On Fantasy, Reality and Voyeurism

Recently, I paid my good neighbor Mr. Murf of Murf Versus a visit and found an article about a Tweetersation he had with fellow blogger Syl. It was a very thought provoking piece that I tried to leave a comment on. Then that comment got too long. I managed to narrow my thoughts from the piece into a few keywords that I feel set-up the essay and really defined it: voyeurism, empathy, and realism. The latter was mostly brought up in the comments, but really helped encapsulate an underlying theme of the article.

agotAt first read, it was very easy to relate to his experience of fantasy. It reads like a story and transforms into confession as it closes. It raises questions about voyeurism, empathy and realism, things that gamers talk about all the time, but less deliberately. A Game of Thrones was what inspired the discussion on Twitter originally. It’s the most gory, violent show to hit television in a while. It’s very depraved and if you’ve never seen it be warned that the content is extremely abrasive.

Full disclosure: I read the books long before anyone knew it was TV material! I still think this is one of the best written fantasy novels of my generation. Still, I always stop short of describing it as enjoyable or “good” or with like terms. There are a lot of sick things in the book that I don’t enjoy and which I don’t find entertaining. I don’t actually view the books as entertainment, though that’s what I was looking for when I bought them (who doesn’t enjoy a good medieval fantasy?). I experience them as trauma, not drama.I think the book offers something of value, but that value is lost when taken as entertainment. The series tells tales many authors wouldn’t dare and I think it does a fair job of not glorifying violence — this is why I think that it’s value isn’t as entertainment, though it is undoubtedly, overwhelmingly seen as such. It’s unapologetic and uncompromising in it’s pornography of tragedy which ranges from genocide to torture. Where it’s value lies as a work of fiction is an important question to all of us who watch and who read.

In fact, a friend who helped me edit this immediately compared the value of AGOT to something like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU), which is a good comparison. SVU does a great job of taking serious things seriously. The crimes that occur in each episode are there to make us uncomfortable, and to make us think about them. That can’t be said of AGOT TV series most of the time. It has it’s moments, but it’s largely there to dramatize horrible events for entertainment. Many shows do this, so it’s not like it’s particularly surprising, but AGOT goes much further than most other shows. This show has managed to make at least half of the “sex” scenes about rape.

Voyeurism, empathy and realism …I had a personal revelation about why the article felt so easy to read and relate to. These are 3 things gamers commonly put together. It makes perfect sense. Gamers are experience enthusiasts and it happens to be what makes the medium unique, the interactive delivery as an experience machine. For anyone wanting to step into the shoes of another character, only games give you that. From there feelings of empathy and realism may arise. That’s where the piece got interesting for me. It attempted to make the lonely, impersonal experience of the voyeur an avenue to greater emotional intelligence. There’s a very wide gap to bridge between voyeurism and empathy, but its one that gamers try to navigate all the time. I can relate to what he said, but I also struggle to reconcile these opposites.

Voyeur: One who looks

spyAt base, this is what we’re dealing with on the topic of voyeurism. The most obvious elements of voyeurism are the watcher and the watched. Voyeurs look, they don’t interact. Empathy is difficult to discern because it’s too intertwined with the voyeur’s projections onto the subject, which replaces it’s subjectivity. Without interacting with the subject, all voyeurs can do is project their own feelings. Voyeurism is about the watcher, not the watched. Empathy is about the watched.

When you’re a voyeur you stalk your subject, enjoying hir without their knowledge. You can’t connect with a person via voyeurism because of this and since empathy acts precisely to connect us, this is the dilemma. So the idea that voyeurism can lead to empathetic experiences of the other is questionable. It seems like there’s something else going on emotionally. If voyeurism is about the watcher, then how we can we empathize with ourselves?

This is why “My voyeurism leads me to walk in these people’s shoes,” is a strange statement and it’s why I used the term illusion earlier. A voyeur doesn’t seek to walk in another’s shoes and doesn’t do it to empathize with them either. Empathetic experiences transcend the egocentricity of voyeurism. The voyeur watches to entertain hirself. A voyeur learns about their subject by circumvention, not by connection. The act of imagining walking in someone’s shoes is to erase them from their own shoes and put yourself there (the subject is a living, breathing person — you don’t need to put yourself in their shoes, but to be transported through the subject’s experience; the act of replacing them is an act of erasure). This is less empathy than an escapist adventure of some sort, one which the voyeur finds entertaining — because that’s why the voyeur is a voyeur. They get satisfaction from secretly watching others, imagining what they want about those others. And it’s this language – imagine, entertain, escapist, erasure — that is common to gamer experiences. They describe how we connect with ourselves, not others.

So …Empathy

Feelings derived from reading something as graphic and tragic as AGOT can be powerful and moving, but the more we find the misogyny, racism, violence and rape entertaining, the less we’re empathizing with any character who endures it. I can’t be entertained by torture and empathize with the tortured simultaneously.

In closing, he states:

“I don’t apologize for it. I won’t. Mostly because I believe in my ability to separate fact from fiction. Even if I take pleasure in it, I do not believe for a second that these depictions are changing me to be more violent, more misogynistic, or more rapey.”

The thing is, voyeuristic sadism in games or movies isn’t about causation, but revelation. The point is not what they will make us into any one of those things, but what it says about us that we find them entertaining. In this sense, what we consume and how we consume it reveals who we are, not makes us who we are.

On Realism

It was implied in the comments that realism was the justification for Martin’s depictions of sexism. The gist of it was that the sexism is a major part of why the series is so interesting and successful. I said in a previous article this year:

… through this lens these social ills [racism, classism and sexism] cannot be defined as problems at all. The sexism, racism and classism are [claimed as] part and parcel of the construction of the fantasy, whose authenticity is lost when those things are absent. Men invested in these fantasies feel entitled to have them and history is used as the reason this should be so, creating a virtual space where men escape from reality and to reality as Kimmel pointed out. This glorification of the medieval and warrior value set becomes much more worrying when we acknowledge the relationship between our fantasies and our personal longing. The fantasies we enjoy often betray us. — Read More …

McCloud-iconMy point is that history is unjustifiably used as justification for the bigotry paraded before us in the name of entertainment.

Martin’s world is fiction. It did not happen. It’s not a historical piece. It has no obligation to “stay true” to any events of the past, because it’s not attempting to recreate events of the past. It offers no historical perspectives – it borrows the trappings of history. It’s a romanticization — a very intriguing and powerful one — of a dark period of history, a fantasy, a caricature of it. It’s not realism. That this is being interpreted as realism is indicative of the problem with ahistorical thinking.

In the U.S., the opposition party in our congress tweeted just this past February that Rosa Parks, a major Civil Rights leader of the 1960s, helped to end racism. The tweet was rightfully mocked and critiqued — he made the statement as though racism had actually ended. The tweet was later edited to reflect the reality: she merely helped in the on-going battle against racism. Its a good example, of how ahistorical thinking skews the past to render the present. There’s nothing necessary or essential about the violence Martin choses to create in AGOT.

From Here

I don’t think voyeurism allows us to walk in someone else’s shoes. I think to “walk in someone else’s shoes” is a phrase that means we should try to empathize with others. But I think there’s common misunderstanding about what it actually means to empathize. It’s not just replicating someone else’s feelings based on our own perceptions. Imagine a spectator visiting the roman Colosseum and stating that the reason they bought the ticket was to experience empathy from those fed to the lions, that the spectacle is a vehicle that helps them to foster their emotional intellgience. It may be true, but do you see how this is a very roundabout, even strange, way to expand our emotional range of experience? This is one area I think games will soon dive deeper into, and in fact the topic of Empathy Games came up at this year’s Game Developers Conventions. Can media be a tool in expanding our emotional experiences, making us more emotionally intelligent? I think yes. But I think that media cannot be delivered as entertainment if that’s the goal.

So what does empathy really look like? I’d provide you with the ultimate guide if I had one, but I lost it. However, I read this article a couple of months ago on a blog I stumbled upon that I think is good anecdote. It’s called “She Wasn’t Being Rude” and it relates the story of how the author, a veterinarian, saved a dog’s life despite his less than cultured client, whom his staff described as rude. It’s a good story to read and the moral of it was that the dog’s owner had a very unpolished demeanor (low education, street-speaking, common folk). In the end, he counseled his staff that the woman wasn’t being rude and he focused instead on her needs. He listened to her and helped her. I think this was a good instance of what empathy looks like in action.

Empathy has at least two directions, though. While a connection to others is necessary, how can we tell when that connection is about us and when it’s about the subject? When is empathy about me?

Always and never.

If my family and I were on a sinking boat, I might have to save myself in order to save them too. It’s both a selfish act and a selfless one. In this sense, empathy is partially a recognition of your responsibility towards others. It’s not just an experience. It’s a realization you couldn’t have made without experiencing someone else’s experience. Voyeurs might seek to feel empathy, but the act can’t transcend it’s egocentricity in order to achieve it. Of course, the sinking boat is just an anecdote, but I think it gets the point across. Empathy is not for the sake of feeling. Not if it matters. Empathy is supposed to encourage us to act.

Does any of this make us evil for engaging in voyeurism? For seeking to empathize? For mistaking reality in our entertainment? For enjoying AGOT. As I said before, these things reveal us not make us who we are and I think no one evil for it — that’s for us to decide for ourselves. If we live in societies that have trouble with these issues, then we’re enmeshed in them as well whether we like it or not, know it or not, want to be or not. There’s nothing evil about that. I know I have a reputation for raising controversial questions, but there they are. To me, it seems that the importance of this exercise is to question why we enjoy problematic things (and yeah …we all enjoy problematic things). AGOT, as a work of entertainment, is one of the most problematic works in the medium right now. It’s inspired many hot debates for years for it’s content, but that’s exactly is where I think it’s true value lies: Inspiring debates about it’s controversies.

Scree Tags: #morality #gameofthrones #entertainment

4 thoughts on “On Fantasy, Reality and Voyeurism

  1. Doone,

    Excellent post, very thoughtful and well organized. That may seem like an odd comment, but as an English prof, I mean it sincerely. You cover a lot of material and do a great job making it accessible and easy to follow. Okay, enough “grading!”

    Let me start with an off-topic-ish comment about AGOT. I read AGOT a long time ago, like you, it seems, and didn’t like it. It didn’t have anything to do with the content, though. I expect a novel, even a novel that’s part of a series, to have it’s own distinct plot arc. AGOT didn’t. The entire book almost was the exposition for the series, and while there was action involved, the ending was clearly just a teaser to make you keep reading into the next one. I was only mildly impressed with the book and was not about to sign on for another 1000 – or eventually 10000 pages of the material. No thanks.

    Look at Wheel of Time or, of course, Lord of the Rings. Each book has its own plot arc while also contributing to the overall narrative. That’s how it’s done. I consider GRR Martin to be a television writer, not a novelist. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a TV writer, of course; we all have our TV writers we love (Moffet, Abrahms, Whedon), but they shouldn’t package themselves as something else, then. I felt like AGOT was really the novelization of a movie that hadn’t been filmed.

    I haven’t watched the show because I’m not into the crass and pointless sex and nudity thing that seems pretty common on all the pay channels, so while I don’t blame Martin for that, I’m just not interested. Sex or nudity that forwards a plot is fine, but too often it’s just boring masturbatory – well – voyeurism that distracts – or detracts – from the story. I’m not making a point about voyeurism there, though; it was just coincidence.

    As for the actual content of your post, I find it hard to classify basic human behaviors as “good” or “evil.” It’s natural to watch; we have two eyes on the same side of our head so we can focus our attention, after all. I do think there’s a line, of course, where voyeurism can turn unhealthy, but that’s where the empathy comes in. People who learn from what they watch/read/play don’t have anything to feel guilty about. People who “enjoy” the suffering of others have bigger issues than the voyeurism that such a pleasure might induce.

    I like the story you linked about empathy; I see that problem a lot with other English professors. A lot of our students, particularly mine, the developmental students, are rough around the edges. When they’re scared or start to panic, they can be quite blunt. They don’t mean anything personal by it, though; they’re just scared or panicked and need to be helped, not treated like they’re being disrespectful to the Wizard of Oz. A lot of profs just don’t get that.

    At any rate, great post, and thanks for the suggestion. I’ll check out the other blog now.


  2. Thanks for grading it for me, I do appreciate what you said. I’m a drop-out so having a teacher think well of my writing counts! I do occasionally write something coherent 🙂

    You speak directly to my point about voyeurism and entertainment: I think if there’s something to learn from watching anything, then enjoying it as a spectacle runs counter to that. I’m still not convinced we can learn anything about a person (on the question of empathizing with the watched) by just watching them. I don’t see how. Anything gleaned is pure speculation or projection, or both. Voyeurism is a personal, private indulgence. Where is the empathy in this act? Still, I do relate to that experience and the wanting that comes with seeing something happen and wanting to be a part of it. It’s a dilemma I think gamers commonly face.

    Like you I also find it hard to classify people as good/evil, but I didn’t always. To sum up people as evil or good removes their their accountability (ergo, evil people only do evil things and good people are simply good by nature). It’s kinda cynical. I believe people can change — can do better or do worse.

  3. I am in the process of reading it all now, it can be uncomfortable reading, definately not in the same category as Tolkien or Gemmell. Interesting to note other peoples views on it too.

  4. Voyeurism may not be improving to the soul, or any what not like that.
    Yet it is a very human instinct — yes, it goes to our bestial core.

    I will not say Voyeurism is something we ought not to indulge in — we are human,
    and that means realizing too, that we are beasts — not merely angelic beings
    who are put into earthly forms. It can be nice to relax, to enjoy a simpler life for a bit.

    That said, you’re right to call on us, particularly with the most troublesome of books, to step back, think a bit, and wrest some empathy out of ourselves. For we ought to be troubled, whenever we are entertained by violence or by lust. These are profound and ponderous things to think about — and may we be brought closer to the Other by watching or by being.

    Thief, perhaps one of the grandest computer games, truly brings empathy towards those who fear. You are in the shoes of someone small, and weak — surviving by being quiet, and clever.

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