We have a responsibility here, and when we don't take it seriously the art suffers

4 June 2015
12:03 pm

Wildling_chieftainessThis post contains (mild?) spoilers for the latest episode of Game of Thrones, so probably hide it if you haven't caught up yet.

This week's episode, Hardhome, features the extremely brief appearance of the chieftainess Karsi as part of Jon Snow's overall aims this season to recruit the denizens north of the wall to his cause. Karsi is depicted in a simultaneously badass and capable way, asserting her beliefs and suspicions during Jon's negotiating but conceding that there's value in the greater good if they work together. She's one of a few leaders who commit their clans to his cause, and during the emergency evacuation of their fishing village she handles logistics and pressure as well as a weapon. As the wights (undead creatures controlled by the White Walkers — the nebulous "big bad" of the entire show) overrun them, she is every bit as capable of a fighter as the others beside her and dispatches her fair share of undead while they buy time for the escaping boats.

Until she's inexplicably confronted by a handful of zombie children and simply gives up, allowing them to maul and murder her in the snow. She makes no attempt to fight them off, despite beheading and smashing skeletons literal seconds before she spots them. She raises her weapons and screams as they kill her, seemingly for the only purpose of being reanimated herself at the end of the episode in some effort towards emotional impact as Jon Snow makes his proper escape from the destroyed village.

I'd like to present this as a very astute example of how insidious certain types of thinking can be, and how when you don't check yourself you can fuck up what's an otherwise awesome piece of work.

Game of Thrones is a piece of fiction. It's not a documentary, it's not paraphrasing real world events — it's a purely artificial creation developed by a team of highly intelligent, artistic, and capable individuals. Every line of dialogue in the show, every camera angle, every set piece and prop and make up choice was purposefully selected by that team. If something goes into an episode, it was intended to be there.

This is why decisions like the one above are so frustrating. I can tell you a half dozen explanations for why, I'd assume, the writers and producers felt that a character who for the only fifteen minutes of her existence was shown every bit as powerful, strong, and violent as her male contemporaries would freeze and surrender when confronted with reanimated corpses of children ("Motherly instincts!") but the end result is that someone purposefully chose to have it be the only female character die in this manner — Loboda was not confronted by zombie babies and horrified into surrender by the image, he was run through by a White Walker and killed in a very manly fashion. Whatever the purported justification for the decision, someone made that decision and it's important to question why — particularly when Karsi's final actions in the show were entirely counter to every bit of characterisation that she'd been given in the episode. There's nothing inherently wrong with a mother breaking under the strain of battle when confronted with child warriors, but when her behaviour is turned into something opposite of the character she was previously shown to be, we should ask why.

Why was it Karsi killed in this manner when other leaders are shown caring about their children just as strongly?

These are decisions. And these are not decisions which happen in a vacuum.

One of the most amazing things about writing — or television, or games, or films — is that we have almost god-like control over the worlds we create. We decide where and why a tree grows. We choose the course of action that our characters take. We decide if they get to complete their quest, or if they find a different objective halfway through; we decide if they don't get there at all.

As the adage goes, with this expanse of choice comes the inherent responsibility to use it wisely. These are decisions made by talented people who are nevertheless shaped by the world they inhabit and not the worlds they create. When you bring sexism, bigotry, gendered violence, homophobia, and hatred into a fictional world, you've made a choice to introduce it — and you have to have a reason behind that decision.

There was a reason Karsi, and Karsi alone, was killed this way. It was not because of the story, it was not because of inherent gender considerations, it was not because she was a mother.

It was because someone made a choice for her to die that way, and we should ask why — why was that choice made for her?

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