The Extrahuman Union

“You Don’t Even Watch;” Criticizing “Game of Thrones” from Outside the Fandom

Posted on: May 6, 2014

Okay, I’ll start off by saying I don’t watch “Game of Thrones.”

I tried to read the books, but ran out of resolve somewhere in the first one, and never came back.

And for most things, I’d just leave it there. I don’t watch, I don’t read, that’s my choice. Fine.

But GoT is one of those things that’s really hard to ignore, if you’re a fan of fantasy. It’s pretty much the biggest thing going right now. Loads of people watch the show and talk about it. I largely tune those conversations out, much as I tune out conversations about basketball or Eurovision. Not my fandom. Most of my experience with the show is making fun of people melting down on Twitter about the Red Wedding.

(This is actually how I determine Twitter meltdowns now: how many Red Weddings is it? So far only the finale of Breaking Bad has even come close.)

So that’s my interaction with GoT, and I’m usually happy to leave it there. But every once in a while something will pop up that gives me the twitch. Like, for instance, this from George R. R. Martin:

But Martin told the New York Times that although his books are epic fantasy, they are based on history (the series is loosely inspired by the Wars of the Roses). And “rape and sexual violence have been a part of every war ever fought, from the ancient Sumerians to our present day”.

“To omit them from a narrative centered on war and power would have been fundamentally false and dishonest, and would have undermined one of the themes of the books: that the true horrors of human history derive not from orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves.


I’m not going to spend a lot of time deconstructing this. Others are doing a better job of that elsewhere. The only thing I’ll say is that obviously using “history” as an excuse for perpetrating sexual violence on women is pretty crap; the Middle Ages were no more full of wanton rape and sexual assault as our own day. And in a series where summer mysteriously lingers for decades and there are literal dragons, “history” only applies to women having horrible sexual things happen to them? I see, I see.

Someone asked me today what possible stake I could have in pointing this out, though. After all, I don’t watch. I don’t care. All the Lannisters and Starks (HOW DO I KNOW SO MUCH ABOUT THESE PEOPLE????) can fall into a very large pit and I’ll be fine. So why criticize?

After all, isn’t this a conversation that fans should be having? Where’s my place in it?

I don’t know. I’m not just trying to defend my own right to complain about things, though I do like doing that. For sure! But I think what GoT is doing is doubling down on some very toxic trends I see a lot of in fantasy, like the trope of “history” being used as a cover for graphic and gratuitous sexual violence against women and women mostly existing to provoke the men of the story into feeling or doing something, and that’s the sort of thing I think needs to be pushed back against whenever possible.

When a piece of pop culture gets so big that I can just rattle off “Winter is Coming” riffs without even thinking about it, without having watched a single episode or gotten to the end of a single tome book, and I can point to a fairly vast compendium of online reviews, criticism, and conversation that I’ve been reading and following for years, and I can’t walk into the SFF half-aisle in Barnes & Noble without seeing George R. R. Martin’s name everywhere, then maybe I have a tiny little toehold of a stake in this. Maybe as a member of SFF fandom in general I have a somewhat bigger stake, especially because I want to see us get away such a strong focus on sprawling faux-medieval melodramas where white men whack each other with swords.

So maybe the suggestion that not fully engaging with a piece of culture means there’s no right to criticize it isn’t entirely accurate. And maybe there’s some value in criticisms coming from many places, including from those who for all kinds of good reasons don’t want to watch/read.


8 Responses to "“You Don’t Even Watch;” Criticizing “Game of Thrones” from Outside the Fandom"

“The only thing I’ll say is that obviously using “history” as an excuse for perpetrating sexual violence on women is pretty crap; the Middle Ages were no more full of wanton rape and sexual assault as our own day. ” – Actually that’s wrong on two counts. First, it’s depiction of rape and while depiction can be many things (horrific, creepy fantasy, Piers Anthony, etc.) claiming that it’s perpetuation of sexual violence is rather ignorant. Granted, many before you and many after you will confuse depiction with endorsement but it’s still not the case.

Second, the early middle ages was a time of instability with barbarian hordes (most notably Vikings) rampaging and raping everything that they couldn’t kill. It’s not coincidental that the Book of Judith (which is a cleaned up version of Yael and Sisera from the Book of Judges and depicts the rapist general being violated by a woman) resonated so much that it became the most popular subject for painters for centuries afterwards. The high and late middle ages were founts of perpetuating rape culture through stories of “courtly love” where women are just expected to submit to the men who are “in love” with them. Even in the later Middle Ages, you got Mallory depicting knights raping women as if it’s their due (with the main point being that the farmer’s son is really the knight’s son and everyone is happy with the turn of events).

Finally, your criticisms of the book come from a place of ignorance of the books themselves. Martin is deconstructing the kind of romanticism that Tolkien perpetrated and while it’s not for everyone, it certainly isn’t the Piers Anthony style narrative that gets off on rape or the Thomas Covenant saga that just assumes that rape is natural to the whiny hero and it’s all about how bad he feels. Men and women are equally trapped in this rape culture depicted in the books, with men being subjected to the same levels of sexual violence (particularly genital mutilation). And rallying against a trend in literature with “women mostly existing to provoke the men of the story into feeling or doing something” is fine, but that is NOT the case with these books. Book 4 in particular depicts the events from the female characters’ perspectives and the few times that men are the perspective characters the events are happening in two diametrically opposed social orders for gender roles – the pirates who consider rape to be their due and the Dornish citizens who maintain a society based on gender equality.

The argument that you should be able to criticize a series based on certain tropes is interesting. Certain books do have reputations and depict things that should be criticized in pop culture. Certainly, the Twilight books with their endorsement of stalking don’t necessarily need to be examined thoroughly to be criticized. However, when you criticize a series for things that aren’t in the series and don’t have anything to do with it and make it obvious that you heard that there’s rape and filled in the blanks with false assumptions, well you pretty much destroyed your own argument.

I’m glad you brought up Twilight, because that’s a series that gets a ton of criticism from outside. But those critics rarely seem to get as much pushback. I wonder why that is?

The early middle ages were not actually just “barbarian hordes (most notably Vikings) rampaging and raping everything that they couldn’t kill,” but a complex society that is little understood and subject to a lot of stereotypes. That said, GoT isn’t early middle ages by any stretch of the imagination. I have read some of this, and there’s a reasonably centralized kingdom led by a reasonably powerful monarch, with technology etc. that suggests something later. And while rape culture was absolutely present, as it is in our own time, that didn’t mean that the only thing most women could expect was sexual violence of some kind.

As for your comment that depiction doesn’t equal endorsement, and that Martin is deconstruction tropes, I’ve seen that said a lot. But somehow I don’t think he’s doing a very good job, and a lot of very smart people have pointed out where he’s failing.

Thanks for your comment!

Yes to all of this.

Besides, depiction might not equal endorsement, but this ridiculous idea that he’s being “historical” does equal endorsement of the amount of sexual violence he depicts, and how he chooses to depict it. He – and his supporters – are essentially trying to silence critics by claiming that what we want is less accuracy, rather than more.

All of which supports all kinds of rape myths – which does, in fact, make women – real women, here and now, less safe. (and kids and men too, btw)

One: I have not yet read The Song of Ice and Fire series, but I look forward to it. Will likely do that before watching the TV series since I’ve heard they are both great.
Two: tarring the vikings (or whatever “barbarians” you like) as mere rapers and pillagers is unfair, and gives only one side of a centuries-long interaction between different cultures — the Norse themselves wrote very different accounts of their culture and history than, say, the monks of coastal Europe did of them.
Three: Any fantasy author writing today in the 21st century is writing for a modern audience, articulating stories and themes that are relevant to a modern audience, so to focus on one aspect of “history” or to excuse atrocities in the story by saying, “it was like this historically” DOES have the cumulative effect of normalizing it for a modern audience, without criticism. In the specific case of Martin’s books, I will wait until I read them to say whether I think they do this; but certainly in other epic fantasy series (many of which I have enjoyed), other tropes are well-worn and reinforce a white, imperialist worldview when they don’t necessarily have to.

I am a huge fan of the Ice & Fire series, books and TV. But I find myself in agreement with you on this one. But I will go one further. The rape is one thing, but Martin positively revels in the normalisation of the sex industry.

How we portray rape and prostitution establishes mores for society. If we depict rape as “a bit bad” but prostitution as being a normal commercial transaction then we are depicting a society where degradation and objectification of women is a given.

It may be historically true that soldiers have always raped, but that does not make it a right of soldiering. Nothing can make it right. And yet soldiers the world over seem to think they have this right. And they continue to exercise it whenever discipline breaks down.
Soldiers certainly believe they have the right to brothels.

Which comes first, chicken or egg. Do men who have a desire to rape women enlist in the military? Or is there something in the conditioning of soldiers that makes them more likely to engage in paid sex, or rape?

I come from a country where sexuality was traditionally repressed by the church. Yes, there is a sex industry, but it is covert, beneath the surface, and certainly not celebrated.

If you don’t talk about it, write about it, report it the sex industry does not go away. Rape does not go away. But if you normalise it then you justify it.

When I see reports on Spring Break in the USA, Bachelor parties in Vegas, Frat House hazing parties etc I see a lot of parallels with fantasy literature.

Since I’m probably one of the people that precipitated this discussion I stayed up for quite a while last night rereading this and unpacking me feelings about it. I’m often as guilty as anyone for forming opinions based on the narrow band of critics I tend to read on somewhat “mainstream” sites, AV Club, New Yorker, Vulture etc. I try to avoid declaring any of those opinions as truth or my own but I’m sure I’ve done it after a few drinks. Sometimes the discussion of the show or book or movie becomes so prevalent that the discussion of the discussion becomes a discussion of its own, an occurrence that has become far more pronounced with the rise of the internet and social media.
There are important things that happen in the discussion of the discussion that examines what we want from our art and our criticism and where that art fits within the broader culture but the problem with the discussion of the discussion is that the work of art at the center ultimately becomes obscured.
Do Fantasy fans such as yourself have a stake in the broader cultural discussion of GoT, where that fits or should not fit within our world and within the world of Fantasy? Yes, of course, how could you avoid it even if you wanted to. Do you ultimately have a stake in the work itself? As an admitted non reader non viewer, no. It is this last point I took issue with. When you stated an opinion that seemed only ascertainable from viewership, an opinion that seemed to me as a viewer the opposite of my experience, I commented, asking why you would comment on something that specific to the work. As a viewer, as a fan and as someone who is delusional enough to occasionally consider myself a writer, I think it is important that if you wish to engage directly with the work, and not just the broader cultural discussion of the work, it is important that you should engage directly with the work. Criticism is at its best and most important when it can both enlighten an aspect of the work and foster debate. Stating general opinions of the artist’s intentions without first seeing the work shutters the possibility of enlightenment and debate. Sure, you could muster critics for your position and I could muster critics for mine, but then we’re still stuck discussing the discussion. If I wanted to lay out specific scenes and bits of dialogue and how the consequences of a particular action played out into the larger themes of the work, if I wanted to highlight Cersei’s discussion with the Queen of Thorns in the Great Sept or discuss how the staging of Talisa’s death at the Red wedding highlights the larger themes of the work, that wouldn’t help because we don’t share the vocabulary of the show.
Most importantly, if I only ever engaged with the discussion of art and never the art itself I would think a great many things that I fundamentally disagree with. I would think Tony Soprano died at the end of The Sopranos, I would think Miranda July was insufferably twee, I would think that Moby Dick was in no way overwritten, I would think The Great Gatsby was actually great. The discussion of these adds context to your own thoughts and opinions and eventually, as it spirals out into the larger culture, becomes a discussion of its own. How we talk about something and the things surrounding that something is just as important as the thing we are talking about, but please, when discussing the discussion, don’t pretend that you know the work. That’s all I was asking.

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