Saturday, April 26, 2014

Fantastic misogyny?

As expected, last week's Cersei and Jaime scene generated quite a bit of discussion around the Interwebs, most of it fueled by some degree of outrage and/or disgust... which one would hope for in a scene that was pretty clearly rape. However, I think some people are losing sight of a) what the story is; b) whom the characters involved are; and, c) what the scene was obviously trying to do. Sarah Kolb's piece at is an example of that.

Now, like usual, this is treading dangerous ground because here I am, a man, talking about a topic that's, uh, not from my perspective. Although the sexual assault of men does occur in our society, there's no question that it's far more prevalent against women. Therefore, it's very easy to slide back into the commonly patriarchal view of such activity, which often leads to blaming the victim for displays of initial desire ("She wanted it!") or a failure to act sternly enough ("I would have stopped if she really didn't want it!") Even more importantly here, this is a work of fiction, so there's no interview to be done afterward to get the reaction from the characters or determine whose intent was whose, etc. However, this being fiction, one would like to assume that we can go ahead and analyze this from a relatively secure foundation of complete and total speculation and assumption, which is what we'll try here.

First off you can't (ahem) lionize Cersei as one of Martin's most interesting characters (which she is) and then complain about how the show has trivialized her into a victim because the show, if anything, has made her more interesting. Cersei doesn't become a POV (point-of-view) character until well after this event took place in the books (she begins in Feast for Crows, not Storm of Swords as Kolb stated) so we're not privy to her thoughts when this happens, just as we're not privy to said thoughts from either the character or Lena Headey on the HBO series. That said, you get a different level of detail from watching a performance than you do from reading a book. Cersei is little more than vengeful manipulator through the first few thousand pages of the books. Only later do we learn her vulnerabilities. We've already seen those multiple times from Headey in the show's four seasons. We can already sympathize with and even love her, in Kolb's words. She's already complex and she's still a victim, simply on the basis of her sex. But suggesting that the latter condition is somehow indicative of an overall attitude of the show and its creators is a bit too far of a leap, IMO.

Secondly, saying that the scene in the books is "completely consensual" is pretty poor memory on Kolb's part. The circumstances are markedly different (it's the first time Jaime has seen her in months, rather than being home for weeks; Joffrey has been dead for some time; etc.), but she says "No." quite a bit during that scene, as well, before giving in. It's easy to read her "No" in the books into the idea that she's just worried about someone coming in and seeing them and the uproar that would result. But how do we know that? In the same way that we shouldn't make a determination about anyone's intent leading up to a rape, we shouldn't here, right? "No means no", right? Is it safe to say that she "wanted it" because at some point she seems to have mentally said "I don't care if someone comes in. Do me, Jaime!"? Likewise, in the same way that it's possible to view that scene as "without question consensual", it's also possible to note that Graves' scene also shows Cersei giving in, returning Jaime's kisses, and then clutching the altar dressing in a pretty clear display of passion. At what point do we determine that her desire does or does not make it rape?

In the end, was it rape? Yeah, I think so. That's what I thought from the moment it started to the moment we transitioned to somewhere else, even after she began returning Jaime's passion. That's what it was and I was certainly a bit put off by it, too, not just because of what was happening but also because it was a radical departure from the route that Jaime's character has taken in the show and the books. However, that's what happens in good dramatic works and it usually turns into something more interesting than otherwise. Furthermore, to extrapolate from that shock into discarding the entire show as an exercise in misogyny is a good way to get me to discard said opinion as an exercise in hyperbole. For that matter, how exactly are rape scenes to be shown in fiction if not as a moment of shock and, presumably, horror? How exactly should they be shown or told "correctly"? What better reaction for the audience to have than the one that the vast majority had precisely to this one?

Women are property in Westeros, just as they were in many societies in earlier times (and still are in many today, unfortunately.) That's precisely the focus of Cersei's character in that she has been one of the most powerful people in the Seven Kingdoms for quite some time and, in an instant, she's reduced to being a bargaining chip again. Consistency in storytelling is actually a strong point, so deviating from what has been firmly established is as much a fool's errand as rewriting history because it's too dark for today's tender sensibilities and more enlightened viewpoints. To be honest, Kolb's is the only opinion I've seen so far that's even speculated on the idea that part of the audience would react in a "bitch got what she deserved" manner. On the contrary, the reaction has been one of almost universal shock and confusion... which is exactly the reaction you would expect to get for a rape scene! Art works. Wonders never cease. Because, yeah, it is a lot like real life. Maybe that's the point?

Later, Kolb's argument turns to the fact that what seems to be really eating at her is that Jaime's upward return from the vile person that he was before has now been put on hold. In other words, he's still a self-centered guy who feels entitled to take what he wants, even from the person he loves most in the world. She's upset that the show "butchered the moral principles of one of [her] favorite male characters." Exactly how many "moral principles" does a child-killer and nobleman who regards most commoners as footstools to be used mounting his horse actually have? While it's a surprise to everyone (at least in some way because it is such a deviation from his path in the books), it's also no reason to dismiss the show and, to some extent, Martin's work as misogynistic (even aside from the seeming hypocrisy.)

That's almost the funny part, because there was an opinion for quite some time after 2000 and prior to the publication of Feast for Crows that A Song of Ice and Fire was a work of misogyny, primarily because even though Martin had multiple strong and interesting female characters, the vast majority of them were regarded as either despicable, weak to the point of contempt, or harridans (Cersei, Sansa, and Catelyn, respectively.) The only real exception was Daenerys, who is still widely regarded as the story's only genuinely heroic figure, and who is still one of those whom modern society would term "morally questionable" because of the casual way in which she's willing to execute thousands of Astapori, Yunkaii, and Meereenese. So, whose high horse is really being ridden here?

The scene wasn't funny. It wasn't titillating. It didn't even show any of the famed nudity that people seem to think is so overdone (oh, but not the brutal violence... no, there can never be enough of that for American audiences because that's OK for the children...) It was exactly what it was supposed to be: dark, and not just because the lighting was low. While many people, like Kolb, have had a visceral reaction to it, I think that was honestly intentional. Whether it was a good idea or not remains to be seen. I think it works within the scope of what the show has already portrayed and will continue to do.

(And, incidentally, Asha Greyjoy is Yara Greyjoy in the show because they thought people would be dumb enough to confuse 'Asha' and 'Osha', the Wildling. Asha, again, doesn't really come into her own until A Feast for Crows begins, so while I'd like to see more of her, that story is still being played out. Again, not because the producers hate women.)

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