DEAR PENNY DREADFUL, WE ARE ON THE VERGE OF BREAKING UP.
AMBER LOVE 31-MAY-2016 [Edit added] When Penny Dreadful launched on Showtime, it was quickly one of my favorite shows. It made period genre fiction interesting, something that doesn’t always grab me. The basic premise is that all the monsters of Victorian lore are real and their lives are interwoven. It’s mainly set in London, but by season 3, the show takes some turns that break up the original cast and place them around the world while introducing some new people to the London hub. My love, alas, is quickly fading. Eva Green’s Vanessa Ives is the only thing keeping me tuned in.
My fatigue of terrible witch characters hit me ages ago. Supernatural always did a lousy job with witches being hunted by their testosterone fueled leading men. In fact, not since Harry Potter (ended 2011 but returning) and Practical Magic (1998) have there been a remotely decent portrayal of witchcraft (Buffy ended 2003); for my money, Practical Magic was the best version. Hollywood loves the old “black Mass” Satan-worshiping folklore of evil women who kill babies for potions which can sometimes be entertaining like Hocus Pocus (1993). Recently, news circulated that The Craft which was hokey but wonderfully entertaining would be getting some kind of sequel.
Penny Dreadful first came out of the gate strong with leading character Vanessa Ives, a devout Christian who also happens to be a witch (by PD definitions). She was a known as a medium and tarot card reader in season 1. By season 2, they showed more of Vanessa’s troubled past which is something the creators of the show have been good about pacing out over time. We saw in that season that she has a history as a midwife and abortion provider. Still, Vanessa, feels tremendously responsible for her best friend’s death and feels that she was too weak to turn against the dark lord.
By season 2 there were plenty of other witches on the screen. All of them evil. All of them out to get Vanessa and either assimilate her or destroy her. Their mission, it seemed, was to deliver her to their master.
Witches having a master is the first way that writers remove the agency of supernatural women with any kind of power. The master, Satan in this case, is always male. He’s always much more powerful than any of them. When the witches are using their powers they also transform to naked, bald, black-eyed creatures but the show makes sure you know those are hot naked boobies, asses and vag.
Also, the eldest of the witches and basically the female captain of Satan’s witchy army, is Madame Kali. She’s an older woman (played by Helen McCrory, the only actress over 40) so of course they make her personal quest to be about staying youthful. When she’s not doing her master’s bidding, she’s casting harmful evil spells and bathing in blood to stay young and hot… and let’s face it the goal here is to be fuckable.
(Read Sarai Walker’s Dietland and we can talk more about the fuckability quotient.)
It’s typical of fiction to take “monsters” and make them hot because they’re women. There’s a massive debate about why She-Hulk is hot, but the Hulk is a bulky monster that’s not fuckable. Vampires have certainly been the most frequent to change from monsters to sexpots. It’s also the only monster I can think of where all genders are equally presented as fuckable. Werewolves are getting there, but that’s still more of a reliance of the primitive animal instincts of men. I think the last female werewolf I saw was on Grimm. I gave up on True Blood after season 2 so I don’t know if they had any female wolves. Even zombies are becoming cute, goth, and fuckable like iZombie’s Liv Moore.
Back to the witches — by season 2, Vanessa’s character was on a great path of development. She was shown as sometimes insane, sometimes owning her sexuality, interested in helping other people and the greater cause, and sometimes sinking deep into despair over her guilt about her dead best friend.
By season 3, the other witches, mostly vanquished, are still in existence and wielding their powers but still only when naked. Seriously.
DORIAN GREY, ANGELIQUE, & LILY:
Dorian Grey, one of fiction’s sexiest characters, owns his deviance. The viewers are introduced to him and his love of orgies right away. Then they did a great thing and introduced Angelique, a transwoman that he treated as his equal. He spoiled her. He showed her off. He held a party in her honor because he loved her. And they fridged her (*comic book terminology for killing off female characters to alter the course of a male character).
Dorian’s sexcapades weren’t enough. The writers had to amp it up and make him a serial killer too in keeping with their “everyone is secretly a monster” plot. He’s the only male character that has regularly showed any skin and it’s been modest shots. Angelique however, a transWOMAN character, had to show her penis on screen.
Now, we’re supposed to believe that he’s only killing people “who deserve it” and he does so with his new partner in life/death, Lily, the Bride of Frankenstein monster.
Since I brought up Lily, let’s go over how fucked up her entire character is. One of the many prostitutes they felt the need to show, Lily died in the arms of her favorite john Ethan Chandler (later we see he’s the werewolf of the extraordinary monster cast). Ethan loved her as a human, as a whore. Then Victor Frankenstein takes her body and gives it life through galvanizing her like he did the original monster of his (called John Clare). He names her Lily after the flower of resurrection. He feels her naked body whenever he wants. He convinces her that they’re meant to be connected forever and that they’re cousins who fuck. Because where the original creation, John, gets to look hideous and frightening, Lily doesn’t. Lily has to be hot, fuckable, and eager for sex.
Maybe the writers were trying to insinuate that since she had sex for living before, that the reanimated woman would have a lot of sex and not understand why. I had a lot of hope for Lily because she gets this one amazing scene where she stands up to Victor and makes him bow to her. But then, she ends up with Dorian who basically governs everything she does anyway. It’s frustrating. She had real potential.
The show has had several female characters with ample screen time: Vanessa, Lily, Angelique (for a season; dead), Kali (for a season; dead), Justine (season 3) and Hecate. Three of those have been prostitutes. All three of those have been “rescued” from their lives of taking pay for sex. Two of those have become vengeful serial killers out to vanquish men who preyed upon them or women like them. Snore. For a show that found its footing because of their own take on known characters, they really didn’t need to go this route. Queue Jack the Ripper in the wings. It’s bound to happen.
The only person of color they had through two seasons was Sembene and killed him off. In season 3, we are graced with the beautiful Dr. Jekyll who has one Indian parent and one British parent.
And then we get to laugh and laugh and laugh as they show us Ethan Chandler (played by Josh Hartnett), the main male lead, off in the wild west of America claiming to be Apache (biracial also with an Apache father). Like the extremely criticized, Harry Potter creator, J.K. Rowling, Penny Dreadful has taken a Navajo belief called skin-walkers and changed it to suit their monster-telling, magical story. Penny Dreadful establishes two tribes by name, Comanche and Apache. They make Ethan half Apache and a man who becomes a werewolf from a family of werewolves. [Edit: I was contacted on Facebook and told that Ethan’s “father” here is not his biological father, but rather the man he sees as his father.]
Yet, I’ve seen no uproar about this on Twitter or Facebook or pop culture media. I wouldn’t have known about the Potter backlash had I not been following notable Native American activists like Debbie Reese, Dr. Adrienne Keene, and Chief Elk.
The Washington Post claims that their poll of mostly non-tribal Native Americans proves that the NFL’s team name isn’t offensive. That exploded all over the media. But it exploded in celebration, not condemnation, by white people clinging to the damn name. The activists who aren’t interviewed by the Post or the TV networks, are there screaming into the void of Twitter, if only people will listen.
I guess the difference is that Penny Dreadful is not the money-maker like Harry Potter or the NFL so their Apache whitewashing hasn’t caught on.
Still Image Quotes – http://pennydreadfulquotes.blogspot.com/
Josh Harnett still – http://www.joshhartnett.com/
Cast photo – Google image search