This Week on Dear Television:
The Trans Oberyn Tipping Point
By Sarah Mesle
June 4, 2014
“OBERYN MARTELL,” said my friend Kyla, “is my new George Clooney.” This was before The Mountain summoned his waning strength and drove his bulbous thumbs into Oberyn’s eyes; before his brain exploded all over Tyrion (and over, more importantly, our hope for escaping the tyranny of a Tywin Lannister-ruled world). It was sad for our collective fantasy life when Clooney got engaged. I think it’s safe to say, Dear Television, that this was way worse.
“The Mountain and the Viper’s” conclusion was so dramatically, horrifically epic that it almost overshadowed the rest of the episode — almost, but not quite. Oberyn’s eye-blasting ended an episode that built nearly perfectly to its “Say her name!” conclusion. From its jokey barroom beginning when pubgoers play a belchy version of “name that tune,” to Tyrion and Jaime’s black humored listing of all the kinds of murder ("fratricide is brothers, filicide is sons…"), “The Mountain and the Viper,” asks over and over: what is at stake in a name? What power is to be had in claiming a name, or in having one foisted upon you?
The best moments of this tremendous episode hinged on moments when characters we love (Grey Worm, Sansa, Oberyn) and even those we don’t (Theon, Ramsey) confronted how names bring together personal and systemic forms of agency, violence, and power. Another way of saying this is that the episode used the moments of OMG FEATHER DRESS and OMG EYE-PLOSION to explore how private names intersect with public categories — the categories a culture makes to create its sense of what’s real and normal. (So, for instance: the name “George Clooney.” This private name has become a category for a particular kind of ideal that another person could fulfill: masculine but empathetic; comfortably powerful but pleasingly self-deprecating. In Westerosean terms, a “George Clooney” would be less bull-headedly noble and better in bed than a Stark, but also less manipulative than a Lannister. Like Oberyn, as Kyla says!)
What strikes me about most of these characters is that none of them have a name that gives them much power in their world. Not only are they personally, and in various ways, outside of power, but they all exist within public categories that name them as outside of power: slave, woman, queer, eunich, bastard. All of them are struggling to relate, as people, to the categories of their world. And so as a viewer of Game of Thrones who is also very interested in the categories of my world, trying to make sense of my response to “The Mountain and the Viper” meant that I kept looking outside of Westeros: to Laverne Cox.
Laverne Cox is an actress, though not (sadly, because it could use her) on Game of Thrones: she plays Sophia Burset, the hairdresser on Orange is the New Black, the second season of which Netflix will release this Friday. As I write, Cox’s name is in the news not only because of her acting abilities but also because she has become one of the most articulate spokespeople for the contemporary trans experience, a status Time magazine just acknowledged when it placed her on its cover. The trans experience, as Cox frequently reminds us in interviews, hinges on the way it moves between categories we want to keep separate — male and female, obviously, but other categories (race, class) as well.
Time’s cover suggests that we’ve reached a moment, as a culture, where trans identities have become more mainstream. One hopes that’s true, but even if it is there’s still weight on the other side of the scale, where trans identities are dangerously stigmatized. Precisely because of her prominence, Cox is receiving a tremendous share of this cultural venom. Significantly for me, and for her imagined relation to Game of Thrones, much of the backlash Cox faces is directed at her ability to name herself. For instance, a widely circulated editorial (first appearing in the National Review but also reprinted in such venues as — and this makes me really sad, even if they did later apologize — the Chicago Sun-Times) begins with the titular claim that “Laverne Cox is not a woman.” The essay’s author persistently refers to Cox as a “him” and a “spokesman,” and insists that because “sex is a biological fact,” Cox has no ability to define her gender for herself. “Regardless of the question of whether he has had his genitals amputated,” Kevin D. Williamson argues, “Cox is not a woman, but an effigy of a woman.”
All this may seem very far afield from Westeros, which does not yet have print media or a developed celebrity culture or (bless them) the National Review. But Cox’s excellent commentary on the trans experience helps reveal how, both in Westeros and the contemporary US, power displays itself not only through physical violence but by the still-brutal psychological measure of verbally prying apart portions of disenfranchised identities: you cannot be all that you are, power says. The way power works through naming isn’t fully consistent: power sometimes names only your parts and sometimes forces together things you’d want separate, making their unity freakish — making the nexus that is you absurd or excessive or unreal. Think about this about this in Game of Throne’s terms: can Grey Worm be a slave, a eunich, and also a man? Can Ramsey be a bastard and an heir? Can Sansa be a woman if her aunt calls her a whore?
And what’s more: the expression of power through the use of names paves the way for power’s more physical forms. We see this right away in “The Mountain and the Viper,” (well: not quite right away; there’s some boring mucking about with Gilly and Sam, but we can skip it) when the episode focuses on two characters working to rebuild themselves after suffering both physical and verbal violence. In a gorgeous bathing scene that’s somewhere between Whitman’s 29 bather and Susannah and the Elders, Grey Worm spies a naked Missandei doing her laundry (please imagine, given my perhaps undo attention to the labor politics of Daenerys’s clothing, my excitement at seeing laundry being done). What does his looking mean? Daenerys and Missandei discuss Grey Worm’s gaze as Daenerys braids Missandei’s hair.
(Okay, sorry: we’re just going to have to stop and talk about this even though it has nothing to do with naming. Both within and without the world of Game of Thrones, this seems like a tremendous moment. First, without: American literature is populated by any number of scenes when black women (invariably light skinned women of color with “curls” rather than Missandei’s ‘fro) “do” white women’s hair: moments in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Bondwoman’s Narrative spring to mind. Black women, in stories, frequently relate to each other through hair — there’s The Color Purple (Celie “scratching a song” out of Shug’s head) as well as, to pick an obvious example, Orange is the New Black (in which Cox's Sophia gives both hair and personality therapy). While there are surely some, moments when white women tend to the beauty of black women are far more unusual. This is partly a way our culture reflects white ignorance about black physicality: tending to black hair remains a “specialty” practice, to use my friend Brigitte’s term, that white women rarely think to obtain. This moment between Daenerys and Missandei is not unproblematic, but its portrait of interracial intimacy is remarkably rare.
The moment is provocative within Game of Thrones, too. In Westeros, women’s status and power — both politically and narratively — emerges in their hair: Sansa, Cersei, Daenerys, Margaery and Melisandre all display elaborate braids that, as I’ve said, hint at the show’s lush power beyond its plot. This moment between Daenerys and Missandei, then, fascinates me. On the one hand, Missandei seems uncomfortable: she’s like Ally Sheedy letting Molly Ringwald do her make-up, but more so. I don’t see this moment as a clear win for egalitarianism, especially given the show’s interest in cultivating Daenerys’s “white savior” status. But still, the women seem like friends here, touching each other while they talk, even as Missandei’s tenseness indicates that, for her at least, the power differential between them remains in place. As a viewer, my felt sense was that Missandei’s braids signaled how seriously the show was taking her in this moment; it felt like a sign that Missandei’s romance mattered. Anyway: GAME OF BRAIDS!)
Daenerys, learning that Grey Worm was staring at Missandei, is a certain kind of practical, wondering whether the castrated Grey Worm has lost his “pillar” as well as his “stones.” But as Laverne Cox has told us, genitals are not lives. In a rather remarkable scene between Grey Worm and Missandei, Grey Worm refuses to see his past as defined by “terrible things” or regret. I disliked the shlock (and the suggestion that love renders slavery’s violations moot) but I was stirred by what this scene represented and the details of how it was carried out. Grey Worm, still learning the “common tongue” that will allow him to move fully beyond the world of the Unsullied, has left the self-referential phrase “this one” behind but still does not fully know when to use “I” or “me.” It is not insignificant that, despite his “precious” language lessons, this former slave still confuses subject and object.
Missandei asks if Grey Worm remembers his given name; if he remembers being “cut.” Her sense of loss in those questions is palpable. Her questions pair verbal and physical violence as partnering violations of Grey Worm’s identity. But Grey Worm asks “Why sorry?” Although Missandei — lovely, mournful, and braided — is sympathetic here, it’s provocative to read her questions aside Kevin D. Williamson’s denouncement of Laverne Cox. Like Williamson’s insistence that “biological facts,” rather than experiences or choices, constitute Cox’s “real” identity. Missandei seems to assume that Grey Worm’s true self was severed, lost, before his life happened to him. But Grey Worm defines himself. His past has led him here, to her, and he refuses to define the fullness of his experience as a lack.
This is exactly the opposite of Ramsey’s relation to Theon. Ramsey’s protracted assault on Theon’s body, culminating in the forced removal of his penis, has been an extended episode in turning Theon into a vessel that Ramsey can name at will. I do not enjoy Theon/Ramsey scenes, ever; I even resent them when they’re well done, because the narrative coherence seems like such a cheap apology for their violence. So it’s with a certain irritation that I say: this was really well done.
A series of scenes: Ramsey interrogates Theon; the fort commander interrogates Theon; Lord Bolton interrogates Ramsey. They form a sort of narrative triptych on the work of naming. In the center: the fort commander’s interrogation. Theon had come confidently into the fort, claiming his birth name and offering his miserably broken promise that Ramsey “will be just and fair with you as he has been with me.” But Theon unravels into a fantastically twitching mess when faced with the commander’s insults. The commander cannot know how pointed his slurs are — he calls Theon a “whipped dog,” a “woman,” a “whatever the fuck you are” — but the audience does. We know that here the commander perfectly reinforces the lesson Ramsey had driven home in the first part of the triptych, when he reminded Theon that no matter what he called himself he would be Reek “until he’s rotting in the ground.” Why is Ramsey so insistent on the power of naming? The final scene, the third in the triptych, offers a kind of answer: this is exactly the power Ramsey’s father had always had over him. Working chiastically with the first scene, the scene when Lord Bolton allows Ramsey to finally claim the family name “until your last day” shows us that Ramsey has taken Theon’s name so that Ramsey’s father will give him his own. It’s no excuse. But it shows us how powerfully Westeros weighs the category of “bastard.” If Grey Worm wants to rethink the categories that have limited him, Ramsey only cares to escape, at any cost, the one by which he’s been haunted.
And what of Sansa? Sansa’s grew up so sure that the categories of her world would help her. The pretty girl, the popular one: she was happy to follow the orders that put her in a comfortable box. Over the last two seasons, she’s watched those categories fall apart. But it was only in this episode, it seems, that Sansa learned to deploy them herself. Strategically revealing her name to the remaining nobles of Gouse Arryn, Sansa earns their trust through the deployment of powerful categories: “My aunt cursed me, she called me a whore!” “They married me to the imp!” Perhaps my favorite moment of the episode was when Sansa, embraced by a sympathetic noble, turns a calm gaze on Littlefinger. Look at me, her gaze says, I know how to play this game. She has stitched together — quite literally — a new guise for herself to wear, where she controls the categories through which she’s understood. In one of the most semiotically satisfying — and strange! I had to get two friends to decode it for me! (We still don’t get the necklace!) — wardrobe decisions of the season, the sequence ends as Sansa descends the stairs in the Eyrie’s High Hall. To those of us outside of Westeros, it reminds us Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent, but within Game of Thrones it seems that Sansa has taken her old nickname “Little Bird” to heart, and come to a place where birds are powerful; where they are able to prey.
So where does all this leave us with Oberyn? How do these scenes help us understand the episode’s conclusion?
Oberyn’s death was terrible for its violence, but that was not the most awful thing about it. More disturbing than the nature of the death was the broader sense of missed opportunity, of possibility lost. Oberyn had won. Like a whirling dervish of righteousness, like the perfect cross between Neo and Inigo Montoya I had never known I had always wanted, Oberyn had pinned The Mountain to the ground! And then he let him go. “Say my sister’s name!” He asked for something valuable; something noble, even. And it killed him.
Where did he go wrong? (I mean: beyond the basic misstep of being a likable high-minded dude in a George R.R. Martin story.) Is the problem that he falsely believed that righteousness was tenable, and possible to preserve in a brutal world? Or is it that he himself ceased to be righteous, became instead saturated with Lannister-style hubris? What does it mean to insist on a name, on a word, on a confession, when the punishment itself has already been meted out?
Dear Television, I have been thinking for three days about this question and I still don’t have a good answer. But here’s what I feel. Killing off Oberyn is a little different than killing off Ned Stark. It’s a little different, too, from marrying off George Clooney. It feels more like, and this is what initially led me to the connection, what an attack on Laverne Cox would feel like. Cox is powerful because she seems so fully to not give a shit about the categories thrown at her: if she can take down Katie Couric (an emblem of normative power if there ever was one), it feels like she can conquer the world. In this, she’s like Oberyn. I’ve said it before, but I’ve loved Oberyn this season because he offers a kind of hopefulness of a better world; a queerer one, really, where the feudal emphasis on the body doesn’t necessitate a retreat to our most crude sense of biological sex. I am somewhat scared, here, that I’m equating the threat of the very real violence facing heroes like Laverne Cox with the imaginary dramas of Game of Thrones. But I don’t mean it that way. What I mean is that my fear and horror at the death of Oberyn, at the moment of his triumph, triggered my sense of how brave Laverne Cox and so many others are, to imagine how names might reshape the world.
“The Mountain and the Viper” followed characters wrestling with names; it ended with a character who could fight so well because he already knew how to be himself. And then it killed him. As the full weight of The Mountain, the sheer bulk of the brutality he represents, descended into Oberyn’s skull, the death was more than a body. It was an exploding of eyes and mind and outlook all at once. What’s in a name? In Time magazine, we may have reached a tipping point. But Westeros is another American made fantasy, and there, it seems, we’re still facing our powerful fear of categories made real, and enforced by brutal hands.
I am still in mourning,