Friday, 13 January 2012

George R. R. Martin’s Identity Politics: Or, The Many Levels of My Hatred of Sansa Stark

***WARNING: contains spoilers for both the TV series and the novels.

A Song of Ice and Fire gives me a big nerdy happy - from political wrangling to zombie hordes to fight scenes that have my inner twelve-year-old punching the air, there’s a lot to like. Pretty high on this list is the brilliant Tyrion Lannister, whose narrative contains some of the most poignant passages to be found about the dehumanizing nature of prejudice, in a culture that is utterly mired in its poison.

Oh yeah, and he talks exclusively in zingers.

In an early exchange with Jon Snow, Tyrion tells him, “Let me give you some advice, bastard: Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you”; when Snow demands to know what he could possibly know about being a bastard, Tyrion replies, “Every dwarf is a bastard in his father’s eyes”. By equating the bastard’s plight with his own, he creates a point of connection against a dominant social discourse that makes outcasts of many, from the whores and the bastards to the handicapped and the queer. And from the illicit gay relationship between Renly and Tyrell, to the company of criminals and unwanted sons turned soldiers known as the Night’s Watch, considerable space is afforded to such marginal voices.

In this spirit, the novels locate heteronormative patriarchal structures as the site of misery: both political and forced marriages are the norm, most of the marriages shown are unhappy in some way, and bastard children both rife and unashamedly marginalized by the culture that creates them. And casual, institutionalised violence against women is a huge part of this culture, in which forced marriage, rape and sexual slavery are common. There’s even a guy who gets his rocks off by releasing women into the forest and hunting them like animals. 

Something I have in no way considered doing to my friend Mike, the next time he shows up unasked, empties my fridge and smokes all my weed.

I don’t necessarily think that Martin always nails these marginal voices. For example, I don’t think he’s particularly good at female characters. He’s not terrible, either: Arya Stark is great, and the Lady of the Thorns is so magnificent I wouldn’t mind being her when I grow up (I have a strange but deep affinity with really crotchety old people).

However Daenerys, Cersei and Catelyn Stark bored me rigid on the page. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed their chapters when something was happening with the story – battles, political wrangling, possibly a bit of pillaging – but when events took a break in favour of the characters’ general inner life, their voices were kind of… bland. To my mind, all three are far more interesting and sympathetic on the screen, mostly because Emilia Clarke and Lena Heady in particular are absolutely brilliant in their roles. In the novels, Cersei starts out with the ghost of a human side (such as it is) buried underneath her villainy; but as things progress this degenerates into a two-dimensional portrait of someone who’s so evil it becomes frankly cartoonish. Heady skilfully draws out this human side amidst the general vileness of Cersei, while Clarke adds a layer of steel to the initial vulnerability of babe in the woods-turned-warrior Daenerys. Both actors vastly improve characters whose narratives were mediocre on the page.

Granted, his depiction of the Dothraki is… orientalist, shall we say.


But this is at least somewhat balanced by the fact that the more European-based culture of the Seven Kingdoms is no less brutal or violent than that of the warrior tribe. Indeed, Daenerys finds an acceptance and identity among the latter that was completely out of reach among her ‘own kind’, whose own culture brutalizes women just as savagely as that of the raping, pillaging horselords.

I'm not trying to claim that it’s a ground-breaking work of identity politics or anything - there are still unfilled spaces and outright problems. Figures from non-European cultures are depicted mostly through their interactions with overwhelmingly white characters from the Seven Kingdoms; the Dothraki, despite being a major presence throughout the series, depend entirely upon Daenerys’s narrative for their place in the story, with no voices emerging from within the horselord culture itself.

In addition, Cersei’s honey-trap with Lady Merryweather is the only significant interlude on lesbian sexuality, and its primary function is to cement Cersei’s status as a scheming whore who will do anything – ‘and Martin means anything’ - to get her way. Meanwhile, the relationship I mentioned between Renly and the Knight of the Flowers takes place entirely off the page. (In fairness, I have no idea whether Martin stayed away from queer sexuality because it makes him uncomfortable on some level, or simply because he had no direct experience and didn’t want to offend by running his mouth on something he knew little about on a personal level. The show added a scene with Renly and Tyrell in an unambiguously homoerotic context, which was welcome and needed.)

But shortfalls aside, there seems to be an honest attempt to bring in marginal voices from all over both the cultures he draws upon, and the elements of prejudice within them which endure today. And in all the brutality and violence of medieval culture, the most disturbing thing of all is its echoes in how we live today. The burnings, lynching, stonings, and hangings which form some of the most savage passages still occur daily around the world, and many of the shocking injustices the series depicts are still going on, from political corruption and exploitation of the ‘smallfolk’, to the rape, child abuse and violent deaths of millions. The series also magnifies the prejudices that recent years have tempered in western society– racism, sexism, homophobia, stigmatization of disability, etc. – into the stark and unapologetic forms that our culture’s own recent past is mired in.

Much of it is sensationalized to the point of gratuity, of course; part of the guilty pleasure of the books is the way they revel in their own excesses of violence, sex, ritual and arbitrary custom. The fight scenes are wish-fulfilment awesome, the fucking’s dirty, and the magic hammy enough to satisfy the most stalwart of nerds.

However, problems aside, I’d at least judge that an honest effort has been made to engage with plurality and marginal voices. And provided a piece of art doesn’t try to pedal ideology that’s outlandishly ignorant or downright offensive, I don’t always disagree with people who defend it against the charge of lacking intellectual substance by going, “Yeah, but it’s not supposed to be a sophisticated exploration of cultural nuances – this right here is about some zombie fucking bears.

Well… all right, only one zombie fucking bear. But still, zombie fucking bear, which I think we can all agree is automatically awesome.

So basically, I accept that with its excesses come problems, but overall I’m generally comfortable with the intent as I perceive it. Yet, when it comes to the character of Sansa, I felt like it just started wallowing in its own excesses to a point that became annoying, given that it’s in her chapters that gratuitous violence and sadism meet the series’ weakest characterization.

If you feel voyeuristic reading Sansa’s passages, it might be because the books offer her up as nothing more than the site of a suffering which is meted out with incessant authorial sadism. We are shown an innocent, who believes in all the ‘right’ things for a girl of her age and class – love, honour, romance, chivalry. Then we are shown her being systematically destroyed before our eyes. First her supposed handsome prince proves to be a vicious sociopathic little shit, who eventually executes her father in front of her; she is nonetheless expected to marry him and lives as a hostage of his scheming mother’s in dread of her first period, at which time she will be wed to him. Meanwhile, he spends their pre-nuptial days days forcing her to look at her father’s head on a spike, trying to publically strip her before his uncle intervenes, and having his knights beat her.

It’s not the fact that she doesn’t fight back physically that makes her character so frustrating – in fairness, she’s cornered and outnumbered. It’s the way she remains mentally passive and naïve throughout, a little too long after she’s learned the hard way that life isn’t fair. Her beliefs are exposed as a sham very early in the series, but she never quite learns the lesson, to the point where it’s starting to become unclear how stupid she could possibly be. She simply continues to exist, clinging to her courtesies, smiling through the tears and hoping for a better tomorrow: a state of affairs that continues long after becoming ridiculous.

And it’s even worse in the TV series. Sophie Turner’s Sansa is just as dull and irritating, but with an edge of spoilt brattiness that was missing from the sweet airhead of the books. While book-Sansa saves her sniping for her little sister Arya and is considered a total doll by everyone else, series-Sansa is petulant and rude to pretty much everyone around her.

 Seriously. Even her face is whiny.

Reading the books, something I noticed is that Sansa doesn’t mentally direct her passages with her own thoughts as much as the other major characters; her chapters generally revolve around protracted accounts of other people’s physical and mental abuse of her, rather than a strong inner voice addressing us. And the potential impact of her horrific situation is diluted by this very blandness of her character. She’s too boring and underdeveloped to really attach to; ergo, it’s hard to care when others brutalize her. It gets old fast.

In A Clash of Kings she’s offered the chance of escape by the Hound, who asks her to flee with him; but she of course merely shits herself on the inside while smiling politely at him, as is her custom. She doesn’t go, because although he is the only person in her new life of horror who has ever shown her any kindness, he’s also a dangerous and downright intimidating figure who often frightens her when in his cups. He is also sexually threatening towards her, to the point where she imagines him to have forced a violent kiss upon her before he flees, and later confesses to Arya that he seriously considered raping her. In fairness, sitting that road trip out might have been one of her better decisions.

 He doesn’t exactly come over as the kind of guy who’d see a girl home safe.

So instead, Sansa sits back and waits for a true knight. However, Ser Dontos comes to her dressed, fittingly, as a fool, and frequently slobbers over and kisses her when drunk. His far more overt sexual interest is masked in courtly language, as he calls her Jonquil and waxes sentimental about her sweetness; but it proves just as predatory (and far less honest) when it is Dontos, this knight who has promised to save her, who betrays her. Instead of being spirited away to the medieval equivalent of a safe house, she is sold out to Petyr Baelish, who paid Dontos to bring her to him.

Also, while all this is being set in motion, Joffrey is regularly threatening Sansa with rape - even after she has been forcibly married to his uncle.

 For the love of god, someone buy the girl some pepper spray.

So the gallant saviour has proven just as much a myth as the happily-ever-after with the handsome and virtuous prince. Yet Sansa still does not reject it completely, believing herself reasonably safe with Baelish, who styles his own sexual interest in her as fatherly concern. She continues to cling to Baelish as her friend and saviour, despite the distinct flickers of sociopathy that even she can’t entirely miss; like the way he lights up when he talks of power and manipulation, and the time he tried to kiss her in the snow.

And the murder. That, too.

That she stays with Baelish even after seeing him kill her aunt is fair do’s - she has, after all, few other options (and to be fair the mad bitch did just try to throw her out the Moon Door). The main problem is that, occasional perfunctory fears for her life and maidenhead notwithstanding, it fails to occur to her with any real clarity that Baelish might not really be her friend. Arya would challenge him, question him and watch him. Sansa on the other hand simply figures, “Well, he’s amoral, sinister and inclined to betray those around him at the drop of a hat, but he’s always been nice to me…” In fairness, we already knew she wasn’t the best judge of character; but it’s still a bit of a stretch to believe anyone could still, after all the betrayals she has experienced, be that naïve.

Sansa is literally nothing but the embodiment of a trite archetype: the gleefully sadistic destruction of the innocent. Which is fine if it comes attached to something interesting: all the content in the world can be written on the back of a postage stamp and all that. But it doesn’t. This function aside, she is completely characterless - even her own mother can’t think of a more potent description of her personality than, “She’s sweet, and she likes songs and lemon cakes.”

Pictured: Sansa’s hopes and dreams.

I guess that’s why her chapters got old for me so quickly. It reminded me of American Psycho; where a characterless narrator directs the story, even content that should be shocking quickly becomes tired and dull. It’s one thing to depict the circumstances of a person utterly trapped by forces they are helpless to fight, or even fully understand; it’s another to make this character so boring.

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