11 May 2014

Game Of Thrones

A friend just asked about the violence, particularly the sexual violence, in Game Of Thrones.

Thrones is definitely not for everybody. It can be hard viewing. There is violence and sexual exploitation all through it. This portrayal has, I believe, a serious and worthy purpose, which I'll get to. But there's no doubt that it is hard to watch, even for a jaded viewer like me. There is no dishonor if one cannot watch that.

But if one can watch it, I believe that it rewards the attention and heartache. Thrones, like The Wire, is at once entertaining, harsh, and smart enough to be important. I'll be the first to admit that Thrones isn't so sophisticated as The Wire, but considering how sophisticated The Wire is, that Thrones gets itself into close enough range to merit the comparison is very high praise.

Thrones is especially rewarding and important for people like me who have a weakness for “genre fantasy”, the strain of literature which has emerged from generations of writers inspired by Tolkien. Part of the way Thrones works, part of why it is entertaining, is that it offers strong examples of the seductive allure of the feudal romance: heroism and honor and glory in battle and all that jazz.

But Thrones is ultimately a critique of why we should not trust the appeal of that feudal world. The villain in Game Of Thrones is not any of the rival houses of Westeros or any of the nasty characters or even the White Walkers of the North — the villain, instead, is the feudal social order itself. A while back I wrote that Django Unchained is laudable for making us unable to watch Gone With the Wind uncritically; I believe that Thrones is working similarly to make us unable to watch The Lord of the Rings uncritically.

As a proponent of liberal democracy and other Enlightenment values, I think this is important cultural work.

To achieve this, the show portrays the violence and sexual exploitation that are integral to the feudal world, and portrays it forcefully. Were it my show to make, I'd have been less explicit. A friend reminds me of the scenes between Theon and Ramsey, and I also think of Jamie and Cersi in the sept, some of the goings-on at Petyr Baelish's brothel, and so forth. There are moments when critics of the show who see it as exploitive rather than critical of exploitation are persuasive. What is wrong with us that we would watch these things as entertainment?

Well, it works hard at being entertaining, and succeeds handsomely.

And I suspect that in choosing what to portray and how to portray it, the makers of Thrones often have better judgment than I do. I've been noticing a number of fans online complaining that the show has taken the Westeros they daydreamed about traveling to when reading the books and curdled it into the unpleasant Westeros of the show. Perhaps the show needs to beat the drum that hard to ensure that, for all the charms of the feudal world, people register that it is not romantic but a nightmare. Were it less brutal we might miss its meaning, but were it less entertaining we might never watch it. To hold entertainment so close to brutality threatens to devolve into exploitation, but there may not be another way.

Update — answering a friend on Facebook who worries that the show allows for an audience who sees the show as normalizing the subjugation of women:

The strategy of both the show and the novels is unmistakable. It offers you the pleasures of classic genre narratives ... and then makes them increasingly uncomfortable. When we first encounter Petyr Baelish's brothel, we think we have been there before: giggling girls and palace intrigues and all the cheap thrills we have come to expect from a hundred genre fantasy novels. Then each time we go back, there's another, stronger reminder of what it really entails. The story asks us, “Does this still seem fun to you? How about now? How about now? How about NOW?”

Maybe I caught on to what the story was doing a little early, because I came in already thinking about genre fantasy in these critical terms. But the novels and the show are evidently fearless about escalating however far is necessary. (If anything, the show is more direct about its implicit criticisms of the genre.) I have a hard time imagining a reasonable viewer who will make it through without getting the point.

Another update — I'm reminded by another discussion that one of the key examples of the rape-y-ness of the show is Drogo's rape of Daenerys early in the series, which evolves into a close bond between the characters. This is one of the places where my defense of the show is at its weakest. The Drogo-Daenerys relationship plays more plausibly than the bare description makes it sound, but that doesn't make it okay. Repeating the love-born-from-rape trope is a problem for all the obvious reasons, doubly since it plays into the orientalism of the portrayal of the Dothraki with pale Daenerys acting as a “civilizing” influence on swarthy Drogo. Ugh.

I've let my viewing of the show get ahead of my reading of the books; at the moment, Daenyrs' story is awash in White Savior narrative tropes. I'm okay with that, since my reading that Thrones is an attack on genre fantasy tropes which works by showing us those tropes' seductiveness makes me very confident that a critique of white-savior-ism is just around the corner.

But that will come too late to serve as a critique of the racist way the show has already portrayed the Dothraki, who are almost completely offstage at this point.

Another update (May 2015) — I need to write a long reëxamination of this question, taking back my comment “the makers of Thrones often have better judgment than I do”. Later developments in the show have shown me that while I remain certain that some folks at Team HBO are working toward the purposes I describe here, there are others who are too incompetent, naïve, sexist, or deliberately exploitive to consistently deliver on them cleanly.

More resources:

Alyssa Rosenberg says similar things in Game of Thrones Has Always Been A Show About Rape. And Brad DeLong tells us People: Game of Thrones Is Horror!

Meanwhile Daniel José Older has an interestingly ambivalent comparison of Game of Thrones to Penny Dreadful, Chuck Wendig's We Are Not Things: Mad Max versus Game of Thrones looks at developments after I originally wrote this piece and takes a dim view, and offers some good additional links, and Rhube's We Are Not Your Shield pointedly observes that the existence of female fans of the series does not excuse its problems.


Unknown said...

I'm a big fan of it administering a wake up call to anyone who thought that Westeros would make a lovely escape. Yeesh. (Am I the only person who looks at the emergin storyline with Danaerys and thinks that the whole preorained Queen storyline has not been surverted nearly enough and let's get on with the death and ashes?)

But were I to ask for one thing, I wouldn't ask to tone down the rape first (though it's certainly a thought.) I would ask for some of the sexual violence that is committed to be committed against men. Because right now, it seems to be supporting the mythology that rape is part of being female. And we know (and history supports) that rape is part of being in a brutal world. I mean, don't get me wrong, among the more popular genre fantasy worlds, it's hard to find one in which it doesn't utterly suck to be a woman. But what makes ASoIaF so great is that it follows much of the shape and logic of actual history, rather than outworn cultural mythology.

ThisIsMyName said...

I tend to concur both with the analysis of this post and with the comment above. I agree that the lionization of feudal times and their associated tropes is long overdue for a reality check; in fact, this is a major reason that I no longer have your weakness for that particular genre. I have simply had all I need of swords and castles and dragons and all that for a lifetime, especially knowing what I do of the brutishness and sadism that were routine in the equivalent human history period. But that's just a taste thing--certainly, there are many who find such genre settings thrilling, even now.

But Catherine's point is also valid. Art occurs in the context of culture, and right now we are in a full-fledged war over whether the advances made by and for women in the past 50 years are to be rolled back, supplanted by control over health choices, indulging rape as boys being boys, and slut-shaming.

GoT is remarkably tone-deaf in this context, and while the producers are under no obligation to consider such matters, I think they should have.

Jonathan Korman said...

I think it's a more mixed bag than Mark Green suggests.

I don't want to hang a halo on the show. There have been some tone-deaf moves, no doubt. There's too much female nudity, and all of it is too Hollywood-sexy. And just a couple of episodes ago at the time I'm writing, we had a mortifying rape scene that might have been defensible ... had the director of the episode not said that he intended it to be read as consensual. And so on.

But this is also a show which unflinchingly faces the rape and exploitation women experience its world, by extension indicting the genre and our own real world in the process, and portrays this not as the result of easy villains but a consequence of systems and institutions. It doesn't reduce those women to simply being victims, either: they are taken seriously, and are well-developed as characters. Indeed, it offers us a range of different female characters and takes them all seriously.

It deserves criticism, yes, but in part because it's good enough at its best on these questions to be worth criticizing on its failings.

Mysa said...

Thank you for a thought-provoking post! I will keep this in mind when I eventually get to see this season (I don't have HBO).

Phaedra Bonewits said...

I read the books before I ever saw the series (no TV when it first came on) and the reason I was so fascinated by it was the way it subverted the genre. In real life, the good guys die. In real life, no matter how visionary or magical or brave or honorable you are, you can get shat upon. In real life, the one who looks like the inevitable winner, or the one who 'must' be the hero of the narrative can be unceremoniously deposed. I truly appreciate the way GRRM plays with our expectations.

Regarding the sexual violence, I actually think the series has toned it down from the books. One minor character who was gang-raped is not even in the TV version. And frankly, I sometimes think there should be more rape, not because I like it--hardly--but because I think it slams home (ugh, did not intend a double meaning) how ugly the feudal world could be for women.

And certainly some of the sexual violence is committed against men. I don't know how you can follow the torture-porn saga of the miserable Theon without seeing it as sexual violence. However, again, it's doubtful the series reflects the amount of sexual violence against lower-status men one might expect in times like those.

There's an apocryphal tale I heard many, many moons ago, about how Joseph Stalin requested that he be sent the skull of Adolf Hitler so that he could act out the old Russian custom of masturbating into the skull of your enemy. Now, that's a Westeros-worthy custom. I don't know if the story is true, but it sounded true enough that many people believed it.

Doug Muder said...

I recently read Thomas Dixon's 1905 novel The Clansman, which was the basis of the classic film The Birth of a Nation and is the purer form of the Lost Cause mythology in Gone With the Wind.

After The Clansman, I will never read either GwtW or LotR the same way again. It's striking to see how indifferent the tropes of fantasy are to good and evil. The same symbolism that picks out Aragorn as the the One True King can be used to exalt whites as the master race or anoint the founders of the KKK.