I grappled a bit with how to start this article, which is essentially supposed to be a review of the premiere of the new HBO series Game of Thrones, which I am certain a lot of you have at least heard about, even if you haven’t watched it (yet).
Thankfully, CC2K Book Editor Beth Woodward gave me the perfect entry point with her column yesterday, which took issue with a review of Game of Thrones published in the New York Times – of all places. This review decried fantasy as “boy fiction” and stipulated that women only enjoy fantasy when it is “sexed up”.
There is plenty to take offense on in the NYT piece, but let me get one thought out of the way first: even if I did agree that traditionally boys (i.e. teenage boys) have enjoyed fantasy and sci-fi a bit more than girls (who may grow into liking these genres later in their lives), I certainly would have expected the argument to run “girls only like fantasy when it contains elements of romance and a love story”. Because after all, that was, as I understood it, the rationale behind fleshing out the Arwen/Aragorn storyline in the Lord of the Rings movies, right? In the books, Arwen appears once in The Fellowship at a banquet in Rivendell and then we don’t hear about her again until she marries Aragorn in The Return of the King, which while reading makes you go “Who the hell is this Arwen?”
The love story between Aragorn and Arwen is explained in more detail only in the Appendix to the Lord of the Rings, but for the movie version, it was dragged more to the center and to me that always read as “pandering to the female audience”. I hated it, for many reasons (one of which was that I always wanted Aragorn to end up with a more kick-ass woman than the unimpressive, mopey Arwen, but let’s not get into that).
My main reason for hating the romance flashbacks was that they interrupted all the “war mongering” and awesome battles. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the romance gave a little more depth to the character of Aragorn, but we could all tell he is awesome without all that, couldn’t we?
Be that as it may, Ginia Bellafante, the author of that NYT review, made a blunder with her gross generalization that was founded on the oddest of assumptions (hello, the whole porn industry is male-dominated, indicating it is men who like graphic sex, not women!).
But the crux is, there may be a tiny grain of truth to a side of her argument.
Before you attack me, let me explain further: I haven’t read a lot of fantasy books, nor have I watched all the fantasy movies there are, though I have watched a fair amount of fantasy TV shows. Here’s the thing: I don’t believe fantasy is a genre that is unappealing to females and it is also not a genre that females aren’t active in as creators. However, I think females are slightly less likely to create fantasy in the way Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings operate, which I call “epic fantasy”. Meaning to basically go with a Medieval world – where you have kings and queens and vagabonds and no electricity and people get around on horseback – and use this as the backdrop for your stories, that probably include big wars with swords and spears and tons of pathos-filled speeches.
Correct me if I am wrong here, but this kind of “epic fantasy”, which is almost always dominated by male characters and portrays women in peripheral, if not outright irrelevant ways, is a kind of fantasy not many women would choose to create.
Which is not to say women readers/viewers can’t enjoy this type of fiction. I certainly do. And I do it with a frightening amount of irreverence to the “feminist issues” one could debate within the context of these epic fantasy franchises.
Case in point: a few years back over Christmas I watched all three installments of the Lord of the Rings movies (in the extended versions) with my mother. After the final battle had been fought and Aragorn was crowned King and Frodo sailed off to the Undying Lands and all that, I turned to her and asked: “So, what did you think?” And I swear to Crom the very first thing she said was – verbatim: “There weren’t enough women in it.”
Until she said that, I had never even THOUGHT about how many women were or weren’t in these movies. It simply hadn’t occurred to me, which in and of itself may be a sign of how indoctrinated I am by the male-dominated society and so on and so forth.
(My mom, of course, is a child of the sixties, she’s an “old-school feminist”, if you will, so of course she thinks in these terms.)
So let us relate all this to Game of Thrones. From what I have seen in the pilot, my mom would have a different, albeit very feminist criticism of this show: there are plenty of women, but the women portrayed here are all weak, servants to their husbands, or men in general. They are raped, disgraced, married off at will and not allowed to become soldiers and fight for their country.
Now I haven’t read the books by George R. R. Martin, so I can’t judge whether or not he does women any justice. But when you choose to set your story against a backdrop so obviously medieval-inspired, your main objective obviously isn’t to have gender equality or to tell tales of “female empowerment”.
As a viewer though, you have the choice of whether you are going to let this bother you or not. Because the stories can still have complexity, can still reveal something about humanity, can still draw you in, even if not everything is as you want it to be. The thing about escapism is that you have to choose: you can either have your show/film/book try to be “as realistic as possible”, or you can give it license to go where it needs to go to tell the stories it wants to tell. Sure, you can voice the argument that you would hope in the 21st century people would write fantasy stories with less backwards morality and throwbacks to patriarchic tyranny, and I might even agree with you there, but right now I am accepting Game of Thrones as what it is and won’t try and make it into something it is not and isn’t trying to be.
So what is Game of Thrones? Finally, we made it to the review part of this column.
Let me start at the beginning: within the first few frames of this massive production (which undoubtedly will remain on the air for years, I am confident about that much), HBO’s version of Game of Thrones had me excited, simply by showing that long shot of a massive wall of snow and ice. It was an image so epic and so gorgeous that I was immediately taken back to my first viewings of LotR and a part of my heart was squealing with glee, because I had missed images of this epic proportion for so long. (This is also the part of me that is ridiculously excited about Peter Jackson finally getting started on filming The Hobbit. I cannot wait!)
After this image, I was ready to throw myself into the epicness that Game of Thrones promises to be, and I was only temporarily derailed by the somewhat muffled sound design during the scenes in the forest beyond the wall (it just didn’t sound like they were outside). But technical issues aside, the pilot threw us right into the thick of things, introducing characters and kingdoms left and right, which can get a little overwhelming if you haven’t read the books. I am going to give myself time to learn all the names and the ties and the intricacies, I don’t expect to know everything all at once and I don’t think you should expect the show to explain everything all at once either.
This is a common mistake some people make, unable to let go of their impatience, to expect a pilot episode to explain everything, get all the exposition out of the way so we can get to “the real story”. Only sometimes the exposition IS the real story. So I am going to go with the speed the HBO show chooses and I will not read the books until the show has run its course, because there is nothing I despise more than the “how (un-)faithful were they to the books?” debate. When I have read a book that gets made into a movie/show, I’ll gladly join the squabble, but if I don’t have to be part of the squabble, then I shall avoid becoming a part of it by voluntarily inviting competing versions into my head.
I was rather pleasantly surprised by how straight-forward the diction was on Game of Thrones, meaning there weren’t too many flowery phrases and flattery thrown about, but characters actually spoke to each other in somewhat normal sentences, albeit at times prefacing their statements with “your grace” when addressing royalty. For some shows “funny diction” works towards establishing a certain kind of distance to the events on screen (see Spartacus as a prime example, where the weird way the characters talk make us feel like they are somehow “different” from us and hence we can enjoy their acts of debauchery and violence, because after all, they are not exactly like us, they merely act as our proxy). Game of Thrones, however, already has so much distance established simply by being set in a realm outside of our world, that further distancing it via opaquely worded dialog would detract from the audience’s ability and willingness to follow these characters.
At the end of the premiere I was sufficiently intrigued to say that I will tune in again and that I would tune in again even if there wasn’t such a hype around this show already, making it basically mandatory viewing for everyone everywhere anyway. I cannot ascertain without a doubt that my willingness to slavishly follow this show is unrelated to my physical incapability of criticizing anything Sean Bean does. Furthermore, I cannot stipulate in how far this incapability is related to me once dating a guy who starred in a movie alongside Sean Bean and who assured me that he is the nicest guy on earth. The fact of the matter is though, I would follow Sean Bean anywhere and this time, I am following him to Westeros. Come join us, why don’t you? There are cute dire wolves and gruesome battles on the way. Sounds just about perfect to me.
Need more TV coverage? Listen to a new “Television Collision: Podcast Extra”, Episode 3 below.
Topics this week include House‘s 150th episode and the CBS spy drama/comedy Chaos and more!
Author: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer
Born in Germany, lived in the US, now in the UK. Always taking my love for TV and writing with me. Life participator. Blogger. Gaming enthusiast.