Saturday, April 9, 2016

Machiavelli, Mary Sue, Supernatural, and Gale from The Hunger Games

What do all of these have in common, you ask? Allow me to elucidate, as Scat Cat once said.

Actually Mary Sue isn't really going to fit with the rest. She's the "one who doesn't belong," if you will. Which is ironic, considering that's essentially her role in bad fanfiction. But back to the first question before we let her take over everything.

Instead, let's look at Niccolò Machiavelli, Supernatural, and Gale from The Hunger Games in yet another post about violence in fiction. If you're curious, I've addressed violence in fiction before, mainly here and here. It's been a while, so I hope it doesn't feel like I'm obsessed with the topic, but in reality I do spend a lot of time thinking about it, and may even be a bit obsessed. I am concerned with whether it's ethical to portray violence in an entertaining manner. It seems to me that to be effective, violence must inherently be cruel. I'm going to discuss why I think so here.

Now before you get annoyed with me because Machiavelli didn't write fiction, let me just address his part in this discussion. In my experience, people who have heard of Machiavelli and who reference him tend to be a bit harsh in their judgment of him. Just in case you aren't really familiar with him, he was a Renaissance writer who created a kind of manual for rulers entitled The Prince in 1513. From wikipedia:

"Machiavellianism" is a widely used negative term to characterize unscrupulous politicians of the sort Machiavelli described most famously in The Prince. Machiavelli described immoral behavior, such as dishonesty and killing innocents, as being normal and effective in politics. He even seemed to endorse it in some situations. The book itself gained notoriety when some readers claimed that the author was teaching evil, and providing "evil recommendations to tyrants to help them maintain their power."

See what I mean? Harsh. But I read The Prince some years ago, and Machiavelli doesn't, in my opinion at least, advocate violence. He does take a practical approach to ruling. In one passage he talks about how to administer violence--that may not be how he puts it (it's been a long time since I read it), but the gist was, if you're going to do violence to people for some reason as a ruler (put down an uprising, say) you have to do it as quickly and as extremely as possible. You should always draw out benevolence, because people have short memories when it comes to benevolence. Violence they remember much more clearly. So to avoid becoming unpopular, don't draw it out. Do it thoroughly, do it fast, and make it memorable. So he's not going to back a ruler like Joffrey, for instance, (should I revise the title of this post to include Game of Thrones? Too much?) because the violence Joff does is constant and he pretty much has no idea about the whole benevolence aspect of ruling.

Who could forget that crossbow?
For the purposes of this discussion, I'd like to take Machiavelli's advice to rulers and apply it to violence in fiction in general. Meaning, in a fictional setting at least, the most effective violence is quick, thorough, and memorable.

Is violence always most effective when administered quickly, thoroughly, and memorably? Good question. Is "quickly, thoroughly, and memorably" the same as cruel? Another good question. And can one categorize such effective, potentially always cruel violence as good or evil? Ethical or unethical? Also a good question. These questions bring me to Gale.

It's been four years since I read The Hunger Games, so please correct me in the comments if I misremember something. Also, I'm going to be talking in detail here, so, spoilers ahead. You have been warned.

Specifically, I want to talk about Mockingjay and Gale's attitude towards violence in the rebellion. I really enjoyed the books and one reason they resonated so well for me was the way Collins addresses violence. She specifically questions the way we voyeuristically use violence as entertainment. On top of that, she questions the use of violence by the rebels. This is significant, because it would be easy to simply accept their use of violence as necessary, ostensibly a legitimate use of violence since the rebellion intends to overthrow a terrible regime. To bring it even closer to home for the reader, Collins has Gale, a main supporting character and love interest from the beginning, display a talent for designing weapons. Katniss becomes uncomfortable with how brutal the weapons he develops are. They also have disagreements because Gale doesn't have a lot of scruples about targeting areas where innocents will be killed. Ultimately, Gale is at least somewhat responsible for the death of Prim, Katniss's sister. Katniss's love of Prim is the reason she went to the Hunger Games to begin with. The importance of Prim's life cannot be overstated. Gale's talent and inclination for violence end Prim's life, undoing everything Katniss sacrificed for. It's never clear whether he is directly or indirectly responsible, but at the very least, the bombing that killed Prim was based on his design, using the ingrained belief that people in their society have that little parachutes bring good things, rather than bad. The way the bomb drops are timed, the intent is to kill first responders, and Prim is acting as a first responder when she dies.

Heavy stuff. The message is: to be effective, violence must be cruel. And, I would go so far as to say, it must be evil. Does it fit into the Machiavellian "fast, thorough, and memorable"?

I think so. The bombings orchestrated by the rebellion are not part of a long, drawn-out punishment-fest, unless I misremember. They are surgical strikes, quick, incisive, and brutal. They certainly are effective and memorable. By targeting first responders, they are all the more effective in crippling the enemy. But they are not ethical.

Do the ends justify the means? Or the reverse? Does the process of setting aside ethical considerations in the winning of a war taint the outcome irretrievably? Collins raises these questions, and I have a great deal of respect for her for doing that.

Okay, so looking at Machiavelli's approach to administering violence and Collins's questioning of violence as entertainment and its use in effective, unethical ways in a rebellion, what I come away with is a sense that violence in fiction is really problematic. In most fiction, violence occurs either to harm the protagonist (and get the story moving) or it is administered by the protagonist as a righteous act (to punish the bad guys and achieve the end goal). I don't know about you, but often I really enjoy stories with both kinds of violence.

Which brings me to Supernatural.

Supernatural is a good example of fiction I really enjoy and am a fan of, but that I have to admit is problematic in a lot of ways*. The gender stuff is cringe-worthy, for instance (the absolute worst thing the guys can call one another is a woman). For a couple of seasons there were essentially no female characters at all, except for the occasional flashback with Mary Winchester. In terms of LGBT stuff, the show is usually pretty weak, too (notable exception, the episode with Felicia Day). Characters continuously go out of their way to assert their heterosexuality--so much so it really starts to feel like they are protesting too much, you know? The race stuff isn't always great, either, as the the vast majority of people of color on the show are evil (at least up to season 7, which I just finished). Rufus is a notable and lonely exception, and he's dead by season 6. We see him again after in flashbacks and otherworldly moments, but overall he's only in a handful of episodes.

Anyway. Supernatural is also a very violent show. My husband, who is sensitive to violence, can't watch it. The violence in the show doesn't really bother me on a visceral level because it's so over the top. Jessica Jones was much harder to watch. The special effects guys on Supernatural are really into blood splatters. And in terms of how violence is used as a story device, I actually enjoy it. There are scenes where the main characters torture bad guys, and these don't bother me at all. Sometimes I even want to see the bad guy du jour suffer some serious punishment at the hands of the Winchesters. Ruby springs to mind, oh my gosh did I want to see her die. Not Dick Roman, though---I just enjoyed James Patrick Stuart's portrayal of him so much, I didn't want him to die. Anyway. This enjoyment I experience of the violence in Supernatural is very much at odds with my sense of ethics and whether it's okay for violence to be a form of entertainment. And whether it's ever ethical to use violence in an effective/cruel manner, as explained by Machiavelli and illustrated by the use of Gale's weapons designs in Mockingjay.

I continue to watch and enjoy Supernatural because I long ago accepted that I will end up enjoying problematic fiction, and as long as I am willing to admit that it's problematic, as long as I am willing to discuss how it's problematic and not dismiss concerns raised by others about it, then I'm being ethical about it.

But it's one thing to enjoy and consume problematic fiction. It's quite another to produce it.

I've blogged before about the trickiness of writing in a genre like dieselpunk, for instance, because of the genre's long tradition of orientalism. It's actually probably the blog entry that got the most response over the course of this blog's life. I wrote the entry working from the assumption that if you are writing true dieselpunk, avoiding orientalism is really tricky because in a dieselpunk story, the main characters are white and western** and in most stories they encounter mysterious, exotic, dangerous foes/locations that stereotype and otherwise disparage real non-western** cultures and people of color. The resulting discussion was really illuminating for me, at least, because others pointed out that some of my basic assumptions where flawed. There's no reason that a main character of today's dieselpunk fiction has to be white and western. Anyway. My point is, it's really worthwhile to discuss these ethical dilemmas, because people can shine a light and provide a perspective that I'm lacking. So here I am with my latest dilemma:

How do you use violence in fiction in an ethical manner?

That was the question that spurred the writing of After the Fall, the second book in my decopunk dystopian trilogy (after The City Darkens). I'd been reading a lot about grimdark and its popularity in fantasy fiction. Some writers were really problematizing it, especially the use of sexual violence as titillating horror. And I asked myself, how can you portray sexual violence in a way that would remove all possible titillation? And that gave rise to the concept of a scene in which rather than describing what was happening to the person being assaulted, I zoomed in on a witness to the scene who is hiding, terrified. I focused on her reactions and mental state. I think it was effective without being titillating, though you'd have to read it yourself to see if you agree. For me the whole book became an exploration of violence and whether it can be righteous and justified. The main character of After the Fall, Ginna, is a basically good person, unlike Myadar, the main character of The City Darkens, who really is more neutral in moral alignment--Myadar's not driven to do good so much as serve her own interests. Ginna witnesses the aforementioned assault and essentially makes a deal with the god Luka (we'd call him Loki in our world), god of chaos, to become an instrument of divine wrath (although there's actually more going on there, but you'll have to read the book if you want to know about that). Soon she experiences a loss of control when confronted with those who are perpetrating violence around the ruins of the city in which she lives, and when she comes back to herself, she finds she has slaughtered them.

Ginna is seriously distressed by this, and ultimately after she witnesses and survives yet another extreme act of violence, she cuts herself off from the part of herself that taps this divine wrath. After that, Ginna just isn't very powerful anymore. She tries to do the right thing and she tries to help those she sees as innocents, but she isn't successful.

I've received some critiques of the novel that were pretty discouraging to me. Two different readers criticized Ginna for being too passive. That critique brings me to the Mary Sue connection, but let me set that aside one more time and come back to it in a minute. Instead, let me address what one reader told me: that all these terrible things happen to Ginna and those around her, and she never triumphs against the perpetrators, so the book is frustrating. It's a valid critique. I see that. Ultimately I wrote the book that way because for me as a writer, the purpose of the book was to explore whether I could write about a good protagonist who perpetrates violence righteously in an ethical, non-titillating way, and what I found was that I couldn't.

Really Subway? REALLY?
I'm not saying it's not possible. I'm saying I haven't figured out how to do it in my writing. I mean, I think Collins did an amazing job dealing with violence in The Hunger Games trilogy. So much so that I was really taken aback by the marketing of the movies, particularly Catching Fire, in which YOU TOO could win a Victory Tour. It's like, really, guys? Did you read the books? No? ::facepalm::

So part of the reason I've been so stuck when it comes to writing book 3 of my own trilogy is the whole, how do I do this? How do I give Ginna back her violent power, but have her be essentially good, and not make the violence titillating and feed the idea that it's okay to be entertained by it?

As an aside:
You understand that this blog post is entirely focused on violence in fiction, right? I'm not even going to start to address whether violence is ever justified in real life. I really haven't figured that one out at all. I love Gandhi and Malcom X and what they each stood for, you know? I've had plenty of moments where I'd choose violence--but would I be right to do so? Real life is far, far too complex and complicated for easy answers.

Back to the questions at hand:
In fiction, it's much too common for violence to go unquestioned and unchallenged. Sam and Dean can use torture as a method of interrogation/punishment because they are only ever going to use it against nonhuman monsters. That's what makes it okay. But try telling that to my husband.

Dean waterboarding a demon with holy water, IIRC.
"No, really, honey, it's okay that they're cutting into that guy helplessly tied to a chair screaming his head off, because he's not human. He's a demon."

My husband's response would be a slow nod, and something like, "Sure, sweetie. But I don't want to watch it, okay?" He's very sweet and nonjudgmental of my shows. But underneath that, I know what he's thinking (because I've read many of the same books he has, I guess). Making the victims of the Winchesters' violence nonhuman is just an easy way to bypass any questions about whether torture is ever okay (even in fiction). Same goes for any other violence employed by a righteous hero against villains, human or not. In Rambo IV, Rambo can kill 3 people per minute (after his first kill) because he's the good guy and they are the bad guys and it's satisfying to see bad guys get killed. After all, we all have people in our own lives who richly deserve punishment of some kind (maybe not so extreme as death, but there are slaps going to waste among some folks at my work right now, I can tell you...). But each and every bad guy who gets killed by a good guy is someone's child. Some have brothers or sisters, friends, children, etc., who love them and will grieve them when they don't come home. People, even in fiction, should never be easily disposable.

So that's one problem I'm facing with book 3. How do I embrace Ginna's talent for violence? Does she somehow magically pass it on to Myadar? Myadar wouldn't have nearly the trouble Ginna does with it, because Myadar isn't fundamentally good. But where would that take the story? I don't think I'd like what Myadar would do with that kind of power (it's actually an interesting idea--I may go there for a bit--let Myadar have the wrath and Ginna be unburdened, but ultimately Ginna would have to take it back, because she wouldn't like what Myadar would do with it, either).

The other major problem--aside from questions I've been wrestling with to do with POV and who my narrator(s) should be--is this criticism I got from two readers about Ginna being passive.

Mary Sue, this is your moment.
You can't tell, but her eyes are purple.

I was reading some blog articles today that addressed the popular complaint among book (and, I would add, movie) reviewers that a female protagonist is a Mary Sue. Here's one of these blog posts, and here's another. It's apparently very common, and I remember seeing someone on a forum say that Phedre from the Kushiel books is a Mary Sue, for instance. One blogger addressed this tendency as a pet peeve of hers, because to her, the label is often misapplied, and it's too vague to be meaningful anyway. She felt that often the ways people apply the label are contradictory--the character is too perfect, the character is too flawed, etc. And really what underlies the complaint is that the character is female, because if a male character had all the same characteristics, there would be no complaint. I've certainly seen some of that with Rey from The Force Awakens. A lot of Star Wars fans are very frustrated with how quick she is to learn the Force skills she displays, and that she also has fighting skills, and also has brilliant mechanical skills. It's possible that there would be complaints if Rey was a guy, but I'm betting there wouldn't be as many. Ultimately I agree with Erik Kain, who said that it isn't that Rey is a Mary Sue, it's that the whole movie is so rushed. The good guys have a three minute brainstorming session that leads to the solution to destroying the new and improved Death Star, folks. The filmmakers tried to jam too much in to 135 minutes.

This accusation isn't restricted to characters who display some aspects of Mary Sueness, either. Apparently there are people out there who will accuse Hermione Granger of being a Mary Sue. Meanwhile Harry Potter is this kid raised in a closet who somehow manages to be The Ultimate Hero and good at Quidditch, a sport he's never even heard of, without even trying. Don't get me wrong, I love me some Harry Potter, but come on, double standard, anyone?

In one of these articles I read, maybe in the comments section, I'm not even sure anymore, someone made the point that being "too passive" is a flaw people throw at female characters who are good, and that struck a chord with me. And then in another spot someone talked about how deeply discouraging and stifling it is to be a female author and try to write a character who won't be accused by someone of being a Mary Sue.

To be clear, no one accused Ginna of being a Mary Sue. The feedback I got was much more constructive. But this complaint about her being passive has really bothered me, because I don't think she's passive at all. She does stuff. She makes a deal with Luka. She goes on wrath-fueled rampages. She uses her wits and talents to survive in a very dangerous setting. She puts herself at great risk to protect those she loves and those she sees as innocents in danger. The trouble isn't that she's passive, it's that she's unsuccessful. She doesn't actually manage to save most of the people she tries to save. She doesn't manage to stop bad things from happening. She doesn't save the day.

Why doesn't she succeed? Well, that's my cynicism and frustration with the world at work, I think. Plus the sense that I have that in the second installment of a trilogy, it works for the ending to be unhappy. Look at The Empire Strikes Back, for one example of a second part that most people agree is the most powerful installment of the three original films. I'd argue that that's because it's so dark. But my cynicism is at work in After the Fall, I fully admit that. And having identified that, I really want book 3 to remedy it--what I mean to say is, I want Ginna to win in book 3. I want her to triumph over her adversaries in a major way.

Which brings me back to my violence dilemma.

How does Ginna win against the fascist tyrants who rule in Helesey without turning the wrath back on? And if I can enjoy shows and novels where a good protagonist is violent, why can't I figure out a way to write a good protagonist that is violent? Grumble.

What do you think of the questions I raise here?
Do you ever think about the portrayal of violence in entertainment?
*The link takes you to an article that's been reblogged because the original link I'd saved doesn't seem to work anymore. The original article, "How to be a Fan of Problematic Things," is by Rachael at the Social Justice League.
**I use "western" and "non-western" here despite the objections some have raised (after all, who defines what's east and west?) because I'm talking about orientalism, a phenomenom in literature (and I would argue, many other forms of media) which pits cultures from the East (the "Orient" means the East) against dominant cultures of the West. However, I also tend to extend the meaning of orientalism to include the stereotyping of cultures not traditionally viewed as part of the East, such as South American cultures.

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