Rome: Good stuff and bad stuff

**Spoilers for Season One of Rome ahead**

We’re currently watching Season 1 of Rome, and for the most part I love it.  I love that there’s no stigma attached to the idea that Octavian and Caesar could be lovers, I love the casual acceptance of any orientation.  Atia asks Octavian if he’s “penetrated anyone yet” rather than asking if he’s slept with a woman.  The dialogue used in scenes discussing sex is absolutely brilliant because it’s so matter-of-fact about the assumed bisexuality of the characters.  That’s just how sex is – you have it, you have it frequently, and you have it with people of either gender.  Duh.  It’s refreshing, and it makes me grin every time.

Octavia and Servilia also make me grin.  Their flirtation and romance is perfect.  Both had been shown having satisfying sexual relationships with men previously and are now shown having a satisfying sexual relationship with a woman.  They are bisexual female characters whose bisexuality is not centered on a man – delightful!  I’m a little concerned about Servilia using Octavia to get at Caesar, but it doesn’t take away (at least not yet) from the awesomeness of their relationship.

How often do you see the casual acceptance of bisexuality in popular culture?  Especially regarding women who are allowed to have fulfilling bisexual lives that don’t revolve around appealing to men.  Never!  Well, almost never.  And the acceptance of male bisexuality as common and positive is equally rare.  During the brothel scene when Octavian is to “penetrate someone” at his mother’s behest, Titus Pullo is the one to suggest that he wait and take a look at the young men being offered.  Pullo is a stereotypically masculine man, with many of the traits often associated with violent and primarily heterosexual masculinity, but he is clearly expecting Octavian to be bisexual and shows no distaste at all.  Because Pullo presents such a macho masculine figure, his acceptance and expectation of bisexuality in men challenges viewers to rethink their own expectations.  That scene is one of my favourite so far in the show, primarily because of Pullo’s role.

So, sexual orientation issues – A+!  Rome wins!

But.

Big, huge, had-to-pause-and-scream but.

The representation of Cleopatra made me livid.  Positive representations of alternative orientations are great, and the show has put in huge effort to point out, over and over, the acceptance of bisexuality.  So why did they have to BUTCHER Cleopatra’s character?

Rather then presenting her as a strong, resourceful, autonomous character, they place her firmly under the thumbs of the men around her.  Ptolemy has her as his prisoner when Caesar arrives in Alexandria, we first see her languishing in gold chains somewhere outside of Alexandria.  She’s a weak, drug-addicted prisoner who is rescued at Caesar’s command and brought to him.  All of her autonomy, all of her cunning and brilliance in having herself smuggled into the palace to meet Caesar is taken away from her.  She’s reduced to the role of the passive female, and it is incredibly disappointing and frustrating.

She even says to Caesar that she will be his “puppet queen” at their first meeting – the character takes what little power the writers have given her and hands it over to Caesar.

That episode should have been fantastic.  Cleopatra is an amazing character!  But they butchered her.  They took away every shred of power she had and reduced her to a passive role, with her sexuality being her only tool, rather than one among many as was the actual case.

I meant to write something really coherent and insightful, but I just get angry even days after watching the episode.

This is what Cleopatra meant to me:

When I was younger, I loved her.  (Her and Boudicca and Morgan le Fay.)  She was brilliant.  She spoke nine languages, and was the only ruler in the Ptolemiac dynasty to actually speak Egyptian.  She was ruthless and cunning, and at 18 she was wily enough to know what it would take to gain power and to act on that knowledge.  Having herself smuggled into Caesar’s rooms was the kind of audacious and convention-defying act that I wanted to engage in.  She refused to be trapped in the limited roles she was offered.  She was amazing.  And the fact is, however much the facts have been distorted by history and however much her legend has been inflated in the retelling, she was amazing.  If she did even half of what’s attributed to her, even half, that’s amazing.

And up to that episode, Rome was thrilling me all over the place.  I was blissfully ignorant of the sexist undertones in the writing, which I now can’t ignore, and am probably seeing more frequently than is warranted.  Up to Cleopatra, Rome had charmed me into adoration.  Seeing what they did with such a brilliant character made me incoherent with anger.  Jon wasn’t sure we would make it through the episode!

The thing that I don’t understand is this – why?  Why ruin her like that?  They’ve taken such risks with their representation of sexual orientation, why not take the (from my point of view) seemingly smaller risk and allow Cleopatra to be a strong female character?  Why would it be so threatening to have her be as incredible as she really was?

I understand that Pullo and Verenus are central to the story, and the way it was written gave them a critical role.  But they could have accomplished the same thing without completely and utterly disempowering Cleopatra.

For one thing, the drug habit was ridiculous.  Weak and pathetic, she seems more like a junkie than a woman who had managed to keep herself alive despite intense political conflict.

They could have had Verenus and Pullo on guard outside the palace, intercepting her in the carpet (her idea, her plan).  They could have had Caesar send Verenus and Pullo to find her (as they did) but rather than finding her chained to the bed they could have found her battling the men Ptolemy sent to kill her.  They could have intervened, and then carried her into the palace in the carpet (her idea, her plan).  Actually, that would have required almost no tweaking of the existing plot but would have been a totally different representation of her as a woman.  If all they changed was to take her chains off, give her brilliance rather than petulance, and have her orchestrate her introduction to Caesar, it would have been miles, miles better.

But no.

They had to cut her down to size, reduce her to her sex and nothing more.  When they chained her to the bed, they weren’t joking.

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~ by Gloom Fairy on May 24, 2010.

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