at escaping humans, let alone taking care of herself against supernatural creatures. She seemed to oscillate between fearful “Well, screw you all; I’m leaving you to clean up my multiverse mess” and “I shall face my fears by coming over to the other world and helping you, fair Claire.”

I never got any sense of responsibility for her own actions, let alone heroism, from Kaia. Granted, it was a stupid idea to let her actually go with Claire to the Bad Place, since she was the only one who could find it, but a little stepping-up-to-the-plate seemed in order for her being part of the team. She seemed very selfish and immature, except for the jarring shift to “By golly, I will help you” at the end of both this and the previous episodes.

It might have worked with an older and more experienced actress, but really, a lot of it was down to the poor writing and weird direction. I also sensed, from the terrible and choppy way the fight scene in the Bad Place was staged (a lot like the very frustrating cutting back and forth in the dark that you see in Arrow), that a natural at stage-fighting she’s not. It reminded me of all the dancing around Katie Cassidy’s lack of stage-fighting skills in season three.

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The Mixed

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Kaia, I think Jody and Donna were the best-realized of the characters. Sure, they’ve had multiple episodes to develop and the characters are also played by older and more experienced actresses. But also, I think a lot of it came down to the fact that Jody and Donna have their own supernatural-rooted conflicts, based on their being cops in a rural area, and Jody’s loss of her husband and son to monsters. Plus, their training and experience as law enforcement officers have given them a jump-start on the skills they need to survive as Hunters.

They don’t suffer from constant comparisons to Sam and Dean because their central character conflicts aren’t directly pilfered from Sam and Dean. I’d definitely watch a show with just Jody and Donna (I especially liked their incidental theme music while they were boarding the boat). They make a great team and come across as salty old Hunters in the Winchester tradition, already. I’m rather less certain I’d watch a show with just the younger women.

Some people had issues with Donna due to her accent and boisterously pro-gun attitude, but Jody was the one who struck me as a bit of a weathervane character in “Wayward Sisters.” I don’t mind Donna’s accent. She’s an obvious homage to Marge Gunderson in Fargo, whom I love as a character. I love the series, too (plenty of broad accents in that).

You may ask why I hated the RP English accents of last season, but had no problem with Donna’s. Let’s just say that the RP accents of characters like Bela and Toni were genuinely fake, and represented some weird and ugly national stereotypes. But there are some people in the U.S. who actually talk like Donna and certainly some who act like her. And that regional stereotype really is more broad than negative.

More to the point, she’s not an antagonist, and is a solid and capable Hunter. Donna may have issues with her weight and with men (especially her jerkoff ex), but she is fully confident and competent Hunting Vampires.

Jody is fine this episode when she’s off with Donna, but she flip-flops a lot whenever she’s with Claire. She wants Claire to be safe. No, she wants to let Claire go save the world. Make up your mind, Jody.

In the process, she also ends up ignoring Alex, a girl she previously had gone to bat for with the Brothers to save her when Alex was forcibly turned into a Vampire and they were considering killing her. I get that Jody’s desire to create another family to replace the one that died (no matter how much she may protest that’s not so) fuels this emotional conflict. But the writing for it could be a lot better and not portray Jody as an emotional jellyfish. Also, there was no way she should have let Kaia go through the multiverse rip with Claire.

I noticed a lot of questions on social media about why Claire gets so much prominence in the backdoor pilot (and honestly, I hope the series doesn’t go the route of an ensemble cast where one character gets far more coverage than anyone else). Her being white and blonde seems a rather obvious factor. But more so is that as a character, she’s been around longer than any of the other characters in the spin-off (since season four’s “The Rapture”), though Kathryn Newton has only been playing Claire since season ten, when the character popped up again after a six-season hiatus.

Another cogent reason is that Claire is a legacy member of Team Free Will. Castiel has been wearing her (now-dead) father’s body since before he met the Brothers and she has also harbored him as a vessel. So, she has a direct “familial” connection to the Brothers. It helps that Newton seems pretty comfortable with all the physical stuff of the role.

That said, Claire, despite having a lot of roots in the mothershow, is still a bit nebulous in terms of motivation and character. I noted before that I thought making her lesbian – or at least bisexual – was actually a good idea. It defuses a potentially problematical aspect of her character to this point – she has developed a monumental crush on Dean, which has caused a fair amount of unease for both Dean and Jody.

Dean actually loves Claire dearly, enough that, as I said before, he was forced to leave the room when she took the torturous werewolf cure last season and didn’t want her to go through with it due to the high mortality rate. But he loves her as a father and would never, ever sleep with her. He is acutely aware of the fact that he is twice her age and that she is effectively his best friend’s mortal daughter. Claire may talk about how much she owes both Sam and Dean (and she does have a bond with Sam, as well). But she is carrying a big, bright, sparkly Daddy-Figure torch for Dean and this has caused him to put some emotional distance between them.

If Claire is gay, then this soft ground firms up considerably for the writers. The highly inappropriate puppy-dog-love chemistry with this scarred Hunter old enough to be her daddy becomes much less squicky and turns into more appropriate father-daughter chemistry.

Dean has also distanced himself because he appears to blame himself for her self-destructive path into Hunting and sees himself as a terrible role model. Jody, on the other hand, appears to see that Dean’s very mental health issues make him a good role model for troubled young Hunters like Claire because he is a survivor who has used his own damage to become a Hero. A damaged person like Dean, much more than some unattainable paragon of virtue, gives hope to the damaged people who enter Hunting as a major avocation or even full-time profession. Him they can emulate.

One problem is that Claire strives to be like Dean without quite understanding who Dean is or what makes him a great Hunter and Hero. Claire goes in, half-cocked and guns blazing, without understanding that one of the most cunning, sneaky, and strategic people in the SPNverse is Dean Winchester. If Dean does go in big, dumb and beautiful, that’s a tactic, not a sign that he’s too dopey or prideful to do it any other way.

Claire, now being fully orphaned, also doesn’t quite get Dean’s loyalty and devotion to family. The person who gets this, weirdly enough, is Alex. So, while Claire thinks she’s being like Dean, Alex is being like Dean. Claire is more like season-one Sam in that she is seeking revenge and being a hot-head. Alex is staying home and backing Jody up. We even saw her save Jody from a brainwashed Mary last season.

Alex also has important support skills in that she is now a nurse or in nursing school, or something. Let’s hope the show actually starts researching emergency medicine a bit better from now on to suit her role (because she and the others will probably be back, at least on the mothershow). Alex (like Sam) is really only in Hunting out of loyalty to Jody and also (like Sam) feels tainted by her years with a vampire family. Like Sam, Alex is seeking a kind of normal that is so idealized it probably doesn’t exist, while not feeling especially worthy of it or able to identify and find it.

Unfortunately, while Alex got in some good Dean-style lines (“You look like Biker Barbie”), she had very little development aside from some bonding with Claire and Jody. She was effectively shunted aside by all the other characters.

So, let’s talk about Patience. Patience got a full-episode introduction earlier this season in the eponymous “Patience” (13.03). Admittedly, she comes off as bland and low-key in this one compared to all the over-the-topness of certain other characters, but I think her character arc worked the best of them.

Alex desires Normal. Patience just left Normal behind in Atlanta and went off on a Hero’s Journey. She wants to use her power of prophecy to help people. She even basically got disowned by her father in the previous episode for leaving to come to Jody’s. So, Patience may look boring at the moment, but a lot is going on with her.

In addition, Patience also had a few checks on her ego about the above big mission to save others. For one thing, everyone else (except for Kaia, who was kinda grandfathered in) knew a lot more about Hunting and handling guns than she did. For another, the vision that sent her to Jody’s in the first place to try to save Claire ended up saving no one. Not only did it come true, but Patience belatedly realized that it came true because she had misinterpreted it. What she had thought was Claire’s death was actually Claire grieving over Kaia’s death. Prophecy isn’t quite as straightforward as she thought or as the show made it look in her first episode. This is humbling for her.

It’s also really, really nice to see an African American woman who isn’t a condescending stereotype. Patience is boring, middle-class, and academically smart, and that’s the whole point. Technically, she doesn’t have to be there. She has a stable home she could return to. Despite losing her mother and grandmother at a young age, she’s not rocked by trauma and forced out onto the road. She’s a volunteer. She just wants to do something good with her gift.

What makes no sense, though (and I can’t believe I’m saying this because I hated the incessant, years-long focus on Sam’s psychic storyline), is that Sam never has a conversation with her about her visions. Her visions are almost exactly the same as his psychic abilities in the first two seasons, and her grandmother lampshaded Sam’s abilities like crazy back in season one. But nope, not a peep between Sam and Patience about it. Sam has no conversation with Kaia about it, either, for that matter, nor does Dean ever bring up with her the considerable amount of dreamwalking and travel beween worlds he’s done. That absence was glaring to me.

But unlike some fans, I actually don’t mind the women being on the show and I think the focus on the spin-off gave the writing a direction last season distinctly lacked (let’s be honest – Lucifer on the Loose was boring as hell. So was anything to do with the LoL). But considering Sam and Dean are the inspiration for the formation of the Wayward Sisters in-verse, the least the show could do was have some more expression about what that means. A little vague mumbling from Claire and Jody about how Sam and Dean are missing (really? Those guys go missing more often than a tomcat on the prowl) and the women owe them doesn’t cut it. I’d like to see how that thinking has evolved to this point. I mean, hell, every time Bobby and/or Rufus popped up in their later appearances, the show practically went into hagiography mode. I did not sense anything inspirational or special about the Brothers’ appearance in this episode (though there were hints with Dean in the Patience episode).

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The Good

As for SPN being sexist or misogynistic, simply put, it’s not. Women have always been portrayed as Hunters or potential Hunters in the show. They handle weapons. They kill things. They kick ass.

Patience was actually slapped on the back for killing a human-like monster this week. Women don’t get to kill anything on American TV without a huge negative deal made about it, let alone praised for it. Yet, after the Sisters killed all those things, it was Miller Time. The only dampener was the loss of a comrade, not any squeamishness or guilt over killing monsters.

The potential for a female-led storyline has always been there, which is a lot more than I can say for The Vampire Diaries (where the two male leads metaphorically smothered the female lead) or The Originals (where women are either victims or evil bitches – sorry, evil witches), two supposedly female-oriented CW dark fantasy shows that utterly fail to be feminist.

Legends of Tomorrow plays up Sara’s character a whole lot, but the sole other female character (who is always a WoC) seems to get switched in and out interchangeably, rendering women barely a third of the cast. Similarly, male characters also dominate Arrow and the female characters are either love interests, annoying little sister types or screeching harpies (oh, hello, Laurel).

I love Kara and her sister’s relationship on Supergirl (not to mention Alex’s coming out), but dear God, if I have to hear her apologize and grovel one more time for something a male lead never would have been dunned on, I’m gonna scream. Same deal with iZombie and the title character having to be “nice” to everyone (she’s a freakin’ zombie, people!).

Jane the Virgin is female-centric, but it’s also basically a soap opera – very traditional roles for women. And have you seen lowest-rated-show-in-network-history-for-two-whole-seasons Crazy Ex-Girlfriend? Sure, the songs are bouncy, but between the songs are long, arid, grim stretches of the title character actually being a crazy ex-girlfriend, doing things that a male character in film or TV rom-com or adventure would be considered heroic for doing (even though, in the real world, they would indeed be creepy and stalkerish). The only difference is that it’s a woman doing it and women are never portrayed positively doing this stuff. It’s a really negative portrayal.

This baffles me, since Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is hailed as feminist, yet it’s about as anti-feminist as it can be. It breaks no new cinematic ground whatsoever.

There’s The 100 (which I never got into much), but even they did a Bury Your Gay Girls storyline and the showrunners never figured out why that was a problem.

Black Lightning started out a bit iffy on that score (Lynn and her youngest daughter are both rather annoying cliches at the start), but Anissa at the drug store was about the most badass intro to a character’s new powers under fluorescent lighting since we saw Demon!Dean take out an Amara fan at the beginning of season ten. Any showrunners for the “Wayward Sisters” spin-off ought to have taken notes.

There’s a reason why some female viewers like SPN but really dislike other CW shows. And it’s not self-hate or internalized misogyny. The CW claims to have young women as its target audience, but most of its entries are every bit as sexist and misogynistic as the rest of TV.

Not a surprise, considering the network is no more welcoming to women and People of Color as producers than any other network. The pro-Girl Power thing is all just a big marketing dodge. On Supernatural, it’s downright refreshing to see women kill multiple human-like monsters, handle guns, and brag about their weapons collection, without an ounce of remorse or squeamishness (and several actresses from Samantha Ferris to Cyndy Sampson to Marisa Ramirez to Kim Rhodes and Briana Buckmaster have commented over the years on how refreshing it is to get to handle weapons and do real stunts). Go team.

This is usually the point where we get into how a woman can be strong and feminist without wielding a gun or other weapon. And that’s true. But don’t discount the number of contortions TV or film writers go through to avoid having women – ordinary women – get physical in fights and, especially, handle guns. If the only way a woman can be strong compared to men is never in a fight, that’s a problem. If the only way a woman can be strong compared to ordinary men is if she has superpowers (especially if she has to keep apologizing for having them), that’s a big problem. Supernatural doesn’t have that problem. It never did.

Dabb isn’t all that great a writer or showrunner, and he lacks the kind of support Kripke had in the early years. But the world of SPN was established years before he came on board. It is one that has always portrayed characters from many walks of life, both genders, different cultures, different ethnicities, and GLBT who were solid Hunters, years before that was actually fashionable. It’s easy to forget that shows like Highlander portrayed women as physically and even mentally inferior to men, to the point where it seemed a ludicrous idea that a woman Immortal could ever win the Game without cheating. Hence, the female-lead sequel, Raven, bombed horribly, despite having a likable female lead who had been a fan favorite on the previous show. Admittedly, the unlikable male lead and the misogynistic writing didn’t help, but neither did six seasons of the previous show telling us an Immortal woman was so useless in a fight that even a really ancient Immortal like Cassandra couldn’t team up with Methos and take out the rest of the Horsemen. Or any of the Horsemen, for that matter, despite her being almost as old as they were.

As for the much-vaunted Buffy and Angel, if you watch them again, you’ll see a lot of traditional gender roles for women who aren’t superpowered superheroes. For every Buffy, there are five Willows or even Freds. Shows where women are regularly shown as strong, capable and lethal in a physical fight (like Xena: Warrior Princess, or even the far-more-recent Lost Girl) are rare. And even then, the women in Xena wore some pretty revealing outfits clearly not intended to attract a straight female audience (though the Xena showrunners happily pandered to the enthusiastically lesbian portion of their fandom that grew up, at least for the most part).

So, it was no small thing when, a full season before an annoyed Dean informed Jo Harvelle that he had no problems with female Hunters, just idiots, an equally annoyed Dean handed young Kat in “Asylum” a saltgun because she was the one with the gun skills and the moxie, not her dippy boyfriend. And it was Kat who tagged along with Dean and got some grumpy instruction in Hunting from him.

The show has definitely had its issues with portraying gender and women’s issues over the years (and the godawful fight scene in which Sam and Dean are dumbed down enough to get taken down by a lame hooded figure with a blade on a stick is unfortunately not a first), but it’s also tried hard to portray a world where women are in no way inferior to men, as a group, when it comes to battling supernaturally dangerous creatures. Even if that means physically.

This is how “Wayward Sisters” can have an all-female cast of new and established Hunter characters who still feel as though they belong in the SPNverse (as opposed to the obnoxiously snobby One Percenter monsters of “Bloodlines,” which felt like Supernatural: The Originals, which is not a compliment). The casting is extremely critical for such a show (as we saw with the casting of Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles). So, even though the writing for “Wayward Sisters” was creaky, cliched and often tonedeaf, while the direction was uncharacteristically clumsy for show veteran Phil Sgriccia, the chemistry the women on this team have (which is mostly considerable) overcame that because it had the worldbuilding at its back (like Xena) rather than undercutting it (like Highlander: The Raven). The new show can always get new, and better, showrunners, certainly better writers, but none of that would do it any good if the cast chemistry weren’t there.

Fortunately, the cast chemistry is there, especially for Jody and Donna, and Claire and Alex. Patience is bland, but the actress seems capable of taking her somewhere (her reaction to her first monster kill was a hoot) with some decent writing.

So, while there are definitely improvements to be made, and some things could go horrendously wrong (especially with the current showrunning and writing team), I think there are some solid bones here on which to build a new show. Too bad it didn’t get picked up.

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Next: War of the Worlds: The Nepotism Duo return with another confusing tale about the alt-SPNverse, Lucifer, alt-Michael and Asmodeus.


I’ll be doing my live recap of “The Thing” here later tonight or tomorrow. I’ll try to catch up with the recaps of the rest of the season before Thursday night. Wish me luck.


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The Official “Patience” (13.03) Live Recap Thread


Little late again. Anyhoo, let’s get started.

This is, by the way, the first of the backdoor pilot episodes for the projected spin-off, intended to introduce the title character.

Standard recap of the season so far, as well of Wraiths. Pretty Jack-heavy and includes a brief bit about Sam’s demon-blood drinking. Nothing particularly exciting and no rock songs used.

Cut to Now in Omaha, NE. A young blonde woman is dusting a photo of her with Missouri and closing up shop for the night. She’s a professional psychic. The door opens and a man comes in. She starts to tell him she’s closed, but agrees to do one last job for the evening. I’m sure this will end well.

She does some Tarot cards and answers his questions about her being a “psychic counselor.” She says she reads “energies, auras.” He asks her to read his and realizes he’s a Wraith. He stabs her in the hand and then eats her brain while looking sexual aroused. Yup.

Cue title cards.

At the Bunker, cue the sneak peek as Dean is listening to the Rolling Stones’ “Rip This Joint” through headphones while drinking a lot of beer. In his room, Jack gets a knock on the door from Sam, who has a boring, insipid video message of emotional support from beyond the grave (since Jack killed her being born) from Saint Kelly on a thumb drive (product placement, much?). As this plays, Sam gets a call from Missouri Moseley from season one’s “Home.” She’s at the scene of Doomed Teaser Psychic’s shop and is asking for help while apologizing for “being a stranger.”

Sam gets off the phone and tells Dean who it was. He says Missouri told him she’d got out of the Life for a while, but had been pulled back in by a case and that he put Jody on it because they need to stay at the Bunker and help Jack hone his powers, so he can open the rift again to rescue Mary–sorry, be all that he can be. Dean calls Sam right out on his false compassion for Jack and says he “didn’t sign up for” babysitting the baby “Antichrist,” nor is he thrilled that Sam is putting Jody in potential danger like that. So, off he goes to help her with the Hunt.

Gotta say, I’m with Dean on this one.

So, in broad daylight the next day (it was night when Missouri called Sam), Jody is talking a policeman for Missouri when Dean drives up. Missouri explains to Jody that the DTP, named Dede, was her “protegee” and about the closest thing she currently has to family. When Dean arrives, he hugs Missouri first and Missouri gives condolences on his losses. There is zero reference to the fact that she was a complete bitch to him the last time they met.

Inside the house, Dean and Missouri both suspect the killer was a Wraith and Missouri gets from a series of images by feeling objects that it is indeed a Wraith, who feeds on psychics for some reason, and then an image of an African American man named James. Dean tells Jody that Missouri’s thing was sensing from objects, except that her thing was actually telepathy. Psychic blanket BS Powers Syndrome strike again.

Cut to Jack and Sam talking about…uh…stuff. Sam wants to train him to do stuff (Sam doesn’t mention his totally mercenary motive to rescue Mary). First, he has Jack move a pencil. Except Jack can’t seem to do stuff on cue.

Cut to Missouri having an awkward phone conversation with James, who doesn’t believe in her visions. He hangs up on her. She comes out and tells Dean and Jody to go save James (who is her son) and her granddaughter Patience. She’s going to stay behind because she’d just “complicated things.” When Dean protests that this is a bad idea, Missouri reverts to full-on bitch mode and he just says, “Yes, ma’am.” [grrrr] She thanks him, but the damage is done. I am so over this character, who is obviously about to get a cameo kill-off along the lines of Sarah from “Provenance.”

Jody, to her credit, notices the awkwardness.

Back to Jack, who is mentally wrestling with that pencil. Sam tries to coach him through it by asking him how it felt. Jack that stuff just happens, except with Asmodeus, who was “in my head.” Jack gets upset and says he can’t do it with Sam staring at him. Sam says they’ll take a break and he’s off to get some food.

At DTP’s place, Missouri is waiting for the Wraith, who has come back to the scene of the crime for no logical reason given in the story. She tells him she’s seen the future (again, Show, Missouri didn’t previously have precog powers. If she had, she’d have been of much more use in “Home”) and that she dies, no matter what. She’s not going to give him the satisfaction of screaming, but she is certain her “people” will kill him. Well, he’s been pretty stupid so far, so that shouldn’t be too hard.

At a school, Patience is getting lured into playing volleyball by a friend because she has amazing reflexes. Or something. Her friend leaves and the lights fritz. She finds bloody footprints and then her dead grandmother saying her name. She’s attacked from behind and then wakes up from a dream. As she comes out into the office, she talks to her father about her dream. He insists it was just that, but as she leaves, he looks thoughtful.

So, James is actually even more obnoxious than Missouri. Yay.

As he’s buying a freakin’ bar’s worth of beer at a convenience store, Dean sees a TV news story about Missouri’s death. Out at the pumps, he tells Jody and regrets not staying to protect Missouri. Jody asks if they should go back, but Dean says Missouri asked them to go protect her family and that’s what they’ll do.

At James’ home, they get a predictably cold reception from him until they get across to him that yep, his mother is really dead and yep, the cause was supernatural. Jody then rather forcibly insists James pull his head out his ass about the realization that he is indeed the putz who hung up on his mother right before he died. They don’t have time for that.

They really don’t have time for that since here’s Patience at school, experiencing deja vu from her dream. Confused, Patience goes back to her locker, but when she shuts the door, there’s the Wraith. I actually don’t mind Patience, and the actress seems pleasant so far, but boy, does she not look at all young enough to be in high school. That’s a bit distracting.

Anyhoo, the Wraith gets all MRA creepy with Patience, but she has a bit of spunk. She kicks him in the nuts (do Wraiths have nuts?) and the breaks off his stinger/sucker/needle. He tackles her and says it grows back, but gets shot from behind by Dean. He runs as Dean runs after him, blocks the door, and then tries to run Dean down in a Pedo Van after Dean chases him out into the parking lot.

Back inside, Dean and Jody have a talk with Patience. As with her father, they bruskly break through her denial about being a psychic and tell her her estranged grandmother, who allegedly abandoned her and her father after her mother died, is dead.

At the Bunker, Sam is watching Jack through a spy camera and reading up on baby books. Because that’s totally not creepy, or anything. Jack appears to disappear, but he’s just hiding in a corner. He says maybe his powers don’t work because they’re evil and he’s evil, because Dean said so. Jack says his mother said he could be good, but realizes she’s dead because of him and he’s already done evil. And he can’t do a simple “good” thing like push a pencil.

Sam gives him a pep talk that sounds pretty damned insincere, considering all he really wants is for Jack to help him break Mary out of the alt-verse. Though Sam does at least admit that he’s pushing Jack too hard and they should stop for a while. Jack thinks that’s a great plan. Jack asks Sam why Sam is being so “nice” to him and not only does Sam not mention his very mercenary motive, he also does the same damned thing he’s been doing for 13 years and makes it all about himself, his own conflicts, his own issues. He says he’s empathizing with Jack, but that’s never been true before, so….

Back on the Wraith Hunt, Patience is confronting her father. It turns out he lied–a bit–about Missouri cutting them out of her life. Turns out it was the other way round. He talks about always being on the road, Hunting, as a child, except that 13 years ago, Missouri lived in a house, Show. Can’t these writers do a little damned research on show canon before writing these episodes?

Anyhoo, Jody and Dean once again cut to the chase and inform him that Patience is also psychic, which she confirms. The Wraith is now after her. James tells her to go upstairs and pack (because her being alone right now is SUCH A GOOD IDEA). Upstairs, Patience holds a broach and has a memory/vision of Missouri giving it to her at her mother’s gravesite after Daddy gave his mom the boot. Then she starts to pack, opens the closet door, and gets kidnapped by the Wraith. Of course. [facepalm]

Jody makes calls while Dean checks traffic cams for the Pedo Van. Meanwhile, James is going through his mother’s photos and things. He has a bag of something he calls “lithomantic gems.” It turns out James was able to do magic, too, which makes him look like even more of a dick.

Patience wakes up tied to a chair in a room. The Wraith comes in and creeps all over her. He started off on mental patients and accidentally happened across a real psychic. They give him a rush, make him “clear” or whatever. He’s going to take his time eating Patience because her grandmother tasted so darned good. Ugh.

Suddenly, Dean, her father, and Jody come in and the Wraith flees. But then James gets killed, then Jody, and finally Dean. Unsurprisingly, it’s a vision. Also, it’s total bullshit in light of the skills and abilities of the other three. Things start to pan out as before, but Patience is able to warn them so the first two just get knocked out. Her warning to Dean, though, works. After a longish fight, Dean kills the Wraith.

Afterward, Patience finally admits she’s psychic.

Afterward, Jody compliments Dean on the Wraith kill, while Dean compliments Patience (for the second time) on her help. Patience also thanks Dean and Jody. Patience talks about going back to school. Her father wants her to deny her gift (because that’s worked out well so far). Dean backs up James, pointing out that becoming a Hunter is a “horrible” and lonely life, full of pain, with no “joy.” Well, he should know. Jody, on the other hand, suggests that Patience might want to pursue her gift. Jody tried to get Claire to avoid Hunting, too, and it didn’t work out so well. She gives Patience her card. Dean doesn’t look thrilled, but he doesn’t object, either.

Back at the Bunker, Sam says he heard about Missouri and they have it out about Jack. Sam does yet another blame-Dean speech, saying that Dean didn’t think Sam was not worth saving when he was drinking demon blood. Dean soft-pedals around the part where Sam, while high on said blood, beat him half to death–twice–but gets right in Sam’s face about Sam’s hypocrisy in encouraging Jack so Jack can “save” Mary and brings up Jack’s brainwashing Castiel while still in the womb.

Jack is listening to the whole thing. Dean’s words precipitate a vision of Castiel lying on the ground someplace dark and cold. When Jack whispers Castiel’s name, Castiel hears him and wakes up.

Credits.

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My Dad and Donald Trump


By Paula R. Stiles


My dad died three years ago this fall and I’m about 99% sure he would have voted for Donald Trump if he were still alive. Even after Trump’s epic fail at the first debate (the second one is tonight) and the recent infamous bus video, my dad would never have chosen a woman over a man, ever, certainly not a Democratic woman over a Republican man. He actually believed the crap Rush Limbaugh spouts and felt himself very hard-done-by in this PC society. I still remember the day he absolutely forbade my mom to take me to see Bela Abzug talk.

He and my mom were only a few years older than Trump and Hillary Clinton, and therefore in that same generation and attitude. My dad was well-educated, with a Masters degree in History, and he married a well-educated, assertive feminist in my mother, who had a Masters in Nurse Midwifery. He served seven years in the Navy and twenty-two years in the Coast Guard, before retiring and becoming an English teacher in Poland. By all accounts, his students loved him. He was also a Peace Corps Volunteer in China. You would think he’d have been smart enough not to vote for Trump, but there you go and here’s why.

My dad had no respect for women.

In addition to the above accomplishments, my dad also abused my mom and his children, and he cheated on my mom endlessly during their marriage. In fact, my mom was in the process of filing for divorce when my dad was thrown out of Peace Corps a year and a half in for punching a guy in a traffic altercation. The “provocation” involved the guy calling my dad’s then-30-year-old, grad student Chinese girlfriend a “slut.” She was my age. And I was also in grad school at the time.

So, needless to say, my dad did not respect women, and made various nasty and demeaning comments about our gender over the years. Oddly enough, I don’t think he was as bad as Trump. He was more between Bill Clinton and Trump in that I don’t believe he ever engaged in sexual assault. He prided himself on charming the pants off women and all of his girlfriends that I met (he liked to introduce them to me when I was a kid) thought he was a great guy – which he was, during the Honeymoon period. Just as Clinton had grown up poor, my dad grew up respectably working class. Unlike Trump, he didn’t have the assumption that he could do whatever he wanted because he was rich and anyway, I think he liked the chase. He liked them willing. Trump, obviously, doesn’t see women as even that human.

It would be easy to wonder why my mother didn’t just up and leave my dad. Where was her self-respect? I have wondered that and asked her about it many times over the years (when you’re one of the direct victims of that refusal, you get to ask). The most chilling response she ever gave me was that she worried he would show up at the door one day with a gun. She had a point. Attitudes and services for battered women are not too great these days, but they’re a cornucopia of support compared to what was available in the 1970s. Abused women, especially educated abused women, were expected to put up with it. And hope he didn’t kill them and their children.

The attitude was that if you were an educated, professional, working woman getting out there doing a “man’s” job, then you deserved what you got if he felt intimidated by your accomplishments and beat you or cheated on you. If you couldn’t be a “good” wife, you could expect another woman – a younger, hotter, more-accomodating model – to come along and steal him away. Smart women were supposed to compete over men, not the other way round.

People ask the same questions about Hillary Clinton and look down on her for things her husband did to her. They actually use it against her that there’s no evidence Bill has abused her or treated poorly aside from cheating on her incessantly for decades. They make victims out of the women with whom Bill cheated. They are willing to listen to the dumbest excuses and most egregious lies made up by some of these other women to justify that cheating because those women are only chasing after powerful men and not after power itself. It’s still more okay, in our society, for a woman to take another woman’s man than it is to take that man’s place. And we’re all for feeling lots more “sympathy” for hot, young college girls who fangirl Bernie than for “over-the-hill” women who favor Hillary Clinton.

Too many people are happy to believe that Hillary was a cold-blooded political pimp for her husband rather than a victim of a sexual Catch-22 where she couldn’t win whether she kept him or dumped him, just as there were people who were happy to believe my mom deserved my dad treating her like dirt because he resented her success. My dad liked strong women and he liked to break them down. There were a lot of guys in his generation like that and too many, still, who are young enough to know better.

So, the next time, boys, you start going on about “Billary” and “Hitlary” and how evil she is, and holding her to an insanely higher standard than the no-standard-at-all you hold Trump, please stop. Just stop. If you’re going to vote your sexism and your misogyny this election, own up to it, already. Stop blaming Hillary. Stop blaming my mom. Stop blaming us.

hillary


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Unusual History: Urraca, Badass Queen of Castile


By Paula R. Stiles


Even a cursory delve into the Middle Ages brings up queenly badassery along the lines of a Daenerys Stormborn and Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones, but some of these tough medieval queens are less well-known than others. Urraca (c.1079-1226), first ruling queen of Castile, León, Galicia, and Portugal in Spain, is one of them.

UrracaRegina_TumboA
                              Queen Urraca

Urraca’s reign of badassery didn’t start out in roaring form. Her father Alfonso, seeking more northern alliances than his ancestors, married her off to a French adventurer named Raymond de Bourgogne (c.1065-1107) when she was about eight. By age fourteen (when she had her first miscarriage), the marriage had been consummated. Her husband was either nine or fourteen years older than she. Urraca then found herself engaged in a grueling series of pregnancies that resulted in her standing at her husband’s bier in 1107, not yet 30, with a daughter Sancha and a son Alfonso.

Daddy Dearest betrothed her to his main rival Alfonso el Batallador (the Battler), King of Aragon, a year later. Yes, Spain had a lot of Alfonsos in power during the Middle Ages.

Her father’s decision was prompted by the death of his illegitimate son (by a Muslim noblewoman) and designated heir, Sancho, in 1108, and by the demands of at least some of his nobles. As with the first marriage of Urraca’s younger and more famous contemporary Eleanor of Aquitaine, Urraca’s father and his nobles apparently felt his daughter couldn’t handle the job as a reigning queen, despite her already edging into the medieval version of early middle age and having a legitimate and healthy heir in her own son, who was a toddler. And as with Eleanor’s marriage, Daddy Dearest’s attempt to bolster his daughter’s position via bringing a man in to do the job just created extra problems for the realm and the female ruler who was quite capable of running it on her own.

It’s a first sign of greatness in a woman who, to that point, had been little more than a broodmare that Urraca decided to go ahead with the marriage, even after her father died suddenly in 1109. She did this, despite voicing repeated misgivings to her father, because she apparently agreed that the marriage was a political necessity to keep her older and ambitiously scheming, illegitimate half-sister Teresa and Teresa’s husband Henry, left in charge of Portugal, from seeking independence. Unfortunately, her misgivings turned out to be right and Urraca’s life soon began to resemble a particularly juicy medieval telenovela.

Though he looked great on paper – and great on the battlefield – El Batallador (c.1073-1134) was severely lacking as a husband. He reportedly disliked women and greatly preferred the company of men. Though he was six years older than Urraca, it was his first (and only) marriage. He had no mistresses and later Muslim historian Ibn al-Athir (1166-1234) remarked that he didn’t even sleep with female war captives (a very common practice of the time). No mention is made of his dallying with any young boys either, so there’s that, but whether he was gay, asexual or sterile, he had no known children of any kind.

It’s often stated how important bearing children was to a queen’s security and power base, but having an heir was equally important to a king. Establishing your dynasty was a crucial part of cementing your reign. My friend Silvia Moreno-Garcia, who has a strong interest in the history of Tudor England, has often remarked that Henry VIII’s queens were no passive victims. They had their own power bases, hence why noble families vied to profer the next woman in line and so many of these candidates were strong and smart (with the young and unready Catherine Howard a disastrously instructive exception). How much more so a queen ruling suo jure, by blood not marriage, like Urraca, who also not only had a son but a daughter who could rule after her. Indeed, as Urraca’s son ruled over the State part of his mother’s realm, her daughter Sancha came to rule over the Church portion as a very powerful, unmarried infanta. Even her illegitimate children married well.

During a monarch’s lifetime, even minor (underage) heirs, like Urraca’s son, Alfonso Raimundez, had power bases formed around them, full of court intrigue, long before they came of age. For example, Eleanor’s restless sons all rebelled against their father, Henry II of England, at some point. Eleanor herself was imprisoned for years because she fomented the revolt against their father as part of her ongoing conflict over Henry’s tyrannical attempts to coopt her realm of Aquitaine into his own. She ended up choosing her own heir, Richard, who also eventually became Henry’s heir due to a process of attrition over the years. She also ended up outliving Henry.

In Alfonso Raimundez’s case, the main court intriguer was the oily Bishop Diego Gelmirez of Santiago de Compostela, who eventually grew so wealthy and ambitious that the Pope himself slapped him down in 1124. Whoever controlled the child heir controlled the current monarch, though Urraca would soon close this loophole quite firmly. Urraca’s heir and her second husband’s lack of one showed her strength versus his weakness.

Alfonso Batallador also seemed to lack any tact whatsoever. What he gained on the battlefield he quickly lost to his soon-to-be-ex-wife because she was every bit as skilled a diplomat as he was a warrior. In the short term, the marriage itself had the opposite effect intended, since Alfonso Batallador made his intentions to dominate Urraca’s realm of Castile, León and Galicia in favor of his home kingdom of Aragon very clear. That just gave Teresa and her husband the excuse to break away for real.

Theresa of Portugal
              Teresa of Portugal

Later historians have lamented the “chance” lost during Urraca’s reign to unite Spain under one realm, but those historians lived four or five centuries later, in a period after Spanish kings had brutally united the various kingdoms through force and considerable bloodshed. Urraca and Alfonso lived during a time when the united Muslim kingdom of Al-Andalus had just broken up into numerous — though still-powerful — taifa kingdoms, and the previously tiny Christian kingdoms were rapidly expanding by picking them off. Urraca’s own grandfather had followed the Carolingian custom of dividing his kingdom among his children. It was only the death of her uncle, the elder son, that had given her father the chance to put the recently conquered Christian realms of her grandfather under one heir. So, it seems likely that uniting into a new Christian version of Al-Andalus was actually the last thing Urraca’s subjects had in mind, especially if they weren’t the ones in charge of it.

Alfonso Batallador may have been the only one shocked when the marriage broke down in 1110. Even so, Urraca next did some very surprising things for a medieval queen. For one, when she sought a divorce (technically, an annulment based on consanguinity) from the Pope, she did so partly based on the accusation that her new husband was beating her. At this time, it was perfectly acceptable for husbands to beat their wives and even ruling queens were expected to obey their husbands as their lords. Urraca’s accusation was startling in the assumption that her husband had no right to beat her, to the point that this was grounds for divorce. What was even more startling was that she was able to persuade the Pope to give her the divorce that same year. Popes were pretty accommodating about royal annulments in the 11th and early 12th centuries, but even so, that may have been a speed record.

And then, on top of that, she took a lover, Gómez González. While still legally married to Alfonso. And had a son with him.

Alfonso remained in denial for four more years, deciding in the meantime to take back “his” kingdom by force. There were several things in his favor. He was arguably the greatest Christian warrior of his generation and easily beat Urraca’s forces on the battlefield, even once putting her under siege at Astorga, León in 1112. Meanwhile, her lover was killed in the Battle of Candespina against her husband and her brother-in-law in 1111 (she promptly took another, his cousin Pedro González de Lara, and had at least two children out of wedlock with him). The Leonese nobility also was split into four factions. One was with the Queen. One was with her son, but sought to usurp her as his regent. One was with the King of Aragon. And one was helping Teresa and her husband break off to become the first Countess and Count of Portugal.

Urraca was able to fend off her older half-sister (who began to style herself Queen after being widowed in 1112), then defeated and forced her to re-swear fealty in 1121, temporarily reuniting all of their patrimony until after her death. Also, when the opportunity presented itself after Bishop Gelmírez fled the Battle of Viadangos in 1111 with young Alfonso Raimundez, seeking refuge with the boy’s mother, Urraca got full custody over her son. She retained control over young Alfonso (who was 20 before he became King) until her death, even staving off any possible rebellions such as the one Teresa’s son later employed to depose his mother in 1128. Meanwhile, she gained back in diplomacy what her ex had won in battle. Eventually, in 1114, Alfonso Batallador was forced to concede defeat and withdraw. Urraca spent the rest of her reign consolidating her kingdom against all comers Christian and Muslim, in preparation for turning it over to her son, before she died suddenly, probably in childbirth, at the age of 45.

The contemporary chronicle Historia Compostelana acknowledges Urraca’s intelligence and prudence, while sourly criticizing her as a “Jezebel” for her lovers and taking potshots at her fitness to rule solely due to her gender. Early Modern writers like Jerónimo Zurita y Castro (1512-1580) and Enrique Flórez (1701-1773) were more vicious, referring to her as Urraca the Reckless (la Temeraria) and writing lurid scenes (which may never have occurred) in which she was attacked and half-stripped during a negotiation-gone-wrong and a peasant revolt. It’s more likely that the peasants, for the most part, quite liked her, since she brought them peace and independence from Aragon. In addition, she had a greater reputation for showing mercy than her ex-husband, stemming from an incident early in their marriage when Alfonso Batallador executed some rebels Urraca wished to pardon.

In light of her many pregnancies and political use of sexual liaisons, there seems little doubt Urraca liked sex quite a bit. It also seems that she saw no reason not to use sex and sexual alliances as a weapon, just like her father, seeing as how Daddy Dearest was married five times and had at least two mistresses. She appears to have simply taken the same prerogatives that any king of her time would have done.

What’s interesting (and an indication of how powerful and skillful a ruler she truly must have been) is that she was able to do this, just like a king, to strengthen her rule, rather than be forced to live in celibate widowhood to avoid harming her and her son’s power base. For example, her two known lovers were both unsuccessful suitors for her hand before her father betrothed her to Alfonso Batallador. In addition, they were rivals against him along the border with Aragon, so she was able to exploit their natural animosity toward her second husband in her favor. It’s not just that Urraca didn’t care what a few cranky old monks and priests said about her. It’s that she was able to turn that scarlet reputation into a political advantage and make strong allies out of it. Having children with these men only cemented those alliances further.

It’s also interesting that the attraction she held for men probably had nothing to do with her looks and everything to do with her being Queen. We have no surviving description of her appearance and when she was married off the first time, she was very young. The one near-contemporary (a century later) portrait of her from the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela very interestingly portrays her with medium-brown skin (or even slate gray in another photograph). Urraca’s father and son are also portrayed in the same illuminated document as dark-skinned. This supports the idea that her father’s marrying her to Raymond counteracted centuries of marrying locally (and his liaison with a Muslim princess that resulted in a male heir), which could well have also meant marrying into Andalusian nobility.

Church_of_Fontevraud_Abbey_Eleanor_of_Aquitaine_effigy
                                          Eleanor of Aquitaine

 

Still, it is a surprise in medieval iconography, where female nobility to the north in this period were portrayed as very pale (even Teresa gets this treatment in a surviving illumination). Younger contemporary Eleanor is also portrayed in effigy on her tomb as having medium-brown skin, as well as being tall and wide-hipped. Possibly, this was an artistic convention of the time applied to women from Southwestern Europe, even though noblewomen in general were not expected to go out in the sun and pale skin was prized in other parts of the region.

It’s one more way in which Urraca stands out as nothing like the traditional 19th century image of the dippy, passive Gibson-haired girl who just can’t rule without a strong knight by her side. Urraca didn’t need any man to dominate her and she spent most of the latter half of her life ensuring that no man ever would again.


Further Reading

Pallares Méndez, María del Carmen and Portela, Ermelindo. La Reina Urraca. Nerea, 2006.

Reilly, Bernard F. The Kingdom of León-Castilla under Queen Urraca, 1109-1126. Princeton University Press, 1982.


Interested in more Spanish medieval history? Check out my book, Templar Convivencia: Templars and Their Associates in 12th and 13th Century Iberia.



Unusual History: Annie Wealthy Holland


By Paula R. Stiles


[Check out more details about the above photo of Pee Dee Rosenwald School, c.1935, here.]


Though born in Virginia, plain, unassuming workhorse Annie Wealthy Holland (1871-1934) was one of the most influential African American educators, woman or man, in the early 20th century in North Carolina. Though greatly dedicated to the cause of African American education, she never earned a diploma. And though she wielded considerable power across the state as the demonstration agent for the Jeanes Fund and founder of the Negro Parent-Teacher Association (the first of its kind), equivalent to being a supervisor over all African American schools in North Carolina, she never had a formal administrative position. Annie Wealthy Holland’s career, first profiled a mere five years after her death in Five North Carolina Negro Educators, reflected the contradictions for women and for African Americans in Reconstruction and Segregation era North Carolina.

Holland was born in 1871 in Isle of Wight County in Virginia. Her parents, John Daughtry and Margaret Hill, had married in 1869, but divorced soon after she was born. This resulted in an early setback for Holland in her road to education. Even though her grandfather and grandmother had strong ties to the nearby plantation, her mother moved her young daughter to Southhampton County after remarrying. There, Annie spent her early years with few prospects, raising her six younger siblings while struggling to study.

Holland’s paternal family regarded the white owners of the nearby plantation so highly that they had named her after the mistress, Annie Wealthy. The Wealthys had also freed her grandfather, Friday Daughtry, in 1867 and given him some property of land and livestock to get started. He was able to increase this to the point where he invited his eldest granddaughter to return and pursue her studies while living with him. There, Holland learned about the ways and hardships of farming peanuts and sweet potatoes, a lifelong lesson. She also noticed that educational opportunities were increasing for African Americans, who were beginning to replace the previous white teachers in the field, and quickly took it to heart as her vocation.

After Holland graduated from the Isle of Wight County School at age 16, her grandfather sent her to the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) in Hampton, Virginia. Founded in 1861 to educate African American refugees from the War as future leaders of their communities, the Institute focused on teaching practical skills like trades. Unfortunately, Holland’s education was interrupted when her grandfather died after her first year. After moving to New York and working as a nurse and nanny for a family there, she was able to earn enough money to enroll for a second year, but illness due to malaria prevented her from completing her diploma (a lifelong regret she expressed decades later in surviving letters). She was, however, later able to earn a teaching certificate from Virginia Normal Industrial Institute.

At the age of 18, around the time of her grandfather’s death, she married a Hampton graduate named Willis Holland. They moved to Franklin, Virginia where, eight years later, they were serving as principal and assistant principal of a nearby school. Holland quickly learned (perhaps aided by her own early experiences of balancing study with child care) that the ability of their students to study and even attend school could be greatly and adversely affected by lack of basic resources. For example, she took it upon herself to conduct clothing drives for students who were too poor to have adequate winter clothing. African American public schools at this time suffered from a lack of educational resources, such as textbooks, in comparison to white schools. This made keeping the school open a constant challenge. Aside from a brief stint working on her own with a rural school, Holland continued to run the Franklin area school with her husband until 1911.

In October of that year, Holland made the decision to join the Jeanes Fund. The million-dollar Anna T. Jeanes Fund had been created by, and named after, Quaker philanthropist Anna Jeanes in 1907 to help expand public education for African Americans. It was unique among such foundations for allowing African Americans on the board of trustees.

The job was a formidable undertaking. As of 1914, the Fund did not even have one teacher for every one of their 119-county coverage in Virginia and North Carolina. The position involved a great deal of extension work, not only teaching of students but also community outreach and interaction. Nevertheless, Holland was so good at this that in 1915, she was asked to become the State Home Demonstration Agent in North Carolina. This gave her de facto authority over all African American elementary schools in the state. She held the position for 13 years.

In her new role, Holland had a comprehensive variety of roles and duties. She had to train and organize teachers, create reading circles and homemakers’ clubs, run meetings, and give church speeches. Her purview included 19 county schools, 10 city schools, and 3 “normal” (teaching college) schools. She might visit as many as twenty counties in a given month and oversaw forty-five county supervisors. She was the epitome of leading through service.

At the end of this period, Holland founded the first Negro Parent-Teacher State Association, called the North Carolina Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers, at Shaw University (an African American college founded as Raleigh Institute in 1865) in 1928. Shaw was a prestigious college, the first in the U.S. to have a four-year medical degree and the first African American college to accept women. This meeting of some fifteen thousand people and seven hundred and seventy organizations was the culmination of a long and hard, but fruitful career.

Holland died six years later in Louisburg, NC and was buried in Franklin. While her life and career had begun in Virginia, in the end, her heart belonged to North Carolina. In commemoration, a tree was planted in her honor at Shaw University in 1939, five years after her death at the age of 63.

Much of Holland’s success stemmed from her remarkable knack for diplomacy and her self-effacing approach. She was an excellent mediator, gifted at persuading teachers and parents, blacks and whites, to get along and work together. She believed that African Americans should stand up for themselves, albeit not in ways that would deliberately alienate whites.

She also had to deal with the reality that she was working in a period where women had to take a secondary role to men, regardless of their race. There was never a question, for example, when she ran a school with her husband, whether he would be the principal and she would be his assistant. The few women who were able to have a career outside of the home also had to work very hard to maintain their position — and as Holland herself discovered, that work often involved teaching other women how to be better homemakers.

Her low-key approach also allowed her to navigate potentially dangerous political shoals and expand education – especially rural, public education — in the state for African Americans considerably during the early Segregation period. Unlike some other African American leaders of the time, Holland lacked the option in her later career of working exclusively in that community. She had to deal with a white community that perceived itself as superior to her and did not necessarily approve of giving up resources for African American education, and she had to do so with both firmness and tact. Teaching impoverished children might have been the easiest part of her job. Possibly, her early experience with sympathetic whites such as her namesake was what led to her even-handed skill in dealing with both communities and establishing unusual legal ties across the great divide of Segregation.

Annie Wealthy Holland was not a glamorous woman by any stretch. Nor was she an obvious candidate for a forceful or transformational leader. But the drip of water over many years can erode stone better than a tsunami. Holland is an excellent example of one of many such leaders during the Segregation period who transformed North Carolina in numerous, pervasive and positive ways.

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Bibliography

The Educators,” The Women Who Ran the Schools: The Jeanes Teachers and Durham County’s Rural Black Schools.

Carter, Nathan. Five North Carolina Negro Educators. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1939.

Crow, Jeffrey J.; Escott, Paul D.; and Hatley, Flora J. A History of African Americans in North Carolina. 2nd ed. Raleigh: North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 2011.

Gillespie, Michele and McMillen, Sally G., eds. North Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times, Vol. 1. The Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014.

Hoffschwelle, Mary. The Rosenwald Schools of the American South. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006.

Kent, Scotti and Cohn, Scotti. More Than Petticoats: Remarkable North Carolina Women. Helena: Falcon Publishing, Inc., 2000.

Shaber, Sarah R. “Holland, Annie Wealthy,” NCPedia.org, 1988.

Williams, Shane. “Annie Wealthy Holland (1871-1934),” North Carolina History Project, 2016.