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A Game of Thrones and Sex and Violence

2011 April 20

So, the first episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, adapted from the popular George R R Martin books (a series of gritty low-fantasy books about the battle for control of a kingdom and the threat of wintery Others from the North), has now aired. How is it? We’ll get to that in a moment.

What’s been almost more interesting than the content of the show itself has been the response from critics. Ginia Bellafante kicked things off in the New York Times, labelling the show as “boy-fiction”, and suggesting that the standard HBO sex has been thrown in to appeal to otherwise disinterested female viewers. Because obviously boys like swords and fighting and girls like sex and drama. That’s how gender works, right? Wait, no.

Annalee Newitz at io9 argues back, but instead of dismissing the whole notion of gender essentialism and stories that are “for” one gender or another Newitz takes it the other way, arguing that this is clearly a tale for women. Oh, wait, perhaps it’s a satirical exaggeration of the idea, to highlight the ridiculousness of Bellafante’s review. Well, hopefully it is. It still doesn’t get around the issue of thinking people of any particular gender are wired to want certain things from their fiction, though.

Ilana Teitalbaum weighs in with a more straightforward critique of the ways in which Bellafante’s review is terribly misguided over at the Huffington Post, and probably provides the most sensible view on the discussion. I’m going to quote her here, because what she says is worth repeating for anyone too lazy to click through the links.

The characterization of fantasy as “boy fiction” is offensive to the genre and offensive to women. That we for the most part will only read what Oprah has picked, and especially if a woman wrote it, is a stereotype that is not only demeaning to women — it is also untrue…

…When we categorize books as “boy fiction” and “girl fiction” it’s just another way to promote gender stereotyping. It is predicated on the assumption that people will only read books that reflect their personal experiences, so therefore women will only deign to read about dating, shopping, and kitchen intrigues.

Okay, with that said, on to the show itself. Trying to avoid spoilers here, but apologies if any slip through. As an adaptation, it’s generally pretty damn solid. There are the inevitable minor changes that come with translating a work to screen, but there are none of the glaring alterations that make you stand up and go “They did what? But that’s totally out of character! Did they even read the books?” The casting is good (Harry Lloyd as Viserys Targaryen is palpably creepy and unpleasant), the costumes are well done, and Arya Stark and Tyrion Lannister already shine as the best characters. Arya Stark gets painfully little screen time though, which leads to the first issue with the show.

Promotional picture from Game of Thrones. Danaerys, a young blonde woman, stands in front of a horse.

Danaerys Targaryen being blonder than thou.

The female characters, as of the first episode, do not get much representation. Hopefully this is a temporary thing and, like the books, we’ll get to see Arya, Danaerys, Catelyn etc grow into being hugely important badasses that sit firmly at the centre of key plot points. But right now they’re just not there. They get scarcely any screen time, and when they are shown they’re mostly cast in passive, receptive roles. Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) sleeps with a prostitute (because it’s not a HBO show without frequent sex and nudity) who gets more lines than Cersei Lannister and Arya Stark put together.

And Danaerys… Okay, this falls on the book as much as the adaptation, and it’s hard to see a way they could have worked around it, but her initial role as a tool for her brother’s plans, without any say in her own life, feels very awkward. Two scenes in particular are awkward enough to be uncomfortable to watch. First there’s the close up of a nude Danaerys (Emilia Clarke) being examined by her brother (and bear in mind this is a character written as being just thirteen in the book, though thankfully HBO seem to have aged her up a bit), to make sure she’s up to scratch for bartering away in exchange for an army, with oddly lingering shots of nipples and buttocks. This scene, which really should convey “look how bloody nasty and unpleasant Viserys is,” instead comes off more as “and here are some breasts, do you like them?”

And then we have the consummation of the marriage to the head of said army, Khal Drogo of the Dothraki, a scene that is shown to be even more upsetting and non-consensual than it was originally written. And it was pretty damn bad to start with. The scene is at least short, and cuts away before anything graphic, but it does raise the question of why someone at HBO thought “Hmm, what this scene needs is to be made a bit more rapey.” Seriously, there is pretty much never a time when this is a good thing for a piece of fiction. Ever.

Still, as said, there is hope that the characters will develop along the same lines they did in the book, so this issue might be a passing one. The second problem, though, is less likely to improve with future episodes.

Promotional picture from HBO's Game of Thrones. Jaime Lannister, a tall, imposing blond-haired man, standing, in gold armour.

Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), doing his best Douchey Prince Charming act.

The second issue, you see, is the unfortunate race failure. You could argue that it’s just being faithful to the books, but honestly that’s not much of an excuse. Everyone is oh so very white, and everyone we’re told is attractive (Cersei, Jaime, Danaerys) is oh so very blonde to boot. The closest we get to non-white characters are the slightly-tanned Dothraki horsemen with whom Viserys is trying to forge an alliance. And, of course, they’re depicted as crude savages. And I don’t mean “they’re a bit misunderstood” – we’re talking full on “these people are barbaric, they are not like us.” We see two men fighting over a woman, one literally pushing the other away mid-thrust and hopping on himself (which is a whole other pile of issues), before blades are drawn and someone gets disembowelled. True to the books it may be, but there’s a definite problem with a world where everyone is divided into groups of “white people” and “savages”.

Issues aside, it’s worth sticking with. If nothing else it’ll be interesting to see how they handle the events that happen to Eddard Stark, what with Sean Bean being their big name cast member.

19 Responses leave one →
  1. Stephen B permalink
    April 20, 2011

    The wedding night scene is really a much bigger deal than I think the studio realise. Having it be non-consenual COMPLETELY changes the dynamic of that relationship, and is the precise opposite of the book.

    I’m really angry about it, because it’s so unnecessary. There’s just as much drama in her finding security and trust with this stranger when she has none with her family. Unless they pull a “and then we cut away just before he stopped and he turns out to have backed off until she consents” trick, they’ve just undermined her entire love story.

    I agree with you on Not Enough Arya too, although I have hope for the upcoming episodes because there are so many female characters who start off downtrodden but go on to take their own power. There’s a chance this series could end up having some of the most fully-realised, empowered female characters on tv… but the first ep was a serious disappointment in feminist terms.

  2. Russell permalink
    April 20, 2011

    It would be enormously tokenistic, tacky, and horrible to include non-white characters in the setting we’re shown in the first episode of the series. I know this is a fantasy land but it’s essentially based on Medieval Northern Europe. There is no doubt in my mind that people of many different races would have appeared from time to time in such a setting, but they wouldn’t have been the King’s Hand, or a member of the Royal family – the groups we’re shown in this first episode. I think it would have been more offensive to shoehorn in (for example) the idea that Theon Greyjoy had an Asian appearance than to simply bow to the prevalence of available white actors versus a more diverse cast.

    Criticising Martin for not including a more racially diverse cast in the North is a bit ridiculous: aside from the fact that it’s his fantasy land and he can do what he likes, he’s obviously very concerned with achieving a level of authenticity. There ARE a wide variety of cultures, and in fact comparing the “savage” Dothraki to the “civilised” Seven Kingdoms, what the “civilised” white people do to their own family is frequently bloody horrible. But there are far more than just these two cultural groups that we’ve stumbled on so far to come into play yet; in fact, the Seven Kingdoms is much more diverse than just “the North”, and I hope that the whitewashing of the Dothraki isn’t something that gets repeated, for instance with Dorne.

    I’d also like to say that they’d better sort out the Danerys love story pretty damn quick. Her entire story is eviscerated if Drogo rapes her, in such a way that it would be “They did what? But that’s totally out of character! Did they even read the books?”.

  3. Jenni permalink
    April 20, 2011

    V. good review. I like it! “and here are some breasts, do you like them?” Yes, it was exactly that, wasn’t it!

    How much of the race issue is in the books and how much the fault of the show? Possibly six of one and half a dozen of the other. Martin himself is definitely prone to the ‘noble savage’ trope.

    T’boy pointed out how not only were Dothraki only non-white cast, but also the women were considerably more dark skinned than most of the men. We decided it must be because the men might get speaking parts later on in the show…

  4. Jenni permalink
    April 20, 2011

    Also I don’t want to plug my work too much on BR, but as you mention fantasy being a boy’s club, I just got an e-mail from Juliet McKenna, linking to an interview that she did with Rowena Cory Daniells, as par of RCD’s series of interviews with female fantasy authors!

    “This idea that fantasy is for men, written by men, does persist and it baffles me for several reasons…” – McKenna

  5. April 20, 2011

    There were people of colour in the wedding scene in the Dothraki – not in speaking roles, but in suitably exoticised booby-showing roles. And don’t forget the one person of colour who actually had a line to speak: “It’s too hot, milady.”

    Because having the whiter than white whatstheirnames with a dark skinned servant – that’s not problemmatic at all.

    • Russell permalink
      April 20, 2011

      Again I ask where exactly you would like to have seen these darker-skinned characters appearing? It would have been hideously tokenistic to randomly make some of the Seven Kingdoms characters minorities but not others. Also do try to bear in mind that this is merely one episode. There are plenty of characters we haven’t met yet and places we haven’t been.

      • Miranda permalink*
        April 20, 2011

        I don’t think “it’s northern medieval Europe” is the best justification out there. Frankenstein’s playing at the National right now with Naomie Harris in the female lead role.

        It’s set in eighteenth century Switzerland.

      • Miranda permalink*
        April 20, 2011

        I think it’s a complicated issue but there is a distinction between “we should all be changing the races of Martin’s characters!!” and “hmm, a visual undertone where the most stereotypically Aryan people are also the most civilised made me feel a bit uncomfy”. It’s something that can happen when things get adapted for TV and I think there is a case for presenting fantasy worlds more diversely on screen. I wouldn’t care if Paterson Joseph played Gandalf, except to say he’d be awesome!

        Can’t really add more without having read the books, though.

        • April 20, 2011

          This is pretty much what I’m saying. I am not suggesting “Hey, let’s change Tyrion’s skin colour,” just that having a lack of any real non-white representation at all is just… awkward.

          Oh, and whilst some of the art from the RPG and card games that were released for the books do show the members of House Martell as looking at least a little Arabic, as far as I’m aware there’s been no one from Dorne cast yet, so who knows if they’ll make an appearance in the show’s initial run.

          (Also, ‘it’s magic medieval Northern Europe’ doesn’t hold up as a justification. For one thing, there were people of various races in Northern Europe. It’s a matter of historical record that at least as early as the late 15 century Europe had people of Black Moorish descent, Muslims, Arabic Jews, etc. Also, history aside, it’s a fictional setting not an attempt to actually model War of the Roses era England, it can contain people of whatever races the creators feel like.)

        • Russell permalink
          April 20, 2011

          I was going to say something about Rob’s comments on the “noble savage” thing but I cut it out, but thinking about it, it is largely the point: the “noble savages” are far more civilised and well-behaved than the more civilised “savage nobles”, who do things like push children out of windows, murder their own friends and family, and sleep with their siblings. I question to what extent the Westerosi actually *are* more civilised in any case; does “living in a castle and dressing in dead animals” equate to more civilised as opposed to Nomadic horse-lordship? Note that I’m not suggesting the Dothraki are the height of civilisation – they clearly aren’t, it’s just that suggesting the Westerosi are more civilised by virtue of having castles and kings is a little short-sighted when you look at their behaviour, which is no better or worse than the Dothraki. This is exemplified by Viserys’ comments to his sister about letting every Dothraki and all the horses have her if he thought it’d get him his kingdom back.

          I take no issue with cross-casting, but once you’d cast Sean Bean as your lead you effectively didn’t have a lot of choice if what you wanted was authenticity. You could just as easily have case Paterson Joseph as Ned and had everyone in Westeros be black for all I care, but you do have this struggle of maintaining some kind of consistency and balancing that against how far people are willing to suspend their disbelief.

          As far as comparisons go, “Madmen” is another show that features a mostly white cast and is often praised for using that to examine the nature of white male heteronormativity, but also to an extent creates a cult of humour around the offensive proclamations of its male characters. By showing us that the “civilised” people are actually just as barbaric in their struggle to get ahead as anyone else, “Game of Thrones” is doing the same thing, but likely without the casual “funny” racism or homophobia.

          I don’t really think I’m trying to defend the indefensible here, but I don’t think there was a racist intent going into the creation of this show, and I think it’s a massive misinterpretation to suggest that there was on the basis of the first episode. There’s lots more to come and it may well allay your concerns.

          • Miranda permalink*
            April 20, 2011

            I think Rob’s pitched his tent further down the road from the “accusing HBO of racist intent” camp. I think he’s more commenting on how this episode almost unintentionally seems to comply with some rather whitewashy cinematic trends in general, and adding that for him this felt awkward, because on his own read of the books there is presumably more room for casting manoeuvre than he feels was apparent. I don’t think anyone’s stated that these are conscious decisions, but that doesn’t make it not worth examining in this review.

            Similarly, Rob is at liberty to return to the series as it progresses and revisit his points – I don’t think he should have excluded these ideas from his review, which ends “still worth sticking with, though”, just because he was only reviewing episode 1. These are his first impressions, not a set-in-stone judgement. I haven’t asked him whether he wants to keep writing about the rest of the series but I think that would be interesting! :)

            I think your point about Mad Men is really interesting. I’ve often pondered the double edged sword of “showing gritty reality” while also, in doing so, coming up against those issues around humour and offensiveness.

        • Stephen B permalink
          April 20, 2011

          I’d watch Patterson Joseph play any character. And Lennie James.

          I’m okay with the people in Northern-Land-of-Constant-Snow being pale. What I’m hoping is that the first ep is doing the overly-savage act deliberately, so we can see later that the Dothraki have a rich culture and are just as civilised/inhumane as the other factions. D finds a place amongst them where she chooses them (and Drogo) over everyone else, so they HAVE to be sympathetic at some point.

          This ep seems to have been focused on pushing her powerlessly into a scary, alien situation and I do understand the drama in that – and it HAS put me more firmly on #teamDaenerys than I was from the books. But they’re going to have to move focus quite a lot in coming eps to get away with it and not be the opposite of the original storyline, and to avoid lazy racefail.

          • Russell permalink
            April 20, 2011

            Rob – you’ll notice that I intentionally avoided making such a reductive statement, and I am sure that there were people of a wide variety of ethnicities in Actual Medieval Europe. What I was intending to point out was that such individuals would not have formed part of the ruling classes/the nobility, and that this social group is largely what is depicted in both the TV show and the books. I would never knowingly make such a reductive statement which I know would have been incorrect. And yes, you are allowed to bring up Catherine of Aragon to refute my claim if you like, but she is at least later than medieval.

            Yes, it is a fantasy land, and indeed the author can do whatever he likes – and does. He creates racial/ethnic groups we have never heard of – Robert Baratheon is explicitly named as King of the Andals and the First Men, who are pretty obviously two new and different ethnic groups. I’m sure there were others throughout the books. My point really being that confusing ethnicity and skin colour is a little reductive in itself.

            I’m not going to deny that the show was very white, and I would rather have had more diversity where I felt it was appropriate – Drogo and the Dothraki could have done with being much more visually distinct, and wearing a little less eyeliner. However, where I wasn’t bothered was with the ruling elite of the Seven Kingdoms.

            I’d like to bow out, now, and I hope no-one has been offended by my views on this issue. I’m aware it’s a touchy subject and also that I’m speaking from a position of privilege. However, I also feel that where I have an opinion it’s important to state it so that I can engage with other people about things I care about. :)

  6. Stephen B permalink
    April 20, 2011

    While we’re talking about race, this did make me think of Ursula Le Guin. She has said she makes her characters people of colour because of *probabilities*, that it’s simply likely on balance that they would be.

    She also neatly avoids being a white writer writing about (for example) people from India without knowing anything about Indian culture, because she is inventing the entire setting. That was available to GRRM too, but with the Winter-theme and snow I never felt that the books were biased on skin colour.

    There are already covention fans who want to be Dothraki. Admittedly they’re mostly ex-Klingons. If HBO can hold off the OMGBEWBS long enough to do a decent job of portraying a warrior nomad culture, I think it could be a lot deeper and textured than we’ve seen so far.

  7. Sarah Cook permalink
    April 20, 2011

    Game of Thrones contains Sean Bean.
    Therefore it is made for me.

    I am a woman.


    That’s the sum total of my argument.

    Mmm. Sean Bean.

    Also, friend of mine on the totty-count of GoT suggests that those who enjoy a pleasing man-shape might be interested.

    • Miranda permalink*
      April 20, 2011

      He also wins the BEST PUN prize for the title of his post. *salutes*

    • Jenni permalink
      April 20, 2011

      You can have Sean Bean if I can have Jaime Lannister?

  8. wererogue permalink
    April 20, 2011

    I had similar feelings about the race issues. I hope that like the books, we will see more of the women and the other cultures as the show goes on – there are definitely civilized non-whites and savage whites in the books.

    I always felt that the women in the books began in quite traditional roles (Arya aside) and developed, so I have high hopes for better representation later on.

    I did sit there thinking “wait, what?” with the consummation. Not right and not good.

    All in all though, I’m very happy with the pilot.

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