Give Me What I Want

A few weeks ago, I was watching WWE, and there was a promo segment between Batista and Triple H. Batista had just returned to wrestling after embarking on a successful Hollywood acting career in movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and was setting up a feud with his former mentor for WrestleMania. His rustiness from the business might be why he seemingly forgot all of his lines when he went on stage, which resulted in one of the most awkward verbal exchanges I’ve seen in my years of watching wrestling. For multiple minutes, all he did was yell “GIVE ME WHAT I WANT” at Triple H in his most intense wrestler delivery that sent spit all over the place. The absurdity of the promo helped it reach instant meme status.

Beyond the comical nature of the promo, what I think resonated about it was how Batista unwittingly captured the tone and tenor of fanbases in 2019, especially WWE’s, which is notorious for spending most of its time grumbling about the company’s booking decisions rather than enjoying the show. But while hardcore wrestling fans have long been known for being jaded and miserable, the “give me what I want” ethos has now spread to almost all circles of fandom via the internet. Unlimited viewing, listening, playing, and reading options have cultivated a sense of entitlement in audiences, who increasingly want their entertainment to only reflect their own personal tastes, values, and desires. A popular TV show like Game of Thrones comes with weekly episodic recaps on 240 different websites which all tediously pick apart the storytelling choices, character beats, directorial decisions, possible plot and logic holes, etc. Like wrestling, a lot of TV now is watched by groups of “smart” fans who are less invested in the story itself than in the making of the story and whether it fits their own vision for how things should go.

Thrones has been the most frustrating in this regard. This is an incredible show, with a scope and scale never before seen on TV and a roster of morally ambiguous, well-drawn characters with compelling backstories. It’s delivering spectacle with huge battles and dragons, but also is examining dark, adult subject matter like rape, abuse, suffering and redemption in a way that is far deeper than ever attempted on TV. Yet if you look to find analysis of these artistic qualities of the show, you mostly will come up empty outside of the work of a couple of dedicated writers (my favorites are Sean T. Collins and Gretchen Felker-Martin). Instead, what you get is every random writer on every website complaining about what the writers should have done instead, bemoaning choices made by characters, complaining about “problematic” elements of the script, etc. Rather than take the show for what it is and appreciate its obvious strengths (while still pointing out areas where it could be improved), I get the sense that many are going out of their way to be dissatisfied with it as it reaches its final episodes.

I’m always in favor of thinking critically about art, but this strain of fandom feels jaded, myopic, and unproductive. I don’t think most people doing this are seriously engaging with the show and what it is trying to say; they’re viewing it with an ironic detachment, snarking about minute details and completely missing the bigger picture. Everyone spends more time wondering how the characters traveled from Winterfell to King’s Landing so quickly instead of thinking about the actual overarching themes of the work. No one is obligated to enjoy Game of Thrones or all of the creative decisions of the show, but there is rarely even an attempt to engage with it in a reasonable way. So we’re in this weird situation where this show is massively popular, it’s amazing, and yet it feels almost underrated as a work of art, because so few people are even making a good faith effort to engage with and appreciate the greatness that is right in front of them.

But far from just cultivating a blasé attitude towards art, this “give me what I want” mentality also causes art to be more safe and less impactful when it’s taken seriously by creators. A few weeks ago, the creator of Bojack Horseman retweeted someone saying that shows shouldn’t depict rape for the same reason they don’t depict someone having diarrhea — because audiences don’t want to see it. It concerned me because Bojack is one of my favorite shows in part because it has made such an effort to show its audience what it doesn’t want to see. As a viewer invested in the characters, I didn’t want to see Bojack and Diane self-destruct and struggle with depression and alcoholism. But because they have, the show was able to explore mature themes about overcoming personal demons in a way that resonated and was cathartic. The version of Bojack that avoids uncomfortable topics would basically be a kid’s cartoon.

That tweeter’s hot take was almost certainly aimed somewhat at Game of Thrones, which has been notorious for its portrayals of rape and abuse towards women. A certain segment of liberal types have hounded the show with accusations of sexism for years, assuming that the on-screen depictions of violence against women are endorsements of that behavior from the makers of the show — an extremely ungenerous reading of the material that doesn’t really hold up to any reasonable interpretation. The prevailing belief seems to be that these sorts of taboo, sensitive topics should simply never be portrayed in media due to their unpleasantness. Actress Jessica Chastain recently tweeted as such, saying “Rape is not a tool to make a character stronger. A woman doesn’t need to be victimized in order to become a butterfly.” This was in response to the Sansa Stark character acknowledging the abuse she’d faced, how she still lived with it, and how it had shaped who she was. In Chastain’s desired version of the show, Sansa never would have faced suffering, and there would be no insight into the very real abuse women face at the hands of men, both in Westeros and the real world.

This is where the “give me what I want” mindset goes past simply being about lame crowd-pleasing stuff and crosses over into something resembling censorship. Of course, any time the subject of rape is brought into entertainment, it needs to be taken seriously and portrayed in a thoughtful, humane way. I don’t think the Thrones writers have always gotten it right (the infamous Jaime/Cersei scene from a few years ago being the predominant example), but for the most part the show has made an effort to portray the realities and effects of abuse on its victims. Characters like Sansa, Theon, and others have endured abuse and lived with the consequences in a way that has rarely been depicted on TV. If your argument is that rape should never be in entertainment, then that is diminishing a major part of art’s function, which is how it can express feelings of personal traumatic experiences in a shared way that makes people understand it better.

A lot of these arguments strike me as the same types you see from people who want to ban classic novels for being too “dangerous.” What these people really want is for art to be a sanctuary, and for all entertainment to be blandly inoffensive, shiny and flawless. Those who nitpick every barely relevant detail of the logic and character choices often think of themselves as being smarter than the rest of the audience and the writers, when really they have this same childlike mindset towards art. For them, a show like Game of Thrones only exists to be joylessly ripped apart as a means of validating their own perceived intelligence. They don’t want to think about the actual themes or the storytelling.

As we stare down the barrel of another eight million superhero movie sequels and live action Disney remakes, it’s hard not to be a little concerned about the future of art that actually attempts to provoke and challenge audiences. Part of my frustration with the response to this season of Game of Thrones is that we’re really witnessing an end of an era — I doubt another show will capture the public imagination quite like this one, much less one with this much depth and artistry. And yet the response to it by many seems to be a collective shrug, a snarky comment or two while glancing at their phone. That’s why the present and future of entertainment is Marvel movies and other audience-pleasing franchises that don’t require too much thinking or attentiveness. Of course, there will still be real artists making powerful, important work outside of the mainstream — but good luck trying to discuss it with anybody.