Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Drinking Game of Thrones

I bought a copy of A Game of Thrones two or three years ago. It spent those years languishing pristine, untouched, and accusatory on the shelf between my well-thumbed copies of Temeraire and The Name of the Wind, intimidating me by its 700 pages and its Tolkien comparisons. At the end of March, the imminence of the TV adaptation's première compelled me to finally pick it up. I raced through it in ten days and enjoyed the H-E-double-hockey-sticks (as my beloved TV wife Rachel would say) out of it.

We're two episodes into the TV show now, so it's high time I passed judgment. My ability to accurately assess a TV show after two episodes is incontrovertibly documented in my Very Secret Diaries, which you may not read, but here are some excerpts:

28th September 2010 – on episode 2 of Lone Star: “I really liked it, but the ratings for it are so godawful that it probably hasn't a prayer of finishing out the season.”

2nd October 2009 – on episode 2 of Flash Forward: “Flash Forward treats me like an eejit and I swear if it continues to be this bad I will drop it soon.” [One episode later, I did.]

25th September 2009 – on episode 2 of Community: “[A]bsolutely terrific – a perfect balance of snarky humor and genuine character-based pathos. If it keeps going like that it has the potential to be a cult and critical favorite.”

See? I'm the new Alan Sepinwall. QED.

I've been watching Game of Thrones (the article appears to have been dropped) with my brother, who hasn't read the book. I can help him keep track of who the many characters are and compare the show to the book; he can offer me an evaluation of the show qua television. In places, though, it's an uncomfortable watch for a brother and sister, so we have developed a system for coping with all the squickiness. We call it “Drinking Game of Thrones”:

Incest? DRINK.

Titties? DRINK.

Buttcrack? DRINK.

Unfortunate Implications? DRINK.

Prince Joffrey (because he is such a little shit, I just hate him that much, that I have to drink whenever he is onscreen)? DRINK.

Something rapey happens? DRINK.

The thing is, most of the rapeyness and the Unfortunate Implications are taken straight from the book*. The show just highlights all of the aspects of the book that made me uncomfortable.

*Apart from that scene with Daenerys and her maidservant. That was entirely gratuitous and exploitative lesbian subtext, and I say this as a lesbian-subtext connoisseur and enthusiast.

I should point out that A Game of Thrones isn't half as sexist as a lot of fantasy books. It's still rapey enough for us to have nicknamed it, with a nod to Patton Oswalt, Rape Throne: The Throne That Rapes People, but women are present and they do have a voice. The first book cycles through eight characters' points of view, half of them female; and, while it's set in a medieval-style world that oppresses women, the female characters' personalities range from the controlling, Livia-like Cersei to the weak, submissive Sansa to the defiant, gender-non-conforming Arya. Arya is my favorite character in both the book and the show: she's only a little girl, but she's still a bona-fide BA (and not in the sense that I am).

The whole storyline with Daenerys, however, is rife with extremely uncomfortable implications in both iterations. Some of that is clearly intentional – the unbelievably creepy brother molesting his sister and selling her to be another man's wife – but the rest of it... well. In the book (minor spoiler, y'all), Dany comes to love her new husband devotedly. It smacks of Stockholm Syndrome to me, and I'm genuinely not sure if Martin intended that.

For example, take the consummation of Dany and Drogo's marriage. Bookside, Dany (who is just thirteen; I think – hope – they aged her up for the show) is completely terrified, and Drogo engages in a lot of foreplay to prepare her for penetrative sex. For some time, Dany finds the nightly sex painful, but gradually she comes to enjoy it.

In the show, though, Drogo just straight-up rapes her. I mean, not that I would characterize the book version as consensual as such, but he does at least wait until she tells him “yes”. Which is rapier: penetrating your new bride as she weeps and tries to cover herself up, or stroking and caressing her as she weeps until she's so aroused she invites you to penetrate her?

You see why I find it deeply problematic, right?

I think, for the most part, this is intended to be problematic. Obviously, not having read the sequels yet, I don't know how Daenerys' story will play out, but it's not implausible that she's deliberately written as a woman dealt a really crappy hand in life who does what she needs to do in order to cope psychologically. What's less explainable is the racial implications of this storyline.

As my brother said: “Racist undertones in a fantasy book?? Surely not!” Point taken, but I still think this deserves analysis.

It always bothers me when people excuse rampant rape and the erasure of POC in fantasy by saying, “It's authentic, 'cause it's based on medieval England/northern Europe!” Sure, but seasons didn't last for years on end and dragons didn't exist in medieval England, and I don't hear anyone complaining that dragons and years-long winters make it inauthentic. It's FANTASY. Shakesville articulated it best: “It says something interesting, and not at all pleasant, about our culture that we are willing to accept a complete reinvention of the planet's climate for the purposes of fantasy, but not the possibility of a culture devoid of sexual exploitation and rape”. Sub out “sexual exploitation and rape” for “white supremacy” and you have another, equally legitimate complaint.

Virginal, whiter-than-white maiden Daenerys is taken by a tribe of brown-skinned savages who live wild, shag like animals, rape her, and make her their queen (the only black character I've seen so far is her maidservant). It's fantasy, yes, but even a fantasy novel exists in the real world and is not divorced from real-world history: a history in which white people's colonialism oppressed and exploited people of color “for their own good”, in the name of civilizing the savages; in which predominantly white countries still invade predominantly brown countries “for their own good” whilst ignoring human rights abuses in resource-poor, predominantly black sub-Saharan Africa; in which the Jim Crow narrative of sexually animalistic black men preying on lily-white women was constructed by white men in order to perpetuate their control over both black men and white women. (Black women? Don't be silly, they don't exist.) These racist cultural narratives still persist. They persist in the international policy decisions of western countries; they persist in the difference in mainstream media coverage of stories about white people and stories about people of color; and they persist in fantasy novels and TV shows that recreate them.

I believe fiction has a duty, if not to show us a better world, then at least to be aware of when it's showing us terrible things. Game of Thrones is not aware of its own racism. As far as I'm concerned, this means I have to mention it every time I talk about it. I can talk about the successful character interactions, and the plot points that feel a bit awkward and rushed, and the sweeping moments that rouse fantasy-epic stirrings of excitement deep in my gut, and how God handcrafted every inch of Peter Dinklage out of the finest Olympic win – but I'm also going to talk about the racism.


  1. The paragraph beginning "It always bothered me..." (third from the bottom) is a brilliant point and something I've never considered. Thanks for raising that - I really had just taken it as read.

    That aside, I have to disagree with your characterisation of GoT as racist. Reading it I honestly never picked up that the Dothraki (Drogo's people) were non-white. Rereading sections for this comment I now notice that they have "copper skin".

    I'm not trying to argue that racism only exists because people look for it - thats a nonsense. But I do think in this case that you're projecting to some extent. Dany is a different ethnicity to Ned Stark, the king, et al and that seems not to be brought up at all, because both ethnicities are white. Seizing on the fact that the Dothraki aren't and claiming that their portrayal is therefore racist feels, I dunno, forced to me. The wildlings are white and their society is considerably more barbaric than the dothraki's. When white people are barbarians, they're just barbarians. When non-whites are, it's evidence of racism.

    I haven't seen the show, though, so its possible that theres enough of a difference that me defending the book and you attacking the show aren't mutually incompatible.

  2. "When white people are barbarians, they're just barbarians. When non-whites are, it's evidence of racism."

    That is essentially my argument, yes. It's similar to how calling a black person "n*****" is racist, but calling a white person "cracker" isn't - because the history behind the n-word is so loaded with oppression, slavery, rape, murder, etc. in a way that "cracker" just isn't. (There's a fantastic Louis CK bit about that here.)

    Similarly, when a white guy like Martin writes a race of copper-skinned people who act in a way that conforms with "barbarianism" as historically conceived by white people, he's perpetuating a racist cultural narrative. There's no corresponsing narrative for white people in our culture, so writing white "barbarians" isn't perpetuating anything.

    Thanks very much for reading and responding!

  3. Leaving derivations of the word 'barbarian' aside before someone starts a comment "Well, actually..." I accept your basic premise.

    However, it seems like you're saying that grrrrMartin cant do right for doing wrong here. He has given details of two different cultures both technologically and sociologically 'below' the dominant one. A white one and a non-white one. There is an argument, I believe, that that is simply fair. Lets remove the Dothraki from the equation - remove Dany's entire plot. Then every character with certain very very minor exceptions is white.

    As an aside before I get back to my point, you could argue that in itself is racist. I'd be forced to disagree. Your point about authenticity above notwithstanding, removing Dany's subplot (and a few others in later books) makes all the action take place on a single continent. I don't see anything particularly wrong with having that (fairly isolated) continent be a single ethnicity. I also dont see anything wrong with grrr, a white man, choosing (although that word may be overstating his actual conscious decision making) to make that white.

    Anyway, back on topic. The dothraki are the major non-white race seen so far (some are "olive skinned" but I'm happy enough to lump that in with white). He had, in essence, two choices here. Culturally equivalent or culturally inferior. Making them culturally inferior - no matter how many white races are in the same boat (the iron islanders are another possibility. man I use alot of brackets) - is apparently evidence of racism for perpetuating a sterotype.

    So presumably he 'should' have chosen the other option and made them on a similar level to Westeros, out of sensitivity for western narratives on colour. Well, thats great and frankly could have been done in this instance. The story wouldn't have been harmed in the slightest had colouring been switched. But draw out from Martin's work and into the wider picture. What you're in essence saying is that no matter how you portray white races, non-white races must always be civilised. The dothraki are clearly based on the mongols. I'm nt a historian and certanly not a historian of that time and place so I have literally no comment on how close they are to historical mongols but I think we can agree on that. Its a fairly common arcetype in fantasy - the horde in Forgotten realms is basically identical. And they're often portrayed as more barbaric than nearby races. But by obeying the dictate that barbaric races mustn't be non white any author wishing to make use of that archetype must reinvent the mongols as white.

    To me, whitewashing a race in this way would be more offensive than not doing. Lets be honest, Genghis Khan did well for himself as did Drogo - head of a massive empire and courted for his military might. Making those characters white would remove the link to the mongols and would, I'll wager, be heavily criticised on the grounds of grrr saying "Mongols are awesome, but how much more awesome would they be if they were white? Read on to find out."

    In essence, while I have some sympathy for your argument of perpetuating a narrative, my counter point would be that all authors must draw from real world inspiration and avoiding perpetuatng that narrative means removing non-whites from history.

    Anyway. I seem to have got into a discussion about racism with someone I dont know, without even bothering with any kind of niceties. God bless the internet and all, but I guess a token nod at the rules of social interaction means I should stop and try to pretend this never happened.

    Thanks for replying to my comment, and bothering to read if indeed you have. I've enjoyed reading through your blog. Found you from ovethinkingit if you track that kind of thing.


  4. You're absolutely right that we shouldn't whitewash or ignore unpalatable realities. I didn't mean to give the impression that I think "non-white races must always be civilised" in fiction. I should have expanded further: it's not the portrayal of the Dothraki per se I find racist, it's more the narrative of the white woman who is (sexually) exploited and at the same time elevated by the natives... I guess I'm thinking particularly of that old Jungle Goddess movie that was on MST3K. (:

    Anyway, thanks very much for your thoughtful and polite comments!

  5. "'It says something interesting, and not at all pleasant, about our culture that we are willing to accept a complete reinvention of the planet's climate for the purposes of fantasy, but not the possibility of a culture devoid of sexual exploitation and rape. '"

    Bah. This actually isn't interesting at all. The human element of any story has to remain true to life, otherwise the reality of the whole story and all of its power to say anything meaningful to us collapses. One of the accolades heaped upon Martin's fantasy series is that it's more realistic than any other high-profile story in a fantasy setting, and that's obviously due largely to his down-and-dirty potrayal of all aspects of humanity, not just the savory bits. We're people writing and reading about people; we can do whatever we like to the environment, but if we want to pen our natures accurately, then our own history must have a say. Even in stories where the characters aren't human -- lots of stories replace us with animals, for example -- we still see the anthropomorphized players behave like humans.

    Besides, for anyone for whom the reality of Western European cultural dominance is just too offensive to their hyper-egalitarian sensibilities ("white supremacy" to the terminally indignant), or for anyone who doesn't want to read about the subjugation of women (or about the great heights of cruelty or ill logic to which women can ascend, e.g. Cersei Lanniser and Lysa Arryn), there's plenty of fiction out there that offers temporary escape from these cold, hard realities.

  6. MiloDC, that's tosh and you know it. Speculative fiction has always explored groups of humans or human-like beings whose society or psychology functions differently than the reader's: people with no concept of male and female, people living in non-misogynistic societies, people who have no aggression... Surely you're capable of reading and relating to stories about people with different cultural mores than yours? (Some of them even exist on this planet!)

    Call me hopelessly naive, but I don't believe that things like misogyny and racism are integral parts of human nature. I believe we can transcend them, and I believe fiction is a good place to start.