The only panel at Geek Girl Con I was disappointed with was “Women in Westeros: Is Game of Thrones Sexist?”. Here’s the panel description from the programme:
The world of the HBO series Game of Thrones and the George R. R. Martin book series is a dangerous (and, given the frequent lack of clothes, chilly) one for women. Westeros itself is clearly sexist – but are the show and books? What’s the line between glorification of sexual violence and critique? How do the books’ and show’s treatment of other socially disadvantaged groups, like the disabled and gender nonconformists, compare?
It sounded great and it was the only GoT panel on the agenda so I even skipped the Buffy musical episode sing-along to go to it. Both panelists had contributed to a collection called Beyond the Wall: Exploring George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which I jwill hopefully review here at some point soon. To be fair, panelists Brent Hartinger and Caroline Spector were left without a moderator at the last minute and they hadn’t planned to run the session themselves, but it wasn’t any lack of organization that got to me. Rather, it was the cop-outs used to try to justify the amount of sexual violence depicted in Game of Thrones.
Maybe I should back up and tell you where I’m coming from. I got into Game of Thrones through the HBO series and I’ve only read the first book but I found the writing really addictive and I do plan to read the others. My general opinion going into this was that the series’ amazingly strong and complex women characters make up for the (at times gratuitous, I feel) rape and misogyny the women characters are subject to. I consider myself a Game of Thrones fan, though a critical one. But I think if you’d done a random sample of convention attendees you’d have found diverse opinions on the show and books. Before the panel I went to lunch with some other feminists attending GGC and there were only two out of six of us willing to watch GoT. The others drew the line at watching that much rape, which I can totally understand.
So back to the panel. I got my hackles up almost right away when the panelists decided to poll the room, asking everyone to raise their hands if they think a) Game of Thrones is hopelessly, unnecessarily sexist; b) Game of Thrones is great but has some issues; or c) Game of Thrones has no problems at all. I put my hand up in group B but I have to give huge props to the only guy (the only person, actually) in the room who raised his hand in group A and was put on the spot to explain why. Even at a safer convention like GGC it can be intimidating to criticize any aspect of geek culture in a room of fans, especially when you’re dealing with issues like sexual assault.
Both panelists also fell in the B group. On the side that it’s justified I appreciated Caroline Spector’s assessment that the sexual violence in the plot increases as society and order degrades and that it is used to make even worse villains of the rapist characters.
“He’s making a far broader statement than these individual incidents… it shows how everyone is oppressed by this culture,” Spector said. Brent Hartinger pointed out that as this degradation of order occurs so too does oppression of the other minorities, including the poor and disabled.
“I think he [George R. R. Martin] is making a profound allegorical statement about the US in the last century,” agreed Spector.
“I think it’s clear…where George R. R. Martin’s sensibility lies, and it lies with the underdog…with the outsiders and the oppressed,” added Hartinger.
I thought those were interesting and good points, but what about the brothel scenes in the TV show that aren’t even in the book? What about the scene with Joffrey and the two prostitutes in Season 2? Hartinger pointed out he found a rape scene in every single chapter of A Feast for Crows. Was that all really necessary to show that social degradation hurts women?
On the show, Spector said, “It’s TV, what do you expect?” and that was what got me up to the mic to point out that while I agreed with the panelists’ assessment of what George R. R. Martin was trying for, saying “what do you expect?” is a cop-out. “I do expect more,” I said, pointing out that I’m a fan and I got that characters like Joffrey were villains the first time I saw them abuse women – I didn’t need the other times.
Spector withdrew her comment and tried to make the discussion on the show a bit more nuanced, noting that she thought Cersei was one character that was improved and given more agency in the show (also agreed). Hartinger also raised the problematic aspects of Daenerys’ relationship to Khal Drogo. While it’s not clear in the show, in the book she’s thirteen when she’s married off to him and raped by him. Even though she later comes to find he’s not as bad as she thought he was, Hartinger noted it’s “messy and complicated”.
Unfortunately, the panelists also continued to defend the series by defending Martin. I guess that’s understandable given that at least Spector knows him personally, but it made it difficult to get past feeling like any critique was an attack on a basically good guy.
“The worst I’d say about him is that he’s a little insensitive,” said Hartinger, referring to the way Martin depicted sexual violence, clarifying that Martin probably didn’t consider how it would feel to have survived rape and then read that.
I wanted more than that. I don’t think it does any good to bring George R. R. Martin’s feelings or character into the discussion. What’s important is the impact on the audience, which I think goes far beyond women who have survived rape. It doesn’t take having been raped to understand what that kind of violence means for a woman. It doesn’t take having been raped to be disturbed or triggered by reading it or watching it.
The final defence of GoT that bothered me is the classic defence of anything problematic in fantasy literature: it’s okay because it’s based on history.
“We have to remember he’s not writing from 21st century sensibility,” Spector said of Martin.
Basically the argument is that since the fantasy world is based on a real time when sexism and racism and other forms of discrimination were common, it’s almost a requirement that you leave all these elements in.
I beg to differ. Writing is a craft. There were no dragons or shadow assassins or zombie wall people in human history. Writers make a choice to add those things in and they can choose, if they so desire, to make their world a one without rape.
If fantasy literature is required to adhere to history it can never have subversive potential as it will always romanticize the inequalities of the past. As Sady Doyle says of GoT:
“The impulse to revisit an airbrushed, dragon-infested Medieval Europe strikes me as fundamentally conservative — a yearning for a time when (white) men brandished swords for their King, (white) women stayed in the castle and made babies, marriage was a beautiful sacrament between a consenting adult and whichever fourteen-year-old girl he could manage to buy off her Dad, and poor people and people of color were mostly invisible.”
That’s how it’s been but I believe the genre has more potential than that.
I’m not saying there should be no sexual violence in literature, but that it has to be for more than titillation or shock value. As much as I agree with Spector and Hartinger that rape serves a plot purpose in GoT (to show societal degradation and to create irredeemable villains), I have trouble buying the argument that those objectives required up to one rape per chapter.
So for next year’s GGC I’d love another GoT panel, even with the same contributors, as long as it’s one that makes a commitment to take an honest look at the fandom and not to go for the easy outs.