:: I’m so tired of television shows and movies that can’t imagine women outside of basic tropes. That can’t imagine female friendships. That can’t imagine female experiences—including female pain—outside of a few certain experiences. There is so much life that women experience but we rarely see it on screen because women aren’t in writer’s rooms or behind the camera.
Note: This essay is about the SyFy series (now on HBO) The Magicians, which I haven’t watched past Season 1, Episode 4. Please don’t try to convince me to watch further. It won’t work.
Welcome to the world of The Magicians. Where are the women are stupid, evil, or untrustworthy, and all the men save the day.
The Magicians is about Quentin, a bumbling ding dong who believes magic is real. He is also very depressed. I am not making fun of mental illness or depression (I would never, obviously); I believe he is depressed. Being depressed sucks. And because he is depressed, it is a good thing that he has a really steadfast friend who stands by him the whole time. Her name is Julia. Julia believes in Quentin and his future.
Julia takes Quentin to his interview for a Ph.D. in philosophy at Yale. Let me say that again: Quentin has an alumni interview for a Ph.D. in philosophy at a Yale. That is not a small thing. This man has a brain, and a future—perhaps not a big financial future given the state of higher ed, but when it comes to the golden ring of doctoral programs, if he has a shot at Yale, which everyone, including his supportive best friend Julia seems to think he does, he is doing all right.
Except he’s sad. Because … it’s unclear. Something about magic. And some books. And magic.
And then, at this Yale interview, the alumni interviewer is dead! How awful! And then (for reasons), Julia and Quentin are swept to a different exclusive educational institution called Brakebills (yes, that’s its name) to interview for an education in, you guessed it!, magic.
Friends, this essay is not about paranormal or fantasy shows being bad. I love these shows, both old and new: the Umbrella Academy, Buffy, and so many more. This essay is about how The Magicians treats its female characters, and how this treatment of female characters in these shows is so, so old and boring. See, for example, Penny Dreadful. I actually watched that whole show, and I can’t get that time back. Or, just, simply, Daenerys. So much waste.
I keep reaching for the remote to turn The Magicians back on. It could have been so good. Plus, I really want a show to binge while I’m sick. I’ve been sick since December, and really need to take my mind off of it sometimes. You can learn more on my instagram starting with this post, and go forward from there.
But I can’t turn the show back on, despite all the recommendations from friends. Its portrayal of female characters is complete garbage. And yet the bumbling white dude keeps saving the day. It’s a tired trope (see Ron Weasley) and I want nothing more to do with it.
Let me explain. Here’s the short version.
Quentin gets accepted into Brakebills despite having to be forced-tricked-yelled at into doing something magical during his audition. Yet Julia doesn’t get a chance to show her stuff and is rejected.
It turns out, ever since they were kids, Julia and Quentin used to believe in magic together—but Julia grew out of it. Like normal people do. Like you or I would do, here, in this world we live in, where we have to earn money and pay rent and feed our children. Where we have to be practical—especially if we are women. We don’t get to mope around and find ourselves; we’re too busy keeping everyone’s shit together. Just like Julia kept Quentin’s shit together when she took him to his Yale interview.
Julia is kicked out of Brakebills, and the magicians there tried to wipe her memory, but they fail, because Julia is tough as nails. But what happens when you’re kicked out of a place where you see that magic is real, and you know that you can do magic? You find somewhere else to learn. That’s what Julia does, because she’s determined. But it turns out those magicians, the magicians that work outside of Brakebills, are horrible people.
More on that in a minute.
Back at Brakebills, Quentin’s magic doesn’t manifest, but that’s all right because reasons (seriously, they don’t say why), so I presume it is because he’s a white man. (They picked this guy over Julia? Really?) Quentin’s roommate, Penny, a South Indian dude, is (a) hot as hell (b) not mopey (b) has wildly strong magic. At least the show has a person of color in a lead role. (Not many! Just the one!)
Penny also hooks up with this upper-class girl named Kady. She seems like she’s cool. She sleeps with Penny almost immediately, because who wouldn’t (so hot), and it’s wild room-shaking sex (yum). I guess some viewers might think her sexual agency is slutty, though. I’m pretty sure my reaction to her (get it, girl) is not the reaction you’re supposed to have.
But it turns out she’s a turncoat, betraying Brakebills to outside bad witches. More on that later.
Let’s start keeping count: We have Julia who betrayed Quentin by not believing in magic and then got punished for it by getting kicked out of Brakebills. We have Kady (the supposed slut, but like I said, I thought she was awesome) and who is a turncoat.
Carrying on, there’s Alice. Poor Alice. Her parents suck, no one likes her because they think she’s a snob and a nerd, and her brother mysteriously died at Brakebills. Of course Quentin befriends her. (Actually, I have no idea why they become friends. He’s a slob with dirty hair and bad grades. If I were Alice, I would have said no way am I being friends with this dead weight.) Anyways, turns out, Alice wants to bring her brother back from the magical beyond, so she concocts a super dangerous spell that’s going to end the world or something.
Wow, Alice, for a really smart nerd you have super bad judgment! But don’t worry, friends, bumbler Quentin saves the day! (How. how.)
Alice is sad and angry that she couldn’t save her brother and that Quentin stopped her from doing so, and she leaves Brakebills. (She probably comes back, but I didn’t watch that far.)
Keeping count: We have Doubting-Julia. Shady-Kady. And now Bad-Judgment-Alice. Is there a woman in this show is doesn’t suck? Just wait! You haven’t met Marina.
Marina is a death-eater. Actually she’s a hedge witch, which is Magicians-speak for people who didn’t go to Brakebills or, in Marina’s case, was expelled (for reasons) and who now practice magic on the sly.
The hedge witches find Julia by—get this!—having a dude sexually assault her in a bathroom so she’s forced to defend herself with magic! This show is the best!
So Julia now gets to learn magic with the hedge witches. Marina is their leader. She’s really powerful. She is also the worst. Cruel, unpredictable, murderous, etc. The Hollywood term for her type of character is “psychopath.”
I don’t like to misuse psychiatric terms in my writing. The Oxford American dictionary definition of psychopath is “a person suffering from chronic mental disorder with abnormal or violent social behavior.” The informal definition included is “an unstable or aggressive person.” I would rather use the term Death-Eater, because it seems more accurate.
Let’s count again. We now have four women who are major characters:
Like literally who is a woman supposed to relate to on this show? Grubby Quentin? He’s awful.
But the problem is not just that there isn’t a woman to relate to, it’s that, through the lens of the show, every woman is supposed to be terrible. Every woman is supposed to be unlikeable (whether I rebel and like her or not). Well, Marina seems objectively terrible, but she is a caricature—that’s the best they can do. Bellatrix Lestrange would eat her for an appetizer.
So, turns out, Marina has something on Kady (Penny’s friend), enough to blackmail her. I don’t know what though because I haven’t watched that far. So Kady keeps sneaking out of Brakebills and giving stuff to Marina, like books of magic, every though clearly Kady hates Marina.
So: as I was watching, I quickly noticed how all the women hate each other. There are no strong female friendships. I love that in a show.
Not really. I hate that in a show.
There is one strong friendship circle: Quentin, Eliot, a Brakebills student who is older and stereotypically gay, and Eliot’s friend Margo. Margo is snarky and great. Except—she has no other friends that I can see. She tries to make friends with Alice, but Alice says stuff like, “I don’t trust you.” (A lot.) When Alice leaves Brakebills, Alice says to Margo, “Now you have less competition.” Alice is awful to Margo. Margo’s reply is priceless: “But I like competition.” Margo is actually pretty great even though her role is tiny.
The point is, there are no female friendships. There’s no point in even discussing the Bechdel Test.
At one point (for reasons), in Episode Four, Quentin and Eliot discover Julia with the hedge witches. This is where things get really, really nasty.
The following dialogue is a paraphrase of the standoff between Quentin and Julia.
Quentin: Julia, why are you with those loser-witches.
Julia: They wouldn’t let me into Brakebills, but I can do magic. This is the only way I can learn.
Quentin: But they’re nasty hedge witches, not amazing classy witches like me.
Julia: Well, I wanted to go to Brakebills. Why didn’t you stand up for me at Brakebills when you know I can do magic?
Quentin: You’re just jealous that I have something you don’t have.
Julia: I just want to do magic.
Quentin: You’ve always thought I was pathetic. You’ve always treated me like crap. Now I have something you don’t, you terrible piece of dog poo.
Julia: I’m desperate and I need your help. I’ve been your friend since we were kids and never judged you. I did so many things for you even when other people thought you were a total weirdo. I’m asking for your help now.
Quentin: But look, turns out I’m not a weirdo! I get to be a magician and you don’t! Sucks to be you!
Julia: I never thought you were a weirdo. You are a terrible friend.
Quentin: Who cares! I’m a magician!
So, that’s not precisely how it went, but that’s how it felt as a viewer.
The show made this standoff into some breakthrough moment for Quentin, but actually he was a total ass to (a) his supposed best friend who was (b) terribly desperate.
In the four episodes of this show that I watched, never did Julia mock him. On the contrary, Julia took care of him. Julia took him from the mental hospital into her home. (Oh right, he was in a mental hospital at the beginning.) Julia did not judge him. She tried to help him, given the parameters of our world, which were totally fine parameters for her to believe in. And he repays her by trashing her for believing in those parameters.
Eff off, Quentin. You are a terrible person and a terrible friend.
Back to Death-Eater-Marina. She tricks Julia into helping her do a powerful spell that puts Quentin into a trance, a spell that might kill him, so that Brakebills would be forced to lower its wards (invisible walls to keep people out). Once the wards are down. Marina and Julia can break into Brakebills and steal stuff. But Julia didn’t know what the spell would do, and as soon as she realizes that Quentin is in danger, she puts her own life at risk to save Quentin’s despite all of the horrible things he said to her.
I would have let the asshat die for leaving me with Death-Eater-Marina. Julia is a better person than I am.
Later, Marina finds out that Julia tried to help Quentin. (She always finds out, Magic!) So, Marina tortures Julia a little bit, and expels her from the hedge witches. Now Julia is all alone because she helped the guy who turned his back on her. Julia cannot catch a break.
That’s where I turned off the show. And I haven’t been able to turn it back on.
I did read a little bit about the rest of Season 1, and I learned that, although the show diverged from the books (by the way, the show is based on books), the showrunners kept some really crucial (j/k) stuff, like the fact that Julia is raped in the final episode of season 1, which is how she starts her redemption arc. There’s nothing like rape to make you understand how everything you’ve done is wrong and make you a better person. I thought it couldn’t get worse. I was wrong.
I’m so tired of television shows and movies that can’t imagine women outside of basic tropes. That can’t imagine female friendships. That can’t imagine female experiences—including female pain—outside of a few certain experiences. There is so much life that women experience but we rarely see it on screen because women aren’t in writer’s rooms or behind the camera.
I didn’t write this essay to trash the show. I wrote this essay because I want to see my experiences on screen. I’m tired, so tired, of their absence.
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