Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Drinking Game of Thrones

I bought a copy of A Game of Thrones two or three years ago. It spent those years languishing pristine, untouched, and accusatory on the shelf between my well-thumbed copies of Temeraire and The Name of the Wind, intimidating me by its 700 pages and its Tolkien comparisons. At the end of March, the imminence of the TV adaptation's première compelled me to finally pick it up. I raced through it in ten days and enjoyed the H-E-double-hockey-sticks (as my beloved TV wife Rachel would say) out of it.

We're two episodes into the TV show now, so it's high time I passed judgment. My ability to accurately assess a TV show after two episodes is incontrovertibly documented in my Very Secret Diaries, which you may not read, but here are some excerpts:

28th September 2010 – on episode 2 of Lone Star: “I really liked it, but the ratings for it are so godawful that it probably hasn't a prayer of finishing out the season.”

2nd October 2009 – on episode 2 of Flash Forward: “Flash Forward treats me like an eejit and I swear if it continues to be this bad I will drop it soon.” [One episode later, I did.]

25th September 2009 – on episode 2 of Community: “[A]bsolutely terrific – a perfect balance of snarky humor and genuine character-based pathos. If it keeps going like that it has the potential to be a cult and critical favorite.”

See? I'm the new Alan Sepinwall. QED.

I've been watching Game of Thrones (the article appears to have been dropped) with my brother, who hasn't read the book. I can help him keep track of who the many characters are and compare the show to the book; he can offer me an evaluation of the show qua television. In places, though, it's an uncomfortable watch for a brother and sister, so we have developed a system for coping with all the squickiness. We call it “Drinking Game of Thrones”:

Incest? DRINK.

Titties? DRINK.

Buttcrack? DRINK.

Unfortunate Implications? DRINK.

Prince Joffrey (because he is such a little shit, I just hate him that much, that I have to drink whenever he is onscreen)? DRINK.

Something rapey happens? DRINK.

The thing is, most of the rapeyness and the Unfortunate Implications are taken straight from the book*. The show just highlights all of the aspects of the book that made me uncomfortable.

*Apart from that scene with Daenerys and her maidservant. That was entirely gratuitous and exploitative lesbian subtext, and I say this as a lesbian-subtext connoisseur and enthusiast.

I should point out that A Game of Thrones isn't half as sexist as a lot of fantasy books. It's still rapey enough for us to have nicknamed it, with a nod to Patton Oswalt, Rape Throne: The Throne That Rapes People, but women are present and they do have a voice. The first book cycles through eight characters' points of view, half of them female; and, while it's set in a medieval-style world that oppresses women, the female characters' personalities range from the controlling, Livia-like Cersei to the weak, submissive Sansa to the defiant, gender-non-conforming Arya. Arya is my favorite character in both the book and the show: she's only a little girl, but she's still a bona-fide BA (and not in the sense that I am).

The whole storyline with Daenerys, however, is rife with extremely uncomfortable implications in both iterations. Some of that is clearly intentional – the unbelievably creepy brother molesting his sister and selling her to be another man's wife – but the rest of it... well. In the book (minor spoiler, y'all), Dany comes to love her new husband devotedly. It smacks of Stockholm Syndrome to me, and I'm genuinely not sure if Martin intended that.

For example, take the consummation of Dany and Drogo's marriage. Bookside, Dany (who is just thirteen; I think – hope – they aged her up for the show) is completely terrified, and Drogo engages in a lot of foreplay to prepare her for penetrative sex. For some time, Dany finds the nightly sex painful, but gradually she comes to enjoy it.

In the show, though, Drogo just straight-up rapes her. I mean, not that I would characterize the book version as consensual as such, but he does at least wait until she tells him “yes”. Which is rapier: penetrating your new bride as she weeps and tries to cover herself up, or stroking and caressing her as she weeps until she's so aroused she invites you to penetrate her?

You see why I find it deeply problematic, right?

I think, for the most part, this is intended to be problematic. Obviously, not having read the sequels yet, I don't know how Daenerys' story will play out, but it's not implausible that she's deliberately written as a woman dealt a really crappy hand in life who does what she needs to do in order to cope psychologically. What's less explainable is the racial implications of this storyline.

As my brother said: “Racist undertones in a fantasy book?? Surely not!” Point taken, but I still think this deserves analysis.

It always bothers me when people excuse rampant rape and the erasure of POC in fantasy by saying, “It's authentic, 'cause it's based on medieval England/northern Europe!” Sure, but seasons didn't last for years on end and dragons didn't exist in medieval England, and I don't hear anyone complaining that dragons and years-long winters make it inauthentic. It's FANTASY. Shakesville articulated it best: “It says something interesting, and not at all pleasant, about our culture that we are willing to accept a complete reinvention of the planet's climate for the purposes of fantasy, but not the possibility of a culture devoid of sexual exploitation and rape”. Sub out “sexual exploitation and rape” for “white supremacy” and you have another, equally legitimate complaint.

Virginal, whiter-than-white maiden Daenerys is taken by a tribe of brown-skinned savages who live wild, shag like animals, rape her, and make her their queen (the only black character I've seen so far is her maidservant). It's fantasy, yes, but even a fantasy novel exists in the real world and is not divorced from real-world history: a history in which white people's colonialism oppressed and exploited people of color “for their own good”, in the name of civilizing the savages; in which predominantly white countries still invade predominantly brown countries “for their own good” whilst ignoring human rights abuses in resource-poor, predominantly black sub-Saharan Africa; in which the Jim Crow narrative of sexually animalistic black men preying on lily-white women was constructed by white men in order to perpetuate their control over both black men and white women. (Black women? Don't be silly, they don't exist.) These racist cultural narratives still persist. They persist in the international policy decisions of western countries; they persist in the difference in mainstream media coverage of stories about white people and stories about people of color; and they persist in fantasy novels and TV shows that recreate them.

I believe fiction has a duty, if not to show us a better world, then at least to be aware of when it's showing us terrible things. Game of Thrones is not aware of its own racism. As far as I'm concerned, this means I have to mention it every time I talk about it. I can talk about the successful character interactions, and the plot points that feel a bit awkward and rushed, and the sweeping moments that rouse fantasy-epic stirrings of excitement deep in my gut, and how God handcrafted every inch of Peter Dinklage out of the finest Olympic win – but I'm also going to talk about the racism.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Prayer For Africa

O Mother Africa, womb of the world! How long must you suffer? How long must you weep? Is there any hope for you, or have your western children, etiolated in skin and spirit, wrought on you too many atrocities to ever be made right?

The dark continent lives in the hearts of my family – my father trying to feed its people, my mother to alleviate the physical suffering of the children, my brother to cure their diseases – and the next question is: what about you, Anna? What will you do? In a world where little children die in their thousands from hunger and sickness, conditions we their oppressors could eradicate in a heartbeat if for even one moment we prioritized the lives of other human beings over our own profit: what will you do, Anna, just another affluent white westerner purchasing your luxuries with the blood of Mother Africa's people?

This week, we commemorate the deliverance of my people from slavery and oppression by the grace of God and the death of the Passover lamb; this week, we commemorate the deliverance of all people from slavery of the heart by the grace of God and the death of God's own Lamb. But the plight of Africa is still very real and present. There has been no deliverance in this life for Africa.

My prep school headmaster once said that Jesus could be considered an African: o Lord, you know from paying in blood for the lives of others, and I pray for the land of your childhood and mine, the cradle of humanity, the heart of this broken world. God, have mercy; humanity, have mercy.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

"Facebook-rape" No More!

We've all done it: your friend forgets to log out of Facebook and leaves you unsupervised, and within moments you are declaring to all the internet your friend's unusual sexual predilections or Justin Bieber fandom. I myself did it to a good friend just a few hours ago. It was, and is, very funny.

What's not so funny is the popular name for this practice: “Facebook-rape”, or “frape” for short. People, this is not a cool thing to say. I know that if I tell you this kind of language trivializes rape and perpetuates rape culture, some of you will roll your eyes and tell me to get a sense of humor; but spare a thought for this statistic:

One in six women have been sexually assaulted.

One in six.

Do you know more than five women? Then, statistically, one of them has been sexually assaulted. Your friends and relatives are not exempt. You may not be aware of it, but you know people who have been raped.

And it's just possible that, when you are explaining your sudden linkspam to Justin Bieber fanvids, one of them will see the word “frape” and be triggered into reliving the worst thing that ever happened to them.

I agree that “I left Facebook logged in and unattended, and one of my joker friends posted these things under my name” is a little long-winded, so, as an alternative, I propose that we refer to this phenomenon as “Facebook-pranking” – “franking” for short.

It's short, it's snappy, and it just might spare someone a traumatic flashback. If we change our language, we might change people's thinking, and our culture might stop seeing sexual assault as something to laugh about.

Don't frape your friends. Frank them.

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Very Glee Blog Post

Regular readers and personal friends will know that I like watching Glee almost as much as I like complaining about Glee. There's just so much to complain about! Lately all my thoughts on Glee have been channeled to my best gals Emily and Erica at the awesome GleeKast, thus depriving my lovely readers of many wise insights and/or fangirly squees (unless you listen to GleeKast, which you should, because it is, as I said, awesome).

My love for Glee is like the Grateful Dead's back catalog: vast, inexplicable, and deeply confusing. Each episode entertains and delights me; each episode offends and annoys me – and my feelings about the show in any given week tilt with the balance of these two axes. Even the better episodes always have a number of elements that need fixing, and the worst ones are downright unpleasant to watch. Nevertheless, Glee has a genuine wildness at its heart, a disconnect from reality and a compelling originality that maintains its status as appointment viewing.

Last time I blogged about the most annoying show on TV was in November. At that time, Glee was really getting on my tits. The ten episodes of Glee's second season that aired before Christmas included the delights of “Duets” and the uneven pleasures of “Grilled Cheesus”, “The Substitute”, and “Furt”, but there was also a slew of truly awful episodes: “Britney/Brittany”, “The Rocky Horror Glee Show”, and “A Very Glee Christmas”. In 2011, the good/bad balance has been more to the positive side, with lots to enjoy about “Silly Love Songs” and “Blame It on the Alcohol”, while “Sexy” and “Original Song” featured enough fanservice to counteract their problematic parts.

My assessment of TV's finest musical dramedy depends not only on my aesthetic response to each episode, though, but also on how much it offends me politically. From the outset, Glee declared its political intent: it was to be an all-inclusive rainbow story of diversity, embracing the bullied, the outcast, and the marginalized kids – per its tagline, it's “for the underdog in all of us”. How it's actually handled diversity, however, has varied wildly.

First, the evidence for the prosecution:

Example 1 – Blaine thinks he might be bisexual. I think there is a chance for the show to offer a thoughtful, nuanced story about adolescent insecurity regarding sex and sexual identity. We actually get a flip resolution and an apparent reinforcement of Kurt's biphobia (“Bisexual is a term that gay guys in high school use when they wanna hold hands with girls and feel like a normal person for a change”). N.B. I still hold out hope for a slightly different exploration of adolescent sexual insecurity now that Blurt is a real, honest-to-God thing.

Example 2 – Mercedes. Mercedes, Mercedes, Mercedes. For God's sake, Glee writers, can't you give poor Amber Riley something to do? If you need some lessons in writing for a woman of color, I'm sure the writers of Community would be able to school you; perhaps in exchange for a nice ratings-boosting in-show plug. When Mercedes told Mr. Schue, in “Original Song”, that her song was good, and he said it wasn't regionals material, I felt that his comment bore the unspoken subtext “because it doesn't foreground the white kids”. Note also the near-total silence of Tina and Mike Chang this season. For a show that started out trading on its Benetton-ad diversity, Glee is really quite amazingly racist.

Example 3 – Quinn gets a personality transplant every five minutes. One day she's the closest thing New Directions has to a feminist; the next all she wants is to be prom queen. And there's the whole virgin-whore thing, where every female character is one or the other; the way a male character can lose his virginity (and even regret it, as Finn and Artie both do) without suffering in any discernible way, but when Quinn loses it she has to go through the oldest punishment in the book to earn her way back to (pseudo-)virgin status; the way, as The Funny Feminist points out, the hetero relationships are focalized through the male party. Sometimes I think that Glee just hates women.

Example 4 – the kicker; in my opinion, the absolute worst thing that has ever happened on Glee. I speak, of course, of Cyborg Artie in “A Very Glee Christmas”. A lot of PWD (that's people with disabilities to you non-PC brigade) find the casting of able-bodied Kevin McHale to play wheelchair-using Artie deeply problematic, because so few parts are available to actors with disabilities (google “crip drag”, y'all). The storyline with Artie's robot legs was the nadir of this show's neverending parade of offensiveness: “Hey, kids using wheelchairs, if your gym teacher is a gazillionaire, then maybe one day you too can walk again like a REAL BOY! It’s a ~*~Christmas miracle~*~”... I hope I don't have to explain why this is so very, very offensive. (If I do, then seriously, google “crip drag” and get self-educating.) The prosecution rests.

None of these things are defensible, of course, so the defense counsel can only hope to outweigh them with counterexamples. Step up:

Counterexample 1 – Coach Bieste becomes a BAMF. As you know, her treatment in “Never Been Kissed” turned my stomach, and since then the writers have wisely stepped back from the 40-year-old virgin territory. For a moment in “Blame It on the Alcohol”, I was terrified that they were going to go there, which would have undermined a truly awesome sequence of her and Will having a buds' night out at the roadhouse (Patrick Swayze sadly too deceased to cameo). At this point, their friendship is almost the only thing I like about Will. Long may it continue.

Counterexample 2 – Lauren Zizes. Oh, she is wonderful. A character who was initially nothing more than a delivery service for mean-spirited and offensive jokes (the AV nerd is fat! The fat girl is always eating! Ha ha!) has transcended this role to become one of my favorite characters in the whole ensemble. Lauren doesn't buy into society's prescriptions for women's body-image; she knows she's beautiful; she doesn't truck with standard Glee self-congratulatory footling around minority characters, telling Puck to cram it when he's being offensive; and, hell, I know a woman doesn't need a hot guy to validate her, but I really do love the Zizes/Puckerman pairing. They're just such a fun couple.

Counterexample 3 – Burt and Kurt's father-son relationship goes from strength to strength. Their every interaction nails it so hard that it's almost as if they've been airlifted in from a different show, one that values things like consistency and believability. The After-School-Special aspect of Glee has been handled really quite well lately, from the Kurt/Karofsky business to a teen-drinking episode that was reasonably realistic and not too preachy. Despite its frequently cartoonish nature, Glee has an ability to totally commit to its PSA-like aspects, with an endearing, My So-Called Life-ish earnestness.

Counterexample 4 – you knew this was coming! Brittana. Santittany. Whatever you choose to call them, they are another terrific instance of Glee's capacity to flesh out one-joke stereotypes far beyond what anyone could have predicted, into one of the best things about the show. Objectivity will never be a part of this for me, because I've been shipping this portmanteau with every atom of my being ever since that first fateful one-liner back in December '09, but I am super-chuffed with how this storyline is unfolding so far. We're not getting straightforward fanservice (well, except where body-shots are concerned); we are getting a long-term story arc, deep emotional truth, and one heck of a lot of processing. Could it get any more lesbian than that? The defense rests.

Noble internauts, fellow Gleeks, you are the jury. What is your verdict?