A Kind of Half-Hearted Defense of Game of Thrones
This has come up a couple times now, in which I’ve found myself inadvertently defending George R. R. Martin’s series A Game of Thrones, based on the notion that there’s a dramatic and important difference between a misogynist book, and a book about a misogynist culture. No ill will meant to anyone with whom I’ve argued, it’s all part of the process, &c. and so forth.
Here’s the thing. I like Sady Doyle, and I like her criticisms. I loved her critique of the Harry Potter series (which, incidentally, though it’s a thing I have problems with, it’s actually a thing that I still quite like). I feel like we’re on the same side, I think. I like to think of myself as a radical feminist — but, you know. So does every douchebag in the fucking world, so how should I know? By nature, every asshole who doesn’t realize the limits of his feminism is contributing to a system that perpetuates the patriarchy. That’s part of the challenge, obviously, is that you can — by nature — never know exactly how much more you should know.
I want her to be right, but I feel like her argument here is a little inaccurate. And worse: it’s framed in a way that makes me feel like not only can I not defend the series, but I can’t even ask for a more nuanced discussion of the subject without branding myself a raging misogynist fanboy. It’s like I’ve been set up in such a way that my choices are: agree, or else dismiss myself by the very virtue of my disagreement.
Let me be clear: I actually don’t like A Game of Thrones that much. I think it was a pretty good series, and a pretty strong entry into the genre of epic fantasy, in particular because it deconstructed a lot of the tropes and history of the genre. But, actually, I got kind of bored with it by the fourth book, and I haven’t read the fifth one yet, and I probably WON’T read the fifth one until I can buy it for less than eight dollars. I’m not a fan of the series the way there are FANS of the SERIES, if you catch my meaning.
I’m really just asking for fairness when I say in response to Sady: you can’t talk about the appeal of epic fantasy being “the impulse to revisit an airbrushed, dragon-infested Medieval Europe” while in the same breath you suggest that the problem with Martin’s series is how completely fucking horrible the world that he’s created is. (Obviously, this is the internet, so no breath is involved, but you get my meaning.) The very premise of the books is exactly what you, and what a lot of us, don’t like about Tolkien: that it starts with an airbrushed fantasy of Olde Timey Europe, in which there was a benevolent patriarchy that was racist and misogynist, but under which everyone was pretty happy.
But I think it’s pretty clear from the outset that Martin is trying to subvert that notion of the traditional, “11th-14th century analogue Europe” setting. I’m just asking for fairness when I point out that it’s not accurate to say:
Reader, here are the things that George R. R. Martin changed about Ye Olde Medieval Europe, when he set out to write A Song of Ice and Fire: Religion. Geography. History. Politics. Zombies. Werewolves. Dragons. At one point, when asked why his characters were taller, healthier, and longer-lived than actual Medieval people, George R. R. Martin explained that human genetics and biologydo not work the same way in Westeros as they do in the real world. So George R. R. Martin considered that he could change all of that while maintaining “authenticity.” Here’s what he left in, however: Institutionalized pedophilia.
Oof. Come on. Martin is specifically taking the regular genre standards: unusually healthy and tall people, mystical monsters, weird geographies — the basis of stories by Tolkien and Eddings and Jordan and Goodkind and Brooks –and overlaying on top of them a brutally realistic and actually not completely inaccurate portrayal of medieval culture. The POINT is to say, “Actually, if you want to live in a fantasy world that has dragons, but is also like 11th century Europe, this is what you’d have to look forward to: all the fucking rape.” Look at this:
If you are an unmarried woman, it is 100% certain that you will be raped or experience attempted rape (4/6: Arya, Sansa, Daenerys, Brienne). If you are married or engaged, there is a 75% chance that your husband or fiancee will beat or sexually assault you (3/4: Sansa, Cersei, Daenerys). If you are an adult woman who exercises authority, you will be killed (Catelyn) or imprisoned (Cersei), because your attempts to exercise said power will backfire (Catelyn, Cersei).
Are you kidding? This was true up until NINETEEN FIFTY. We’ve had a half a century in which rape and sexual assault weren’t the fucking norm. Is the notion here that George Martin should be describing a world in which there is no rape, there is no domestic sexual abuse, there is no domestic violence, despite the fact that he’s describing a world in which there are no democratic republics, no Constitutions, no Charters of the Rights of Man, no women’s suffrage, no Marxism, no Mary Wollstonecrafts? Should he write about a world like that even though our world, our REAL EXACT WORLD, has all of those things, and we STILL let, what, 4 out of 5 rapists go unprosecuted? What kind of lying bullshit is that, to pretend that Medievale Dayes were somehow less full of rape and violence than our own?
This is the least of it, actually, because the most of it is that I don’t even know what book Sady Doyle was reading, but are you kidding? Sansa Stark “completely sucks and deserves everything that’s coming to her”? Are you a fucking SOCIOPATH? Sansa Stark is a girl who believes in love and romance and is brutally, painfully, grotesquely disillusioned regarding that romance. What happens to her — say rather, what is DONE to her — is completely heartbreaking.
It may be that there are people who read that and think that she deserves it, but frankly, I hope those people die. No decent human being could think Sansa Stark deserves any piece of her deprivations. But what’s more is, what happens to Sansa is illustrative of the fact that the world she lives in is not romantic at all, but it’s brutally pragmatic; it’s not full of chivalry and romance, but of heartless fucking bastards. Psychotic, power-mad children — just like Medieval Dayes. And her disillusionment parallels our OWN disillusionment, our own dawning, sickening revelation that the fantasy world we’ve chosen for ourselves was actually a pretty horrible, painful, misogynist, racist place where justice only happened by accident, where honor was just a word that occasionally got in the way of your execution, where knights were admired solely for their capacity for violence.
It was a racist world and, to be honest, I’m not sure what the argument about how everyone in Westeros was white and had Anglo names, while everyone in the East was not white and had non-Anglo names was meant for. I mean, look. Even now, in modern days, when there are planes and ships and an enormous amount of trade between Europe and Asia, most people in Europe are white and have European names, and most people in Asia are not white and have a variety of different kinds of non-European names. What is the point, there? That Martin has described an analogue to Mongolia in which the Mongolians have different names, a different culture, and different customs than the West? That Daenerys objects to it and, due to her personal character (not her cultural character because, please, what part of her culture taught her that rape was wrong? She’s been nothing but used and abused since birth; she hates rape because of who she is, not because of the fact that she’s white), she tries to impose a new order on the Dothraki in a cultural imperialist, “white man’s burden” way? What, you mean exactly like every white person who’s ever found themselves in a position of authority over cultural Others has? What is the point here, again? That she thinks she’s doing right, but in a lot of ways is kind of a shithead, too, because it’s the 11th century and cultural fucking relativism hasn’t been INVENTED yet? Okay, fair enough. Good point.
Actually, I’m serious about that. There ARE good points to be made — about a lack of nuance when dealing with other cultures (though compared to the body of Epic Fantasy in general, Martin’s work is leaps and bounds ahead). About how Martin over-uses sexual assault in a way that often undercuts his position, rather than supporting it. About how he sometimes uses rape as a signifier for misogynist culture, rather than as an informed aspect of the culture that he’s describing. I am not trying to defend A Game of Thrones as the 21st century’s finest work of fantasy literature, because I am not on that stair of the ladder by a long shot. But I do think that there are responses, Rosenberg’s in particular, that prove that there is an actually intelligent conversation to be had here.
And that, really, is the worst of it. It’s not that there aren’t salient points to be made, or that there isn’t an intelligent, salient, nuanced conversation to be had; it’s that Sady has clearly already given up on having it. I can’t even register a disagreement without automatically dismissing myself as a fanboy. Here:
You can try to be nuanced. You can try to be thoughtful. You can lay out your arguments in careful, extravagant, obsessive detail. And at the end of the day, here is what the people in the “fandom” are going to take away: You don’t like my toys? I hate you!
Look. I’m not arguing that she hasn’t gotten a lot of shitty comments on her blog, and a lot of shitty @replies on Twitter. I imagine that’s pretty frustrating; I imagine it’s a pretty shitty time for her, especially considering she writes Tiger Beatdown solely for the purpose of trying to improve the world, and what does she get? A bunch of assholes being shitty to her.
But here, this is Alyssa Rosenberg’s tweet about the article that I cited above, which I think was polite at the very least, and I think we can even give it “thoughtful”, even if it was critical:
This was Sady’s response to it:
@AlyssaRosenberg Oh, Jesus. I say something you like is sexist, you come up with convoluted justifications for it. Can we end this dance?
@AlyssaRosenberg In what world is it news that online fandoms throw hissy fits when you criticize their shit? And why identify with that?
I can get being pissed off about shitheads being shitty to you, but this isn’t just insulting to Alyssa Rosenberg, who’s actually trying to have a real conversation here. This is insulting to everyone who can string together a coherent sentence, as though it’s literally impossible to disagree without throwing a hissy fit. I mean, shit, are you serious? Disregarding your critics on the grounds that because they disagree with you they must be hysterical idiots is exactly the tactic that men have been using to keep women out of the public sphere since those same Medievale Dayes that Martin has actually been rendering fairly accurately.
But the fact of the matter is, if you write stuff like this article, where you treat even the potentially intelligent readers who are game for genuine discussion like they’re the same shitheads that just can’t stand to see anything they like criticised, then it’s those shitheads that you’re writing for. If you can’t ignore the assholes, and concentrate on the people with whom you can discuss the issue intelligently, then one of two things is true: 1) you care more about what those shitheads think than you do about what anyone else does. 2) You don’t WANT to talk about this in a nuanced way — you just want to vent your spleen, be lauded by your fans, and watch your adversaries writhe in apoplexy.
I can’t hold scenario (2) against anyone. I like seeing people writhe in apoplexy just as much as the next person. But I don’t think that’s why Sady Doyle started Tiger Beatdown, and I don’t think that’s what she really wants out of it. I think she’s wicked smart and perceptive and a deadly serious cultural critic, and the problem that I have is that…
Well, you know what? I mean, I don’t have to read it. She doesn’t have an obligation to me. If she wants to write for the assholes, then she can. I wish she wouldn’t; I wish she and I could talk, and we could talk like grown human beings who, even though we sometimes disagree, are ultimately on the same side. But I haven’t lived her life, I don’t even know what it’s like to get a million shitty @replies on Twitter. Maybe that’s the thing that’s most important.
I feel bad about this because I want to be on the same side as Sady Doyle, but I kind of feel like, if I don’t flat out agree with everything she says, then she doesn’t want me. Which, you know, fair enough — she probably doesn’t give a shit, and well she shouldn’t. Who am I? Nobody. Though I did just successfully re-string a ukulele so that Holland could play it left-handed, and I think that deserves some recognition.