Thursday, 2 May 2019

Game of Thrones, Arya Stark and Mary Sues

The most recent episode of the long running and cultural milestone fantasy series Game of Thrones has, for many good and bad reasons, drawn lots of criticisms from fans. Much ink has already been spilled trying to justify or point out the flaws in the most recent episode. I think there are valid reasons for criticisms and invalid ones as well. However, let me just do a brief commentary on the show as a whole before diving in.

In case it isn't obvious SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!

Now full disclosure on my end. I have quite cheerfully only kept up intermittently with the long running television series Game of Thrones and I've been far more interested in progress on the upcoming book sequel The Winds of Winter. Right here though, is a good time to point out that the difference between book fans and show fans.

Fans of the book series of which the show is based on A Song of Ice and Fire are coming from a different background with vastly different characters and plot lines to the ones we're seeing now in the show, and the series has diverged rapidly from the books since roughly Season 5 onwards. The show for instance missing important plot lines with Lady Stoneheart and her running with the Brotherhood Without Banners as well as the Dornish Plot which adds another layer of complexity to the books that the show sadly misses. Heck, there isn't even a Night King in the books! This can be justified through the need to simplify the series and keep a tighter focus, which is fair enough.

Book fans, like myself, have been disillusioned with the shows chronic lack of good overarching themes, unfaithfulness to characters, and the dumbing down of others to make some characters look smart. The show's elevation of Cersei to bog standard evil queen role is indicative of this in the extreme. It's why I stand by my show canon is not book canon ideology for the series.

Moving on though, there has been intense dissection of the strategy and tactics from Season 8 Episode 3, but the most controversial moment is arguably when the set villain of the series the Night King, is killed in dramatic fashion by... Arya Stark.

This has, in turn, led to disbelief, backlash and incredulity on the part of fans.

Let it be known that some of this criticism has been sexist in delivery. Some aspersions have been cast on a waif of a girl being able to kill what amounted to a physical god while others were annoyed at how she comes out of nowhere to do this.

For my own sake, I disagree with the decision simply because it really doesn't make sense. The fans of the choice will say it was foreshadowed, it wasn't. Beinhoff and Weiss have blatantly stated they retconned the whole thing, which makes this just bad writing. There's no clever set up, no looking back and having dramatic aha! moments, and no long plotted arc to get Arya to fight the Night King who she doesn't really care about. It was a surprise for the sake of a surprise.

In essence, M Night Shyamalan could have written this episode and it would have made about as much sense in terms of long term plot.

This is merely my opinion but a surprise for the sake of a surprise is not clever, its not good writing or plotting, and it certainly does nothing for a character in the long run, especially one who has already been established as being as badass as Arya is.

It boils down to a 'Rule of Cool' idea rather than thematically satisfying trope of say, Jon defending his crippled brother against the main enemy he was brought back to life to help defeat, or a symbolic gesture of Dany fighting to defend her new allies. It's not symbolic, it isn't thematic and it doesn't point to any well thought out long term character arc for the show which viewers can go, wow what a clever twist! It's just lazy. I disagree with people trying to justify this as, well, it encourages bad writing for no reason and just encourages these two to do it again in the future.

Still badass scene though.

However, that does bring me to my main point of contention here. Arya Stark is not a Mary Sue.

In the wake of this controversial scene, there have been many people decrying Arya as some sort of Mary Sue in the show. Why? Well because she took on an elemental God she had never faced before! Also because she managed to survive being stabbed, thrown into a canal, and then run miles to overcome her assassin. She took out all of House Frey, ect.

None of this is really valid in my opinion. Arya has, from the earliest moments of the show, been established as quick on her feet, clever, and as the show has gone on she has gotten better and better at combat. There is, in my mind, no question that Arya could have taken down the Night King or gotten one up on him in a trap. Due to bad writing though, it looks like she is being railroaded into a bad part.

Calling Arya a Mary Sue, makes no sense. She has not been a favored element by the show runners to do increasingly improbable things, other characters don't stop to fawn over her all the time, and the plot doesn't bend backwards to accommodate her. The other characters all get their time in the sun and Arya as a strong female character is independent of that.

The concept of a 'Mary Sue' goes back to the old days of Star Trek fan fiction in the 1970s. The original character was created by Paula Smith as a parody character for her short story A Trekkies Tale in 1973 which was supposed to parody bad characters inserted in fan fiction. From there on the name stuck, and has spread out to the broader literary community. It has been leveled at characters in series from Eragon, to Rey, Furiosa, to my own whipping boy Rudi Mackenzie.

It's true that there are bad characters in fiction, and we do need a term for them, but at the moment, Mary Sue may be problematic. For one thing, even with riffs on it like 'Marty Stu' or 'Gary Sue' the term does bear some inherent sexism as it implies that its a female character who is/must be problematic. I'm not sure the term is overtly sexist considering both its origins and how widely it has been cast around, but with the advent of the really toxic culture of masculinity emerging on the web...well it is probably going to end up co-opted for bad ends.

Sexism in pop culture has been challenged like never before in the last decade, but this has had inevitable backlash. From issues like Gamergate, to absurdly unflattering criticisms against movies like Captain Marvel or Wonder Woman. Heck, we've had to fight so long for a hopeful Black Widow movie because for the longest time people bafflingly didn't think that such a film could be profitable!

Black Widow character who is emblematic of this problem. Even though her character debuted in 2010, before Captain America or Thor, and really many of the other big Avengers, it is only now nine years later with the success of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, that Marvel has even considered giving her, her own film despite fans having wanted one since she first graced the screen.

Quite clearly, women in pop culture have a long way to go before they can get anything like the respect they deserve.

Mary Sue then, deserves to be retired. The misuse and abuse of the term has to go. Arya, like many other women in fiction, doesn't deserve the label. Instead, as is suggested by fellow blogger Sean Korsgaard, we should turn instead to the American cultural touchstone The Simpsons and use a ready made term for a bad character, Poochie.
Honestly I love this idea. It takes a good pop-culture icon and parody of a bad character and turns it on its head for good ends. Bad character in a novel? Call them a Poochie! Character hogging the spotlight? It's a Poochie! Kevin Sorbo is acting as a front runner again? Oh yeah, we got ourselves a Poochie.

Now maybe this idea won't catch on, but it is one which may cut off some vicious cultural fights at the knees.

Arya Stark though, is not a Poochie. She is a well rounded character (book and show) who has lived through traumatic events which have turned her into something of an awesome person. Her role has more to be explored and an interesting narrative to be uncovered. The story itself will hopefully give her a few more awesome things to accomplish.

I personally think that A Song of Ice and Fire has given us many strong and unconventional female characters. From warriors like Arya and Brienne of Tarth, to skillful plotters, mothers, daughters and politicians like Caitlyn Stark, Arianne Martel, Sansa and the Queen of Thorns. They all exist in different forms as exemplary and well thought out women who do battle in their own way, and have their successes and their failures.

Whether the show is totally faithful to them, is largely immaterial to its own success. This series will wrap up this summer and for better or ill remain a pop culture touchstone which has brought fantasy back to the mainstream. And in spite of its flaws, I count that as a good thing.

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