Game of Thrones’s sixth season ended up being a vast improvement on the series after the abysmal catastrophe that was Season 5. However, being better is not the same thing as being good, and if Season 6 is any indication, the show still has a long way to go. While many of the scenes throughout the season were fun to watch, the plotlines that we get fall apart the second you really start to think about them. Thankfully, the silver lining to all this is that the misogyny is less apparent. The downside to that, however, is now there’s review after review proclaiming Game of Thrones to be a feminist masterpiece, and I find myself once again questioning: are the other reviewers watching the same show I am?
Spoilers and a trigger warning for suicide and discussions of rape and sexual assault up ahead.
Sometime as I was reading the Song of Ice and Fire books a few years ago, just when Game of Thrones was getting popular and more and more fans were starting to fight over who they thought would be the best person to end up on the Iron Throne, I started wondering, “Wait a minute. We live in a supposedly democratic, meritocratic society these days that (at least nominally) no longer believes in hereditary rule. Why are we so invested in seeing an autocratic, hereditary tyrant installed on a throne, to lord it over our favorite fictional continent? Shouldn’t we be rooting for the Seven Kingdoms to become a democracy instead?” (I’m on Team Dany, by the way!)
And have you ever thought about how weird it is that, in Sailor Moon, we’re supposed to be happy that Usagi and Mamoru end up as Neo-Queen Serenity and King Endymion, absolute rulers of the entire freaking Earth for over a thousand years? The narrative presents this as a positive thing because they’re such just and peaceful rulers, and those who question Neo-Queen Serenity’s rule are presented as the villains.
This should be absolutely terrifying. Just sayin’.
As I began thinking about this further, I realized that a lot of our modern media is still in the habit of over-valuing noble blood. It makes sense that old fairy tales feature lots of royalty, secret royalty, and marrying into royalty, because back then, that was the best possible situation people could imagine for themselves. But why does this obsession still exist today when kings and queens with real power (for the most part) are not prominent anymore? You also may be wondering, what’s the harm of featuring noble-born characters? I would argue that they reinforce the false idea of privileged birth translating to inherent “special-ness,” as well as ignore the stories of those born into less privilege.
Let’s examine this in several examples below the jump!
I’ve mentioned before that fantasy is an important tool for analyzing and commentating on reality. Many social conventions that exist in reality are reflected in fantasy, with varying degrees of abstraction, and this allows for some pretty accessible metaphors. I have realized recently, however, that there is a significant difference between the place religion occupies in society and the way it is typically represented in fantasy. The most critical thing is that in reality, of course, religion is a matter of faith: the results of prayer or ritual are not measurable and the existence of deities is not provable. In fantasy, on the other hand, it’s quite common for deities to appear unambiguously and for religious rites to produce clear and repeatable results. That’s generally convenient for the characters, but excluding some or all of the “faith” element makes fantasy religion a much less useful metaphor for real religion. When religion is an important element of a fantasy world, therefore, it does serve a purpose, but generally a less direct purpose than representing or commentating on real religion.
Well, everyone, Game of Thrones is back on television, and though we here at LGG&F have decided to forego doing weekly reviews, that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it on occasion and rip it a new one. Given all the previous seasons, especially Season 5, it should come as no surprise that Season 6 is just as sexist and horrible. Thus far, Season 6 has spent its two episodes reducing female characters’ development in order to build up male plotlines and engage in harmful gendered stereotypes. And hey, since we’re only two episodes in at the moment, there’s no telling how bad the show plans on getting in the future.
Once again, we steel our nerves for the beginning of a new season of Game of Thrones. Death, destruction, and upheaval loom large, as always. But these themes have increasingly felt like a battle between the authors (George R. R. Martin or his HBO adaptors) and the audience, rather than something intrinsic to the world.
This dynamic obscures the relationship that the characters have developed with the horror of their world. The series does show us moments of grief and anger, but it also shows us the religious beliefs that develop in these times of hardship.
Unsurprisingly, apocalyptic beliefs run strong in these conditions. Long-established faiths take on new dimensions, and new religions rise to the fore, promising that the world will be destroyed and rebuilt in their own image. The connection between war-torn lands and fiery prophecy is central to this world.
The easy answer is, of course, to lay the blame at George R. R. Martin and the copious bloodletting which reverberates throughout A Song of Ice and Fire. HBO generated a hit with his story when they put it on TV, and everyone else is trying to imitate him. If they got ratings with Ned Stark’s head on a pike, then goddamn it, the rest of us are going to keep putting heads on pikes until we get an Entertainment Weekly cover of our own.
Violence, death, and despair add a level of gravitas, which is clearly being craved in the newly-prestigious realms of television and superhero movies. But it’s increasingly little more than meaningless trend-following, with story and character sacrificed to appeal to some marketing executive’s belief of what audiences want. It’s destructive and it needs to end.
Spoilers up through the end of Season 5 of Game of Thrones, of course.
Game of Thrones dazzles you with grand battles and dramatic contests of strength. Ignore them; it’s a ruse, designed to delude you into thinking that the wars of Westeros can be won with physical power alone.
Suddenly, as we go into the sixth season, the greatest warriors of the land are dead: Gregor and Sandor Clegane, Robb and Ned Stark, Renly and Stannis Baratheon, Barristan Selmy, Khal Drogo, Oberyn Martell, and Jon Snow all lie in their graves, returning to the series only by flashback or magical resurrection. Their strength and battlefield prowess won them nothing.
The remaining players owe their position to something other than physical strength: their ability to do the emotional labor necessary for success, or at least, their ability to rely on others to do it for them. Rather than force, this kind of emotional work will win the war.
Sacred trust is one of the most fundamental elements of religion, and yet it’s rarely talked about explicitly. Religious belief of any kind is built on relationships—relationships between the divine and the human, between the community and the human, between powerful humans and humans without power, and between humans of equal footing. All of these relationships are based on trust. Most religious people have some kind of trust that their God(s) won’t abandon them in this life or the next. We trust our communities to give us support when we’re in need (spiritually or materially) and we honor our obligation as a member of the community to help others. It doesn’t matter if that community is found in a one-room chapel, a megachurch stadium, or an internet forum. Religious people trust their leaders, who have been given the authority and ability to act (essentially, power), to lead their communities in responsible ways consonant with their belief system’s moral codes. We trust they won’t just make things up as they go along or abuse their power for their own gain, we trust they’ll use their education and experience and wisdom to guide others rightly. And we trust our equals to help us in the day to day lived practice of our faiths.
But what happens when that trust is broken? It’s a vehicle for compelling storytelling.
Spoilers for Game of Thrones, Firefly, and Serenity after the jump.
Massive trigger warnings for rape, bestiality, mutilation, and abuse up ahead.
I don’t think I will ever stop being amazed by how badly Game of Thrones handled its Sansa-Theon-Ramsay plotline. This storyline wasn’t a joy to read about in the book either, but it was something that had a lot of meaning and purpose, and Game of Thronesmissed every single point the book made. One of the show’s more glaring problems is that it replaced Jeyne with Sansa.
Unfortunately, this switch lead to a lot of arguments about which girl should have been abused—Jeyne or Sansa. On the one hand, Sansa’s already an abuse victim. But on the other hand, so is Jeyne. This conversation can be somewhat problematic, as it can imply that one girl deserved to be abused more than the other. Let me just say that neither Sansa from the show nor Jeyne from the books deserved what happened to them. Not in the slightest. But in terms of which girl should have been the victim if we absolutely had to have a victim, that would most definitely be Jeyne.
Due to Jeyne’s socioeconomic status and the role she was born into in society, A Dance with Dragons opens up a discussion about rape culture that it otherwise couldn’t have had. Jeyne needed to be the victim, because it forces us, the readers, to confront an uncomfortable truth about how we view victims of rape.
Massive trigger warnings for rape, abuse, and mutilation up ahead.
With the possible exception of Cersei’s penance walk, the Jeyne-Theon-Ramsay storyline in A Dance with Dragons was both one of the best and also one of the worst reading experiences I’ve suffered my way through. The whole thing is incredibly uncomfortable. I can think of very few villains worse than Ramsay, and his treatment of both Jeyne and Theon is so appalling that it’s difficult to imagine anyone so evil.
Game of Thrones’s fifth season attempted to tackle this subplot. Unsurprisingly, it failed. The show was also incredibly offensive in the process. At face value, this seems like an odd thing to say. What happens in the show is nowhere near as bad as what happens in the books. In Game of Thrones, Sansa replaces Jeyne, Ramsay rapes her, and the whole thing is rather senseless. In the books, Ramsay does a lot more than rape Jeyne. He threatens to mutilate her—her body is covered in his bites marks—and he forces her into acts of bestiality. On top of all that, he rapes Theon by proxy, since he also forces him to help in Jeyne’s torment as well. It’s worse than I just made it sound. Significantly.
Yet A Song of Ice and Fire does not treat this subject matter the same way Game of Thrones does. What happens in the books is awful, but it’s not just for shock value. The storyline tells us a lot about a person’s identity and autonomy, about rape culture, and about the monsters who hurt us. There’s a lot to unpack here, so for this post, I’m going to get into Theon’s issues with identity and then talk about Jeyne and rape culture in a second post.