Sex and Violence … And Dragons!

Ever timely in our consumption of popular culture (yay for babies!), Leeman and I FINALLY saw the end of Game of Thrones season three. If you follow the series at all, that means one thing—the infamous Red Wedding. As long-time fans of the books, [SPOILER ALERT] the death of Robb Stark and his band of Northmen by the treacherous Walder Frey hardly came as a shock to us. But the brutality with which the scene played out did. Thinking particularly of the moment when Robb’s pregnant wife is stabbed repeatedly in the gut, Leeman turned to me to ask, “was that gratuitous? … did it need to be that violent?”

It’s a decent question, and one we absolutely should be asking of a series like Game of Thrones, notorious as it is for depictions of graphic sex and violence. It’s also a timely question to consider in light of the article posted last week from prominent Christian leader John Piper who posed to his congregation “12 Questions To Ask Before Watching Game of Thrones.” In essence, his comments boiled down to – naked ladies do not make for ideal material for the Christian viewer.

Now, I have no desire to criticize or mock Piper for the questions he raises (as the Huffington Post seemed to do). I actually think he’s right to remind us that as people of faith we should be somewhat circumspect regarding our media consumption habits. All too often, we in more progressive Christian circles can probably be a little lax when it comes to what we watch/read/listen to/etc., not considering how our media choices shape our broader attitudes to the world. And I actually think that Piper has a point that the incessant sexual content of a show like Game of Thrones does run the risk of cheapening human sexuality and, importantly, objectifying women (we’ll just leave aside for a moment the fact that Piper seemed more concerned with GoT cheapens female sexuality with respect to men—“Would I be happy if my daughter played this role”—and makes women responsible for controlling male lust).

That said, what frustrates me Piper’s “12 Questions” is that they are actually too easy, too simplistic to apply to a show like Game of Thrones. Basically, there is just so much more that a Christian could (or arguably should) be concerned with on Game of Thrones. Subjects that are far more problematic to my mind than its issues with sexuality, such as the aforementioned disembowelment of a pregnant women. But on a much deeper level, fangirl though I am, it has always troubled me that the world of George RR Martin’s Westeros is a world with little grace. Genuine acts of kindness are few and far between—even then those who perform them are typically either somewhat self-serving or punished for their political naiveté. Nobel characters (members of that ill-fated Stark family being the prime examples) cling to ideals over pragmatism with unfortunate results for many. Really, the sex on the show doesn’t both me, except insofar as it reflects an attitude towards human relationships that is often selfish and sometimes cruel. We rarely see an example of sexuality on the show that is not exploitative in some way. Often this goes beyond the content of the books in terms of problematic material, as in season one when Drogo clearly rapes Daenerys on their wedding night. I have from time to time, asked myself if this is a series I should be watching for any reason beyond, “But … DRAGONS!!”

I think there is. We would run into serious problems as Christians if we walled ourselves off in an innocent, protected bubble and blinded ourselves to the messiness of the real world. It is true that Westeros is full of morally ambiguous characters, defying easy categories of “good” and “evil.” I have to assume that the series resonates with such a growing fanbase precisely because it resonates with our actual experience of the world—which is messy, which is often filled with grey, and in which we all defy easy categorization. Also … did I mention the DRAGONS?

The question of whether a Christian should or should not watch something like Game of Thrones is itself one such grey area. Yes, it is a dark, dirty, often brutal world. One that hardly resembles the Kingdom of Heaven which we are called to work towards as followers of Christ. This is perhaps a good thing to be mindful of as we delight in the machinations of the Lanisters or we cheer Arya on in her determination to avenge her family. But we also believe in a God who is stronger than the messiness and uncertainty of life. Perhaps the great joy of watching something like Game of Thrones as a person of faith is that it at once speaks honestly to our experience of how complicated life can be, while reminding us that, ultimately, we do believe in something more than our own agendas and opportunism. The Gospel, I believe, is big enough for Westeros.

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Thoughts from the Train

Sometimes you don’t realize how much you’ve been missing something until you have it. Then suddenly you find yourself thinking “where has this been all my life?” That was my reaction to the gathering of clergy under 40 from across the Anglican Church of Canada which I attended in Montreal for the past week. To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into before heading out. Why was I putting my family through the harrowing experience of a 7-hour train ride with a baby (not to mention the inevitability of routine-busting during travel)? A part of me was sure this was going to be a huge mistake.

I could not have been more wrong. I knew I was in the right place when our ice-breakers involved dividing the room by Marvel vs. DC comics fans. But the positive energy went far deeper than than. From the opening Eucharist, it was clear that this gathering was going to be … special. It is difficult to express how energizing it was to be around a group of enthusiastic, gifted, and passionate young clergy (representing almost every diocese in the Anglican Church of Canada). We gathered in large and small groups for informal discussions around everything from raising young children as clergy parents to Christian faith formation to what our Anglican identity means in the current religious landscape. Conversations were filled with mutual support–sharing successes and struggles–and I came away inspired with new ideas and energy. I suppose one could be cynical–saying merely that we had not yet had time yet for the church to burn us out or to become jaded from the challenges of ministry in the contemporary context. What I experienced, however, was not naivete but a grounding in faith which gave an energy and a desire to say those challenges were worth facing.

It might be easier to articulate the feeling at this gathering by noting a couple of thing I did not experience–attitudes that I think we have sadly just come to take for granted in our church meetings all too often.

First, there were no politics, no factions, and no divisions. If that is not the work of the Holy Spirit at an Anglican gathering, I don’t know what is. Did everyone there agree on the various controversial topics facing our church? Probably not. We all came from very different backgrounds and geographic areas, so I can only assume a diversity of opinions would be held by the group. But they never came up — not, as it seems to me, in an superficial attempt to bury conflict but in a recognition that the Gospel and the love of Christ that unites us is stronger than what divides us.

Which brings me to my second point — There was a palpable lack of fear–whether that be fear of our tradition, fear of one another, or fear of the church’s (perceived) growing irrelevancy. In place of such fear, I experienced hope, confidence, and, most importantly of all, LOVE. Most people in the group barely knew one another. And yet remarkably quickly there rose up a deep sense of love and trust among us. And, in my case, that love was extended to Leeman and little Amanda as well. I have to believe it was a love which stemmed from our shared love of Christ. As in the words of the hymn: “The love that bids us makes us one, and strangers now are friends.”

The whole feeling of the conference crystalized for me in a moment at our closing Eucharist, when I moved briefly away from the circle around the altar to nurse Amanda in the quiet of the Cathedral nave. I sat, listening to the group sing the post-communion hymn and meditating (appropriately enough) on the feast of Corpus Christi. I had one of those moments which comes so rarely when I realized–this is the church. In all of our diversity and relatively brief acquaintance, was are the church, called by God, nourished by the body and blood of Christ, and strengthened by the Holy Spirit. Realizing that we are the people who will be leading the church into a perhaps uncertain future, I actually grew a little teary-eyed. It’s good … God’s got this well in hand.

Power, Privilege, and the stories we tell

On the one hand, my house is an absolute wreck of laundry piles and dirty dishes. On the other hand, I managed to effectively spend any spare time I had this weekend plowing through season 2 of the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black.

I have such a love-hate-relationship with the show. It is at once entertaining and deeply unsettling (and not just because it embraces what we might delicately term “explicit” content). It is convicting, for lack of a better word. While the series highlights the stories of people from marginalized groups–many women of colour, and even one transgender inmate–it nevertheless mediates those stories to us through the lens of white, educated, eminently privileged Piper Chapman. What does it say about us as a society that these marginalized voices are only heard because the pretty white girl got a book deal out of her time in prison? Building on my post from last week, how can we hope to achieve any meaningful change in the status of marginalized groups when those of us holding positions of privilege do not actually want to hear those stories.

It is on this point that the second season of Orange is the New Black surpasses the first. Not just in the fact that the show as lifted its emphasis on Piper’s (it has to be said, unsympathetic) story and has created more space to subverting our presuppositions about the varied cast of characters. Instead, a consistent (albeit subtle) theme of season 2 has been to place front and centre how profoundly voiceless the women inhabiting fictional Lichfield penitentiary truly are. Fuelled with the naivete that only privilege provides, Piper is outraged by the abuses she witnesses in prison. Surely, Piper tells a reporter hoping to use her as a spy to track down financial irregularities, people need to know that elderly prisoners are cast out on the street in the name of “compassionate release.” No, she is informed … no one cares. No one cares about the hunger strike several inmates organize to protest the unfair and arbitrary disciplinary actions taken by prison guards. The 24-hour news outlets are too busy covering an oncoming storm to be bothered by a prison demonstration. These women are alone, voiceless, forgotten.

And here is where that unsettling conviction comes in for the viewer. Lets face it, if you can afford the time and the money for netflix (not to mention a device to stream and view its content) … you’re probably a person of at least some degree of privilege. We are the larger society that has failed to give these women a voice. We are the culture that provided no outlet for this drama until it could be at least nominally couched as a “fish out of water” tale–the “relatable” Piper thrust into that unrelatable context of prison. There was much outrage around facebook a couple weeks ago as reports surfaced of a mass grave in Ireland, containing the remains of nearly 800 children thought to have been dumped in a septic tank because the children of unwed mothers did not deserve to be cared for properly. Even if that narrative has been somewhat deconstructed in the last couple days, it puts us in mind of the recent film Philomena in which an young unwed mother has her child forcibly taken by the church and adopted out to another family. What sort of society would inflict such torture on a young woman? Except that our society does that. All the time. Pregnancy and childbirth are all too common in prisons. Not only are these women denied basic prenatal care, they often have to give birth in chains–after which they are allowed AT MOST 24 hours with their newborn. If they cannot find someone to care for their child outside the prison, the child can be given over to the states and the mother can lose all parental rights. (To contrast–the condemnation of the pregnant Sudanese woman who converted to Christianity was undoubtedly barbaric, but even under Sharia law she would have been able to spend two years caring for her child before the sentence would have been carried out.)

Orange is the New Black makes me uncomfortable because it establishes over and over again the spiritual reality the guilt and innocence, sin and righteousness are not individual realities. Prisoners are convicted for crimes which may or may not be wholly their responsibility, while others on the outside bear their own hidden guilt. I may not actively ignore the needs of prisoners (I may even pray for those in prison as we often do in our shared intercessions). But how often does my own complacency–my desire to sit comfortably at home watching a dramatization of the marginalized–contribute to the suffering of others. How can we work to change that? I am not sure. As we await the full realization of God’s kingdom of love and justice here on earth, I am hopeful that something like this show may help poke us a little way toward more humane treatment of prisoners in our own society. As we begin to hear their stories more and more, it will be harder to ignore the voices of those least among us.

“Frozen” Feminism

This is going to be a long one, folks. But there is a time for everything.

Misogyny has been the topic du jour online the past week or so – ever since Elliot Rodger’s attempt to take out his vengeance on the women he believed owed him sex left 6 people dead and a dozen injured.

Much, much has been said about the shooting and the patriarchal attitudes which created the mindset which led to Rodger’s violent attack. Others have addressed how the pervasive narratives in movies, TV, and video games that teach young men from a very early age that if they just try hard enough—stand outside a girl’s bedroom playing Peter Gabriel on a boom box—women will inevitably be theirs. The #Yesallwomen campaign on Twitter has revealed hundreds of thousands of women telling stories of how they have been on the receiving end of threats or even violence on rejecting male attention. If you really want to feel the hair on the back of your neck stand on end, just check out the forums of men defending the shooter and his ilk. Actually, the whole Men’s Rights / Pickup Artist communities online are just a black hole of ick (warning: once you learn of the “manosphere,” you cannot unlearn of the “manosphere”)

I don’t know that I have anything more to note regarding Elliot Rodger and his motivations, other than to add my voice to the outcry from women (and many men) that our society NEEDS to have a serious conversation on this topic, rather than hiding behind the “he was mentally ill” smokescreen. Amidst all this outrage about pervasive narrative structures that leave men feeling entitled to female attention/sexuality, however, there is one piece of subtly problematic popular culture I want to talk about—Disney’s alleged feminist masterwork, Frozen.

I finally got around to seeing the film last week while I was on vacation (horrah for baby keeping me sixth months behind current trends in popular culture). I have to say, despite having a soft spot in my heart for Disney musicals, I really wasn’t a fan. Maybe it’s just that I was already sick of hearing “Let It Go” everywhere I went, so the films emotional core left me a tad underwhelmed—my friends Debs and Errol do it better, by the way. Mostly, though, the film seemed just a little two impressed with its own feminism. Two WHOLE women in one movie!? What is this sorcery!? Our heroine doesn’t fall in love with a man she just met … Instead, she falls in love with a man she’s known … for like a whole couple of days? I guess that’s better?

Others have addressed in (excessive?) detail why Frozen falls quite short of its own self-congratulation on the subject of women. I’ll sum up just two points that are particularly relevant here, both in reference to the source material—Hans Christian Anderson’s story “The Snow Queen.”

First off, much as they did a few years back with the Rapunzel story “Tangled,” Disney changed the title of the original fairy tale to the gender-neutral “Frozen.” Because we can’t expect little boys to want to watch a story named after a GIRL called the “Snow Queen” now, can we?

The second, more insidious, point has to do with all the praise heaped on the film for featuring TWO female characters. Lets leave aside the point that both characters look almost identical because, as one of the lead animators complained, it is apparently wildly difficult to draw women who have, like, compelling personalities and emotions and yet can still be pretty (facepalm!). I will simply note that the original story has many, many women—some evil, some good; some helpful, some malicious. Not to mention the protagonist who, in fact, rescues the only male in the story. Yet, somehow, Disney still gave us a world entirely peopled by men—with the exception of our two leads, so not entirely moving outside the Smurfette principle—one of whom is the brawny love interest Kristoff who comes to the aid of hapless darling Anna in her quest to find her sister. I’ll also just point out that, as one of my undergraduate film profs liked to point out, the first close-up in a film clues the audience in to the main character (not a universal truth, to be sure, but a helpful shorthand in the language of film). Who has the first close-up in Frozen? Anna? Elsa? Nope! … Kristoff! I’m just sayin’ …

My point here is not that Frozen is an inherently misogynist film. But I do think it is worth noting how pervasively certain assumptions are seemingly ingrained in our collective cultural understanding. The treatment of the “Snow Queen” story by the creators of Frozen is just one small example of how we teach boys from a very young age that they do not need to be interested in stories about girls/women. We program them to forget on some subconscious level that women, are indeed human in their own right (as Dorothy Sayers titled her brilliant essay—“Are Women Human?”).

It might be several large leaps from that point to a mentally disturbed young man who decides to take out vengeance on the women who denied him his sexual entitlement—but it is not a different psychological universe altogether. Denying full humanity to a segment of the human race–even in almost imperceptible ways–can never be without its consequences. This is true not just when it comes to societal treatment of women, but of people of colour, the LGBT community … anyone who might be considered “marginalized.” We are all created in the image of God. All fully human and all deserving of full respect and our full humanity.

The challenge for those of us who fall into “privileged” categories–for me that is being, among other things, white, straight, and able-bodied–is whether we are truly ready to give up our place in the dominant narrative? Rather than giving praise to something like Frozen‘s token feminism (and ignoring, for example, its utter lack of racial diversity), how can we craft a new societal narrative that includes places for all people where all stories are heard and received with the same weight? That is easier said than done and will require us all to let go of our desire to hear first and foremost our own stories and listen more to the stories of others.