The History Channel’s Vikings Ain’t Half Bad
I was initially prejudiced against this show based on the promotional material and the fact that the History Channel isn’t exactly a bastion of entertainment. Given the other types of “historically accurate” shows I’ve steered away from in the past, I was certain that Vikings would offend me. This was in spite of various panelists at the 2014 WisCon shouting its praises. Let’s just say I’m a bit stubborn about my first impressions sometimes.
The fact is, I never would have watched this show if the following things hadn’t happened. First, one of my family members (who I shared my Amazon Prime login with) triggered its appearance in my “recently watched” queue. Second, the morning I saw it sitting in that queue I happened to have an hour of free time, and thought “what the hell, you only live once!”
I ate my Cheerios and became entranced by the theme song, and now I’m half-way through season 3. So yeah… I like Vikings.
I was wrong to judge this show so harshly knowing so little about it. But I’m OK admitting I’m wrong when it means I have stumbled upon another show that does well on the Her Story Arc Scale of Inclusivity! Vikings earns 15 out of 15 points. Here’s how it breaks down:
Not offensive to women = 1 pts*
For the majority of the television series I have not found myself physically or emotionally uncomfortable by how the women characters were speaking, acting, or portrayed. My enjoyment of the show was largely not marred by any moments of dismay or thoughts of “how did this make it into the show?” I am engaged by, and impressed by, the women characters.
However, there are triggering scenes. The show depicts rape and attempted rape a handful of times. Yes, they are uncomfortable scenes to watch, but regarding how the scenes played into the overall story and handled the representation of women, I argue that the show did quite well. For example, in both attempted rape scenes the men are subsequently punished by a woman, and in both cases that woman’s actions are accepted as appropriate by those that know of what occurred.
In the first rape scene (which happens in episode 2 of season 1), a slave girl is raped by a prominent character in the show, out of sight or hearing of anyone else. We see the malice on his face, the scene cuts to somewhere else, and then we see the upset face of the girl. The aggressor is a character we are not supposed to like, and the scene does not linger unnecessarily.
In the second rape scene you do not actually see the woman being raped, but you know what is happening and you can hear her screams. This is an incredibly unsettling and disturbing scene, and the character whose perspective we witness it through feels appropriately unsettled and disturbed. The scene was important to the narrative because it serves as a reminder to the audience, and the character who is unsettled by it, that we should not like the Vikings. The character who we see reacting to this rape is questioning his own complicity in the evil things the Vikings do by being a willing bystander, and in some ways also forces us as viewers to question our own complicity in watching this show. As we get deeper into the series it is very easy to sympathize with the Viking characters (who doesn’t like Floki?), but they did horrible, horrible things and as viewers we should not forget that and should not romanticize their deeds.
Features a woman as the main protagonist and/or supporting character = 2 pts
In the very first episode, we meet Lagertha fishing with her daughter, Gyda, and instructing her on proper form. This scene impressed me. Why is it so revolutionary to show a woman and her daughter fishing together? It shouldn’t be, but it is.
Season one also introduces us to Siggy, the wife of Earl Haraldson, and her young daughter Thyri. At first Siggy feels a bit vacant as a character, but as time goes on we discover her mettle. Her strengths are in her femininity, much like Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones.
More main women characters are introduced as the series continues, but to elaborate would include spoilers.
Another thing the show does very well is the inclusion of a high number of women extras. We see women fighting and dying alongside men as both trained warriors and as simple farmers trying to defend their homes. One episode introduces us to an all woman guard unit assigned to protect an important princess. This is historically accurate and currently awesome.
In the case of Lagertha’s character, she is very popular and well known as a shield maiden. We discover too that Lagertha saved her husband Ragnar’s life in battle years earlier. What’s more, Lagertha’s character has a basis in history, as does her husband Ragnar. According to Wikipedia:
Lagertha was, according to legend, a Viking shieldmaiden from what is now Norway, and the onetime wife of the famous Viking Ragnar Lothbrok. Her tale, as recorded by the chronicler Saxo in the 12th century, may be a reflection of tales about Thorgerd (Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr), a Norse deity.
Passes the Bechdel test = 3 pts
The scene I mentioned before depicting Lagertha fishing with her daughter Gyda and instructing her on proper form passes the Bechdel test. While the overall cast of Vikings is still male heavy, the women do talk to one another in addition to the conversations they have with their own daughters. Their storylines are woven throughout each season and play an important role in how events play out.
Artistic and/or Entertaining = 4 pts + Above and Beyond General Media = 5 pts
I don’t normally lump these two categories together, but in this case the reasons I enjoy the show so much are the same reasons why it passes the “Above and Beyond General Media” category.
Vikings is my guilty pleasure. Sure, there are some plot decisions that don’t make the most sense. Sure, the main actor playing Ragnar is completely unbelievable as a clever and savvy political and war figure. Sure, I don’t really understand where they are going with the priest character. But you know what? I don’t care! Most of this feeling stems from how much I love the women characters in the show. I’m fascinated watching them navigate their world, and how they use their various strengths to their advantage.
One of the things I really, really like is how well the women get along with one another. In Season 2 a very common plot device is inflicted upon Lagertha, but the outcome is far from typical. Moreover, Lagertha deals with her feelings with the best sportsmanship ever.
I apologize, but I think I need to give some specific examples to explain my love for this show. I promise for those who read on that the spoilers won’t ruin the overarching storylines.
***Warning – Spoilers Ahead***
Exhibit 1: When Lagertha participates in a raid she stops one of her fellow raiders from raping a village woman. The man is pissed off about it, and tries to rape Lagertha next. Lagertha kills him. The other men in the raiding party accept this outcome.
Exhibit 2: Siggy’s daughter Thyri is married to a very distasteful man. We see them after they had intercourse, and he belches and asks for food. She looks disgusted, and tells him he smells like fish. The scene is so honest about what marriage would be like in this situation that I have to give it major props.
Exhibit 3: Lagertha and Ragnar invite the Priest to have a threesome. Seriously. The Priest says no, but that totally happened.
Exhibit 4: Lagertha and Ragnar’s daughter, Gyda, is loved and cared for by her father and brother in a way I did not anticipate.
*** End of Spoilers***
I hope I’ve convinced you to give this show a watch! Look forward to a post in a future post dedicated to Lagertha’s history and my attempt to cosplay as her. Xena will always be my first and favorite Warrior Woman, but Lagertha is officially my #2 now. Have you watched Vikings? Please share your experiences in the comments!
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*This is a category that could get very complicated, very quickly, if we tried to list everything that could be offensive to women. Instead, we use this category as a way of showing our own personal reaction to whatever we are reviewing. All contributors to this site are women and can speak from a woman’s perspective. However, no woman can speak for all women so we do our best to explain our choice one way or the other. We encourage all readers to share their opinions in the comments of every post if they want to express agreement or disagreement with our rankings.