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Why Do Stories Matter?

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The Ethics of Storytelling Part 2 (see Part 1, here)

We’ve all heard it before, the cry of the anti-critic. It seems like whenever we voice critiques of media, someone rallies the cry of “It’s just a TV show/book/film!” or “It’s just a story!” (usually followed by “Get over it!”). As if stories were irrelevant, meaningless things that exist merely to be consumed and the leftovers discarded as easily as day old McDonald’s french fries. ‘Just’ minimizes, dismisses, and derides. We’re silly to care, even sillier to pursue reasonable discussion and criticism. But there is nothing ‘just’ about stories.

As Kat Barrell pointed out in our interview, human beings have been telling stories since the beginning of time. Long before humans were driving cars or playing football or writing internet articles, they were telling each other stories. It’s in our blood and DNA. Storytellers and preservers of traditions were­—and still are in other parts of the world—some of the most revered members of society. A tradition this ancient cannot be trivial.

But why do stories matter so much? For starters, stories are creative expressions both of self and culture. This is no small thing. We live in an increasingly mechanized society where people are treated as either bottomless pits of consumption or interchangeable parts in the machine of capitalism and industry. Creativity is not valued as highly anymore because aesthetics are frivolous in the world of the machine. So if nothing else, stories defy the pressure to measure life in terms of productivity and output potential. Stories are art, and therefore immanently human, but that’s not the end of the matter. They are also much more.

Stories as Mirrors of Ourselves

Stories are more than aesthetics, they’re also reflective. We see ourselves reflected in stories and understand ourselves better. No matter your race, gender, religion, or physical ability seeing yourself onscreen is a powerful experience, like the first time you see a wlw couple and think “That’s me!”. The overwhelming response to Alex Danvers’ storyline and the Sanvers ship on this season of Supergirl has been a powerful rush of self-identification and emotional attachment: “This is how it feels to have our stories told”.

Seeing ourselves in stories validates our experiences. The portrayal of characters with our skin color, sexual orientation, or religious background in different narrative roles (villain, protagonist, friend, mentor, love interest, etc), underscores our own humanity because humans themselves exist in every possible role. Humans are fat, thin, tall, short, whiney, awkward, gregarious, friendly, nefarious, and a whole host of other things. We’re all varying shades of grey with our motivations, so the more different characters we see that we can identify with, the more seen and acknowledged we feel. More human, less alone.

Seeing ourselves in a story generates new insight into our motivations, personality, and self. It can be positive, “That’s why I do the thing!” and negative, “Oh, right, that’s a problem I have too.” More, diverse characters mean more opportunities for self reflection and growth. It can also be a shorthand way to help other people understand you: “I’m 50/50 Luna and Hermione” or “I’m a Slytherin with a dash of Hufflepuff” or “I grew up with a dad like Petyr Baelish” (if you did, I’m so, so sorry).

By understanding ourselves, flaws and all, we learn to love ourselves more. It’s often easier to love someone else than ourselves, even someone with similar flaws. We’re our own worst enemies; sometimes the things we hate most about a character are personal flaws. So, the more stories we tell, the more options we have to love more characters which, if they remind us of ourselves, can help us see ourselves more kindly. I could talk about how my initial hatred of Sansa Stark was rooted in self-loathing and once I understood this, I turned into a true knight of the Sansa Defense Club. Or, I could tell you how much my absolute love for Luna Lovegood (and frustration at her sidelining) has helped me to enjoy the more scattered, random aspects of my personality. Stories can give us back ourselves.

Stories can open up new avenues for self-actualization. When diverse characters exist in varying occupational roles or exhibit alternative lifestyle choices, we start to think outside of social or familial expectation. Seeing a female scientist like Eliza Danvers encourages young girls to consider STEM fields. Boys with more feminine coded interests can take heart in Steven Universe’s love of dresses, hearts, glitter, and singing catchy pop songs in front of an entire city. Seeing trans and non-binary characters can help questioning young people understand how best to self-identify and know that exploring their gender is safe. Human beings in real life come in every flavor imaginable, so the more diversely stories represent their characters, the more it will look like real life. And the more stories look like real life, the happier, healthier, and understood people will feel. In other words, representation matters.

Stories as Windows into Other People

On the other side of this coin, stories allow us to understand other people better. Like the first time you see a black character talk about oppression or a trans character talk about transmisogyny. Suddenly, what your black or trans friend has been saying about their experiences suddenly clicks into place. The shorthand for conceptualizing ourselves to others works equally well the other direction. Although limiting, the boxes are still useful. There’s a reason why MBTI and other, similar personality tests stick around for example, or why the Harry Potter houses do. Stories offer categories into which we can sort and understand people. Just so long as we allow people to ‘break the mold’ and act other than our categories might permit, there’s no problem in using them as a touchstone for empathy.

And this isn’t just me talking either. Recent studies have proven that reading literary fiction improves children’s capacity for empathy.

“Literary fiction, by contrast, focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships…This genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom.”—Julianne Chiaet, “Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy”

It isn’t all that surprising when you think about it. Reading how other people think allows us to comprehend their thinking processes. We start to put ourselves in other character’s shoes, which bleeds over into ‘real’ life. Stories help us to understand people who are different from ourselves, which, again, hammers home the need for diversity in our storytelling. It doesn’t just help us understand ourselves, diverse stories and representation allow us to empathize with perspectives other than our own.

Stories as Windows into The World

“We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.”—J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”

Stories give us a window into not only people but also societies. Not all stories are real in the sense of ‘having actually happened’, but many unreal stories can be true. Stories reflect our lived experience and show us the world around us as we were meant to see it, and in that sense, are true. This, in turn, allows us to see both the flaws and the beauty of the world around us. We see something familiar in a new way, renewing our sense of awe and enjoyment. Pixar movies like Cars and the Toy Story series, for example, invite us to look at the world of inanimate objects differently. Finding Nemo singlehandedly changed how I hear the cry of seagulls.

Other stories mirror back the flaws of our society. Science fiction and fantasy at their best provide a way to talk about issues like racism and sexism from a more objective standpoint that does not immediately turn off those who need to hear the messages the most. I strongly believe that A Song of Ice and Fire’s vivid, sometimes overly graphic, depictions of sexism and misogyny are meant to force us to reflect on our society (your mileage may vary on how successful Martin is). Ender’s Game depicts the tragedy of narrow-minded xenophobia and jingoism in a way that ought to shock us out of complacency. Dystopian fiction like 1984 and Brave New World portrays the flaws of governmental extremes if left unchecked. In all of these stories, a fresh perspective opens up new perspectives and conversations on societal flaws we’ve habituated ourselves to.

Stories can also give us a glimpse into minority experiences in our society or even different societies altogether. Huckleberry Finn and Their Eyes Were Watching God provide very different windows into black life in the late 19th and early 20th century America. Similarly, Luke Cage allows black persons to tell their own stories about life in Harlem not filtered through typically white produced crime serials set in New York City. A Harlem that, though modern, is more accurate in its depiction of the racial make up of the neighborhood than J. K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them.

Such stories remind those in positions of privilege that their version of history is not entirely accurate. That there are other versions of the stories they’ve been told and that their story is too limited to encompass the whole of life. At their best, other people’s stories allows us to realize that our story is incomplete or flawed.

Likewise, stories give voice to marginalized and hurting people, providing an avenue for them to not only tell but interpret their experiences. Victims of abuse write stories to process their trauma and help others in similar situations. Jessica Jones gives voice to women who have been raped. The upcoming Hidden Figures attacks the erasure of women of color from historical narratives. Every new Disney Princess movie featuring a woman of color allows more young girls of color to see themselves as beautiful, powerful, and worthy of being their own hero.

Thus, stories can both subvert or uphold the status quo. Too many stories from the majority perspective will minimize or silence minority voices. More stories from marginalized communities will challenge the dominant perspective. The underlying fear of increased minority representation stems from precisely this power to subvert the status quo. Because, at some level, even those who deny the meaningfulness of stories recognize that they have the power to shape reality in either edifying or destructive ways.

Stories as Windows into Alternate Realities

“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.”— J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”

Escaping from real, lived pains and traumas through stories is not an invention of the modern era, but rather one of the essential features of stories since their inception. There is a longing in the midst of suffering for life to be better. Visiting a world in which there is hope, light, and joy during times of crisis reminds us that there is goodness in the world even if we aren’t currently experiencing it. Like the prisoner Tolkien speaks of, there is no harm in exploring a world fundamentally better than our own when we struggle. Stories ease suffering and we often carry the hope found there back into our ‘normal’ lives. We endure because of escape. How did Cinderella cope with her abusive stepmother? She visited the prince’s ball to dance the night away and forget her suffering for a while. That’s okay. Stories are made for that.

Similarly, stories allow us to reinterpret present reality in order to change it. Supergirl’s speech to National City in the S1 finale called on everyone to choose hope in order to break them free from Myriad’s hold on their lives. In the wake of this disappointing election season, many people (myself included) used her words to encourage ourselves to hope for a better future and stay strong. Her story had the power to strengthen our resolution in the present and start planning for the future. Stories show us how we can change our world for the better.

Stories also provide a way for us to reinterpret, reclaim, or defy our past or present experiences. Many comics began as reactions to war and/or grew out of minority experiences in America. Superman began his career as a symbol of Jewish power to fight the Nazi’s during WWII, Captain America as well. Lin Manuel-Miranda’s “Hamilton” reclaims American history for minorities and provides greater space to talk about the current contribution of minorities to American society. Alongside a whole host of female driven comic books, Supergirl is reclaiming comic book stories for women, especially LGBT women, and feminism.

Fanfiction most vividly encapsulates this purpose of stories. A recent study of fanfiction tropes highlights the popularity of fluff and happy endings, with major character death being one of the biggest no-nos. Fanfiction is frequently (though not always) the art of the disappointed, the hurt, the frustrated. We turn to it to change what we disliked about a story in so called ‘fix it fic’ and find solace in it when media makers kill off our favorite characters in brutal ways. We seek it out for happy endings instead of grimdark nihilism.

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”—J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”

Tolkien writes specifically about fairy (or fantasy) stories, but it applies to other genres as well. Stories grant us a glimpse of the final defeat of evil. In our society, Dark™ and Gritty™ have become a catchphrase to mean “realistic”, as if the world is essentially dark, humorless, and depressing. Literary nihilism masquerading as realism. But stories remind us that joy, hope, love, and light are as real as sorrow and pain. Happy endings allow us to picture a world where evil is ultimately defeated by good, where love triumphs over hate, and joy over existential wallowing in angst.

The Power of Stories

Ask any parent why they do not allow their child to consume certain media and the answer will be something along the lines of “Children are sponges, and we have to be careful what they consume otherwise it will warp their brains.” (It’s an oversimplification, I know, but it usually boils down to this.) At some level, human beings recognize that stories have power to shape how children think, which can lead to censorship. Yet, we fail to apply this same concept to adults much of the time. Adults are above being changed or shaped by stories. Children are impressionable, not adults.

“I think this is an error; at best an error of false sentiment, and one that is therefore most often made by those who, for whatever private reason (such as childlessness), tend to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large.”—J. R R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”

It’s not true, as I hopefully have shown. Stories don’t just have power to shape children, though they do have that power. Stories shape how adults perceive reality and other people as well. Just look at how specific messaging (i.e., stories) shaped the election this past year. Or, look at how the overwhelming death of LGBT+ women on television was funneled into positive change and, hopefully, a change in how media portrays this vulnerable, marginalized group. Stories are not indifferent.

Stories have the power to shape perception and change reality for the better or for the worse. Seeing Sauron and Saruman defeated by the hobbits reminds us that we, too, can defeat the tyrants and manipulators in our lives. Stories can equally generate apathy, a sense of inevitability to evil. The acedia in our media merely reflects the apathy in our society toward those not in our immediate circle of concerns. The failure to change toxic structures becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. We don’t believe we can change things because our stories exude that message. Saying media is ‘just’ a story misunderstands of the power of storytelling.

We are not above stories; we are shaped by them. Rejecting the power and meaning of stories is tragically ironic in the original Greek sense. It’s rooted in hubris and denial: Oedipus not perceiving how his actions fulfilled the prophecy of the gods even as he sought to defy it; Cersei consumed with averting a story told by a woods witch and inadvertently conforming to it. Part of the irony of Martin’s repeated us of the phrase “words are wind” in A Song of Ice and Fire is that it’s a lie. Or at the very least a half-truth. Words are not wind. Words (and stories) have power.

The Responsibility of Storytellers

Stories matter because they have great power, and with power comes responsibility. How we tell stories matter as much as the stories themselves, and we need to discuss storytelling in terms of ethics. There is a healthy way and a destructive way to tell stories. We, as storytellers of all kinds, have a responsibility to tell stories that maximize the potential for stories to shape our society and ourselves in positive ways. It can involve iconoclasm or a call for revolution, as with dystopian fiction. Sometimes it means providing a vision of an alternate, better reality, as with science fiction, fantasy, or fanfic. Other times, it means shining a light onto trauma and the destructive ‘-isms’ of our society (sexism, racism, ablism, etc.). It can also mean telling your own story so that someone else can see themselves represented and know they’re not alone.

Storytellers have a responsibility to give voice and representation to the vulnerable and marginalized members of society, for that is how we understand others and ourselves better. I, as a white person, do not personally experience the systemic oppression of people of color. Stories can help me understand, empathize, and mobilize for change. Stories about LGBT+ women help me perceive myself better as well as remind me I’m not alone. In short, the more stories we tell, the more beautiful and nuanced our society will become.

Finally, we have a responsibility to tell stories in an ethical manner that does not harm our audiences or take advantage of them, especially vulnerable audiences. We have a responsibility not to exploit our readers or viewers, not to intentionally harm them for our own sadistic pleasure. Why? Because stories matter, and they can hurt as much as they can heal.

Why Stories Matter

As a category, ‘stories’ encompasses more than fictional narratives. History is story, religion is story, our own inner dialogues are stories. Ultimately, stories matter because human experience is story. It is no small thing to give someone themselves or generate empathy. It is no small thing to provide a new vision for the world to contrast the grim realities we face. Stories tell us who we are, who other people are, and our place in the world. And, how we perceive reality determines how we live our lives, what kind of people we want to be, and what kind of world we want to live in.


Images and Gifs courtesy of The CW, Cartoon Network, and CBS.

Bi, she/her. Gretchen is a Managing Editor for the Fandomentals. An unabashed nerdy fangirl and aspiring sci/fi and fantasy author, she has opinions about things like media, representation, and ethics in storytelling.

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Bo
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Great stuff. It’s one of the more frustrating defenses used for controversial storytelling when people say it’s “just a story.” If the people making these stories believed that, they wouldn’t be telling those stories in the first place. The vast majority of people who set out to make a living in television, novels, theater, or any media do so because they know the power of storytelling. So for those of us consuming the story to pretend they have no impact or should just be “gotten over,” well, that’s a very weak defense. You have to maintain a certain degree of… Read more »

Gretchen Ellis
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Gretchen Ellis

Right? If people didn’t think that stories matter, why would they tell them? I suppose there is a business side to it, but at some level, there’s an understanding of audience impact and why certain stories are received better. Though I do believe there is a frustrating trend of treating television as if it were merely a commodity with no impact on how people think or behave. But media is not like drinking water. It changes you.

Bo
Member

While there’s always a business side, there can’t be more than a handful of creators out there in novels, TV, movies, etc. that got into it for the money. It’s too hard, too unpredictable, and for the most part you don’t make a huge living off of it. There are very few Steven Spielbergs or George Martin’s out there. Most have to grind out and grind out on a consistent basis to make a living. The only reason they would do that is because they love to tell stories and have something to say. And you’ll find they tend to… Read more »

Priscilla
Member

Well said. I wrote about this a while ago and I feel I’m constantly repeating what we always say here at The Fandomentals. It’s very obvious to us that stories matter, that they shape individuals and society, but I still see A LOT of people claiming “it’s just a tv shows/book/movie/etc”. Yes, it is, but this means more than people think. Considering how often the “it’s just a story” comes as a way to undermine relevant discussions, I’m inclined to think a lot of people know that stories are important, but they’re comfortable with the current narratives. When I decided… Read more »

Gretchen Ellis
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Gretchen Ellis

I loved your essay on why fiction matters. I tried not to overlap too much with what you have to say, because you said it so well and touched on many things better than I did. So many people act as if ‘stories’ are meaningless or try to dismiss their significance. I’m inclined to agree with you that the context in which it comes up seems to signify a desire not to question a narrative that person feels comfortable with. It’s a way to shut down discussion and dismiss the feelings of the person attempting to challenge or critique whatever… Read more »

Priscilla
Member

Well, I think you touched on many things better than I did, so our essays complement each other! Understanding the importance of stories is crucial for what we do here, so I feel this point can’t be stressed enough. People may say they “don’t care” or that they’re consuming a certain story “just for fun”, but the truth is that stories affect us whether we want it or not. Admiting they do is the first step to understand what exactly we are absorbing. I always think that if I had certain stories when I was younger – stories with more… Read more »

Gretchen Ellis
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Gretchen Ellis

You’re absolutely right about stories affecting us whether we want them to, or are aware of it, or not. Once we can identify the messaging, we can either accept it or challenge it, and the only way we can do that is if we admit stories have power.

As to your second paragraph, all I can say is AMEN. YES. That’s the goal!

Trick_Nicky
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Trick_Nicky

Something that’s interesting with Ender’s Game, a fair bit of its themes are surprisingly progressive considering who the author is.

It’s also interesting how often it’s those that are positions of power that want to exclaim “It’a just a story!” And by interesting I mean utterly predictable.

Bo
Member

I was shocked to hear about Orson Scott Card considering that book.

Gretchen Ellis
Guest
Gretchen Ellis

Me too. Ender’s Game was my first experience with him, so when he started professing problematic opinions, I was utterly flabbergasted.

Gretchen Ellis
Guest
Gretchen Ellis

Ender’s Game will always be one of my favorite Sci Fi stories, even if Card has lost all credibility in my opinion.

Yes, “interesting” 🙂

Fyodor
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Fyodor

An interesting piece, and you’re obviously writing from a positive and constructive perspective, but I disagree vehemently with your conclusion. I think it more than wrong; it’s objectionable. Storytellers have NO obligation or responsibility to, “…tell stories that maximize the potential for stories to shape our society and ourselves in positive ways.” A writer’s ONLY obligation as an artist is to his creation, to make that a perfect expression of his creative vision. I reject utterly the idea that an artist should compromise on her vision because of what her society expects of her or – perhaps even MORE importantly… Read more »

RH
Guest
RH

What if the story is endorsing things like xenophobia, racism or homophobia? What then? Im just curious how nowadays we have to accept the people who create things like that. Its one thing to create something that isnt sunshine and rainbows, its quite another to fuel hatred of the “other” because “its just a story”. Fact is “its just a story” is just a tool to shutdown criticism. I disagree that we have to tolerate bad stories when all that happens then is that same bad story continues on a loop, if we want the best stories the one thing… Read more »

Fyodor
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Fyodor

“What then?” You seem to imply that those stories don’t exist already, that we don’t have bigots around us all the time. The small-minded have always been with us and always will be. Accepting that other people can hold views that you consider repulsive is part of being an adult in a liberal society. The history of civilisation is littered with the detritus of evil people, bad stories, awful ideas and terrible memes. They weren’t discarded because of censorship or coercion. They were ditched because they contested the agora of ideas and were defeated by their betters as society evolved.… Read more »

RH
Guest
RH

Where did I imply those stories dont exist? The only thing thats really changed is that those stories arent as overt about condoning bigotry because they hide behind the “progressive” buzzword. Creators use that word as a shield to shut down criticism of their work and to protect whatever construct theyve created for themselves. I think evil ideas have a rite to exist but that doesnt mean its a vacuum where they can do repulsive things but because theyre “progressive” or its their “artistic expression” that Im not allowed to have a POV on it or allowed to tell them… Read more »

Fyodor
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Fyodor

“What then?” implies conditionality, contingency, uncertainty. It’s inherent in the “if…then” structure that you used. Apologies if I misunderstood you.

Of course you’re allowed to have a POV and to be critical. Entailed in the freedom of expression is the freedom to criticise and be criticised. Regardless of whatever buzzwords the hateful hide behind we have as much right to call them out for it as they do in expressing their bigotry.

Gretchen Ellis
Guest
Gretchen Ellis

And yet, the continued of xenophobia, racism, and other harmful ideologies relies in part on the willingness to continue telling these stories and the failure to hold people who tell these stories accountable for their effect in shaping the minds of subsequent generations of people and society. Good stories do not always prevail; bad stories do not always die out. People support ‘bad ideas’ because sometimes, it is all they know. To someone raised with the idea that LGBT persons deserve to suffer, media that continues to kill off LGBT characters are telling ‘good’ stories. But these stories are harmful… Read more »

Fyodor
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Fyodor

Ideas are constantly contested and no idea can truly “die out”, it can only be discarded or deprecated in favour of better ideas. Toxic stories will continue to exist so long as people are imperfect, ignorant or small-minded enough to create and consume them. And you overstate the causality. People don’t think bad thoughts and do terrible things because they read dodgy stories. The dodgy stories exist because people, for whatever reason, are fuelled by bad ideas in writing and/or enjoying them. Stories reflect the culture from which they spring as much as a culture reflects the stories it consumes.… Read more »

Gretchen Ellis
Guest
Gretchen Ellis

Where do these dodgy stories come from in people, if not the messaging they’ve received from their families, societies, and their interactions with stories from the time they were young? Human beings are not blank slates. The fields of psychology and neuroscience tell us that the structures of human brain are influenced as early on as in the womb, and from the moment we start beginning to understand language and concepts, we are being shaped as to what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’. In other words, people who write toxic stories do not get them from nowhere. There’s a… Read more »

Fyodor
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Fyodor

That’s right, I’m not in favour of “weeding out” anybody’s stories. I wouldn’t presume to decide for other people what they should write or read. This is primarily because I don’t have enough confidence in the omniscience and moral purity of my judgement to make those decisions for other people. Second, I know from historical experience that I can be reasonably confident in my fellow adults to sort the good from the bad for themselves without my intervention. Third, that same historical experience tells me that censorship is unambiguously corruptive and destructive to art. This doesn’t mean that I’m panglossian… Read more »

Gretchen Ellis
Guest
Gretchen Ellis

See, and that’s where you and I diverge. I do not see that “good wins out over bad” all the time. I see many instances where, because no one is willing to hold media makers and storytellers accountable, problematic stories are perpetuated over and over again. And criticism after the fact doesn’t always work. Sometimes we need foresight as well as hindsight to challenge problematic storytelling. Ultimately, we seem to differ in regard to when criticism can and ought to take place. From what I see, you think criticism can only be made once a piece of art has been… Read more »

Fyodor
Guest
Fyodor

I didn’t say that good wins out over bad all the time. I noted that the “bad” will always be with us. Problematic ideas persist because humans are problematic. It’d be nice if that could be wished away but in reality it’s not possible. In the meantime, there is an ongoing contest of ideas and, as I pointed out, in the main good/better ideas HAVE won out over bad. Of course criticism can only be made once a piece of art is produced. I don’t know about you, but I can’t criticise something I’ve never read, seen or experienced. What… Read more »

Gretchen Ellis
Guest
Gretchen Ellis

Exactly. We are not obligated to tolerate problematic, damaging stories. Holding storytellers accountable is a must if we are to counteract the hurtful aspects of the bad ones.

Gretchen Ellis
Guest
Gretchen Ellis

I think we shall have to agree to disagree on this issue. I do not happen to think that a commitment to ethics in storytelling results in censorship, though I understand your perspective. Bad stories are not just neutral pieces of bad art; they can be harmful, toxic, and destructive both to people and to society. None of these things is equivalent to your argument about ‘dangerous ideas’. You seem to have misinterpreted my call for ethical storytelling as advocating censorship, which is not at all what I meant. Quoting the first sentence of Tolkien’s paragraph at me (which I… Read more »

Fyodor
Guest
Fyodor

What is “ethical storytelling”? Ethical to whom? By whose standards? You wade into deep and murky waters when you assume that such a complicated and subjective concept can be agreed upon in an artistic context. What you may consider an ethical story told in an ethical way may be unethical to another person. You require of storytellers to adjust their story if it is “toxic” – toxic to whom? This is the core of the problem with this position: you require of writers/artists that they self-censor to protect their audience, but that is not their responsibility. Their readers have agency… Read more »

Gretchen Ellis
Guest
Gretchen Ellis

The idea of toxic and harm, for me, has to do with oppressive structures of the status quo. I thought I made that clear in the discussion on how stories can give us windows into alternate realities but perhaps I wasn’t as clear as I could have been. The point I’m making is the same as when comedians discuss punching up vs punching down. As artists, we ought never to punch down, to contribute to oppression of minorities and marginalized voices that are already being harmed by oppressive structures. Racism, sexism, the patriarchy, the systematic marginalization of LGBT persons, islamophobia,… Read more »

Fyodor
Guest
Fyodor

I think we’re back at the central issue: what is the obligation of the artist? You feel that you have an obligation not to uphold oppressive structures of the status quo in your art, but that is YOUR ethical stance. And that’s fine – your art is yours, to be whatever you wish. My position is that it’s not my place to tell you what you are ethically obligated to have or not have in your art. Similarly it is not possible – or desirable, in my view – for you or anyone else to dictate what is or is… Read more »

Gretchen Ellis
Guest
Gretchen Ellis

My ethics could be summarized as “don’t be an asshole to marginalized people” and “create narrative space for challenging oppressive structures and letting marginalized voices be heard/seen.”I do not see how this curtails artistic freedom in a problematic way, nor is it “my own ethical constraints” if by that you mean personal. I did not make this up as a preferred ethic for storytellers. This comes from a place of experience, empathy, listening to others, and yes, reading a lot of history. I do not see that “not being a dick” and “not supporting oppressive structures” is an onerous burden… Read more »

Fyodor
Guest
Fyodor

How are you “disagreeing” about history? I made the point earlier that artists challenge the status quo. If you’re arguing that they were successful without having the artistic freedom to be heard, I’m curious to hear of these influential novels and other stories by women and POC that were never published or disseminated. “Onerous burden”. That’s a curious phrase. You accept that you would be restricting artistic freedom, but argue that such restrictions wouldn’t be burdensome or problematic. When, exactly, does censorship become onerous, and for which problematic artist? What you might consider an acceptable restriction might be intolerable to… Read more »

The Oncoming Hurricane
Guest
The Oncoming Hurricane

Pretty good article here Gretchen, but can I just say that it makes me a little uncomfortable when LGBT is used as a synonym for sapphic or when none of the incidences of it apply to trans women at all?

Gretchen Ellis
Guest
Gretchen Ellis

I hear that. I will try to be more specific with my use of terms in the future; thanks for telling me!

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Analysis

Conclusion to Stumbling Beginnings in Summer Knight

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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.)

In Conclusion

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.


 

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Analysis

Game of Thrones 3×10 Rewatch: Mediocre

Kylie

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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.”

Episode Recap

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?

Highlights/lowlights

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.

Remember adaptation?

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

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Analysis

What We Ask from Stories

Alejandra

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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?

Equality!

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.


Images courtesy of Disney Channel, Disney Pixar, and NBC

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