12 June 2012

Game of Thrones

Laurie Penny's article Game of Thrones and its Good Ruler Complex at The New Statesman says some astute things about the racism in Game of Thrones, but says the wrongest thing possible about what the show and series of novels implies.

Game of Thrones is all about kings and queens, all about who gets to be in charge and how they win and retain power, by violence, by force of will or simply by accident. The essential assumption of this story is a familiar one: sovereignty and leadership are inherently good things, common workers need decent kings or queens to make them happy and prosperous, and even if a catalogue of leaders are bad, mad or murderous, if you can just find the right king, the true, wise, noble king who deserves to be on the throne, then everything will be okay.

This is a bit like saying that the message of The Wire is that we need to support good cops in putting a stop to crime. (It's not.)

Yes, the people of Thrones' fictional Westeros think exactly what Penny says. Yes, a lot of naïve readers of “genre fantasy” literature think the same thing. (Authors in the medium have called that out as a problem.) But the book and the TV series do not think that a Good Ruler can save Westeros. The feudal idea that a good ruler will save the realm is the villain of the story. Not the greedy House of Lannister. Not the White Walkers. Not the dragons. Feudalism.

At every turn, we are shown the evils of the feudal order. The honorable suffer. The dishonorable triumph. Both the ordinary people and the nobility suffer in the endless pointless wars it engenders. Westeros is a horrible place to live. The sexist nightmare of rape, prostitution, and chattel marriage that Penny criticizes is a demonstration of how bad things are in Westeros.

And in a direct parallel to The Wire, we see smart characters try vigorously to make the systems in which they are enmeshed work. They play along, or try to game the system, or try to work against it, or try to step outside of it, and meet with failure every time.

Penny is right that Westeros is horrible, and it's madness to wait for a Good Ruler. But that's the point. Which is why I love Game of Thrones so much.

A quick note to my sex-positive readers who deplore the blanket assumption that Prostitution Is Always Bad, as well as to those Thrones fans who will point out that Shae Is Awesome: I assure you that I wholeheartedly agree with you. But I think that we can agree that prostitution in Westeros is generally pretty ugly, yes?


Anonymous said...

Interesting points. I recall a blog called The Feminist Gaze that tried to discuss "Game of Thrones" from a feminist perspective, but it was full of racismfail and internalized misogyny. I pointed this out in the nicest possible way and the girl deleted her entire blog. Feminism, you wacky non-monolith!

Jonathan Korman said...

It's very hard to talk critically about the things you love.

I take GoT to be engaging directly with questions of sexism with interestingly mixed results: to borrow from Alan Kay, it's smart enough about sexism to be worthy a sophisticated criticism of its sexism. I read the racism in it as much more straight-ahead, suggesting that an investigation of that aspect of the genre is just not on its agenda at all.