A Surfeit of Lampreys

(43 comments)

I learn from Phil and Kev on the latest Eruditorum Presscast, that ‘The Girl Who Died’ has been called ‘silly’ by some discontented fans.

This is true, and good. And if you think otherwise then I humbly submit that you have missed the point. Indeed, you have arrived at the exact inverse of the point.

Let me nuance this a bit. I think ‘The Girl Who Died’ is, at least in part, about silliness.

People are silly all the way through the episode.

The Doctor behaves in an intensely silly manner, nicknaming the Vikings, clowning around. But he’s not doing it for no reason. As Clara points out, the Doctor is doing it because he doesn’t have a plan yet and he’s waiting for a plan to form. In the meantime, the clowning around is his way of coping with the stress, processing the variables, getting to know everyone, stalling for time.

Ashildir behaves in an intensely silly manner. She challenges the unknown enemy, who manifests in the shape of Odin and kills all the warriors of her village, at exactly the moment when Clara has talked him down. She does so out of pure bravado and righteous anger. In so doing, she brings the wrath of the Mire down upon her village. Later, as the situation looks hopeless, she plays like a little child with a toy sword and a dummy Odin to make herself feel better.

The entire village behaves in an intensely silly manner, refusing to leave and save themselves, preferring instead to stay and invite their own deaths. Out of loyalty, pride, grief, a warrior ethic that was supposed to motivate the warriors (who weren’t helped by it), and the lack of any idea what to do instead. We might admire the courage, but it’s still silly when looked at in purely pragmatic terms.

None of this silliness is entirely contemptible. Some of it is downright admirable.  It comes from conviction, solidarity, etc.  It can all be seen in context, socially and dramatically. It is play, used to express and/or cope with anxieties, grief, social cohesion, stress, etc.

Then there is the silliness of the Mire, which is of a different order. Their silliness is certainly about social cohesion and anxiety (or perhaps ‘insecurity’ would be a better word), but beyond that it is entirely contemptible.  It is the farcical and disingenuous and self-aggrandizing silliness of the bully and the imperialist.  (I might not equate these things in an actual, serious political analysis of the real world... but as a storytelling strategy, it's not worthless, certainly not as mockery.)

The Mire are baddies in the classic Robert Holmes mode: they are dangerous precisely because they are silly, petty, narrow-minded, pretentious. They need to drink testosterone to provide themselves with strength. I don’t know if the episode expects us to take this literally, but you could easily read it as the silly and performative nonsense that it would be in reality. It’s almost a quip. “Oh, he’s so butch he probably drinks testosterone”. They obtain the ability to pretend to be tough by squashing warriors – who go around roaring and wearing silly macho helmets, but who don’t have enough sense to try to open a door when they’re in a shrinking room – and then drinking their machismo-juice. The critique of performative, patriarchal masculinity may be lighthearted, and is worn very lightly by the episode, but it goes beyond Clara’s sitcom jibe complaint. The readiness to disrespect soldiers is a relief after last series.

There is no reason for the Mire to stick around after they’ve had their manly green repast. They do so only because they are dared into it by a scared young girl. How insecure is that?!  They can't ignore her functionally meaningless threats and insults.  They're too small to just walk away.

But then that's what you'd expect.

They go around disguising themselves as Odin. Moreover, they disguise themselves as the most absurdly literal, patriarchal, Brian Blessedy version of Odin imaginable. A version so silly it contains a callback to a Monty Python visual. A version so silly that robot-eyepatch-Anthony-Hopkins-Odin-in-Thor looks sensible by comparison.  A version so silly that even the Viking villagers don’t take it seriously for more than a minute. The Doctor can talk them out of it immediately, despite them being pre-modern and it Odin's face being impressively projected into the sky via high-technology. (This, by the way, is a lovely subversion of an old and patronising SF standby about how pre-tech people are all gullible idiots… a standby that Doctor Who has often employed, which is why the Doctor gets to try to be Odin first and fails just as miserably… though this, again, plays into the thematic concentration of silliness and games and play, and how they can be employed for different social ends).

The Mire go around in about the most absurdly over-emphasized armour this side of Robocop. Walking stone pillboxes. And underneath… lampreys. Pathetic. (‘A surfeit of lampreys’ is a trivial cause of death given for medieval kings, basically signifying that the king in question ate something that disagreed with him and got a bit too cold. Ha, what a way for a warrior to go.)

So, of course, the Doctor realises that the correct way to beat them is to make fools of them. To humiliate them while they are in the act of bullying, and then threaten to share their humiliation via social media... with some added yakety sax.

Hey, if V for Vendetta the movie can use it to make a serious point about the essentially pathetic and brittle and performative nature of power, and how its dignity is so easily deflated, why can’t Doctor Who?

The story the Mire tell about themselves is that they are the big butch bully badasserinos of the cosmos. And they’re not all that. Looked at up close, square on, they’re pretty pathetic. I’m not saying they’re not badass enough, or mean enough, to wipe out an entire village of defenceless people who don’t know how to fight. Sure, they could do that, after they’ve abducted all the warriors and removed them in what was the very definition of an unfair fight. But once the Doctor has given the villagers a semblance of a plan to add to their own latent bravery and determination, the Mire turn out to not be that hard to trounce. Thus ordinary people turn out to be equal to the stories of the more powerful, as long as they come up with their own story. The silliness, the playing-at-bravado, of the villagers turns out to have not been so silly after all. Indeed, the very act of playing is a kind of defence... just as the Doctor's mucking about at the start was a way of stalling for time until the plan arrived, of faking it 'til you start making it.  The villagers end up getting to keep their homes and community… something they wouldn’t have achieved if they’d followed the Doctor’s pragmatic (and somewhat self-serving) advice, and run away.  If they'd refused to play or be a bit silly, they'd have been homeless.

Moreover, the Mire are beaten by a superior storyteller, a superior player, a superior gamer. Ashildir can play and pretend just like them, but she does it to express social solidarity and love, even for a community that has marked her out as an oddball. Thing is… they’ve done so in recognition of her genuine difference rather than to mock her or exclude her. (It is clear she is not excluded, even as she is treated somewhat differently… indeed, if anything, she seems to have special status in the village. I confess, I’m not up on Viking culture particularly, but in pre-modern societies, people who are perceived to be unusual - even people who transgress gender boundaries, as she explicitly makes clear that she does – are often accorded a socially-agreed-upon higher status.)

The victory of the Doctor and the villagers isn't merely a pat victory for science and technology over science and technology (good modernity over bad modernity), but rather the Doctor puts science and technology at the disposal of the Viking villagers, and they put it to use using their own culture.  The Mire try to appropriate the Viking’s culture and turn it against them. Ashildir plays the same trick right back at them. She attacks them with monsters from sagas.  Her silliness, her distraught bravado, turns out to have not been so silly after all. Turns out she had more to back it up with than she thought.

So, in other words: the big manly testosterone-fuelled bullies, who reckon they're the only ones allowed to play war games, are resoundingly beaten and humiliated by a society in solidarity, fronted by a nerdy (even faintly genderqueer) girl who is a better, more imaginative, more powerful gamer than they are.

Heh heh heh.

 

Also, in non-Doctor Who news…

  • These days, SF cinema tends to be less specific about exactly when in the future it is set, thus robbing generations-to-come of the opportunity to be really dull about certain dates on social media.


  • Speaking of significant dates in Fantasy fiction, this year is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. You might balk at the idea of classifying this story in the same broad category as Back to the Future, but I firmly think we should. We must not disrespect the crucial category of Fantasy or the Fantastic by refusing entry to something as great as The Metamorphosis on the grounds that it is ‘serious’ or ‘literary’ (as if Fantasy inherently isn’t). If The Metamorphosis were published today, it could be nominated (probably by a Weird Kitty) for the Hugo for Best Novelette. Relatedly, I happened across this the other day. Apparently, even though Kafka specified that the insect into which Gregor Samsa transforms should never be depicted, Vladimir Nabokov took it upon himself to draw it in his own teaching copy of the book. This is ironic, given that Nabokov specified that Lolita herself should never be depicted on the cover of any edition of Lolita, and publishers have of course rarely published an edition since without taking the opportunity to sexualise a little girl on the front cover. I have a tiny bit less sympathy for Nabokov on this issue now that I learn that he sketched poor Gregor… though, to be fair, he only did it for his own amusement inside the cover of a personal copy.


  • Reality turned into a China Miéville story recently. Or it might just have been a Fata Morgana. One of the interesting things about the story (linked-to above) is the way it blithers on about how ‘conspiracy theorists’ are claiming this, that and the other… without bothering to tell us who they are or what they said. I guess citations aren’t needed when you’re wheeling out an entire partly-confabulated subculture to be laughed at.


Comments

Megara Justice Machine 2 years, 1 month ago

This is one of the critical reviews of something I already liked that make me like it even more.

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SpaceSquid 2 years, 1 month ago

Whereas it's taken an episode I didn't like and done much to redeem it.

(Also; I doubt we'll see George R. R. Martin deciding to name his inevitable eighth book A Surfeit of Lampreys, but it does seem to be pretty likely that that's the way Lord Manderley will finally meet the Seven.)

(2 captcha attempts)

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Ezakur 2 years, 1 month ago

As my first language is spanish I always have trouble with the word "silly." I haven't found a word in spanish that can represent all of the nuance the word has in English. Since there's been a rise in popularity (probably thanks to the internet) in "silly" media and "silly" jokes and tone and stories I find difficult to use it in spanish to convey that meaning. There're translations of the word, sure, but "tonto" o "bobo" are too related to poor mental capabilities rather than acting like a clown or a goof... Any help with translating the word to spanish or other languages and still convey that particular meaning...

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Luca 2 years ago

That's funny. In portuguese, bobo is a pretty spot on translation. Portuguese and Spanish aren't as similar as most people think, I guess.
The word I have trouble translating is gritty. I only think I understand what it means because of the context.

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UrsulaL 2 years ago

Another bit of gender-bending: The Doctor names one of the surviving Viking men "Heidi", and the Viking man accepts it.

I was annoyed that all of the speaking roles, aside from Clara and Ashildr, were men. After selectively killing off the male warriors for their testosterone, the majority of surviving adults should have been women.

In particular, when Clara, Ashildr and the Viking warriors were taken, the Doctor says he lost someone, meaning Clara. The man Ashildr greeted (her father?) said he lost someone too. But no one spoke up for any of the missing men. And no woman's loss, with so many men gone, was recognized. Which gave the scene a hint of fridging flavor. Women are taken, and men angst. But no one misses the missing men, and no women are among those experiencing distress over their losses.

I also would have liked to have *seen* some of Ashildr's gender issues - while she says the girls rejected her as a boy, and the boys dismissed her as a girl, we see her having positive, affectionate interactions with the Viking men, and not interacting at all with the mysteriously absent Viking women.

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Anton B 2 years ago

I think the actual quote is
"The girls all thought I was a boy and the boys all thought I was weird"

A subtle difference from the direct boy/girl confusion I've seen a lot of commenters think they heard. Ashildr directly describes her gender bias as being female to male.

I struggle to see how an absence of angst from the female villagers over the missing male warriors can be read as hinting at fridging. The point surely is that the villagers are used to losing warriors. Ashildr says as much when she describes making up stories when they go on raiding missions to keep them safe.

I agree there is a weird lack of women's voices in the story. I suspect in an eagerness to fit all the silliness in, including a rather anachronistic house husband 'new dad', the writers forgot to write any female characters,apart from Ashildr.

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Anton B 2 years ago

Oh, and the baby of course, who gets the best lines.

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Jane Campbell 2 years ago

The baby's lines, though, are really the Doctor's lines.

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Anton B 2 years ago

Indeed he does purport to translate the baby's words and I suppose we are being asked to trust his male filter. That's interesting. I think 'translation' may be a bit of a theme in this season. One person speaking for another and the interpretation and potential misreading of intent.

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UrsulaL 2 years ago

The fridging comes because the (apparent) harm done to women was presented as being about the distress of men. Which goes to the systematic problem of things being done to women in stories being presented primarily for the effect on men.

It's the one scene, but it is an odd one, and the way in which it is presented erases both the harm to men and the distress of remaining women, creating the form of a fridging within the scene, even though that isn't what happened in the larger story.

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ScarvesandCelery 2 years ago

I suppose there's an extent to which the "woman in refrigerator" trope haunts the story - The title and the conclusion are all about the potential, and ultimately reversed, fridging of Ashildr. As you say, the Doctor and Chuckles both angst over the potential harm done to Ashildr and Clara by the Mire. And of course, there are the references to Clara's departure, which add to the hint that she could die at the end of the season. While this story doesn't feature a fridging, the possiblity of the trope flits around the edges of the narrative.

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Jack Graham 2 years ago

The episode would have been even better if the villagers remaining after the warrior-harvest had mostly been women, that's true.

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Sean Dillon 2 years ago

Most things would be better if they had the plot point "And then the men died, leaving the women to clean up the mess."

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taiey 2 years ago

No, it's "The girls all thought I was a boy. The boys all said I was just a girl."

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ScarvesandCelery 2 years ago

It was "The Girls all thought I was a boy and the boys all thought I was just a girl"

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Anton B 2 years ago

You're absolutely right. I'm just going to say I mis-remembered that line in an interesting way. I think my point is still valid though.

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Anton B 2 years ago

So the actual line is a standard bit of children's adventure 'tomboy' characterisation no different from 'George' in Enyd Blyton's Famous Five then. That's rather disappointing. Still, the crux of the scene was to foreground Ashildr's liminal otherness as a storyteller and point out that this didn't alienate her (in her own eyes) from the village. She won't abandon them. Given the focus on the Doctor's reaction I think this is meant to resonate with us regarding his relationship with Gallifrey.

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ScarvesandCelery 2 years ago

Oh yeah, agreed with your point - the quote is basically an inversion of the line from the most recent Ms Marvel comic, where Zoe, the in-crowd girl from Kamala's school says that "Guys hate me because I won't date them, and the girls all hate me because there's this strange idea we should be competing over the guys". The line from "The Girl Who Waited" highlights the double standards socially constructed gender roles have on girls who don't fit those roles. By contrast, the line from Ms Marvel highlights the double standard socially constructed gender roles have on girls who do fit into those roles.
Also, Ashildr's line comes from a speech about the fact that she is loved in spite of her status as a misfit. Meanwhile, Zoe's line is about the fact that, while she seems to be popular, she feels just as out of place as Kamala.

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Lambda 2 years ago

I think there's actually a small dilemma here which the episode can't solve, and so is dealing with by doing the Doctor Who thing of proceeding over it so quickly you don't notice. It wants to have the bad guys defeated by people who aren't "natural fighters". (Precise definition of that term might be interesting, but I think it's coherent.) But take away all the men who are natural fighters, and you should still have a load of women who are natural fighters, and who would be the best ones to pick for the ten on ten fight. And it's not clear how to get around this.

You could instead of Vikings, pick one of those cultures where the women fought alongside the men, so they could all be taken away, (I don't remember any specifically, but I'm pretty sure such cultures existed,) but then you'd lose the testosterone thing.

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Anton B 2 years ago

'...one of those cultures where the women fought alongside the men,'

You mean like...the Vikings?
http://blog.britishmuseum.org/2014/04/19/viking-women-warriors-and-valkyries/

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Aylwin 2 years ago

This honestly isn't meant as snark, but I don't think an article which concludes "there is absolutely no hard evidence that women trained or served as regular warriors in the Viking Age. Valkyries were an object of the imagination, creatures of fantasy rooted in the experience of male warriors. War was certainly a part of Viking life, but women warriors must be classed as Viking legend" really supports that argument.

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Anton B 2 years ago

No snark taken but we are discussing a story where Vikings wear horns on their helmets so how much of a stretch would women warriors have been?

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EvilBug 2 years ago

Are you really trying to spin the fact that nobody cares about dead men into misogyny here?

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Phil Sandifer 2 years ago

No, though I almost misread her as doing so as well.

She's pointing out the misogyny involved in the lack of women, and also pointing out that this means that in a story where all the male warriors die, being the object of mourning is still the exclusive function of women.

Which is disappointing from the guy who brought us a Bechdel Test joke last season.

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EvilBug 2 years ago

Viking warriors were redshirts, with all plotting awkwardness that comes from it, but only actual character in the local cast was female. Also a baby.

Being mourned is not a function, but a privilege, although hardly female one. Just a function of an actual non-extra character.

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ScarvesandCelery 2 years ago

I suppose that, given the way the episode was a critique of the toxic, bullying masculinity represented by Odin and the Mire, it makes a certain amount of thematic sense for the named villagers fighting the Mire to be men who are explicitly not masculine and are terrible at trying to take on Warrior culture.
But I suspect that critique would have worked better if most of the villagers had been women, with the exception of, say, Heidi.

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Jack Graham 2 years ago

You'd end up with a rather queasy situation where Vikings need to be taught how to fight by the Doctor because they happen to be women Vikings and he's a man... but there'd be ways round that. They could complain about having been deprived of the knowledge and experience they need by the men who are no longer there, and demand the Doctor recompense them. "We don't have what we need because men kept it from us. Much as we grieve for them. we're also pissed off at them. You're a man. You make it up for it. Tell what what we need to know. NOW. Or else." Whereupon the Doctor could respond that just because he's a man that doesn't mean he knows how to fight. Whereupon Clara could call him out and say "Of course you know how to fight, don't be disingenuous - teach them what they need to know."

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EvilBug 2 years ago

Boy, how great it would be if the entire episode was was just broken record MENAREOPPRESSINGWOMENRAPERAPERAPE.

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Jack Graham 2 years ago

No, I don't think that would be very good. No characters or drama. Just a phrase repeated over and over. No, that wouldn't work. Nobody'd watch that.

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UrsulaL 2 years ago

Also the misogyny of rendering the few women we do see entirely silent, even in matters of their own lives and deaths, and the misogyny of erasing their feelings about the death of what was approximately a quarter of the villagers from the narrative.

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Jane Campbell 2 years ago

With all the bits of the Doctor translating the baby's cries to her mother, we never actually see the mother -- instead we see the baby with the father.

Was there any dramatic reason that Ashildr's lone parent is her father and not her mother? Why there weren't any women wanting to fight to save the village, like Ashildr?

I think Moffat's episode this year is the only one that's actually close to being gender-balanced. Missy and Clara paired off, Doctor and Davros paired off, plus the UNIT scene with Kate and Jaye Griffiths, the Sisterhood of Karn, the Shadow Architect...

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Dustin 2 years ago

There was also the irritating and offensive epithet "junior parent."

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John 2 years ago

Is it really offensive to imagine that a small baby probably thinks of its mother as the more important parent?

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UrsulaL 2 years ago

The problem is the Doctor, who is an authority figure within the story, choosing to translate the baby's thoughts about the father as being about a lesser parent, as opposed to a different sort of parent.

This isn't an absent, distant father. It's a good, loving father whom we see competently and caringly tending his child.

Treating fathers as "junior parents" is problematic because it is used to excuse fathers from the work and responsibility of parenting, the vast majority of tasks they can do as well as mothers. It reinforces the stereotype that women should do the work of parenting, which in turn leads to extra work and stress for women.

If the Doctor translates the baby's thoughts of the mother as "mother" there is no reason not to translate the baby's thoughts of the father as "father", except to make a not-funny joke about how fathers are lesser parents.

Or you might have "milky-cuddles-parent" and "not-milky-cuddles-parent" to show that both parents are involved, but one provides the milk.

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Anton B 2 years ago

I too keep coming back to why the baby's mother is absent. It has to have a narrative reason. It's a stretch and by no account explicit in the writing but perhaps the lack of women in the village was a result of the ineptitude of their warriors. Have the women been pillaged? Carried off as breeding stock by other Vikings? Is this why the raiding party has gone out in the first place? To find replacement women? Of course this is potentially problematic as a theme and it's no surprise that it wasn't addressed within the remit of a family show.

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ScarvesandCelery 2 years ago

I took the baby's speech to mean that the mother was still alive - we do see women of the village in crowd shots - they're just conspicuously silent.

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Anton B 2 years ago

Which makes it worse. There's no reason any of the 'rag tag army' the Doctor recruits couldn't have been female. I'm also not sure that giving a male Viking a comedy female name 'Heidi' isn't treading dangerously close to
"His name is Susan and he wants you to respect his life choices" as transgender 'jokes' go.

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Jane Campbell 2 years ago

Except Heidi isn't making a choice, Heidi just has long braids. Heidi doesn't blanche as being given this new name, either, if I recall; he doesn't even seem to understand it. So the joke is (supposed to be) that the Doctor is at the point of picking out pop culture references to remember people.

That said, given the timing of the joke (it's the punchline of the sequence) I think it's definitely meant to be a misgendering=funny sort of moment, too, which isn't really funny at all, at all.

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Anton B 2 years ago

Exactly. We only have the Doctor's word about Susan the horse too. Again interpretation. Perhaps 'the Doctor lies' should be amended to 'the Doctor translates'

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ScarvesandCelery 2 years ago

Oh, I agree that the women's silence is a bad thing - it's my one real problem with the episode. I said in the comments above that I'd rather some, if not most, of the rag-tag team of misfits had been women.

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UrsulaL 2 years ago

It's worse. "Susan" at least made it clear that one should accept the identity choices of others, "Heidi" imposed and named for the sake of mocking.

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MJ 2 years ago

Not that I wasn't a little disappointed about the lack of gender balance, but I'd also wondered if that was intentional to add a sense of isolation to the women that were in the story. The villain of the week consumes testosterone across the universe (to die historic on the fury road?) and the village was men-heavy. This wasn't a woman's world, but a longing for it? An unseen baby girl crying for her mother. Earth mother, maybe? A baby girl trapped in a male-dominated hunter-gatherer society as early Vikings were. Hunter-gatherer societies that left behind more matriarchal and earth goddesses in favor of patriarchal, masculine and violent figures like Odin.

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Aylwin 2 years ago

Scandinavia had been a basically agricultural society for millennia before the Viking Age. Far more time separated people of that time from their hunter-gathering ancestors than separates us from them.

Also, the whole "prehistoric matriarchy" thing is basically wild speculation based on some female figurines of necessarily unknown social context and significance. If we had no written sources from classical Athens, but did still have the gigantic gold-encrusted statue of a warrior goddess occupying the huge supreme temple towering over the heart of the city, what would our plausible conjectures about Athenian sexual politics be like?

None of which rules out Mathieson believing all that, of course. Just saying.

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