One day when I was 14, my maternal grandfather bit into a burger and nearly choked to death in front of me and my cousin. It was fall and our extended family was passing through Lebanon, NH, so we had stopped at the A&W Root Beer restaurant there (sadly, now long gone) for supper.
Beloved and much-missed Grandpa Van was not eating too fast. He hadn’t taken too big a bite to eat. No. His throat muscles had atrophied thanks to his recent diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, now known as ALS. He died a few months later. Ever since, I dread whenever water or a bit of cracker goes down the wrong pipe. You see, ALS can have a genetic component. And it can skip a generation.
We all fear what Stephen King once called “the bad death.” What’s funny, though, is what kind of bad death we want to see in our horror stories. The more exotic, the less likely it is to take us, the better.
Heart attack? Cancer? MS? Alzheimer’s? Not so much. At least, not straight up with no chaser.
Sure, good horror does often evoke real-life horrors in a metaphorical way. We see a lot of domestic abuse in horror (and yes, domestic abuse is very common in real life), especially in the vampire sub-genre. And there’s body horror, which often mimics what a parasite from some hot and far-away part of the world can do to an unsuspecting First World body. In fact, some things (like rape) are not only very common, they are portrayed in many works as universally happening to female characters in a tone-deaf way. It’s a free-for-all of gender violence aimed at women in a lot of horror.
But let’s face it – your odds of being whacked by a killer clown while at summer camp are much less than getting lost and dying of exposure, or being killed in a car crash on the way home (or sexually assaulted). But what do we see in theaters and on our bookshelves? Endless movies about hot, young teens whittled down by some chainsaw-wielding maniac. Or zombie horror. Or vampires, sparkly and otherwise.
Admittedly, some of this has to do with the target audience – complacent, social-anxiety-ridden teenagers who think they’re physically invulnerable, for the movies; young, white men for books and graphic novels. When the genre does bother to target other groups, it splits off to paranormal romance for women (young women, of course, because why would older women read books, am I right?) or magical realism/literary for People of Color, both writers and readers. Horror writers and fans look down on these two categories, even though paranormal romance, like most things romance-genre-connected, sells like hotcakes while horror is considered a genre ghetto. Older people who actually buy a whole lot of books might as well not exist in the eyes of those selling them, at least when it comes to horror.
Still, I think a lot of it boils down to simple escapism. King talked at length in his two non-fiction books, Danse Macabre and On Writing, about how he put a lot of his early struggles with poverty and alcoholism into his books. And those elements definitely ground his books in a way that lesser books by lesser authors are not.
But even there, these themes are distanced by the supernatural element. Jack Torrance struggles with his alcoholism and isolation (and being so broke that taking a caretaker job with his wife and son at an off-season hotel in the middle of winter and nowhere is a great opportunity), but those are just the elements of his personality that make him vulnerable to the ghosts. The ghosts are what push him over the edge.
If he went over the edge due to the drinking and isolation, that would be drama. In horror, the ghosts aren’t just metaphors. They are real. So, there’s always an external element of threat in horror that doesn’t exist in straight drama that perhaps makes the threat easier to connect with emotionally.
It’s much easier to deal with things like genocide in The Martian Chronicles when it involves Martians and hypothetical spacemen than when it involves your direct and not-so-distant ancestors (or cousins). Dementia and mental illness are more tolerable in the context of The Twilight Zone than a hospital room. And nuclear holocaust, despite attempts by Hollywood to make it “respectable” drama, was monopolized by the horror genre early on. Nobody ever wanted to think about nuclear bombs in a “realistic” context.
This may be why people seek out horror despite its dark themes. And it may be why some themes (which can be given a horror spin more easily) are more common that others. The fantasy element is like a shield that allows you to see Medusa without being turned to stone.
Happy Halloween, everyone!
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For a long time, there has been great speculation about which character was God in the show Supernatural. Many candidates for the post have come through, including pagan gods, archangels, Death, and ambitious angels souped-up on monster souls or powerful tablets. The show’s big initial stab at answering the question came at the end of season five, when it hinted that the Prophet Chuck who was recording the lives of the Brothers Winchester was actually God Himself. Fandom reaction was mixed and the original showrunner, Eric Kripke, left soon after, whereupon the storyline was dropped, unconfirmed.
Part of the problem was that even when they first made the suggestion that a writer within the story was actually writing the story and was therefore God (in Chuck’s first appearance in “The Monster at the End of This Book” near the end of season four), the writers acknowledged that this was probably a bit too meta even for the show and more than a little self-indulgent (The Writer Is God!). Probably the biggest problem, though, was that it was too simplistic.
The show had taken multiple stabs at the question of the nature of God and divinity in its universe for years, some of them quite contradictory. There were, for example, pagan gods who gave favors in exchange for human sacrifices. There was the idea embodied in the first such episode (season one’s “Scarecrow”) of Hunters coming out of nowhere as saviors in the middle of the night. There was the deadbeat dad concept beaten to a pulp in seasons four and five. There was the aforementioned idea of the Author as God.There was Lucifer as the embodiment of Evil. There was the personification of Death. Jesus was occasionally mentioned as someone who had permanently broken the monsters and pagan gods’ hold on humanity. Prometheus came up in a similar vein in season seven. Things got complex and picking one idea was always bound to disappoint people.
I wrote an article a few years ago for Innsmouth Free Press on the nature of Jesus in the show. In it, I suggested that Jesus and God the distant Father in the show might not be one and the same. In fact, they are not the same aspect of God in the Christian Trinity, so they shouldn’t be the same in a fictional story based on the Trinity concept, either. Yet, it’s not uncommon for shows to ignore the Trinity completely and go with a completely monotheistic God the Father (or Mother) figure.
Then the show introduced the concept of the Darkness at the very end of season ten. While this was likely based on a DC comics “character” known as The Great Darkness from Swamp Thing back in the 80s, the show took it in a pretty different direction. For one thing, on the show, the Darkness was female. She was a character named Amara who wore an outfit that hearkened considerably toward bare-breasted Minoan snake goddesses and who appeared to be in large part inspired by references to a goddess figure in the Bible (Jeremiah) called the Queen of Heaven.
For another, she was God’s sister – in fact, she was significantly more powerful than God (who turned out to be Chuck the Prophet) Himself. For a third, unlike the comics, she wasn’t actually evil. And for a fourth, she had a significant and unique connection to one of the show’s two protagonists, Dean Winchester, who had previously been portrayed as a human Christ figure frequently expected to be responsible for the welfare of the entire world.
This started to open up some possibilities for a far more complex and compelling treatment of divinity than television generally gets. Mind you, the writing got pretty broad in the way of Star Trek: TOS films like The Motion Picture and The Final Frontier, but it “went there” with admirable sincerity. The awkwardness of talking heads in sports bars, gardens and children’s parks did not actually negate the depth and heft of the material being addressed.
When Chuck initially came back in “Don’t Call Me Shurley” toward the end of season 11, it appeared the show would have him and him alone be God. This meant it would therefore never address the fact that he was a master of many atrocities, the ultimate absentee father. But then a remarkable thing happened – first, Dean called Chuck out on being a deadbeat dad and lousy brother, on behalf of both humanity and Chuck’s sister, Amara. Second, the hints that Chuck was actually perhaps the bad guy in the story with his sister coalesced in the show actually allowing her to take her revenge on him. And then, once she finally had regained the upper hand and punished him, she came to realize this wasn’t what she wanted. Having gone through her own journey, she was ready to listen to Dean’s help in finding out what she did want, which was to reconcile with Chuck and find her own way in this new world.
This was a pretty powerful thing. Not only did it finally play out and defuse the deadbeat dad aspect by forcing Chuck to own up to it and pay for it, but it also defused the usual misogynistic overtones in the story (around which the show Lucifer on FOX is dancing with its own version of this trope) by making Amara, not the bad guy but the ultimately vindicated, triumphant and merciful party. She won by being the bigger person in the exchange. Chuck could have just come out, faced her, apologized, and let the chips fall at the beginning of the season, but instead, he chose to be a coward and work through his very confused “Firewall between Light and Dark,” Dean, instead. Dean was confused because, as far as he knew, he was only human and a nobody, despite the recurring tendency of everyone around him to hold him responsible for the weight of the world.
It turned out Dean was wrong.
And that brought in the third aspect of divinity. In Chuck, we had the biblical creator God, the cruel judge, the deadbeat dad. In Amara, we had the primordial chaos of Genesis and Mediterranean/Mesopotamian origin stories, like a very intense and pagan version of the Holy Spirit rather than the biblical Queen of Heaven in the Book of Jeremiah. In Dean, we had a human Christ figure who directly helped and interceded for the world with the other two figures, almost like a combination of Christ and the medieval version of his semi-divine mother Mary. The Firewall. Only, as Chuck hinted, perhaps not entirely human. And probably not so mortal. Definitely unique.
For obvious reasons, the writers never “went there” because you can’t admit that a main character is effectively immortal and throw him into situations where he might be killed by the monster of the week. So, they fudged, but if Dean is the only Firewall that has ever been (and it appears he is), then yes, he’s basically immortal.
This role is especially interesting in that Dean and Amara’s stories were in parallel, which also brings in the role of the Mega Team Free Will this season, AKA Chuck’s “Chosen.” Dean was able to intercede with Amara due to a mysterious “connection” whose origins remain unclear. That connection felt sympathetic and real because he had experienced the same level of betrayal from his family and friends, had a similar feeling of isolation, and was himself working through it to an unclear goal. In fact, he spent a great deal of the season trying to get other people to kill Amara because he couldn’t bring himself to want to and felt others were blaming him for not stepping up to the plate in his usual role as killer and blunt instrument. For a long time, he failed to recognize that he was actually growing beyond that limited role.
Meanwhile, other people simply felt this was an Achilles Heel Amara had put in him and not an actual signal that perhaps he needed to seek another, gentler route. Well, except for Chuck, but as I already said, Chuck was being a coward about it all and doing a lot of hinting rather than explaining. He of course justified this as Dean having to be the one to make his own decision. Because he’s Chuck.
Some fans have complained that neither Dean or Amara turned out to be as terrible and destructive as advertised, but I think that was ultimately the point. The fear that others felt about either of them losing control created more conflict and destruction than either of them actually did. And they both ended the cycle by taking the high road together.
So, TFW was influencing both Dean and Amara throughout the season, for good and for ill, in ways that helped them grow and figure out what they wanted, and help each other figure it out, too. Dean told Amara near the end that she simply saw in him a substitute for her brother, but I think Dean was underestimating himself. Amara’s connection to Dean was significantly different from her connection to her brother and it still is.
Sam’s role in this is pretty interesting. At the beginning of the show, Kripke wrote him wanting to live a normal, human life, but worrying about his demon blood, about not being quite human. Meanwhile, Dean was human but feral from a life in the supernatural world. Each brother has his own way in which he is human, but Sam is the one who has sought out normal and has a connection to it. Sam is also the one who has always prayed to God and who is in awe of Chuck when Chuck’s true nature is revealed to him. Never mind that Chuck doesn’t care enough to intervene when Sam is infected (either time) by the Darkness, only when Dean finally asks for help. Sam still has faith.
Sam also struggles with conflicting feelings over loyalty and betrayal regarding his brother, whereas he has no relationship with the Darkness. His terror when Amara explodes at her brother in “We Happy Few” and takes back the Mark is the extent of his reaction to her.
The rest of TFW, not all of them human, are also important. Castiel (a rogue angel), Crowley (King of Hell) and Crowley’s mother Rowena (a powerful witch) are all outcasts who are either outcast by their association with the Brothers or who acquire a purpose and family by their association with the Brothers. Meg forlornly attached herself to Dean in later years, seeking someone new to whom she could ally. It’s like the oft-stated motif in the Bible that God doesn’t choose the great and mighty as His instruments but the broken and the downtrodden, the better to show His glory. Similarly, Chuck’s Chosen are outcasts who coalesce around the Brothers Winchester, especially Dean.
The big question is where do they go from here? There is no possible way to go back without some epic plot-holing. Chuck left Dean in charge when he and Amara went off on their road trip and both cliffhangers turn on Dean’s suicide mission to save the world. If the world has been saved, then Dean should be dead. If he’s not, then those “happy few” in the know will immediately realize that something has changed. The sun didn’t die. Dean didn’t blow up. And Chuck has disappeared. Plus, Dean shows up with his mother who has been dead for over thirty years, clearly rewarded for his labors. There’s no way Dean can hide being on the same level with Chuck and Amara, or at least the question of whether he is.
Supernatural returns tonight at 9pm on the CW. We’ll see what happens next.
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Today is the 709th anniversary of the arrest of the Knights Templar in France in a pre-dawn raid. Let’s explore one of the artifacts and legends that have been connected to them after that date.
I’ve long been fascinated by the story of the Shroud of Turin. I’m a medievalist and most medievalists find the period of the Black Death (starting with the latter half of the 14th century) compelling in a ghoulish sort of way. It was a huge world-wide demographic change, the best-recorded example of one of Nature’s rare attempts to wipe us humans completely out.
It’s therefore equally intriguing that in the middle of this huge societal eruption, one of the most unique, strange and controversial relics of the Middle Ages appears — a piece of linen almost fifteen feet long and over three feet wide with an image of a naked dead man superimposed on it, front and back. In other words, a shroud. Since the late 14th century, this shroud has been linked to Jesus Christ.
It’s interesting to note that the first confirmed record of the Shroud is a report to the Pope in 1390 stating that it was a fake relic and the creator of it had confessed. Since then, the provenance (also known as “chain of custody”) of the Shroud has been remarkably solid. “Provenance” is the documentary history of where an object has been and what’s happened to it. For example, we know that the Shroud was in the middle of a church fire in 1532 that burned so hot it melted holes in the silver reliquary, singing holes right through the folded-up Shroud in a line down each side. Subsequently, a small and dedicated group of nuns patched these holes with new cloth.
The trail grows a lot more iffy prior to 1390. We have some documentation of it in either 1353 or 1357 related to the display of the Shroud by the widow of Geoffroi de Charny, a French knight who died at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. Geoffroi has been more tentatively linked to a possible uncle, Geoffroi de Charney, the last Grand Marshal of the Order of the Knights Templar, who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1314. Even more tentatively, some have speculated that the Shroud fell into Templar hands after it was pillaged from a famous Byzantine collection of crucifixion relics during the Sack of Constantinople in 1204. This theory was put forth by popular Templar historian Ian Wilson in The Turin Shroud in 1978. Academic Templar historian Malcolm Barber thoroughly examined these claims in a 1982 article, “The Templars and the Turin Shroud,” and came up with a verdict of inconclusive.
The Byzantine relic, known as the Mandylion (or the Image of Edessa) was a cloth upon which Christ’s face had miraculously appeared. It was part of a collection of crucifixion relics such as wood and nails from the Holy Cross. The record trail for it goes back to the sixth century and a tradition goes back to the early fourth century. After that, even the spottiest provenance goes cold.
The Mandylion is also related to an acheiropoieta (icons or other holy images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary not made by human hands) tradition in which a pious woman known as St Veronica wiped the face of Jesus while he was carrying the cross to Golgotha. His image was then impressed on the cloth by miraculous means. Images related to this tradition began to appear in the 14th century. The Shroud is unique in that it is a full-body acheiropoieton image rather than just a head and appears to reflect older traditions such as that in the late-12th century Pray Codex from Hungary.
The main problem with the Shroud of Turin is that even though it has excellent provenance back to the Middle Ages, its origin point (known as its “provenience”) remains unknown. All we know is when it was first displayed and even that’s in the murk before 1390. The Pray Codex and the St Veronica tradition give us some hints, but again, don’t really date it. And that’s important because if it does date to the early 1350s (or earlier), the story of the forger’s confession starts to fall apart. It’s unlikely that person had survived to 1390.
And that brings us to the iffy science. Numerous tests have been done on the Shroud, giving it a date ranging all the way back to two thousand years ago. The most famous one, of course, is the carbon dating of sampling from 1988 that dated the Shroud to between 1260 and 1390. Much ink has been spilled and shouting done over the test. Its proponents (who were basically debunkers and people anxious to promote carbon dating, which was then still rather a young science) insisted it was the best possible way to date the Shroud and everyone else doing other tests was biased. Its critics complained that the science was faulty, the sample too small, the Shroud was contaminated by extra carbon (remember that fire?), the sample had been taken from a smaller patch, and so on.
The basic science, all things considered, was pretty solid, but the other criticisms have validity. It was only one test done 28 years ago. Carbon dating has moved on and that one test did not account for things like the fact the Shroud has been handled a great deal over the past six hundred years, and that yes, there have been patches, as well as that it has been subjected to a major fire. And there is one other major issue.
Now, I want to say that while I lean toward the romance of the Shroud really going back to ancient times, I don’t think it can ever be anything but a matter of faith whether it was the shroud of Jesus Christ. Even if we could date it to the first century CE, let alone from Palestine, there’s no real way to prove that it was wrapped around the Son of God.
But it would be good to know a fairly solid origin point so we could get that provenience and establish some other things about the Shroud’s origins, especially the alleged Templar connection. I mean, we’re still trying to figure out how it was made (assuming you don’t buy the acheiropoieton theory). Was an actual bleeding dead body involved (and how chilling is that idea, especially if it was created in 1353, during the first wave of the Black Death)? Was it a standard shroud or was someone killed to make it? Or was it very cleverly painted, which would make it an amazing masterpiece of medieval art?
Also, what about the story of the Widow de Charny? While early medieval women had a pretty strong influence on Church cultic practice, this was largely frowned upon by the 14th century. A secular woman, especially an unmarried/widowed one, creating a cult center involving a major relic (or icon, as the Church officially terms the Shroud), especially during the initial period of the Black Death, was highly unusual.
The carbon dating doesn’t answer any of these questions. In fact, despite their claims of having no bias, the proponents of the carbon dating test knew perfectly well that any dating post-1390 would have no legitimacy in light of the very strong documentary provenance from that point, and even the more-iffy dating to the middle of the 14th century. It’s not just the issues with the possibility of contamination from other sources. These could be resolved (albeit the Church is not thrilled by the idea of allowing testers to rip up the Shroud, especially in order to debunk it as an ancient relic) by more testing. The problem is that the century the 1988 test gave is precisely the century that requires the most clarification in the Shroud’s history. If testing makes it older than the 14th century, and especially the 13th century, that gives some solidity to the proposed chain of evidence involving the Charnys and the Templars. But by just saying it’s somewhere in the 14th or late 13th century, the carbon dating test gave us absolutely no new information. Thanks to the provenance, we already knew that.
Unfortunately, those engaged in the carbon dating project didn’t care. They wanted to “prove” that the Shroud was no older than its documentary provenance. They wanted to debunk, to shut down the debate. They most certainly had a bias there. The problem was that they didn’t prove anything (the dating range went back 130 years before the confirmed documentary trail) and they didn’t help with confirming any of the previous stories. And they certainly didn’t shut down the debate. Even if the carbon dating was accurate, it wasn’t accurate enough.
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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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
Pallares Méndez, María del Carmen and Portela, Ermelindo. La Reina Urraca. Nerea, 2006.
I have recently published a book of 21 short stories entitled The Haze of Memory. These stories, mostly fiction but also a smattering of non-fiction, are based on events I have experienced and people I have encountered throughout my almost six decades of life on this earth. In the foreword, I wrote that although I put “teacher” as my occupation on my tax forms, I consider myself a writer. But in the final editing of the book, I almost changed that line. And now I am asking out loud (and if you write on a frequent basis, you may ask as well), am I a writer or a storyteller?
There is a difference between the two. Storytellers do not necessarily create the stories they tell. They often retell stories that are important to the culture or the history of a group they identify with. Every family has that one person who is the repository of family lore and you can find that individual surrounded at Christmas or reunions with a rapt audience. I serve that role for my daughter and she will often ask me to relate the events of her adoption or how her granny got stopped for running a red light to avoid dumping a lemon pie on the floor of her car.
Writers, on the other hand, are more concerned with universal themes, interesting characters, or the significance of a setting. Much modern literary fiction has even disposed of some traditional elements of storytelling completely or deconstructs them to such an extent that the writing becomes to literature what a cubist painting is to modern art: The elements are present, but they are disproportionate or displaced. Don’t get me wrong. I can appreciate what the writer is trying to do, but I don’t enjoy it. I only go to an art museum once every couple of years and I can appreciate the pieces I observe there; the art I have in my home, however, is what I enjoy. In the same way, since I read for pleasure (as I suspect most people do), I want my writing to be more accessible to people.
While I want my writing to be enjoyable, I also want it to be purposeful. I know my fiction does not rise to the level of “literary” writing, but I want someone who is educated to be able to appreciate a level of complexity that adds to their enjoyment. Therefore not everything I want my reader to get out of the story is explicit in what is written. Histories and relationships between characters, for example, are often only hinted at, but if you want to spend the time and energy thinking about what those relationships are, you certainly can. In my story, “Wandering in the Shadows,” the parents are headed for a divorce and the mother may be having an affair. That fact is never stated, but it colors the relationship that the father has with his daughter and the depression the daughter is exhibiting. The casual reader can still enjoy the story and find a level of understanding that he or she is comfortable with, but the more-literary reader can find something more.
I suppose I am hung up on labels because I, as most writers, I suppose, want to be taken seriously. Stephen King was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award in 2003 and a number of the members of the organization boycotted ceremonies or even canceled their memberships in protest. Their point was that King is not a “literary” writer; he’s just a glorified storyteller. But more people are reading, and in my case writing, because they were introduced to literature through King’s books than the esoteric writers the NBF honors annually.
In his book, On Writing, King famously stated that a writer writes not because he wants to, but because he has to. By that definition, I am a writer. I have to write. When Paula gave me the opportunity to write this entry, I had already been considering writing this essay, and I am grateful for the opportunity for it to reach an audience wider than my Facebook friends or writers’ group. I had to write it; it was going to burst into existence. But I’m a writer who uses traditional storytelling as the vehicle for my literary vision. My stories move emotions, whether to laughter or tears. My stories teach lessons that someone may not otherwise have an opportunity to experience. I don’t envision winning the National Book Award, but literary journals publish one of my stories every now and again, and my writers’ group seems to enjoy them. So, I’ll keep writing stories and publishing them on whatever platform for whomever wants to read them.
Election (1999). Director: Alexander Payne. Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Matthew Broderick, Chris Klein, Jessica Campbell.
Election is a black comedy about a young woman (Witherspoon), Tracy Flick, who is running for school president for her senior year of high school. She is opposed by her math teacher (Broderick), Jim McAllister, who fears she will turn into some kind of female Hitler, or at least a Madame Defarge, so cold and manipulative and ambitious is she. I’d been avoiding it for a while, since I’m not really into teenage femmes fatales who ruthlessly take down hapless older men (and that’s precisely what the poster and tagline promise), but I figured, Well, what the hell, and gave it a try.
It’s not quite what I’d expected. I’m not too sure that’s a good thing.
You see, Jim was friends with another teacher, Dave Novotny, whom Tracy seduced to get ahead and then reported to the Principal when she was done with him, getting him fired via a note her ball-busting mother found. Since Tracy is running for Class President unopposed, Jim decides she needs a run for her money and persuades another student, affable Paul, to run against her. In the process, Paul’s closeted lesbian sister Tammy also decides to run and it becomes a three-way in which Tracy might conceivably lose. She doesn’t. In fact, she triumphs over Jim, and gets him fired and disgraced. He also ends up divorced and leaves for New York, where he sees her years later, getting into a car with a wealthy politician. He engages in one final act of defiance by throwing his soda at her car.
And that’s the way the film presents things (almost entirely from Jim’s POV, save for a few Tracy and Tammy and Paul voiceovers that could easily be the way Jim imagines they think), except that there are a lot of details that completely change things round from the above summary.
See, first of all, the reason why Jim hates Tracy is rather disturbing. Tracy was 16 when she had her affair with Dave, a guy played by an actor who was 48 at the time the film came out. Also, Dave was married with a new baby. So, Dave’s “indiscretion” was hardly without collateral damage and the idea of a 40-something married guy getting it on with a 16-year-old would be very off even without the statutory rape aspect and the fact that he’s her teacher.
Second, the way the “affair” is portrayed makes it look like a clear-cut case of statutory rape, which, in light of Tracy’s age, it is anyway. Tracy doesn’t seduce Dave. It’s the other way round. Granted, this film came out in 1999, but grooming by pedophiles (albeit Dave is technically an ephebophile) was known by then, largely thanks to the then-growing sex abuse scandals surrounding the Catholic Church, and he definitely is grooming her in those seduction scenes.
We get a voiceover from her in which she insists she’s not looking for a father figure and that what she likes about the affair is their “talks,” juxtaposed with Dave regaling a disgusted Jim with pornographic details about the affair that clearly show he’s thinking with Little Dave not Big Dave. We even get a scene where Dave slowly pulls Tracy through a door in a hallway. Her face is childlike and passive. Somebody’s in charge and it’s not her.
When she finally tires of it and ditches him, Dave goes full-on stalker and starts bombarding her with notes, one of which her mother finds and reports to the Principal, who fires a weeping Dave on the spot. Dave is spared prison, though, and gets to leave town to embark on his career as a box store employee without a criminal record.
Third, Jim is angry about Dave’s getting fired, but pretends he’s not. He decides Tracy is at fault because Dave was just chasing his youth or some such midlife crisis nonsense, but tells himself he’s going after her because she’s genuinely dangerous and must be stopped now and anyway, it’s not democratic for her to run alone. He talks about worrying about Dave, but never bothers to contact him. It’s his duty to report Dave’s behavior, but he never does (and is never called out for his inaction, either, even though he’s a mandated reporter of the abuse). He even has an affair with Dave’s wife, which is what actually blows up his marriage.
Oh, and he also likes to watch porn involving teenage girls.
And how does he blow up his career? Well, when the student in charge of counting the votes tells him that Tracy has won by one vote (despite Jim’s active interference all the way down the line), Jim makes sure to dump a couple of them in the trash so that she loses instead. Only, he’s busted because he’s managed to act like a jerk to the janitor, who rats him out to the Principal.
So, Jim, who is the narrator in the film, turns out not to be the protagonist but the antagonist. Sort of. And that right there is the problem with the film, because not only is this second narrative entirely subtextual, but the first narrative is presented as entirely valid, with Jim pathetic and sad-sack, and Tracy cold and vengeful. It doesn’t help that this is a black comedy, in which, if the Hero loses, it’s to be expected. So, when Jim loses, that just emphasizes that we are really supposed to sympathize with him. Never mind that he is a rancid, bitter man who perceives his students as pawns at best and enemies at worst. The best you can say about him is that he’s Ferris Bueller all grown up.
This isn’t the first film ever in which we are supposed to sympathize with a repellent male predator or dictator when he meets a young woman who is more than a match for him. Witherspoon plays Tracy, not as a seductive Lolita, but as a painfully awkward, earnest kid from the wrong side of the tracks who is just trying to work and think her way out of poverty. One might almost see her as having Asperger’s.
But the film treats her unsympathetically as cold and lacking in compassion. We are invited to mock her and see her least fault as something awful (which, in light of this recent expose about the creepy misogyny behind the scenes during the making of the film, is probably not unintentional). The film seems afraid of Tracy’s power and, especially, her anger.
She is also contrasted with the affable, totally unambitious, and profoundly stupid Paul, and not in a good way. Paul is a golden boy and a One Percenter. Until recently, he’d been a star athlete, but an injury blew his chances of a college sports career. His father is a rich contractor, making him town royalty, so of course he’s pleasant to everyone. He’s started out very well in life. Paul may be a “nice guy” on the surface, but he trails privilege behind him like a wedding gown train through mud. He’s totally oblivious, for example, to the reasons why Jim wants him to run, or why his sister’s opportunistic lover, Lisa, quickly switches to him. As long as she’s giving him blow jobs, it’s all good.
Paul would have made a horrible leader, but the film passes over that very lightly.
Tammy isn’t much better. She’s a lesbian, but insists she’s not. She sucks off her parents’ money every bit as much as her brother, only enters the election to spite him when her ex gets with him (Jim allows it, even though Tammy is technically too young to run for the office), and turns a bit stalkery on them both. Tammy’s lies eventually do let Tracy off the hook, but in no way is Tammy lying for Tracy. It’s all about her own ends.
Probably the character who gets the shortest shrift is Lisa. When the best thing you can say about a character is that she’s a thoughtless slut, that’s problematical. Yet, even though we see her do nothing but use her sexuality to get ahead (aside from a brief scene where she goes a bit Lady Macbeth on Paul’s “behalf”), the film implies that even she is a better person than Tracy. What the hell?
In case you hadn’t noticed before, the women in the story are treated much more harshly than the men, even though the men are just as bad, or worse. So much for equality.
[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.
“The Educators,” The Women Who Ran the Schools: The Jeanes Teachers and Durham County’s Rural Black Schools.
I’ve made no secret over the years that Mary Winchester (Samantha Smith), the fridged matriarch of the Winchester family on CW show Supernatural is one of my favorite characters. I’m also quite partial to Meg, both versions. I liked Jessica, Ellen and Pamela. I like Amara, as well as Jody and her adopted brood. And I’ve warmed to Rowena. Clearly, my tastes run toward older, experienced and spiky, played by talented actresses. Jessica wasn’t the first three, but Adrianne Palicki is definitely talented (still sad her Wonder Woman series never took off), so she gets a pass.
Mary’s popularity increases with me in that she is now the longest-running character on the show, even appearing before her sons Sam and Dean. Plus, the show has teased us over the years with versions of Not-Mary played by Smith (most successfully with Eve in season six episode “Mommy Dearest), and the younger Hunter version of her played by Amy Gumenick in season four’s “In the Beginning” and season five’s “The Song Remains the Same.”
However, the older I get, the less patient I am with the dire writing of women on television, to the point that even an irritating side character can turn me off to an entire show (The Flash and Arrow, for example). I doubt I’ll stop watching Supernatural any time soon, but it’s been on so long that its early seasons encompass a very different television landscape from the one (admittedly with its own imperfections) today. And one of the things that still seemed acceptable without comment in 2005 was bookending your pilot episode with a double-fridging of female characters.
It’s therefore still disappointing to see a character with so much potential as Mary initially introduced as Fridged Mommy, though in her case, she’s burned on a ceiling, instead. Even more disappointing is seeing Sam’s girlfriend Jessica endure the same fate at the end of the Pilot, simply because the show’s creator Eric Kripke was too lazy to think of anything else to do with her. There’s no doubt about it. That’s bad writing.
So, it’s understandable that when the omnipotent goddess Amara rewarded Mary’s son Dean for helping her reconcile with her brother by resurrecting his mother, not all fans of the show were enthused. Bringing back a fridged character usually results in that character’s immediate refridging (often after she turns EVOL). But I’ve always wanted to see Mary back and hope springs eternal.
Let’s talk a bit about what makes a fridged character. I think we can all identify her fairly easily from back in the day. You’re watching Bonanza or Miami Vice or Magnum P.I., or reading a Batman comic or whatever, and let’s just say there aren’t a whole lot of regular female characters on the show or in the comic.
Then, one day, a female character who actually seems pretty cool shows up. She falls in mutual love with the Hero (eh, okay, whatever) and then, by the end of the episode, she’s dead, insane, evil and then dead, or moved to Timbuktu with a new boyfriend and ten cats. Either way, she’s gone for good. It’s like, “Hello, Female Character with Potential; goodbye, Female Character with Potential!”
And all the time, the male writers of the show are complaining that they’ve gotta put in female characters with “romance” plots because “chicks dig it” and that’s why they also write them out as quickly as possible, because they were forced into sullying their magnum opus with girl cooties. Why, if they had their druthers, the show would be a sausagefest 24/7 (except, like, not with any canonical slash overtones, c’mon, dude), just as it should be.
The nerve of the network making them do changes like that. The show would be perfect without them, don’t you agree?
It takes you quite a long time to unpack just how thoroughly misogynistic it is to resent having to include 51% of the population in a story. It takes you even longer to figure out that the real reason they put these love interests and doomed mothers/sisters/cousins into stories aimed at male audiences is because these female characters are not really characters — they’re plot coupons and rewards for the Heroes. Those female characters are actually necessary to the story the writers want to tell and insisted on by the writers themselves. They just aren’t meant for the female fans.
Everyone knows that the Heroes can’t be Heroes unless they are restless and miserable, so these rewards are constantly taken away from them, in a way that creates as much angst as possible. And the fact that women are not job promotions or cartons of Ben&Jerry’s ice cream — they are people — is never, ever acknowledged. In fact, it’s strenuously ignored.
Which brings us to the Women in Refrigerators website. It was originally based on an incident in the Green Lantern comic in which the Hero’s new girlfriend gets murdered by a villain and stuffed in a refrigerator for her boyfriend to find.
Now, aside from the fact that this plot alone sounds incredibly stupid (and the art in the comic panels does it no favors), the author of the site’s point that this happens a lot to women in genre fiction is well-taken. I may not agree with every single entry on her list, but she’s dead-right that a disturbingly high number of female characters in genre media are introduced as Love Interests, Mothers, Hot Sisters/Cousins, etc., only to be brutally killed off or otherwise written out almost as soon as we meet them. The Green Lantern’s girlfriend, for example, is introduced a mere six issues before she’s killed off. So, these characters, on top of being horribly dead, have little audience investment because they are one-dimensional.
Surprisingly, some of them turn out to be really popular because the writers, to save time, make them perfect and awesome (or get lucky with casting, as Supernatural did with Samantha Smith and Adrianne Palicki) so that the pain of losing them can be felt by the reader/viewer as it is by the Hero — you know, instead of actually developing them over time as real characters and then killing them off for reasons that are about them and not their boyfriends.
Many writers go another route. They have them “meet cute” in a way where the female Love Interest treats the Hero like dirt right off the bat (so we don’t actually like her that much after all) and usually interferes with his (or sometimes, her) main purpose in the story. This is why I call Love Interests “soft antagonists.” They are usually good people, but they create conflict for the Hero’s mission in the story and interfere with its continuation in some way. Therefore, at some point, they’ve gotta go.
Green Lantern’s girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, doesn’t like him initially and then doesn’t like it when he gets his Green Lantern ring, so she’s gotta go. It’s her or the superpowered Call to Action. In a comic, the superpowered macguffin always wins that war.
An equally high number of women with actual agency in these stories (i.e., protagonists) are depowered/turned evil/killed off through similar means. A Xena: Warrior Princess is quite rare. Sexual violence is especially favored, used in a tone-deaf way as a tool to create more angst or, worse, as an origin story for toughening up a female victim into a hero. Game of Thrones pre-season six fairly leaps to mind here and from the rape rumors surrounding the upcoming Westworld series, HBO hasn’t learned a thing. Joss Whedon even did a fridging with a lesbian couple in Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. I can’t say I was thrilled about it.
I don’t believe in over-applying such tropes to the point of pointlessness, as it were, but I trust it’s not hard to see why the Mary of the Pilot, like Jessica, is a fridged character. Where it gets interesting is that not long after, Mary starts being something else.
For one thing, show creator Eric Kripke always claimed that he intended for Mary to recognize her demonic murderer (keeping in mind that none of the rest of her family had any clue about his identity for over two decades after her death), but decided to hold that reveal until near the end of season two. This would explain why, halfway through season one, we get the episode “Home” where it’s hinted that Mary wasn’t your usual sunny, innocent fridged woman, that she wasn’t killed to get her husband John out on the road, either. She was killed for reasons that had to do with her — and as a ghost, she has power.
That storyline wasn’t about John. It wasn’t even about her sons. It was about her. In Supernatural, knowledge is power. Paradoxically, Mary had to die, not just to push forward John’s story, but because she knew too much. It was the same reason the show killed off John early in season two.
Jessica never stops being a fridged girlfriend (to the point where the prelude to the reveal of her gruesome fate is nearly identical to that of Alexandra DeWitt’s). That’s even emphasized in later seasons. But Mary goes from June Cleaver to Queen Gertrude to someone even darker, someone more like Sarah Connor, very quickly. So, there’s this mystery to her, a subtext that belies the innocent mother of the Pilot, that is intriguing.
Then we get to season four, where she turns out to be a badass Hunter (“Aha!” cries the subtext) and even fights one-on-one against an angel in season five. While pregnant with her badass son Dean, no less. And we find out that the Winchester tragedy of demon deals began with Mama — not Papa — Winchester, that he was the innocent civilian in that marriage while she was the one who knew about the supernatural world and was trying to retire from hunting all along. Like Shane, she brought the job home, despite her best efforts, and it caught up with her in the end. The traditional roles of the trope have been reversed and they never quite flip back.
Unfortunately, the writers recast her (still leaving poor Samantha Smith in that damned nightgown). And once they were done with that past storyline, they promptly got rid of Young!Mary via a mindwipe, of all things, so they could ensure she walked into that nursery unaware. The worst part was that the writer of that episode, Sera Gamble, not only was a woman, but she became showrunner and then wrote another episode where she fridged a Love Interest with a similar trope. Ugh. We women sure can be our own worst enemies, sometimes.
Now, I’ve been dying to see Mary come back in her older form, especially since Smith’s turn as Eve the Mother of Monsters in season six’s “Mommy Dearest.” So, I’m thrilled to see her back. Granted, there are ways they could do horrible things with this, but the trailer (despite its unnecessary commentary by the most irritating fangirls the show could find) indicates we won’t be getting a return to Fridged Mommy in a Nightgown. It indicates we will be getting Sarah Connor. I am all for Sarah Connor, preferably with that stupid mindwipe lifted. That’s meaty. That’s fun. Let’s go there, show.