Owned

Game of Thrones ended on Sunday. For a while — for the last week of its run, in fact — that ending was all I could talk about. This was because I hated it, sure. But more importantly, the ending of Game of Thrones was something to think about. Something that, no matter how awful it may have been, paled in comparison to the shit going down in the real world. 

The fury over Game of Thrones feels like a throwback, doesn’t it? It feels like something we did in a simpler time, when feminists had leisure to examine the stories our culture tells, and parse the nuances of representation, rather than endlessly responding to crises in real time. My first blog, Tiger Beatdown, started in 2008, and at least half of it was pop-culture criticism. I covered electoral politics when I had to, but I often didn’t have to. My writing on movies and TV (and sometimes-but-not-really music) was the first thing anyone ever hired me for, the first thing I ever went viral for; when I was linked to by an outside website, or shortlisted in an anthology, or published in a Really Important Publication, it was always that stuff. 

I know I’m inviting takes about the decadence of feminism in the Obama era — you people think movies and TV are real life! You wasted your time on rape jokes instead of Medicare for All! All you care about are symbolic victories! — and certainly, in the later, more clickbaity iteration of that particular politic, there was a lot of shallow, performative stuff. Mainstream media websites learned how to do the kind of writing my friends and I were doing for free; they rarely hired the people who had pioneered that type of writing or made it popular, and instead hired younger writers without recognizable bylines or a deep grounding in the issues. Those writers were more precarious, more exploitable, and they were able to turn out quick takes on whether something was “problematic” without any deep passion or connection to a wider political movement. It showed. 

Pop-analysis feminism became its own recognizable form, and people kind of thought it sucked, and maybe, by the end, when we were writing listicles on how feminist the Disney Princesses were or weren’t, it kind of did suck, the same way it kind of sucks that I can buy an endless variety of “STRONG WOMAN” dresses for my almost-two-year-old who hasn’t even officially told me what her gender is. It’s probably better to buy her the “STRONG WOMAN” dress than something that says, like, “Flirt” or “Daddy’s Little Tease” or “I’m A Very Sexy Baby,” which was the previous fad. But it’s still an odd, dissociative feeling, watching this political moment my friends and I worked to bring about become a pin, or a baby onesie, or a motto woven into some novelty socks. 

Today, picking up some summer clothes for the baby, I found a little T-shirt that showed a “diverse” group of little girls (a white redhead, a white blonde, a brown girl) riding rockets through the sky, leaving a trail that said “OWN YOUR POWER.” I thought it was a nice message, but I also thought $13 was a high price to pay for it. I thought about how it must be vastly more marketable to create a T-shirt about women’s power than to actually be a feminist who analyzes and advocates for women’s power in the public sphere; how my income is dwarfed by the incomes of the people who sell these shirts, and yet I’m expected to give them money to reflect my own points back to me; how so many women swam out, in the early and mid ‘00s, way ahead of the wave, writing full-length essays every day for no money, trying to bring the culture to a place where girls didn’t begin all their sentences with “I’m not a feminist, but…”

No-one invested in those websites. You couldn’t even get ad money or sponcon partnerships for them. Some of them pulled more traffic than sections of the Huffington Post, but according to the experts, they just weren’t “marketable.” Then, somehow, with no support, and no-one taking them seriously, those women changed the culture to the point that Beyonce was sampling feminist lectures in her hit singles. And not only did most of us never become famous for it, or even earn a living wage, we didn’t even get the stupid T-shirt. We still have to go to the mall and pay up. 

So I thought about that. And I thought about how effective it would be for my daughter to wear an “OWN YOUR POWER” t-shirt in Georgia or Alabama. How much power you can really own, or purchase at Old Navy, when your own government is taking your sovereignty over your body away. 

I don’t know what there is to say about Georgia and Alabama (and Ohio, and Michigan, and Missouri, and) that I didn’t say last week, or that a thousand people haven’t said for me. People have been saying the same thing, myself included, for years now. Last summer, when the news broke that Justice Kennedy would retire, I remember sitting numbly in a coffee shop, staring at my computer screen, not moving. The way you do when something horrible happens; when you’re afraid to move, because then linear time will commence, and you’ll have to live in the horrifying future where this has already happened to you. Eventually, the spell broke. I saw a headline where Bernie Sanders said something stupid — “in many ways, we did win the election,” I believe it was — and I snapped back into the moment, and I swear to God, my ears started ringing. The whole world was silence and whine, like some cheesy movie portraying the aftereffects of a bomb blast. I was so angry it briefly shifted the pressure inside my skull.

So I felt it all then, and I’ve known what would happen ever since, as we all did. This past week — the one where I keep making fists and remembering I don’t know how to punch walls without breaking my hand — is just the fulfillment of a prophecy, an echo of the original feeling I had in that coffee shop. The anger that hit like a bomb. 

I find it impossible to know how much my friends and I actually changed the culture. So much of it has moved in response to our pressure, given us what we asked for: Superhero movies, baby clothes, pop stars. These aren’t minor symbolic victories; something like Wonder Woman is a multi-million dollar franchise. This means it can never be radical, or substitute for political action, but more importantly, it means that the people who make multi-million-dollar franchises are betting that feminism can draw a crowd, and they are winning. That victory connotes a massive level of popular support, which could potentially be turned to more practical ends. When I first started, there was one (1) press that routinely published books by young feminists, and the advances were so small that some literary agents refused to deal with them. Now, we’re on the New York Times bestseller list, on TV, on every cheap baby shirt at the mall.

But reality grinds on apace, and it is brutal. Another state with a total abortion ban. Another ban with no rape or incest exceptions. Another rapist very publicly getting away with his crimes, flaunting his invulnerability to the law. (Between Game of Thrones and abortion, there was seemingly no room for another big story this week — but speaking of throwbacks, Julian Assange is out and trying to evade rape charges again, which I wrote about.) You can bet on feminism and win big. You can bet against women and win bigger. You can tell a baby to “OWN HER POWER.” But when it comes to adult women and childbearing people, and their power to decide whether to have babies, well: There’s nothing left to grab. The state owns it all. 

I don’t know where we are: Progressing, backlashing, or just stuck in place on some moral and ethical hamster wheel, whereby the faster we run, the more stuck we are, and the more I bitch about girl-power t-shirts, the closer all those “FUTURE SEX MISTRESS” baby clothes get to coming back. I don’t know how the symbolic and the real fit together; if our stories, like our dreams, reflect our deepest beliefs and run ahead of our conscious knowledge, or if stories only distract and tranquilize us while the world crumbles. I had a lot of anger this week, and I put 98% of it into Game of Thrones, because it was a remnant of a time when we had the luxury to care about stories. Because the story it told reflected all there is to be angry about in the world.

Game of Thrones, in the end, was the story of a woman who began the series being raped by her husband, and ended it being stabbed by her boyfriend, and both men were framed as heroic despite these actions, or because of them. It was the story of a woman who tried to escape the violence; who soared through the sky, bearing a message written in fire and smoke; a woman who OWNED HER POWER. And it was the story of how she failed to deserve that power; how she had to be destroyed because of her ambition, or her trauma (“madness”), or her anger, or just her sheer inability to step down and let a calmer, more reasonable man take her power away.

It was a story about how women do not own our bodies and shouldn’t try to. And it was the most popular drama on television, for almost ten years. I don’t know whether that’s a symbolic problem or a real problem. It seems like both. I am angry about Game of Thrones because it feels less threatening than the real crisis. But that only means I am angry at us all.