‘The League,’ Gender Trouble, And The Real Legend of Shivakamini Somakandarkram

I was rewatching The League in preparation for the new season, which started last night, and because my amazing-on-paper fantasy team has been underperforming and I needed a pick-me-up, and I started thinking again about the show’s gender politics. The League is probably the show I watch regularly and deeply enjoy with the highest rate of characters saying terrible things about or doing bad things to the women in their lives (Game of Thrones is a serious competitor). But while I think Game of Thrones is, and will continue to be, long-term, an exploration of the cancerous impact of sanctioned violent misogyny on society, The League is rather different: it’s a story about basically likable men who say bad things about women or do bad things to women largely out of fear or venality. Sexism less looms big than it makes them look small.

Perhaps the best example of this is Shivakamini Somakandarkram, the high school valedictorian in the same graduating class as the male members of the League. The League absolutely objectifies Shiva: an awkward picture of her from high school adorns the League’s championship trophy. Her name is invoked as if she’s some kind of exotic goddess, which is particularly gross and othering given her South Asian heritage. In last night’s episode, Jenny MacArthur, the League’s sole female member, even fantasized about a sexual encounter with Shiva while her husband was away on a pre-season visit to the Dallas Cowboys training camp. In almost any other show, this kind of behavior would be gross beyond belief.

But the League’s doing something careful with Shiva’s character, namely revealing that the League’s memories of her and the idol they’ve built her up to be have nothing to do with her actual person. Far from being a hopeless, awkward nerd, Shiva’s grown up to be a beautiful, accomplished urologist — in fact, she’s probably matured more and better than any of her high school classmates, who for some reason cling to the high school vision of her as if it remains a reality. We learn over the course of the show that even though the League treats Shiva like she was a weird object of study in high school, she at least played an important role in the life of Kevin MacArthur, Jenny’s husband: he lost his virginity to her. Their memories of Shiva aren’t true to who she is now, or what she was to them then.

And the show has progressively reinforced the gap between who the members of the League make Shiva out to be and who the audience at home knows her to be. The first season brought the reveal that she had grown up gorgeous and smart, and that Andre, a member of the League, was dating her. The second brought the news about her prior relationship with Kevin. In the third season, her appearance brought about Ruxin’s miraculous recovery after a stroke, a scene that reveled how inappropriate and irritating the League’s fetishization of her is when Ruxin planted a series of kisses on her after he recovered his inability to walk. And in an upcoming episode this season, Shiva tells Ruxin directly how irritating she finds her presence on the League’s trophy and directly asks him to remove it. Things don’t go as planned, of course, Ruxin being Ruxin, but it’s nice to see Shiva call the League’s behavior out for what it is. The League has made the case that Shiva would be a pretty awesome person to have around, in the flesh and on the regular if only the members of the League could be mature enough to know her as a person, rather than as a fading photograph and a silly myth.