Try harder. Do better.
May 18, 2015
So, here we are again. And it seems most of us, myself included, haven’t learned a damn thing.
My, but that purely does suck.
You know, initially I dismissed writing this. I really did. I read a number of tweets last night, many of them by folks I admire and respect quite a bit, who’ve stopped watching or never watched Game of Thrones. Upon hearing of the truly awful and unnecessary rape scene that ended last night’s new episode, the tone of these folks was casual, unsurprised, dismissive, even less rueful of the series and more rueful of the viewers.
The consensus among them is it’s not even worth talking about anymore.
While I don’t at all disagree with their decision to abandon and/or ignore the show, and I know those attitudes probably mask or are scabs over deep and severe pain over this kind of content, I think they’re very wrong about that last bit.
It is worth talking about.
Game of Thrones is an immensely popular piece of media, and popular media is always worth talking about.
In fact, it’s kind of everything.
Movies, television series, novels, they matter. A lot. Popular forms of them matter even more, because it’s popular media that shapes our culture, our perceptions and perspectives, and shapes the stories and storytellers that come after.
What’s popular in fiction is dreadfully powerful, and dreadfully important.
About a year ago I wrote a post very similar to this one, to which I’m unable to link now because, like so many other posts from 2014, it was lost when we switched this website over. That post was written on the heels of the widespread outrage over the character of Jaime Lannister raping his sister Cersei beside their son’s funeral bed on an episode of Game of Thrones.
I wrote about a lot of things in that post. I wrote about how stunningly and dangerously out-of-whack our priorities and perceptions are. I wrote about how rape seemed to be fourth on the list of things people were outraged by in that scene, after the choice of location, the incest factor, and the fact it wasn’t in the books. I wrote about how there was nothing approaching that level of outrage or outcry when, in the very next episode, Burn Gorman’s character Karl Tanner delivered a monologue while around him literally a dozen women characters were being violently raped. I wrote about fanboys letting themselves and the book series off the hook because that particular rape wasn’t one of the many rapes in the canon, and how George RR Martin is in fact responsible for the world he created and that continues to be created by television writers.
I wrote about the quick and needed death I want to watch rape as a cheap device of narrative drama die.
I stand by all those points, and they all apply to last night’s grotesque rape of Sansa Stark.
Not only is it an increasingly repetitive use of gratuitous sexual assault in the series, it’s probably the most denigrating yet to actual survivors of rape and to women characters in the series itself. It almost immediately follows a scene in which Sansa stands up for herself, a scene of empowerment, of her owning her fear and position and circumstance. I’m not even sure that was a conscious decision on the writer’s part, which is even more disturbing when you think about it. Just as bad as that is the fact they focus on Theon’s face almost the entire time Sansa is being assaulted. Sansa’s character is divorced from her own scene of assault. It becomes about how her violation impacts him. It nullifies and reduces and erases her character, that assault, and its effect on the actual victim.
It was about as backwards as visual storytelling gets, and it is sadly, infuriatingly par for the course.
Yesterday was a day of interesting juxtaposition for me. With the love of my life, Nikki, I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road in the theater. I watched Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa utterly own the post-apocalyptic wasteland. I watched a plotline that had concerned me deeply in the trailers, that of the “Vestal Virgins,” executed with dignity and without victimization. I saw sexual assault referenced and its effects explored through character, but no rape or the threat of rape utilized or exploited for dramatic purposes. I watched old women kicking ass and taking names. And without a sign pointed at any of it. It all just played out.
It was inspiring, entertaining, compelling, and engaging.
Then we came home and watched the newest episode of Game of Thrones, which ended with a young woman having her power taken away as soon as she dared to own it. We watched as just as quickly that violation was dismissed and reduced to a cheap enhancement for a male character. We were repulsed instead of compelled, disgusted instead of engaged. It was a lazy, obvious, repetitive attempt to shock and manipulate base emotions that only reinforced the standard gender roles we see in movies and on TV all the time.
Women as helpless victims.
Men as dominators of women.
Rape as a normal, expected event.
Two very popular pieces of media and culture operating at the height of their respective mediums, both dealing with the same subject matter.
In my opinion, humble and novice though it may be, one of those works got it right and the other failed itself and us all.
The writers of Game of Thrones haven’t learned a damn thing. They’re still using rape as a cheap plot device, and reducing any woman who dares to exist in their world let alone attain power in that world to victims.
The audience hasn’t learned a damn thing. They’re still shocked by the circumstance of a rape rather than the act itself and how it’s used in this way.
And I haven’t learned anything either, because I’m still watching the show. I’m still enabling that brand of storytelling season after season because there are aspects and characters I like in the series.
So, what do I have to write now that I didn’t write a year ago?
I want to speak to the future creators out there. The “aspiring,” as you’re called. Because that’s largely who follows me on Twitter and whatnot. I don’t want to speak to the writers of Game of Thrones or similar series/scenes, because they are who they are and I hold little hope for them improving or changing. I don’t want to talk to the writers out there of both screen and prose who are doing great work and getting it right and changing and challenging gender roles, because those writers have got their shit figured out, or at least figured out enough.
I want to speak to you folks who are going to go on to write the novels that hit and sell the pilots that become the next big dramatic series. I want to speak to the folks who will staff the writers’ rooms of television shows and will develop a voice in the process. I want to talk to those among you who will sell a spec screenplay and/or be given the chance to script a mainstream movie.
Sadly, that won’t be most of you. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Most of you will never get to create work utilized by those mediums, at least on that level.
But maybe, just maybe, a few of you will make it through.
So, I want to speak to you and I want to tell you this: Try harder. Do better.
If you make it over the wall it’s going to get even more difficult than the climb. There are going to be deadlines and demands and entitled fans and pissed off editors and demanding producers and the more you win the more pressure there will be to keep winning and even if you aren’t being asked to compromise your standards your brain will simply just get tired, and you will be backed into a creative corner one way or another.
In that corner you can decide to have the bad guy rape the powerless girl and most of the audience won’t think about it too deeply and they’ll hate the bad guy and feel sympathy and pity for the girl and they’ll be shocked and outraged and tune in next week to watch the fall-out, hoping for some form of satisfaction.
You can decide to do that, or you can actually try.
George Miller didn’t have to invite Eve Ensler to consult on his movie. He didn’t have to cast Charlize Theron or write the part of Furiosa. He didn’t have to think any deeper than a six-pack of models in white midriffs for his captive women. He could’ve crashed cars into each other and blown shit up for ninety minutes and still gone home pretty happy and even done just as well at the box office.
George Miller, at age 70 and without a hit Mad Max film in almost 25 years, actually tried.
The writers of Game of Thrones didn’t have to end last night’s episode by violating Sansa Stark. They didn’t have to settle for shocking us rather than trying to compel and engage us.
The writers of Game of Thrones, in the fifth season of an impossibly popular television series that can literally do no wrong at this point, did not try.
They relied on the same repetitive, lazy device and damaging, problematic roles they always have. And there’s nothing to be done about that. It’s the juggernaut it is, they can get away with it, and the majority of creators being put on by Hollywood are who they are.
However, here’s the good news. The next generation of all of this belongs to you. Some of you will create the media that people talk about and discuss and dissect the way they do with Game of Thrones and are doing with Mad Max, and it will inspire and influence the generation of creators after you.
That’s how things actually change.
And hey, if what you want to create is a serious and genuine exploration of sexual assault and/or its survivors because that’s the story you have to tell or desperately want/need to tell, by all means.
But if rape is the device you choose to create drama because you’re too lazy and/or unoriginal to delve deeper with your story, we don’t need you anymore.
Among many other things, we need to see women in fiction the way women actually are, not the way mostly male writers have imagined them in popular culture for centuries and continue to regurgitate now.
We don’t need to keep seeing their helpless victimization and the minimization of sexual assault by its use as a cheap dramatic device.
That’s all. That’s what I’m going to try to do. That’s what I encourage you to do. Outrage and “think” pieces (I love that we’ve finally cast thinking as a pejorative, by the way. Fuck everyone who complains about “think” pieces), while often entirely valid, don’t change anything.
Create the media you want to see.
Create the media we all need to see.
When it’s your turn, try harder and do better.
Also: Make damn sure you get a turn.