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Likeable vs Hateable or Masculine vs Feminine

Entertainment Weekly just published its “likeability index,” ranking characters on how “likeability” and “hateability,” along with how “good” or “bad” they are.

Image credit Jef Castro. Click for the full-size version at the EW website.
Image credit Jef Castro. Click for the full-size version at the EW website.

Unsurprisingly, it’s a bit rubbish. At least, in the Game of Thrones department. Because according to this chart:

+ Sansa is LESS LIKEABLE than Joffrey. Only marginally less likeable, but they’re already pretty much as far down the “likeable” index as it’s possible to go. Even if people don’t like Sansa as a character, are we really saying that we hate a girl who is being held prisoner and forced to marry into her enemy’s family MORE than a boy who kills beloved characters, has extended sexual torture scenes, and is generally a psychopath?

+ Arya (who it seems is the most likeable character) is AS GOOD as Sansa and Jon. I’m not saying that Arya isn’t an amazing character with lots of justification for her actions, but even in the show (where her brutality is toned down a lot), she is starting to display some really brutal tendencies, like her murder of some of the Freys at the end of the last episode, or even her williness to have her own personal assassin in the second season. She’s not an evil character, but she hardly ranks on the purest end of goodness.

+ Daenerys, meanwhile, is both a lot less good and a lot less likeable than Arya, although she’s still in the positive section for both of those traits. Surely Daenerys’ actions place her about equal with Arya in terms of goodness, if not higher, since she always has good intentions?

+ Cersei is both MORE EVIL and MORE HATEABLE than Tywin Lannister. In the show, Cersei’s been reduced to a character who killed an innocent Direwolf, plotted against her husband, was involved in Ned’s downfall two years ago, and is really mean to Sansa (who, we’ve already established, is hateable anyway). Tywin just organized the slaughter of hundreds of people, including several Starks, at a wedding. He told fan-favorite Tyrion that he should never have been born and ordered him to rape Sansa. He’s an interesting character to watch, and might rank as “I hate him but I love to see what he’s going to do,”  but less evil than Cersei? Really?

+ Jaime is significantly more likeable and significantly less evil than Cersei. I’m a massive Jaime fan, as are many people, so I can understand ranking him highly on the likeability scale. In fact, my only question there is why he’s significantly less likeable than the Hound. But again, why is Jaime, who shoved a child out of a window and crippled him, without remorse, considered significantly more good than Cersei? In book world, through A Dance With Dragons, I can see where this comes from. But based on what we’ve seen on screen so far? They’re both pretty culpable.

+ Cersei is more likeable than Sansa. Because naively contributing to your father’s death (if we accept that argument, although I don’t) and then struggling to survive in the resulting mess is far worse than actually being one of the orchestrators of that murder. Or something.

Obviously, the chart means nothing in real world terms. It isn’t a declaration from on high about which characters are acceptable and which aren’t. But it is pretty revealing about the way that we view and rank female characters, both compared to one another and compared to male characters. Arya, as the tomboy character, is given massive leeway in terms of being a “good” character, because we want to see her fight and be brutal and get revenge. Daenerys, a character who does battle and fight, but is generally elegant and sophisticated and steps back from the violence itself, is considered less likeable. And Sansa, the actually “good” Stark sister, in terms of high morality and kindness to others and a tendency not to kill people, is not only on the opposite end of the likeability spectrum to her “not like other girls” sister, but more unlikeable than the show’s actual most evil villain. And why? Because she makes mistakes that are “girly,” such as being a bit of a dreamer, and being optimistic, wanting Joffrey to be her prince and wanting the stories to be true. And now, I guess, because she fights back using courtesies and subtleties and words, like Cersei, rather than with a badass backflip and a sword. Cersei, meanwhile, is the most evil and unlikeable Lannister (Joffrey excluded), even when most of her evil actions in the second and third books are given to her son, because she plays the game using smiles and manipulation, rather than the bluntness of Jaime or Tywin. She’s a woman, and non-fighting women who act feminine get less leeway in terms of being morally grey.

I don’t know enough about any of the other shows featured to comment (although I believe viewers of Breaking Bad may have things to say about the placing of Skylar), but the results for Game of Thrones here are as depressing as they are predictable. Tomboys are awesome, noble girls are stupid, and if you’re going to be do something people won’t like, try to be a man. It’s far more forgiveable that way.

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Game of Thrones: Season Three in Review

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The third season of Game of Thrones was both amazingly good, and amazingly bad. And although the “amazing good” aspect was on screen the majority of the time, those spikes of badness have left a bitter taste in my mouth that’s hard to ignore.

And the worst thing about that bitterness, that disappointment? It’s all so unnecessary.

The show has the ability to be really, really good. It has great source material to build on, sure, but it also has many incredibly talented actors, and writers/directors/creative people who are capable of turning what’s on the page into incredibly compelling visual scenes.

Whether you support Daenerys’s attack on Astapor or not, it’s hard to deny that the moment where she tricks the slavers is an incredibly powerful and memorable scene. Although somewhat different from the book, the dynamic between Jaime and Brienne was excellent, and the Tyrells makes them a great new addition to King’s Landing.

And many non-book scenes were absolutely fantastic. Who didn’t love Davos bonding with Shireen and learning to read? He’s a character that I’ve paid little attention to in the books, but have grown to love while watching the series. Maisie Williams nails every scene she appears in, and this new version of Shae, and her relationship with Sansa, is one of my favorite things about the whole show.

It’s not really a surprise that the series is so popular. It can be so darn good.

So then why do they often choose to make it bad? One of the worst things about writing about this season was almost getting through an episode, loving every minute, wanting to talk about all the badassery and sing its praises to the roof, and then come across one unnecessary line, one throw-away scene, that made me cringe so badly it took over everything else I wanted to say.

And it’s all completely unnecessary. Some of my problems with the show, like the introduction of Talisa, are deeply woven into the story, but the vast majority of the issues are shallow, surface things that could be taken out as easily as put in. In fact, leaving them out would take less effort. They could stick to insults provided in the book instead of making them gendered. They could let directors shoot things respectfully instead of basically ordering them to include more nudity. They could avoid being mocked and be taken more seriously. They could save money on paying a bunch of women to play random nameless prostitutes!  And by cutting out those brothel scenes, they’d find themselves with a little extra time to develop some of the many important characters and storylines that are otherwise neglected, like Catelyn so that when dramatic things happen later in the story, they are even more powerful.

I’ve finished the season feeling very disillusioned with the whole thing. The fact that the show is capable of being utterly amazing, but chooses to make an extra effort to lower the tone, is depressing to say the least. It’s frustrating that the writers often seem to interpret the characters differently than I do, but that, in the end, is a hazard of an adaptation. Whatever they do, someone will feel that way. It’s disappointing that the writers seem determined to fit female characters into the archetype they were intended to subvert. But the thing that pushes it over the edge is the many small, unnecessary moments that aren’t part of the story at all. Brienne being tougher and less vulnerable and naive would be less notable if she didn’t have a throwaway line where she uses “woman” as a motivating insult. Catelyn vanishing behind Robb would be more acceptable if the little screentime she had wasn’t used for a large, out of character speech about Jon Snow. And reduced screentime for characters like Sansa would be less frustrating if we didn’t spend long periods of time chilling out in brothels or playing Sexual Torture with Ramsey. It’s not any one thing, but the cumulative effect of the little things, that makes the show so frustrating and infuriating to watch.

And I’m just left wondering why. Why do that? Why make the extra effort to be offensive? Is it because they think that’s what brings in the viewers, or that they’re reflecting the thoughts and desires of the fans? I hope not. But what other reasons could there be?

Of course, come March next year, I will be absolutely giddy with excitement for the show once again. The possibility of spending more time with these characters again, combined with seeing favorite scenes on film, combined with naive optimism that a new season means a fresh start, will fill me with anticipatory love for the series. So please, show, get it together for Season 4. Drop a few of those throwaway sexist lines from non-sexist characters. Allow your actresses to wear clothes. Be the great show you are 95% of the time, and not the disgusting, problematic thing that crept out in the other 5% this season.

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Game of Thrones: Not the Women They Were Before

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One of the strengths of A Song of Ice and Fire is its willingness to play with and subvert fantasy narrative tropes, especially with its female characters. The warrior woman is also a naive romantic who has never killed a soul. The scrappy young girl becomes an emotionally damaged child hell-bent on revenge. Cersei and Catelyn are both mothers who want to protect their children, but they go about it in rather different ways. And who even knows what Margaery is like, considering that we only see her from the perspectives of a girl who idolizes her and a queen who wants her dead. Characters resist simple categorization.

Game of Thrones‘ inability to understand this is one of its biggest flaws. Although the show has created some wonderful moments and built on some of the book’s less developed characters (like Shae) in compelling and interesting ways, it often falls back on the desire to fit female characters neatly into the categories that the book defies. Most particularly, the show seems determined to fit some of its more complicated female characters into one of two boxes: masculine or feminine.

Masculine characters are all about overt strength and fighting the system directly. They are outspoken and bold, can fight, do not flinch at the sight of blood, and are capable of killing.

Feminine characters, on the other hand, are softer. They fight using smiles and kind words and manipulations. They are often concerned with marriage and motherhood, and tend to keep their true opinions to themselves. They are often, although not always, somewhat naive and romantic.

Few to none of the ASOIAF characters fit neatly into one of those two categories, which means, of course, that it’s difficult for the show to fit them nearly into one of those categories either. But they are trying their best.

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Game of Thrones: The Bear and the Maiden Fair

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I’ve been waiting for this episode since the title was announced (I’m a shipper, what can I say?), but ultimately, The Bear and the Maiden Fair was a bit of a disappointment. It had some excellent scenes and excellent character moments (including the aforementioned shippiness), but also plenty of things that were questionable at best.

Tread carefully, show. I’m not sure your female characters can take much more meddling.

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The Silencing of Catelyn Stark

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Catelyn Stark is one of the major point of view characters in A Song of Ice and Fire. She’s the character with the second most chapters in A Game of Thrones. She has more chapters in the first three books than Daenerys. And she certainly has more focus than Robb Stark, who never has a POV chapter — we see his story entirely through Catelyn’s eyes.

Not that you’d know that from watching the show. If you exclude one out-of-character speech about Jon Snow, Catelyn has probably had less than ten lines this season, and none of them have had any real bearing on the plot. What happened? Why has Catelyn Stark been silenced?

The answer to me seems simple but depressing: Catelyn Stark, as the mother figure, simply doesn’t matter.

Please note: this post contains MAJOR book spoilers through A Feast for Crows.

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