A Kind of Half-Hearted Defense of Game of Thrones

Posted: August 30, 2011 in Braak, crotchety ranting, Fanboys
Tags: , , , , ,

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.

But Sady Doyle wrote this piece about it, and Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress wrote this piece in response, and now I want to make my own limited contribution.

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:

Five thoughts on feminist media criticism in response to @sadydoyle‘s criticism of nerd culture and #GameofThrones

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?

Also this:

@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.

  1. braak says:

    UPDATE: the thing about the ukulele was a lie. I actually just snapped a string, because I was having trouble tightening the torque on the tuning peg.

    I’ll keep you guys informed about how the project goes, don’t worry.

  2. John Jackson says:

    Good job on the ukelele. Wiki says it’s spelled Wollstonecraft. And, yeah, it might be entertaining to read internet drama/flame wars, but none of this has sounded like it strives intelligent discussion, so why bother? But, I guess that’s the point of this post.

  3. John Jackson says:

    Well crap. So I only had one thing to say, and it was critical.

  4. Carl says:

    The essential frustration expressed in your post about trying to offer disagreement within a construct that immediately invalidates your argument simply by virtue of your having an objection to its presuppositions is well-taken. I think this is a common and unfortunate feature of the non-discourse between well-educated, well-meaning folks who sometimes only disagree in small, incidental regards.

    Also, I can’t speak to the books as I’m only half way through the first one, but I think you’d be hard pressed to make a serious defense of the HBO series against charges of exploitative misogyny.

    Also, I think I may stop reading the series; I have no desire to see Sansa Stark raped. I get it: Medieval Europe isn’t Middle Earth, okay. People are shitty and horrific to one another. I believe that. But dammit, I believe in romance too, and in genuine human good, and in the room for the possibility of the existence of relationships between men and women that aren’t exclusively brutal and abusive (even, occasionally, among the unenlightened ancients of an allegorical dark age). If this is a universe bent on stamping that out to teach me some sort of lessen about enjoying Hobbits too much, fuck that.

  5. braak says:

    Those are in the book, too. They’re just rarer, and thus more important, because of that rarity.

    I also only saw the first episode of the show, so I can’t speak to it.

  6. katiebakes says:

    braak, this is really really great. particularly this line:

    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.

    anyway, i don’t have much to add because i haven’t read the books and have only seen the show. (THANKS FOR THE SPOILERS, btw 😉 but on a macro level, i agree with basically everything you say here.

  7. John Jackson says:

    Yeah, while I’m sure there’s a fair amount of sex, brutality and the combination in the books (not read any), HBO does do the standard amount of nude/sex scenes as their TV shows for some reason seem to demand. And the scenes stand out especially so as they have no relation to the plot and are a bit less-than-subtle in the character revelations.

  8. katastic says:

    As much as it pains me to say this, Braak, I think you are totally spot-on here. Bravo.

  9. I think the thing that everyone forgets about Medieval Europe is that it was essentially run by and for the pleasure of seventeen-year-old boys. Sure, people were forced to “grow-up” rather quickly but the span of a thousand years really isn’t enough to change human development, which tells us that said boys are all lunatics.

  10. braak says:

    @John: I assume that HBO does that as a way of periodically reminding all of the viewers that they’re watching CABLE.

  11. Jeff Holland says:

    This was, yes, very nice, but the important thing is I’m pretty sure I have extra uke strings.

  12. braak says:

    Well, I’ll need a new “A” string, but first I need to check out this tuning peg because if I can’t increase the grip on it, then you’re never going to get it to stay in tune.

    I may need to replace it, we’ll see.

  13. Moff says:

    This was great. Much as I dig Sady, it sounds like she’s hewing awfully close to that nebulous kind of argument socially liberal people often advance that they insist isn’t “You shouldn’t make art like this,” but which in matter of fact reads like “Art should always do x or should never do y.” Which is, like, the left-wing version of not letting the library stock Harry Potter, but frankly scarier to me because it’s grounded in some actual valid arguments but still boils down to Some things are too awful to even make art about, which is horseshit.

    Let me qualify the above paragraph by noting that I haven’t actually read Sady’s post, and if she is not in fact hewing close to that kind of argument, I totally apologize to her. But I probably will not read her post, either, or anyone else’s, because I also don’t have that much invested in A Game of Thrones and do have a lot invested in getting caught up on work before Labor Day.

  14. This is really helpful for me. I belong to an organization that for the most part would say, roughly: “Images of love and sex need to uplifting and not portray any degradation of women. We should critique images in movies and books and music that don’t live up to that standard.”

    It’s a social justice organization. From the pov of the organization and its official policies, that makes sense, and I toe the line, because on balance I think the goals are worthwhile.

    But in my heart I think that art needs to portray everything in the human experience, even the ugly. I admit that a lot of gross and useless or backwards stuff passes under that cover. When the topic comes up officially, I skirt or ignore the issue as much as possible. I’ve been conflicted about it for 2 or so years now.

  15. Gabe Valdez says:

    Very cool. I’m not a fan of the series myself, but then again – I’ve never been into mainstream fantasy much. Give me a niche guy – Patrick Rothfuss’s eloquent structuralism; Clive Barker’s winding logics and devotion to the id; Elizabeth Hand’s intent, gothy world-architectures.

    That said, I think this is the bad habit of Western liberalism (and this comes from a pinko progressivist). We get pissed when someone only agrees with 95% of what we say while the conservatives are willing to take in anyone who can agree with them on even a single issue. It’s a mentality that routinely undermines our own causes and is only exacerbated by the web’s slack community standards when it comes to editing and self-policing.

    In short, I agree with you, Braak – and sorry to take it in a political direction – but I think Sady’s is a symptom of an ingrained cultural habit among a number of liberal writers, causes and organizations.

  16. braak says:

    @emartinezromero: if it’s any consolation, that debate has been going on about art literally since we invented art. “Is it right for art to show the world as it is, or should we only show it the way we want it to be?” It often carries with it the implication that when a person creates a piece of art, then they must be describing not how they see the world, but how they would LIKE to see the world.

    It’s probably not a debate anyone is going to solve anytime soon, because a person’s character is so inextricably linked with so many aspects of society how could you possibly sort out the effect that this one thing had on them over the course of their lives?

    It’s my personal opinion that the dirty stuff can be pretty useful to society in a lot of ways, too. Firstly, in that it can help to remind us of all the things we pretend don’t exist (that which is “abjected”, as Kristeva calls it). Secondly, I believe that showing a miserable or hopeless-looking world, as in certain Greek tragedies, or Beckett, actually creates a positive psychological response in the viewer: it’s as though our brains are at some level wired to reject nihilism, and so when we’re presented with it, we respond with, “NO! I BELIEVE THAT THE WORLD CAN BE GOOD!”

    Sometimes. Obviously, the danger with this approach is that it can fall onto the side of exploitation and actual nihilism, but that’s how all art is; the danger with the other approach — the one that only shows the good — is that it runs the risk of become saccharine or ridiculous; that it gets dismissed out of hand by its unwillingness to acknowledge that the world isn’t all sweetness and light.

  17. Sady says:

    Hi, Braak —

    Here’s the thing. I will come out and say this: I think online “fandoms,” by their very nature, often discourage engagement with criticism. I think online fandoms teach one specific mode of engagement, and it’s incompatible with other forms of criticism. For that reason, I don’t like online “fandoms” that much.

    And this comes from history. History that is not this one post, but which was specifically mentioned in that post. I wrote an affectionate, measured criticism of “Harry Potter.” I got people writing “fuck you” and “you’re stupid” and re-stating the author’s reasons for liking the character as if they were immutable and unchallengeable facts, and also Alyssa Rosenberg. I published someone else’s affectionate, measured critique of “Doctor Who.” I got people writing “I will never read your website again” and “you’re stupid” and re-stating the producers’ stated reasons for liking the characters as if they were immutable facts, again. This is how “fandom” engages, what it looks like — not just in sci-fi and fantasy, though sci-fi and fantasy fans tend to be the most numerous and aggressive — and it’s fundamentally incompatible with what criticism does. “Fandom” says “this is awesome, we’re awesome because we like things that are awesome, let’s have arguments with each other about which parts are the most awesome, or analyze facets of the awesome thing with the tacit agreement that we’re all here because it’s awesome. Anyone who doesn’t think it’s awesome is a hater and we hate them and fuck them, because you would have to be stupid to not understand that this is awesome.” That’s “fandom.” That’s not what I do. And, understandably, “fandom” encourages nasty attacks on critics, because “fandom’s” assumption is that you should only engage with their favorite things on the grounds that those things are awesome.

    I think that’s a really silly way to engage, and I think the recurring, overwhelming, ad hominem nastiness “fandoms” direct at critics, maybe especially GRRM’s “fandom” — Ginia Bellafante and Troy Patterson, who reviewed the Game of Thrones TV series, both got mega-trolled — is obvious, recurring, stupid, and childish. I don’t write with the hope of reaching “fandoms” any more. Not only do I not like “fandom” modes of engaging, ‘”fandoms” have always already made up their minds. But there are lots and lots of people who’ve read these books, or thought about reading these books, who are not part of a “fandom.” That’s who I’m writing for.

    But, whooooooooooooops, I happened to mention a very well-known reaction within fandom — and, I mean, are you kidding me? Everyone knows this happens; anyone who pretends that “fandoms” aren’t known for ad hominems, overreactions, and trolling of critics is either being disingenuous or lacking in self-awareness — and made fun of it, so now the whole reaction is about the greatest of all oppressions: Not-liking-shit-about-dragons-ism. This is how you justify trolling someone for three days straight, calling her a “cunt” and a “retard” and telling her she “should have taken cooking lessons” instead of learning to write, mansplaining and rape-joking away, all the while casting YOURSELF as the victim.

    This nerd martyr complex isn’t only ridiculous. It doesn’t only trivialize actual oppression by pretending to be equivalent to it. What it does is to JUSTIFY and COVER FOR actual oppression, and actual aggression, in the name of defending the imaginary oppressed-victim status of nerds. And I lost a whole lot of respect for Alyssa Rosenberg for participating in that. I just did. The “girl who speaks up for the boys” girl is just not someone that I tend to have a lot of respect for — especially not when she’s more or less re-writing points from men’s previous blog posts, especially not when she’s linking to trolls, and especially not when she’s calling “feminism” the problem, and doing it in the name of “feminism.” The “girl who does the boys’ work” thing isn’t cute on Schlafly, it isn’t cute on Paglia, it isn’t cute on Palin, and it’s not cute on Alyssa Rosenberg just because she does it in the name of nerds.

    I mean, I have other real problems with Alyssa Rosenberg’s piece, too. (Most notably, the idea that there is “no way” to tell whether rape is “gratuitous,” and that the presence of normalized/eroticized/graphic rape in a book, well over three dozen times by my count, happening to literally thousands of women over the course of the series, is just “a matter of personal taste” — thereby completely ignoring the political aspects of what portraying sensationalized rape does to mislead, obfuscate, and normalize rape culture.) But this characterization of “fandom” or “nerds” as a threatened, persecuted, oppressed group is sheer malarkey, and it does enable the active, aggressive oppression and marginalization of other groups.


    PS: This idea that, because I object to stereotypical characterizations of women and normalized/eroticized/sensationalized rape, I want all books to be about fluffy bunnies who make hats out of daisies and preach gender equality is… bullshit. Just huge amounts of bullshit. I’m currently reading a book, “Room” by Emma Donoghue, that is about a kidnapped woman who’s kept in a shack, raped, and impregnated. The book doesn’t stuff her in the fridge, it doesn’t sensationalize or eroticize the rape scenes (we count “bed creaks” instead of seeing it, which conveys the horror effectively enough) and it focuses on her psychological process and agency, and how she summons up the will to stay alive in this situation. For this reason, it is way scarier and more uncomfortable than GRRM mentioning cartoonishly violent gang-rapes every few pages. I really like it so far. It’s not a bestseller and there are no princesses, but GRRM fans who think they want “realism” in their rape “critiques” might want to give it a shot.

  18. Well it is a consolation to think that this is a very old debate. It means that I have some really good reasons to be officially silent and yet personally privately come down on the side of full freedom of expression for art, even if exploitation and nihilism are potential by-products.

    I’ve been thinking about reading these books or at least watching the show, but in reading all of these posts, well, I dunno. Maybe not. I’m still in search of my next fantasy series, I suppose.

  19. braak says:

    Hey, Sady:

    I think your points about fandom are, all around, definitely accurate, and I wasn’t lying when I said that I don’t know what it’s like to get a million shithead @replies and comments; so, yeah, I can definitely understand why it’d be a motivating factor and a reasonable thing to take a shot at. Though I have to admit, I’d been assuming that ever since the incident with Freddy’s Boners, getting trolled was just a sort of regular part of your time that you were screening out. (Actually, I guess I do know a little of what that was like, from the time we got into a flame war with some weird conservative website where everyone thought I’d named myself after Menno ter Braak; still, duh, obviously not the same.)

    But all that said, it makes it unclear what the point of an opening salvo like that is — if you want to take a shot at fandom, by all means do it, but since you aren’t going to change their minds and the rest of us all think those guys are jackasses anyway, then what’s the point? Worse, it kind of makes it look like you’re trolling them. And if measured criticism isn’t going to change their minds, then furious invective isn’t going to do it either.

    And the problem with that is that it doesn’t leave any room in between. I know it may not seem like it, but there are people who are on the fence about the whole series; me, for instance. Like I said, I liked it okay, but I’m definitely willing to be convinced of its lack of merit. I like to think that I’m not the only one like that, though I’m happy to accept arguments to the contrary.

    I mean, I agree that there are huge problems with the way that Martin uses rape essentially as a signifier for “bad stuff”, which undercuts it emotionally and limits its — I guess its seriousness in terms of an actual real thing that occurs in society. 100% down, I think that’s true, but I also think it’s more to do with lazy writing on Martin’s part that it does with any actual creepiness in him (maybe he does have a preoccupation with rape, though, I don’t know; it’s deeper into his psyche than I’m willing to explore). Likewise, that’s the feeling I got with the sensationalization of rape (it’s been a while since I read the books, so I can’t say for sure, but I don’t remember getting the feeling that it’d been eroticised); that it’s less an issue of the book being creepy, and more an issue of Martin’s shortcomings as a writer — that he’s trying to do something that arguably has some merit, he just doesn’t happen to be very good at it. And that there’s a tendency, on my part anyway, to sort of screen out or instinctively polish up what look to me like decent enough ideas which have been executed poorly.

    Anyway, so, fair enough, good points.

    PS — I believe that, which is why I didn’t say it. You’ll have to take that issue up with those other guys.

  20. braak says:

    PPS- Hahah, I just read your Doctor Who piece on Global Comment. It’s easy for me to forget how lucky I am that all of my commenters are actually just friends of mine. Jesus Christ, you get some shithead responses.

  21. Moff says:

    @Sady: Having now read your post, I add to my preemptive apology a post-emptive apology. I was using this discussion as a springboard to talk about a subject that is related but not precisely relevant. Sorry, seriously.

  22. Gabe Valdez says:


    The “nerd martyr complex” isn’t anything special. It didn’t even start with nerds. Look at politics. Look at modern comedy. Look at the news. We’re increasingly a media-culture based on brand cults and claiming victim-status when the foundations of any fandom’s core brand is challenged.

    Your experience is in criticizing fantasy and science-fiction, which means you’ve been exposed to a the rabid fandom according to a certain cross-media genre. My experience is in politics – campaigning and as a reporter. (I don’t mean to make comparisons – to me, someone who serves ice cream for a living makes a lot more people happy in a day than both of us put together.)

    When you see volunteers hammering exposed nails into their campaign signs to pierce the opposition’s hands when they pull up your advertising in the middle of the night…or when you have to extract yourself from among a city manager’s fans as they hold baseball bats and ask you where you parked (ah, Texas!)…well, the martyr complex didn’t start and doesn’t end with nerds.

    If anything, the nerd martyr complex is a lot more innocuous – based on words and ideas (close-minded though some may be) rather than physical confrontation and intimidation. It happens across all art, science, politics – the Impressionists and their adversaries would make most nerd martyrs blush. Hell, paleontologists used to ruin each others’ lives over arguments about the placement of neck vertebrae.

    There’s no nerd martyr complex. There’s just a persistent human martyr complex about anything enough people care about. It’s hardly the claim of genre fiction. The medium through which you deliver your criticism just does a fantastic job of collecting it into one forum.

    Please don’t select out your more aggressive commenters as representative of a genre’s fandom. I’m no particular fan of George R.R. Martin as a writer – and he does seem to be a sleaze from what I’ve read – but his most rabid fans are no more representative of his overall fandom than those volunteers hammering nails into campaign signs were representative of what we were trying to accomplish as a campaign, or those Texans with baseball bats were of the average supporter of that particular city manager.

    Calling the fringe element a “nerd martyr complex” only gives the angrier elements more credence and relevance when it comes to arguing against them the next time. After all, you’ve now told them (and others) that they represent the entire fandom. Don’t give them the time of day. Let them pass on and navel-gaze their way into irrelevance.

  23. John Jackson says:

    “It’s probably not a debate anyone is going to solve anytime soon…”

    The worst part about that is when you make art for the mass market, you have to add another “goal” for “art”: making money. Describe life the way it is, portray it as life should be, or graphically scalp Nazis and let everyone have a bloody good time. I don’t think art can or ever should be that simple. Of course then you get mixes of those attributes left center and right; I’d say HBO’s GoT is likely one of these. GRRM tries to portray the past the way it was (unsuccessfully or no), Benioff wants to do something he finds both enjoyable and worthwhile, and also make money (superfluous violence, blood and nudity).

    Also, I can’t say I buy this whole reading of history that it was only for 17 year old boys’ pleasure. Sure, emotional maturity wasn’t high on the list of Viking leaders, but Alfred the Great founded the first school for children of all classes in the 9th century. You can say the good examples are minor and we choose not to remember the myriad of abuses of power because they’re not pretty, but when it comes to what we do remember historically, we tend to remember both. And if there were thousands of unknown abuses for immature violent pleasure, there were likely thousands of saints who never had the publicity to get canonized.


  24. Moff says:

    @Gabe: As a contributor to and commenter on at least one (ostensibly liberal!) science-fiction blog, I gotta say: There is a nerd martyr complex. And it’s not a fringe element.

    Which is not to say there aren’t a lot of fans who aren’t like that. But in SF&F I would say it gets amplified well beyond the persistent human martyr complex. After all, you’re dealing with a subset of people whose area of interest has frequently earned derision from mainstream culture, who as people have earned derision from mainstream culture, and who have a vested interest in being right, since they’re largely dudes and conditioned for competitiveness and often not so adept at competing in arenas that don’t primarily involve their brains. This is a sweeping generalization, of course, and things are changing, but it’s rooted enough in truth to pay attention to.

    (Anecdotally, my former literary agent wife assures me that while sci-fi conventions are the worst fan-wise, thriller conventions are the best, drawing fans who, while passionate, manage to not get their egos wrapped up in the art they choose to consume. If it’s at all true, I think this is really interesting. People who want to read about the moral questions shaping the development of the human race: frequently irritating and even offensively obtuse. People who want to read about serial killers: super-fun to be around.)

  25. Kimmi says:

    Sady does a very bad thing in her piece: she takes a victim of sexual violence (Tyrion) and paints him as a willing participant in the rape of his wife. This is saying “The Victim Wanted It.”

    I also believe that Sady is artificially (and disingenuously) separating people into “men who disagree” and “women who think I’m the awesomest shit.” I base this on her responses in the comments, where she only notes “bad male commenters”, thereby artificially silencing the women (aka Me). Also, screening multiple comments from someone who is trying to participate earnestly in the discussion is rather poor form, imnsho.

    I’d love to see you write a guest post on feminism and GRRM over at A League of Ordinary Gentlemen [i don’t run the joint] (they write about GRRM a lot, and could stand a critical take on it once and a while. just not sady’s. because sady’s is well overboard.)

    OP, what kills most critics is looking at the subset of fanboys who think that “Sansa should just let Tyrion/Sandor rape her.” The amount of fail in that sentence rivals anything that /b/ does, seriously.

    Sady, Thanks for starting this discussion. Until you apologize, either on your own blog, or somewhere else, I’m going to continue to call you out, but in the process join communities where my opinions are wanted. I appreciate your work, and wish we could have some communication, as I think you made some valid points.

  26. Kimmi says:

    John Jackson,
    most chivalrous romances were about a 25 year old lusting for a 13 year old he could never marry. The middle ages were not a terribly nice time, particularly for Borderlanders (where child abandonment and wife-beating was accepted)

  27. In case you’re interested, Alyssa Rosenberg put up a sort of follow-up questionnaire about gender and fiction, and it would be great if you participated.

    The questions and my thoughts are here:

  28. John Jackson says:

    Kimmi, I’m not going to say you’re wrong, because I’ve read the stories were brave, knightly, heroic Lancelot ‘accidentally’ sleeps with teenage Elaine, who winds up killing herself after Galahad is born. However, you did seem to ignore the point I was making and simply reaffirm the point I was arguing, without new information. Chivalrous Romances were mostly either fantasies or satire, so while they do provide insight into what was considered normal, they can’t really be used to argue the history of the people who lived and died. The Borderlands were a hellish place to live for pretty much anyone in a sixty mile radius. That does not negate the argument that while there were plenty of lawless, ruthless thugs throughout the middle ages, there were more than a few people who strived for goodness, and some of them are even still remembered.

    Also, as a side note for my curiosity, do the Borderland Reivers have anything to do with GoT, vikings, or Alfred the Great?

  29. Kimmi says:

    wow, it looks like I can make a “yes, and” post! shocking!
    Yah, I do think that people sometimes strived for goodness, and some of them got remembered. [and then there were zombies. I don’t think the Black Death made for many people trying for goodness — kinda like Katrina].

    When I mention the Borderlanders, I think I’m trying to say that “some places were worse than others” — because it’s important to not say that the European Middle Ages were good/bad/horrid when they varied a lot.

    The vikings/swedes/norse were actually pretty good about sexism, afaik.

  30. braak says:

    @John: The Iron Islands, the seat of House Greyjoy, is pretty straightforwardly-modeled after the Danes. It’s not purely chronologically accurate so who can say, but if you had to line it up I’d say that the period of Greyjoy’s rule over the Riverlands corresponds about to the kingship of King Canute, and that Aegon is roughly concomitant with William I.

    They’ve mostly stopped a-viking by the time the events in the books take place, but there’s an indication that it hasn’t actually been that long, and they want to start it up again.

    They are referred to as “reavers”, though it’s probably not really accurate — politically speaking there *could* be reavers among the ironborn, as they’re their own half-conquered nation and that’s the sort of fertile ground for that sort of behavior, but they don’t raid the Iron Islands at all, just the other six kingdoms.

  31. braak says:

    Incidentally, I just wanted to bring up the point about teenage girls getting married off in AGoT: it is weird, but I actually remember reading something that Martin wrote about it (though of course I can’t find it now, so take this with a grain of salt), talking about how his editor and his first readers gave him a lot of shit about the institutionalized pedophilia.

    And his point was that actually, the notion that a person is an adult when they turn 18 is a very modern, and in many ways fairly arbitrary, idea. The age of marriage was historically very young, and the age of “when is it okay to have sex with this girl and not feel weird about it” was basically “puberty” — so, culturally speaking, it’s not necessarily right to call it institutionalized pedophilia at all. It was, according to him, an unfortunate and kind of gross thing, but if he wanted the authenticity he was striving for, then it had to be a part of the book.

    Obviously, in many ways that last argument is facile — it’s not like he didn’t change or ignore a bunch of other things having to do with the culture — but I think it’s worthwhile to note that he did consider it, and he did, at some level, have a rational reason for including it beyond “I want to get it on with 13 year olds.” (Also, I haven’t read this book in a while, but I don’t remember the sex with 13 year olds being particularly “erotic” per se. Maybe that’s just me, though.)

  32. John Jackson says:

    Hell, 18 isn’t even the age of consent in most modern day cultures. Childhood itself is a relatively modern concept, and even now we colloquially call someone a woman once puberty starts, even if we abide by the cultural and legal norms of consent.

  33. Kimmi says:

    Bear in mind folks, that the age of onset of puberty was 18, in Scandinavia. In Israel, it appears to have been more like 12 or 13, but nutrition played the biggest role.
    Currently in south america, age of onset of puberty can come as young as 9 years old. which is really icky imho, and mostly attributable to too many mangos (our bodies really think they’re in a good place when you give them too much tropical fruit.)

  34. braak says:

    True, and it’s changed throughout history, according to a variety of different factors — I think weather has a lot to do with it, too; colder climes require that our bodies hold on to more of the energy that we eat, which means there’s less available to trigger massive biochemical changes. I’m not advocating the idea that nine counts as adulthood just because puberty started, but I think it is a fair point that there’s enough in the historical record to show that marriages — sexually active marriages — were happening as young as thirteen or fourteen in Western Europe until only a few hundred years ago.

    (Juliet was only 13, for instance, though obviously that was fiction — by the same token, we don’t suggest that Shakespeare is describing institutionalized pedophilia in R&J.)

  35. Kimmi says:

    we did in my english class! In england the age of marriage was around 16-17, for both girls and boys in the peasant classes. Shakes is makin’ fun of Italy for being more sexually forward than England.

  36. braak says:

    Yeah, or titillating them with a glimpse into a world of libertine sexuality. But! That’s not necessarily the same thing as institutionalized pedophilia — there’s nothing about the play that suggests that we’re supposed to be weirded out by how young she is — like, “ew that’s gross, they have sex with CHILDREN in Italy” — but rather that we’re supposed to be…well, titillated by the sexual precociousness of Italian teenagers.

  37. lowkey says:

    “Fandom” says “this is awesome, we’re awesome because we like things that are awesome, let’s have arguments with each other about which parts are the most awesome, or analyze facets of the awesome thing with the tacit agreement that we’re all here because it’s awesome.

    That’s awesome! You totally get why I like things on the internet: because I think they’re awesome, and when I talk about them, I feel awesome, too!

    Anyone who doesn’t think it’s awesome is a hater and we hate them and fuck them, because you would have to be stupid to not understand that this is awesome.” That’s “fandom.”

    Wait. Waaaaaaiiiiiiittttt a minute. But I… but we… but… but…


  38. Naliarenegade says:

    I have quite a few internet fandoms that I love and I like GRRM’s books. That being said, I guess I can understand where the criticism against those things are coming from, but at the same time I can’t help feeling upset that some person, who I respect, though i don’t always agree with, are essentially flaming me for my opinions!

    Opinions are like assholes, everyone has one. But people will get very angry and very defensive when suddenly profanity flys and attacks them. I think it has something to do with human nature and feeling threatened.

    I don’t like being flamed, so I don’t flame others. That is how I live my life.

    I like my fandoms because I choose to associate with people in that fandom who are generally respectful. NO FLAMING is big with the people I associate with.

    I like the books because I believe that people have to work REALLY for their happy endings and sometimes, a lot of times actually, bad shit happens to good people. I like the books because they take you on a journey in a world that is similar to our own, but is also completely different. I like a book, a play, a movie, or any type of media, that can make me really care about the people it talks about. I am on the edge of my seat waiting for the chance to purchase the next book because frankly Deanary’s and Bran were my favorite characters, meaning GRRM did his job as an author and made me care.

    I get that not everyone is going to feel the same, but you don’t see me talking about those people like they are the worst people on earth.

    Also, a point on feminism, Women of that book are still really friggin’ awesome, despite what happens to them. I mean, Brienna was a knight who, if memory serves me correctly, kicks ass! And frankly, the “evil” characters, the morally irredeemable ones, are men. (Except for Cersei. She was a strong woman figure, but so was Maleficent in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. And frankly, she was the reason I stopped reading the book, because she was a nut case.) So you can’t truly say that this book is a piece of misogynist fiction. And if all else fails and you really hate it that much…

    Just don’t read it.

    The HBO series… oh boy… I don’t like it. Sex is the main theme, so of course those who read the books are going to focus on the sex aspect, versus the actual point of the story. Which is, politics fuck up the world, but humans survive anyway. (Excuse my language there.) There are other main point’s, but you get my drift.

    And you know? This whole debate didn’t come up until said series, which focus’s mostly on the sex, was created. I think there is a viable link. Just saying.

    Yes people are can be shitheads, but don’t attack a group of people who are much more broad than the jerks you deal with. I used to as well. That’s when I found better people to associate with.

    But, for those who put their opinions out here on the web, or in writing, or in anyway that isn’t in their head, there is always going to be the risk of running into those idiots who flame with no other reason than they didn’t like what you said, but give no reason or discussion. I’m sorry, but that’s life. Don’t attack those of us who didn’t do a single thing, other than read what you said.

    Braak, you make very good points in a respectful way, thank you. Sady, maybe you should work on your wording? It’s all really angry sounding and not very reasonable sounding, but underneath it you say very important things.

    p.s. There may be some incomplete thoughts in there that I didn’t catch. I apologize in advance.

  39. braak says:

    @Nalia: Thanks for your comments, and I appreciate the complement, but remember that, in this particular case, I have the privilege of response to Sady’s article, which means it’s a lot easier for me to look reasonable — I’m working with material that someone else has provided, rather than responding immediately as a consequence of my own passions.

  40. I like this piece far better than either Sady’s or Alyssa’s, honestly. You’re actually wrestling with the text and critique, where the previous two are just trenchantly defending why they do or don’t like something.

    My politics and Sady’s are generally very similar (i.e. I’m a big mean ol’ feminist) but her critique of the book series was substandard. It’s actually frustrating, as someone who just finished reading book 4 and has a Lot of Feelings about the books and Martin and feminism and whatnot, to have one of the web’s biggest feminist bloggers write something so shallow. And I mean, I agree totally with her basic premise that George R.R. Martin is creepy and his use of the amount of rape he does is creepy. But in not mentioning relevant characters that would have fucked up her critique, by refusing to consider the idea that acknowledging various historical realities is not the same as endorsing those realities (and obviously with regards to lots of stuff in Westeros Martin is HARDLY saying “Hey guys, this would be a fun place to live!”) so we’re just left with a lot of Sady’s typically annoying writing style and the disingenuous line that it’s not that she’s against discussion about the issues she raises, she just hates the misogynist fanboys who ruin it.

    I hate the misogynist fanboys too, and I see a lot of people all over the web who are not misogynist fanboys who are disagreeing with Sady and being painted either as misogynist fanboys or as girls who just want the boys to like them. FUCK THAT SHIT. It’s a narcissistic “you’re with me or you’re against me” mentality. That said, I wasn’t much impressed by Alyssa letting a shitton of misogynistic “You show that Sady bitch the what-for!” comments by said fanboys in response to HER piece go unanswered.

    Anyway, kudos. I think you have smart things to say.

  41. seulalia says:

    Thank you so much for this piece. It was extremely eloquent.

  42. […] that I have when Alyssa Rosenberg, who wrote the response to Sady’s article that prompted my response, writes out questions like these is that they look an awful lot like trying to establish general […]

  43. tiffany says:

    you know what really bothers me about this series, the misogyny and the fake medieval world? there is no christianity. christianity is what made the dark ages dark. i just really can’t buy taking the christianity out of the period and ending up with a similar world.

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