Monday, June 8, 2015

Sacrifice and Protection: Is Pop Culture Warning Us?

Last night's Game of Thrones (which I will be spoiling) hit me hard on a visceral level. The scene in which Stannis has his daughter Shireen burned alive as she screams for either of her parents to save her from this cruel fate made me physically ill. In fact, the only other pop culture scene I can think that made me feel like that was the curb stomping scene from American History X.

I had to step back and try to figure out why it impacted me so badly. For context, I'll tell you that I was trying to catch up with the show a few months ago and some of my students were fans who kept teasing me about how I wouldn't watch anymore after the infamous Red Wedding scene. I was braced for brutality, and the show delivered. The scene was shocking in its depravity, sure, but I didn't have a physical response to the violence. Even the brutal rapes of Dany, Cersei, and Sansa (which were all terrible to watch) did not cause this kind of gut-wrenching reaction.

As I thought about it all day, wondering just what it was that made me react so strongly, I kept thinking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

It started when I read this post by Steven Attwell and learned that not everyone was as shocked by Stannis' decision as I was. He writes:
So I think it’s profoundly mistaken to conclude that Stannis is an evil man, or that Melisandre is the clich├ęd witch figure so many take her for. There’s a reason why GRRM has explicitly stated that Stannis is a righteous man and that Melisandre is the most misunderstood person in the series. If Stannis was truly evil, there would be no torment and resignation in his voice when he says – to a daughter who has innocently pledged to do anything necessary to help him: “Sometimes the world forces his hand. If a man knows who he is and remains true to himself, the choice is no choice at all. He must fulfill his destiny and become who he is meant to be. However much he may hate it.”
And Attwell's analysis makes intellectual sense. I do think that Stannis is being set up (as a foil to Dany) as someone who has to make difficult choices when it comes to balancing the collective good against his own moral compass, but I just can't forgive the cruelty of this decision. Attwell further makes the point that if Stannis hadn't burned his daughter alive, then his whole family (Shireen included) would have starved to death (a fate that we haven't seen them escape yet, but for the sake of argument, let's assume this "works").

Set up that way, it's like the classic ethics question that asks if you would switch a train track to kill one person in order to divert the train from killing five. Utilitarian arguments suggest that you act for the greater good, and Attwell seems to believe that's exactly what Stannis did.

In a somewhat related argument, show runner Dan Weiss says that we're all hypocrites for just now deciding that Stannis is a monster when he's been rather calmly sacrificing people for years now. In some ways, this is similar to the arguments against the people who threatened to (or did) stop watching the show after Sansa was raped when there are plenty of horrendous rapes happening to minor characters all the time (like that poor little girl in Bravos!) Weiss says that we should transfer some of that concern for main characters that we like to the characters we don't know as well.

I think that's fair from an ethical standpoint, and I may be a hypocrite for feeling this gut punch harder than some others, but I don't think it's quite that simple.

See, the reason that I keep thinking about Buffy is that my favorite vampire slayer was faced with a similar dilemma. Her sister Dawn (who I know wasn't really her sister, but for the sake of not making what is already going to be a too-long blog post into a much-much-too-long blog post, let's just leave it at that) becomes a sacrificial offering of the god Glory in order to open a portal that will destroy all of humanity and whatnot. Throughout the plot line, some of Buffy's friends have suggested that Dawn will need to be killed to save the world. Buffy is adamant that if it comes to that, the world will just have to end. She will not sacrifice her sister under any condition.

When Dawn's blood has been spilled, the ritual is put into motion, and the only thing that will stop it is Dawn's life. That is until an enterprising Buffy realizes that she can stop it by sacrificing herself instead. She leaps to her death (an act of selflessness we later learn is rewarded with a trip to heaven).

Buffy, like Stannis, sees herself as divinely called to protect the world. She, like Stannis, is faced with an impossibly difficult choice between her duty to her divine position and to her sister. At its core, this decision is between community and individual.

But it's even more complicated because this is not the first time Buffy has made this choice. In an earlier season, Buffy was faced with having to kill her true love, Angel, in order to stop another world-ending event. In that moment, she is tortured, but she does not hesitate. She sends a sword through his heart and damns him to a torturous afterlife.

What makes Dawn's life different from Angel's? And why did I keep thinking of Dawn when I remembered Shireen's shrieks?

It's because Shireen was not just shrieking for someone to save her. She was repeatedly calling out "father, please" "mother, please" "let me see my father." She had put her trust in these people to protect her because she was a child, and protecting her was their job.

Buffy had the same responsibility for Dawn, especially after the death of their mother. She did not have that same kind of all-consuming responsibility for Angel, though she did protect him on many occasions. Her relationship with Angel was one of mutual protection, but her duty to Dawn was much deeper and much more squarely on her shoulders. When she said that she would let the world end rather than allow Dawn to be harmed, she meant it, and she meant it because a world where she had shirked her most important duty would not be one worth living in.

This, I fear, is what Stannis did not understand about his sacrifice. On Twitter, several people made comments that the White Walkers should just come and kill them all. Everyone is awful, and they deserve what they get.
So is it really that we're all just hypocrites who can't stand to see characters we actually like die, or is it that a hero who can't protect the individual lives he's charged with protecting isn't worth the title?

Some people might see the comparison I'm about to make as too light and lacking respect, but I truly believe that pop culture is a window into our cultural norms and collective moral compass. I believe that pop culture has lessons to teach and secrets to tell, and that's why I am repeatedly drawn to (over)analyzing it.

Last night, my social media feeds were full of Game of Thrones responses, but they were also full of the news that a police officer responded to a domestic disturbance at a pool party in Texas, threw multiple unarmed black children to the ground, pulled a gun on two young boys, and violently shoved a 15-year-old girl in a bikini onto the ground before sitting on her back. I watched the video. I was horrified.

That young girl, thrown to the ground after obeying the police officer's command to walk away, cries out for her mother. "Call my mama!" she screams from the ground, shocked, but clearly not attempting to get up or disobey. He then attacks her again.

I have seen several commenters come to the officer's defense. They say that the police officer was simply doing his job. They say that she shouldn't have talked back. They say that police have a responsibility to keep the community safe.

But they weren't keeping the community safe because this girl is part of the community. And if a police officer who is sworn to serve and protect can brutalize and abuse an unarmed child, then what good is that service and protection? At what cost are we buying our facade of security?

I don't think that I'm a hypocrite for turning my back on Stannis when his sacrificial lust for power turned to his own daughter. Maybe he does believe that he is the chosen one who has the responsibility for protecting the world, but if that responsibility can only be upheld at the expense of becoming a persecutor for the one person who he owed outright love and protection, then it is not a world worth saving.

There are protests happening all over the country. Ferguson. Baltimore. McKinney.

Many mock these protesters as ignoring the need for police, for safety, for protection. But the protesters recognize that a protection that does not extend to the marginalized is not a protection worth maintaining, and they are willing to put their own safety in jeopardy to prove that point.

I'm in no way making the argument that a TV show is like the real-life pain and torment that these victims are suffering at the hands of unforgivable police brutality. I only draw the comparison to say that perhaps these touch points in pop culture can serve as guides for how we can better steer our compassion and understanding, for how we conceive of the type of worlds we want to live in. After all, what is fantasy if not a place to work through the worst parts of reality and come out on the other side in better shape?

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