Monday, December 1, 2014

Wait. What Just Happened?

Here’s another in my very popular line of posts under the category of “Stuff Everybody Else Figured Out In Their Formative Years But About Which I’m Only Now In My Dotage Deciding What The Hell I Think."

So lately I’ve been immersed in George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones saga. I began, at the behest of friends, with the TV series, and found it engaging enough that I decided to sample the books (in audio format) and see if they’re worth the trouble. (They certainly are.) We could easily head off on a tangent here about books vs movies / TV. But there’s something else on my mind at present.

I’m not sure how the women in my life would categorize me (to say nothing of strangers I might meet), but I have long thought of myself as a feminist. Partly this is because I rankle (“in my deepest integrity,” Christopher Hitchens would say) at the injustice of male privilege and outright chauvinism that is everywhere in our culture—an imbalance that keeps more than half the population of our small planet at a permanent and institutionalized disadvantage; and partly it’s because my experiences in life have convinced me that, however much there is a role for men and women to play, the female is simply the superior sex. They create life; they nurture others; they bring humanity to every action and decision; they are verbal and collaborative. Not all women are all these things, of course; and not all men stand in opposition to these things. But I’m just convinced that a world of all men would be a bleak and violent place (and often is), and a world of all women would be delightful. So there.

I raise the issue of feminism because I’m grappling with some fundamental questions about justice and the writing of fiction.

Several years back, I was very taken with Steig Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. (For the 12 people in this country who have not read the stories, they involve an antisocial young woman who must overcome a vast institutional injustice, and she does so with, shall we say, a virtuoso talent for vengeance.) I saw the films and then read the books and then saw the films again and then listened to the audiobooks and, finally, saw the films once or twice more. It’s not that I think the stories constitute a morality tale, but I reacted strongly to the character of Lisbeth Salander. And I felt the books had an essentially feminist bent: a strong, brilliant if traumatized woman manages to overcome every kind of obstacle to find self-actualization. She must rely on her friends—especially a male journalist who takes her under his wing—but her triumph is her own, and as her hurdles are high her triumph is spectacular.

My wife’s take—and her feminist credibility obviously trumps mine—was very different (though it bears noting that her take on artistic matters is very often different from mine; in movies and books and music we like quite different things.) She contends that it’s not feminism for a woman to suffer sexual abuse and oppression as a storytelling element; no feminist would choose this story arc for fiction, and in any case it’s not a story she has any interest in reading, no matter how it turns out.

I confess I rankled at this reaction, not least because I was so taken by the character of Lisbeth Salander. Her triumph and the brilliance and toughness with which she achieved it were thrilling to me. She did not strike me as Everywoman (thank goodness her story is not Everywoman’s story), but as a creation of fiction she seems a brilliant stroke. The idea that her character was perpetuating an essentially subversive story was not something I felt ready to accept. I’m not sure I accept it even now. But I’ve started to wonder.

Fast forward a few years and here I am watching / reading The Game of Thrones. The other night I found myself in a discussion about the series (in which I am currently deeply engrossed) with Susan and a psychologist friend of hers, and I was a little surprised (and felt a little dim) to find these same themes bubbling to the surface again. The feminist in me—such as it is—thrills and exults at the brilliant and fierce and accomplished and resourceful (and, yes, sometimes devious) women in this saga: Daenerys Targaryen; Cersei Lannister; Catelyn Stark; Arya Stark; Margaery Tyrell; Olenna Tyrell; Melisandre, The Red Queen; Brienne of Tarth. But more of the characters in the story are men; and almost without exception the female characters are under the thumb of dominant men. In several cases circumstances transpire such that the woman in question rules absolutely, but much more often at least part of the character’s strength involves her asserting her will against the restrictive male who stands in her way.

George R. R. Martin’s world of Westeros is loosely based on the England of Medieval times. It is a world of kingdoms, of knights and lords and ladies and squires and handmaidens and swordplay and jousting. It’s a male-dominated world, much, I suppose, as the England of Medieval times was male-dominated (so far as determining who was allowed to exercise power). And perhaps some of my confusion stems from my having jumped into the series without first questioning many of the premises that stand at the foundation of the story. Maybe as a man I don’t rankle automatically at the gender imbalance as a woman might—or, I fear, as perhaps I should (though in my defense I often rankle at this imbalance when I read history).

Susan’s friend said that she made it through the first episode of the first season of Game of Thrones where Daenerys is sold for a bride by her brother like a piece of chattel to a barbarian ruler and is raped on her wedding night. She refused to watch another minute of a series that used this as a storytelling device, and even sent the man who suggested the series to her (on a date) packing, permanently.


I readily confess that I found the scenes of Daenerys’s wedding and wedding night most discomfiting and distressing. I get not the slightest thrill or feeling of satisfaction to see a woman dominated—quite the contrary (though attempted domination that is thwarted is usually a satisfying turn of events, regardless of the sexes involved). These scenes seem much more calculated, to my eyes, to be off-putting than titillating (though other elements of the same storyline DID seem so intended), but I also confess that it never struck me to consider whether such a storyline was perhaps more than distasteful, that perhaps such things should not be allowed, or tolerated, in an entertainment. Is this just the blindness of male privilege? (If the gender roles were reversed they would CERTAINLY get the world’s attention.)

A couple counter-arguments come to mind (though even to me they sound a mite defensive). First, we cannot have victory without a test. There is no triumph without our having had to overcome. (The analogy I raised when my wife and I discussed Dragon Tattoo was that Harry Potter’s story would not really work if he did not have powerful interests bent on oppressing or killing him.) This is an essential part of what makes Lisbeth Salander’s story so thrilling: she is up against an army of powerful men bent on keeping her down and she bests them all. This does not of course begin to dictate that the trial should be sexual oppression, and the fact that this kind of trial may make a compelling palette for a character study is no argument at all.  And I sympathize absolutely with the charge that women have been saddled with sexual oppression and violence since before we were even human. Susan’s friend is a counselor who deals with sexual abuse on a daily basis. “This isn’t an engaging story, this is an unacceptable aspect of everyday life,” she says.

This kind of leads to my second (very feeble) objection. This imbalanced dynamic—men ruling, women supporting and exerting influence obliquely—is no more than reality for just about all of human history. Does that fact make it acceptable to steep an epic fictional story in the same injustice? Or, knowing now that this imbalance is deeply and fundamentally wrong—as I truly believe it is—does that knowledge invalidate this milieu for our fictional entertainment?

Anyway, I’ve been slow to register the objection, and not much faster processing my dissonance. And the Game of Thrones saga is not clarifying things for me. I love the female characters in GOT (and many of the male ones). I love them for their strength and resourcefulness, for their essential decency and wisdom, for their responses to the crises that define the story; I love them for all the reasons I love women in real life. And I love them, in part, because they are usually so much better people than the men around whom they must maneuver. I just can't come to grips with how much of what I love in the story rests on the unsavory--or worse.

I’ve heard it claimed (as a kind of cliche) that women were the real rulers in history, that a woman’s skill was in getting a man to change his course without realizing that it wasn’t his idea in the first place. That’s a pretty offensive idea when we look at millennia of oppression and violence under which women have suffered, and it sounds an awful lot like some chauvinist pig trying to salve his dimly-throbbing conscience. But perhaps there's the tiniest kernel of truth in the claim. The king may have had the final say, and that fact may be injustice itself; but it’s also certainly true that throughout history women have influenced their partners. Influenced them and more, in some cases. The cliche might be both wrong and true.

And so I’m back where I started. My purpose here is certainly not to recant or otherwise scuttle my feminism, but only to grapple with whether I think it’s OK to tell a story that has an element of sexism at its core. And I honestly don’t know. I can see that I might find these elements offensive and unacceptable if I were not already hoodwinked by the grand sweep and narrative skill of the story. But that’s not a very strong endorsement. George R. R. Martin’s skill stands quite apart from these questions, as millions of readers and watchers will attest; but millions of people also love the work of, say, Joss Whedon, and he oppresses and celebrates and punishes his sexes rather more equally.

I've come to believe very strongly in the last 20 years that the more women we have in positions of power and authority, the better will be the society that results. And this leads me to wonder whether even the feminist fiction I love isn't perhaps a male version of feminism.


CyberKitten said...

I could have written that myself - almost word for word....

William Stachour said...

Befuddled male feminists unite! ;-)

dbackdad said...

I'm of the belief that just about anything is fair game for a narrative element as long it is essential. "Essential" could mean that it is important to illustrate the nature of certain characters or it could drive the story. It's not helpful to any cause, including feminism, to put blinders on and pretend ugly things don't happen and that there are not ugly, screwed-up people. I think that the raw, unfiltered way things are portrayed on GOT is more honest than the exploitive and institutionally sexist way women are portrayed in commercials and pop culture.

My son (age 13) and I have watched all GOT episodes and we will discuss anything he has apprehension or questions about. He's read 3 of the books already (I have not) and enjoys them immensely. Intelligent people can read and watch things and understand real from fantasy. They understand the difference between glorification and art.

Well done write-up, sir, as usual.

William Stachour said...

And I as always appreciate the thoughtful comment. I'd LOVE to watch a series like this with my kid and see how s/he grapples with the huge and fundamental issues put forth. Guys like Littlefinger and Varys are especially interesting when one thinks about the exercise of power. So many lessons in there.

dbackdad said...

Exactly. Littlefinger may see outlandish and conniving, but I fear the backroom politics of real life makes him seem all too real.

CyberKitten said...

Loved every minute of the series. Haven't read any of the books - yet. Very adult themes are dealt with in a very adult way. The characters - love them or hate them - are multi-layered and, for want of a better word, real. You can certainly imagine them in any other world doing pretty much the same thing.

Oh, and Varys is great! Not my favourite (so much choice!) but great nevertheless.

...and I was wondering why we like the women so much in this series. Is it because they act like men? [muses]

Susan Rabideau said...

Varys and Littlefinger are two of my favorites; they're just so *interesting* to watch!

I think the women roles are so well-written. These are all strong characters who are changing the course of events. Sometimes they operate through different channels than the men, but these main characters have as much to do with the course of events as any of the men. But they operate in their own way.

I'm undecided by the whole dragon business, and with the "Lord of Light" stuff. I think the workings of religion on the human mind are much more interesting than making the magic actually true. I'd much rather see the Red Queen work her influence without the magic. that would be mucyh more meaningful.

dbackdad said...

Susan, a very welcome addition to the discussion. We are all very much feminist men ... but we are men. I appreciate your perspective, as would, I imagine, your lucky husband. :-)

I'm like you when it comes to the supernatural stuff, for obvious reasons. But with any storyline, I can suspend my disbelief enough if the storytelling is compelling, as GOT is. And the way I figure it, there is always a scientific and rational explanation for anything that "seems" supernatural. Our understanding just may not be advanced enough to know that explanation yet.

And we don't necessarily know from whose point of view the story is told. Perhaps that person only perceives something as being supernatural because they don't understand it. In other words, we don't know how reliable the narrator is.

William Stachour said...

Uh oh. That was me, Sir William, posting from Susan's work computer. I was there helping out with an event and saw and responded to your post there in a quick moment between chores. I didn't even know she had a Google account that she could be auto-logged-into!

Alas, it's just more of my own perspective. All disguised as another voice in the discussion!

dbackdad said...

lol. That's funny. I should have known as I would have been surprised if my own wife's opinions had fell in line with my own that closely.