On Criticising a Game of Thrones

Trigger warnings: discussion of rape and rape culture.

Spoilers: GOT/ASOIAF spoilers!

There is a great deal of intelligent, elegant writing both by and on the genre of fantasy. Sadly, there seems to be something about GRR Martin’s epic A Game of Thrones series that brings out the worst in all of us.

Let me clarify: I very much enjoy both A Game of Thrones on television and the series of books, A Song of Ice and Fire. I also hold the apparently radical opinion that one can enjoy something and still find it problematic.

Laurie Penny’s review of A Game of Thrones has caused somewhat of a storm across the SFF blogosphere, with the descriptive phrase “racist rape culture Disneyland with dragons” and the contention that GOT has “goodies and baddies” proving catalytic to critical responses.

Clearly, there is more to GOT than a simple dichotomy. I personally get the greatest amount of pleasure from reading it as a parable, watching the personal and political constraints of feudalism shaping characters’ actions and beings in ways which can hardly be written off as “good” or “evil”. I really enjoyed Charli Carpenter’s post on Game of Thrones as theory, and if you’ve read this far, you likely would too.

However, there is much in what Laurie says about the inherent “goodness” of the Starks that really can’t be written off as simplistic analysis, as not present in the text. The Starks make terrible kings, it is clear, with one Hand being executed and the King in the North finding his own doom when both find themselves constitutionally unable to play the games of politics.

Still, the surviving Starks are, although young, simply devoid of flaws as she said, and, together with their uncanny communication with wolves and inherent link to nature, clearly axiomatically “good” in some sense. The fact that the messy human world will not allow them to rule is a rather different story, and the sundering of Sansa from her wolf by her father’s hand rather symbolises her being cast out of the “natural” order by political marriage. Whether Anya Stark will ever be reunited with her own abandoned wolf remains to be seen.

While the best of the Starks end up dead as a result of their own actions, the best of the Lannisters, Tyrion, was indeed a rapist from the start, though against his own will. Forced by his father to rape a prostitute with whom he fell in love, as part of a grotesque punishment, Tyrion starts off an offence against nature: his dwarfism is felt as an insult and marring by the entire Lannister family, and he killed his mother in childbirth. From these beginnings he goes on to become the most responsible of the Lannisters, for which he is effectively cast out of the social order, ending up by killing his own father and fleeing.

The “good-evil” dichotomy is definitely present in AGOT, although, like some elements of rape culture and like some basic tropes of orientalist racism (in Dany’s freeing of the slaves),  it is deconstructed over the series. This doesn’t mean it is not present, and while “racist rape culture Disneyland with dragons” doesn’t encompass the entirety of the series, it remains a valid description of many generic fantasy tropes – most of which are not deconstructed at all. We write about these things because we still do live in a culture with stark problems: if we were free of rape culture, I could walk down the street free of harassment and my flatmate could go to the beach on her own, many disparate writers have found the treatment of race in AGOT problematic, and so on.

I am, however, very surprised at the level of resistance to Laurie’s  statement that “the quest for the good ruler” is the (other) main theme of the series. This seems rather obviously true, as the main premise of the plot is internal division while an existential threat, the coming Winter and the Others gathering in the North, is ignored; Winter, indeed, is coming, and the people of Westerros will need to stand united against it if they wish to survive.

By the end of the fifth book the main candidates for the mythical role of Returned King seem to be  the hardened, canny Stannis, Jon Snow, whose precise parentage and possible claim to the throne is obscured and who may not survive, and the uncannily beautiful Danerys, linked with nature through her dragons and the resurgence of magic in the world which they either channel or portend. The dragons seem key, with their dragonfire a historically potent weapon against Others; still, it is also likely that GRR Martin will play things out more complicatedly than this. There still remains a bevy of compromised, interesting Southerners in play, after all.

Sadly, I have not yet seen any refutation of Laurie’s points which doesn’t itself indulge in the fundamental attribution error of considering her understanding “superficial”, rather than the brevity of her piece to require superficiality, or which doesn’t simply set up straw women to tilt at, claiming that Laurie wanted to watch “Sweden with wizards“, rather than maybe considering whether  it might be possible to address those themes with just a little less triggering rape culture and normative violence. Pointing out that these things are still damaging of themselves is not the same as calling for censorship. As for me, I can’t help but find feudal rape culture just as viscerally upsetting as the real thing, but I’d rather remain watching and enjoying – while also pointing out problems – than lock myself in a metaphorical room just because it’s safer.

A Game of Thrones very clearly really is about society’s leaders, rather than ordinary people who are swept along or aside; just because the consequences of this are repeatedly shown does not mean that it is not the case. Yet, there is a huge underground tension in the novels between whether the plot being driven by the feudal “1%” really is “natural” or not. The surviving Starks are forced into an education among the common people that will leave them far less naive than their dead patriarchs. Varys may be one of the few to rise into the ruling class, but he is also one of the few of the ruling class to truly care about the people of the kingdoms. Jon finds himself undone by the requirements of his position; in making tough decisions he undermines the institution that has him as Night’s Watch Commander, and faces an attack from his own men.

Even Danerys, with her Valyrian purple eyes and white hair and inborn right to rule by commanding dragons, finds her despotic orientalist ruling style little use in actually helping the people whom she wishes to help. One can’t help wondering if the magic-enhancing dragons really will save Westerros from the Others in a storm of fire, or end up eventually causing whichever mysterious problems led to the “doom of Valyria”. Perhaps the common man or woman of Westeros does think that the problem of who can rule them can “go to the Others”, yet if they are not free to store corn against Winter that is exactly what will happen to all of them.

I don’t believe that we can read a text in only one way, but it’s disingenuous to argue that Laurie’s view on this type of story isn’t very valid indeed. With no discussion of any alternative to austerity present at the recent Tony Blair-headlined Astana Summit, I’m pretty worried about my own society’s reaction to  existential Winter myself. Maybe we’d be better off without a ruling class at all, but if we’re stuck with one for the moment I’d bet my dragons on Tyrion Lannister over Blair any day. Isn’t that in itself pretty telling on behalf of reality?

10 responses to “On Criticising a Game of Thrones

  1. I think giving Laurie a pass because she only had 1000 words and a deadline is being patronising. Her review was based around

    GOT is unsubtle, its motifs of Sexism/Racism are simplistic, it is a story of good versus evil and it is about the search for a good leader.

    On every point she is either completely wrong or has laid emphasis in a truly bizarre way.

    Again, although you think that it will come down to Good men versus Evil others, hence Laurie is right, Laurie did not frame her discussion of good and evil in those terms. You are putting (better) words in her mouth. She discusses the Lannisters as Evil and the Starks as Good. That is bullshit, plain and simple.

    With respect to Goodies and Baddies I think you over egg the role of ther Stark children. Arya is training to be an assassin and has murdered her way to freedom, Sansa is a whimpering snob who only later learns modesty and self-confidence through brutal torture and Bran is some sort of conduit fated for greatest, but this has very little to do with his own character.

    Calling Tyrion a rapist is a little harsh as he is more properly a victim of sexual abuse, forced to rape the woman he loved (after she was raped by half a garrison) by his vindictive father. I suppose he is better described as both a victim and a rapist simultaneously, but I don’t think it is right to discuss the psychological abuse Tyrion suffered from his psychopathic father as evidence of his “badness.” Again, I am unwilling to argue too strongly either way with respect to rape because I am sorely aware I am in over my head. However, to say GOT’s treatment of it is simplistic is incorrect, and there is no point Laurie picking out GOT’s unsubtly as a key theme cannot be excused because Laurie had tiem and space constraints.

    Similarly, you ignore the two non-Joffery Lannister children who are presented as sweet, innocent children. They are the “best” of the Lannisters if you insist. Similarly, Jaime and Cersei and Tywin become less evil as we learn more about them.

    The search for the good ruler is framed in terms of Lannister versus Stark by Laurie. While you may have a point in saying “maybe Jon is the true good leader” this gets very short shrift in Laurie’s review. If her key argument if that the series is unsubtle she is doing a very poor job of explaining that.

    Call the series unsubtle reveals that she has either done no reading around the subject on teh interwebs or has done and ignored them because she had a deadline, either way, it is very poor journalism. I am underqualified to debate the trueness of the statement “GOT is racist/sexist.” But I am confident in providing example and counterexample for both sides enough to refute the idea that “GOT is simplistically or unsubtly racist/sexist.”

    In the East, yes Dany tries to free the slaves in a Wilberforcian analogy, but 1) she makes a hash of it, hardly making Martin a cheerleader for whitey and 2) Tyrion remarks in book 5 that serfdom in Westeros is little better or even worse than slavery in the east. Subtly again, spotted in the Essos wilderness which Laurie misses.

    I think you are being disingeneous when you say that ” while “racist rape culture Disneyland with dragons” doesn’t encompass the entirety of the series, it remains a valid description of many generic fantasy tropes.” D-uh! Yes, thats true and that is something Martin is specifically writing against. Its a slur by association and it is seriously below the standard of a decent review as I’d expect from Laurie and from you as a defence of that. Martin is well aware of this seam in fantasy writing and does his best to tackle it, he may fail, but his treatment is not “unsibtle.”

    Basically, Lauries key themes in her review are demonstrably false. Where she has a point (others vs humans. good versus evil) she fails to provide evidence. Her leitmotif of unsubtlety is undermined with every further post and comment on her review. Lauries review is left invalid by her being very, very wrong because she chose to frame the review in a stupid way.

    PS I review harsh, so don’t take any accusation of disingenuousness personally 😉 I won’t.

    • I think in order to make a comprehensive examination of Laurie’s review you have to look at the entirety of the piece, which is about the spectacle on our screens and the real-life spectacle of the British Jubilee. As a spectacle, the television version of GoT is extremely unsubtle, pretty much coining the phrase “sexposition” for its mixture of sex and exposition. As a work of genre fantasy, concentrating on the (better) books, it’s certainly more subtle than that.

      I’d certainly say she was wrong to characterise the Lannisters as “evil” and the Starks as “good”, but it’s hard to deny that this axiom is the foundational one which the series deconstructs as it moves on. I’m not terribly interested in white-knighting Laurie rather than looking at her article as a way into talking about GoT, though I would definitely contend that political journalism doesn’t allow for any real subtlety if it wants people to keep reading, either.

      As for sexism and racism, well, the text treats them in an interesting way, but it is acting from a starting point where all women are wives or whores and where other races are differently coloured savages. I think that we have moved on a little from that, and that there is a vast amount of fantasy which doesn’t start from these assumptions at all. However, looking at the TV series, if you’re an uninitiated woman you see tits and rape, and if you’re a person of colour you see racist tropes; really, those *are* the most striking things, so perhaps it may be subtle for you, but it is not for many people.

      As for “goodness” versus “badness”, I’m not sure we can hold up some non-pov Lannister characters as epitomes of “goodness”. You start reading the novels or watching the series by rooting for the Starks, all of whom are POV characters, and only later start feeling more skeptical of the Starks and caring somewhat for the Lannisters as well. It is the fantasy trope on which the series is based. Perhaps this is only obvious from the outside.

      Tyrion’s position is ambiguous: he was forced into rape, and in his society he is forced into buying love. I do think that rape is rape and that sleeping with someone unconsentually is rape, and if you don’t call what happened to his first love rape I’m not certain what you can call it. Tyrion is my favourite character, by the way, so I’m certainly not coming from a place of disliking Tyrion here.

      I really don’t know what to make of your final point. I think a clear distinction has to be drawn between good intent and causing harm; while Martin is indeed tackling it in the books, the TV series standing alone hasn’t done a good job of that yet. Perhaps that is inescapable in TV adaptations, and I do think it’s likely that Martin’s seasoned screenwriting intervention is the only thing that has kept the TV series from being a tit-flashing cakewreck of epic proportions. Perhaps any good he has done with the books has been lost through the gaudiness of the TV series; I hope not, but that very much remains to be seen.

    • And, yes, definitely not being personal 😉 I was more hoping to use Laurie’s piece and the reaction as a way in, but lots of strong views all around it seems 🙂

  2. I am sorry but if Laurie wanted to discuss the subtlety of the visuals of the show she should have discussed them not the plot elements. You’re defending a review which could have been written not the one which was written.

    “However, looking at the TV series, if you’re an uninitiated woman you see tits and rape, and if you’re a person of colour you see racist tropes; really, those *are* the most striking things, so perhaps it may be subtle for you, but it is not for many people.”

    Perhaps, but the rape occurs in the context of barbarian hordes, or brothels or pirate kingdoms or wedding beds, or places where there would be rape. The racism is there if you want it to be, the Dothraki are made to look awful, but so are all the white characters, none moreso than the Iron Islanders. It is very difficult to argue that Martin places any specific weight on race in his story unless you look at it very superficially. The Dothraki are from the steppes, the steppes breed horse lords which conquer neighbouring people – Manchu, Ottoman, Mughal, Afghan, Turkmen etc. They are the same “race” as the lamb people who are presented as peaceful people. The slaves and slavers are the same race, or some dark people enslave some white people. The race relations of Essos should be compared with those of the Indian Ocean and Central Asian Plain pre-1500, not the Americas and Africa post-1500. The parallels are more useful. The two things settled people have been totally unable to deal with, at least until very recently are pirates and nomads on horseback. Only modern Europeans racialised slavery.

    ” I do think that rape is rape and that sleeping with someone unconsentually is rape, and if you don’t call what happened to his first love rape I’m not certain what you can call it.”

    I agree. I just think that Tyrion is a rapist who was abused by his father. If you’re forced to rape someone, what does that make you? Tyrion murders Shae too, its hard to not feel conflicted liking him. But he does get all the best lines.

    • I really disagree that rape is okay because it’s in context; it’s still normalised, still uncomfortable at best to watch, and still, after all, y’know, rape.

      I also very strongly disagree that “racism is only present if you look for it”. Especially in the context of the TV shows, superficiality matters. You are basically telling women and people of colour that their perceptions are invalid. I really strongly suggest that you read the links r.e. racism in my post before you persist in telling women and people of colour that they’re “making it all up”. Have you ever considered that your perspective is not the only valid one and that you might hold unconscious biases? Perhaps women and people of colour cannot help but look at prejudiced tropes through a different lens; I do not think that this power disparity is the fault of women and people of colour for some failure to be “objective”.

      The description of the Dothraki, particularly in the TV show, is very orientalist and othering; so too is the (very limited) portrayal of black people. Again, I urge you to read those links.

      There’s rather a lot of research which shows that people in general do hold unconscious biases about women and people of colour, and these tropes reify that, and that’s harmful. I’m very well aware of the nuance of the books, but that doesn’t equal a completely free pass, especially when it comes to the TV adaptation. Martin’s text was not written by someone in Westerros, but by someone in our culture, and it’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise, and it’s (as I previously said) not calling for censorship to point out these flaws in the work.

      (As for Tyrion, the awful things that he does really are questioned in the text, especially as to his degree of choice in them, which makes it more interesting than a great deal of other tropes, particularly in the show)

      I think we’re in great danger of going in circles here. Do you have any further arguments beyond saying that readings of racism and sexism are completely invalid because those who make them are “superficial” and lack nuance? Or should we just end this here?

  3. “Do you have any further arguments beyond saying that readings of racism and sexism are completely invalid because those who make them are “superficial” and lack nuance? Or should we just end this here?”

    Zing! I’m sure I do. I think I will read the pieces you linked to first though.

    I am very aware as a white, middle-class guy I don’t read things the same as working class, black, women but I am always trying to learn.

  4. Okay, so my basic problem with calling GOT racist is this:

    Racism is a very complex phenomenon separate historically from out group hostility which was created by colonial powers and their offshoots to control subjugated. peoples and to justify their subjugation. Clear patterns of superiority in morality and practice were “established” often with a sheen of science. Core identities were created with reference with to “others.”

    This othering often involved gender, such as describing Asiatics as “feminine” and fighting with Indian men over exactly who got to control their women. In Africa it took shape in forcing Blacks to behave in certain ways, exploiting them through “invented” traditions. One group asserted its superiority over another.

    In Martin’s world I don’t see this hierarchy taking shape. The Dothraki are made to look barbarous, but they aren’t the only ones. Stannis, mega-white, practices human sacrifice!

    Summer Islanders (blacks) are presented as sex addicts as discussed by Ahmed. But the white Dornish (white/whitish) are also presented as sexually promiscuous, as are those from Lys (a whitish, free city). You’ve also got the “core” white territories conquered easily by Orientals (Targaryens) while the swarthy Dornish and First Men of the North are incorporated peacefully.

    tldr; racist tropes are used, but are pretty much always juxtaposed with white people, or those from more familiar less orientalist cultures behaving as badly. You could do without the racist tropes but that would make the contrast/similarity between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” less obvious. Pretty much every premodern culture was monstrous by any standard and Martin I think to a degree shows that.

    You’re point that a lot of people will read this and have their prejudices reinforced suggest that what I’ve written is what I want to believe rather than what is true. But I am not sure. I think the Dothraki portrayal is a bit racist, but what does that make the portrayal of the Iron Islanders?

    When I say nuance I think of things like Sady Doyle’s critique in which she says how stupidly all the female characters are forced to behave (because of their lady bits) without engaging in any comparison between the actions of female and male characters. If you’re not comparing, you’re not analysing, just prejudice confirming.

    • The problem is, comparing what with what? I’m not sure that as white people we’re really qualified to make that judgement. I’m also not sure that there should be some huge hesitation before calling things (rather than people) racist; racism isn’t some rare and shockingly severe thing, it’s something subtly woven throughout our entire society.

      Basically, white people are portrayed as lots of different things: ideological fools, innocents, peasants, murderers, some are “oversexed”, some practice human sacrifice (though this is itself marginal, with both the Drowned and Red gods somewhat outside the Westerros mainstream), and so on. All the non-white people and peoples are in some sense radically “other”, from the oversexed and vaguely “rapey” Summer Islanders to the ultimately unfaithful Shae to the orientalised Dothraki and other eastern peoples. I think that Martin progressively deconstructs some – some – of this (I particularly find the “extra-white” Valyrians and their own status as both linked with the “natural order” and as sometimes savage despots interesting) and as Ahmed says we can’t completely escape our own society’s problems in fiction.

      The question is where that leaves us, and I think it’s as Laurie and various commentators on race have said: as fans of a problematic thing. I do see some of what Martin does as “unwriting” some of these tropes, but racism, sexism and other societal hierarchies often evolve and grow nuance while doing little to change the general picture of societal power disparity. I think it’s still really worth making these critiques regardless of authorial intent, particularly when textual nuance deconstructs these tropes while on the surface we really are faced with a spectacle of naked female flesh and “othering” of non-white people. The question is, does the nuance overcome the centring of these tropes, particularly in the TV series?

      I don’t think we’ll see until we have a chance to examine the field of epic fantasy post-ASOIAF, which won’t be for quite some years yet, but it does strike me that the answer is quite possibly “no”.

  5. I’d be interested in a consideration of GOT’s culture compared not to the culture in which it’s consumed but that in which it’s produced. (I know that’s a simplistic designation, too, but bear with me.) Significant racism, for instance, has come to Northern Ireland only in the last decade with migration from the EU accession states; the colour-based racism of the late-C20 post-imperial world largely passed it by, because largely, so did the people. As regards rape culture and assorted normativism, the only occasions on which I can ever recall seeing Protestants and Catholics coming together in protest during the years of the Troubles and immediately thereafter (peace demonstrations were almost always confected to a some degree or other) were to object to the opening of a Brooke Advisory Clinic in belfast, and later (get this!) to a Belfast branch of TV/CD shop Transformations.

    It’s arguable, then, that whilst we across the Irish Sea can bring a more developed set of socio-ideological expectations to the series, that in the context of the location in which the majority of the filming is being done, the value-searching in the series serves as a much more directly symbolic enactment of that in the land surrounding it (which is, I suppose, in a sense a Martinian concept), and may potentially go some way towards saving Norn Iron from having to undergo that experience directly on its this-worldly soil…

    • Hmm, the question as to where it’s produced is a complicated one, as I suspect a lot of people involved in the production are American, as is of course Martin and the critics on race I linked to above.

      The idea of a NI analysis based on that being where the *filming* is being done is actually really interesting, as it does to an extent use tropes of Irish/British “wildness”.

      I can’t really speak for NI, but speaking as someone who spent most of her life in Scotland, I’m not sure Scots can bring anything radically different to the mix: I’ve certainly seen a lot of racism in Scotland. Although a Floridian friend did remark that she felt free of a lot of systemic racism, free to walk down the streets and so on in Scotland compared to Florida. Racism is definitely a bit different in Scotland, and I’m not sure that people from Asian communities would agree that it’s ever been less racist – I honestly don’t know for sure, though, and I don’t know how different NI is, having only visited once. I do feel that Scotland benefits from global white privilege even if there’s little racism there, like Iceland and other Scandinavian countries do, as well as benefiting from border restrictions and so on.

      It is interesting how it does symbolise the UK to an extent, with a “wild” border in the North and a North/South division, which has resonances dating back to the Norman conquest and “harrowing of the North” as well as all the conflicts that have shaped Scotland and Ireland, and the British Empire’s early colonialist role in all that. It’s sort of symbolically bringing it all back home to the current US, and that’s certainly interesting.

      As far as more developed expectations as to the role of the land, we definitely can. The US has a very different set of symbolic relationships to the land, and to an extent to its symbolism as representing “nature” and the “natural order”; I think this kind of fantasy is bringing this tradition in British thought and poetry over to the US, and that’s definitely interesting…

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