Fellow blogger Syl over at MMO Gypsy mentioned on Twitter a dislike of specific elements of the HBO television show Game of Thrones when she asked:
What is it with all the sadism in GoT??
— Syl (@Gypsy_Syl) April 14, 2014
@Gypsy_Syl I love it. I’ve always hated the idyllic-nature of so many high fantasy works.
— C. T. Murfy (@ctmurfy) April 14, 2014
In return, Syl replied:
@ctmurfy ‘I love it’ is a very weird reply to sadism…I don’t enjoy Martin’s voyeuristic joy of torture at all. nor the sexism.
— Syl (@Gypsy_Syl) April 14, 2014
And a very reasonable exchange of tweets on the matter with a wide array of opinions ensued. I, however, opted to retract my statement given the limitation of Twitter. After some prodding, I decided to write this post.
Even with the full weight of a blog post at my side, this is a complicated matter for me to express both eloquently and carefully. Wish me luck!
It begins with empathy. Apocryphal or not, there are two stories that have long been canon in the narrative expression of who I am as a person.
First, I recall at a very young age my mother being quite upset that someone had eaten some leftovers which she had particularly marked for herself as a lunch the next day. The culprit was never identified and I don’t believe it was me (though it could be, cold chicken is delicious). All the same, I remember the intensity of the sadness I felt for her.
Even as young kid, I was aware how much my mom sacrificed daily for the family. It seemed cruel that such a simple thing as ‘relying on your lunch to not get eaten’ could not be taken for granted. Especially considering the matter after many, many more years of experience, I know exactly how frustrating it can be for a perfectly reasonably expectation to be completely denied.
Second, my father and I were at a video rental store (ancient locations where the insides of Redbox machines were displayed in a large area without touch screens, instead opting for actual touch and employing a greasy teenager to not screw-up). My dad is a big fan of Nascar, so naturally he gravitated toward a box with the Nascar logo emblazoned boldly. Picking it up, he showed it to me and said, “Let’s watch this.”
With all the intensity of a young kid who has yet to learn about tact, I proudly and loudly responded, “Dad, that’s a Nintendo game – you don’t watch those!” The look of disappointment in his own mistake obviously scarred me for life because I still think about it from time to time.
I start here because the prevailing theory in my head of who I am as a person revolves around an innate ability to empathize with others. I’ve always felt a rather strong connection to other people’s emotional well-being, and I tend to be a quick read on other individual’s state of being whether obvious signs are on display or not.
Now, add to the mix a kid who is introverted, shy for most of his life, who often feels disconnected from the real world and the bigger picture becomes clearer.
As I said in my post about my car accident in January, “There is a dangerous side to my personality: I crave experiences.” I’ve always had a strong imagination and a love of creating. Often because of my natural introversion, I live more in my mind than in the real world. That’s why books and video games have always been a natural fit with me: I value the new experiences.
When you combine that with a deep tendency toward empathy, even a poorly written or acted bit of fiction can touch the deepest parts of my being. It is an addictive feeling where I take on (briefly) the life of another person. No matter how fictional they may be, I lose myself in similar ways, I’d argue, to how a method actor can lose his or herself in a role. In fact, there have been times when I jump up and act out the part, especially when I was younger and more foolish. Even now, it is incredibly risky for me to finish a book (or anything else, really) close to when I am going to sleep. The rush of energy that flows through me almost always guarantees a few hours where sleep will be impossible due to excess brain activity, reenactment, and critical evaluation.
Sticking with the same quote, the ‘dangerous’ nature of my experience-cravings comes from a real desire to experience actual pain, actual danger. That’s not exactly true, but it also isn’t exactly untrue either. In improving my understanding of living and the people who do it daily, I have a deep, dark curiosity constantly striving to not only experience their highs but the lows that often define them even more. I turn on sad songs not necessarily to relate to them personally, but to feel the sorrow and loss and despair of the artist.
My love of Game of Throne’s sadism is my love of feeling-and-experience collecting. Great writing and great acting heighten the intensity of the high and, like an excellently written book, I take on briefly a different point of view with experiences (thankfully) foreign to my own.
It doesn’t hurt that A Song of Ice and Fire, as a book series, has helped renew my interest in the fantasy genre at large. The naively romantic whitewashing of pseudo-medieval societies as places of great adventure where heroes are celebrated for moral and mythical quest-accomplishing had long convinced me that the genre was incapable of generating the emotional resonance I find worthwhile. Instead of trials of faith where the heroes belief in his own destiny or in the love of someone in dire need of his help is all that motivates his journey,I demand complexity, relatability, and an experience reflective of actual human beings, not their mythicized counterparts. Predestined heroism is a novel idea, but not an idea of which I want to read in my novels.
Back to the matter at hand, I suppose I spoke a bit too soon when I responded to Syl’s tweet in such a manner. Honestly, I spoke without thinking at all. Unlike so many personal posts I write where I willingly give you insight into how I might view something (myself, the world, or otherwise), this one is an admission I do not give without serious hesitation. When Syl describes Martin’s work as having a ‘voyeuristic joy of torture’, I am the audience member taking a voyeuristic joy in the story Martin weaves, and that includes the torture, murder, rape, desolation, and mayhem that is so prevalent throughout it.
I don’t apologize for it. I won’t. Mostly because I believe in my ability to separate fact from fiction. Even if I take pleasure in it, I do not believe for a second that these depictions are changing me to be more violent, more misogynistic, or more rapey. No more than I think a violent video game causes people to go out and murder en masse, I do not avert my eyes from the screen for fear of subversion.
If the full weight of my opinion is to be levied here then I think precisely the opposite. My voyeurism leads me to walk in these people’s shoes. To fully understand the human experience, we cannot close our eyes when it gets dark out, thinking our own temporary blindness enough to really see the matter at hand. We must open them completely and take in the true darkness before us.
The beauty of the mediums we have constructed as a culture are their ability to widen our perspectives to their widest viewing capacity. In doing so, we can finally see the full spectrum of the human experience, a spectrum that gets a lot darker than the rainbow we’d like to see it as.