The Personal, The Political and the Twisted: Historical Fantasy as Feminist Discourse in Thursday26's "Twisted"
The 1980's slogan "The personal is political" may not be as well known to millennials today as it was among the second wave of feminists in the 1980s, but the principles upon which it is based resonate just as strongly in 2020 as they did back then. This is especially evident in the evisceration of rape culture in the fanfiction Twisted, which uses deliberate historical inaccuracies to provide a historico-fictional mirror to our society today – specifically, everything wrong with our society's treatment of women.
There has been a lot of talk about what differentiates genre fiction from literary fiction. The definition I have always found most valid is that literary fiction is remarkably resistant to categorization. When a work of fiction (even of genre fiction) appears to transcend the expected clichés found in the various genres of "detective," "romance", "thriller," etc., it may be a sign that the themes and other elements of the work merit closer examination. The author themselves classifies this work as "political drama," but I would argue that the story transcends the narrow view of politics as relating to legislature, foreign affairs, etc., i.e. intra-national and international relations, and moves into the view of politics first coined by the feminists of the 1980's, namely "the personal is political".
What this means, in simplified terms, is that inasmuch as politics (cf. Foucault) is about power, the systems of power that govern familial and gender relations in a given society should also fall under the aegis of politics. According to the author, "…this is a story about a man victimizing women… but i would argue that women's bodies are always politicized. If you want to learn the politics and views of a society, look at how they look at women. [Y]ou can find everything about how a society functions based on how they treat and police their women."
This is clearly an attempt at articulating the "personal is political" way of thinking. We now have a wide variety of language to describe violations of gender rights and societally inbuilt imbalance of power, but in the 1980's, women were starting to stand up for their rights on a large scale, not just reproductive rights but what we call now the politics of feminism. Facing resistance from the patriarchy, they were told "you're talking about personal affairs." That was what coined the slogan "the personal is political." The example they always gave was – it has dated somewhat – was that if you show a film based on traditional stereotypes of men and women or husbands and wives and how they relate to each other, that's political because it reinforces the status quo, just as surely as something transgressive that breaks the status quo would be designated "political" and it was - at the time - calling for a wider definition of politics than just men fighting for power on the national/international arenas.
Arguing against the narrow definition of "politics", these were the people who paved the way for the wider definition of 'political' as we know it today, although it has largely been supplanted by different language. Housework is politics. Childcare is politics. Virginity is politics. What we call "feminist" today, they called "political." To them, the definition of politics was too narrow. It spoke of parliaments and elections, but they believed the term should encompass how gender roles are encoded and accepted in a given society. Famous feminist Carol Hanisch, in her essay with that title, asserted
…that coming to a personal realization of how "grim" the situation was for women was as important as doing political "action" such as protests. Hanisch noted that "political" refers to any power relationships, not just those of government or elected officials. (my emphasis).
…the essay… came out of her experience of working in male-dominated civil rights, anti-Vietnam War and left (old and new) political groups. Lip service was given to women's equality, but beyond narrow economic equality, other women's issues were often dismissed. Hanisch was particularly concerned about the persistence of the idea that women's situation was women's own fault, and perhaps "all in their heads." (Napikoski 1)
Twisted uses both senses of politics. The title of the story is thematically relevant, because not only is the normal order of things perverted and twisted, but "politics" in the sense of "government or elected officials" is twisted and bound up in the sense of "politics" that tackles power relations as a whole. The author has suggested that the story is "political drama," but "drama" here is a catch-all for things that cannot be classified. This story is deliberately graphic and explicit in its introductory chapters, showing the full horror of a loathsome act of sexual violation, which informs the reader's perception of the other characters' more distanced attitudes as they deal with the incident.
From the start, the profound feminist consciousness is brilliantly telegraphed through adopting the point of view of the rapist. It is a daring choice, and absolutely necessary to show us what, exactly, is rotten in the state of Denmark. All of society's most pernicious beliefs are reflected in the way Spitelout views Astrid: he twists (another reference to the title) her behavior to interpret it resolutely as a seduction of him, playing with the awareness of the reader, who can clearly see, even filtered through Spitelout's rapist's point of view, the innocence of Astrid's actions and the distortion inherent in Spitelout's interpretation – a process of self-delusion which ultimately culminates in rape, which the rapist justifies in a manner unfortunately prevalent in many societies today: the fact that a woman was not successful in preventing it happening is taken as proof of her culpability or even complicity in the action – in other words, of her consent. This is reflected in the scene where Spitelout convinces a still-traumatized Astrid that she was complicit in her own rape:
"Yes you did!" he snarls, grabbing her by her braid and forcing her head back. She cries out, hands reaching back to try and make him let go. He steps in close, pressing his body into hers, and he leans down. "You're Astrid Hofferson. No one can make you do anything you don't want to do. You can't blame me for what you wanted to happen."
Tears prick in the corners of her eyes. That's true; she is tough. No one would believe that Spitelout could force her to do anything that she didn't want. But he… he overpowered her… but… no one can make her do anything… she's the best… So… even with her protests, does that mean that she wanted this to happen? That she didn't fight hard enough because she secretly wanted him, that she let him do this?
The "didn't fight hard enough" is a frequent argument even today in defense of rapists, that "if she really didn't want it, she wouldn't have given in," disregarding the fact that women are frequently under threat of violence or even death for refusing sexual advances. The above passage makes this violence explicit: Spitelout is physically intimidating Astrid, leaning into her space and pulling her hair, even as he forces the narrative on her that the rape is something "you wanted to happen." In so doing, the author exposes the hollowness of "she wanted it" argument by showing that women are forced to believe they "wanted it" from a social system that practices violence in them, embodied here in the figure of her rapist. The rapist here becomes symbolic of an entire system that distorts the facts (making Astrid bend over backward) and subjects women to violence and/or threats of violence to force them to go along with the "women want to be raped" myth.
The continuation of this social norm is that a woman has no recourse outside of marriage, shown in the subsequent forced marriage of Astrid. It is not 'forced' in the strictest of technical senses, since she is the one who requests, indeed begs, her rapist to marry her. It is here that we see the politics (in the feminist sense) that oppress her and force her into this position, in the shape of social norms – which are just as much laws as written legislature, governing as they do the flow and locus of power – which effectively offer her no options for social acceptance outside rigidly defined rules governing her sexuality. These are used by Astrid's rapist to coerce her into seeking any form of shelter within the establishment of marriage: "You'll probably have a lot of interest for sex… a spinster whore." This double designation – spinster whore – excludes Astrid from the acceptable categories for women in that society (the author does make a note that actual Norse society in fact gave much more power to women than even our contemporary one), which reflect the kind of Victorian prudery that still persists today: Virgin, Wife, and Mother (married, widowed or divorced). 'Spinster' bears the stigma of not having been good enough to attract a man, since a woman's intrinsic worth was viewed in the role she could play in serving a male and producing offspring, and 'whore' refers to any woman who has had sexual congress outside marriage. In the opening scene of Vinegar Tom, feminist playwright Caryl Churchill writes a sexual encounter between a woman and a passing horseman. After they have sex, she asks him to take her to London with him.
Man: A whore? Take a whore with me?
Alice: I'm not that.
Man: What are you then? What name would you put to yourself? You're not a wife or a widow. You're not a virgin. Tell me a name for what you are. (Churchill 137)
This could very well be a summary of the societal attitude portrayed by Thursday26 on Berk, the one in place as we enter the story and the one revealed to be defective at the start of the dramatic action. The absence of any honorable category for a woman to belong in outside of the limited roles assigned to her on a solely sexual basis is thus revealed in the aftermath of the rape, when Spitelout lays out the choices available to Astrid:
"Well," he moves his hand so he's playing with her nipple, "once it gets out you're not fit to be Hiccup's bride anymore, I doubt there will be another man who will want you." He pauses for a moment, smile stretching over his face. Her scalp is starting to hurt with how hard he's holding her head back. "Or rather, another man that would want to marry you. You'll probably have a lot of interest for sex, but not for a commitment. A spinster whore." He punctuates that comment with a pinch to her nipple, making her grunt and flinch.
This segment brings together (continued) sexual assault, the treatment of women as property (Astrid's body belongs to Spitelout to do with what he will), the continuation of the violence from the previous excerpt (her head is still being pulled back) and physically overpowering a woman to underscore what is being said, in this case the social codes circumscribing women who dare to transgress sexually (or are forced to). The fate that awaits a woman who transgresses is ostracism and social stigma:
No, that can't be true. It can't be. A spinster whore. How disgraceful. What would her father think? What would her mother say? How could she even defend herself? No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Stormfly makes a shrill noise, preventing Astrid from spiralling, but Spitelout is right. As much as Astrid wants to deny it, he's right . No one wants to marry a whore. She can't not get married… it would dishonor her family.
This is pure politics, in feminist parlance. Power relations in society conspire to not only invalidate a woman's autonomy but force Astrid into a position where she is forced to marry her rapist. The social norms that keep her in that position, worse than any written legislation, allow her rapist to maneuver her into a corner so that she's begging him to marry her.
Thursday26's Viking society is a mirror for ours. It views women as childlike and irresponsible, as property even – but property tasked with preserving their saleability. These 'irresponsible' creatures are paradoxically the only ones responsible for protecting their virginity. So they get none of the capacities or powers that come with responsibility, but all of the blame – and victim-blaming is, of course, an aspect of contemporary rape culture. This is clear in the story. Astrid is unequivocally raped - you show it over and over again, in her words, in her resistance, and not least in the heartrending scream she makes as she is penetrated. No punches are pulled, no words are minced, and the rape is shown in all its ugliness even as the rapist makes excuses, in his point of view, for what he is doing. Despite belonging to the younger generation (shown as part of the HTTYD franchise to be more forward-thinking and accepting of social change) Astrid is so much a part of her society and its social norms - and modern readers can recognize this - that she is not only completely gaslighted, but, in her trauma, accepts the gaslighting without a second thought. This, again, is the feminist sense of 'political' – the imposition of norms that will lead a victim to blame themselves, out of a power imbalance inherent in the status quo.
The narrower sense of politics, the non-feminist sense of elected officials, makes an appearance soon after the characters return to the village. Here, we learn that oppression is encoded in the law, where it actually would not make a difference that Astrid said Spitelout raped her, because the fact that she "let" herself be raped would de jure, not just de facto, mean that she wanted it. Spitelout's comments in the earlier section thus are shown to have the force of law behind them.
Later in the story, the younger generation starts to work to modify the more traditional or narrow sense, i.e. to rewrite the legislature. Still, it remains informed by the politics that, for instance, drive Ruffnut to attack and nearly kill a nameless man who engages in the tactics – the 'politics' – of oppression. Referring to Astrid being dishonored, he tells Ruffnut "you're finally better than her." In addition to victim-blaming, one of the tools of the politics of patriarchy is pitting oppressed people and minorities against each other. In our time, this can manifest in racial terms, such as pitting Blacks and Asians against each other in a race to be perceived by the White majority as the 'model minority', or, closer to our theme, pitting women against each other in a race to gain the favor of men, evidenced by the trope of women competing or fighting over a man. "Those in power," the author says, "are so… good at turning the oppressed against one another… think about the representation of women in media, generally as a whole, regardless of race for simplicity... there is always a joke about fighting amongst women… It's a huge stereotype…" Women are pitted against one another socially to fight over who is prettier, thinner, younger, more capable of winning the favor of the male oppressor by conforming to the prevailing patriarchal standard – in this case, virginity.
Ruffnut represents an example of the type of oppressed person who refused to be judged by the yardstick of the oppressor. The author says of the #metoo movement: "…men are fucking frightened because women are actually standing up for one another and standing by one another…" and their Ruffnut is an example of that, refusing to accept the accolade "you're finally better than her." Women are encouraged by the prevailing climate (political) to compare themselves with one another and cut each other down, and portrayed as doing that in the media so as to offer a blueprint to women as to how they are supposed to act to please the oppressor. Competing with each other helps to effectively distract minorities from the fact that they outnumber the powerful and – via collective action – hold the power to redress the collective oppression prevalent in a given society.
The foil for Ruffnut, in this scenario where one act of violence unmasks the deep-rooted injustice on Berk (mirroring the world we live in), is Mrs. Larsen, Gustav's mother. In contrast to Ruffnut, she repeatedly blames Astrid, calls her a whore, and praises Spitelout for marrying her. In the process, she reveals that she herself had an affair with Spitelout, who refused to take her on as a second wife, thus ruining her reputation and leaving her to turn to prostitution to support herself and her child. When the new generation pushes to change the laws on Berk, she accepts the status quo absolutely without question, even justifying it and making all kinds of excuses for it, even though the way women are treated has ruined a large part of her life. She blames Astrid for everything and, in contrast to Ruffnut again, compares Astrid unfavorably with her own self ("It was hard! But I did it!"), thus defending the patriarchy and the status quo. In addition to calling Astrid a whore, she elevates Spitelout to the status of a hero for agreeing to save her reputation. She completely sides with the patriarchy and views her fellow-woman as an enemy. This, of course, is a well-known facet of oppression: the most rabid defenders of the oppressor are the oppressed. As one of those who side with the oppressor, she feels like she has no choice but to side with the patriarchy because that's the only way she can be saved. Whereas Ruffnut, being told that she's "finally better than" Astrid, goes for the throat. This function of oppression explains the reason many victims will defend their abusers, drawing the charge "Some people just like being abused." Nobody likes being abused, but in the absence of a real voice for the oppressed or any safe options, the safest thing is to side with those in power and perhaps gain power by proxy. This helps also explain why some of the fiercest defenders of patriarchal norms are women, usually wives and mothers, and helps deflect the charge of "it's all women's fault, after all, they defend oppression."
In addition to being a foil for Ruffnut, Mrs. Larsen also represents the older generation. Her situation and her attitude highlight to her son Gustav how complacent he himself has been in this system. As a man unaffected by the system, he has never thought of how his mother, or the women of the village, are oppressed. However, as a member of the younger generation, he immediately sets to work to right the wrong. Gustav takes action pretty much as soon as he realizes there is an imbalance of power, in a way that, for instance, Stoick and Gobber do not. According to the author, "they're so used to playing in the system that they can't think of a way to solve the problem outside of it." However, it is less a function of custom than of generation. The generation gap plays hard into this work. The nameless villager, Spitelout, Mrs. Larsen, the Hoffersons and the Ingermans (the former refuse to allow Fishlegs to debase himself by marrying their 'impure' daughter when he makes a bid to save Astrid by marrying her, and the latter approve of the Hoffersons' decision), all view Astrid as damaged goods and subscribe to the patriarchal system that oppresses women. Stoick and Gobber, while they disapprove of the system, appear powerless to take steps to change it. Meanwhile, the twins, Fishlegs, Gustav, and eventually the rest of the younger generation are all enthusiastic about changing the laws – and from there, the customs – of the village.
Not all the younger generation is immediately revolutionary, however. Snotlout's journey is the most significant, and, in a way, is a journey of growing up and becoming his own person. He starts out by siding with his father (the old generation) and views Astrid as a homewrecker rather than a victim (the status quo). For the first part of the story, he is completely a reactionary force. Then he changes his mind, his eyes almost literally opened to the abuse his friend and shieldmate is going through. And he joins the younger generation, who are pushing for change.
The most exciting thing about Snotlout's change is that it is brought about, or at least facilitated, by a dragon. Dragons are not just window-dressing in this story: they are an integral part of the message. Many of the characters shown as undergoing a significant change have that change facilitated by a dragon. According to the author, "That's one thing i love about the dragons in that story, the way that I can use them as a tool to state exactly what is wrong without having to offer justification to reflect a human understanding. I can literally use the dragons as a mouthpiece to state what's wrong with what's going on." Each and every one of the dragons is shocked and outraged by the rape. Stormfly, who witnessed it, is traumatized; the rapist's dragon burns his saddle and refuses to remain on the same island with his rider; and the rest of the dragons show their outrage by refusing to allow humans on their backs pending retribution for the rape. There is a scene where the dragons state explicitly that the humans only judge females by one yardstick, ignoring the other parts of them? Unlike the humans, the dragons' criticism is absent of anyone trying to defend or justify what they see. Dragons also play a part in Hiccup's change: Toothless' threat of leaving shows Hiccup the error of his ways, since Hiccup seems to rely strongly on dragons for his moral compass. From there, it is a short step to realize that Astrid is oppressed.
Hiccup and Gustav (the latter's change is indirectly brought about by Hiccup's dragon, via Hiccup) both realize that the system is deeply flawed, and are driven to change it. Their change is not as central or thematic as Snotlout's, which is thematic and symbolic in many ways, and brought about by Hookfang, again, a dragon. Snotlout's journey is personal and also thematic. He starts out solidly on the side of oppression. Which is ironic, since he is also part of an oppressed group (homosexuals), but that also parallels Mrs. Larsen, in that the victimized and oppressed frequently take the side of the oppressor. As has been mentioned above, he takes the side of Spitelout, sees Astrid as a homewrecker, and views his father as a victim of her seduction. This is exactly the type of victim-blaming we see Mrs. Larsen indulging in. However, Mrs. Larsen does not have a dragon, and it is shown that dragon riders mostly listen to their dragons, whom they view as a source of wisdom or, at the least, a close personal friend. Snotlout has a dragon, but he actively rejects Hookfang's voice of reason, fighting with his dragon and even fighting him. His lack of action parallels that of the older generation, but whereas Stoick and Gobber's inaction is because their hands are tied by position and custom, Snotlout refuses to take action because he is resolutely siding with the oppressor, his own father. This is why it is a journey of growing up: Snotlout needs to outgrow being his father's son and become his own man.
After a bitter altercation, Hookfang physically picks Snotlout up, takes him to the Jorgenson house, and holds him in front of a window where he can see Astrid being raped. While the decision to look is Snotlout's, the impetus that gets him there and the actant (the force that moves the action forward) is Hookfang. Thanks to a dragon, Snotlout's eyes are literally and figuratively opened, and he can "see" the injustice and oppression. Symbolically, a window is literally opened for him to see into the oppression taking place, to which he was figuratively blind before. Since he is shown as a character who is very much driven by his heart, he takes action, thus symbolically joining the younger generation, who have all been on the side of fighting oppression from the start.
This use of dragons is what adds dimension to this story. Although fan fiction is often viewed as derivative, here it is an enriching factor. Drawing upon the world of HTTYD lends depth in the form of the dragons, the very fantasy/supernatural element that functions here as a moral compass for the tale. Because dragons are so attractive to readers and fans of HTTYD, it makes sense to place the core values for which the author is advocating – equality, feminism, an end to oppression – as dragon values, thus giving the values themselves an elevated status. This is made obvious more times than can be counted. It is present in the dragon council called by Toothless; in Stormfly's stricken screaming at witnessing the rape; in Kingstail abandoning his human name, reverting to his given name of Dyse, and destroying his saddle; in the dragons as a species refusing to carry humans on their backs until justice is done, and so on. Not only are the dragons at the forefront of change for many of the important characters, they are used as a mirror to reflect what is wrong in that world. One extremely symbolic moment is when Stormfly carries Spitelout back to Berk, acquiescing to Astrid's entreaties:
Stormfly descends on Spitelout, collecting him in her talons like she would a yak or a sheep. Spitelout screams as he's lifted into the air. Astrid giggles at the noise. She leans in the saddle, ignoring his yells of displeasure as Stormfly tosses Spitelout into the air a couple of times, catching him by his arms or legs. They don't make much progress while Stormfly has her fun, but eventually Stormfly settles on carrying him by one leg.
Carrying Spitelout upside-down, literally as well as figuratively, upends his dignity.
Spitelout is yelling something, holding onto his helmet so he doesn't lose it in the sea, but Astrid can barely hear him over the roar of the wind as Stormfly flies. And she is definitely not smiling the whole way back to Berk.
The literal and figurative upending of Spitelout makes Astrid smile. No-one else in the story does this up to the point where Snotlout knocks him out, also driven to it (indirectly) by a dragon. Meanwhile, when a character is beyond redemption, his dragon abandons him – symbolically, being abandoned by the creatures that are on the side of right.
In conclusion, this fiction brings the concept 'the personal is political' to life. The rape of Astrid and the subsequent political turmoil, the character development, the contrasts set up between the generations, and the politics of oppression in both the narrow and the feminist sense, all use historical fantasy to parallel our contemporary world and present a progressive and feminist worldview. The story layers symbolism, fantasy elements and our contemporary understanding of consent to offer a powerful indictment of rape culture.
Churchill, Caryl. Churchill: Plays One: Owners, Traps, Vinegar Tom, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, Cloud Nine. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print
Napikoski, Linda. "The Personal Is Political: Where Did This Women's Movement Slogan Come From? What Does It Mean?" ThoughtCo. Updated January 3, 2020. the-personal-is-political-slogan-origin-3528952