Content Warning: This article discusses violence against women, including physical assault, as depicted on the show.
A few days ago, when I opened my YouTube app, the “Fred Punishes Serena” scene from The Handmaid’s Tale‘s “Women’s Work” (S02 E08) was the top video “recommended” for me. Within a few hours, I saw it go from 95k to 123k views.
The Woke Feminist Show was now providing out-of-context kinky content. Truffaut was right: the Aesop was broken.
Please, God, Make This End, And Just Nuke Gilead
Up until now, each week I would count the hours until a new episode came out. It was torture, in many ways, yet I returned to the weekly horror show that exploited each and everyone of my paranoid-fueled anxieties. This week, I didn’t care. I even forgot about the episode. Oh, I did watch it, but I took my time. I wasn’t in any hurry to return to Gilead. In fact, I increasingly wish for the whole place to be nuked, no matter if it means the death of my beloved Emily — I think we robbed her from that already. Why do I feel this way?
Something died in me last week.
It’s always the risk playing with Shock and Awe storytelling: at some point, you’ll stop caring. I stopped caring. I just want the whole show done and over.
The Breaking Point: How Far is “Too Far”?
I’m not here to judge. Maybe that scene did nothing to you. Your breaking point may differ. For some it may have been the first episode of Season 2. Or the second–rubbing in our faces Emily’s backstory after dumping her in Season 1. Because queer women are only good for inspiring the straight woman. And let’s not even talk about Moira—others have done it better. Like, why did we have to wait until episode 7 to get her damn backstory?
On top of the justified critiques of White Feminism, you could also question the show’s cisness: Where are trans women? What happened to trans men? And, most important of all: do I actually want to know? (I may not actually want to know, but wow it’s like they don’t exist in this universe.)
Well, now, The Handmaid’s Tale is starting to fail feminism itself—though that would hardly be surprising given its fear of the F word (at least last year).
You know what would be great if you wanted to go “beyond the book”? Showing the damn Resistance. Because, if you haven’t read the book, you wouldn’t really know just by watching the series that the narrative itself is a historical document post-Gilead. Gilead is OVER. But then I guess if they did, the series wouldn’t be able to revel in the many layers of horror in the ‘past’ and the ‘present’, while at the same time never giving any hope for the future.
A Revolution Without Revolution
Revolutions are messy. I’m going to take a little detour into Star Wars, but I promise I’ll come back to The Handmaid’s Tale. The new Star Wars trilogy does a good job at questioning the feel-good but simplistic ending of Return of the Jedi (both of the original and of the special edition). Oppressive regimes don’t fall so easily because oppression is structural and holds on. One good thing about the Prequels was the way they showcased how established institutions slowly morphed from the Republic to the Empire. They didn’t do so very well, but the basics are there.
In The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, we see that there was no simple “happily ever after”, that freedom is fragile, and hope too. How easily one can give in to a nihilistic perspective because Good and Evil are made-up words. Is it better to not take a side? Does it really make you free? No. And that’s what Rogue One did well, too. You can ignore the evil going on around you, but you’re deluding yourself.
Revolutions are complicated. “You’re rebels, aren’t you?” Yes, but. Rogue One brilliantly, and very simply, highlights the tensions between moderates and radicals—between the Alliance and Saw Gerrera—and within the Alliance itself. Each choice, each decision is important. And sometimes the confrontation becomes inevitable. These themes are also cleverly explored in Steven Universe through Bismuth for example (though this show isn’t without its own issues, especially in light of the latest, possibly message-changing reveal.)
You’d think TV series given at least 10 hours of screentime would explore these ideas, all the difficult decisions, ethical implications and much-needed nuances. I guess not.
So far, the running theme of both second seasons of Westworld and The Handmaid’s Tale (and there are similarities) seems to boil down to: rebellion is worse than oppression. Dolores Abernathy is now a one-dimensional antagonist. Meanwhile, The Handmaid’s Tale ponders whether you should truly root for Mayday, the Resistance movement against Gilead, because after all they’re terrorists right?
Now I’m not saying we should paint Dolores’ or Lillie (Ofglen #2)’s actions as fully heroic and wholly pure. (Though why not? Men get to play and live through those fantasies, even when they stem from suffering, rage and revenge.) But some nuance would be nice?
Instead, the whole point can be summed up as: let’s see how far we can show suffering and violence against women to make some kind of point, shaming people for not being “strong enough” to stomach it, which means clearly they’re not “woke,” all the while undermining resistance against Gilead by morally positing it as “just as bad.”
Punishing you for NOT caring
Because of the TV series format, there is currently no end in sight. And yet there should be because of the very book itself: it was a historical document found and studied in a world where Gilead had been defeated. The book is framed in a way to make you understand the past is past and over and there is a future and life after Gilead. Meanwhile the Hulu adaptation only knows the past and present, in which suffering is endless.
“This is painful for me as well,” Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) tells a handmaid in one moment. “But only in suffering will we find grace.” The Handmaid’s Tale probes this statement like a decaying tooth, exposing how rotten it is. This suffering is vicious and visceral. There’s no grace to be found.” (Sophie Gilbert)
The thing is, The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation isn’t telling us anything new. It’s not making us more “woke.” The target demographic is already well-aware. If the point is to make us act, why does the writing make us feel so powerless and hopeless each week? What kind of praxis is this? Every new episode sinks lower into hell. You thought being sent to the Colonies was the worst? Well think again! Emily sure didn’t see that coming.
It also feels like the writers had no actual idea what to do after showing the horrors of the Colonies. It was just that: showing a labor death camp. And more dead lesbians. Sure, I loved (white) Fiona and (black) Kit’s wedding scene presided by Jewish rabbi Sally–all seemingly middle-aged women (though it could also be early aging caused from toxic poisoning).
Sure, it was incredibly anvilicious, but I did honestly like it, because I do love lack of subtlety when it drives the point across–and it did. But come on. The current direction of the show wasn’t the only option after that.
Here’s a few ideas!
How about Janine and Emily organize a successful revolt in the Colonies? (Warsaw Ghetto but with a good ending instead?) How about they meet June’s mother, who’d still be alive and not just another plot point to make us suffer? How about they meet Mayday, who’d be coming to liberate a camp (another obvious allusion)? Where the fuck is Mayday? What the fuck is Mayday?
But no. After exploiting all the horrors of the Colonies, it’s back to the sexual servitude—thanks to Mayday and Lillie’s suicide attack! Gee.
How about we don’t start the season with June’s escape, knowing this can’t go on because plot. Instead, the nightmares start all over. Seeing June back in the red robes she had burned was devastating. Seeing Emily back in them was just pure cruelty.
And then, somehow, it got worse. Seems like they went to GOT school of writing, where everything can always get worse.
That Serena Joy Scene
I’ll try breaking this down for you.
Fred tells Nick to bring Serena and June in his office. He tells them to close the door. June does. He lectures Serena for disobeying her husband (the context is really not important). He reads the bible. We get a close-up of his belt, which he takes off, then shots of the faces of the horrified women. More talking. He slowly pulls a chair, signals Serena to bend over it. He whips her buttocks with the belt. June flinches and turns back but he orders her to watch.
I didn’t count how long the scene actually was because I had to pause it constantly. In my opinion, it was too long already JUST FOR EXISTING.
In the next scene, Serena is crying in her bedroom and taking off her clothes. Thankfully we don’t see her getting down to her underwear because of the framing. However, we do see a close up of her bruised skin as well as her panties when she looks at herself in the mirror.
My biggest problem? This shot looks “sexy” and clashes entirely with the tone. Are we meant to be aroused? Is it supposed to be kinky instead of violent? It reminds me a scene from Secretary (though the whole movie premise stands on the thin red line of “arguably consensual and potentially problematic”), but more than anything, the mix of abuse and kink made it feel as disturbing as 50 Shades of Grey.
Good job you woke feminists!
So, Was It “Too Far”?
Now I know we could get into an endless debate over whether we needed to see this or not. I didn’t. You might. We’ll likely disagree, and that’s okay too. Let me just tell you why I think we didn’t need to see it.
It wasn’t the violence itself—we’ve seen a lot of it—but how it was performed. Sure, we’ve seen a lot of ritualized violence, but this one is just too much for me. It’s hard to explain. The show was already incredibly unpleasant, but this feels beyond that. This kind of violence is also, unlike most of the others, more “ordinary” and common. Maybe that’s why it feels so much worse, especially since it looks like porn.
Burned hands, cut tongues, plucked eyes, fake executions, ritualized rapes, cliterecdomy—those are all extreme forms of violence. They were extremely violent, that’s the keyword. In that context, is this scene worse than anything we’ve already seen ? No. But it’s the last straw when the show was already going downhill.
It was also totally avoidable from a writing point of view. Serena’s “sin” for which she was being “punished” was related to writing in a society in which women are forbidden to do so (and she wrote in her husband’s name on top of it). The perverse logic that rules Gilead dictates he should’ve struck her hands like nuns did to left-handed children. They live by a “if your hand sins, cut it off” mentality. Whipping her behind with a belt for writing doesn’t make sense. But I guess that’s not sexy violence and we wouldn’t get sexy close ups of her bruises and panties if he’d whipped her hands.
I’ll be honest, I hate Serena. The more the show tries to humanize her, the more monstrous she actually becomes. So yes, I’ve been craving to see Serena pay for her crimes, but not like that. This scene has only two potential outcomes for the audience:
- Making her sympathetic by making us feel bad for her (and this week’s episode, “Smart Power”, barely brought it back up, besides a shared shudder between Serena and the audience)
- Revenge porn
Yes, I wanted reckoning for Serena, but in the form of an eventual trial and execution for her many crimes. I didn’t want to see that. But as of right now, all this series dedicated to denouncing violence against women seems able to do is revel in voyeuristically showcasing the very violence they condemn, and shaming us if we’re triggered by it.
Images courtesy of Hulu.
Conclusion to Stumbling Beginnings in Summer Knight
It had to happen sometime. I talked last book about how much Butcher had improved on his shaky start. Published in 2002, Summer Knight brings the shaky opening to a conclusion. It also opens up a new phase of storytelling for the series as a whole. In case you couldn’t tell, I really like this book. It brings so much to the series, and features one of the more iconic moments of the series for Murphy. Let’s get into it.
Spoilers for Summer Knight and all previous books in the series.
So, What Happened?
Summer Knight opens with Harry and Billy investigating a rain of toads. Harry grumps around and alienates all his friends because of his grief over Susan. Afterwards, he goes to a meeting Billy orchestrated, which turns out to be with Mab, Queen of the Winter Fae. She bought his debt from the Leanansidhe, and wants him to clear her name for a murder. Harry refuses and goes to the White Council meeting. We meet several other wizards, and a vampire offers peace between the White Council and Red Court if they turn over Harry. At the conclusion of the meeting, the wizards agree not to sacrifice Harry if he makes Mab cooperate with the Wizards.
Harry discovers that the murdered man, Ronald Reuel, was the Summer Knight, the human intermediary for the Summer Court. The power he wielded disappeared, destroying the balance. Which, eventually, leads to war between the Courts. Elaine, shows up as the Summer Emissary. Harry attends Reuels funeral, and runs into several teenage, changeling acquaintances of the knight who are concerned over the disappearance of Lily. He visits the Winter Lady, then contacts Murphy. They fight several monsters in a Wal-Mart. He goes to the Summer Lady after finding Elaine beaten by his car.
Harry visits the Summer and Winter Mothers in the Nevernever. The Winter Mother gives him an Unraveling. Aurora, the Summer Lady steals it from him and reveals she orchestrated everything to remake the seasons in her own image. She trapped the power inside Lily. Harry objects to this. Harry, the Alphas, and two of the teenage changelings go to the Stone Table. They interrupt the fight between seasons, steal back the Unraveling, and kill Aurora, saving Lily, the one holding the mantle. In the conclusion, Lily becomes the new Summer Lady.
Best Moment – The Wal-Mart Fight, Organization to Conclusion
There are so many good things about this scene. There’s finally communication, Murphy’s first moment of awesome, and plot hooks perfectly combined with character catharsis. Over the course of this unlikely placed scene, Butcher manages to bring several elements of the early series to a conclusion.
The first, of course, is that Harry finally tells Murphy everything about the supernatural. She even gets in one last one-liner about being kept out, a start to their banter for the rest of the series. “‘I know I’ve kept things from you.’ … ‘Yeah’, she said, ‘I know. It’s annoying as hell.’”(299). He tells her everything. About the Red Court, the White Council, the Fae, and Chicago Supernatural Politics. Now, we won’t have the cheap conflict from Storm Front where they work at cross-purposes again.
Immediately afterwards, we have the fight with the chlorofiend, the Tigress, and the mind fog. At the conclusion of that fight, we also have Murphy’s first major impact since the Loup-Garou. “Murphy tore through them with the chain saw, … then drove the blade directly between the chlorofiend’s glowing green eyes.” (345). Chainsaw with cold iron, vs Fae Creature. Murphy wins.
The way that the plot interacts shows improvement from the previous book. There, Butcher attempted to tie together the antagonists with the chain spells. Here, we see the ghoul, the summoned monster, and the mind fog from two different people. The Tigress also capitalizes on Murphy’s trauma from the previous book. But everything makes sense, and the conclusion of the fight ties together various plot threads, since Ace sent the Tigress, Aurora the fog and fiend, and Murphy starts to recover from Kravos’s attack.
Most Improved – Harry’s Attitude
While some of the previous books focused more on the change to other people, here we have Harry change. He has a character arc that comes to a satisfying conclusion by the end. Harry starts the book depressed over Susan, and he alienates everyone. Billy points it out. “I don’t need to be a wizard to see when someone’s in a downward spiral. You’re hurting. You need help.” (25). Given that Billy previously espoused the theme of the series, his reintroduction here is significant. Eventually, Harry accepts the help Billy offers, both in scheduling meetings, and with the fight at the end. After the fight, Harry even goes over to hang out with the Alphas, and plays a barbarian in a Dungeons & Dragons spin-off game. He quotes William Shakespeare jokingly, and says, “Meep, Meep” to a deranged Faerie Queen. (489).
It is not only the Alphas that help change Harry’s mood. His reunion with Eileen, his teenage flame, who he thought he killed alongside Justin also helps. Finding out he didn’t kill her brings him closure. But through the book, when she nominally serves as an opponent, the Summer Emissary to his Winter, her presence reassures him. Even when she ‘betrays’ him to Aurora, and binds him, she still helps him. “I’d been right. It was the same binding she’d used when we were kids.” (433). Her meddling enables him to escape Aurora’s death trap, by using their childhood bond.
At the conclusion of the book, she gives him advice regarding Susan that builds to the catharsis detailed above. “Stop thinking about how bad you feel—because if she cares about you at all, it would tear her up to see you like I saw you a few days ago.” (510). That help sends him in a new direction.
Best Worldbuilding – The Fae Courts
While the information on the White Council is delightful, the Fae Court proves more valuable to the main plot. And we learn a lot about the Courts here. Lea makes an appearance, where she ‘helps’ Harry by distracting him and a Fae from fighting and guiding him to the Stone Table. She mentions again how she believes her actions last book only helped him as well. It gives insight to the alien nature of Fae morals.
We also can draw conclusions about the structure of the Courts given all the information on how they organize themselves. Through the book, we learn about the Winter and Summer Courts, each with three Queens. The Mothers, the retired queens. The Queens, the current ruler. And the Ladies, the heir for the future. Their Knights that do their will in the mortal world, and the Emissaries chosen on special occasions.
Also informative is the phrase, “If Winter came here, Summer had to come too, didn’t it?” (219). It implies certain checks and balances on each other’s behavior. That only highlights how serious a problem it is that the Summer Knight is dead, and the mantle gone. Lea’s information about the Stone Table reinforces that. Beyond being a reference to Narnia, it also guarantees great power to whoever holds the table, and whoever sheds blood on it. So, the peaceful transfer of the table from Summer to Winter and back with the seasons preserves their equality. Aurora’s plan only serves to show how important it is to keep that balance, less there be another Ice Age, or worse.
In showing us all this, Butcher expands his universe so much further, and sets the ‘table’ for future stories. Ones that will lead to the eventual conclusion of the series, yet to come.
Worst Worldbuilding – The Conclusion of Meryl’s Story
Given all that we know now about the Fae, it comes as no surprise that the worst worldbuilding also comes from that section of the story. Butcher’s take on Changelings is innovative, being half-human, half-Fae rather than the traditional version. The problems arise from how the narrative treats her, and the results of her half-Fae heritage.
The problem with Meryl is that Meryl dies at the end of the story. She is the first person explicitly allied with Harry to die. The only previous person that was not an antagonist that died was MacFinn, and he attempted to murder them all because of an uncontrollable curse. Meryl dying in and of itself is not the entire problem. Butcher directs the series in a darker direction, so deaths will come eventually. The issue that I have with the conclusion of Meryl’s story is that Butcher could have done so many things with her. As a Changeling aligned with Winter, dearest friend of the new Summer Lady and Knight, the possibility of an inter-Fae alliance or Court would develop.
She even said, “[Winter] Calls,’ Meryl said. ‘ But I’m not answering.’” (459). The Changelings provide a glimpse of the Fae outside of the manipulation, outside of Court politics. Meryl could have been symbolic of that. But no. Meryl Chooses to save Lily. She Chooses and she dies and all that hope with her. It’s a story brought too soon to a conclusion, one that broke off threads that could have continued.
Moment of Regression – Ye Old Wandering Eyes
I will admit, this is a sticking point for me. I talked about my dislike of Harry’s voyeurism in Storm Front. I brought it up again in Fool Moon. Thankfully, it didn’t appear too often in the following books, but here we see this again with a vengeance. And it doesn’t even make sense in character this time.
After a Susan-vampire nightmare, Harry thinks.
“But I had been used to a certain amount of friendly tension relieving with Susan. Her absence had killed that for me, completely—except for rare moments during the damned dreams when my hormones came raging back up to the front of my thoughts again as though making up for lost time.” (176).
So, theoretically at least Harry’s libido takes a break. I understand that part of this nightmare and Harry’s symptoms comes from the dangerous way he’s punishing himself for Susan’s condition. But, still. Even before this dream we have moments where he stares at Mab’s ass. He knows she’s the Winter Queen, and he still ogles her when she leaves. At Maeve’s court, Butcher spends a good deal of time describing Jenny Greenteeth, a Fae seductress. He could have emphasized the alien way she moves, the details that make her decidedly not human, and dropped a one-liner about her being naked at the end. It would have been in character for Harry’s blasé kind of humor. Instead, Butcher flips that script, focusing on the nakedness, with the inhumanity coming as an aside.
Call it my own personal soapbox, if you will, but that doesn’t sit well with me, especially when the last book did so much better with Harry’s gaze. (Not perfect, of course, but better. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just needs to keep improving.)
Overall, Summer Knight showcases the best of Butcher’s work so far. While the choices were somewhat limited compared to last book, the plot hangs together much better. That cohesive plot lent its voice to each category, and the worst moments were nitpicks and could-have-beens.
The way that Butcher brought this story arc, and Harry’s character arc to a conclusion proved satisfying. His mastery of plot improved, with the motivations of the antagonists and the number being reasonable, instead of overwhelming. The knowledge about the Fae, about the Council, and about Elaine all help set up this next phase of the series. I’m looking forward to the next book.
Am I being too nit-picky in the ‘bad’ categories, or is it just proof of concept that the problems can be reduced to nitpicks? Was the White Council more fascinating than the Fae, or was Harry’s arc disjointed? Let me know if I’m being too harsh on the series, if you had a different idea for a category, or if you have any comments about the arc of the series as a whole. I look forward to hearing from you.
Game of Thrones 3×10 Rewatch: Mediocre
We’ve done it! We’ve made it through three seasons of Game of Thrones here with our rewatch project The Wars to Come. And with that, we’ve also made it through the most bearable parts of this series by showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D). While last week brought some mixed reviews, it seems that this week, Kylie, Julia, and Katie are leaning more towards jeers and boos in “Myhsa.”
Picking up from last week’s morbid end, it’s a slaughter outside the Twins as the Frey troops finish off Robb’s forces. Arya, escaping with Sandor, oversees her brother’s body being paraded about—now with Grey Wind’s head on his shoulders. The next morning, Walder Frey chats with Roose Bolton about their improved stations, now that Roose has become the Warden of the North. Roose reveals that his bastard Ramsay was the one who got the Ironborn to surrender Winterfell, and the one keeping Theon hostage now. Arya and the Hound, meanwhile, pass a group of Frey soldiers who brag about aiding in sewing Grey Wind’s head onto Robb’s body. Arya slips off Sandor’s horse and kills one of them, with Sandor killing the other two to protect her.
We check in with Theon and Ramsay, the latter of whom is still torturing the former. Theon asks to be killed, but Ramsay points out he’s not useful to him that way. He decides that Theon’s new name is ‘Reek’.
At some point, Ramsay had sent a box containing Theon’s castrated penis to the Iron Islands, with a letter telling the Ironborn to withdraw from the North. Balon and Yara receive it, and though Balon seems completely indifferent to Theon’s suffering, Yara decides that she will take her best fighters and rescue her brother.
Despite the massacre at The Twins, things seem rather peaceful in King’s Landing for a moment as Sansa jokes around with Tyrion about ways they can prank those who speak poorly of him. However, that is soon dashed when he attends a Small Council meeting where it’s revealed what happened to the Stark forces. Joffrey is gleeful and says he wants to show the corpse of Robb to Sansa, but Tyrion tells him he can’t torment her any more. This leads to an unpleasant confrontation, which Tywin puts an end to by sending Joffrey to bed. As everyone else clears out, he reminds Tyrion that he must impregnate Sansa now that she’s officially the heir to Winterfell. That might prove difficult, since when Tyrion sees her next, it’s clear she heard about her family and is incredibly sad.
Later, Varys tries to bribe Shae to leave Westeros, since he believes Tyrion can help the land and Shae is a distraction to that end. She refuses. Tyrion, for his own part, passes his time by drinking with Pod, until Cersei comes in and tells him that he really should impregnate Sansa, so that she can have some joy in her life, just like Cersei’s children brought her. Much later, Jaime arrives back in the city, and meets a stunned Cersei.
Up at The Wall, Bran and the Reeds take shelter in one of the abandoned Night’s Watch castles. Bran tells them it’s haunted because of the ‘rat cook,’ a man who killed his guests under his own roof and was cursed into the form of a rat. Gilly and Sam turn up at the same castle, and Sam recognizes Bran as Jon’s brother. He gives Bran and the Reeds his dragonglass to help protect them as they set out north of the Wall.
Sam and Gilly make their way back to Castle Black, where Sam makes the case to Maester Aemon that Gilly is worthy of their protection given their vows extend to the “realms of men.” Gilly names her baby after Sam, and Aemon, after learning what they had seen, commands Sam to send out all the ravens with this news.
They’re not the only ones to make it back to Castle Black; Ygritte finds Jon washing his wounds. He tells her he loves her, but he has to go home, and says he knows she won’t hurt him. That bit turns out to be wrong since she shoots him with arrows three times, though Jon still manages to ride back to the castle where he is greeted by Sam and Pyp.
Down at Dragonstone, Davos struggles with Gendry as a prisoner. The two talk, and Davos reveals that he too was lowborn and from Flea Bottom. Later, Davos reads through Stannis’s mail having made great strides in his literacy. He comes across Maester Aemon’s letter and is shocked. However, the news arrives that Robb has died, which means Stannis wants to sacrifice Gendry, since they now have a sign that the leech magic worked. Davos tries to argue against it, but it’s hopeless.
Davos instead breaks Gendry out and sneaks him into a rowboat, giving him guidance on how to get back to King’s Landing. When it’s discovered that Gendry is missing, Davos is correctly accused by Stannis and Melisandre. He’s sentenced to die, but Davos quickly pulls out Aemon’s letter and tells Stannis the real fight is to the north. Melisandre agrees with him, and tells Stannis that Davos has a part to play still.
Finally, in Yunkai, the now freed slaves come outside their gates to meet Danaerys. Her Unsullied guards are wary, but when the freedmen begin calling out “Mhysa” to her (meaning “Mother”), she realizes that no one will hurt her. She leaves the protection of her Unsullied to walk among the Yunkish.
Initial, quick reaction
Kylie: I’m really not able to type well, because I am still cringing from the crowd surfing scene. And especially knowing the script fully intended for Dany’s whiteness to be the focal point…ugh.
Trying to think about this episode as a whole, there was so much that just straight up annoyed me, but then the numerous Davos and Bran scenes somehow were well-placed enough that I’d calm down. It’s not that they were even that amazingly done (seriously, how would any show-only like Stannis at this point?), but the rest was just…very clearly not the show we began with in Season 1.
Katie: I was happy to get to jump on this rewatch because I always am interested in tenth episodes of Game of Thrones’s seasons. The big climax has just occurred and then there’s so much wrapping up and scene-setting to establish what comes next. They’re so often good barometers of how the show is doing. This one was a roller coaster for me. It reminded me of a lot of the things I genuinely enjoyed about the earlier seasons of the show, but then Sansa would be sidelined, Ramsey would monologue, or oof, that whole last scene.
Julia: All of this episode was mostly a need to set things up for the coming seasons. Sometimes this makes perfect sense, like setting up Stannis going north, but sometimes I was just scratching my head going, “Why are they digging this whole even deeper?”
Okay, that was mostly the scene where Shae rejected those diamonds. Like, did they have a different plan for her at that point? Why?
Kylie: I actually think my highlight was Walder and Roose talking, since you can clearly see just how odious they are, and also how that chip on Walder’s shoulder came to define a war. Roose was a bit hypocritical with his, “Robb didn’t listen to me ever” and also, “here’s how the situation with my bastard unfolded that Robb sanctioned,” but that’s not exactly an issue since we’re not meant to be convinced by these two. At least I don’t think so.
My lowlight is a very personal annoyance, I know, but Sansa laughing and joking with Tyrion and not knowing the word “shit” was pure sheep shit in and of itself. Also how many times did Arya possibly stick poo in the mattress that Sansa was no doubt sharing with like, Jeyne Poole?
It’s just, come on. I get that the sun rises and sets out of Tyrion’s ass on this show, but can’t his prisoner wife at least be a bit distant to him? You know, her whole thing in the books with her armor of courtesy. The way the show makes it seem, she was well on her way to liking this marriage, and then the death of her family made her sad for a few days (during which will be her escape, since that’s coming in two episodes). So frustrated.
Katie: That’s a good highlight, it’s always nice to see David Bradley cackle his way through his lines. And you know, I actually really considered Sansa laughing and joking with Tyrion as a lowlight too? Not because the scene itself is particularly bad (I’d forgotten how nice it is to see Sansa look happy about something, anything!). But because her emotions in all her scenes this episode are 110% about Tyrion. First to make him look like a great guy, which is par for the course. But it gets even worse later when it turns out that Sansa heard the news of the Red Wedding off screen, and her sadness is not her own, instead is simply given the narrative function of bumming out Tyrion a bit more. It’s a good pick for highlighting all of the generally… bad writings tendencies of the later seasons.
That said, I have to pick the closing Mhysa scene. It’s probably the point when I turned hardest on this show when I originally watched it? It’s such a thematic, narrative, and directorial failure, bad for the story and gross in all its racial implications. There were a lot of bad scenes in this episode, but this was the one that made me most actively angry.
Kylie: Yeah, it’s completely tasteless and the last taste you get of the show for the season. It may actually have been the worst closing shot of any season, now that I think about it.
Katie: My highlight is probably the Small Council scene, before it’s whittled down to Tyrion and Tywin? I’ve always liked the dynamic of more competent people having to deal with Joffrey’s kingship and deciding whether to be deferential or confrontational. It’s also a scene that’s not overly talky, and lets the (good) acting speak for itself. Honestly, though, I probably just enjoy seeing Charles Dance belittle Jack Gleeson. Honorable mention to Davos and Shireen hanging out and reading together, because it was very sweet.
Julia: Jack Gleeson is such an easy highlight to pick. He was just so happy and bouncy. And it helped that it was more or less just a book scene acted excellently. But I’m going to take your honorable mention and turn it into my highlight. Remember when Davos actually did stuff? Remember Shireen’s School for Conveniently Placed Illiterates? I used to love both these characters so much, and they have such great chemistry together. So even though this scene triggered a spiral where I was thinking what the Westerosi equivalent of Dutch speaking printers that would result in there being a “g” in “night” would be, or if they even have standardized orthography in Westeros, and what a trick that would be without printing, and if the maesters as an institution would be enough of a centralizing force to have standard orthography make sense…. I still really liked it.
I honestly think the “pork sausage” scene is not only a lowlight of the episode, it might be a lowlight for the whole series, even given all the stuff they’re going to do later. It was just so long and so… Am I going insane, or did they play it for laughs? Maybe they were going for some kind of Deadpool-esque black humor, but whatever Ramsay dangling a sausage was supposed to be, it wasn’t funny.
Katie: It’s so bad! I think they are playing it for laughs, at least kind of? Ramsay’s whole shtick seems to be “he’s so evil and so wacky! Isn’t it crazy?!” The cavernous abyss between the obvious delight D&D have in writing Ramsay and the terrible way it plays out on the screen and drags down the story is a… not great sign of things to come.
Kylie: Also speaking of what’s to come, Ramsay and eating becomes like, a thing, sort of similar to Brad Pitt’s character in Ocean’s 11. I guess it’s because they found this sausage scene suitably off-putting or something? But it leads to a full-on dramatic moment of Roose telling him to stop eating in Season 5.
Quality of writing
Katie: It is the lowest of low-hanging fruit, but can we talk about the Ramsay-Theon scene for a sec? The first shot of Theon in this episode is just a lingering shot on his crotch. We have an endless Ramsey monologue as he eats a pork sausage (get it?), and then Theon gets punched in the face a lot and cries. This show, guys. “Do eunuchs have a phantom cock?”
Julia: Yeah, the dialogue is cringy, but in terms of writing, the bigger question is why this scene, or this plotline even exists. GRRM puts a lot of disturbing stuff on the page (far too much according to many people) and even he chose to leave most of this stuff as implication. Perhaps they should have asked themselves why that was.
Kylie: I guess just so we could see the “transformation” into Reek more clearly? Like, they wanted him to be called ‘Reek’, but didn’t think that would track. Why they left the nickname in is beyond me, since they cut out Ramsay posing as Reek, and all that rather confusing backstory that came with it.
Even if they felt like we couldn’t have understood how broken Theon was without showing at least some torture, we certainly could have gotten by with half as many scenes, and none needed to be quite so explicit or drawn out. This one in particular was endless.
While we’re talking about the sausage though, I actually liked the dialogue given to Balon when he reacts to all of this. It was very on-point for the Iron Islands attitudes.
Katie: It was also undercut a bit by the fact that it makes the adoption of Reek seem kind of arbitrary rather than an eventual outcome of Theon’s torture. Theon’s obviously not in a great place at the start of this scene, but there’s not much of an indication that he’s really lost his sense of self. He seems eager to hold onto his name when he first gets hit in the face. Because of that, the fact that he takes up the name at the end seems less like a culmination of a character arc than an admission that he’ll do what Ramsey says if he gets punched sufficiently.
Agreed about the Balon dialogue. I also didn’t mind Cersei’s mom monologue (momologue! oh, gross, I’m sorry).
Julia: Like Walder Frey’s obnoxious misogyny last week, Balon’s horribleness felt like it was actual there to serve the world and the characters. I’m not sure why Ramsay’s antics feel so different, especially from Frey’s stuff. Maybe it’s just the absurdity of the sausage wagging.
Kylie: They just feel very out of place. The dialogue doesn’t sound like anything that’d be in ASOIAF, and I don’t just mean because of some strange anachronisms, like talking about “phantom limbs.” No way Westerosi would have coined that term.
Our 8th grade book report (on themes)
Katie: Tough to pick a theme in an episode that had roughly 36,000 plot lines happening at the same time. The closest I could come to was the emphasis on tension between valuing the Family Name and valuing family members themselves. The clearest example is Tywin’s long speech to Tyrion about how he wanted to kill him as a baby but HE WAS A LANNISTER so he kept him around, but it’s also evident in Balon’s indifference to Theon once he’s a family liability (and Yara’s pushback). I suppose it works with Stannis and Gendry as well, with Davos playing the Yara figure. If we want to be kind and stretch this theme to its breaking point, we could also include the Davos/Gendry scene about Flea Bottom, and the Shae/Varys scene, both of which demonstrate how those without a family name often have to play by different rules. That still leaves out most of the episode?
Julia: That’s an excellent effort. There’s something there maybe about obligations. Like, Jon has one to the Night’s Watch, and Tywin had an obligation to not kill his own child, (the cross he bears is heavy) and Guest Right is an obligation, but that just seems like a less insightful version of what Katie said.
Title? Dany is a mother to all the freedmen, and motherhood is also what Carol’s content is about. And the Rat Cook is a parent too…it’s totes a theme.
Kylie: Gilly is a mother to the baby she just named Sam! Honestly, the title is feeling pretty peripheral to me.
Katie gets full marks though, for sure. The three Stark kids kinda have a mutual loss of innocence (not than any of them are fully innocent at this point, of course). Sansa learns about her family’s fate, Arya kills her first man, and Bran heads north of The Wall. That one is kinda weaker, but given this is a season that ends in the middle of a book, it’s more of a parallel with them than I’d have expected.
The Butterfly Effect (cracks in the plaster)
Kylie: I don’t want to keep harping on the Sansa/Tyrion scene, but I think this is one of the clearest butterfly effects at play. Tyrion is made a really, really, really nice guy who the audience loves, so any character we are meant to like must love him too. In this case, Sansa. So take the whitewashing of his character that’s been there from the start, and two seasons later his prisoner child-bride is joking around with him, and Varys tries to set Shae up for life across the Narrow Sea, because Tyrion is apparently the only man who can save Westeros and he needs to be less distracted.
Katie: Agreed. I was shocked at how openly Sansa was used as an emotional prop in this episode.
Julia: Ugh, I feel like I can rant about Saint Tyrion for hours. In fact, I’m quite sure I have. I would argue that the changes to Tyrion’s character have the most butterfly effect of any decision in the show, maybe more than the decision to age up the kids, or the one to take out most of the supernatural elements. Tyrion’s characters flaws in the book drive the plot quite a bit, after all. And make his actions make any kind of sense.
At this point, I think many intelligent show-only watchers would be surprised to learn that Sansa is a POV character in her own right. And that Shae isn’t.
Katie: Also, this is a very small detail, and nit-picky, but I think it illustrated well the problems the show increasingly ran into down the line. I am not at all a fan of the choice to open the episode with… the mass slaughter of Northern extras. It’s supposed to serve as a carry-over from the climax of last episode, I suppose. But the reason The Red Wedding works as an emotional gut-punch is because it’s so intimate. It’s a shockingly and terribly personal moment.
As y’all noted last week, it’s a climax the show keeps trying to recapture, and it keeps trying… badly. In large part because it keeps aiming for grand scale over the emotional horror of individual moments. Michelle Fairley did such a good job of selling those last few seconds of emotion in The Red Wedding. Opening this episode with anonymous extras screaming and dying is literal overkill: it takes what should be the center of the scene—Arya seeing Wolf-Headed-Robb—and confuses and muddles it. Rather than a clear, stark (sorry), emotional moment, we get a frenetic, busy, overly-complicated scene. Clean it up! Bombast isn’t always best. It’s not a big deal, really, but it’s a wasted opportunity, and so indicative of what the show is going to prioritize as it goes along.
Julia: At least it gives the aforementioned hypothetical intelligent show-only watcher the tools to call bull on Tywin’s later line about all he did was kill a few dozen men at dinner, and what’s so wrong about that?
Kylie: True, though I’ll agree it was very visually busy. There’s that shot of Roose that opens it, and the way he walked to look out reminds me exactly of this one shot in Return of the King with an orc charging into battle. It was a wonky way to open things (also it was pretty damn dark), and given the effectiveness of the Walder and Roose scene later, I don’t think it’s a very necessary one.
Worth noting something that’s about to turn into a butterfly effect: the Night’s Watch vows. Sam found the “loophole” to make a case for Gilly staying (a compelling one at that). Next season we get the sex loophole, and I feel like we had one more at that too. Maybe the implicit loophole that allowed Jon to quit? It’s also symptomatic of D&D chasing a good thing, or something that lands. This is still pre-chicken joke GoT, remember.
Julia: Well, this section is getting harder and harder.
Um. Gendry fits rather seamlessly into Edric Storm’s role in this episode. Minus the way he bonded with Davos, I guess. They bonded in both cases, but not in the same way.
The small council scene about the Red Wedding was pretty good, at least until it became about how awesome Tyrion is for not raping a 14-year-old, but other than that the stuff from KL was not super faithful.
Kylie: Not at all. Though let’s chat about the adaptational decision with Yara. Is it that D&D just don’t plan more than one year at a time? Because I don’t think it’s about them feeling like we needed to check in with her and trying to come up with a great Season 4 plot for her specifically; we didn’t check in on the Iron Islands at all this year, and there’s nothing that necessitates putting the theater in next year either.
Even if they did plan, does that mean they purposely set up Yara for a completely futile, one-off failed mission? Because god knows they wanted Theon to be in his ADWD plotline, no matter what woman gets shoved into Jeyne’s role… I guess I’m just not getting what they were even trying for with this. False hope of Theon’s rescue?
Katie: Such big chunks of these finales focus on laying the groundwork for future plots. But in practice I think that sometimes bleeds over into just… setting up potential drama or tension? It wouldn’t surprise me if they just wanted another rousing (“rousing”) speech or set up for potential action next year, regardless of whether it would matter at all in the long run. The more generous part of me wants to say that there was some level of awareness that the Theon/Ramsey scenes were floundering and needed the (false) promise of some kind of narrative development before the end of the season.
Julia: In retrospect, though, it does seem cruel of them to set Yara up like that. As cruel as setting Shae up like that was. I think being even more generous is presuming that they had different plans for both these characters—they wanted Shae in particular to do something different during the trial and for Yara to maybe do something like her book plot with Stannis maybe–but audience reaction, or budget, or lack of writing skills made it impossible?
Carol Watch: who is Cersei this week?
Kylie: This is the most Carol Carol who Carol’d all the way to Carolville in her Carolmobile.
Katie: She reminded me of a mom who has been to so many grinding, exhausting parent-teacher conferences about her terrible kid. She knows the teacher is right, but she has to keep her game-face on? She’s just trying her best.
Julia: Imagine another hypothetical intelligent person, who only ever sees this episode of GoT, being told that Carol is supposed to be the villain.
Also, what on earth was that sleeveless number she was wearing in the last scene? And why was she looking at a seashell of some kind and smiling sadly?
Kylie: She was smiling sadly at seashells. She and Jaime used to sell seashells down by the seashore, or something. I feel like I remember that context being explained to us (was that something they talked about in the pilot?) but damn if I remember.
Julia: They talked about jumping off a cliff once.
Why was her scene with Tyrion even there? Like I say, it’s an odd thing to do with someone who’s supposed to be a villain. Was it all just so Tyrion can seem like a nice guy for not wanting to impregnate Sansa?
Kylie: Or to make it clear that once Cersei’s kids are gone, there goes the only good piece of her. Yay! Either way, there’s no debate this week:
Exposition Imposition: good or clunky?
Kylie: Tywin’s exposition seemed good, albeit horrifying. I guess Bran is technically expositing with the rat cook, too, though that’s really just telling a fairy tale. I don’t know, the things that jumped out to me as clunky in this episode were not exposition in nature.
Julia: What, talking about phantom cocks was not exposition? Maybe Ramsay should have asked a cock merchant, I’m sure they would know all about that.
Feel free to be annoyed at me, but the way Tywin said, “I raised you as my son, because you are a Lannister,” to Tyrion probably gave a lot of fuel to the Tyrion the Secret Targ folks.
Kylie: That was also following him saying “since I cannot prove you’re not my son” in another episode this season too, I think. Maybe Charles Dance is a Tyrion truther.
How was the pacing?
Julia: D&D seem to have more trouble with pacing within scenes even than the pacing of episodes.
Kylie: I’d agree with that. The entire episode stops dead at the sausage waving, and frankly Davos and Gendry’s conversation didn’t exactly get to a point.
Overall the episode just struggled from that spottiness we’ve been seeing all season. I can’t tell if it’s better or worse that they were trying to give so many characters a stopping point. Often jumping around helps break things up, but it sure didn’t feel like that this time.
Another week of no sex, baby
Katie: You know, given the number of scenes where people tell Tyrion to have sex with Sansa, maybe “no sex, (no) baby” is the theme.
Kylie: And now his watch begins, after all. He hasn’t seemed to be getting it with Shae either, now that I think about it. I guess she’s struggling with her maybe!jealousy still over Sansa?
Julia: No, no Kylie, she’s outraged that people would dare treat Sansa this way, since she loves that girl so much and would kill for her.
Kylie: Until she decides that whatever, let’s just implicate Sansa in a bunch of crimes. I can’t believe we have another season of Shae…
In memoriam…those Frey soldiers
Katie: In memoriam of the last time Arya’s character arc was interesting! Sorry.
Kylie: Ain’t it the truth. We’re about to get a full season of her and Sandor doing nothing, and talking about how nothing is nothing, and frankly that’s a highlight compared to Braavos and her arc quite literally iterating. Though…Arya in Season 7 was not boring. Many other things, but that’s one charge she gets away from.
Is this where we should talk about her kills in the book getting thrown in at random times and in random contexts?
Julia: I remember there being a chart.
This season’s been fun. I think I get people still having patience with this show after this, but in retrospect, it’s so totally off the rails already.
And I just remembered, the Pornish are coming soon!
Kylie: OH MY GOD.
Well, for us at least, the Pornish won’t be coming until 2019. We will have the Season 3 rewatch podcast out to you in the next couple of weeks, and then Season 4’s rewatch will start January 8th.
Thank you all for following along this season. We’re curious to know what you thought of this episode specifically, though. Did D&D leave a tantalizing endpoint, or are things just sloppy to the point of distraction? Let’s discuss that below, and we wish you both a happy new year and good fortune in The Wars to Come.
Images courtesy of HBO
What We Ask from Stories
Media as a teacher, part 2 (part 1 here)
In the last part of this series I discussed whether media is obligated to teach us something or not. This time, I will focus my attention on the other side of this interactions, the audience.
Whenever we start watching or reading something new, there are a certain list of filters that the content must pass through for us to continue. A checklist, if you will. Everyone has their own checklist, depending on our idiosyncrasies. We tend to be partial to certain genres and formats: Do you like soft Sci-Fi or Fantasy? Series or serials? Procedural, monster-of-the-week, long arcs? Then there come the finer details, like world building, very specific types of comedy, tropes we enjoy (blonde and brunette wlw, anyone?) or don’t enjoy (love at first sight makes me roll me eyes to infinity), and where the line is drawn on our suspension of disbelief.
We all have a little gatekeeper inside our brains. Creators know this, and they will attempt to pander to whichever audience at which they’re aiming their product.
What we expect of content in terms of styles and genres varies immensely. We’d have to discuss a particular segment of the market if we were to talk specifics. Our little gatekeeper however, is usually not only interested in whether we like the world and the characters. There is a deeper level, especially with the content we don’t consume casually, that demands certain standards to be met.
Moral, idealistic standards that have a lot to do with our context, our culture and our education. This, of course, is also very different for everyone, especially those from different cultures and, as I mentioned in the last article, different generations.
Generationally, it could be said there is something all of us want. A standard we all want to see met.
What do we demand?
And… that’s it, really.
It sounds repetitive, but this is the biggest push in fandom right now in terms of moral standards. There isn’t really a call for “family friendly” content demanding less violence or sex in a general sense, for instance. But there is for more male frontal nudity, for example. Racial, sexual, ethnic, religious, disability, neurological, and body diversity is the topic around which most discussions on fandom platforms like Tumblr and Twitter revolve. It has been going on for a while now, so it has seeped into the mainstream.
For multiple years in a row, The Hollywood Reporter’s round tables have broached the topic of equality, especially int their “Actress Roundtables.” Most prime-time and prestige awards in Hollywood have incorporated this into host monologues and winner speeches, and TV especially incorporates it into their narratives. As it becomes the mainstream, the discussion becomes more open and bolder. Like this actress conversation published by Porter, in which Ellen Pompeo (a.k.a. Meredith Grey) openly called out the magazine for lack of diversity on set.
The industry has taken some steps. Achieving equality—and more importantly, intersectional equality—in media is no easy feat though, especially given the power structures involved in their machinations. Part of the job is the audience’s in demanding that equality or else, but much of the heavy lifting must be done from inside, where the Ellen Pompeos of Hollywood must take a stand to be allies and defenders of the minorities who have been left behind. And that is just Hollywood. The state of other, smaller industries must be addressed locally as well, but that’s really a story for another day.
Whenever something comes out that is considered a good example of diversity, there will usually be praise on fandom platforms pointing out the impact it has. Like so many wonderful videos of little girls dressed up as Wonder Woman or Shuri, with parents excited their little girls have a positive role model. Or little boys idolizing Black Panther, the first mainstream hero who looks like them. The word positive comes out to play, and those examples are undeniably positive. Sometimes though, the lines do get blurred about what is positive and what isn’t.
Put in fandom terms, we want positive messages in the stories we consume. In today’s world, that constitutes fair representation across the board. Or wait, do we want fair messages and positive representation? Are they the same?
Fair and/or Positive
It gets a wee bit tricky here, as what is fair and what is positive differs from little gatekeeper to little gatekeeper. Which is better? Shouldn’t representation be fair and positive? And what constitutes a positive and fair message?
My head hurts.
Characters, their arcs and their resolutions, as well as the broader social subjects a story deals with are how these messages get across to us. Most content creators try to keep their shows relevant by keeping them topical, some more subtly, some more ham-fisted. For example, the latest Supergirl season’s giant in-your-face migration allegory (so far so good) or The Handmaid’s Tale’s radical take on a world where sexism takes over.
There seems to be a consensus that the representation of both these things is a good thing. Whether it is fair or positive, it’s harder to say. Some would argue the aliens as a metaphor for today’s migrants might constitute unfair whitewashing. Many would say The Handmaid’s Tale takes things way too far to be positive. It might be well and good to paint a brutal picture of how far sexism can go, but there does—there must—come a point where it might turn into torture porn.
A more extremist part of fandom takes the word “positive” at absolute face value. This portion of fandom will demand that the representation of the minority in question be positive in the “always good and right” sense, and the message fair in that “nothing bad must ever happen to this person.” I wish I could believe no one means it seriously, but I have witnessed how high emotions run in regards to this topic.
The idea that everything that happens in fiction needs to be squeaky clean is frankly egregious. There needs to be drama, conflict, and that cannot happen if only good things are represented on screen—good characters, healthy relationships, happy outcomes. That would lead to the antiquated and simplistic Pure Darkness vs. Pure Light conflict. We might be able to consume that from retro content knowing its context, but the reality is that it doesn’t fly with modern audiences, at all.
It’s impossible not to think about the fact that many of the marginalized groups seeking representation have been misrepresented and even exploited in media for so long that it may physically hurt to see negative aspects of their lives and relationships. I understand, to a degree. Stories are not personal, except they are. But if we presume to sincerely analyze or seriously critique a piece of work for its ethics, we should take a long hard look into ourselves and see just how much of the argument is raw emotion and how much is actually rational. I am a believer that we need a balance of those two.
For starters, we need to be able to differentiate reality and fiction, not just in practice, but in our emotions as well. That takes something that not all of us have: media literacy.
We Don’t Get It
Media has grown at exponential rates in the past century, and there is simply no way its study and especially education about it can keep up. And so, media keeps growing, and we are five steps behind it. Media literacy is basically the ability to analyze the different types of media and understand the messages being sent through them, with their undercurrent and context, to a point where we’re able to generate those messages effectively.
Suffice to say, this isn’t something that’s widely taught in basic education just yet. Even less so for those who went to school ten, twenty years ago. It is enough to see how a tweet about a rumor can cause an uproar and forever stain someone’s reputation. This is an obstacle both in our understanding of the messages sent through media and our understanding of the best way to send the messages we want or need from media.
It is how we might confuse the representation of something with its endorsement, or not realize its endorsement under the guise of representation. The idea I touched on in Part 1 was that of “Healthy Ships” for example, wherein fandom demands the relationships depicted on TV especially, be healthy. While I would agree that the portrayal of a toxic relationship as desirable (endorsement) is a big no, I’m not against them appearing in stories (depiction). As someone said in the comments, if the toxic aspects of that relationship are dealt with accordingly, there is nothing negative about representing it. Especially given that toxic relationships are a thing in real life.
Now, if the creators of a show are portraying a toxic relationship as desirable and good (*cough* Gossip Girl’s Chuck and Blair *cough*) it really does take a strong media education to be able to resist that pull. Narratives are entrancing, and no one is immune to giving into their pull. And since awareness among creators is spreading spectacularly slowly, it should be a priority. This is especially tricky for fictional or fictionalized stories: film, TV series, comic books, video games… Since they are also entertainment, many still refuse to see that what they showcase has an impact in real life.
Those of us who do are still trudging through muddled waters, trying to decipher what it is we need from it, and what really is the right way for media to behave in order to teach us, or society, something good, positive, and fair.
Going back to our little gatekeeper, these ideals get intermingled with our personal microcosms. So what we want, as a gut reaction, may be a little more biased than we initially realize.
What We (Secretly) Want
We want to feel individually represented.
To feel satisfied with the resolution of the stories we care about.
For the moral resolution of plots and character arcs to coincide with our moral code.
To have the characters we personally identified with treated fairly. Scratch that. To have them treated like we’d like to be treated or have things happen to them that we would like to happen to us.
We want to feel personally vindicated.
Are these wants fair? Who knows. In my honest opinion, a lot of what we want out of pure instinct for ourselves tends to be irrational. Like watching someone get something for free and secretly wishing it were you, even if you really are happy for the person who benefited. We’re complicated beasts. Complicated beasts who just so happen to live in a world of instant gratification. A lot of us aren’t used to not getting what we want when we want it, most especially in the case of information and entertainment.
Our individual desires are also mixed with our desire to be part of something. Culture, and in this case fandom culture, is a big part of it. At this point, either you are part of the equality conversation—for or against—or you aren’t part of fandom. Or you may constitute that portion of the Internet that bemoans an inability to enjoy anything ever because other fans won’t let you.
A while ago I wrote about the common conflation between calling something out for considering it problematic in general versus complaining about something we feel displeased about. When it comes to media as a teacher, this conflation can happen when it comes to demanding what media should be teaching us and especially young people.
Think of the Children
This is a bit of a segway, but I didn’t feel like I could leave it out of the conversation: When we talk about media as a teacher, the subject of children, teenagers, and young adult audiences comes to the forefront. “Children are like a sponge,” my mom always says. What we demand in terms of media teachers is often in regards of the molding of young minds.
It is true that our brains are more bendy and malleable when we’re younger, and what children are seeing and reading is undeniably important for their formation of ideas about the world. I don’t have children of my own, but from what I’ve observed in the children I interact with, I’d say what they “absorb like a sponge” from media is much less what’s good and what’s not, and much more who’s cool and who’s not. You might argue that these two things can intermingle, and you’d be right, but media literacy has a lot to do with what they absorb into their behavior. A youngster with a solid basis may think Slytherin is much cooler than Gryffindor, but they won’t start bullying people or legitimately planning world domination (this is how Slytherin was portrayed), they’ll just wear T-Shirts.
More importantly, “what’s cool and what’s not” is a much, much more crucial lesson than we’d initially think. It has to do with that is desirable. If a show makes skating look cool, a kid might well pick up a skateboard and give it a go. This isn’t myth. Guitar sales in Mexico spiked after Coco was released last year. Children begged for them for Christmas. Even a friend of mine, what you might call a grown-a** man, bought a guitar as a direct result of watching the film (and he hasn’t picked it up since).
So yes, it is very important to take special care of the “messages” included in young people’s media. More than moralistic messages, asking for the normalization (and “cool-ification”?) of more diverse people should be a priority. Even so, each parent wants the screens and the pages of books and comics to relay the same messages they are trying to teach their child. Like an extension of them.
What about us?
If we put the children discussion aside, the question it leaves me with is this: Do we want media to teach us something? My instinct would be to say yes, I do. Because I have become aware of issues and experiences far from my own through stories in media (real or fictional), I would say yes.
Fandom seems to agree that media should teach. The what, generally, I’ve covered. Whether media has a responsibility to do it has been discussed in the excellent Ethics of Storytelling series. But who does fandom want media to teach, besides children?
Even if I personally think I want media to teach me, I do find I am still closed off to accepting opinions and perspectives different than my own. As an example, when I was younger I used to have a really hard time finding drunkenness funny. Part of it is due to my own real-life experiences, but I also do hold a very old-fashioned belief that intoxication, especially in minors, should not be taken lightly. As I’ve grown older I’ve found myself more open to other people’s opinions on the matter, that come from their own experience. Having my own experiences as an adult has helped, too. But it took me a long time to accept that my perspective was not the only valid one.
The thing is, I didn’t learn that from TV, I learned it from people. It takes me back to my response to cheesy Hallmark movies. I find it pedantic when media tries to teach me something. So, despite my initial answer, I find that no, I don’t really want media to teach me things. Not in the straightforward sense of the word. I don’t want it to preach to me because I, as do many of us, already have my own standards of good and bad. So here is my conclusion:
We don’t really want media to teach us anything, we want it to teach others what we (think we) already know.
We need it to show us perspectives we hadn’t considered, so that then we might want to learn something. But learning is not an inevitability; you must be open and willing to learn.
Media Doesn’t Teach, We Learn
Ultimately, media simply isn’t a teacher.
Educating people is not and should not be media’s aim. That’s up to parenting and the education system. Narratives can’t be masterclasses on anything because they usually have a limited point of view. One single film or even a long-running TV show cannot teach you everything there is to know about LGBT+ experiences and/or rights, or the ethnic diversity within Native American peoples, or Philosophy, or anything. It can give you glimpses into these things, pique your interest, leave you hooked. But if it tries to do much more it wouldn’t be entertainment anymore.
Coco is a great example of this. The film shows you a glimpse of Mexican culture, respectfully and accurately portrayed on screen. It does include tidbits of information about the tradition of Día de Muertos, like the use of the cempazúchitl (that yellow flower), the alebrijes (colorful spirit guides), and a brief explanation of some elements of the altar. But it never goes into detail. There are many elements and details about just the altar that the film left out. Every element in an altar has a meaning, or many. The writers and producers journeyed in Mexico, learning and absorbing information to make the film as respectful as accurate as possible, knew about every element of the altar, proven by the fact that it is there in the film.
They did not need to include every explanation. Having it would make it a bit overbearing and even boring. And a boring movie with accurate information that no one sees would be about as useful to representing Mexican culture as getting drunk on bad Tequila on May 5th.
What media can do however, is prompt you to want to learn. About science, screenwriting, aerodynamics, history, and, above all, people.