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.

No comments:

Post a Comment