Isn’t it all a bit rapey: Sansa Stark and the Line in the Sand

got_wallpaper__sansa__season_three_by_mcnealy-d5ujhgiTwenty-odd years ago, my mother performed a great service to the world of women (not to be confused with the great service to the world she performed forty-odd years ago).  While serving on a panel entitled Women in Fantasy & Science Fiction (I’m guessing at the title by the way), she picked a fight with George R.R. Martin.  Yeah.  THE G.R.R.M.  The topic was whether or not women can be warriors in speculative fiction.  Mr Martin argued that they could not, citing all the usual evidence: women are physically inferior by nature, biology, blah-blah-blah.  To this my mother said one word: FICTION.

This word was followed by several more but that was the gist of her retort.  What is the point of speculative fiction if not to speculate?  Why not envision a world where women can exist on equal level with men?  Unicorns, elves, magic, dragons—but not gender equality?

‘Ridiculous,’ snorted my mother to G.R.R.M.  ‘Ludicrous and short-sighted,’ she added.

I like to think my mother is the reason for Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth and Maege Mormont.  But there is a wider issue at stake here.  What is the purpose of fiction—particularly speculative fiction?  Should writers of fantasy and science fiction present a world that is recognisable to readers through the haze of magic, time, technology and space?  Or do we have a responsibility—indeed a mission—to remake the world as it could or should be?

And what do we do about rape?

This may seem like a sudden change of topic, but bear with me.  As a feminist fan of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels and the accompanying Game of Thrones television series, I tread a narrow rope bridge covered in slippery moss and sloppy bird shit stretching over an abyss.  He created some amazing female characters who are “strong” but also flawed in the same ways the male characters are.  These women struggle to pick a path through the moral morass (or in some cases blaze a destructive trail though it) just as the men do.  Some are victims of circumstance, some agents of their own destruction, some heroic—most are all three.  That is the beauty of Martin’s world and why we are all so in love with it.  The characters try and try again, fail and fail again but do their best to thrive and survive (though, of course, “thriving and surviving” means different things to different characters).

But isn’t it all a bit “rapey”? 

I love it when people use that word.  As if the actual noun and verb of it can’t be confronted, it has to be adjectived.  Rapey.  Rape-like.  Not actual rape, you understand, just a bit rape-ish.  Because of the truth of it is too much.  Too much truth.

This morning I read that The Mary Sue, feminist fan website of all things wonderful in the world of speculative arts and sciences, has decided to withdraw its support and promotion of Game of Thrones in light of a scene featured in the most recent episode Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken.  A US Senator has called it quits, even Rolling Stone is raising an eyebrow.  Another woman was raped on television.  I watched the episode from over the edge of my quilt.  It was quite possibly the most upsetting thing I’ve seen on the series so far—which is an achievement.

Another woman was raped on television.  Enough.  The Mary Sue and Senator McCaskill have had enough.  I get it.  I really do.  I would never presume to draw someone else’s line in the sand.

One argument fans of the show have made is that the scene is not in the books.  Benioff and Weiss did it again the same way they did with Daenerys’s wedding night and Jaime and Cersei’s graveside reunion.  I totally agree with the complaints about Dany and Drogo, Jaime and Cersei.  Those moments on screen, so profoundly different from the books, really angered and upset me.  Last night upset me too, but not for the same reason.

Last night’s scene between Ramsay and his bride actually is in the books, it’s only the bride that is different.  What happened to Sansa Stark should have happened to Jeyne Poole who is masquerading against her will as Arya Stark.  The two scenes play out very similarly—almost exactly, but with one crucial change: Sansa for Jeyne/Arya.  Does it make a difference that it happened to a major character we love—a high-born character rather than a low-born one we’re not particularly attached to?  Hell yeah.  It’s far more painful.  I was sad for Jeyne in the books; I was devastated for Sansa on the tellly.  Benioff and Weiss upped the dramatic ante in a huge way.

Another woman was raped on television.  “Rape is not a necessary plot device,” argues The Mary Sue.  True.  Rape as entertainment should not be tolerated.  True.  But I defy anyone to describe last night’s scene as “entertaining.”  It was horrendous.  I have seen rape and sexual violence handled disrespectfully and in a way which makes light of, dismisses or fetishizes the experience.  When that happens, I am one of the first to scream out in protest.   And it does seem to happen quite a lot in fiction as it does in life.  But does this mean that rape and sexual violence have no place in literature, film or television?  Should we not attempt to represent it at all?  Where should we draw the squiggly, blurry grey line?

What do we do about rape?

This brings me back to my initial question on the purpose of speculative fiction.  I could just as easily throw this open and ask: what is the purpose of art itself, but I want to zoom in on speculative art because, to me, fantasy and science fiction are in a unique position to reflect or remake the world.  The best speculative art is a balancing act and the best artists mirror back to us truths about the familiar world around us in a way which shows those truths in a new light while also leading us down, or at least pointing the way toward, a different road.  Justice, suffering, identity, pluralism, equality, tyranny—speculative art explores these themes in tragic, comic, thought-provoking, life –affirming and world-changing ways.

Rape is a reality in our world. One in three women will experience sexual violence at some point in her life.  Not fictional characters, real women and real violence and real rape.  For many years, I worked as a rape crisis counsellor, educator and consciousness raiser.  Rape is not some amorphous concept to me, I’ve been on the front lines and seen the casualties.  For all its faults, Thrones strives to depict a truthful and brutally honest medieval-inspired fictional world which includes violence of all types.  If the intention is truth, truth cannot be ignored.  To ignore rape would be a disservice to those who have lived it.

But there are ways to creatively, sensitively tell the truth about sexual violence, include it in your narrative without perpetuating rape culture and misogyny and without glamour or titillation.  As a feminist and creative artist, I think last night got it right in an emotionally gut wrenching way.  The camera showed very little of Ramsay but focused first on Sansa, pulling us into her experience.  Then, rather than stay with her which could have been gratuitous, it pulled back to close in on Theon’s reaction as a way to mirror and model our own response.  It worked on me.  I was right there with him: frozen in tear-streaked horror as a girl I’d seen grow up was violated.

Was it awful to witness?  You bet.  Was it unnecessary and excessive?  Not if the writers want to stay true to the world they have created and to the vicious monster that is Ramsay.  Sansa knew what was coming.  None of us, the loyal watchers of the show, thought for one second that Mr Bolton was going to be as respectfully kind as Tyrion.  The writers practically held our hands as we all walked up those stairs together.  Could they have stopped the scene after Ramsay’s line about not lying to one another?  Possibly.  But this show has never before shied away from its own brutality.  Why would it start now?

Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken, a very darkly funny title when you think of it (too soon?), was a deal-breaker for many feminist fans.  I totally understand why, but I do not agree.  I find the casual, background images of violence against women on the show far more upsetting.  The tavern scene in Two Swords: while The Hound threatens to eat all the chicken, the poor tavern keeper’s daughter is having a very unpleasant time of it.  Oathkeeper: the Night Watch mutineers are putting Craster’s wife-daughters through the mill while Karl drinks wine from Mormont’s skull.  I find those casual, background incidents far more insidious than Sansa’s wedding night.

If you’re going to tackle sexual violence in a story, tackle it up front and honestly.  Images of sexual violence in art are upsetting and should always be upsetting, but I don’t believe they should be eliminated.  Silence is the cloak which hides the truth of what so many real women experience.  Do we black it out or do we depict rape with respectful honesty from the victim’s point of view?

Do I think Benioff and Weiss are guilty of gratuitous sex and violence?  Totally.  But last night I think they hit the right note for me, even if that note was discordant and horrific.  Does it turn me off enough for me to tune out?  No.  Because only half the mission has been fulfilled.

What is the purpose of speculative fiction?  Tell the truth and tear the veil off the ugly secrets of humanity.  There is violence, suffering and horror.  Any fairytale can tell you that.  But once the truth is revealed, a good speculative artist should show us another way.  Give us dragons, needles, oaths to keep and beautiful wedding nights under the stars— as Dany and Drogo were in the books and should have been in the show.  This is more true to G.R.R. Martin’s novels.

I hold out hope Benioff and Weiss will not leave us to wallow in the mud.  I also hold out hope that Drogon will swing by Bravos to collect Arya and the two of them will make winter bleed fire all over the Boltons.  Here’s hoping.

Confessions of a Musical Junkie

I have a powerful, emotional and visceral connection to musical theatre.  When I go to see a musical, any musical, I start to cry.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a show I know and love or one I can barely sing along too; whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy.  You can guarantee that, before the orchestra has a chance to find their groove, I will be in floods.  (There is only one exception so far to this rule: Miss Saigon.  I really hate that show.  And Grease but I would never willingly go to a theatre to see Grease.  Unless one of my former students was starring in it and offered me complimentary tickets and it would have to be a former student I really, really, really liked.)

into-woods-movie-release-dateIt doesn’t even have to be a live stage production.  Glee held me in its saccharine grip for three seasons.  After one episode I had to phone a friend and sob about it to him.  I went through an entire box of tissues during Les Miserables.  Even the recent televised Tribute to Tim Rice had me misty eyed.  Is it any wonder that I spent most of the two and whatever hour performance of Into the Woods quietly crying into my daughter’s hair?  (She sat on my lap throughout Act Two and, for the record, hair is not terribly absorbent. #shouldabroughttissues)

Why do I get so verklempt by musical theatre?  At first I thought it was just musicals I loved at an early age: Les Miz, Into the Woods, Chess, Sunday in the Park with George, Evita, Cats (I was nine, ok?), Pirates of Penzance, Jesus Christ Superstar…  I’m going to stop listing now because this is taking too long.  But why did I sniffle through Wicked, a show I like very much but am not particularly attached to emotionally?   Why did a scene from Lion King performed at the Tony Awards reduce me to a gibbering puddle?  I hate that stupid film!

My conclusion is that I am Pavlovianally (there’s an adverb for you) hard-wired to respond with deep emotion to musical theatre because so many of my happiest, most fulfilling moments from the age of 8-18 can be linked to musicals: shows I’ve been in, shows I’ve seen, soundtracks I’ve listened to so often they are in my blood.  When the lights going down and the orchestra tunes up I’m transported through a worm hole where sequins, recitatives and cycloramas mix with willow trees I’ve climbed, friends and family I’ve loved, opening night jitters, closing night tears, a lighting gel sample fan I carried around for years that taught me everything I know about colour, practising my tap dancing on a discarded plank of driftwood in my living room when I was ten, my dad in a pink dress playing the role of Hysterium in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Forum when I was seventeen.

Most of all, musicals remind me of my small town high school which put on a musical every spring.  Some parts of my adolescence sucked, but once a year there was a musical and all my friends were in it.  Every night we rehearsed, every weekend we painted sets, hunted for props or made costumes and every moment I remember thinking there was nowhere else I would rather be.  On my eighteenth birthday, after our last dress rehearsal of the last show I would do on my high school stage, the entire cast sang “Happy Birthday” to me and someone brought cake and ice cream and there was nowhere else I would rather have been.  Spring is still my favourite time of year and I still put on high school shows—only now I’m the teacher/director.  Magic, memory and music combine into a heady emotional cocktail, rendering me powerless to resist the siren songs.

I should pause at this point for an interval/intermission because this blog was supposed to be a review of Into the Woods and it’s turning out to be Confessions of a Musical Junkie.

IntoWoodsTitlePage1At the age of sixteen, right in the middle of my most musically emotional period, I discovered Into the Woods and immediately claimed it as my own.  Sondheim wrote it for me.  I am as convinced of this now as I was at sixteen.  What could be more Kate than a musical fairytale?  Nothing.

For me, this show is a coming of age story in every way.  The characters and story, lyrics and themes taught me a lot about the kind of person I wanted to be but also warned me about the pitfalls of growing up and making choices.  “Nice is different than good,” Little Red Ridinghood taught me.  “Isn’t it nice to know a lot…and a little bit not,” she also sings, which resonated with me as a self-confessed Miss Know It All.  Jack warned me about giants in the sky, but also reassured me that when I came back to my small world, it would seem different but dearer.  This is what every kid needs to know when they leave home to go to university.  Cinderella and The Baker’s Wife taught me about men.  Handsome princes might be good for “whatever” but it was likely that they would be “charming not sincere” and I should wait for someone in-between.  I learned that for sure.

The Baker taught me the most because Into the Woods really is his story.  In the first act he tries so hard to complete a quest without losing his moral compass—unlike his wife who is willing to do anything to get what she wants.  But when he loses her in the second act, he loses his way in the woods.  Scared that he will become “like father, like son”, he runs from the consequences of his choices.  Everyone runs from the consequences of their desire to achieve their dreams because their choices leave a big, bloody mess on the stage.  This musical is all about choices and the consequences of those choices and the realisation that while you are chasing your dreams, others are chasing theirs or just trying to keep their heads down and get on with their lives.  The final choices that these characters face are not necessarily good ones, but you can see them trying hard and that is the point.  You will make mistakes but fix them as best you can then tell your story and hopefully the next generation will learn a truth from it.  Into the Woods is a big chapter of my Bible which, I guess makes Sondheim a major prophet of some kind.

INTO THE WOODSAs with Les Miz and Sweeney Todd, I was scared (“well, excited and scared”) to see the film.  I heard they had changed it, Disneyied it, sanitised it.  They didn’t really.  There were a few changes but mostly it was the musical I knew and loved with a cast cooked up in fairyland.  Chris Pine, Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick are just perfect.  Little Lilla Crawford (I was scared at first that she had lip synced it but I looked her up and she’s totally a Broadway baby) is a gem.  I liked Meryl Streep, but as a fan of the show I wish they had cast Bernadette Peters so there could be one connection to the original play.  James Cordon continues to challenge my expectations and my biggest regret of the film is that he didn’t get to do “No More”.  Hoping for a director’s cut DVD.

As with Les Miz and Sweeney Todd and even Noises Off, I did find myself thinking throughout the film (when I wasn’t crying): great cast, great costumes and staging but can I please just see all these people do this on stage?  I’m a boards and greasepaint gal over screens and celluloid I guess.  I crave the live.