Sunday, April 24, 2011

Boys, girls and swords

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark (Image: HBO & Stellar Four)
Let me lay my bias on the table right away: I'm a huge fan of George R.R. Martin's series of doorstop-size fantasy novels collectively titled A Song of Ice and Fire.  And no big-screen cinema event this year eclipses, in my mind, the unveiling last Sunday night of HBO's new ten-episode, small-screen adaptation of the first volume, A Game of Thrones.  For the most part, it did not disappoint me - more on that in a few weeks when I put up a fuller review, after I've absorbed the initial installments. 

So clearly, I'm far from objective when evaluating criticisms of the series - especially the significant number of accusations floating around in the online chatter, from professional critics and blog commenters alike, that the grim, graphically violent and sexual show is misogynistic.  A pretty representative sampling includes pop culture columnist Whitney Matheson at USA Today ("a 13-year-old boy's wonderland"); an articulate-if-enraged Salon reader going by the handle of Setsuna777 ("Sexually violent, sexist, nauseating"); and, to a lesser extent, critic Ginia Bellafante in an already semi-notorious New York Times pan that didn't explicitly address issues of misogyny but dismissed the entire fantasy genre, and GoT in particular, as "boy fiction" that no woman she knows would bother with. 

My own pre-formed opinions notwithstanding, I think I'm on solid ground when dismissing these complaints, almost (but not quite) entirely - and I say that with full awareness that, given the pervasive sexism that still exists in contemporary entertainment, a feminist is well justified in approaching what she watches with some skepticism. 

Defenders have made much of the fact that there are significant numbers of women among the story's fans (I know at least three personally among my small circle of friends devoted to the books).  I'm not sure how significant this really is - it shouldn't be news that women are perfectly capable of buying into sexist ideology, or just temporarily ignoring it for the sake of entertainment.  It might be a little more significant that of my female fan friends, at least two are strongly and consciously feminist in their outlooks.
Michelle Fairley as Catelyn Stark (Image: HBO
& Access Hollywood)

Nevertheless, such a criticism stands or falls on what's in the show, not who does or doesn't watch and enjoy it.  Undeniably, the story is set in a brutal medieval world ruled largely by violent macho men according to a patriarchal code, and the first hour prominently features bare-breasted prostitutes and exploitative sexual dominance of women, plus a little incest (between consenting adults, I hasten to add - given which, Matheson's description of this subplot as "gut-twisting" strikes me as a little overheated).  The most intense focus of complaints, not surprisingly, is the subplot involving Daenerys, an exiled teenage princess whose power-hungry brother sells her into marriage with the leader of a nomadic "barbarian" people in order to acquire an army with which to retake the usurped family throne  - "Make him happy," he whispers to her lasciviously as she heads off for her wedding night.  To viewers like Setsuna777, this all self-evidently amounts to "fetishiz[ing] rape, sexual violence, and the use of sexual intimidation as a means of subjugating women."

My first main line of rebuttal is that these critics are cherry-picking elements that seem to back up their contentions. When Matheson remarks that "most female characters were shown either standing by their men or, frankly, servicing them," she ignores characters like the spunky tomboy daughter Arya Stark, who is seen casually besting her brother at archery practice (and is no mean shot with a spoonful of food at the dinner table, either).  Or Arya's mother Lady Catelyn, who is, yes, the dutiful wife of the main protagonist, Lord Ned Stark, but also a forceful woman of both steel and warmth, who interacts with her husband more or less as an equal.

Viewers unfamiliar with the books can't be expected to know how these characters will develop (and it's tough for me to say without being too spoilery).  That Arya becomes a crack swordfighter and courageous heroine who is in some ways the emotional center of the books.  That Catelyn proves to have every bit the leadership mettle of her spouse when duty calls him away from the estate and the family.  That Daenerys grows into her role as reluctant queen of the Dothraki tribespeople in ways her odious brother couldn't imagine.  But a reasonable viewer looking from a feminist perspective should be able to bear in mind that the chess pieces are still being set this early in a complex story, and to see the potential in these women and girls.
Jason Momoa (uh, left) as Drogo and Emilia Clarke
as Daenerys (Image: HBO & Slate)

My second main line of rebuttal is broader, and amounts to the observation, seemingly obvious but forever in need of reiteration, that "portraying something is not the same as endorsing it." Setsuna exhaustively delivers a catalog of the male character's sins against women and seems to take it for granted that the "patriarchal writers, producers and directors... [assume] that we in the audience will be titillated by this shit." 

She gives particular attention to the disturbing scene of Daenerys being prepared by her new husband Drogo for a post-wedding consummation that amounts to little, if anything, more than rape: "We the viewers are obviously meant to take sexual pleasure in watching this horrible scene." 

I'm not sure what's so obvious about that - I'm a heterosexual male perfectly capable of recognizing that actress Emilia Clarke is attractive, but, far from being titillated by her obvious fear, her tears, or her naked body, I was moved and saddened, and found that her nudity emphasized her frightening vulnerability.  An apparently doctrinaire belief on the commenter's part that men will automatically identify with the male characters onscreen seems to be at the root of her misunderstanding.  I'd also venture a hypothesis that our old friend genre snobbery plays a role - this is a fantasy, which means escapist fun, right?  So anything the filmmakers show us must be what they think is fun - in fact, Setsuna more or less explicitly makes this contention when she says that, "Game of Thrones cannot hide behind the old apologist cover that it is simply depicting sexist times: It is a sexist depiction of a time and a place that have never existed." Because fantasy storylines, of course, can't grapple with ugly elements from the real world.

It's worth pausing here to note that some elements of this character's translation to the screen present particular difficulties.  In the novel, Daenerys is 13 at the time of her handing over as chattel.  For obvious practical and legal reasons, the show's producers upped her age considerably and cast an of-age performer - so an unfortunate side effect is that her childlike passivity is less understandable and relatable.  Furthermore, as at least one reviewer has pointed out, the loss in a visual medium of her interior monologue further robs Daenerys of some of her dimension, at least in the early stages of the narrative while she's still passive.  So it's understandable that a newcomer to this world is disquieted by her character, even if I find some of the objections both overstated and overhasty.

There is one area where I might give at least half a point to the detractors - as even one of my friends and fellow Martinites put it, "They could have called it Game of Boobs."  HBO's penchant for flaunting its pay-cable permisiveness with nudity on most of its series has long since become a pop culture running joke, and GoT is no exception.  There's plenty of explicit sex in the source novels to work with, but even so, the flaunting of jiggling female flesh is laid on a bit thick in at least a couple of scenes, in a way that smells a little exploitative - ogling material tossed in as an easy hook to get more male viewers.  Still, there's little skin that isn't arguably motivated by plot or character.  I'm particularly willing to defend the early scene of Daenerys in the bath, being ogled and lightly fondled by her brother as he lectures her on her part in his grand comeback plan.  From my point of view, the exchange subverts most if not all of the prurient value in the scene - again, it's difficult to imagine most men relating, as Setsuna imagines they will, to this revolting creep who molests and pimps out his sister.
Sophie Turner (uh, front) as Sansa Stark (Image: HBO & The Iron Throne)
Salon critic Matt Zoller Seitz says it best when he observes that, "The series is aware that it's set in an adult male-dominated world and builds that awareness into its scripts. Several key subplots... are specifically about how women adapt to oppressively patriarchal circumstances."  He's exactly right (although it's worth noting, in all fairness, that Matheson, Setsuna and other detractors saw just the first episode as broadcast, like the rest of us hoi polloi, while Zoller Seitz, as a big-shot critic, got the first six chapters on DVD to review ahead of time.)  To pick a couple lines of dialogue from upcoming episodes that have appeared in ads:  There's Lady Catelyn responding to Lord Stark's plea, "I have no choice!" with "That's what men always say!... You have a choice, and you've made it."  In her bitterly tearful riposte is the frustration of a person whose choices are circumscribed in ways her husband might not bother to appreciate.  Similarly, when Queen Cersei snaps at her feckless spouse, "I should wear the crown, and you the skirt!", her words express not just the arrogance of a power-hungry schemer (although they do that), but the frustration of a woman smarter and bolder than her partner whose qualities have been twisted by the straitjacket of her social role.  Also among the cautionary characters is the other Stark daughter, Sansa, a pretty, simpering social climber who is an object lesson in the dangers of buying into her world's feudal notions of femininity too wholeheartedly.

In short, a major theme of Martin's saga is how women crumble or survive or even carve out spaces of power in a vicious Guys' World, and in that respect, I have no hesitation in proclaiming it an outright feminist work, among many other ways one might characterize it.  Time will tell if the HBO version follows that lead, but given its faithfulness so far, I expect it will.  If there are women who are deciding that Game of Thrones is not for them because of a misreading of cues in the early going, they're missing out.

Now, the question of whether Game of Thrones is racist is a little tougher.  But maybe that's another post.
Lena Headey as Cersei (Image: HBO &
[Credit where it's due - the title of this post is a nod to Carol Clover's book Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.  Which I haven't actually read, but, damn, gotta love the title.]

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