Friday, June 20, 2014

He Would Never: Thoughts on Game of Thrones's Fourth Season

Jaime: When we make camp tonight, you'll be raped.  More than once.  None of these fellows have ever been with a noblewoman.  You'd be wise not to resist.
Brienne: Would I?
Jaime: They'll knock your teeth out.
Brienne: You think I care about my teeth?
Jaime: No, I don't think you care about your teeth.  If you fight them, they will kill you.  Do you understand?  I'm the prisoner of value, not you.  Let them have what they want.  What does it matter?
Brienne: What does it matter?
Jaime: Close your eyes.  Pretend they're Renly.
Brienne: If you were a woman, you wouldn't resist?  You'd let them do what they wanted?
Jaime: If I was a woman, I'd make them kill me.  I'm not, thank the gods.

Game of Thrones, "Walk of Punishment"
Despite the title, this post isn't intended as a review of Game of Thrones's recently-concluded fourth season, about which I feel largely the same way I felt about the third and the second--I find the show terribly engaging while it's on, and tend to lose interest very quickly once the season has ended.  I think Todd VanDerWerff is dead on when he writes about the fourth season's increasing bittiness--an effect that I suspect was exacerbated by the choice to split the third book in A Song of Ice and Fire over two seasons, and that will probably increase as the series begins to adapt the books in which, by all accounts, George R. R. Martin began to lose what thread his story originally had.  The effect of that bittiness is that it's hard to think of the fourth season as a single unit, rather than an arbitrarily demarcated period of time in which certain things happened to the show's characters.  This also makes it hard to write about (though if you're looking for more traditional criticism, for my money the best to be found is Sarah Mesle's Dear Television column at the Los Angeles Review of Books).  Coming to the end of the season, then, the only definitive statement I can make about Game of Thrones has less to do with what was happening on screen, and more with the popular and critical reaction to it, the fact that the fourth season was the one in which a critical mass of people suddenly noticed just how rapey this show is.

In the season's third episode, "Breaker of Chains," Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) rapes his sister and secret lover Cersei (Lena Headey), over the body of their recently-murdered son.  The incensed reactions were swift to follow, complaining that showrunners and episode writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had changed what in the books was a consensual encounter, that doing so threw a wrench in the character development of Jaime, who had spent the third season developing a growing awareness of his selfishness and privilege, and that the scene represented but the latest instance of Game of Thrones's rape-happiness, its willingness to use sexual violence against women (always women) as a way of upping the stakes and increasing tension, with no consideration, or even interest in, the complex reality of rape and its victims.  AV Club reviewer Sonia Saraiya led the charge with her essay Rape of Thrones, but she was quickly followed by many other commenters decrying both the specific rape scene in "Breaker of Chains" and the show's overall use of rape as a plot device, culminating in a New York Times report on the debate.

To be sure, there are some obvious and serious problems with how rape is used and depicted in "Breaker of Chains," most crucially the fact that both Coster-Waldau and episode director Alex Graves sounded off, after the episode aired, to say that they believed the encounter "becomes consensual" because Cersei eventually lets Jaime have his way.  The rest of the fourth season has reflected this belief, with no change in the show's depiction of Jaime (he in fact plays one of the season's more positive figures, sending the stalwart knight Brienne to rescue the missing Stark daughters, and standing by his brother Tyrion when he is wrongly accused of murder), and no indication from Cersei that she views the encounter between them as a violation--in the season finale, she even rekindles their romantic relationship and initiates consensual sex with him.  But in the days following the episode, before knowing how the rest of the season would play out, I found the reactions to the rape scene confusing and troubling.  I hadn't enjoyed watching Cersei be raped, but as a depiction of rape I thought the scene in "Breaker of Chains" was brutal and unflinching in just the right way.  Compared to the sensationalism of Sansa's attempted rape in the second season (now they've got her on the ground!  Now they've torn her clothes off!  Now they're forcing her knees apart!  Will she be rescued before penetration?!?!!!!), Cersei's rape felt devastatingly spare and low-key.  This is how most rape happens, after all: in places where women feel safe, committed by men whom they know and had previously trusted.  Cersei's behavior throughout the rape, the way she tries to minimize and take control of the situation ("not here!"), her unwillingness to involve anyone else because that would make what was happening real and awful, are more wrenching than any of the brutal, larger than life scenes of rape and abuse the show had featured in the past.  They make the point that what's driving her is shock that such a thing could happen, that at the moment when she probably feels the least sexual in her life--standing over the body of her oldest son--she can still be cast as a sexual object by someone else, and forced to enact that role. 

Obviously, the fact that the scene wasn't intended as a rape and that the rest of the season behaves as if it wasn't one means that its effectiveness is, at best, accidental (and perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that Game of Thrones, a show that rarely hesitates to plump for the sensationalistic end of the sexual violence spectrum, can only touch on the true, stifling horror of rape when it doesn't even realize it's doing it).  On that front, I think the criticisms of "Breaker of Chains" and the rest of the season are spot-on, and in general I think that it was high time for the discussion of the show's use of rape and sexual violence to hit the mainstream, and for its producers to be made to answer for their choices to more than just a crowd of angry feminists.  But many of the terms in which the post-"Breaker of Chains" conversation was couched left me uneasy, and are, I think, ultimately counter-productive.

I'm bothered, for example, by the emphasis that so many criticisms of the episode put on the fact that it changes the details of the book.  Even if we agreed that this was a meaningful complaint--and at this point, the show has deviated from its source material so much that I hardly see how it could be--the original scene, as quoted, for example, in Saraiya's essay, is dubiously consensual at best.  It's fairly standard bad-romance-novel, no-means-yes stuff ("She pounded on his chest with feeble fists, murmuring about the risk, the danger, about their father, about the septons, about the wrath of gods. He never heard her."), and the fact that it's told from Jaime's point of view makes its interpretation of the encounter highly suspect.  In the more realist tone of the TV series, without a guiding point of view to tell us how to feel and react, it's not surprising that the same or very similar events look like rape.

Even more troubling, to me, is how much of the discussion of "Breaker of Chains" seemed focused on Jaime and how the rape of Cersei "ruins" his character and redemptive arc.  I could quibble with whether Jaime's arc of redemption is really as profound as many of the people commenting on the episode have made out--after all, even excluding the rape, his actions in the fourth season mainly consist of helping people he likes and letting his power-hungry, sadistic father walk all over him--but I do agree that he's become more sympathetic since he was introduced in the show's premiere episode throwing a ten-year-old boy out of a high window, if only because the show has given us more of a glimpse into his history and thought-process.  Nevertheless--or maybe even precisely for that point--I thought the choice to make him a rapist was actually a brilliant one, driving home precisely the kind of world the show takes place in.  The undertone of a lot of the criticisms made after "Breaker of Chains" was "Jaime would never," but if we've learned anything after four seasons of Game of Thrones, surely it's that there are very few men in the show's world who truly never would?

There's a very effective encapsulation of rape culture in the fact that multiple people were involved in scripting, acting, and directing a scene in which a woman is physically overpowered by a man over her repeated and clearly-heard cries of "no" and "stop," and yet apparently none of them think that what they've depicted is a rape, because after he's wrestled her to the ground and torn her clothes, she lies back and lets him finish.  But if we're all products of rape culture, what about the characters on Game of Thrones?  This is, after all, a world in which the intelligent, compassionate Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) has to think long and hard over whether he's going to force his child-bride Sansa to have sex with him, and when he decides not to the show signposts this as an indication of his goodness rather than, you know, the bare minimum of human decency.  A world in which the dying mercenary The Hound (Rory McCann) muses that he should have raped Sansa himself, because then he would have experienced "one moment of happiness."  A world in which characters who set themselves against rape--such as the mercenary Daario Naharis (Ed Skrein/Michiel Huisman), who loudly and repeatedly proclaims that one of the great pleasures in life is "to make love to a willing woman," or the Dornish nobleman Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal), who, angry over his sister's rape at the hands of a Lannister knight, wastes no opportunity to express his disgust at their use of rape as a weapon--are obvious aberrations.  It's a world in which men, even well-meaning ones, feel completely justified in directing the lives and choices of women, whether it's Robb Stark cavalierly promising his sister's hand in marriage in exchange for a strategically important bridge, or, in "Breaker of Chains" itself, Night's Watch member Sam Tarly (John Bradley), one of the gentlest, kindest characters in the series, forcing his friend Gilly (Hannah Murray) to leave Castle Black and live in a brothel, despite her repeated protestations.  (This proves to be a disastrous decision, as the village Gilly moves to is destroyed by raiding wildlings, and her and her child's lives are only spared through the compassion of another woman; nevertheless, Sam still feels justified in telling Gilly what to do, and the show clearly views this as a sign of his emerging masculinity.)

Jaime's rape of Cersei captures the pervasiveness of rape culture--in Westeros, and in our time and place--more powerfully and effectively than any of the series's more sensationalistic handling of the subject.  In other episodes, the show pretends that rape is the purview of monsters--characters like the vicious, bloodthirsty knight The Mountain, who raped Oberyn Martell's sister, or the renegade Night's Watch member Karl (Burn Gorman), who is introduced against a literal backdrop of women being brutally assaulted as he cackles "rape 'em till they're dead!", and who later menaces Bran Stark's friend Meera Reed (Ellie Kendrick) while she's tied up and whimpering.  But when the handsome, charismatic Jaime, who spent the third season being woobified and forming one of the show's more satisfying character pairings with the honorable Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) commits rape, the message it sends is something much more powerful.  It tells us that in a world in which concepts like consent, or women's agency, are only dimly understood, even supposedly good men can find themselves treating women like things. 

A lot of fans have pointed to the way that Jaime saves Brienne from being raped in the third season episode "Walk of Punishment" as a reason why he would never disrespect Cersei in the same way, but to me that only makes "Breaker of Chains"'s (unintended) message more powerful.  Like the episode's writers and director, Jaime can recognize rape when it's monstrous, something violent that a bunch of filthy soldiers are about to do to his friend.  But as the quote at the beginning of this episode demonstrates, he still lack basic empathy towards women, or any real understanding of what it means to be vulnerable (even the loss of his hand at the end of "Walk of Punishment" doesn't seem to have taught him this lesson).  I don't find it at all unbelievable that such a man would think that his former lover doesn't have the right to refuse him, that his feelings for her are something that she is responsible for, and that in forcing her to have sex he is only taking what is rightfully his.  Does this mean that every man in Westeros is a potential rapist?  Probably not--though as examples like Sam show, pretty much every man on Westeros apparently believes that he gets to order women around by sheer virtue of being a man.  But if you're going to pick a male character on Game of Thrones who would never stoop to rape, then Jaime Lannister--child-maimer, sister-fucker, generally depraved dude--is probably not the hill you want to die on.

None of this, of course, is to say that I am glad that Cersei was raped by Jaime--especially, again, given that what positive qualities I saw in the depiction of that rape are there largely by accident, and are undermined by the rest of the season's treatment of the scene as a consensual sexual encounter.  But it was very hard to read reactions to "Breaker of Chains" and not feel that their writers' main problem was not the show's use of rape--which, again, in the episode itself is much more subtle and effective than anything it has done before or since--but the fact that this particular rape had spoiled their ability to enjoy a beloved male character.

Flash forward a few weeks to the season finale.  Tyrion Lannister, who has been accused and convicted of the murder of his nephew (the same boy over whose body Cersei was raped) is freed from prison by the selfsame Jaime.  Instead of taking Jaime's offered escape route, Tyrion makes his way to the chambers of his father Tywin (Charles Dance), the architect of his conviction and a generally baleful influence in his son's life.  There he finds the prostitute Shae (Sibell Kekilli), his former lover, who denounced him during his trial.  Shae wakes up and, seeing Tyrion, grabs a fruit knife.  He jumps her, overpowers her, and strangles her to death with her own necklace.

To be clear, the fact that Tyrion murders Shae is not, in itself, a problem.  I knew that it happened in the book, I had hoped that the show would decide to avoid it, and I wasn't happy when it happened.  But as I've been saying, in a world like Westeros, a man killing his former lover, and especially a prostitute, for what he defines as a betrayal, is not a surprising or inconsistent turn of events.  What's wrong here isn't the fact of the murder, but how the show constructs the episode--the entire season, in fact--in order to get us to sympathize with and even condone Tyrion's actions.  Shae, who in the previous three seasons had been depicted as a warm, intelligent, kind person, is here stripped of all personality and discernible motivations.  There are no scenes from her point of view or in which she's free to express herself, so we never find out why she turns on Tyrion--is she being threatened, or bribed, or is she simply angry that he sent her away "for her own safety" (another reminder that even "good" men on Westeros don't let women make their own decisions)?  Does she really mean it when she testifies that all her expressions of love towards Tyrion were an act?  And why is Tyrion so angry at her betrayal, when earlier in the season he ordered his squire Podrick to save his own skin by doing the same thing?  Wouldn't Tyrion assume that this was what Shae was doing, and forgive her?  The murder scene itself seems equally determined to stress Shae's "guilt"--the fact that Tyrion finds her in another man's bed, the fact that she reaches for a weapon (never mind that Shae would have a pretty good idea of what happens to women like her when they're found in the wrong bed by a man who believes he owns them).  Her actual death isn't even about her--the camera remains fixed on Tyrion's face, and his anguish and mental distress over killing her are what fuel his immediate, cheer-worthy confrontation with Tywin, whom he kills.  (If you want some more discussion of how fucked up and disturbing the arrangement of Shae's death scene and her plotline during this season were, Sady Doyle has the goods.)

And the thing is, it really didn't need to be that way.  When Tyrion hears Shae's testimony in the episode "The Laws of Gods and Men," he breaks down and has what can only be described as a supervillain moment, castigating Shae, his family, and the entire population of King's Landing, whose lives he saved during the siege at the end of the second season, but who have now turned on him for, he believes, something that he never had any power over, his dwarfism.  "I wish I had enough poison for the whole pack of you," he tells the assembled noblemen at his trial.  "I would gladly give my life to watch you all swallow it."  It's a bitter, deranged moment in which Tyrion lets go of all his decency and goodness and gives in to anger and resentment.  If that tone had been allowed to persist, if Tyrion's murder of Shae (and Tywin) had been depicted as the act of a man driven by abuse into behaving like a monster, I think I could have accepted it.  But such is the state of Game of Thrones, that it can depict rape in all its horrifying complexity only by accident, but when it sets out to deliberately get at the terrible reality of intimate partner violence, it does so only to justify and excuse the abuser.  (And to be clear: Cersei's rape could have easily been made as sympathetic to Jaime as Shae's murder was to Tyrion, if only someone had understood what it was they were filming.  Cersei is, after all, a much less likeable figure than Shae, and Jaime is under the influence of exactly the same cocktail of frustration and feelings of emasculation driving Tyrion, and which the show uses to justify killing Shae.)

So what I want to know is: what the fuck is wrong with this fandom, and with the people writing about this show, that it can get up in arms over a pretty shady dude committing a rape that is actually very effectively depicted, but isn't bothered by a previously decent guy committing a murder that is manipulatively set up to make him look as guiltless as possible?  If fandom truly believes that Jaime would never, why is it not a problem that Tyrion did?  And yes, I know that Shae's murder was in the books, but A Storm of Swords was published fourteen years ago, and in all that time I haven't noticed the slightest diminution in Tyrion's appeal.  Fandom still thinks that he's the bee's knees, and no one seems terribly bothered by that girl he murdered that one time (if nothing else, this should alleviate the concerns of fans who are worried that they won't be able to like Jaime after seeing him rape Cersei).

To put it simply, this is why we can't have nice things.  If the only thing that gets a serious segment of fandom up in arms about Game of Thrones's use of rape and violence against women is the fear of having tarnished the gleam of a favorite male woobie, then the showrunners have absolutely no reason to change their behavior.  If they know that favorite characters can get away, literally, with murder so long as the person they murder is a woman who hurt them and slept with other men, they will simply keep showing us that.  I'm not saying that I have the solution here, and god knows that simply by continuing to watch the show I'm part of the problem.  But it is enormously frustrating to watch a critical conversation build around this show and its handling of violence against women, only to devour itself when it becomes clear that the real problem is a man (compare the paltry staying power of the post-"Breaker of Chains" conversation to the way that the role of women--or lack of same--on True Detective became the dominant theme in most discussions of the show, finally obliging even the show's creator to promise to do better next season).  Until actual fans of the show are willing to stand up and say that Shae's murder is as big a problem as Cersei's rape, we can keep looking forward to a lot more of both from Game of Thrones.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Review: Edge of Tomorrow

Over at Strange Horizons, I review the Tom Cruise time travel movie Edge of Tomorrow, a film that I thought was just terrible but which seems to be getting good reviews from all other quarters, which I honestly find quite baffling.  It's starting to feel a little like being the only reviewer not blown away by Looper, but where Looper had some genuine strong points (not least, recognizing that just because the male lead wants Emily Blunt to save him doesn't mean that's all she's got going on in her life, a fact of which Edge of Tomorrow remains sadly ignorant), Edge of Tomorrow is merely a competently made action film that squanders everything potentially interesting or thought-provoking about its premise and characters.

Incidentally, between watching the film and writing my review I decided to read the original novel, All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, just to get a sense of how big the gap between the two is (answer: not great in general but pretty huge in certain points).  It's not a great book by any stretch, but it's a quick read, and a hell of a lot more interesting than the movie in its handling of its premise, its world, and its characters (in particular, the relationship between the male and female leads is a lot more equitable, though the other female characters are often problematic).  If anything good comes out of Edge of Tomorrow it will be to call attention to Haikasoru and its project to bring Japanese SF to Anglophone audiences, and All You Need Is Kill is a good place to start.

(Note: the comments on Strange Horizons reviews are currently not working.  If you'd like to comment on the review, please do it here until we resolve the issue.)