A Game of Thrones: For Men Only?

After a long period with nothing to blog about, finally something which needs adressing has come up. For once, this blog has not been on any kind of hiatus due to the beguiling influence of real life – there simply has been nothing to write about. No major news on Guild Wars 2 (although we have that to look forward to next week), nothing new for Anima: Tactics, and no new Madoka Magica episodes or other anime that have tempted me to pick them up (that should also be remedied shortly).

After this information and entertainment drought, however, there are a number of things to look foward to! As Madoka finishes, Doctor Who starts again in the UK. Portal 2 is to be released on April 21st, or sooner perhaps if the efforts of dedicated fans can hasten GLaDOS’s return. (Wow, that really sounds like something you don’t want to do, and yet…). Guild Wars has its sixth anniversary on April 28th, and there have been hints of something special accompanying this year’s festivities. All in all, the rest of April should be a much brighter time!

But on to today’s business: a review, before it has aired, of HBO’s A Game of Thrones mini-series. Written for the New York Times by Ginia Bellafante, this review claims that the show is a global-warming allegory steeped in sex and violence solely to keep it interesting, and that it could only ever appeal to men. Presumably brutish, brainless men who like their television to revolve around sex and war, despite the fact that war shouldn’t really feature in A Game of Thrones – it seems the mere presence or armour and castles made this reviewer turn faint. Alright, the Dothraki are rough and warlike, but the Starks hardly are. Bellafante’s suggestion that no woman could enjoy this series seemed to suggest an awfully narrow view of women’s tastes, and in fact she seemed to suggest that only a few sad and strange women would read ‘high fantasy’ at all:

“I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first.”

Not I, to be sure, because I don’t belong to a book club and even if I did, I wouldn’t be demanding that the members read anything. Hyperbole aside, this is a gross generalisation. Not only are female readers perfectly capable of enjoying A Game of Thrones, they’re just as capable of enjoying it for the sex, violence and scandal if that’s what they enjoy! They (or I should say, we) are also capable of enjoying the strong characterisation, character development, emotional conflict and surprising plot, or the sheer brutality of a fantasy world where people die in wars and betrayals don’t always have a greater purpose. I’ll point you back to my nod to Neil Gaiman in a previous post; good stories are those that have good stories, and a fantasy setting shouldn’t put you off in itself. To take that attitude strikes me as displaying ignorance and, much worse, a lack of interest in learning otherwise.

Bellafante’s assertion that the series is “a vague global-warming horror story” seems way off the mark. I wouldn’t be surprised if George R. R. Martin took some inspiration from current concerns about the environment in using the change from a long summer to a long winter in his book, but the allegory with global warming fears breaks down quickly. Environmental factors hardly make an appearance in the coming of winter; it is much more a winter of the soul, a winter of discontent. If anything the winter bears more of a resemblance to the standard fantasy plot device of a growing evil – things stir beyond the wall, and winter will allow them to prey on the people much more easily. Times are dangerous and the young people of the story, born in summer, are unprepared. The weather is not an antagonist as if this were a modern disaster movie, nor is Westeros being plunged into some kind of ice age.

I suppose I shouldn’t expect a reviewer who seems so uninterested in fantasy of any kind to have heard of Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia trilogy.

There’s no denying that A Song of Ice and Fire as a series features graphic violence and sex. Martin has never shied away from stating something plainly, in fact he often seems to make a point of describing gruesome (or tantilising) detail when something is supposed to have an effect. Seeing a man beheaded at the tender age of ten should have an impact on a character, and to convey that, it must have an impact on the reader, right? I was thus both surprised and rather approving of the beheading in the preview footage available from HBO, which is shown raw and undisguised in much the style that Martin writes. There’s something to be said for this: sex is not something to be ashamed of, if a character participates in sex, it is described. If someone dies, it is described, not simply stated.

“The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies,” Bellafante writes. I object to this on two grounds. Firstly, the inclusion of “illicitness” in the novel and now the television series serves a purpose. Does incest disgust you? Fine, you’re supposed to feel hatred and disgust for Circe Lannister! But also note the political repucussions of her obsession with her brother, because as a queen her sex life is of public and political concern. Does the treatment Daenerys gets from her husband make you uncomfortable? Good, because it certainly made her uncomfortable, and as a young, confused virgin in her position, this is something she will actually need to work through. Having not seen the new series, I can’t comment on the television portrayal, but I am not surprised it is as explicit as the novels. I can only hope the repurcussions come through intact in the adaptation.

This is obviously not the kind of thing Bellafante is accustomed to watching, and it’s not because of the sex and scandal. She cites The Sopranos, Deadwood, Rome and Big Love as ‘good’ HBO work, admirable for “examining the way that institutions are made and how they are upheld or fall apart”. The implication seems to be that if the situation and the institution isn’t “real”, nothing can be learned from it. Never mind the people who watch The Sopranos for the violence, or Rome for the sex. I don’t mind if Bellafante doesn’t like A Game of Thrones, that is her right and it’s not for everyone. I do object to this implication that all fantasy is empty, self-indulgent entertainment with no real value. How can you assume all of that just becaise it includes a fictional language?

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4 Responses to A Game of Thrones: For Men Only?

  1. Siobhan says:

    What really annoys me (as a woman, if you like) is female journalists who feel that they can speak for every woman. This seems to be another of these. Another recently was telling men that they shouldn’t approach a stranger and talk to them as this was an imposition. I guess she’s never found herself imposed on by a helpful stranger when struggling to lift a heavy bag down on the train or when going down a flight of stairs with a push chair and two small children. Though maybe that some women have children isn’t recognised by her particular brand of feminism. Surely the whole point of feminism is that women are free to embrace their choices, whatever those choices might be?

    I quite fancy watching the game of thrones.

    • Curuniel says:

      I’d recommend it, obviously – she’s right about the violence and sex, but they’re paired with rather dark themes and events, in the book at least. I also object to the audacity of speaking for all women. ‘Women’ are about 50% of the population, how generic could we possibly be? And Bellafante seems to be painting a very lopsided and stereotyped picture of what ‘women’ should like.

      As to talking to strangers, I understand that many people find it uncomfortable – our society does tend to breed suspicion of strangers and individuality to the point of wanting to ignore everyone not involved with you personally. But a friendly word to a stranger can brighten both your days, and maybe if we did this a little more we wouldn’t be so very paranoid that everyone we don’t know is out to get us. Incidentally, I don’t see how anyone advocating equality could insist that this would be threatening from a man but never from a strange woman…

  2. Kyle Mann says:

    My wife is reading the first book and I can’t pry it out of her hands. Women like good writing and real characters just as much (if not more so) than men do. Sorry for the late post :S

    • Curuniel says:

      No problem, always nice to get a comment!
      I agree, and violence and/or sex needn’t put women off either. The series has some excellent female characters (for instance, Lady Catelyn Stark, who manages to be a strong, independent and capable woman within the role of a noble wife, rather than having to be made into some rebellious feminist princess character), and when women endure horrible things, it’s clear that it’s intended to be horrible!
      Then there’s Cersei, who is an awful woman, and plays upon many typical female flaws without becoming a pardodied shrew. I think GRR Martin has done a good job, and you’re correct in saying his characterisation in general is great!

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