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”:
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.