The Abuse of Power in Narrative (aka Game of Thrones and Strong Female Characters)

Representation, not only of particular characters and social groups, but also of events and their significance, seems widely misunderstood, and Game of Thrones is a great example of this. Representation is often considered at surface level only: as what, instead of how. 

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The Game of Thrones Debate

I initially decided not to watch Game of Thrones because, in general, anything resembling Lord Of The Rings and me doesn’t mix, and I didn’t want to eat into any time that could be spent elsewhere, valuably slagging off fantasy fiction. Many friends of mine with great taste assure me of how well it’s written, how many breathtaking pixel amalgamations there are, and how many Strong Female Characters rise to power to rule over the land of their teeny dragon mates and their wooly and metallically clothed, Stoke-accented subjects.

Yet after unavoidable glimpses of clips, trailers, recaps and reviews, I couldn’t help but notice how naked and raped the women kept getting. Tedious.

Danielle Henderson agrees. After posting her much-circulated article in the Guardian (GoT: Too much racism and sexism – so I stopped watching) to my social media, I sparked one of those long debates where everyone gets offended and disagrees forever.

You might not find the sexual violence in GoT tedious, you might find it mesmerizing, titillating, or entertaining – my hope is that at the very least, viewers find it disturbing. I assure you it is intended to be all of these things; the vast majority of all entertainment media is. If the gruesome events in GoT were simply disturbing, people would not watch it en masse (weekly screening of Irréversible, anyone?) If they were simply a demonstration of the realities of sexual exploitation, it would not have necessitated the coining of the word ‘sexposition’.

I choose not to watch it because the continual sexual violence and exploitation displayed in GoT feels both disturbing and tedious to me, considering the paradoxical nature of women’s roles in GoT in particular, and the abuse of rape and sexual violence as a narrative device in the entertainment industry as a whole. If I can remove myself from being exposed to it (which, actually, I can’t until everyone pipes down) why does it matter? If there are plenty of rich female characters in Game of Thrones or any other media, how can it be ‘sexist’?

Representation

One rape scene may be different than another. One Asian character might be a racist representation and another not. It’s not that we need to simply put more women, people with disabilities and people of colour in films, or censor certain events from being broadcast at all, necessarily (except for A Serbian Film. Seriously, fuck those guys.) Rather, we need to understand the process by which ideas of normality and magnitude are created and perpetuated, and how these are delineated through existing discourses of power and visibility.

The gratuitous use of female nudity and rape in Game of Thrones is a pertinent example of this. The representation of any kind of power inequality is problematic when it is not heavily examined and critiqued from the point of view of the oppressed party. Having characters who are oppressed grow to seize power is not an act of redemption which ‘corrects’ the wrong of rape and renders everything just, it is simply using rape (a very real, and very frequent event that too many of us experience) as a tool in their narrative. The event itself is not usually critiqued in any more depth than ‘That Was Bad.’ That the oppressed characters in the script might be ‘strong’ (usually in the very shallow sense of being magic, or using weapons) is not the same as actually discussing and critiquing rape and its reality, those who rape, and the processes by which this is normalized by societies, real or fictional.

For example, why are there numerous rapes of women, but not numerous rapes of men? (Trolls, NB: I am not advocating raping men, or that raping men is ok, or necessary for equality, or anything else that you could employ to dismiss all my other sentences.) Unfortunately we are increasingly aware of how many more males experience sexual violence than was originally known, so if we are going to be die-hard about its realism, is it realistic that zero men are raped? Why aren’t there consistent gratuitous scenes of naked men? Do they bathe clothed? The opportunity to exploit anyone is there, though which opportunities a creator chooses is significant.

Further, in the words of Kevin Smith, it’s all bullshit. GoT has fantastic elements throughout (dragons, skeleton zombies….other magic shit), why not create a really interesting and new topsy-turvy world where non-white people hold any sort of power and have lines of dialogue, no one is sexually subordinate to anyone, and ready-made sandwiches grow in bushes? THIS IS A FANTASY WORLD. ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN. YOU ALREADY HAVE PEOPLE WHO CAN POSSESS ANIMALS, WARGS, AND THE FACE-CHANGING GUY. This absolute need for ‘realism’ (as opposed to drama) as a nonchalant defense of continued exploitation of women in narrative does not hold up without explicit critique of that exploitation.

In any show, or film, it would feel too extreme to see (when they appear at all) men being raped over and over again; men always having to overcome abuse and being violently downtrodden by women, often accepting this and being shown to masochistically enjoy it; having men constantly get their balls out while the camera lingers over their soft scrotal skin, giggling and making their pecs dance for paying customers; and feeding their female superiors an endless supply of ready-grown sandwiches.

Why is it not too extreme to see this constantly, consistently, of women in the name of realism? (I have no beef with the sandwich bushes.)

A: Because we consider it ‘real’, and thus ‘normal’. Acceptable, or understandable, even if we express distaste for it.

I expect better from creative people. And then, this is hardly a jaw-dropping update.

Years and years of ‘normal’ life.

GoT aside, this is industry-, and indeed, world-wide. Women are under- and mis-represented in the vast majority of positions of power throughout globalised society. It is not that the representation of women in media is more important than in, say, politics; they are simply different symptoms of the same long-standing power imbalance that runs deeply through the landscapes of our beliefs. But media is particularly significant; not only because it saturates our lives to such an extent, but also because as a visual medium it informs our imaginations which in turn forms our actions and creations. It is culturally and mythically creative; the way in which we communicate, understand, and learn about ourselves. We (and by we, I mean those in power) are telling symbolic stories to each other, and ourselves, about ourselves, and each other. Beliefs, not laws or physical actions, about humanity are created via narratives, and beliefs determine how we behave, what we fight for and against. These beliefs come from the meanings conveyed; you will* (*may) not believe that dragons are real after watching Game of Thrones, but you will believe that strength in numbers and companionship are important (and that CGI is getting awesome.) You may also, then, understand rape and domination as something that happens to women because men want to have sex with them, and that is normal, and something that they must overcome to become advanced characters in life. And in the same vein, that whoever has bare crossbow skills (agility/precision/adaptability) and uses them for ‘good’ (benevolence/conscientiousness) will (or should) defeat those who are evil and have big hammers or maces, or swords (might is right.) These are all subconscious processes, which inculcate us before we began watching GoT, or any other adult media.

The above meaning-creation process in the way rape is often used in narrative is not an original creation of these narratives, merely reinforcements to the way that rape, prostitution and other forms of exploitation are often understood in society. That they are found frequently in narratives in which the non-white/straight/male/able-bodied characters have actually been given some depth is not surprising. We have legislated away the official and explicit prejudice that we could not openly defend; yet those beliefs, still replicated, persist. It’s only been a little while; we do have to give ourselves a bit of time. But we can’t do that if we don’t understand the mechanisms by which these beliefs are reproduced subtly, once explicit prejudices are ‘gone’. (Covered up.)

The Defense

The defense of GoT (and often other stories containing storylines of graphic violence) is often centred around that realism issue. George R. R. Martin, writer of the original novels on which the show is based, recently told the NYTimes that

“Rape and sexual violence have been a part of every war ever fought, from the ancient Sumerians to our present day […] To omit them from a narrative centered on war and power would have been fundamentally false and dishonest, and would have undermined one of the themes of the books: that the true horrors of human history derive not from orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves.”

This is true, and I believe that Martin and many viewers will understand them as such. That he states explicitly that there is a negative judgment value put upon the sexual violence in his books is encouraging, and surely sincere. Novels also benefit from allowing much more of the characters’ thoughts and feelings to be directly communicated. However HBO’s version has been widely criticized for emphasizing and changing certain aspects of the sexual violence (specifically Jaime’s rape of Cercei, which, in the books, was consensual sex.) Whether the TV show has had to condense more of the story yet has kept all of the sexually violent material for drama, or whether they are relatively true to the books, I don’t feel a need to know. Why would I want to watch depictions of ‘happy hookers’ and rape that are, as noted by comic book writer Mariah Huehner, treated “cavalierly”? Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, echoes this: “The best depictions don’t just leave it at the dramatic device of the rape itself, they use it to tell a deeper story about recovery and what effect it has on that person.” I would add that they should also centre around the abuse of power and the structures by which that power and violence came to be imbalanced in the first place.

Another frequent dismissal states that there’s nothing wrong with the show’s continued use of rape showboating, because it also showboats the murder of a young boy’s parents in front of him, infanticide, torture etc. This argument comes up also in defense of rape jokes, which again misrepresents the issue. Rape does not need to be specifically cloaked where everything else should be fair game; rather, the treatment and understanding of rape in society, its epidemic nature, and the tone of its portrayal in jokes (or its ‘cavalier’ portrayal in screen media) renders it an abused topic. Not one which needs scrapping from view entirely because it’s icky, but one which gets bandied around in the wrong way by people who do not understand it. Lindy West has notoriously and beautifully set the standard for discourse on understanding why most comedians get it wrong:

“The reason that “rape jokes” become such a contentious issue as opposed to, say, “cancer jokes” or “dead baby jokes” (yawn) is because rape is different from other horrors in some very specific ways.

Say you knew for a fact that in any given audience there was at least one person who had been mangled in an industrial threshing accident—JUST STICK WITH ME HERE—and that we lived in a culture where industrial threshing victims were routinely blamed/shamed for their own death and/or disfigurement because they wore the “wrong” overalls, and people were afraid to report threshing accidents because the police department just employs a bunch of threshing machines in badges and little hats anyway (and everyone knows threshing machines protect their own), and historically humans were sold into marriages with threshing machines where they could just be tossed in there and chopped up willy-nilly. Oh, and also 90% of the comics in the show (yourself included) are threshing machines too, but since you’re this young, liberal brand of threshing machine with newfangled safety guards and you fervently don’t believe in mangling humans, you think it’s fair game for you to make “jokes” about idiot humans getting their faces and limbs shredded by those more sinister other threshing machines. But do you really think that isn’t going to traumatize the fuck out of some humans? Even if you’re “joking”?”

This is just one paragraph from a much larger (and less fantastically metaphorical) article that, if you’re interested at all in this debate, from whichever side of the fence, you just have to read in full. It’s a fantastic demonstration of why any topic IS fair game –in the same way, there is a difference between jokes about race, and racist jokes. We don’t have a parents-getting-killed-in-front-of-their-children problem (currently in Britain, at least) of epidemic proportions – and if we did, would it frequently be played for laughs by numerous comedians as standard, and provoke a fetishisation and trivialization of the experience of orphans by those who have parents? (I’m not going to make a joke about rape victims being the Batmen of society.)

This type of reliance on shock value and cynical titillation is learned behaviour. The more extreme a show is (and the better its writing and characters, as is the case with GoT, clearly) the higher the drama; the more people will talk about it and create desire for it. The underestimation of the significance of the events being shown, also, comes from an inexperience with and misunderstanding of that structural power which exists in society. Is it a coincidence that power is held largely by white men who have grown up in a white-male-dominated society, and that most protagonists (and thus those whose stories are presumed to be most valuable, most relatable, the default for ‘human’) are white men, at the expense of other demographics? We must understand the difference between blaming someone for having utterly failed, and critiquing groups of people and society at large for patterns of misunderstanding. Representation needs to be critiqued by those who are not in positions of power, for the health of future work.

I Heart…

The phenomenon of fandom is one that creates in us huge amounts of love, wonder and joy. Of course nobody wants to hear criticisms of their favourite creations. I love Breaking Bad more than I love my own family (I find my parents marginally more tolerable now they’ve finished Season 5) and I have a hell of a time even trying to critique Breaking Bad but, a couple more great examples of shows with representation/ideology issues are early-sixties race comedy bungle The Help and, I have to admit, Breaking Bad.

Both are brilliantly written narratives with engaging, mostly rich characters, and exemplary formal execution. And, it is also important to understand the structurally racist and sexist ideology imbued in them. Considering the depth, goodwill and skill that have gone into them, their reflections of the industry’s chronic prejudices remain so slight that they go almost unnoticed. When they are noted, people wont hear it out of frustration, and/or protectiveness. Again, critique does not render something all bad, unwatchable, or unenjoyable.

The Help is a powerful film, with sharp performances all round. Viola Davis, rightly, gets the majority of the attention from critics for her warm and devastating performance, and Emma Stone renders her slightly bland protagonist likeable, as ever. Many critics agree that the narrative and form was largely faultless, if a little broad and formulaic (hence why it “works.”) But to what extent should we really defend a film about racism, and specifically highlighting the stories of black people in a white dominated society, whose protagonist is a beautiful, successful rich white girl? While Aibileen plays a vital role, it is a supporting one. The storyline focuses on Skeeter’s coming of age arc (exemplified by the absolutely redundant romantic subplot), and the redemption of individual ‘good white people’ by indirectly reprimanding the individual ‘bad white people’. The triumphant air-punch comes when Minny is told by her benevolent white employers that she is to continue being their servant for life, if she so chooses. This is genuinely the resolution of the film.

Hallelujah.

Breaking Bad’s gender and racial roles are hugely conservative, also. All of the Latino cartel members are without redemption (except maybe Hector Salamanca) – the only variation in their character-type is the choice between calculated or passive evil. There is certainly a comment on the ignorance of the US middle classes, but not a huge amount of humanity given to anyone else. The female characters (the white ones, that is) are all given depth, and plenty of screen time, and in contrast to what many have expressed, I found Skylar to be a hugely sympathetic character played expertly by Anna Gunn. However, her role remained as wife to the protagonist, mother, and supporter of the actions of her husband. There were few subplots involving Skylar, Marie or Lydia which involved them acting rather than reacting to male-driven deeds, except Marie’s short-lived kleptomania/therapy subplot which, in hindsight, appears to be an interesting but shoehorned method of giving her depth.

Again. Both fantastic stories, fantastic narratives which I relished – and both going some way to being progressive mainstream representations of important issues and fuller characters. And both remained within a prescribed framework of whose stories and values are foregrounded according to the ‘human nature’ of traditional roles and supposed ‘audience preference.’

These pervasive ideologies need to be debated; disagree, or be undecided, but don’t shut debate down because you, personally, find remaining structural inequalities to be a-ok. It’s not about whether or not intentions are good, or about historical accuracy, or an all-or-nothing bash at the value or watchability of one particular show, but the ever-changing relationships between people and their representation, perpetuation of stereotyping and what is considered ‘normal’.

Culture is both reflection and instruction. You can’t argue that we’re shown rape because it’s true to life, and then that it doesn’t matter because it’s fiction.

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5 thoughts on “The Abuse of Power in Narrative (aka Game of Thrones and Strong Female Characters)

  1. I can’t comment on Breaking Bad because I’ve only watched the first episode, but when it comes to Game of Thrones, Chris (boyfriend) started watching it when we were in Bristol and I swear that, almost every time I caught a bit of it, what I saw was tantamount to soft porn.

    It completely put me off and I remain put off.

    I think that I am something of a prude when it comes to porn, and, like you, I really don’t get the whole fantasy thing, so when I attended last year’s London Film and Media Conference and sat through a convincing paper on the pernicious sexual objectification of women in Game of Thrones, I felt validated. (Interestingly, the paper was delivered by a young, Italian male, which shouldn’t be remarkable but kind of is.)

    When I scroll down a Facebook newsfeed and see all the love for Game of Thrones, I get anxious.

    What YOU have written makes me feel better.

    Thank you, Liz.

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