In the Elevator with Questlove

Among the responses to the Trayvon Martin ruling, one in particular has risen to the top of my Facebook feed:  Questlove’s excellent essay in New York Magazine. It doesn’t surprise me that this remarkable piece of writing has received so much attention.  What is a little surprising, however, is that the essay’s provoked so little commentary beyond simple praise.  Questlove’s essay is important for what it says about blackness and American public space; it’s also important for what it doesn’t say explicitly, but instead takes for granted, about the way that gender and blackness intersect in public space.

Here’s what’s best about the essay, beyond it’s straightforward, restrained tone: it explores racism as a structure that limits Questlove’s access to the social and physical mobility he has otherwise “earned” (and the word is important, because this essay is very much about class).  Racism means that in order to protect his own physical safety, he has to attend first to the emotional safety experienced by other, whiter, people:

My friends know that I hate parking lots and elevators, not because they are places that danger could occur, but it’s a prime place in which someone of my physical size can be seen as a dangerous element. I wait and wait in cars until I feel it’s safe for me to make people feel safe.

In Questlove’s telling, this practice has been “hammered into his DNA”—it’s become physical. It’s a part of what his “primitive, exotic-looking” black* body means, as it exists in US Space.

What makes Questlove’s story particular, and an interesting test case on American blackness, is that in addition to being “six-foot-two, 300 pounds,” with an “uncivilized Afro,” he is also famous.  And rich. This is Questlove’s experience of Double Consciousness; because he is Questlove, he can and should to go “swanky elitist” places where, because he is also black, he ordinarily could not and should not go. Uplift, hypothetically, should no longer be a problem for him.

The most wrenching aspect of the essay is Questlove’s general sense of exhaustion that, no matter how rich or famous he becomes, his wealth and celebrity will never alleviate the danger that his blackness, in the white imagination, poses.  He will never be a Gatsby, even for the moment that Gatsby was Gatsby.  Poor people, like black people, have limited access to space; unlike poverty, race can never be removed. Black skin, in Questlove’s story, is where the American Dream of a blank slate goes to die.

I live in a “nice” building. I work hard. You know I work hard. My logic is (naïve alert in 5, 4, 3, 2 … ) “Well, there can’t be any fear of any type in this building” — you’ve got to go through hell and high water just to get accepted to live here, like it’s Dartmouth or UPenn. Secondly, there are, like, five to eight guards on duty 24/7, so this spot is beyond safe.

The elevator as uplift.

By working hard, and getting rich, Questlove (in this essay) didn’t hope to change public space.  But he believed he could buy a private space where, by virtue of being there, he could take a break from protecting the feelings of white people.  The tragedy of the essay is that he could not. Questlove cleverly illustrates this point by telling a story about an elevator (an important metaphor for the question of racial uplift); the elevator goes up, but even if Questlove is in the rising elevator, he himself will always be kept down, kept in place.

This point is driven home by exactly the villain you might expect: a white woman.

One night, I get in the elevator, and just as the door closes this beautiful woman gets on….I press my floor number, and I ask her, “What floor, ma’am?” (Yes, I say “ma’am,” because … sigh, anyway.) She says nothing, stands in the corner. Mind you, I just discovered the Candy Crush app, so if anything, I’m the rude one because I’m more obsessed with winning this particular level than anything else. In my head I’m thinking, There’s no way I can be a threat to a woman this fine if I’m buried deep in this game — so surely she feels safe.

 

The humor comes in that I thought she was on my floor because she never acknowledged my floor request. (She was also bangin’, so inside I was like, “Dayuuuuuuuuuuum, she lives on my floor? *bow chicka wowow*!” Instantly I was on some “What dessert am I welcome-committee-ing her with?”) Anywho, the door opens, and I waited to let her off first because I am a gentleman. (Old me would’ve rushed first, thus not putting me in the position to have to follow her, God forbid if she, too, makes a left and it seems like I’m following her.) So door opens and I flirt, “Ladies first.” She says, “This is not my floor.” Then I assume she is missing her building card, so I pulled my card out to try to press her floor yet again. She says, “That’s okay.”

 

Then it hit me: “Oh God, she purposely held that information back.” The door closed.

Here, for a series of obvious reasons—not the least of which is that this is a probably a true story—Questlove chooses to make his point about how his body is read as fundamentally threatening by staging himself in interaction with the sort of body that his is imagined most to threaten: that of the beautiful white lady.  (I’ll note that one thing I respect most about this essay is Questlove’s insistence on the validity of his attraction to her.) For all the reasons we know—all the history of lynch mobs and the fantasies of the insatiability of black male desire—this particular white woman, alone in an elevator at night, comes to stand in for the generalized, infrastructural fear that America has towards blackness, particularly black men.

It’s easy to vilify the beautiful rich white woman: her insult to Questlove’s experience, her imagined blindness to the fact that he, rather than she, is in fact more vulnerable. But what cannot play a role in this essay in order for it to work the way it does, is the possibility that that white woman, that night, wasn’t actually expressing a felt racism–wasn’t, that is, afraid of Questlove because he was a black man.

She might just have been afraid, of men. Of rape.

Questlove’s essay here, reading race and class together, forgets that by ignoring gender, he’ll get the story rather wrong.  The essay knows that every man with access to that elevator is rich and/or famous.  Questlove thus believes (in the essay) that, as a result, the woman should feel “safe.”

But of course any woman knows that where she is least safe–the least protected against assault, both physically and legally–is in an elevator with a rich, famous man.

I say “any woman” with some trepidation, because I’m only a white woman, and I can only speak for me.  But I think that I’m right; that women, across race, know their security goes down as the social status of the men around them goes up. Think about being in an elevator with Ben Roethlisberger. Or R. Kelley. Or Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Questlove is frustrated that all his wealth will never mean he has property in the social security that, in this country, is owned by whiteness.  But even as he parses the bizarre American ideology whereby race and class are and aren’t constructed together, he doesn’t address the ways in which women, too, have been historically socially excluded from the securities of wealth.  The gender bias of property laws—in a way intimately bound with the racial bias of property laws—created, for women as well as slaves, a myriad of social deaths.

Which is to say: excellent though it is, in making a woman an embodiment of white fear, Questlove’s essay has to omit all the ways in which women, like black men (though certainly not identical to black men) develop strategies for dealing with fear; how they learn how to protect and defend their fear; learn (like Questlove) how and when to get out of cars; learn things like never, ever tell a man on an elevator where you live.

If I were braver, here, I’d tell you my own patterns and habits, and the knowledge and fears I’ve accrued moving through city spaces carrying my own body, very different than Questlove’s, with its particular sets of risks and strengths: physically very vulnerable, social very secure. I wish it were safer to have this dialogue, and I’m glad to read Questlove’s account because I think it starts one.

Staging the nameless woman as the figure of racism doesn’t make Questlove wrong, per se, because the injury he experienced that night is very real.  But it’s worth noticing that there are other stories and fears going on, too. And it’s worth remembering that the biggest threat to both Questlove and the nameless woman was not each other, but rather a system that breeds fear between them, that makes them both into racial emblems, and that prevents them, and prevents us all, from having access to each other as full, and complex, brave and fearful, human beings.

 

*Edited to add: As has been pointed out in the comments (by Questlove himself, among others), he strategically does not use words like “black” or “white” in the essay.  This is one more way the essay points towards race as an interpretive and social, rather than biological, force. (It’s also another way it aligns with important texts in US literature, written by authors ranging from Kate Chopin to Toni Morrison.)

There’s much to say about this. However, I’d like to keep my focus on the question of gender, and the gender of fear.  The essay focuses on the hurt done to the speaker by the nameless woman’s anxiety–does it matter if she is “white”? Or rather, how would it matter? That question is not rhetorical; it is central.  I’d be very interested in any thoughts.

Race, Boys, Ends.

Just wanted to note an essay I wrote for yesterday’s LA Review of Books. The piece sparked a lot of discussion, and I was glad to see an often very substantive conversation about gender and the genre, even if a lot of it was vigorous pushback against my ideas. As someone who is an avid and serious reader of popular fiction, especially YA, it really was a pleasure. Thanks for the engagement, thanks to LARB for the venue, and special thanks to those who recommended books I should read.

In the aftermath, I did want to point out the aspect of the essay I would have expanded myself, had I more space (in retrospect, I am not sorry that I cut out the long discussion of nineteenth-century print distribution networks, fascinating as they may be—the 19c’s twitter!). But, to the point: this piece focuses on boyhood and manhood in general, but I was very aware in writing it that the question of how race mediates manhood lurks below the surface—and by “below” I mean “actually right there, waving it’s hand, like, YO! LOOK AT ME!”

Towards the essay’s conclusion, I mention race directly if parenthetically. But here are other ways we see it: all of the male protagonists I mention are white. Feed’s character Link is not only a reference to a nineteenth-century ideal of manhood, he also is a character with a specifically racial legacy. And, most importantly, in my discussion of Uncle Tom’s Cabin I mention the slaveholder George Shelby, but not the former slave George Harris.

I focused on George Shelby because he is the novel’s young adult: George Harris is already a man, a husband, and a parent at the novel’s beginning. Nevertheless, by giving these characters the same name, Harriet Beecher Stowe asks us to compare them. Doing so points us directly at one of the most challenging interpretive questions of the novel, helping us to think through what Stowe could and couldn’t imagine about racial integration–and about the experience of manhood–in 1852.

At the end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, both Georges take leadership roles, and Stowe boldly proposes that the end of slavery will mean an improved access to masculine privilege for both white and black men. But importantly, George Shelby becomes a leader in America, while George Harris moves off stage, out of the country, to Liberia. There’s lots to say about this, but one thing is: Stowe imagines manhood as generally important, but puts the black George Harris in the position of “outsider” manhood I note in so much contemporary lit. The nineteenth-century ideal of male privilege was not, in any sense of the imagination, universally extended. (If you’re interested in thinking more about this, I’d recommend these books, among others.)

Anyway, I think there’s lots more to say about boyhood and genre, about boyhood and manhood, about boyhood and race, about boyhood and multiple races, about boyhood and sexuality, and etc, than I said in my essay. (If I had the know-how, what’d I’d really like to write is about the different portraits of manhood in YA and country music). So here’s to a long, energetic conversation about a genre that merits our most rigorous attention.

Thanks again.

New Partner: SYTYCD Top 20

My plan, as I said last week, was to talk a bit about story making and reality TV, vis-à-vis my favorite reality show, So You Think You Can Dance. I had a specific plan for a post about the top twenty episode, which aired last Wednesday; I was going to talk about the partnerships.

 

 

Your Top Twenty

Partnerships are the most powerful tool in the So You Think You Can Dance story-making arsenal. Want to make the audience respond to a particular dancer? Give them a story-making moment in their feelings for another dancer. Give them a story-making partnership; put their moving body in conversation with someone else’s, and see what narrative you get. See if you can get a romance!

omg, that bboy is a big softie for Sabra

I stayed up really late last Wednesday writing many words about SYTYCD partnerships from days gone by—the magical ones, in which opening up to a partner seemed to open up a whole new movement vocabulary; the weirdly unsuccessful ones, where two hot talented kids were thrown together and nothing happened, the jelly didn’t jell, and it was really painful for everyone, probably the hot talented kids most of all.

But all these words I wrote last week didn’t feel like they were getting anywhere. Dimming my exciting for the story of SYTYCD season nine was the shocking lack of interesting lady dancers. Somehow, we’ve been saddled with all these nondescript children who look the same, and who have nothing to say for themselves apart from their impressive extensions.  How are we supposed to get good partnerships with such a lack of personality?

Watching the episode I felt an escalating irritation, well beyond even my own normal avid response to SYTYCD.  And it took me a while to figure it out, why I was so mad about these lame ladies.

Then I realized. It is because I miss my ladies, my SYTYCD lady watcher dance floor friends.

ladeez

I have spent the last two weekends at weddings, which means that some of my best loved lady friends from the past many years convened on different dance floors—on a brick dance floor, in a sweaty barn in Pennsylvania’s Amish country; on a paving-block dance floor overlooking an Oregon mountain. For two Saturdays in a row, I got sweaty dancing, with my best girls.

Some of these ladies were my regular SYTYCD viewing partners.  One lady friend and I had almost weekly viewings, with dinner. (We called SYTYCD “Prance,” because of our imaginary spin-off show “So You Think You Can Prance,” which was about ponies.) We’d ask each other, What are we cooking for Prance this week, and who all is coming? We asked these questions in a lovely moment of our late twenties and early thirties when the people we loved, our peers, people who were helping us figure out our path through this weird life, lived mostly in the same place. When we didn’t know who would come to Prance, and cook, or who would be up for what party, where, because it could be anyone, and no one had to book a plane ticket or find a babysitter.

On that sweaty Pennsylvania dance floor, particularly, I had a strange vertiginous sense of what it meant to be us, this group of ladies, at this moment in life. We had flown together from across the country—all of us separated from each other by the demands of professional (and mostly academic) life, uprooted from old comrades, still the new people in our new places, with new groups of friends. The dance floor became a stand-in for a home front that no longer existed.

And if the dance floor conjured an erased place, it stood in for a different time, too. Those of us sweating on the dance floor were young, or could believe we were, compared to the old folks with their feet up in the back of the room. There was no small amount of rocking out. The new music feels like our music, and our beginning of life.

But the illusion of being kids at a party was completely false, a mirage made possible by the various grandparents who took care of everyone’s actual kids, safe in far away states. We were not fully home, and we were not fully young. We looked lovely, we wore pretty dresses; we joked about shaping undergarments, our arms grew soft underneath.

We all left the next day. There was not much time for discussion, so the various satisfactions and disappointments and heartaches that become, precisely in the moment they’re forced by exhaustion onto the back burner, the constitutive experience so far of being thirty-something, went unparsed. We did not talk, much, about our variously successful careers or our breakups or marriages or children or the desire for them; about our long, solitary commutes.

All that we had to say, we had to make known through dancing, and I was so glad we had that vocabulary available to us, even though I kept having the sense that we were dancing on borrowed time, or, like the little mermaid, stealing our dancing feet from a body now destined for a different purpose.

Last week when I watched the top twenty episode of So You Think You Can Dance, I watched on a couch alone, thinking of friends who were not with me, either because they were on the other side of the country or because, just down the street, they were tied home by sick kids and work demands. I don’t know when the next wedding–the next dance floor–will be.

But it is not nothing to have this show to think about together. Alone on my couch, watching  the top twenty prancers, my phone vibrated with incoming messages from dispersed friends, giddy with opinions about this routine and that. It is not entirely a sad story, despite distance and looming old age, to live in a new and beloved place, still finding the chance to gossip with old friends about our favorite pase doblé.

I thought about partnering.  It’s cliché, right? I thought about lifting each other up.

SYTYCD sets up its partnerships to make love stories out of nothing, out of talented strangers.  But this silly show can do that because those strangers already share a language of movement, a knowledge about what the body means and can do in this short life, and the language is not unique to them.  My ladies and I have different talents, different bodies of knowledge than the people on the tv screen. But we, too, can get some serious talking done through the body’s moving language.  We are telling each other some stories, that are their own kind of strange, and lovely, and long-lasting romance.

True Stories

For the last few years, I’ve surprised myself by mostly foregoing television dramas in favor of sports and reality television.  I have had a three-season TV viewing schedule: Football in the fall, American Idol in winter and spring, and So You Think You Can Dance in the summer.

My affection for all of these things has been heartfelt and unironic—avid, you might say—if also a little bit shaped by the pleasure of being a professor type who is not too good for low-brow, cotton-candy, heart string pulling pleasures.

But if mostly I love watching these things because my fandom is so different from critical engagement, I also am fascinated by competition—and competition shows—precisely because of some of the same critical questions that occupy my nerdier life.  Watching SYTYCD, for example, is seriously an excellent exercise in applied genre theory. Or maybe what competition offers is some new genre, some new thing, something that requires its own vocabulary. That’s what I want to begin to sort through here.

1: Genre Risk.

The most amazing thing about watching a competition is that the ending is not yet written, which still blows my mind sometimes.

The uncertainty of a competition’s conclusion is so startling, I think, because it contrasts so starkly with what casting armies and producers and broadcasters try to give us as viewers, which is a strong sense of story and genre.  The job of those people, and many of them are extremely good at doing it, is to give their watchers some sense of conflict, of something on the line, with a particular sort of outcome more or less ordained by the laws of genre. Or maybe a conflict of genre, with competing laws.  Will Tom Brady’s precision triumph over of the broken Falstaffian brilliance of Rex Ryan? Will Adam Lambert’s gay majesty win over a requisite number of Danny Gokey’s sentimentalized heart-cancer fans?  These are serious questions, I can assure you, even if they are not yours, and what I see being worked out in the fan audiences of these shows is a fairly sophisticated debate about genre, WHICH IS WHY, and this a polemic for another time and place, I think more people who teach literary theory should WATCH THEM, because seriously nothing improved my classroom discussions about sentimentalism, aesthetics, and form, than being able to make reference to Danny Gokey, or, in different classes, Rex Ryan.

Danny Gokey hearts you, I am sad to say.

Anyway. As much as these competitions are set up as stories, as things, it is implied, that exist within the rules and logic of particular narrative structures, what is thrilling about the episode, the game, is precisely that it is not a story, it is not something bound to the rules we want genre to follow, because no producer or broadcaster, no matter how skilled, can actually know in advance how the story will end, or even if the story will be good.

Falstaff.

I think when you watch an unscripted competition or show, what you are actually watching is the gap between genre and life, hoping that it is very small, hoping against hope that it might actually be erased. Hoping that the values binding us to the narratives we hold dear will be affirmed when dry, flat life miraculously fits the curve of story. Bliss.

 2: Story of a Moment

Competitions, and competitions shows, don’t feature the same plot points as scripted stories.  Their main narrative feature, to my mind, is a thing called a “moment.” This is what Simon Cowell calls it, and I think he should know.

Adam Lambert tracks your tears.

“Moments” are to competition shows what Eliza’s tears are to Uncle Tom’s Cabin: they are the situation when the person you want to do their best (or maybe, the person you didn’t think could do their best) does their best, in a transformative way, and the audience is transformed and feels transformed, and then the competition changes, and that person moves closer to victory. They are narrative phenomena that Aristotle would be very interested in, if he were writing today (or maybe he did, and I’m just making a naive claim to originality–who knows!). They are a sign that, in its endless struggle with life, story is winning.

When Simon Cowell was on American Idol, he’d talk about this all the time: “you could have had a moment!” he’d chide, when the soul singer craps out on Motown week, or whatever.  Simon Cowell was both a very good story-maker, and a very explicit discusser of stories, and he would be quite clear about trying to give the singers he liked moments, because he knows that moments are what make people win.

The thing about the “moment” is that it can’t exactly be faked.  It can be set up and encouraged, by giving someone with appeal and potential good music, or a good partner, or the right play.  If you are Simon Cowell and you want Adam Lambert to win, you can let him sing “One” and hope that the best singer and the best song will nail that shit down. But even Simon Cowell can’t make the muse comply at exactly the right moment. The more you set it up, sometimes, the less effective it is—moments are most likely to be moments when the take the audience, and even the producers, by surprise.

Kris Allen. Heartless.

Sometimes, there are no moments, and life wins. I love that, too.

* * *

Anyway, now that Game of Thrones is done, I’m hoping to talk a bit here about the push and pull of story on So You Think You Can Dance. I haven’t been doing this so far because I’m not totally interested in audition weeks, which are packaged for us retrospectively, with annoying music at the wrong times, and with very staged moments, that are frustrating because they are faked, only aping their more spontaneous cousins on live TV.

SYTYCD is often the most ham-handed of my true life stories, and many of the stories it tries to give its viewers are schlocky at best, troubling at worst. For instance, the genre conflict that SYTYCD is feeding its viewers so far is totally annoying to me, so much so that it’s almost killing my pleasure for the dancers themselves, who otherwise I quite like.  On the one hand, we have this excellent dancer lady Alexa who seems to have problems expressing her feelings. Or so we were told ad nauseum during Vegas week.  SYTYCD loves this plot line–one it similarly gave us in claiming that the precociously gifted Danny Tidwell needed to acess his feelings in order to be “beyond” (I can’t find a clip for Mia Michael’s famous BE BEYOND, DANNY speach, which is really a shame). But I hate this plot line because I come from a ballet background, in my own small way, and I think what most people on this show need is fewer feelings and more strong lines. Ahem.  Anyway, the other person we’re set up to love is the self-trained popper Cedric who, unlike Alexa, has lots of feelings but not a lot of experience, sigh, and also the fact that this is a white lady vs a black dude is lost on no one.  WHO WILL WIN?? You can bet good old Nigel is going to be working really hard to give Cedric some moments. Nigel is like the first chapter to Love and Theft, with a British accent on life tv.

Yet for all my frustrations, and I can’t say I really care. Dancers dance for love, not fortune, and rarely even for fame, so SYTYCD’s stories always seem to me the most avid, the most heart felt, the most momentous of all.

 

Also at Avidly!

So, I just turned in my grades for the quarter, which means that I’ll have more time to write here, starting soon.  But I wanted to mention that I’m staring another online something, with some friends: www.avidly.org. Please follow along, or join in. Submissions welcome!

Belated GoT Episode 8: Prince of Winterfell

So, two things. The first is that I’m behind because last weekend we skipped on TV to go watch an eclipse on a volcano (true story!).  The second is that I’m more or less resolved to stop bellyaching because this show is what it is, rather than what I imagine it might be, in terms of storytelling.

But reigning in the overall critiques doesn’t mean that I don’t have smaller things to say. I want to look back at last week’s “The Prince of Winterfell” and point out a couple of things that interested and also somewhat disappointed me.

Two weeks ago, in an episode I loved, Cersei made some claim along the lines of love making you weak, and in “The Prince of Winterfell” we saw that playing out in various ways—Tyrion fearfully trying to protect Shae, Theon doing desperate things in the hope his father would approve of him, Rob getting it on with Very Moral Nurse despite his engagement to Bridge Lady, Dany staying in Qarth to rescue her dragon babies.

The plot points I was most interested to see develop, however, were those involving two other mother’s loves: Cersei’s and Catelyn’s. Catelyn had been left in a cliffhanger position, trying to decide what to do about dangerous Jaime Lannister, threatened with death.  I was fascinated by that ending, which seemed to me a lot like the opening scene in the pilot episode of Deadwood: the law, needing to be violent to keep lawlessness in its place. I was fascinating by this, because what would you do? Unlike the sheriff in Deadwood, Catelyn can’t quite kill Jaime, because she needs him alive. On the other hand, she can’t let the mob kill him because it would be dishonorable and would endanger Rob.

I think if I were her, I would have done something purposefully shocking, to shut down the uproar but keep Jaime alive.  I might have…cut off a hand? There are lots of options, if you’re Catelyn, and you hate that guy, and you understand the brutality of your world.  It wouldn’t have to be a hand.  But it could be something.

And then there was Cersei, who was so oddly kind to poor menstrual Sansa. “Love no one but your children,” she says. Then later in the episode she realizes that, although she might love Joffrey, he’s a menace: dangerous to her and her other children and Jaime and the country. Cersei’s sad, sincere moment with Tyrion was so amazing because it seemed that they were really coming to an understanding, and that Cersei was so sad because she was realizing that she was at an impasse in which she could not let Joffrey live. He was her son, and yet he had to go.

So I was really pumped for “The Prince Of Winterfell,” to see what these two badass ladies did.  And both of them disappointed me so completely! Both seemed to revert to this frustrating, blind desire to protect their children at all costs, and neither of them seemed even to show that they might have other courses of action to pursue.

It’s not so much that Catelyn let Jaime go—which is not a good decision, exactly, but it’s a defensible one, given the circumstances—it’s that she had no account for her actions except protecting her children.  She could easily have told Rob that it was important to keep Jaime safe—and if she could sneak Jaime out at all, she could easily have just kept him out long enough for Rob to come back and tempers to die down.

And Cersei!  WHY ARE YOU SO WORRIED ABOUT PROTECTING JOFFREY??! It’s like that scene with Tyrion—that scene that was the emotional stronghold of the previous episode—never happened.  It’s such a disappointment, when a show feature’s a character’s emotional development, and then doesn’t stay committed to its own vision.

For me, this is a disappointment particularly because showing women’s changing relationships to their sexuality has been something that Game of Thrones has been quite good at—it’s impossible, watching this show, to judge women who use their sexuality strategically, or acknowledge that sexuality is not simply a part of romance, but is also a part of power. I had been hoping that something similar was happening with motherhood—that mothers would be given permission to think strategically and practically about their love for their children, and that we’d see that playing out in Catelyn and Cersei, who have been united despite their difference by their shared love of children, and might now be united by their shared realization that children might not always be worth the ultimate sacrifice.  As is, that seems not to be what we’re getting.

However, I did have one insight today that reads the show’s portrait of motherhood more generously.  If Game of Thrones in general is about the reintegration of magic into a practical, political world, one of the primary ways we see magic altering the known landscape is by its restructuring of motherhood.  Dany is “the mother of dragons,” and if we take that seriously (and not just histrionically, as she seems to, and yes I do use that word advisedly) that means that the opportunities for women’s reproductive power are moving beyond the traditional paths of reproduction—moving, it seems, even beyond the involvement of men.  Annoying Melisandre is annoying, but she too takes her reproductive powers to a new, dangerous, and powerful place.

And this makes me exciting about what happens going forward—monster babies always make motherhood more interesting.

Game of Thrones Episode 7: Happy Mothers are Prisoners Day!

So I have a new theory: I’m just better at watching this show when it’s more talky, less smash bang. Because I thought last night’s episode was excellent–so excellent that perhaps I was wrong about last week.  These people clearly know what they’re doing, and maybe I just can’t see it when I’m made all crabby by the nastiness.  Or, maybe, this episode was just better.

Anyway, it was definitely a very talky episode, and that gives me a lot to talk about, but I’m under a particular time crunch today so this is going to be brief.  There were three main stories of the episode, each of which was handled in at least three scenes (three=a beginning, middle, and end=story, yay!): Theon searching for his lost prisoners, Bran and Rickon; John Snow and his prisoner Ygrette; and mother-son duo Rob and Catelyn Stark dealing with their prisoner, Jaime.  “The cages are full of prisoners!,” some under lord tells Rob, and boy, is he right.

The episode, which is called “A Man Without Honor” but which I shall call “HBO Writers Ponder Some Political Philosophy,” uses these plot lines against each other to great effect, exploring the strange falsehood of John’s claim, made to Ygritte, that “You’re a prisoner, so you’re obviously not free” (nb: I am totally not checking these quotations today). Ygritte and Jaime are prisoners, but they claim a freedom that the Starks don’t have—already outside the law, they have little to protect them, but not much to loose.  Bran, a prisoner on the lam, is bound less by Theon’s ineffective hold than by his own sense of principle. He loves his people, and—to read his actions by Cersei’s maxim that “loving people makes you weak”—his love for his them impedes his ability to claim the help he needs. At the end of their story arcs, we see John Snow and Catelyn both (more or less literally) made captive by the prisoners they’d held.  The episode uses story to make concrete the idea it’s been exploring about how power exists on both sides of the prisoners cage.  I just love it.

It gets even better when you put the Stark storylines in dialogue with poor pee-smelling Theon’s. Theon is out exploring his own political philosophy, that “it’s better to be thought cruel than weak,” and although he’s sort of winning, it’s just not going terribly well for him. In the episode’s money shot, as Theon displays the corpses of the two children he’s burned, he seems to also realize that he’s made the wrong move. This display of power will win him no authority; it’s a display of cruelty that seems evidence of weakness, rather than something else. Theon’s been trying so desperately to establish himself as separate from the Starks and the Stark code of honor, but what he actually shows is that they are right. The powerful do have to play by the rules.

And then, my favorite part of the episode is the way that it permeates through the show’s gender issues. Of the many things to discuss (If I were Alyssa Rosenberg I’d be having a field day here)I’ll just point out that these discussions of prisonerhood are shot through with discussions of parenthood, motherhood in particular.

The episode’s three final scenes hinge on ideas about children: Cersei’s wrenching decision that she’s going to have to do something about Joffrey; Catelyn’s anger as Jaime goads her about the bastard she was forced to raise (even as she has to keep; and finally, as I said, Theon’s brutal murder of the orphans. The sequence works to build tension around questions of love, motherhood, responsibility, brutality; the two women imagine committing acts of violence, and then, finally, Theon commits it, in the worst possible way. What has he accomplished? What have his actions taught the viewer about what Cersei and Catelyn should do?

There are powerful mothers in Westeros, but the episode is spot on when it conflates Sansa’s dream of being imprisoned and stabbed with the reality of her menstrual blood. Motherhood, in this show, means being bound to a cruel calculus of captivity. Your womb binds you to power, but not in ways you necessarily can control. Which makes poor Dany’s plotline all the more bittersweet. She is a child, and no where is that more apparent in her sense that her motherhood means she has power or control.  “I am the mother of dragons!” she goes around bellowing.  Too bad Cersei can’t give her the talk she gives Sansa, and let her know that being a mother sucks on this show.

GOT Episode 6: Sixty Minutes of Getting Nowhere

 

Well, okay. Let’s start with the good stuff.

  • Tyrion walking away silent from Cersei’s revenge fantasy ramblings, all like: seriously, lady. Seriously.
  •  Tyrion bitch-slapping Joffrey: “And now I have smacked the king. Has my hand fallen from my wrist?!
  • Arya’s second dead dude, falling dead. (Also, The Man being all “…” to Arya, when she explains why it has to happen Now! Now!)
  • Also satisfying: Catelyn showing up all momishly just when Rob is trying to make his move on Hot Moral Nurse Lady; Ygritte being hip-grindy with Jon Snow.

These good moments were good because they excellently deployed all the feelings you had about those characters, their emotions and drives and concerns.  You might also include in that list The Hound eviscerating Sansa’s attackers, but that meant very little to me as someone who has only watched season two and thus has no context for This Hound Fellow whatsoever. For me, it was a good visual, but not particularly interesting story making.

Tyrion and Cersei join me from another episode to say: WTF?

But beyond that, people? Beyond those good moments?  I just felt really frustrated and annoyed, because WHAT IS THIS SHOW, ANYWAY. After an episode last week that seemed really to use the structure of the episode to do something for viewers’ understanding of the story, Episode 6 just seemed back to arbitrary starts and stops. Some stuff happened this episode, but where have we gotten, that we weren’t before? Are we going anywhere?

A few weeks ago I tried to make a point about the difference between novels and TV shows, which is that novels need to have a possible end built in from the beginning, whereas TV shows don’t, necessarily, in the same way. TV shows typically have lots of beginnings and endings, story lines that wax and wane. Often they have some grand end looming in the background—Battleship Gallactica finding Earth, the friends getting married and leaving New York—but the overarching end is balanced against the meaningful end of each episode. The end of the episode should be rewarding on its own, even as it draws you on to next week.

I’m sure people more sophisticated about television than I—which is just about everyone—have said this elsewhere, and more eloquently, but to my mind a great television episode needs to do two things: 1: it needs to provide a context of life happening, forward motion in the show’s larger world, and 2: it needs to tell a story of its own, with some kind of beginning, middle, and end.

This is important because an ending is the moment when all of the information and feelings and questions that the reader or viewer has built up while immersed in the story are resolved: the end tells you what the story means, tells you if you learned something. The ending is the catharsis or release during which you stop and look back and see how far you’ve come, or what it means (if it’s a tragedy) that you’ve actually gone nowhere at all.

A good read, if you'd like more narrative theory in your Monday morning.

And I’m of the school of thought that believes this: the experience of retrospection that an ending gives is the reason why we like stories, because real life has no endings, short of death.  A sense of completion is something that most people want desperately, and we go to stories to find it.

The sense of an ending also shapes how we engage stories: we have what’s called the anticipation of retrospection: we accumulate knowledge about an imaginary world in the anticipation that we’ll be given a moment of retrospection, when we’re shown why what we’ve learned matters.

Now, the anticipation of a novel builds up over the course of the whole novel, for lots of reasons, but one reason is because the only time a novelist can actually know that all readers will stop reading is the end of the book.

But a TV series is, by definition, given a bunch of endings to work with. The writers can know that each week the viewers will stop at a particular time, and they are GIVEN ALL THESE ENDINGS, the storyteller’s most important tool.

And my biggest gripe with Game of Thrones is that they are not using their endings.  It would be like someone was trying to write a sonnet without the couplet at the end.  It’s so annoying.

And this makes Game of Thrones, I think, like a soap opera—not in that the characters are shallow or the situations contrived, Manichean, or dramatic without content, but in that stuff happens for an hour but it’s all just narrative treading water.  You stay afloat with all the characters you care about, but you never actually get anywhere. (Though here I should say that I don’t really know anything about soap operas; and I think that criticism of TV shows is often really unclear—what do you think it means to say something is “like a soap opera?”)

I could handle the deferral of retrospection, I think, if I felt more confident that the suffering and obstacles the characters were facing would actually mean something: if I felt more confident that my anticipation would mean something sometime.  In a novel, suffering means something at the novel’s end.  In a TV show, suffering matters at every episode’s end.

All of which to say: Game of Thrones seems to be struggling with a genre problem.  It doesn’t have the overall trajectory of a novel, but it doesn’t use the ongoing retrospection of a TV show.

And that leaves it too much like life—the very thing that people use stories to escape. In real life, when does suffering matter? One answer would be: never. Another would be: when you do the hard work of figuring out how to use suffering to become the person you want to be. Or another: well, when you ask God, and he helps you understand.

Here’s what I’m asking of the storywriters of Game of Thrones, who wrote this episode bafflingly titled “The Old Gods and the New:” Please play God.  I am willing to do this work, to look up the name of yet another new character and spell “Ygritte” right; I am willing to show up every week and remember all this shit you are throwing at me and I will watch these nasty people be nasty and these nice people become nastier.  WRITERS: do your freaking job. Tell me why it matters.

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Let me Clear My Throat

I grew up, strange and bookish, in rural Iowa. By and large I’m so grateful for this. But saying that rural Iowa is wonderful (it is) is not the same thing as saying that rural Iowa is an always easy place to grow up, especially if you are strange and bookish.  You feel alienated, and you feel (and are) far away from other alienated people. There are not many of you.

But a good part of growing up strange and bookish in rural Iowa, in the eighties and nineties, was that you could spend a lot of time listening to the Beastie Boys.  For me, the Beastie Boys are the sound of a rural childhood–of my walkman while I took my dog for interminable Iowa afternoon walks, the sound of a friend’s radio driving through open Iowa fields to a basketball game an hour away. The sound of the moment when it’s less weird and lonely at the high school dance, streamers and “Sabotage” filling the Iowa high school gym.

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The Beastie Boys have always sounded to me like the sound of being okay. It will be okay. You might be lonely, but you are not alone. (Also, probably, you are dancing.)

Which is all to say: the death of Adam Youch today hit me surprisingly hard.

Twitter is full right now of people saying things like (this is David Malitz, from the Washington Post): “Seriously, who didn’t like the Beastie Boys? No matter the room, put on the Beasties and *everyone’s* happy. Very few like that.”

That strikes me as exactly right, and for whatever small tribute it’s worth I just need to say that that quality was so incredibly, incredibly desperately important for the rural weird youth of the twentieth century’s last decades. There was a lot of strange stuff to listen to, and that was great, but the Beastie Boys was the strange stuff that everybody listened to. No social fissure, and there were many, seemed too deep for the Beastie Boys to suture.

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For me, as a weird rural girl, the Beastie Boys did this magic thing that both expressed my strangeness and made it less troubling to be strange. If most of the broad reach of the Beastie Boys is the music itself, the other part, surely, the thing that makes them so universally appealing, is the sound of people embracing their strageness, their alienation, and making it into anthemic badassery. Whatever pained and awkward kids they were, or we were, did not have to be forgotten or apologized for. The awkwardness could just kick ass.

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