Wednesday, April 30, 2014

On Complexity, Nuance, and Lazy Storytelling

I first read "Game of Thrones" shortly after it came out.  I was entranced by the world, and the characters, and as each subsequent book was written I devoured it and began the long wait for the next.  "Read this!" I gleefully told friends, building a small community of people I could talk to about the books, swapping theories and ideas for what was coming.  I put a dent in a wall with the corner of the book when I read the Red Wedding; I had understood why Ned Stark had to die like a Disney parent, but Robb was supposed to WIN, dammit.

Initially, I wasn't particularly aware of a lot of the issues around which the books are problematic.  My view of racism was not particularly nuanced, so "Have you noticed that most of the nonwhite characters are kinda...savage?" escaped me.  Likewise, there's a remarkable tendency towards sexual violence, and most of the non-heterosexual characters are pretty bald stereotypes.  Most of that went right over my head, I'm sad to say, until friends began pointing out their own concerns.

My journey with the books and social awareness has been a long study in liking something problematic.  I started from the traditional rationalization positions: this is just a book, don't take it so seriously, there's much worse stuff in the real world, and so on.  Eventually, I did finally face the reality that this thing I love is deeply flawed, and it's flawed in ways that mean it may be perpetuating things I work against.  But what to do?

There seem to be three ways speculative fiction can address sexual violence and racial/sexual inequality.  There's the Star Trek approach of handwaving it all away in "and then we were ALL equal!  The end!"  Never mind that even in the magical equality of the Star Trek Universe, there are still some pretty glaring examples of racist and sexist casting and writing.

The second approach is to create the world where terrible things happen, but make your protagonists shine by inexplicably developing an aversion to the parts of your world that don't fit with modern sensibilities.  You give them parents who, in a world populated by slave labor for generations, raised them to see everyone as equal.  You give them an aversion to a 16-year-old bride when the entire culture is based on menarche as the signifier of marital availability.  Usually, the protagonist doesn't have a compelling reason for opting out of his entire culture besides "He just knew it was wrong."  You never put them through the process of examining that culture and evaluating it critically.  And most importantly, you create a world where you use horrible things being done to some people as a way to shorthand "My character is a decent guy because he opts out of this terrible culture I created!"  This is the most common approach, and it's the one I like the least because it's lazy.

The third approach is my personal preference, and it's best exemplified by Babylon 5 and the Song of Ice and Fire *novels*.  You create a world in which racism and sexism and bigotry are real, and then you force your characters to navigate that world as decent human beings with the socialization they would have had living in it.  Babylon 5 is notable for its frank address of racism, though they used nonhuman races for a broader view, so that it's less obviously a critique on modern culture -- but it still is.  Because guess what?  We live in a culture where some people think an accident of demographics makes one less worthy of basic respect and decency, so B5's constant struggle to blend disparate and sometimes incomprehensible cultures is a useful reflection of ways we ourselves often approach it.  Some work, some don't, but you end up really thinking about it either way.

Game of Thrones' racial representation is problematic and there's really no way to handwave around it.  I just have to say "Yes, there's some pretty blatant racism there and if I ever meet GRRM I'mma ask him what the hell he was thinking."  But the books' sexual representation is much more nuanced and interesting.  How does a decent person raised in a culture where there is no such thing as statutory rape navigate an obviously frightened and anxious child bride?  The notable scene between Danaerys and Khal Drogo in the book involves a lot of nonverbal communication and shared pleasure until her comfort level allows her to consent -- and lays the foundation for their loving relationship.  In the show, this was shorthanded to a painful, horrifying rape scene, which turns Dany's embrace of her culture and her marriage into an uncomfortable Stockholm-syndrome feel.

Tyrion's marriage to Sansa is another one of those nuanced situations.  He's been given a beautiful bride, formerly betrothed to a king and conditioned since birth to be someone's lady wife, and commanded to bed her by a father who's displayed a consistent willingness to murder those who balk him.  He tries; they get as far as taking off their clothes.  At the same time, he's looking at this terrified child, whose father his family murdered in front of her, whose younger brothers and sisters are presumed dead, who's been a hostage for months, and he just...can't.  Not because of her age, but because of the pure brutality of the situation and that he can't make anything good for her, just less horrible, and the least horrible option is "I won't touch you until you ask me to."  Sansa displays a lot of character in the book there, first steeling herself to endure it and then mustering the courage to ask him, "And what if I never ask, my lord?"  That chapter really seals her understanding that all her childhood fairy tale dreams are dead, that Tyrion Lannister is the only prince she gets.  This is glossed in the series, as he just sends her to bed like a child and drinks himself to sleep on a sofa.

The last piece in this puzzle of the series failing the books is Jaime's much-talked-about rape of Cersei.  In the book, it's an incredibly complicated scene that really demonstrates the complete dysfunction of their relationship.  So much of their relationship has been grounded in that whole "It's wrong, but I want it, but I feel guilty, but I want it," on both their parts.  In the series, it's...the creepy hate-rape of your sister next to your mutual dead child's corpse.  This makes me as angry as Drogo's rape of Danaerys does.  First, because hey, isn't there enough rape and brutality in the story without adding more?

Second, because it strips characters of a chance to develop.  Jaime's long and conflicted arc of becoming a better human being, of overcoming the single stain of killing Aerys Targaryen, just stops right there.  I can't see how the producers can possibly bring him back from this.  Cersei's loss of agency and depth there just makes her another boring victim for another angry man.  Drogo becomes just another savage possessing a woman who's been given as a gift, not a partner sharing joy with a fellow human being.  Danaerys' subsequent transformation into comfortable khaleesi makes no sense.  Sansa, who'd finally been beginning to develop past whining, becomes just another trial for Tyrion to manage (though the producers did keep the subtle beginnings of what might have been a long and comfortable friendship had circumstances not intervened).

It's a much more interesting story to watch people navigate complex situations than it is to watch them go through the motions of rebelling against the status quo and ultimately be destroyed by it.  To say I'm disappointed that the shows are taking a lazy approach the books avoided is understatement.

On the whole, I've been pleased with the adaptations.  I understand that in a book with hundreds of named characters, sometimes you need to combine a few or cut a few for the sake of a comprehensible story line.  I understand that some storylines that interest me may be trivial to the outcome, just there for worldbuilding, so they might not make the cut.

But destroying one of the things Martin really did *right* by facing questions of sexual agency and power, and reducing those situations to rape and torture porn for shock value, is a grave disservice to the whole series, and to those of us who've loved it for years.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

I Am Not A Shepherd And These Are Not My Sheep

The longer you work in festival or convention safety, the more likely it is you'll run into the perception that the rest of the people, the ones not on your team, are somehow the 'sheep', who need to be protected.  They are, as an aggregate, dumb and thoughtless and unable to make good decisions for themselves.  I've heard them called 'gomers' and any number of other names, all of which imply that we, the safety staff, are the only thing standing between them and their messy, embarrassing demise.

This is, frankly, bullshit.

The first team I worked on held this perception.  Perhaps it was a cynicism, or an egotism, but either way I'm faintly embarrassed now at the way I nodded, smugly, when it was explained to me that "We protect the people.  Mostly from themselves."  It was easy for me, because I only ever saw the people having trouble, to view those others as a collection of bad decisions and personal frailties waiting to happen.  It was easy to view myself as a voice of calm reason and sanity to a childlike population.  I bought into that particular line of patriarchy without even thinking about it.

As I began to consider my own warrior's path, away from my earliest influences, I evaluated my relationship with those around me.  I considered how we would interact, what role I would play in their lives, and they in mine.  It started to chafe at me, this perception of a mindless mass of helpless sheep.  These are people, I thought, my equals and my peers.  Together we form community, and together we create, sustain, and protect that community.

Over the last two years, as I've been training to lead my own safety services team, I've had a lot of time to think about how I wanted to lead and guide that team.  What would we do?  Would we be physical warriors, standing up bodily in the face of harm?  Would we be spiritual warriors, focused on magical defenses and energy work?  How would we protect the people?

The more I thought about my own history, and what I saw in it, the more I realised that I don't protect these people.  Not in the traditional way.  I protect this community, and that's something entirely different.

There is a part of it that is the taking up of arms, of walking into battle in the very real sense.  That is a minuscule part of this commitment, but many groups treat it as the default expectation, a physical defense against a clear threat.  They walk with swords and arrogance, looking for obvious battles, but when you begin by looking for a fight, you almost never find anything else.

No, the real work is elsewhere.  To speak up with integrity in defense of those who do not feel empowered to speak.  To model the actions you want to see in others.  To choose empathy and compassion in the face of anger and confusion.  To walk out among your community, opening doors and creating bridges, wherever you can.  To be a resource for clarity and understanding.  To build trust.

I consider what may happen, and how best to respond.  I marshal resources and maintain, in my head, a list of people who can be depended upon to be calm and patient when it is needed, and fierce and passionate when it is needed, and who have the wisdom to know which is which.

The people of my community will usually, if given good information and the time to think clearly, make reasoned, intelligent decisions.  When there is not time to think clearly, I have to call upon the trust that I have built rather than the authority I claim, to ask them to do something on my word because important things are at stake and I cannot stop to explain.

I worry, but with a plan.  What is the worst that might happen, I ask myself, and then what will I do?

Through it all, I remember that I don't stand between these sheep and the wolves.  I stand among these people.  I am of them, and we are united in the future of this community.  I am often asked why I'm so adamant about the difference between "I am on the safety team" and "I am on the security team."  The difference is that the safety team is always thinking about the health and the safety of the community.  They understand that flexibility and understanding are critical to the dynamic situations affecting the tribe.  The security team simply enforces the rules, by force if necessary.  There are too many instances of 'force' in that for me to be comfortable with it.

A shepherd protects and tends the flock, but he also culls it for his own sustenance.  A sheepdog will ward against danger, but if it becomes hungry enough it will turn into a wolf in the blink of an eye.

A warrior walks among the people, of the people, and stands united with them for the good of all.

That is what I want to do.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Shifting Anxiety into Clarity

Today I turned off a set of Red Cross notifications.

When I got my new phone, I set up my Tornado Alert Warnings to include the Kansas City and Lawrence areas, where I used to live and still have many friends.  A few weeks into tornado season, I am struck by two things.

First, that I used to spend a substantial part of every spring fairly blithely living under the reminder of constant potential doom from the sky.  Sirens once or twice a week wasn't that unusual.  I formed the habit of making a mental note, in every building I regularly occupied, of the lowest and most sheltered ground.  Each year I checked and repacked the small bag containing a change of clothes, some emergency cash, a flashlight and other necessities, without really acknowledging it as a tacit admission that I might face an actual tornado or have the roof blown off my apartment building by a microburst and need to grab the cat and run for shelter.  In all that time, I never saw a tornado though the city I was in was hit more than once.  I became blase about the danger because I was both used to it and personally untouched by it.

Second, that at some point in my life I created this fantastic and beautiful network of people, reaching across the country and around the world, and as a result my world has become very small.  Today alone I am thinking of a shooting, tornado warnings, two children in my community facing illness, people facing the loss of loved ones, friends who are out of work, fearful for their futures, or worried about their own health.

Facebook keeps me in touch and aware, and e-mail, text, and messaging let me maintain a network of love and support.  I have found that network a lifeline in my own daily experience, and I'm grateful for the ease with which an "I love you and you're in my thoughts," can fly hundreds of miles in a second.

But at some point, I have to unplug and hope I will hear what I need to hear as it happens.  I turned off my notifications for Douglas County and Kansas City, not because I do not love the people who still live there, but because I cannot share their ever-present awareness of dangers that will almost certainly never come to pass.  There is nothing I can do, except light my candles and hold fire and faith.

I was an Army Brat.  I spent my childhood forming fast friendships with a changing population of peers, and then walking away with the knowledge that I might never see those best friends again.  I've been running my adulthood that way, but now I keep the friends as an ever-expanding network of deep emotional connections.

But I'm having to refine and reframe the way I manage that network, all the time.  A few years ago, it was evaluating my relationships and choosing to focus on the ones that supported and empowered me.  More recently, I've been looking at a lot of my interactions and choosing to focus on those where I had a chance to change someone's mind or make someone consider a different viewpoint.  Today, I'm choosing to step out of the reactionary mode, trying to give up that constant awareness of where my love and support will be needed next, and shift to simply giving it where it's asked.

To my gods I say, I am not abandoning my love and support for those who are important to me.  I am not changing how I feel, or how deeply I wish for their happiness and success.  I am simply pulling back my constant threat awareness and trading worry and anxiety in for the calm faith in love and community.

I love you all.