Thursday, November 17, 2011

Chapter 65: In Which I Discuss the Tyranny of Unrealism

I admit I don't understand a lot of geek culture. I am a geek. I feel good in the company of other geeks. But there are certain strains of it I don't get. I will never understand them, no matter how hard I try.

Case in point: True Blood. Yes, I know the season ended months ago. I write these blogs at my own pace. They killed off Tara. Sookie's black friend. Summary: Debbie Pelt, the drug-addicted werewolf whose boyfriend is pining for Sookie, goes after her with a shotgun. Tara pushes Sookie out the way, gets some buckshot to the brain for her troubles. Sookie grabs the gun and blows Debbie's head off.

Very tense scene. And I like that, with all the supernatural goings-on, the climax of the show comes down to two rednecks blowing holes in each other over a man. I told a friend of mine about it, and her response was:

"So they killed off the only woman of color on the show?"

Me: "They also killed off the gay Hispanic guy."

I understand why Rutina Wellsley would want to leave the show. There was nothing left for character to do, other than get subjected to more misery, and she's been on it four years. Still, taking her out the way they did sucks. Tara could have left Bon Temps for good (like she tried and failed to do at the end of the third season). By having her sacrifice herself, they imply that Sookie's life means more than hers. It's also horribly predictable that the best friend character takes the hit in order to prove that people can die on the show. If they had to kill a side character, it should have been Jason. I wouldn't have seen that coming.

Seeing them kill of Tara, and vastly reducing the characters of color in a show that takes place in Louisiana, I remembered how I used to go on Youtube and the Television Without Pity forums to see what people were saying about the latest episode, and read this over and over.

"Tara is so annoying. I wish she would die."

"OMFG I hate that quivering lip."

"Kill Tara she won't stop complaining."

"She's so annoying the vampires need to kill her."

So all the haters got their wish. She's dead. First of all, Rutina Wellesley has more acting chops in her bottom lip than most of the other actors on the show, Anna Paquin included. There is an amount of vulnerability in her character that few actors can do well. I admit that I didn't like how Tara was the dumping ground for every tragedy on the show. Abused, abandoned, manipulated, raped. Yet she always got a significant amount of hate from the fanbase. In examining this hate, I finally determined Tara's purpose on the show.

Tara was the voice of reason.

Case in point: her freak-out upon seeing sociopathic Eric Northman in Sookie's house. Keep in mind that Eric was up in the witch coven threatening Tara and her cousin just days before. So after he shows up at Sookie's, she points out all the obvious reasons why harboring him is a bad idea. Sookie does not think of such things. Eric is just so dreamy and he's having amnesia, which means it's okay for Sookie to keep him around and fuck him in a swamp during that ridiculous scene a few episodes later. It's a known fact that Sookie Stackhouse is the most self-absorbed heroine on television. Not surprising given Alan Ball's previous female characters, but I think even Brenda Chenowith and Claire Fisher would be appalled by Sookie. I seriously wonder why she's portrayed as so vapid.

Tara was the human voice on the show. She's not there to be Sookie's best friend, because their friendship is superficial and weak. She kept the plotlines grounded by using straight up logic. Everybody else is using vampire logic or shifter logic or fairy logic or what have you. Tara hates vampires. Any rational human being would considering the carnage they've committed over the show's year-long storyline. And they would hold onto that grudge, as Tara has. Sookie doesn't, but she's not supposed to act realistically. Her character even works in context, as a person who grew up as a social pariah and only feels comfortable in the vampire world.

"Oh my God tara keeps making the same mistakes! She was with Marianne and now she's with the witch! God they should kill her off!"

Yes, human beings make mistakes. Especially ones who come from an abusive background and are constantly surrounded by danger.

The show absolutely needs a realistic character. Someone who reacts to the fucked up events with sorrow, rage and frustration. If the other characters are supposed to be unrealistic, they need that foil to keep things in perspective. "She's so annoying." I personally find the vampires raping and killing everybody in sight to be annoying. In real life, somebody would be bitter if they were raised by an alcoholic. In real life, somebody might try to kill themselves after her boyfriend is murdered by police. In real life, if a vampire kidnapped you, tied you up, forced you to have sex and threatened to kill you, you would call it rape and feel traumatized. Tara hated Franklin and tried to kill him, though she didn't succeed. Compare this to Sookie, who spent season four having extremely awkward, no-chemistry, short-girl, tall-guy sex with the viking who just chained her up in a dungeon a few days ago. The show absolutely needed a character who reacts to the events like a human being, and now that character is gone, to the delight of many.

There's an element of geek sexism to it. Women in fandom are just as guilty as the men are. Tara is considered annoying. But serial killers like Eric get off the hook because "at least he's honest, and, well, he's so hot!!!" I don't know why this works in geek circles. A realistically drawn protagonist will get the kind of fan hate that would normally be reserved for villains, while the worst characters get let off the hook either for having one-liners or rock-hard abs. The characters who fans either want to be or want to fuck. That's why people love the vampires on True Blood. They're witty and good-looking. I know why that matters so much, but that doesn't mean I like it.

The extreme backlash against Tara reminds me of another one of my favorite fandoms: A Song of Ice and Fire. George Martin's epic is filled with "gray" characters who continually commit atrocities, if not outright crimes against humanity. These characters do not get the most hate. In fact, some of them, like Jaime the Kingslayer, are the most popular.

Catelyn Stark is one of the most complicated female protagonists in all of high fantasy. She is strong, stubborn, fragile, fiercely loyal to her family, smart, at times calculating and at other times tragically impetuous. Fashioning such a character is a sign of triumph for Martin, more than any worldbuilding, plot twist or "grit" that the series aspires to. It's not that Catelyn doesn't make mistakes, but a significant amount of the fandom blames her for everything bad that happens in the novels, while lionizing characters like the Kingslayer or Littlefinger because they are "cool," "sexy" and "badass." And don't even get me started on how they make excuses for Tyrion.

I don't know. If I wanted cool, sexy badasses I'd read the latest paranormal romance book. I read Martin's books specifically for the complexity of the characters and plotlines. It's less frustrating in something like Ice and Fire, where I am aware that the author is crafting complicated characters. The hate is totally an aspect of the fandom. On the inverse, in the last two books Jaime continues to be a deeply conflicted, self-pitying, petty and, sometimes, straight up evil character who gets lauded with praise from the fandom.

 Many ASOIAF geeks hate Sansa Stark. A character who at this point in the narrative is 13 years old, and whose major crime seems to be having a romantic personality. Go on any forum, and you'll find plenty of people saying she should be punished for betraying her father to the Lannisters (being an 11-year-old girl who thought the Lannisters were on her side) and, having said that, reach for reasons to heap hate upon this child. George Martin even omitted her betrayal from the TV version of the book, basically admitting it didn't matter to the plotline. Fand son't care. There will always be accusations about her storyline being boring and slow. She's too naive. She's a bitch, etc.

Needless to say, I feel differently. I think she has one of the more fascinating storylines in the books. Sansa Stark is probably Martin's greatest creation: a completely realistic person put into a fantasy setting. In the first book, she is sometimes snooty and has disdain for her tomboy sister, which in nerd world makes her hateable and in the real world makes her, you know, a medieval heiress. Once she is imprisoned by the Lannisters she endures abuse. She is an 11-year-old girl stuck in a horrible circumstance and reacts as an 11-year-old girl would act. No, she isn't sexy like her ninja assassin sister Arya, or cool like her Professor X-style mystic brother Bran. When faced with danger, Sansa minds her manners, doesn't rock the boat and hopes for the best. Like most people would. Not only this, but she comes through these trials with her sense of decency and justice intact.

Still, Sansa gets heaped with hate. I can't help but detect some sexism with her, too. She is the head cheerleader type of the narrative, somewhat vain and prissy. Never mind that she grows out of this by the second book. To an average male geek, her stuck-upness makes her more detestable than the slew of child murderers, necrophiliacs, rapists and tyrants who make up the main cast. Worst of all, during her journey she is not raped, maimed, tortured, or any other punishment that male geeks like to wish on uppity female characters.

In Martin's world of flawed yet larger-than-life characters, this single practical storyline shines through with its complexity. What makes Sansa's story work is that it is so intelligent. Her chapters in A Feast for Crows were primarily domestic scenes, in which most of her character growth is internal. She is learning the ropes from Littlefinger in a very methodical way. Its all very subtle on Martin's part, and slow, and I'm excited to see where it goes because I know it will be intelligently written.

I think there is a certain subsect of geek culture that really wants to be condescended to. They claim sophistication by liking serious political drama like ASOIAF and adult-oriented shows like True Blood, then cry "Oh my God I hate that" when the creators do anything akin to realism. Sch people say they like grown-up entertainment when they really want Forgotten Realms books. And I can understand disliking a realistic character popping up in a Drizz't novel. But why do you watch a TV show where one character is supposed to be realistic, in a setting that is supposed to mirror our world, then complain about her acting like a realistic 21st century American woman. It's the tyranny of unrealism: the desire for fantasy to be merely wish fulfillment when it's far more than that. It boggles my mind. And I'm sure you'll see me bitching about this at a convention panel someday.