Narnia Themes: Character Context

[Content Note: Spanking, Power Differentials Between Children and Adults]

Ana's Note: This is a follow-up post.

A recent post on the problems with the "know-it-all child" archetype (i.e., Eustace Scrubb) brought home to me an issue that I've been privately grappling with since the early days of our Twilight posts, that is that character context changes the meaning of character actions.

Character actions are the things that characters do and say and think out loud to the reader. Bella Swan accepting the offer to be gym partners with Mike Nelson is a character action. Eustace Scrubb refusing to believe in Narnia is a character action. Aaron Fidget telling Death-as-the-Hogfather that he doesn't exist is a character action. Edward Cullen dragging Bella to his car while she flails her arms uselessly in an attempt to get away is a character action. And so on.

Character context, in this post, refers to the cultural context surrounding the character and hir actions. The cultural context for Bella Swan is that she is a white woman, in a society where "white woman" is laden with a lot of cultural expectations, relative privileges, and significant marginalization. The cultural context for Eustace Scrubb and Aaron Fidget are that they are children, with the significant marginalization involved in that status, as well as (possibly) atheists in cultures that privilege religious belief. Edward Cullen's cultural context is that he is a wealthy, attractive, heterosexual, white man, with all the privileges that implies.

It is my firm belief that we cannot divorce character context from character actions. Eustace Scrubb, Bella Swan, and Edward Cullen could all perform identical words, thoughts, and deeds and I believe those actions would very likely mean very different things because of the differences in character context. To pick an example at semi-random, let us look at the character example of accepting food from the White Witch

If we look at the acceptance of this food on the part of Edmund Pevensie, we have to remember the context surrounding Edmund Pevensie. Edmund is a child; the White Witch is an adult. There is therefore automatically a vast gulf of power between them. Children are in some ways the most marginalized people on the planet: in countries like America, they have very few explicit legal rights to protect them from the adults who have power over them.

If you are an adult, think about your daily routine and how many choices you make every day. You choose when to wake up (though that "choice" may be guided by necessities, you still ultimately choose when to wake up in service to those necessities); you are not woken by another adult forcing you out of sleep because they've decided you've slept enough. Your grooming habits, clothing, shoes, hairstyle, and other morning rituals are yours to decide: crucial things like your body temperature for the rest of the day are a result of your choice to wear cotton or wool, rather than a choice someone else makes for you. The food you eat for breakfast is food that you have decided you want inside your body; if you have a food preference or a food intolerance, you can be reasonably certain there will be options for breakfast that accommodate you. And all this is before you leave the house for the day.

When you are a child -- at least in America, the country I am most familiar with -- you have very few explicit rights to make these decisions for yourself. Adults can dress you in clothing that is uncomfortable or allergenic. Adults can feed you food that is unpleasant or intolerant to your system. Adults can wake you whenever they please. Adults can spend the first eighteen years of your life using strong verbal, financial, psychological, and physical incentives to pressure children to conform to whatever religious, political, or social beliefs the adults maintain. In most places in the United States, adults have the legal right to commit various forms of physical assault on children -- I use the word "physical assault" here simply because that is what these actions would be if performed by one adult on another.

Children do not have a right to specific clothing or to choose their food. They do not have the ability to leave or avoid situations of verbal abuse. They do not have legal protection against certain kinds of physical trespasses on their bodies. An adult can force a child to receive body piercings before they are old enough to give meaningful consent; an adult can choose to style a child's hair and clothing however they choose and against the will of the child. Adults can physically move children wherever they please, and they can take away a child's possessions at any given moment. There is no legal right extended to children for liberty or property, nor is there freedom of speech or religious practice.

As a society, we tolerate this power differential between children and adults because we believe that it is in most cases necessary: very young children should probably not be allowed to eat nothing but spoonfuls of sugar every morning for breakfast, and though the importance of wearing warm clothes in the middle of winter may not be evident to the child when dressing in the warm house, the adults who care for the child have the requisite experience to understand that it is colder outside. We also tolerate this power differential because we believe that most adults care for children and do not wish to harm them; for those adults which deviate from this general rule, we try to intervene when necessary for the sake of the children. What I am saying is, these power differentials are not automatically bad or evil or lamentable. But they are there and it would be a mistake to forget they are there as a part of character context.

Most children grasp from a young age that adults have power over them, and that this power is both (a) present regardless of whether they like and/or understand it, and (b) supposed to be for the child's greater good. So when Edmund Pevensie accepts food from an adult, there is a context that is there, regardless of the author's intent, simply because Edmund is a child and this particular context exists for all children within the associated society. The only way to avoid this context would be to either make Edmund no longer a child (in which case he would be something else, with a new context entirely), or to make the surrounding society so different from our own that the author could assert new contexts as desired.

When Edmund Pevensie meets the White Witch, he does so as a child in a society that specifically and systemically disempowers children in relation to adults, and where disobedience to an adult can result in legal physical assault against the child.

If Bella Swan were to meet the White Witch, she would do so as a young woman in a society that undermines female agency in service to the idea that woman should "go along to get along" and subvert their individual desires in service to the greater social good.

Were Edward Cullen to meet the White Witch, he would do so as a man with a century's worth of experience and with the social standing to decline her offer without being viewed (and potentially socially punished) as insubordinate or impolite.

These are character contexts, and it's important to note that the same action -- taking candy from the Witch -- has different contexts when performed by different characters. This isn't to say that taking the candy would automatically have different results, nor is it to say that taking the candy might have different reasons: each one of the three characters above could be motivated by politeness or greed or any number of other motivations; each one of the three characters above could be attacked by the Witch for failure to comply or could be sentenced to execution by Aslan for their decision to partake.

What it does mean, however, is that the underlying context surrounding the action matters.

Earlier today, I maintained that a child being rude to a mall Santa was different than an adult being rude to someone at the AT&T store. I felt then, and still do, that there is a different in context, that a child being brought to a store by a parent and made to go sit on the lap of a stranger and participate in a religious ritual the child doesn't believe in is fundamentally different from an adult choosing to get in their car, drive to a store, and harangue an employee as though their work at AT&T was an ideological choice rather than an economic necessity.

The action -- Rude to Employee -- might be the same, but the context surrounding those actions is entirely different. The child had no say in whether it was deposited in the situation or not; the adult made multiple decisions and actions in order to arrive at the situation. The child is in a position of marginalization in comparison to the employee and views them as complicit in the child's marginalization; the adult is in a position of power in comparison to the employee and views them as easy prey for an act of marginalization.

When an author forgets these contexts, then problems arise. An act of betrayal may be an act of betrayal regardless of who is making the action, but there is a difference between sentencing a traitorous adult to death and sentencing a traitorous child to death. It may be foolish to contribute to a fraught situation where an avoidable death is very likely, but there is a difference between the contributer who is a socially powerful man with one hundred years of experience and the contributer who is a socially disadvantaged young woman with a sheltered past an a potentially abusive family background.

Context matters, and it's important to remember the relative privileges and disadvantages meted out to fictional characters when analyzing their actions.


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