Some weeks ago, the makers of the Game of Thrones TV series, Benioff and Weiss, announced their next project. Titled Confederate, it will feature an alternate-history US where the South won the Civil War and slavery is still legal. In response, many social justice advocates called for the upcoming show to be stopped in its tracks. Others were confused by the backlash. The concept is dark, but many stories have meaningful things to say about the darkest aspects of the human experience. What’s so bad about this one?
I’ll explain, but first, I need to tell you about this awesome new story I’m working on.
My Fantastic Story Idea
Called Blogtatorship, my story features an alternate US where bloggers rule the land. People who don’t write any articles online make up a permanent underclass that is treated like chattel. Bloggers take non-bloggers’ children away and sell them. Bloggers can beat non-bloggers anytime they like or simply neglect and starve them. My story is dark and gritty, so it’ll feature some intense scenes of these non-bloggers being tortured, separated from their children, and otherwise abused in horrible ways.
Of course, my main character is above all that. She’ll be a blogger herself, say… a fantasy and science fiction storytelling blogger who writes for a blog called Miscreants. She’s living the high life in a big mansion with comfy chairs and caviar for breakfast, but she still knows torturing non-bloggers is wrong. So she’ll tell the other bloggers that it’s time to set the non-bloggers free. Naturally, many mean bloggers won’t agree, so my main character will have epic battles with other powerful bloggers over the fate of all those poor non-bloggers being tortured.
Since she is only one person, my main character can’t personally save every non-blogger from mistreatment (though I thought about it). Instead, the non-bloggers will rise up on their own, but everyone will agree that she inspired them. They’ll give her all the credit. She’ll even get a badass new title, the Great Liberator. All the poor non-bloggers will praise their Great Liberator and celebrate her coming, and some will be so grateful for her help that they’ll pledge their lives to her. These pledged non-bloggers will do exactly the same things that they would be doing if they were her property. Of course, it’s totally different because, theoretically, if they wanted to leave, they could (but they won’t; I’m writing them to be 100% loyal to her).
My Story Idea Isn’t Unique
My story probably sounds ridiculous, and it should. I’ve created a premise for gratuitous wish-fulfillment. The story is supposedly dark, but nothing terrible happens to the character that represents me. My avatar gets as much glory as possible while the characters I don’t identify with are powerless victims. The suffering of the non-bloggers adds flavor to my fantasy and gives me some people that need saving. It’s for my benefit.
I wish I could say storytellers didn’t make stories like this, but we do – all the time. In fact, I mostly stole my story from Game of Thrones. However, in Game of Thrones and many other gritty stories, it’s even worse. As self-centered as my story is, at least it’s too far from reality to be hurtful. Non-bloggers in this country are treated just fine. I’m not rubbing salt in their wounds because as a group, they don’t have any.
If you want to know what real stories like mine are doing, you have to pause and identify the most horrible thing that’s ever happened to you. Something that made you feel helpless and afraid. Something you’d rather forget. Now imagine instead of non-bloggers, my story features minor characters that remind you of yourself, and my torture scenes show exactly what happened to you in graphic detail. Now say I know these things happened to you, and I’ve chosen to exploit your pain for the sake of embellishing my personal fantasy.
All too often, that’s what our gritty stories are doing.
The Failures of Game of Thrones
One of the Game of Thrones storylines unfolds just like my story does. At the center is Daenerys Targaryen. She’s the heir of a royal bloodline and so white her hair is even… well, white. She gains power by liberating slaves. This is a fantasy realm where slaves could be of any race, but in the show they are black. By liberating black people, or inspiring them to liberate themselves, Daenerys gains the title “Breaker of Chains” and gets some totally willing not-slaves of her own. In the slave-liberation part of her storyline, the black slaves receive all that dark and gritty suffering, and the powerful white woman receives all the glory.
You might point out that Daenerys herself was abused and raped at the start of her storyline. That’s true. But these terrible things didn’t happen because she was white; they happened because she’s a woman. You didn’t think the person who gave her these terrible moments was a woman, did you?
No. The original book series was written by a white guy, and Benioff and Weiss are white guys. Yet the dark and gritty setting heavily features black people who are enslaved and women who are raped, among other forms of real-life oppression the storytellers have not experienced. Sure, many of the privileged white male characters on the show suffer, but they suffer because they’ve chosen to engage in epic battles with other powerful characters. When they suffer, it doesn’t open any wounds for privileged white men.
The wounds opened by these depictions are not trivial. One out of five women in the US has been the target of rape or attempted rape. While slavery is illegal today, black people are given longer prison sentences for minor crimes and then forced into labor during their sentence. Meanwhile, the history of enslavement in this country is frequently erased or glorified.
The Presumption of Confederate
After the popularity of Game of Thrones, Benioff and Weiss realized they could get a green light on any concept they wanted. Of all the possibilities, these white storytellers chose a concept defined by the suffering of black people, in an American setting that is guaranteed to open as many wounds as possible. This is astoundingly arrogant. It would be incredibly difficult for any white storyteller to implement this premise respectfully, much less storytellers who have a poor track record. Benioff and Weiss seem to think that being popular with white audiences makes it okay for them to double down on their mistakes.
And who is getting the glory in this new story of theirs? According to the HBO press release:
The story follows a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone — freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.
Notice that “slaves” isn’t here. Hopefully many of the freedom fighters or other characters will be slaves, but this makes it look once again like the characters who are suffering will do so in service to characters who are not.
I do think it’s good that Benioff and Weiss brought on the Spellmans, a pair of black storytellers, to be their partners on the project. But naturally, the Spellmans are not the ones that chose the concept that centered on the suffering of their own people. And while they will have influence, Benioff and Weiss are the showrunners. Ultimately it is still white people helming this project, and, almost certainly, black suffering will be exploited to serve a white audience.
Storytellers who want to write dark and gritty stories should start with the tragedies they’ve personally experienced. Otherwise, they aren’t creating a story that’s dark and gritty, not for them. They’re just showing that they can’t take what they dish out.
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