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Game of Thrones: It’s Grim Oop Norf

So Game of Thrones is the new HBO stab at genre fiction—and I do mean stab. Filmed on a budget roughly equivalent to the GDP of a small country or a continent on the World of Warcraft, Game of Thrones is a lavishly realised adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series of fantasy novels.

The trailer gives you a fairly good idea of what to expect:

Now, George R.R. Martin began writing these novels back in the 90s, but the show so far has struck me as peculiarly attuned to the collective unconscious of the United States at the moment – bleak, foreboding doom, and a vicious culture of death. The fantasy window dressing is extremely sparse with this series; here’s some ominous hints of supernatural baddies in the White Walkers, and some dead dragon’s eggs which are presumably going to spring to life at some point, but basically the “fantasy” boils down to a made-up Ye Olde Medieval Country, a focus on the aristocracy, and some silly names. So far, so bog standard.

What is patently missing from all of this in terms of mood is any sense of wonder. Fantasy and science fiction tend as genres to be as much about setting as plot—we admire the scenery, the magic, the bending of the rules of physics etc—it’s a kind of popculture sublime. Something like Harry Potter features all those increasingly clunky scenes of Harry gaping in wonder at Hogwarts or whatever, something conspicuously absent from Game of Thrones.

Martin’s own twist on the fantasy genre is to use it as a setting for political struggles so vicious they make the Borgias look like Harold and Lou squabbling on Neighbours (note: this is an Australian reference and thus incomprehensible to most of you. As you were.). There’s a million characters in this plot, but basically, apart from our sourpuss hero Lord Eddard Stark, everyone appears to want to kill each other to gain power, and because it is HBO, there are also a lot of boobs and, for some reason, incest plotlines.

Now, Game of Thrones has been marked with one of those persistent meme about SFF that really annoys me: namely, the idea that fantastic elements are adolescent and “politics” is Srs Bsns (this, incidentally, is one thing that annoys me about the way people talk about Battlestar Galactica). Because of course, imagining life as different, as otherwise than it is, as it could be, is trite, but Borgias on horses is the mark of mature genre.

But it’s this move from wonder to social Darwinist political wrangling that makes me think about how conservative this text really is—there is no space for utopian yearning or change. Instead, what we have is the aftermath of a successful revolution which is clearly going horribly awry, a corrupt ruling class, and the disposability of those few peasants who get in their way (so far, peasants have mostly appeared only to be topped off several scenes later). The kingdom’s broke, so the king’s borrowing money from his wife’s family to fund his lifestyle of wine, women and hunting. Eddard Stark, medieval deficit hawk, was very frowny about this on Sunday’s episode.

The gender roles, needless to say, are pretty much horrible. There’s a plotline for one character being sold off into marriage, raped by her new husband, learning to seduce him, then joyous pregnancy (and all in three episodes), while the Queen is bloodthirsty, scheming against her husband and having an affair with her brother. I don’t think GLBT people exist in this world, conveniently (phew!).

Basically, what I’m saying is, Game of Thrones is Tea Party world, Tolkien remixed by Ayn Rand. Everyone against everyone, no sense of the common, just sovereign individuals competing in the marketplace of arseholery for a pointy throne. Despite its genre position, it is as Mark Fisher would call it, a supreme piece of neoliberal “capitalist realism.” It’s not mature or sophisticated by playing out this Hobbesian society tearing itself apart, it simply confirms the reality principles of kyriarchical neo-liberalism. This is supposedly how people are.

Honestly, despite all of this, I actually enjoy this show, because I have low standards when it comes to SFF. But part of me thinks, of all the stories in the world, is this particular one really what we need more of?


  1. Dell wrote:

    Kathleen, appreciate your comments about not buying the “but it’s a feudal society” part, because yes, that’s been my main sticking point when reading through Martin’s world as well. There’s a pretty big chasm between the cultural narrative of how medieval societies worked, and the actual known history of how medieval societies worked, and when people say “but it’s set in medieval times, that’s how they were,” I feel like they’re typically referring to the former (the cultural narrative). Since medieval / feudal societies as they’re portrayed in fantasy and other fiction are really just a cultural consensus built upon a skeleton of reality, why shouldn’t authors push those boundaries a bit more? To that degree I still don’t think the level of misogyny in the books is excusable; it at least deserves to be critiqued, as it is here.

    Commenters are also mentioning how well people with disabilities are portrayed in the series, and I feel equally conflicted about that: I’m not as well-read in realistic portrayals of people with disabilities as I’d like, but the portrayal of Bran / Tyrion reminds me, pretty frequently, of the critiques s.e. smith and FWD have made about the portrayal of disability in Glee.

    I’m really enjoying the series but happy to have spaces where people are discussing its problematic content. I love that so many of Martin’s characters don’t fit the traditional mold, but those criticizing the work on gender / disability / race / culture / political / historical / whatever else grounds are really welcome. It makes the entire series a lot more interesting.

    Julian’s comments are oddly argumentative and confrontational; I’m kind of surprised they made it past comment moderation, since they seem to derail more than anything.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 8:22 pm | Permalink
  2. Jen wrote:

    The vast majority of what is recognizable as the fantasy genre is medieval/feudal – esque. And I would agree that there’s a reason why that appeals to people at this particular moment.

    I think the answer is fairly complex, though. The genre is not just about a nostalgia for a mythic past in which it is imagined that right and wrong were more easily discernible and social hierarchies more rigid. For sure that’s part of it – there’s a sense of the world being more understandable, something that relieves anxiety felt by people for whom those hierarchies would have been a positive thing (or who imagine that about themselves, much in the same way as Randians think they’d all be Galts).

    But the genre also contains an ongoing conversation about that very nostalgia, in which certain authors rather forcefully criticize the implications of the codes of honor and hierarchical systems on which their feudalesque worlds are based. Game of Thrones seems to me like it falls into the latter category. That doesn’t make it free of its own problems, including exploiting the very nostalgia it is criticizing. It does make it a lot more interesting.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 8:35 pm | Permalink
  3. Goldenblack wrote:

    Yeah, uh, my friends are raving about it, but I actually threw the first book out in the trash afterwards, and I like GrimDark fantasy.

    What I didn’t like were the detailed descriptions of a thirteen year old being effectively raped and learning to like it. Nor the way the other female characters were treated. Oh, it’s all okay later because of reversals? So…the horrible misogyny will be better later if I wait? Where have I heard this before…

    I read fantasy to get AWAY from real life. The first book actually made me feel sick, and I couldn’t stomach the second. I have two other female friends who are massive fantasy consumers who confided doing the same thing – one didn’t want the first book in the house after reading it, so trashed it, the second just returned it after borrowing it. Surely there can be some female character development somewhere in a modern fantasy that doesn’t rely on rape or sexual threat?

    I was told the TV version had been tamed down so was considering watching it.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 10:02 pm | Permalink
  4. Julian wrote:

    I am sorry to come off as “oddly argumentative” and “confrontational,” but I truly do not see why you think that. I’ll make the same request of you that I did of Kathleen: can you please quote the part or parts of what I wrote that you’re disparaging?

    I love the books, but I appreciate that my point of view (white hetero cis man) is narrow and privileged and the same as the author’s. I do not dispute that the ASoIaF books reflect a lot of prejudices. But I am a nitpicker, and I think labelling the whole books series “misogynist” is glib and boring and unhelpful. I think it’s more useful to take the Jsmooth approach: talk about specific elements that are or are not misogynistic. Yes, Cersei’s portrayal veers into harpyland. I hate that character; I think she’s flat and predictable. But I don’t think she’s merely a stereotype. I think her promiscuity and SPOILER

    (eventual) overconsumption of alcohol is supposed to echo Robert.

    I can cite a ton of good female characters from the books, but their presence doesn’t prove the absence of any misogyny. However, I do think that M and Kathleen’s claims are easily falsified. I even tried to falsify them. Would that I received the same courtesy.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink
  5. Julian wrote:

    I didn’t spoil that properly at all, I thought I’d put it further down the page. I apologize.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink
  6. Dell wrote:

    Julian, you’re being confrontational and argumentative because you see the valid points of view of individuals like Kathleen as components of a debate that can be disproven or “falsified”. I see every comment in here as a POV that is equally valid; the level of misogyny experienced by each reader / viewer of the series is going to vary based on a huge number of factors. And I think Kathleen’s point is that trying to discredit her own point of view is inherently misogynistic – just think about it for a moment.

    I think that this material is ripe for really interesting discussion, and I honestly love hearing from the individuals who think that it has more OR less gender/privilege problems than I do (and I know there are people on both sides of the spectrum). The one sticking point for me in the discussion is the argument that Martin’s fictional world is in any way a realistic copy of medieval society, and therefore the inherent privilege problems are excusable.

    There are ways to create a medieval-feeling world without a strong subtext of misogyny (the Dragon Age universe comes to mind). I can believe that Martin turned up the volume on the misogyny to make a point, but I still think it’s reasonable to question whether that’s really part of Martin’s “long game”. The one thing that bothers me about the books and the series, at least for Game of Thrones, is that although strong female characters emerge, even the female characters seem to accept their social upbringing re: gender, and nobody questions the latent misogyny in a healthy way. Can it be argued that these characters are powerless to push back when the misogyny of the culture is so deeply entrenched? Sure, and if I disagree with those people on points, I’m going to ask them to elaborate on those points, not tell them that I can show them how they’re wrong. This is a work of fiction; YMMV from reader to reader, and that’s part of the fun.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Permalink
  7. Jen wrote:

    I agree that this is fun because there are a range of points of view being expressed here.

    I’ve actually been on both sides of the debate at various times. When I picked up the first book for the first time, I couldn’t read past the Dothraki wedding scene. (I still have trouble with that scene, though more for its uncritical treatment of race and culture than gender.) When I picked the book up again about 6 months later I read it very differently.

    Del, on the topic of characters who accept or do not accept their social upbringing, what about Arya and Samwell, who we have already seen in the series being very vocal about how they do not fit into the gender roles assigned to them? Are they not expressing their objections in a healthy way (I could see making that argument for Samwell, for sure)? Or is the fact that the most vocal gender non-conformist in the series is a child (Arya) something that downplays the impact of her resistance in the narrative for you?

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Permalink
  8. Dell wrote:

    Jen, you’ve got it right there – it’s that the greatest non-conformist is a child. Both Arya and Samwell are in positions of relative powerlessness, in comparison to the other highborns portrayed in the books. I’m most of my way through the second book, and so far the only character to wield enough power to question convention is Tyrion, and although his views on women are more “honorable” in comparison to some of the others, I still think there’s tons of ground for critique there.

    I really love Arya, but in all honesty I also see her as a bit of a cliche in this type of male-dominated world. The little girl who wants to be a warrior seems tired to me. I guess I see all of the strong female characters as being strong in very cliched ways, although they do defy convention once in awhile. The one thing I have appreciated about the show is that it endeared Arya to me a lot sooner, because I kept detached for quite awhile over her being such a cliche at the outset.

    I guess what I’d love to see is an *ally* in the material – i.e. the strong female characters are there, but I’d love to see a guy saying, “Hey, the way gender works in this society is kind of fucked up,” and (so far) I haven’t seen that. So far the dudes seem to look at the countless strong women around them with some degree of scorn and distaste, and I’d like just one to say “Hey, that’s pretty awesome.” Some of the male characters do respect the female characters for their strength, but it appears to be on a one-off basis, i.e. “Queen Cersei earns my begrudging respect for being so cunning,” etc.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Permalink
  9. Julian wrote:

    Apologies in advance, this is long. If you do read the whole thing I appreciate your patience.

    Julian, you’re being confrontational and argumentative because you see the valid points of view of individuals like Kathleen as components of a debate that can be disproven or “falsified”. I see every comment in here as a POV that is equally valid; the level of misogyny experienced by each reader / viewer of the series is going to vary based on a huge number of factors. And I think Kathleen’s point is that trying to discredit her own point of view is inherently misogynistic – just think about it for a moment.

    You contradict yourself. If you thought every comment here were valid, you would not disagree with my comment that Kathleen’s comments could be falsified.

    If presumption of validity is a requirement here, it’s missing from the commenting FAQ. I understand that presumption of validity extending to purely subjective experiences, but I do not agree that misogny is a purely subjective phenomenon.

    As for the claim that my disputing her comment constitutes misogyny: that seems circular to me.
    By that logic, I can call you an alcoholic, and if you deny it, I can claim that denying alcoholism is a classic sign of alcoholism.

    There are ways to create a medieval-feeling world without a strong subtext of misogyny (the Dragon Age universe comes to mind).

    Irrelevant. Just because GRRM can do something does not mean he should. Can you state why GRRM should have removed the misogyny from ASoIaF?

    I can believe that Martin turned up the volume on the misogyny to make a point, but I still think it’s reasonable to question whether that’s really part of Martin’s “long game”.

    Why is it reasonable to question Martin, when it’s not reasonable to question Kathleen? If we’re asking questions we’re already in the realm of looking for (presumably valid) answers. So we do care about validity after all. I think it’s fine to question GRRM, but I also think it’s fine to question someone else’s question. If I went astray I need more explicit instruction about how.

    although strong female characters emerge, even the female characters seem to accept their social upbringing re: gender, and nobody questions the latent misogyny in a healthy way.

    Brienne, Asha, Ygritte, Osha, Arya, Olenna Tyrell.

    What’s unhealthy about how the above women defy and challenge stereotypes? Additionally, what’s wrong if some of them are partly screwed-up? There are a ton of basket cases among the men.

    Since medieval / feudal societies as they’re portrayed in fantasy and other fiction are really just a cultural consensus built upon a skeleton of reality, why shouldn’t authors push those boundaries a bit more? To that degree I still don’t think the level of misogyny in the books is excusable; it at least deserves to be critiqued, as it is here.

    I see your point. Any element in a work of fiction is in there because the author decided it would be. But does that really mean anything bad in a book signifies the author’s approval? Characters in ASOIAF are mortal. Is GRRM pro-death?

    My point, for the second time, is not that GRRM or any author should get a pass on including misogyny. But I think the logic in your above-quoted argument essentially argues that the presence of any bad thing is objectionable because bad things are bad and including them in a work of fiction (since all elements in a work of fiction are determined by the author) constitutes an endorsement.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Permalink
  10. Sady wrote:

    @Julian: As the founder of this blog, then, allow me to present you with a further comment upon your comment, which may clarify some issues: You’re being really fucking pedantic. About a TV show. Stop.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Permalink
  11. Dell wrote:

    Hear hear, Sady!

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Permalink
  12. Alyssa wrote:

    @Dell But doesn’t it make sense that the people questioning the system would have the least power in it? You don’t get to the top of the kyriarchy by questioning the kyriarchy.

    I haven’t been able to fully form my thoughts on the show. The most problematic aspect for me is the racism. I’m finding the female characters to be very interesting, though that may be because I’m filling in the gaps with knowledge from the book. I think the important thing as far as tone and whether the show is critiquing system it’s portraying is who is wielding the power and how are we as an audience expected to feel about it?

    I find the characters we are encouraged to like and identify with, the Starks and Tyrion, are the least problematic while the characters we are expected to revile (the king, the rest of the Lannisters, Viserys)are the most. I think it’s notable that Ned is encouraging his daughter in diverging from traditional gender roles, even though he cannot envision a different place for her in society. He is not forcing her to learn to be a lady and he listens to her and believes her (IMO) when she tells him what Jeoffrey did. I think both he and Sansa can’t envision a different way so they go along with the system even when they see that it is wrong (killing the wolf/saying she didn’t remember).

    Dany and the Dothraki are a whole other mess, though I do like the way she is starting to take charge and has gained the respect of the Dothraki. I think the respect they give her is not just because of her marriage but because of who she is (that she is kind, learned their customs and language rather than seeing them as inferior like her brother does, and treats others with respect), though that may just be my interpretation.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Permalink
  13. Jen wrote:

    I had a similar reaction as Dell to Arya at first, especially the way her way of challenging gender norms is set up as Arya vs. Sansa. It makes Arya’s resistance to gender norms a way of denigrating every other female in her society, rather than a route for their liberation.

    And I agree with you, Dell, I would really like to see an actual ally somewhere in this series. Maybe sorta kinda Ned’s support of Arya’s interest in fighting? And Syrio? Yorren? Maybe maybe, but I’ll admit that those are pretty tenuous examples.

    And there are other more minor characters in the kick-ass chick role (Asha, Lady Mormont), who are accepted by some of the men around them, but not in a norm-challenging way, only in an exception-proving-the-rule way. This is true.

    The really powerful females who are not vilified (e.g. Daenerys, who cares a lot for a certain kind of self-serving social justice, but not so much for gender issues) are definitely considered exceptions, mostly by right of birth.

    Whether this is a limitation of the books/tv series or an interesting reflection of the way that liberation first manifests in an oppressive culture (thinking Joan of Arc, for example), or both, I don’t know.

    And yeah, Tyrion continually disappoints me, though in an interesting way. I think he’s the most likely man to be the kind of ally you are talking about, Dell, but he is such a complex combination of privilege and oppression, he can’t seem to formulate a coherent response to the problems that he sees around him.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Permalink
  14. Dell wrote:

    @Alyssa, you’re right, most of the questioning of the kyriarchy starts from the bottom, but I reiterate (and glad to see Jen agreed) that the lack of any allies is what struck me. I expect allies to be rare in a society like Westeros, just like they are in the real world, but absent completely? That’s just fishy for me.

    To be fair, I think you could argue that a lot of minor characters appear to be allies, but not having a single POV character (at least as far as I’ve read) rejecting or questioning “the way things are” in any substantial sense is troubling.

    It’s obvious that these issues get a lot more rich as the narrative continues, but a lot of the criticism here – both show and I think for the book – is that this narrative arc which presents the “buy in” to the series lacks a lot of these promising elements, which means that a reader who wants the rewards of the promising elements needs to suffer through the “buy in”.

    My issues with Game of Thrones are, so far, very different than my issues with Clash of Kings (I’ll be interested to see how that evolves for books 3 and 4). My main issue with Game of Thrones is what we’ve been discussing – a lack of POV allies in the buildup to the narrative, and the strong female characters cutting a pretty typical “bucking convention” narrative, even if it gets a lot more richer by the time the first book / story wraps up. My issue with the second book has a lot more to do with violence against women as a trope; I really liked the Racialicious post that pointed out that the sex in Song of Ice and Fire is all about power, always, but I still am troubled by the excessive sexual violence in the second book (and there were copious hints of it in the first). I understand GRRM is trying to portray the horrors of war, especially as they impact the common folk, but IMHO the sexual violence he’s been portraying has been on a far more excessive scale than the violence portrayed otherwise (to be fair, it’s also super graphic) and distracts from the overall message. I’ve had several female friends who couldn’t stomach the series post-book two. I think leaving sexual violence out of this narrative is naive, but I also think that sexual violence in the fallout of war can be implied without GRRM mentioning gang rapes with such frequency. Anytime he mentions actual numbers or quantity of rapists when discussing a gang rape, I notice that alarm bells are going off in my head. There’s a fine line between acknowledging sexual violence in society and the way individuals using it as power structures, and something that starts to feel like torture porn.

    @Jen, I think in the Arya vs. Sansa debate I’m actually liking Sansa’s narrative arc and character growth a lot more than Arya’s, even though I like Arya as a character a lot better. I think Sansa’s story is a much more realistic portrayal of how women cope with the world from day-to-day, and I like that Martin sets her up as relatively loathsome from the get-go but quickly “greys out” her story. I’m a woman cutting a career path that’s a lot more like Arya’s, and yet I relate to Sansa a lot more – her anguish, the ugly decisions she’s made, the realizations she’s making about how society has disillusioned her are a lot more real to me. Even when you’re doing a very traditionally non-feminine thing, shaking off the garbs of feminine socialization just isn’t that straightforward.

    I feel kind of silly keeping this thread alive, but it’s nice to have this space to reflect on the material while I’m going through it, and it’s great to see like-minded individuals still paying attention.

    Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 5:33 pm | Permalink
  15. Jen wrote:

    I absolutely agree about Sansa’s narrative arc vs. Arya’s. It’s the initial set-up – really the whole first book – where the contrast between the two irks me. And to me the tv Sansa seems extra sulky and I’m curious how they can possibly show her arc without the pov conceit of the books.

    I enjoy having the chance to reflect on the material as well. Every time I see an episode I want to discuss it with other people who care about these issues.

    There is an ongoing thread over at the Television Without Pity forums on racism/sexism/etc. in the show, and I’ve seen some pretty good comments on it, but I haven’t waded through the whole thing, so I don’t know how many commentors there are looking at things critically and how many are just there to defend the series no matter what.

    Saturday, May 14, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Permalink
  16. Chai Latte wrote:

    Well, I’m late to the discussion!

    I find nothing but hilarity in those who argue ‘but that’s how it was back then!’–without a trace of irony, no less.

    And of course, because I can’t resist, I reply, “What, back when there were dragons?” And then I LOL. I’m sorry! I know, but I really can’t help it. Trying to hold up GoT as a realistic depiction of medieval life is like holding up “InuYasha” as a realistic depiction of feudal Japan.

    That said, however, I’m enjoying the series (both book and TV show). I read the first one years ago, and just recently finished the second. (Which is possibly the GrimDarkest thing ever, holy crap).

    Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink
  17. ASG wrote:

    I don’t know if anyone is still reading this thread — I’m always so behind in my RSS feed that by the time I’m able to comment on something everybody has gone home. But SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET, etc., so here I am!

    I find it odd that so many people are using a “long game” defense for the series. Isn’t that kind of like the way people defend The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, or River Tam, or I Spit On Your Grave, or whatever. “My lady protagonist is treated like shit in gruesome OTT detail for 700 pages… but she lays the smackdown on the bad rapist at the end, so everything’s OK”. This “long game” is BORING, guys. It is an excuse for the author to revel in misogyny then tsk-tsk knowingly afterward because everybody knows Rape Is Bad. We’ve talked about this before, IN THIS VERY BLOG.

    I do think GRRM is a little more thoughtful than some of the writers and directors who indulge in this trope. I read the books years ago and thought, “eh, sort of interesting” about parts of them. (I’ve never understood the loyalty they’ve inspired in their readers; to me they were bathroom reading.) But I think it’s way WAY overstating the case to say that there’s some elaborate critique of misogynist systems here. GRRM chose a misogynist setting for his books, and then he set his books there, and that’s that. Some lady characters do OK, some don’t, but… this is not a feminist project. I just can’t see how anybody thinks that it is. The “reversals” in the series all struck me as being done for the sake of the plot, not for the sake of women (either readers or characters). Let’s be honest about that.

    Monday, May 30, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink