Archive for the ‘Theory Posts’ Category

There’s been a lot of web buzz about this most recent season of Game of Thrones, particularly on the topic of sexual assault in the series and the A Song of Ice and Fire novels. There is much, much more rape in the books than the tv show–arguably more than be accounted for by the show’s condensed format. And just today, George R.R. Martin himself weighed in on the issue, saying: “I want to portray struggle.”

I gave up on Game of Thrones pretty much after season 2–in part because I stopped getting HBO, but honestly I haven’t missed it. I’ve read the books up to the most recently released fifth installment. I’m on the fence about whether I want to keep reading. To be very blunt, I haven’t particularly enjoyed the books since A Storm of Swords (no. 3). I’d say intellectually I get the appeal, but it’s honestly something I wonder about. Why do so many people love Game of Thrones? And by extension, why do we love high fantasy?

To just about everyone who knows me, I’ve been “the girl who loves zombies” for many years now (more than a decade) because my love of horror is one of my defining features. But not many people know that before my devotion to the grim, grotesque, and macabre, I read a lot of fantasy. Big, fat epic, high fantasy novels. From ages 11-14, that was pretty much all I read. (That and Animorphs. I adore Animorphs.) Then I discovered Stephen King and Mary Shelley and George A. Romero’s Dead movies and there wasn’t much looking back. (I regret nothing.)

So there’s probably a part of me that feels a little nostalgic about fantasy or even maybe unfairly associates the genre with early adolescence. But given its prevalence in popular culture today, I think fantasy has rounded a corner from the late nineties when you were still a huge nerd for having a dragon on your t-shirt. Martin is obviously a major, major part of this, as were The Lord of the Rings movies in the early 2000s. We could debate the dynamics of how that happened. However, I’m more interested in the cultural function of those texts.

Specifically, I’m curious about Martin’s desire to recreate a particular time period accurately (with a touch of magic added)–and our subsequent attraction to the brutality of that era. Put another way: why did we want to read/watch a story with such extraordinary violence in the first place? As many have pointed out, rape is hardly a new plot point to Game of Thrones–why did we want to see it?

I’ve had a couple of conversations lately trying to distill the speculative genres down to their most essential elements. Science fiction at its most basic looks to the future.Horror is, you could easily claim, the genre of the present moment–a genre driven most by emotion, particularly dread. Arguably, most fantasy (especially high fantasy) looks to the past.

The question becomes, then, what do we get out of these glances backwards? Martin insists that it would be dishonest to create a utopia where there was none, but what is the benefit to returning to an “accurate” reimagining of a specific subsection of history? Is it simple relief that we’ve progressed beyond such brutality? A recognition of the ways in which we haven’t? Is it merely escapism–a chance to disappear into a complex world, to experience the battle and intrigue and extraordinary loss between the pages?

To put it another way: if the frequency of sexual assault is somehow necessary to the efficacy of A Song of Ice and Fire as a creative work, what is the end result of that work?  What is its aim? What do we get in exchange? Why is it worth it?

I don’t think it’s accidental that many, many high fantasy novels are war novels. The Lord of the Rings is one of the great fantastic war stories. A Song of Ice and Fire is certainly a series about war, as Martin has made clear. As a society, we find war mesmerizing–so much so that we read about fictional wars in worlds that never existed. But one of the great–I believe–successes of The Lord of Rings that it doesn’t deal in violence gratuitously. It tracks the marks war leaves on people in subtler, quieter ways. That may make it less “gritty” and “realistic” than Game of Thrones but…well, what of it?

Because at the end of the day, when we talk about fantasy–whatever history or pseudo-history on which the world is based–we’re talking about pure invention. We’re talking about completely fabricated universes. Fantasy worlds can be absolutely anything. They are no more bound by “historical accuracy” than they are the laws of physics. And every aspect of a fantastic world is therefore a choice made by the author. To say anything else is to deal in some serious bullshit. As much as it is to say that people of color are absent or oppressed in fantastic works because of similar historical restrictions. No, the author chose to leave them out, whether consciously or unconsciously. They may have done it out of a love for medieval Anglo-Saxon society, but if they’re not actively writing a historical novel, there’s nothing stopping them but their own limitations.

The reality is we choose to delve into the brutality of Westeros and Essos. On some level, we find it entertaining–we should be honest about that. And rape as a plot point is nothing more than an easy (one might say lazy) expression of that brutality. It is no more demanded by the setting than any other aspect of the story. The reality is that we demand it–we expect it. It has become part of our cultural language for women. It’s a shorthand for “female character development.”

But we’re not required to use it. As with all storytelling, it’s a choice.

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I know: with a title like that you are so excited to read this post. But this issue has come up a couple times for me in genre television lately and part of the reason I write this blog is to think critically about such questions, so I’m at least going to try to think my way through it.

Warning: Spoilers for recent episodes of Agents of SHIELDThe Walking Dead,  Captain America: Winter Soldier,  Alien, etc., and frank discussions of race. 

The last…30 minutes or so of Captain America: Winter Soldier, I was on the edge of my seat, completely anxious. Not because the hoverships were going to assassinate everyone in DC and New York or because Cap took a bullet to the gut.

I was worried–frantic–about Sam Wilson, AKA Falcon.

Now, I knew and understood intellectually that Falcon is not a one-time character in the Captain America canon. I knew he should be back. I just didn’t know if he would. In fact, part of me felt pretty sure that Sam Wilson was a dead man.

Not just because he’s a black character, mind you. We’ve gotten beyond the more simplistic days of slasher horror which dictated that the black man dies first. George Romero has allowed a bunch of black men to reach the finish line. Hell, even Parker makes it through the bulk of Alien.

No, what made me worry about Sam Wilson is that I liked him and Steve Rogers liked him. You see, it’s not a sacrifice to off a character we barely know. But a character with motivations and empathy and a moral sense who’s connected with your protagonist–that’s a character you can kill with serious dramatic effect.

(This is after they fake-killed Nick Fury earlier in the movie but that didn’t fool me for a minute. SLJ is friggin’ indestructible.)

Okay, obviously, Sam Wilson makes it through Winter Soldier. Praise Zombie Jesus.

Fast forward seven or so months to the midseason finale of Agents of SHIELD. Shit is going down. Skye and Raina are with the obelisk while the walls close around them. Coulson can’t get in. The others are distracted dealing with an alien-possessed Mac (after a gotcha moment in the previous episode when they may or may not have killed him). It seems like there’s no backup coming–and then Agent Tripp squeezes through the gap and into danger.

Of course, they do a double fake-out, pretending like Tripp is fine while Raina and Skye turn to stone. Of course, they’re fine and it’s really Tripp whom the alien technology destroys.

Tripp was a nice guy. A little underdeveloped as characters go in Agents of SHIELD, but we had been getting to know him better. His grandfather was a Howling Commando. He seemed like the genuine version of Grant Ward–and he had good chemistry with the group.

Given what almost happened to Mac in the previous episode, Tripp’s death felt like a cruel, deliberate yank on our heartstrings, as if to say: you like these characters? Well, too bad!

There has been similar activity on season five of The Walking Dead, a show which seems determined to have no more than three black men in the supporting cast at any given time. The showrunners seem especially fond of killing off whoever happens to be the group’s moral center at any given time, most recently Tyreese and Bob, both–you guessed it–black men. Both solid characters with individual issues and quirks when they appeared in previous seasons; Tyreese in particular saw a lot of development as a fan-favorite from the comics.

But both got a lot more screen time and nuance leading up to their deaths, which is no coincidence. It’s meant to be upsetting. And this is true when any character dies, of course. And naturally I wouldn’t suggest that such action heavy shows should never kill anyone off or even refrain from offing characters of color. I’ll be the first to admit that “What Happened and What’s Going On” from The Walking Dead was a beautifully acted and lovingly made episode. Chad Coleman was as wonderful as ever as Tyreese (which made hurt more, of course). In isolation, I wouldn’t have minded at all. As a larger pattern on the show, it bothers me.

What bothers me  is 1)  the notion that any of these characters (Mac and Tripp or Tyreese, T-Dog, and Bob) are interchangeable 2) that we’re only allowed a relatively brief time to empathize with sympathetic black male characters before they’re killed off–thus making their deaths a kind of cheat or gimmick to get an emotional reaction from the audience and 3) that these characters’ sacrifices end up being mere motivational fodder for the series’ or film’s protagonists, who are so often white.

Simple representation in media (and particularly genre media) is still a huge problem–the numbers are an issue, let alone the quality of the roles. But I think we also need to think about the kinds of stories these characters get to live–and whether they live. Because it does send a message.

I like to reread books in December.

January is all about devouring the books I got for Christmas and studying the release calendar while preordering waaaay too many new titles. But in December, it’s nice to revisit old favorites.

Most recently, I’ve been rereading The Hobbit. And yes, everyone has a lot to say about it recently, with the third film leading the box office and fans and critics weighing in all over the interwebz. I haven’t seen Battle of the Five Armies and frankly I don’t plan to while it’s in theaters. I was fed up after the second movie and its 20-minute action sequences.

Rather than face further disappointment, I went back to the novel. It was nice to remember why it’s such a great story–in many ways more appealing than The Fellowship of the Ring, which takes ages to get going and doesn’t really know what it’s about until the last third of the book. The Hobbit knows what it is: an adventure.

The Lord of the Rings has adventures in it, of course, but I will always think of it as a war story. There is much of the political and social to be considered. It has a huge cast and arguably multiple protagonists. The Hobbit is about Bilbo Baggins. Full stop.

Yes, the dwarves are quite important. So is Beorn the bear-man and the elf king and Bard and Gandalf. Even the Necromancer is somewhat important, although not as important as Peter Jackson would make him. (Yes, I know he’s Sauron. The Hobbit is not about Sauron.)

But without Bilbo none of them matter. He shapes the story. It’s his adventure. His development as a hero. And as such, it’s not terribly dark or gritty. Sure, frightening or upsetting things happen. (An awful lot of ponies seem to get eaten in The Hobbit. There’s also the spiders. And the fate of Lake Town.) But tonally it’s incredibly different. It’s charming. It’s funny. It’s whimsical.

Some of that whimsy showed up in the first film. It’s hard to bleed out the good-natured fun of the dwarves’ arrival or the encounter with the trolls. Martin Freeman is hilariously stuffy as Bilbo. And the addition of Sylvester McCoy as Radagast was pretty wonderful. But in his attempts to tie everything neatly to the Quest of the Ring, Jackson saps a lot of the inherent joy out of the middle section of the book. And the third film looks downright depressing. (Yes, yes, yes, things go poorly at the end but it’s not all dragon-song and corruption, is it?)

I have often wondered how Guillermo del Toro’s vision might have been different: whether we would have had two neater films which explore the wonderful weirdness of Middle Earth through Biblo’s eyes, whether the allusions to the plot of Lord of the Rings would have been smart and subtle instead of so ham-handed and overbearing, and whether an extra character like Tauriel would have felt meaningful instead of pandering. Because The Hobbit could have been a great movie (or two). Instead it just feels forced.

But this also seems to be characteristic of epic fantasy recently–particularly in film and television. It seems that in its quest to be taken seriously, fantasy has committed itself to a particular tone and format, à la Game of Thrones. It’s leached itself of fun–of whimsy.

And mind you, it’s not impossible to retain that sense while still addressing weighty topics, e.g., Beasts of the Southern Wild. (It may be, in fact, that the answer to this issue lies in magical realism.) But it seems a shame that heroic fantasy be reduced to one tragic note.

It feels a little on the nose to post about dystopias today, but hopefully you’ll forgive me for that–it’s just what was scheduled.

Mockingjay, Part 1 came out last Friday and made millions of dollars over the weekend. I haven’t gotten around to seeing it yet, although I probably will. I enjoy the films; I think they’re good adaptations. You know, unlike The Giver movie, which was a terrible travesty.

Ahem.

But I’ve been thinking about The Hunger Games recently and trying to figure out why they pose something of a problem. And why the ending feels so choppy and disjointed. It’s a problem I have with a lot of contemporary (mostly YA) dystopian fiction. Divergent is another big, blockbuster example of this. (I still haven’t read the Pure trilogy by Julianna Baggott, which is supposed to be really fantastic, so shame on me.)

It occurred to me that this difficulty with endings might be symptomatic of a dystopian series, i.e., not just a standalone novel. Although dystopian novels–like all good fiction–should have compelling characters, they’re at heart idea stories. Fahrenheit 451: what if books were illegal? Brave New World: what if we did away with traditional reproduction? The Giver: what if we suppressed our emotions? Even The Hunger Games is an idea story: what if a society reinstated the Roman Coliseum?  Same with Divergent: what if we were divided by our dominant personality traits? These setups reflect our anxieties and they also afford us an opportunity to ask questions about the nature of our humanity. A typical dystopian novel meditates on the outcomes of a society’s choices and leaves us with a relatively ambiguous ending.

However, in a fiction series, that can’t happen. We might end with ambiguity in the first novel, but the story picks up again in the next book. And traditionally, it does this as a linear continuance of the existing narrative, i.e., we don’t shift POVs or timelines. Which changes the nature of the story. It ceases to be an exploration of the dystopian state and instead becomes a full struggle between the individual (hero, at this point) and the society. In other words, my theory is: extended dystopian narratives must at some point become revolution narratives. What choice does the author have? If the character surrenders to the state, the story ends. If the state destroys the character, the story ends. If the character lives out the rest of a quiet life hiding from the state, the story ends.*

Is a revolution narrative inherently problematic? Not necessarily. But it requires a different kind of plotting and a different conception of character and it’s hard to make those adjustments midstream. Consider how much of the novel Mockingjay is devoted to setting up the nature of the rebellion. It makes for an ungainly structure–and it’s an incredible amount of information to invest in one book.

Moreover, any extended exploration of the dystopia requires a more thorough deconstruction of that dystopia. This is where, for example, the Divergent series falters. Once we get outside the wall, we need an explanation for why what’s happened has happened–the characters need to know why their lives are the way they are. The problem is, these narratives are rarely satisfying. They diminish our ability to see ourselves in the dystopia–which is one of the major requirements of the subgenre.

We find an interesting exception in The Giver sequels, which deal predominantly with life outside the Community. Lowry maintains the quiet, meditative tone of the first book throughout Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son. Interestingly, she also doesn’t take on the entirety of the dystopia as she continues the story. She keeps the narrative localized and personal. Jonas doesn’t storm back home and overthrow the order. He tries to live a new life, which presents new challenges. In Son, Lowry examines another aspect of the Community through Claire–but she uses a character shift and separate timeline to provide us with a more nuanced point of view. So perhaps not all dystopian narratives end in revolution. Perhaps, rather, the kinds of stories the authors choose to tell–and the kinds of characters on whom they focus–create part of the difficulty.

*A much more interesting outcome would be if the character joined the state, but I’ve yet to see that in a series (No, Peeta does not count). It would satisfy my greatest disappointment with The Hunger Games, which is that we should see the events from the POV of an average Capital citizen.

What do you think of dystopian series? Are they satisfying? What you think of the transition to revolutionary fiction?

This week, I was going to write the next of my dystopia posts, this one focusing on how gender works in post-apocalyptic dystopian worlds. I was also going to review the two most recent episodes of NBC’s Revolution (Yes, I’m still watching it). Somewhere along the way, those two posts merged to become something between a rant and a cry of despair.

To be fair, “No Quarter” (episode 3) had some interesting parts to it. We learned about Uncle Miles’s dark and twisted past (working for the militia — *gasp*!). And there was Mark Pellegrino. Was there ever Mark Pellegrino.

But. But. Did we see any character development in Charlie, who is supposedly our protagonist? Not so much, no. And then there was this week, AKA Abandonment Issues Week, although I think they called the episode “The Plague Dogs” or something equally pithy.

To be clear, I don’t have a problem with Charlie being a complicated character of emotional depth. I want that for her. It’s one of the qualities that is often lacking in female heroes because there’s this notion that a woman can’t be emotionally vulnerable and a badass (ahem, Katniss, ahem, Lisbeth Salander). However, the problem isn’t that Charlie feels things. It’s that her feelings come across as overwrought and are therefore very irritating.

And already, because Charlie is so very irritating, I’m reading comments about how the show would have been so much better if it was about Miles. A guy. And granted, we would probably see those comments regardless, but c’mon show creators, did you have to make them completely justified? Charlie’s the weak link in the show. She hasn’t developed as a character, let alone as a hero. That was the most exciting part about the show, that we had a female hero on a quest.

And it’s not just Charlie. Maggie AKA British Chick AKA iPhone Girl, depending who you ask, was a non-character before they offed her. How much more interesting would she have been if her backstory had been played out slowly and patiently, if her relationship with Charlie had matured and developed over the course of the last four episodes? How much might we have cried over her death, over Charlie’s loss of her? But instead, she was only a blip in the plot line and Charlie’s mourning of her was just another note of histrionics. Nora AKA Hot Chick from Miles’s Past has some potential (her revelation about her son was compelling), but I’m also seeing serious potential for her to devolve into the Sexy If Slightly Badass Love Interest category. Don’t even get me started on Charlie’s mother, whose absconding to Fort Monroe is as nonsensical a plot point as the random tornado in this episode.

But Charlie & Co. aren’t alone in this ridiculous post-apocalyptic portrayal of gender. (I’m looking at you, The Walking Dead. Right at you.) I know that the apocalypse means a shift in social structure and, in some sense, this means backsliding, especially in scenarios like Revolution where technology is defunct. But I’m troubled by the notion that this justifies an archaic view of gender roles, that heroines can succeed only in the company of greater heroes, that women would be immediately herded back into domestic roles — at best. And what worries me is the why of this. Is it just lazy thinking on the part of these writers? Or is these something of the wish fulfillment we sometimes see in apocalyptic fiction, the desire to revert to simpler times, in this case simpler times of gender inequality?

Yes, that could easily be reading too much into it and I hope it is. But honestly, I have to wonder — could the reason Charlie and characters like her don’t succeed be that we as a society don’t want them to?

Are you still watching Revolution? How do you feel about Charlie’s characterization? Who’s your favorite post-apocalyptic/dystopian heroine?

As we discussed last time, dystopias often emerge from the wreckage of human civilization. Some event (apocalyptic or otherwise) triggers the dissolution of society as we know it. In The Hunger Games and The Windup Girl, it’s an environmental disaster. In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and P.D. James’s The Children of Men, it’s widespread infertility. The societies that spring up from these armageddons are often built around specific insecurities created by the events. For example, in The Windup Girl, the Environmental Ministry has become one of the most important divisions of government. In The Handmaid’s Tale, an unyielding social system of legal enslavement is built around fertile women.

What about the old school dystopias, you might very well ask? The societies that began as utopias and dissolved into dystopian nightmares. The societies of Fahrenheit 451Brave New WorldAnimal Farm1984, The Giver, and many others. In some ways, I’d argue that these defunct utopias are more frightening — they indicate a level of complicity on the part of your average citizen. What is truly frightening about Fahrenheit 451, for instance, is not, after all, that the government burns books. It’s that nearly everyone in that society is fine with it. Ordinary people report their neighbors for owning books. Our protagonist’s own wife would rather interact with the talking walls than her husband. Likewise, in The Giver, everyone is content enough to live without color, without love.

Here we have (usually totalitarian oligarchic) societies built around a series of ideals. We exchange intellectual curiosity for technological wonders. Absolute safety for personal freedom. Peace for individuality. On the surface, your average person would agree with many of these ideals. Hence the slow backslide from utopia to dystopia. In this case, unlike with the post-apocalyptic dystopia, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when the world changed. In many of these novels, there are few people left to remember it any other way. And, after all, how can you miss what you never had in the first place?

Of course, that is where the dissimilarities end. Be it a degenerating utopia or a post-apocalyptic reconstruction, a dystopia is a dystopia.

What’s interesting, however, is where culpability lies. For instance, on a superficial level, we might make the argument that a post-apocalyptic dystopia has a largely external impetus. Although you can track the human behaviors that lead to the cataclysmic events in, for example, a climate change-driven apocalypse, society isn’t destroyed directly by people. (It’s destroyed by tidal waves and hurricanes, etc.) Conversely, if a utopia is built around an idea that many, if not all, people in a given society prescribe to and that utopia then becomes corrupt (as utopias inevitably do), then that dystopia could be seen as being created directly by mankind.

So I’m especially curious about our contemporary fixation on the post-apocalyptic dystopia.  If the world ends and we rebuild an imperfect society, are we less at fault? Or is it that we’ve located our cultural anxieties in more dramatic events, such as catastrophic climate change? Do we fear less what we might do as a society than what will be done to us?

Although, of course, even a post-apocalyptic society is created by people so in the end, we still only have ourselves to blame.

What’s your favorite utopia gone dystopian? What differences/similarities do you notice between post-utopian and post-apocalyptic dystopias? And if you could create a utopian society around any ideal, what would it be?

It feels strange (and possibly insensitive?) to start a series of posts about the end of the world on today of all days, but it’s also strangely appropriate, I think. It’d be overly simplistic and naïve to say that the 9/11 terrorist attacks are fully responsible for our current fascination with the apocalypse, but it would be equally simplistic and naïve to say that they had nothing to do with it. Bottom line: just about every culture in the world has an apocalypse myth, from the Seventh Day Adventists to the Vikings. It is an ingrained part of any religious system; most polytheistic pantheons have a deity just for destruction. Kali Durga. Sekhmet. The Cailleach. (Funny how all of these are goddesses . . .)

So, no, our obsession with armageddon is not new. Our ancestors saw stars fall and floods happen and they got it. Life is fragile. The world as we know it can be over real quick if that’s what nature/Jörmungandr decides.

By the same token, a lot of contemporary anxieties about the end of civilization have to do, I’d argue, with current events. We see a similar fascination with the destruction of our society during the Cold War, when nuclear holocaust seemed like a real possibility to many. (By the way, Cold War B-movies are the best at expressing our cultural anxieties. They’re beautifully awful and not the least bit subtle.) Post-9/11–in an era when we worry about running out of water or, conversely, having too much water or being hit by asteroids or choking death in car exhaust or simply being undone by our own political system–is it any wonder that the apocalyptic genre has blown open like a faulty nuclear reactor?*

What I find most interesting is how this obsession translates to the dystopian genre, which, while related, is quite different. If there’s anything that fascinates us more than the end of the world, it’s what happens after the end of the world. Or to quote the truly terrible 2012, “the end is just the beginning.” Which, yeah, any zombie movie worth its salt knows that the story is about the survivors, the people who have witnessed the horrors of a cataclysm and by some ill luck lived. But the dystopian fiction of today takes it beyond the stragglers of Beckett’s Endgame or Matheson’s last man standing in I am Legend. These stories allow us to rebuild, to create new societies in the wake of utter disaster.

The problem is, we still manage to bungle it pretty horribly. Hence the dys— in dystopia. I mean, the Capitol in The Hunger Games has not learned any lessons from the totalitarian regimes of yesteryear. Neither have the soulless agricultural corporations in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. Or the isolationist residents of the Dome in Julianna Baggott’s Pure.

What do we draw from this? I think, yes, one of the reasons we obsess over the apocalypse is that it is a strange opportunity for a blank slate. After all, the survivors can be whoever they want in the wake of it, leave their old lives and old mistakes behind. And on a large scale, we can also do that as a society–eventually rebuild civilization as we see fit. But to what end? Because the message behind post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction is that we always manage to mess it all up again–sometimes worse than before.

Do you read apocalyptic fiction? Dystopian fiction? What draws you to it? What trends have you noticed?

*I know, I know, they don’t usually blow up. They just eat through their containers and render the surrounding countryside completely toxic and uninhabitable for centuries.