Monday, April 25, 2016

Embracing the "Ugly" as Beautiful: Melisandre in Game of Thrones, Season 6

My husband and I watched the first episode of Game of Thrones season 6 last night. There were several moments that shocked or surprised me. The big reveal at the end of the episode was not one of them.




It's not that I somehow secretly suspected that the Red Woman, AKA Melisandre, is actually centuries old. It's that I don't care. I mean, really, unless her removing the necklace actually leads to something plot related (will she die? will the necklace somehow resurrect Jon? will Thorne find it and put it on, then get strangled by it? I'd like to see that). However, the Twitterverse is all... atwitter over it. People all over the internet are extremely excited about this new TWIST.

From an article on e-online:

Plenty of other articles were tweeted announcing their intention to discuss this big twist.

How is it a twist? To me, a plot twist means something that significantly impacts the plot. So she's old. I mean, seriously. She has wrinkles, she's got saggy breasts, she's lost most of her hair. Okay. And?

Which brings me to the other reason people are all freaking out: OMG, the Red Woman is actually old and NOT HOT.

The shock of the reveal...

Yes, that's Sam from Supernatural. It was actually a gif cycling between his face and Dean's equally horrified face.
And my personal favorite:

Because it's totes cool to pull your pants down for the young Red Woman, who advocates burning children alive.

Let me get something out of the way. I get it. We as a culture are so flooded with images of "perfect" women's bodies that it must be a big surprise and shock when a show gives a rare glimpse of a woman's body that doesn't fit in. But come on, people. Not every body you see has to be evaluated for sexual attractiveness.

I like all kinds of bodies for different reasons. There are certain female bodies I find sexually attractive. The elderly body of last night's episode is not one of them, but in all sincerity, that didn't even enter my mind when I looked at her. Young Melisandre took off her clothes and I admired her beauty (though the character has always seriously creeped me out and I don't find her sexually attractive as a result), and then she changed into the crone, and my thoughts were along the lines of, "Wow, they found an elderly woman with very smooth features, much like the younger actress."* They did. The elderly woman shown wasn't hideous by any stretch of the imagination. People on Twitter have had to go find images from other movies and shows to express their horror at the change.

The fact is, elderly Melisandre may not be sexually attractive, but she's also not disgusting. She's just old. Her body has no blemishes. Okay, the sparsity of hair on her head isn't pretty, but it's not horrifying. She's clean. And I would go so far as to say, she's even beautiful--not in a sexual way, not in a hot way, but in terms of being a beautiful example of an elderly body. The slump of her shoulders and her facial expression convey deep sadness and disillusionment--the power of the emotions they show is beautiful.

But then, I tend to love things like this:
Camille Claudel, Clotho, 1893
This sculpture is by Camille Claudel, a female artist who hit her peak around the turn of the 20th century in Paris. I studied her quite a bit some years ago because I intended to write my master's thesis about her. She had a fascinating, tragic life, and this sculpture is one expression of her experiences. It represents Clotho, the fate who spins the thread of human life--not even Atropos, the one who snips the thread and ends lives. Claudel saw the spinner of life as this twisted, withered crone caught in her own threads, which also seem to be her hair.

Claudel eventually became paranoid and reclusive. Ultimately her family institutionalized her for the last 30 years of her life, though whether that was an ethical choice is a matter of serious debate among those interested in her.

I find this statue of hers beautiful and powerful. Obviously, Clotho as Claudel depicted her is not sexually attractive. But she is an expression of pure suffering--a work of art that succeeds vividly in what it attempts.

Melisandre's old body isn't even close to as twisted and withered as Clotho's in Claudel's interpretation, and it shouldn't be the same, because what's being expressed isn't the same. Claudel's Clotho is a personification of Claudel's rage and confusion at life--and possibly gives hints at Claudel's mental illness, though in 1893 she wasn't exhibiting obvious symptoms yet. Elderly Melisandre conveys the character's grief and despair at the way things have turned out, not according to her visions at all. She is a personification of loss of hope.

I actually did find one article, at, that addressed the scene the way I felt it needed to be addressed:

The issue I'm having with the more common reaction, I think more than any other, is that the response most people on Twitter are having to seeing Melisandre's elderly body completely misses this point. They are so focused on "OMG NOT HOT" that they aren't asking themselves what the scene actually means. Why has Melisandre chosen to remove her necklace? Is she giving up? Is she going to die? Does this mean Jon is doomed? Not to mention his allies at Castle Black, who talk specifically about how powerful Melisandre is moments before the necklace scene.

In the e-online article I excerpted above, they do ask what it means, but then they ask what Melisandre has been doing on order to stay young, and how old she really is. They then actually state that they've never been so interested in Melisandre subplots not involving Jon Snow. Are you serious right now? I mean, sure, it's great when female characters are interesting without being props for male characters. If you've read this blog at all you know how into that I am. But how many separate character plots are there in GoT these days? It's getting to be as bad as later seasons of Lost. I would really prefer if Melisandre's role in the show remained tied to the established plotlines she's already attached to, and that pretty much means I want one question answered about her: is she going to raise Jon, or is she going to die/fail somehow? If we're going to focus on female characters, I'm just fine with Sansa, Arya, Cersei, Brienne, Margaery, Osha, and Daenerys getting the deeper storylines. I really don't like Ellaria, so she's off the list, too. I don't care about the larger picture when it comes to her or Melisandre. I have enough characters I do care about--and some of my favorites are male, so my list is actually even longer than the one in the sentence above. That's a lot for the show creators to keep track of without adding more.

Anyway, my point is this. I wish people could stop flipping out about a non-perfect body long enough to look past its supposed imperfections. They might appreciate it for what it does show us in a powerful way, and they might also start asking much more interesting and relevant questions.

How about you, were you shocked/horrified by the elderly Melisandre reveal?
What do you think of art and other mediums that show elderly female (and male, why not) bodies?
Can things typically seen as "ugly" actually be beautiful?

* It has occurred to me that they simply aged Carice van Houten's face, but that doesn't address the parallels with her body. I'm not saying they are the same by any stretch of the imagination, just that they had a similar smoothness.

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