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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?

67 Comments

  1. a.b. wrote:

    It’s called “Game of Thrones”– if there weren’t intrigues about getting to the throne, the title wouldn’t make much sense [full disclosure-- I started reading the books after I watched the first episode, so I'm obviously a fan]. People who fight for power are usually rife with douchebaggery no matter what genre or universe. The reason people read is for the stuff and people in between. I don’t think anyone is absolutely rooting for Vaserys, King Robert or the Lannisters.

    Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink
  2. Aaron wrote:

    I haven’t read the books myself, but my wife has, and I’ll pass on what she has said about them every time someone has brought up ‘Game of Thrones’ within her earshot: HBO didn’t add the incest and other sexual creepy stuff, it was there in the novels to begin with.

    On another note, I would ask: Which successful revolution in real history hasn’t gone horribly awry? (I don’t count the American one, which looks a lot more like a successful secession to me.)

    Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Permalink
  3. ignotus wrote:

    Without any spoilers, I’d just like to note that these are long books, and George R. R. Martin is playing a long game. Many of the things that bother you in the early episodes are being set up for changes, developments and reversals later on.

    Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Permalink
  4. An interesting review. Like you, I find myself enjoying the story while wincing at its tone.

    It leads me to wonder: do grimdark stories – whether on real Earth, like The Borgias, or fantasy Earth like Game of Thrones – tend toward a conservative worldview? And is that inherent in the tone? The themes, such as they are, seem to be that power inevitably triumphs, that idealism will get you killed, and that people are vicious bastards unless kept in check.

    I suppose it’s possible to write a grimdark fantasy / sci-fi epic that’s a critique of consolidated power and the way institutions steamroll over individual lives. But I can’t think of one. Any help?

    Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Permalink
  5. They didn’t add the sex and the incest, but they did add the rape in Daenerys’ marriage. I question the power imbalance and how much consent can really be consent for a 13 y/o teenager who was sold into marriage after being abused emotionally and physically by her only alive relative, but at least in the book Drogo gave her the choice to not have sex with him, and she chose to say yes. In the tv series, it was unambiguosly rape.
    Not wanting to give spoilers, but I have a feeling that the gender roles get better as the story goes on and any female characters show strenght and some three-dimensionality (does that word exist?) Though I still think that, at least until the 4th book,the most hated, less sympathetically written characters are female. I don’t mean only villains or ambiguous characters, but the kind that makes you think “I can’t stand that person.”

    Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Permalink
  6. Amanda wrote:

    1. It was inspired by the war of the roses– lannisters= lancasters.

    2. You’ve already met one LGBT character, SURPRISE! which will come up later, but for the most part it’s treated as something not to do, but really no worse than cheating on your wife with another woman.

    3. There are only two truly bad ass male charecters in this series. All the rest of the badassery belongs to the lady charecters. As things progress, it actually gets REALLY REALLY good for strong women depictions!

    4. How awesome are Arya’s “dancing lessons”? I mean, Ned Stark kind of fails at parenting 101 (here daughter that I am marrying off and whose pet wolf I just killed, have a baby doll to appease you! What, you don’t like it? Huh!) but at least he gets Arya the literally best trainer for that type of weapon!

    5. Dany’s plotline and personal growth will be AMAZING. All she has ever been in her life is her brother’s tool, remember, so her getting sold is def. written as a bad thing, and she’s taking power through sexuality bc its the only way she can at that point– but keep watching to see how things change!

    6. HBO didn’t add the incest, but they did add some of the boobs, and why exactly is Tyrion always going to prostitutes now???

    Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Permalink
  7. jfruh wrote:

    Are you really buttressing a social structure if you make it seem really grim and shitty, though? I mean, I’m totally coming at this from the perspective of not having read the book or seen the series (which makes me a typical Internet commenter, I realize) but based your description (and others I’ve read) the whole series is the story of a dysfunctional world falling apart, yes? I mean, even if there isn’t an alternative presented, surely the scenarios depicted in the series aren’t meant to be taken (and cannot reasonably be taken by the viewer) to be good or ideal?

    Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Permalink
  8. Ophelia wrote:

    I agree that this is one view of how people “are,” but I disagree with the significant negativity you find in it.

    One of the key differences between the books and the show are the character-centered chapters. Generally, in the books, each chapter follows one character and any given book follows a few different diverse characters.

    What this does is present opportunities for the reader to sympathize with characters they initially find problematic or even repulsive. To that extent, I feel it’s a deeply humanistic series, at its core; everyone [but the Dothraki, unfortunately] is complex. Some detestable characters become much more complicated as the narrative progresses, and other characters are introduced that provide interesting counterpoints to some of the dominant kyriarchal narratives.

    As one of the commenters says above, GRRM plays the long game and it pays off. I don’t think I’d call it “progressive,” but there are many characters and situations where the kyriarchy truly is subverted.

    Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Permalink
  9. The Princess wrote:

    This series is just not for everyone. While there is magic and fantasy elements, it is more focused on politics and intrigue. It is dark and gritty. It’s not a world of happily ever afters. That’s not going to resound well with everyone. Now as to the female roles. I think you need to give it more time. The characters really do develope (and yes homosexuals do exist in the world of Westeros, trust me). Dany’s storyline… sure… I’ll go with you on that one. I don’t like the way it played out in the books and I don’t like the way it is playing out in the tv show. Personally, I have always interrpreted the relationship between Dany and Drogo as akin to Stockholm Syndrome, though many other disagree with me. And if that was the author’s intention, awesome. I find that interesting. However, I personally don’t think it was intended as being something romanticized. As for the other female characters, you really have to wiat and give it time to let the characters develope and progress (because they do!). HBo didn’t add the sexuality to the plot. It was there from the books. Each chapter is told from a different character and it really lets you get inside each characters head. It is very interesting, and sadly you don’t get that from a tv series, because you can’t hear the wheels turning in their head, so sadly I think it robs many people new to the story of that experience (which is why I am also dreading the Hunger Games movie).

    Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Permalink
  10. Jess wrote:

    I have read the first book, and am watching the series, and my reactions are very similar to yours. Yes, there’s some realism in the backstabbing etc, but for the whole first book there was basically nothing redemptive, nothing that made me want to go on to read the series. Now you get people falling all over themselves to say, “It’s *meant* to be depressing. And some of the women become badass eventually, just wait a few more rapes.” But how much should you have to endure out of your entertainment before you get something you enjoy? Isn’t this exactly what you (the OP) were getting at in the post by questioning where the sense of wonder is.

    I’ve just seen so many comment threads all over the internet where you’re not allowed to dislike it (or even to feel conflicted about it) because ‘realism’.

    FYI, this ‘long game’ business is why I’m still watching, but man it’s a depressing ride.

    Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink
  11. Emily wrote:

    Okay, um, I hate being the “but you haven’t read the booooooks” person. That isn’t so much the point of this comment. I think the point is “the show is not like the books.”

    I feel like the show is kind of Missing the Point of the lady-stories, and it is therefore misleading.

    The scene with Dany and Khal Drogo, in the book, okay: that. The rape is… a fucking stupid addition on HBO’s part. That was the scene, when I was a teenager, that taught me that consent was hot. Because that was the point. Drogo speaks Dany’s language (ANOTHER THING, WHY THE HELL CAN’T HE DO THAT NOW), and asks her– ASKS HER– before touching her. Anywhere. There is enthusiastic consent in all of Dany and Drogo’s relations. I was fifteen, I am supergay, and I still swooned. Hard.

    That, and Martin makes a real point of saying: in this society, there AREN’T opportunities for women. There isn’t power for women. How, then, do women wield power?

    Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Permalink
  12. Emily wrote:

    Also, if anyone is interested in less grimdark, more boundary-pushing/feminist fantasy, read Catherynne Valente. Immediately. Stories range from “BDSM fairytale in Stalinist Russia” (Deathless) to “portal fantasy about polyamory” (Palimpsest).

    Also it’s full of wordporn, so that’s a plus.

    Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Permalink
  13. jfruh wrote:

    @jess:

    Now you get people falling all over themselves to say, “It’s *meant* to be depressing. And some of the women become badass eventually, just wait a few more rapes.” But how much should you have to endure out of your entertainment before you get something you enjoy?

    Can’t speak for anyone else but I definitely wasn’t implying that you have to enjoy a depressing book/work because it’s meant to be depressing. My point was more about the politics of these kinds of representations — that by depicting a sexist/repressive society as grim and awful, the work can problematize sexism and repression. Doesn’t mean it’s good or fun to read, but doesn’t make it conservative either.

    Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Permalink
  14. witless chum wrote:

    “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!).”

    They do and are reportedly being introduced earlier than in the novels.

    The fun of the books, to me, is that Martin the plot if willing (trying to be vague) to go places that other authors won’t. That and the commitment to depicting the world.

    I bet it’s not for everyone, though. Tara from Extra Hot Great podcast pretty much said what Jess said above. Isn’t that a Lincoln quote “For those who like that sort of thing, I’m sure that’s sort of thing they’d like?”

    I think the detail with which Martin, over the series, shows just what a typical fantasy-style war would do to ordinary people has to count as non-endorsement of the sorta might makes right morality that you could take from the show. But he still wants to write that world.

    There is actually some sort of ‘I’m going to change the world’ type things that happen in book 2 or 3 (I forget which) but it’s still presented as very messy.

    Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Permalink
  15. clever user name wrote:

    As someone who hasn’t read the books, I found it hard to get into the series. I’m not sure it was a good idea to adapt a novel that seems as deep as the Game of Thrones to a television show. From what I’ve heard from people who have read the book, a lot of the character’s internal lives isn’t reflected in the show. I also feel like there isn’t a character that anchors me in the world, which is especially important for Game of Thrones because its completely a fantasy world.

    The whole storyline with whats-her-face getting sold off to the king of the Klingons guy also makes me feel kind of uncomfortable. I believe people that it’s handled better in the books, but on the show it feels not only rushed but also kind of offensive.

    The Borgias also has a plotline about an underaged girl getting married off and raped by her husband, but I found it less squicky even though its a lot more graphic because, in the end, Lucretzia Borgia gets revenge by crippling her husband while whats-her-face does it by having sex with her on top(?) Also I’m a lot more willing to forgive historical fiction than I am fantasy because of reasons I can’t really verbalize and probably aren’t that rational.

    Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Permalink
  16. Sophie wrote:

    I have to say, having not read the books and having only seen the several episodes of the series that they have shown, aside from a mention or two of the White Walkers and made up societies, this series does not strike me as fantasy. It seems a lot closer to historical fiction set in medieval times. When I look at it from that perspective, I understand it better. I’m a little disappointed, because I was hoping for something maybe a little less grim and a little more fantastical because that is a space TV hasn’t filled well . . . ever? But now that I know what it is, I can appreciate it for what it’s trying to do. It’s really hard watching these things sometimes. It was really hard watching the women get raped (though I do have a problem with the way they’ve depicted the Dothraki and the racial implications that abound there) and get taken advantage of, and it’s really hard to watch little boys be killed or maliciously harmed simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and having so little societal power. But that is how medieval society was. It was a terrible place unless you were a wealthy powerful man. I really look forward to seeing how they develop the female characters, and I certainly can understand not wanting to watch because some of the characters behavior is so upsetting. I certainly had moments where I wanted to turn it off, and after the second episode finished I felt upset for several hours. I don’t think that these are indications of the show being conservative, however. This world is not shown as any sort of ideal, and I hope as it moves along that characters will become more developed and that people will maybe find some more control of their lives, because if it continues as is forever I’m not sure I could take it. Another similar show would be The Pillars of the Earth, which was also very well done and was about medieval society. However, that had the idealism of new and exciting developments in architecture. I think maybe that is what the show needs: something overarching, to create hope, to shine some light in a dark society. It would make me happier, anyway. I guess we’ll see where it goes. I’m . . . cautiously optimistic.

    Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Permalink
  17. MKP wrote:

    I’m so glad you’re writing about the series over here at Beatdown – I read the books as a teenager and was appalled by the misogyny…and yet couldn’t put them down. I’m re-reading them now and find a much more…distinct division between the misogyny of the narrative and the attitudes of many of the characters themselves.

    Also there are LGBT people (more prominent in the book) there as in straight bars you’ll find it’s more acceptable for women to sexually satisfy eachother than for a man not to be sexually interested in women, but we’re woven into the fabric of the world, at least.

    Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 8:51 pm | Permalink
  18. As many commenters here have said- the gender roles are somewhat different in the books (I can’t stand what they’re doing to Dany- they’ve taken away all of her own agency), and progress substantially throughout the series. You also meet more of the peasant cast. I’m not thrilled with the show, but whatever.

    What I wanted to say, though, is that I don’t really understand your objection to putting “politics” in a fantasy or science fiction setting. I’ve always found that the ability to address contemporary issues through allegory is one of the main strengths of science fiction. SF can talk about issues that are sometimes still taboo in mainstream culture, and that’s what makes it great. See: 1984, A Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, the original Star Trek series, A Handmaid’s Tale, anything by Joanna Russ (RIP!), Sam Delany, Urusla K LeGuin, James Tiptree Jr, etc etc etc

    Anyway, I agree that dark a gritty can get boring, and that just because something is depressing doesn’t mean it’s mature (one of the best things about Star Trek is how it depicted a positive future- one where different cultures came together for exploration, and humans had avoided blowing ourselves up in nuclear war), but just BECAUSE something is set in a traditional fantasy world doesn’t mean it has to be light hearted all the time. I’m not sure if HBO is going to pull this off, but I’ve got my fingers crossed. Keep watching.

    p.s. Battlestar Galactica is brilliant and I will cut you if you say otherwise :)

    Friday, May 6, 2011 at 12:11 am | Permalink
  19. Raemon wrote:

    I have not read the books or seen the show yet. But I know that some of my favorite books are ones that depicted a world where society and morality was so orthogonal to our own that you simply COULDN’T pick a POV character and say “e’s a good person, and these are the morals ey learned.”

    There’s something to be said for stories that don’t HAVE a clear cut moral, that simply feature a lot of complex decisions that you would never want to have to make, but which let you think and learn things on your own as a sort of rorschach test.

    Friday, May 6, 2011 at 1:00 am | Permalink
  20. @Sassy Scientist, my most heated pop culture inspired debates are caused by the fact that I try to convince people that either Battlestar Galactica or Twin Peaks are the greatest TV shows ever made. I fail to see why people cannot always see eye to eye with me ;)

    Friday, May 6, 2011 at 3:32 am | Permalink
  21. Matarij wrote:

    Yes, I am afraid it is the only story that the (male) writers and producers are interested in.

    Friday, May 6, 2011 at 4:04 am | Permalink
  22. A general note: I am doing comment moderation this morning (I say this so that those potentially affected know exactly who was behind the draconian measures). So, let me say this, which is of course not directed at any of the comments so far but at those that I have not let through: if anyone writes a comment for the sole purpose of calling the post writer “ignorant” or any other similar invective, the offending comment will go to the trash bin faster than you can call me a “bitch”.

    Friday, May 6, 2011 at 6:33 am | Permalink
  23. Maggie (yet another) wrote:

    Theory this end goes that they made Dany’s story more, er, rapey, in order to keep the squick level constant when they aged her up. The relationship pretty much HAD to be problematic, it would be naive for it to be rosy given the political situation, and in the books having the girl be THIRTEEN was enough to problematise it. I’m not sure the situations are equivalent, though, I think it worked better in the book.

    I do also think removing Dany’s inner life made the transition from rapey to er, less rapey somewhat… flat? I had not read the book when I watched these three episodes, and now I have, and honestly when you see what she’s thinking it feels like a much smoother process of her learning to deal with this situation and gaining agency within it. That’s actually basically what Dany’s plot is all about for this first book – going from a position of powerlessness to being on the same level as any of the Lords on the other continent in terms of capacity to affect the narrative. I assume they do in fact intend to translate that whole storyline to the screen, but so far they’ve only done the sexy bits, while in the book there was a lot more focus on her learning to ride and starting to fit into Dothraki society a little bit, in contrast to her brother. (oh, just WAIT till you see what happens to her brother *cackles*)

    In short I think they’ve done her a disservice by boiling down her story to the sexual parts and starting those off in a more traumatic way. (yaknow, in the book she may’ve been too young/powerless for meaningful consent, but at least she didn’t KNOW that. she FELT like she had some agency, especially as compared to life with her brother. Characterisation-wise, I think that ought to make a lot of difference.)

    PS @Amanda: Tyrion doesn’t sleep with anyone who’s not a prostitute in the book, either! They’ve just, er… concentrated it a little?

    Friday, May 6, 2011 at 7:58 am | Permalink
  24. Eneya wrote:

    It’s not the best way to comment just starting tv series based an ongoing book series to pass on actually reading the books.

    You you have read the books, your criticism would have been a bit different.
    If you haven’t some of your criticism is oddly out of place.

    I agree that there are lots of bumps on the part of the characters, their presentation and the structure, but as someone pointed out, it’s tend to be political and they are still starting.
    Martin is a good author and since he is part of the crew I don’t think they will mess it up.

    The series have quite a lot of strong characters, both male and female but I really want to point out that compared with the real past of the middle ages, they are even quite nice.

    Friday, May 6, 2011 at 8:16 am | Permalink
  25. Andy wrote:

    For all the Battlestar love (a series I’m also quite fond of) I’m surprised by the “it’s too grim” comments. The BSG miniseries was fantastic, but it was also gut-wrenchingly sad.
    The lack of fantastical elements has an in-world rationale. I can’t say much more without spoiling things.
    Despite my enjoyment of the books, I’m still on the fence about how the series will turn out. The internal action of the PoV characters really made you feel for them because you understood them. I’m concerned that when presented visually we might miss some of what really makes me feel for Catelyn especially. In the books I got a sense of her ferocity, frustration, and strength. I hope the writers somehow manage to capture that on TV.

    Friday, May 6, 2011 at 8:28 am | Permalink
  26. Keller wrote:

    Wonderfully written, as it clearly explains all the reasons I hate half the characters in this show with a passion (but I still watch it).

    In the realm of reality, have you seen this news: http://news.gather.com/viewArticle.action?articleId=281474979293262

    A Texas Cheerleader was fined $45K for refusing to cheer the player that raped her. I post it here because, if you get as angry as I am, and write about this, maybe it will get more coverage than the 4 measly articles I’ve been able to find via google.

    Friday, May 6, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Permalink
  27. Eneya wrote:

    In regards to the rape scene, it was actually Martin’s idea to rewrite it.
    He has said that he thinks that the gentle version of Drogo is without a reason and the HBO version is more logical.

    The amount of bare breasts was… odd at best and yes, I believe the show was a bit too good in showing how patriarchal the society there is.
    I am truly hopeful for the future of the tv adaptation because there is enough to find in the books.

    Friday, May 6, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Permalink
  28. Emma wrote:

    In regards to everyone’s concerns with the gender roles in the show, you have to remember that Martin was going for an authentic medieval setting. Forgive me if I don’t share sympathies for my own gender in regards to this show, but women didn’t really have much in the way of rights in medieval eras.

    In my opinion, it would take away from the setting, and the focus would then be on feminist power. To me, that would ruin Game of Thrones.

    However, I think you forget about Cat and Cersei. These women probably have more power than the respective men that are all around them combined. Please wait and watch more or go read the books, please.

    Friday, May 6, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Permalink
  29. Dorothy wrote:

    I think it’s a fallacy to equate the representation of unsavory actions with promoting said actions and attitudes. Just because murder, rape and incest are present in the story doesn’t mean the author intends for the reader to find it admirable. For me, the awfulness that goes on in the world of the books series is more an argument against doing things the way they do them.

    I also think you should read more before declaring it “a supreme piece of neoliberal “capitalist realism.”” To shoehorn these books into a political allegory is just too simplistic a way of reading them. There is much more to the motivations of the characters beyond sheer lust for power.

    The female characters in these books are some of the strongest and best written women in fantasy fiction. Yes, they’re often put in harrowing circumstances but they are incredibly tenacious and smart as hell. It explores beautifully what people with little power (women and children) do with what they have to survive and even thrive in societies that don’t value them.

    Friday, May 6, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Permalink
  30. Jen wrote:

    One might also read the story of a culture that has been living in the Long Summer, with leaders who are decadent and distracted by their endless intrigues while a few lone voices warn of the coming drastic weather change for which no one in power seems to want to prepare, despite the fact that everyone knows (or ought to know) that it is coming, as an interesting contemporary political allegory.

    Not that I think it’s even remotely intended that way by the author. But this kind of speculation is fun.

    My experience of the gender issues in the series is much like others have said – it is realistically portraying the brutality of patriarchy, with 3-dimensional female characters who have a range of responses to that fact in their lives.

    The books also do a pretty good job, for a fantasy series by someone who is not awesomesauce like LeGuin, with intersections between issues of gender, class, and disability or, really, any kind of physical deviation from the norm (racial/cultural differences, not so much, as has been pointed out).

    The character of Tyrian is a great example of what the series does right in this respect that I hope the show won’t get wrong. I’m sad that they had the really gratuitous scene with him and the prostitutes in the first episode,because in the books he has a very specific way of relating to women in that group, that says all kinds of things about how he tries to cope with what the hierarchy does to him.

    And in a visual medium, much of all of this just comes across more as BOOBIES (and oppression) LOOK AT THE BOOBIES (patriarchy sucks for women) BOOBIES!

    Friday, May 6, 2011 at 11:08 pm | Permalink
  31. Kathleen wrote:

    MKP — I have such a similar reaction to the books (haven’t seen the HBO series, hate rape scenes, hesitate to). I think the character arc of Cersei has been insanely sexist (by the last book she’s a cartoon harpy), and unmatchably creepy-slavering-underage-poon-enthusiast aggghhhhhh the treatments of both Daenarys (sp?) and the Stark sister who marries Tyrion.

    OTOH, I don’t think I have *ever* read another fictional work with so much disability front and center. Queerness, too. And, the truth is, I found the books insanely, did-not-sleep-at-night-cause-I-kept-reading-one-more-chapter, compelling. What is up with that, I have asked myself.

    Saturday, May 7, 2011 at 6:42 pm | Permalink
  32. Susan wrote:

    I’m enjoy the series, but it was a hard decision to keep watching with all the rape. I’m not actually feeling that this is very different from a lot of historical style fantasy. We’re supposed to like Ned Stark and everyone else is an asshole. A hero among assholes is a really really common trope.

    The part of the series that is the hardest for me is that it has done the unthinkable. They showed me the almost entirely naked body of the god-like Jason Momoa and made me not enjoy it. GRRRRRRRRR. Seriously hot man! But rape is not sexy! This makes me so so so so sad. So. Much. Potential. Lost.

    Saturday, May 7, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Permalink
  33. LO wrote:

    I like the series — I’m a sucker for period shit. I even went out an bought the first book.
    Of course shit is bleak and of course gender-roles are fucked! It’s a feudal society. I think it’s foolish to read a fantasy novel set in a feudal medieval society as commentary about the desirability of free-market capitalism. At any rate, it places too much value on family allegiance, if not collective social consideration, to be Randian. Also, did I mention it’s FEUDAL.

    Sunday, May 8, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink
  34. MM wrote:

    “I don’t think GLBT people exist in this world, conveniently (phew!).”

    There must be something special about Game of Thrones that causes reviewers and bloggers to make completely unfounded and 100% wrong assumptions about the plot. If anyone wants a particularly good one, check out Ginia Bellafante’s review in the NYT. THAT’S misogyny. Not this show.

    I’ve also read a lot of comments from other women who seem to think that if bad things happen to a woman, the book or the author must be a misogynistic. Apparently we’re only allowed to read chick lit where the worst that happens to the protagonist is her boyfriend leaves her or she gets passed up for a promotion. No actual, you know, dealing with real trauma or personal crises. It’s like we want to pretend it doesn’t exist or something.

    Sunday, May 8, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Permalink
  35. Amanda wrote:

    YAY FREAKIN ARYA!

    IS anyone else watching? Did anyone else get all fluttery at what she just said to her dad?

    Sunday, May 8, 2011 at 9:32 pm | Permalink
  36. Mejoff wrote:

    I’ve always felt that Martin, and now the show, didn’t want us to be in nay way OK with most of what goes on in the story, especially the way the women are treated. There’s no endorsement, just presentation and a distinct lack of consequence-free anything.

    I’ve been a little disappointed in the series in one sense, which is that both the books, and previous HBO serials have been a little mmore even handed with the nudity, and not entirely boob-centric.

    Last note, I’ll not spoiler it with any specifics, but there is a fairly brutal reversal of one of the more unpleasantly misogynistic narrative trends in genre fiction coming up, which is nice.

    Monday, May 9, 2011 at 5:11 am | Permalink
  37. chaldanya wrote:

    I’m going to have to disagree strongly with all of the commenters that are exhorting you to read the books and that you need to do that before making any kind of review. I’m really enjoying seeing new people exposed to this world in a new format. These books have been a part of my life for 9 years. I met my newly minted husband because of these books – so it’s great to get a fresh perspective.

    As you are watching the show and not reading the books, I can absolutely see why you have issues with the lack of magic etc. However, given the pace of the show, that particular question should be answered shortly. I really don’t want to say much more than that for fear of spoilers.

    The problem I have with the show at the moment is the pace and the lack of naming characters. I know who all these people are and what they are called and I still had problems separating Robb, Theon and Jon (and they’ve aged Robb and Jon which made it a little harder) until Jon went to the wall.

    Monday, May 9, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink
  38. M wrote:

    Are there only two or three of us here who actually see the books as grossly misogynistic, as well? I’ve read all of them, by the way — it’s not just a matter of whether women are put in horrifying situations by a patriarchal society — fine, I can get over that — but the fact that, with basically the sole exception of Arya, women’s inner lives / inner strength are rooted solely in their sexuality / motherhood really skeeves me out.

    Monday, May 9, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink
  39. Julian wrote:

    At M:

    Since we’re talking about the books, can you explain to me how, in your opinion, Daenerys, Melisandre, and Brienne have lives/strength rooted solely in their sexuality/motherhood? Or do they belong with Arya in the exception category? Might need spoiler tags for this.

    Secondly, I know this is a slippery defense, but don’t confuse the work / world with the author. The society in ASOIAF is misogynistic. That doesn’t mean I think everything in the books that is misogynistic is necessary and convincing and excusable. But it does mean that some of the “defined-by-sexuality-and-motherhood” problems are endemic to the fictional society, and not meant to be endorsements of that view.

    Monday, May 9, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Permalink
  40. Kathleen wrote:

    M — I’m with ya, and I don’t buy the ‘but it’s a feudal society’ take on it, because, it’s *not* a feudal society, it’s a fictional universe with dragons and magic direwolves. Authors choose which elements of real life they are going to draw on to construct their worlds, sure, elements of the War of the Roses + a little ephebophilia + hot ladies over 30 are harpies! The story line where Jaime seems to be becoming a good man — helped along by the affection of a good (you can tell cause she’s ugly) woman: oh holy mother of lizards. eyeroll like the exorcist.

    It’s just really disappointing, because as I said above I read the books anyway and have found them very compelling. And I do think the presence of characters with various kinds of disability, and a few gay (any lesbian?) characters, hooray. But crazy lady-hating by any measure, and yeah, the race bits around the edges (the lands beyond Westeros with their crypto-Asians and assorted cartoon darkies, again, just so disappointing).

    Monday, May 9, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Permalink
  41. Titan wrote:

    I’m pretty sure GRRM is a liberal Democrat.

    And maybe you should work on learning the difference between showing horrible things and supporting them, before you let your so-called (i’m sure you call yourself this all the time) cleverness trip you up.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 12:01 am | Permalink
  42. Kathleen wrote:

    Titan — this is a thread where people are posting about *fantasy fiction*. A comment here about the self-perception of cleverness as a burn: whaaaaa?????

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 8:24 am | Permalink
  43. Julian wrote:

    “M — I’m with ya, and I don’t buy the ‘but it’s a feudal society’ take on it, because, it’s *not* a feudal society, it’s a fictional universe with dragons and magic direwolves.”

    It’s a fictional universe with dragons and magic direwolves and a feudal society.

    Your complaint that misogyny in the books is there because the author chooses what plot elements exist in the books would give us the following conclusions:

    God of Small Things is pro- child molestation

    Jane Eyre is pro- lock up your wife

    Catch-22 is pro-war

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink
  44. Kathleen wrote:

    I haven’t read God of Small Things.

    Jane Eyre is kind of pro-lock-up-your-wife (have you read it?)

    Catch-22 is satire. I don’t think GRR Martin’s books are a send-up of feudalism.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 11:52 am | Permalink
  45. Julian wrote:

    Jane Eyre: No, but I just saw the movie (it was fantastic). I guess I walked right into that one.

    My main point is that fictional universe with dragons and magic direwolves does not preclude feudal society.

    Your response about Catch-22 is glib. Do you mean that no portrayal of bad things is permissible unless it is parody? You now seem to be admitting that GRRM is trying to accurately portray (in some respects) feudal society.

    I do not mean to argue that any story about feudal society gets a pass for making rape titillating or for portraying women badly. I am saying that the bar for establishing misogyny in the GRRM books is higher than what’s been met so far.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  46. Emily Manuel wrote:

    @Titan

    Good Lord, a LIBERAL DEMOCRAT you say? Wow, there is definitely totally no chance of any democrat man being a neoliberal shill, sexist, homophobic or transphobic. That has never happened. I feel well and truly put in my place now, cheers.

    This thread is sort of fascinating to me as by and large unwittingly confirming my basic point.

    To reply to the main critiques:

    1. “read the books.”

    Umm no. Reading seven books to review two episodes of a TV show seems a rather high bar to me for a blog post. In any case, unless any of y’all have screeners from HBO, I’m not sure why there’s such confidence about how the series will progress. Texts change in translation across mediums, both in terms of events (ie Deny) or in emphasis, the kinds of cultural anxieties it picks up being produced at that time and place. Knowing the plot tells you what will probably happen, not what it will *mean* in this adaptation.

    2. “portrayal doesn’t mean affirmation”

    No, indeed (I’m not sure why so many people assume that I’m saying that). But neither does it necessarily imply a form of critique. I don’t think that grimdark (as Professor Coldheart) called it as a mood is really critique – it is just as easily bleak nihilism (as in Frank Miller). Bemoaning the shittyness of everyone and everything is just lazy moral simplicity. It’s quite possible to be reflective about your oppressiveness, indeed I would say that may well be the dominant mode of post-PC culture. “I know this sexist, but…”

    My point – and it has been almost entirely lost – is why THIS text, right now? Why *must* we have a story about a patriarchy, that is heteronormative, based around the nuclear family? Shouldn’t fantasy have some.. y’know.. imagination? Shouldn’t it at least attempt to re-imagine society in something other than a 10th generation Tolkien + srs bsns?

    HBO has a reputation for producing the some of the most innovative TV around, but when it comes to genre they – and apparently even many of the readers of a feminist blog – have such low expectations for experimentalism that all people have to say is “well you should read the books?” Jesus wept.

    Four episodes in, it is a mildly enjoyable piece of tosh. But fuck me, we deserve much, much better.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Permalink
  47. MM wrote:

    Emily people are telling to read the books (4, btw, not 7) because you’re making a lot of really wrong assumptions about what’s going to happen in the plot and what the characters represent. This is nowhere near Tolkien or typical fantasy at all. You think you know the politics because you think you know the plot. You don’t.

    Honestly I don’t blame you – I felt the same way when I started reading the first book (which will be the first season on HBO). But really, just wait. It is not Tolkien (really, bringing up Tolkien at all is truly baffling) and it is not just enjoying its own grimdarkness. There is a long term of arc of destruction and … Rebirth? going on here. You can clearly see that things are going downhill, but by the end things will be different.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Permalink
  48. Kathleen wrote:

    Julian — a thousand pardons. I did not realize that THE bar for establishing misogyny was held by you.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Permalink
  49. Julian wrote:

    I didn’t mean to claim to be the arbiter of what’s misogynistic. In fact, I don’t think I did claim that. Can you point to the line where I claimed that?

    Why don’t you propose a clear and objective standard for misogyny and explain how GRRM exceeds it. It is easier for me to debate that than to defend snark. No, I don’t decide what is misogynistic. If you tell me that a certain house is ten feet tall, and I say it’s eleven, I am not claiming to be the arbiter of height. I am claiming that an objective standard validates my position. I am happy to hear your argument for an objective standard but I haven’t heard one yet.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 7:56 pm | Permalink
  50. MM wrote:

    Emily, to better address what you asked:

    “My point – and it has been almost entirely lost – is why THIS text, right now? Why *must* we have a story about a patriarchy, that is heteronormative, based around the nuclear family?”

    I’m going to try to do this without spoiling too much but… really, the show is going to end up ripping apart the nuclear family and patriarchy.

    The heteronormative thing is a bit trickier. I have to admit, the first time I read the books I only saw the few obvious lesbian scenes – there are no discernible “lesbians” in the books (that I can recall), though there is lesbian sex.

    There are actually quite a few closeted gay male characters. The thing is, you just don’t really notice if you’re not paying attention, and there are no male gay sex scenes. (Though witness the outrage over The Steel Remains if you want to see what happens when you put male homosexuality front-and-center in a fantasy novel.) There is one particular gay male relationship that is pivotal to the plot. And nobody really seems to have a problem with it, except the least sympathetic character in the series.

    But nuclear family? Ha. I mean, really. The nuclear family is one of the first things on the chopping block in this series. But c’mon, you have to portray something before you destroy it.

    But where it really does better than Tolkien is the portrayal of the effects of war and the politics of insurgency and liberation, and elite corruption. Seriously, this is all stuff that hasn’t even begun to happen yet.

    I mean Tolkien is so thoroughly racist, pro-war, and pre-industrial that it doesn’t even bear comparison. Yes, there are “dark” horse-riding steppe nomads in GRRM. In Tolkien they are uniformly even – “servants of the Evil One”. In GRRM they are just another people with real political concerns and an identifiable culture, and some equally barbaric customs to the ones found among the “Westerners”.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Permalink
  51. 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
  52. 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
  53. 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
  54. 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
  55. 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
  56. 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
  57. 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
  58. 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
  59. 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
  60. 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
  61. Dell wrote:

    Hear hear, Sady!

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Permalink
  62. 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
  63. 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
  64. 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
  65. 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
  66. 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
  67. 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