reading between the lines

A few years ago, a friend and I were talking to a third friend, who was watching the animated TV series Steven Universe for the first time. The one mentioned to the other a backstory detail about one of the central characters, and I reacted with dismay– that’s a spoiler! It’s supposed to be a reveal! They were both surprised by my response: the friend who had seen the show didn’t think of this detail as a reveal, and the friend who was still watching had sort of guessed the information already, and didn’t feel like anything had been ruined by having it confirmed.

So let this somewhat convoluted paragraph serve as two things: a warning that I’ll be giving what I consider spoilers both for Steven Universe and the animated Netflix series She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, and that you might not consider the information spoilers at all. But for me, the feeling of surprise– I’ll go so far as to say of shock– at what both of these series revealed about their central characters was an essential part of my enjoyment of both shows.

I want to start with Pearl.

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve likely seen Pearl: she’s the one in my profile banner. When I started watching Steven Universe the summer after I tentatively and awkwardly kind of came out (on Facebook, kill me) because two friends insisted I had to, as a sort of baby-gay rite of passage. “There are two women* who love each other so much, they have merged into one person,” one of them said.

(*The question of the gender identity of the show’s sci-fi/fantasy race of not-human sentient space rocks is not worth going into, but suffice it to say the space characters all use she/her pronouns and present as female.)

These characters eventually get married, a much-discussed and groundbreaking gesture that the show’s creator Rebecca Sugar reportedly had to fight for tooth and nail. They are the headline examples of the show’s deservedly lauded queer representation. Neither of them is Pearl.

Pearl seems, at first glance, like a character type we have seen before: the neurotic sidekick, who is just a little too obsessed with the memory of her group’s deceased leader, Rose Quartz. The hints mount gradually that Pearl cares about Rose’s legacy in a slightly different way from the others: in an episode where they return to a fountain that Rose built, she is driven into a frenzy by the sight of the garden overgrown with weeds, and at other characters’ smashing through the remnants of the structures to find their way. That episode was when the radar first really pinged for me.

I was attuned to these kinds of hints long before I came out. I remember joking to a friend in college that I had no gaydar in real life, but my intuitions when it came to literature were flawless. Perhaps because my own questions about my identity were something I kept so private, I enjoyed– and continue to enjoy– reading between the lines, seeking out encoded hints about who characters really were and feeling, when I found them, like I’d uncovered a secret truth. I liked that it was something not everyone could see, and yet was starkly obvious to me. I mean, I am a literary scholar, it’s probably not a surprise that close-reading is more fun for me than being told outright what something means.

So I enjoyed picking up these hints about Pearl. She’s a little too insistent that Rose had secrets only Pearl knew. She’s too worshipful when projecting a holographic memory of their lost leader. She’s too suspicious in a flashback to first meeting Greg, the human man Rose falls in love with. We’d been here before. I understand why people get frustrated with this kind of hinting, these stereotypical ways of encoding queer desire. But as I said, I enjoyed it.

What I enjoyed even more, though, was the dawning realization that this wasn’t an accident or a coy secret. As the seasons progressed and the hints at the specific nature of Pearl’s feelings for Rose grew more and more overt, I found myself watching with a growing sense of anticipation and shock. Surely not– surely not— surely, at any minute, they’d swerve away as television shows and movies always do, stop just short of saying whether they mean what the seem to mean. But they didn’t. Pearl sang a song ostensibly about Steven’s relationship with his friend Connie, but blushingly kept mixing up pronouns until it became obvious that she was really talking about herself and Rose. And then, a season later, she sang another song.

With that song, Pearl dancing alone on a balcony in a tuxedo, explicitly describing herself and Rose’s human lover Greg as in competition over Rose, it became impossible to read the relationship any other way. I had always found pleasure in reading the secret identity between the lines, but even more exciting was having that guess confirmed, having that implication made explicit. Not a cliche coming-out storyline, but a logically delayed revelation of what the character herself has always known, and therefore never needed to say. It’s a character we’ve seen before– but this time, the subtext is text. You’re not seeing things, it says. Pearl’s a little too obsessed with Rose because Rose was the love of her life.

And now, with the final season of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power released on Netflix, it’s happened again. Again, it’s a dynamic we’ve seen before: Adora, who is also the titular She-Ra, and head villain Catra are former best friends turned antagonists and rivals who care a little too much. It is the seed from which a thousand fanfictions have sprung. In watching this final season, where She-Ra and Catra finally find themselves on the same team to face down a galactic villain, I found myself reliving the same pattern. Yes, we see those sparky looks. Yes, we see the thoughtful glances and the blushing. But surely not– surely… 

Even when the dam seemed to break, I couldn’t quite believe it. Catra has run away from the group, certain she’ll never be truly valued, especially by Adora.

“Adora doesn’t want me,” she says. “Not like I want her.”

But surely not. 

It’s partly, of course, a lifetime of what I hesitate to call queerbaiting because, as I’ve said, I don’t necessarily mind it. But the reality for most of my life was that the explicit revelation is always avoided. Creators did what the could, and what the could do was drop hints, clues to a mystery that could only be solved outside of the show’s actual text. It happened just six years ago with another animated show, when the creators of The Legend of Korra were happy to confirm that their two female leads were in love in interviews, but still had to frame it within the series in a way that, as the existence of these confirmations suggests, left some doubt.

But in the show’s climactic moment, the gesture that gives Adora the strength to defeat the big bad and save the world, is that Catra says ‘I love you.’ And Adora says it back. And even then part of me was thinking but they won’t let them mean it like that– and then they kiss. They kiss and their kiss saves the universe.

Forgive me for reveling in the details. Forgive me for summarizing what you may have already seen. This is how I got used to reading. Piecing together a secret, private journey and enjoying the secrecy, enjoying that only certain other people could see it, or cared enough to see it, and feeling a connection that surely, if we’re going to get Freudian about it, had probably everything to do with my own deep inclination towards privacy, my alienation from the constant repetition of coming out narratives, my wish to just be seen and known in a way that doesn’t need to be explained.

But both Steven Universe and She-Ra revealed a different kind of pleasure, a best of both worlds: the enjoyment of reading between the lines, and the surprise and satisfaction of having the puzzle revealed. Yes, you were right about what you thought you were seeing. Yes, I know what you were going to guess. Yes, you’ve seen it– and I see you. 

Does Hamlet Hate Women?

As anyone unfortunate enough to follow me on Twitter knows, I watched the BBC2 broadcast of Andrew Scott’s Hamlet last night, directed by Robert Icke. While it was met with basically universal critical raves, I was more or less irrevocably turned off by the production around 40 minutes in. Icke compresses the first four or five scenes of the play so that they take place on a single, chaotic night– a feeling he uses to good effect later, in the aftermath of Hamlet’s play, but doesn’t add much here. Except, that is, for the opportunity for Hamlet to leave his ghost sighting and immediately surprise Ophelia as she is taking a bath, and attack her. The camera cuts to the scene, which takes place far upstage behind glass, after Scott has entered, so it’s hard to tell how the sequence begins, but he seems to have surprised her, and Jessica Brown Findlay, who plays Ophelia, is rubbing her head as if he’s startled her into banging her head against the side of the tub, or maybe has even pulled her hair. She turns to Hamlet, he bends to her, and they kiss. But then he grabs her by the arm and wrenches her hand violently towards him. She pulls away, and he reaches out and grabs her by the throat.

This is, it becomes clear in the next scene, the encounter Ophelia describes to her father, when Hamlet approached her with “his doubled all unbrac’d.” In her own description, Hamlet does indeed take her by the wrist and hold her hard. She says nothing about being grabbed by the throat– nor, of course, about being naked and vulnerable in a bathtub.

I can’t stop thinking about this sequence– how offended I am by it, how no one mentioned it to me despite months of raves (possibly, as a friend noted, because it was difficult to see clearly in the live performance, which only raises the question why bother doing it, then), and just generally what a bad, bad choice it is– particularly in a show that then goes on to seize every opportunity to have Hamlet enact violence on Gertrude and Ophelia.

But the key word in that sentence is, of course, opportunity— which is to say, the text does offer these opportunities. There is a long tradition of Hamlets manhandling Ophelias and Gertrudes– after all, he has to be acting so wild and violent that both Gertrude and Polonius sincerely think Hamlet might kill her (Scott’s Hamlet goes on assaulting Juliet Stevenson’s Gertrude long after this, at one point wrestling her to the floor). While I do feel that the sexual tone of this Hamlet’s attitude towards Ophelia was particularly marked– during the ‘nunnery’ scene, he kept forcing her to kiss him, as she struggled to try and break away– Hamlet is hardly less sexually crude and cruel verbally during the play scene, with his public taunting about country matters, with Ophelia offering terse responses that are hard to read as anything but embarrassment and discomfort. That is to say: did Icke’s addition of this assault (and unnecessary nudity) simply prime me to more readily notice what has always been there? Did the fact that I generally like the character Hamlet make me too willing to ignore his misogyny and violence?

Yes, I think. Sort of. To a certain extent. Hamlet is a misogynist. He treats Ophelia and especially Gertrude very, very badly. He constantly speaks slightingly of women, and his great love for Ophelia does not extend to actually speaking to her about anything or trying to let her in on his plan. Maybe, possibly, if you really think Gertrude helped kill her first husband, you can explain why Hamlet treats her the way he does, but otherwise it’s a stretch. Maybe, in a funny way, it’s good to lay his treatment of them bare– turn it into a midnight assault while she’s naked in a bathtub if that’s what it takes to make us see it.

But there are real differences between the way Ophelia describes her encounter with Hamlet and what Icke decides to show him doing. Though Ophelia describes Hamlet’s behavior as wild, and he grabs her by the arm, the bulk of her impression is of stillness and sadness: he stands staring at her, and she fixates on his sigh, “so piteous and profound, it did seem to shatter all his bulk and end his being.” She seems scared for him. Findlay’s Ophelia, on the other hand, should probably be scared of him. His attacking her in the bath turns their exchange in the nunnery scene more frightening: Hamlet, who previously realized that Polonius was bugged while speaking to him, tries to flirt and kiss her, and playfully gropes around the collar of her dress searching for a microphone. As it becomes clearer and clearer that Findlay is not joking or just putting on a show for her dad, Scott’s Hamlet gets angrier and angrier, culminating in the sequence described above, where he repeatedly forces her to kiss him. In light of his initial assault, I couldn’t read it as anything but an abuser growing violent when faced with repercussions– Ophelia breaking up with him– for his actions.

The ‘nunnery’ scene can certainly be frightening and violent, but the text leaves space for various explanations of what is happening. Is Hamlet trying to communicate to Ophelia that she should get the hell out of Denmark, and she doesn’t get it? Does she make it too obvious that she’s spying on him, and he loses his temper at the betrayal? None of these make Hamlet look great, but some make him seem less actively abusive.

But maybe I’m just trying to talk around the idea of Hamlet the abuser because I don’t want it to be true. Or, more accurately, I don’t know what to do with it. How do you perform that play? You can make it explicit, as Icke does, but that’s a risky choice, to say the least, and one the text doesn’t leave much space for dealing with. We have two and a half more hours to spend with this guy, what do we do with that time if we already hate the abusive protagonist? Can you even do Hamlet anymore if that’s who it’s about? It’s a case where you’d like to come up with a version that lays that bare, that centralizes the stories of Ophelia and Gertrude and maybe even Horatio and Laertes in response, but Shakespeare’s text simply does not allow for that.

That’s also clearly not the problem Icke was attempting to grapple with. I don’t know what he thought having Hamlet attack Ophelia in a bathtub would add, but it was certainly not meant to lessen our love for Scott’s Hamlet. He’s the star in every possible way, and we are so obviously meant to continue to find him intelligent and charming, and to feel bad for his pain. While Findlay’s journey through her scenes with Hamlet made perfect sense when read as a woman whose partner has suddenly attacked her, and for that reason she’s willing to go along with her father’s instructions to leave him, Icke’s not actually interested in Ophelia’s voice– a fact he makes abundantly clear by cutting almost all the text of her madness. The production overall cuts almost nothing– adds things, even including a very nice Q1 scene between Horatio and Gertrude– but Ophelia’s lines are gone. She has one or two of them, but it’s mostly singing. Where Shakespeare’s Ophelia repeatedly forces her way into the room, Icke’s is wheeled in in a wheelchair, not even allowed to move under her own power, her strange and troubling language of grief replaced with her beating her own chest and face. I have a lot of difficulty with Ophelia’s mad scene, and am always open to experimenting with it, but in this context, to replace language with silence and self-inflected violence felt frustrating and almost offensive in a context where almost no other lines had been cut, and this was an Ophelia who had explicitly been a victim of violence at the hands of the hero. It seemed to say that Icke values Ophelia more as an object upon which violence can be enacted than as a character who takes up space and has things to say.

So Hamlet may well be more problematic than I’ve fully allowed myself to realize before now. But I also think Icke made a textual problem much, much worse with wholly unnecessary nudity and sexualized violence towards the play’s female characters– and worst of all, didn’t really seem to realize he was doing it.

Justice for Ellen (and the women of Will)

(this post contains spoilers)

We’re four episodes into TNT’s new Shakespeare drama Will before we learn Ellen Burbage’s first name.

Between the boy players and Shakespeare’s absent wife and, you know, the general sexism of 16th century England, it’s easy to create stories about the early days of English drama that include no women at all. So Will deserves credit for its inclusion of James Burbage’s wife Ellen as a clearly integral part of the day-to-day running of the Theatre. But she’s Mistress Burbage, and Richard and Alice’s mum, and it’s not until four episodes in that anyone actually bothers to identify her by her first name.

It’s a little thing, but emblematic of Will’s not-quite-there treatment of its female characters. The show comes so close to finding a space for women in the tale of the early modern English theatre that it’s all the more frustrating that it falls short. The desire for interesting, important female characters is obvious, but the show stumbles in the execution, falling back on tired and disempowering period drama tropes.

Take Ellen Burbage. One of the best episodes gives her props as the power behind the throne, the real manager of her husband’s playhouse– but we never really see her doing this, and the idea is never quite mentioned again. Her real role is to alternately nag and support her family– and, in classic period drama mama fashion, push her daughter towards a sensible but loveless marriage and become furious when she refuses it.

It’s not nearly as bad as poor Anne Shakespeare, who of course Shakespeare does not love, and spends most of the series cheating on. Her role is only to realize that she is a fool for wishing her husband would be sensible and make money and help their three children, and instead must recognize his genius and– in her own words– “leave [him] free to succeed.” That is literally what she says. Literally. We’ll return to this idea.

Will gets points for including Emilia Bassano (and for casting her with a black actress), and loses them again for how she is used. There are a few striking scenes– and parallel scenes earlier, with Alice– in which Emilia makes key suggestions about the shape of Shakespeare’s works-in-progress. It might be an exciting example of someone finally depicting the collaborative nature of early modern playwriting– but it’s not. Shakespeare happily absorbs Emilia and Alice’s ideas without expectation of credit or acknowledgement on either side. He’s the writer, of course they have no use for their words or ideas (though Emilia’s own poetry is referenced, once) except to give them to him.

Obviously this is a slightly uncharitable reading– any writer knows that friends offer ideas and you duly steal them all the time. But it’s the positioning of both these women, both of whom claim to be artistic and ambitious in their own right, as having no real function except to serve Shakespeare. One suspects the writers think they are paying the women their due by having them make major contributions to famous works like Richard III, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and lines that will eventually go into Romeo and Juliet, but it only highlights their inferior position: they may make contributions, but the plays and the genius are still firmly Shakespeare’s.

Which brings us to Alice Burbage, Richard Burbage’s sister, Shakespeare’s love interest. To define her in any other terms is almost impossible, though there is a funny scene wherein she’s asked what she does at the playhouse, and she replies, “Not much,” before rattling off an endless list of scrivening, prop sorting, prompting, costume mending…

Like Ellen, the show fully accepts Alice’s role in the family business, though unlike Ellen, there are always hints that perhaps it’s inappropriate, perhaps she needs to marry. When Shakespeare firmly rejects her (at Ellen’s command), Alice turns to another idol, represented by another handsome young man: she converts to Catholicism under the guidance of Shakespeare’s cousin, the underground priest Robert Southwell. His luring of Alice smacks of nothing so much as the way cultists prey on the vulnerable, but by the end, the show tries to insist that we view this choice as Alice finally exercising her free will, that it has nothing to do with Shakespeare– though, of course, it has everything to do with him, as every single episode of the show has demonstrated. Even her departure has to do with him: she writes that she cannot be “part of [his] world”– even though it was her world first.

Alice, whose only wish has been to find a place for herself in the playhouse, is forced out to make room for Will, surrendering her piece of the Burbage family legacy in an act the writing attempts to frame as self-actualization, but just reads– ship voyage and all– exactly the same as Viola at the end of Shakespeare in Love, removing herself as a real, full person in order to become something more important: a character of Shakespeare’s, a piece of his mythology. Viola becomes Viola of Twelfth Night; Alice, associated throughout with lines from Romeo and Juliet, signs her final letter as Shakespeare’s “bright angel,” suggesting Shakespeare will use her as inspiration for Juliet. What better fate for a woman, these endings seem to say, than to be subsumed into a man’s legacy as a fictionalized, idealized version of yourself?

Joking discomfort with the fact of boy players means that, as Shakespeare conceives of and we see snippets of the plays performed, female characters are consistently erased or marginalized. The example I continually find most galling is Richard III. Even though Shakespeare and Alice earnestly discussed the character of Queen Margaret in previous episodes, no mention of her is made in that play, nor of the fact that Shakespeare’s only wholly original scenes, with antecedents in none of his sources, are those featuring the female characters.

The other female characters consist of a prostitute older sister who dies trying to flee with her younger brother; Richard’s friend/maybe-love-interest Moll, who gives him shit but ultimately believes in him; a love interest for Richard’s best friend, who is introduced and dies in a single episode; a tavern hostess/landlady; and a host of peripheral wives and children who are often, in traditional period drama fashion, used as the living emblem of the cost of whatever conflict their male relatives have become embroiled in.

The existence of Ellen, Alice, and Emilia alone put Will a step ahead of almost any other Shakespeare-related show or movie I can think of. But though it tries to make room for women, and deserves credit for the effort, it still can’t conceive of them as anything but satellites to men’s stories, defined primarily by their ability to advance or impede a man’s ambitions.