Thursday, December 31, 2015

How Jessica Knoll Wrote a Powerfully Subversive Feminist Work

Spoilers abound for The Luckiest Girl Alive

As 2015 winds down I'm taking a look back on the great media I was able to consume. Fierce, powerful, provocative stuff--feminism had a good year. Yet despite the powerful blogs, books, comics, music, and film/tv that showcased a plethora of intersectional women creating iconic moments, the one that my mind keeps wandering to was a fast-paced summer page turner that delved much deeper than the genre usually allows.

TifAni FaNelli, protagonist of The Luckiest Girl Alive (why, Ms. Knoll, why with that horrible spelling?) has drawn comparisons to the heroine of the runaway lit hit Gone Girl, and on the surface, the two would have a grudging respect that would approximate friendship if Amy Dunne were capable of such, but TifAni (or Ani, as she prefers to go by in adulthood) is a powerfully feminist figure in a world that doesn't want her to be.

On the surface Ani is the worst example of "White Feminism", a well-educated white woman with a powerful job and a self serving streak larger than her family-in-law's Nantucket property. She ruthlessly decimates anyone she perceives to be lower in status than she, while simultaneously flaunting her privilege and demanding the appropriate veneration of such.

Through flashbacks to her high school days in rarefied Main Line Philadelphia, the brittle shells of Ani's personality are peeled back. We learn she's a rape survivor, one who has the audacity to maintain contact with her attackers, drink like a fish, and most importantly, be a total bitch. In short, she's aggressively unlikable--as far a cry from the perfect victim as pop culture has. But the flashbacks climax in an even more traumatizing event--Ani survives a Columbine-esque school shooting perpetrated by her former friend. Further, she is instrumental in halting his attack in a breathlessly brutal scene.

Ani cleaves to her superficial displays of power, wealth, and status as her ultimate plan to wall herself off from the victimhood of her early years. More importantly, she is without any other resources. Left and right her family, faculty, and friends who should be supporting and guiding her to dealing with her trauma don't simply drop the ball--they hurl it with ferocity and aplomb. Ani deals with victim-blaming and patriarchal power structure every time she turns around, and Knoll shows without telling us how her selfishness and status seeking are the only tools she has to protect herself (although several scenes in the book had me wanting to tell her to join a BDSM community and find a Dom who could help her process some of the feelings that inevitably haunt her)

Throughout the novel we see signs that Ani is a better person than she wants to be. She shows greater compassion to her friends and classmates than the frigid bitch she's trying to be is capable of, she rightfully lambasts her Ken doll fiance for supporting the conservative right to protect his assets at the cost of women's health and rights, she even risks her carefully crafted image in a public dressing down of her in-laws' blatant homophobia. She even maintains her career against the pressure to become a corporate wife and is ferociously against the idea of motherhood, even against the desires of her blue blood family. Ultimately, she makes the choices she needs, even when she's pressured to conform.

More figures like Ani are needed in fiction as mainstream as Luckiest Girl. She's a truly strong female character in the hands of an equally strong female writer. Ani is a victim who refuses to be defined by what happens to her, even as her past haunts her. We don't like her, but we're fascinated. Her agenda isn't preachy, it's intrinsic to who she is. Hopefully more queer and poc characters get her level of exposure in 2016, but as the New Year approaches, it's time to salute Ani FaNelli, and toast to the sisters to come.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Rape of Thrones

Last night, Game of Thrones ended its most recent episode with Sansa Stark, oldest surviving child of the Stark family, reinstated in her family home by virtue of her marriage to Ramsey Bolton, the newly legitimized bastard son of Roose Bolton, the man who annihilated her family. Ramsey celebrated his marriage by raping his new wife (as you do), for no other reason than this is how he gets his jollies. He compounds the rape by forcing his manservant Reek to watch. Reek, for those who don't follow the show, is the alias bestowed by Ramsey on Theon Greyjoy, former ward turned traitor of the Stark family, who murders peasant children and passes them off as noble children in his spare time. This is just the latest in torture and mind games that Reek experiences at the hands of Ramsey, who is generally sadistic to all whose unlucky fate it is to cross paths with him.

Problematically, Game of Thrones frames Ramsey's rape of Sansa (tellingly not the most horrific thing Ramsey has done) as further evidence of how far Ramsey's mental assault of Reek extends. Sansa's horrified expression as she experiences assault from the man she was already loathe to marry pans out to a similar countenance of Reek's before the episode fades to black. Apparently the director/writer felt that the viewers would identify more with Reek's horror as he watches his former foster-sister's violation, than we would with Sansa herself, who has survived being a pawn in the political machinations of powerful men and women for her whole adolescence, only to have her agency stripped away again, in the deepest, most personal way. Notably, the writers and director for this episode were all men.

Rape as narrative device is deplorably overused in popular culture. Want to show a female character is strong? Rape her. Want to show she can be vulnerable? Rape her. Want to make sure she's not so above it all? Rape her. Want an innocent girl to take a level in badass? Rape her. What do Olivia Benson, Lisbeth Salander, Lucrezia Borgia and Veronica Mars have in common? Rape. Even self-declared feminist Joss Whedon proposed raping Inara Serra in his iconic space Western Firefly had the show gone beyond one season, as a way to consummate the unresolved sexual tension between her and main character Mal Reynolds.

Far from being a problem in culture as a whole, Game of Thrones is gregariously fond of this trope. The first season showed Daenaerys Targaryen brutally taken on her wedding night by her warlord husband Khal Drogo, and the penultimate season so far shows Cersei Lannister raped by her brother next to the corpse of their murdered son (no, you didn't read that wrong). Even more glaringly, in A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series that serves as the show's source material, both scenes were consensual (although still disgusting, in Cersei's case). Despite being one of the most popular and dynamically written shows on television, it's a sad commentary that as early as the first season, Game of Thrones' writers felt they couldn't maintain compelling drama based off a best-selling fantasy series without resorting to rape.

Even worse, it appears this most recent character rape will not be used to further Sansa's story, but rather the sordid saga of Reek, who, prior to Ramsey's introduction and with the exception of Joffrey, was the most despicable character on a show filled with them. If the writers are going to go back to the dried-up well of rape, it would behoove them to make Sansa's rape actually about Sansa.

The concept of horrible things happening to women in fiction to further the story of male characters is so ubiquitous it's spawned not only a website, but it's own entry on TV Tropes. Mary Jane Watson from the Spiderman franchise exists simply for her misfortunes to carry Peter Parker's story arc. Yet she is somehow less problematic than Sansa's rape informing Reek's narrative. Game of Thrones has featured an array of main and supporting female characters who boast an array of flaws, strengths, quirks, and adventures. Some are loved characters, some are hated, most fall in a spectrum between, leaving room for those one loves to hate. They are as young as nine, as old as 80 plus, butch, femme, smart, stupid, and beautifully diverse (although they are mostly white, but that's a rant for another time). In short, viewers can appreciate in Game of Thrones the same range in female characters that has been default for male characters since the concept of modern storytelling.

Game of Thrones has the potential to be a masterpiece of feminist storytelling, and has come tantalizingly close, so using the ever-lazy conceit of the rape narrative is comparable to Monet nearing the completion of Water Lilies, and deciding to enhance the beauty of the flowers by painting in a dog turd.

Using a woman's rape to further the arc of a male character is the equivalent of painting the turd with actual shit.