Let’s be honest. Game of Thrones is not a good TV show.
Sure, it has a fantastic cast and beautiful scenery and dragons. It has some great characters and a gripping plot based on some really exciting fantasy novels. It’s definitely an enjoyable show to watch, at least some of the time. But its characterizations are inconsistent. It values nudity over actual plot. And every moment is permeated by an underlying misogyny, whether its using women as props during exposition scenes to altering female characters’ plotlines and personalities to squeeze them into negative stereotypes.
So why keep watching it? And, perhaps more significantly, why keep writing about it, when any optimism is beyond foolish at this point?
Partly, of course, it’s affection for the original novels and the desire to see favorite moments play out on screen (optimism is a stubborn thing). But I’ll be honest. If not for this blog, I would have stopped watching Game of Thrones. Even if we ignore every other transgression, the character assassination in the latest episode is enough to make me cringe away and never want to watch a moment of the show again. And since the writers have shown that they simply don’t care about this sort of criticism, continuing to criticize the show may seem to only be adding to the hype around it.
But for all its disappointments and vomit-inducing misogyny, Game of Thrones presents us with a really powerful and revealing opportunity. It’s an adaptation of a series of novels that, for all its flaws, challenges a lot of fantasy tropes and presents some really intriguing and compelling female characters. It has tens of main characters, explored over thousands of pages, and its adaptation into a TV show, rather than a series of movies, means that the show can also explore those many characters, go into depth about their backgrounds and feelings, and really dig deep into the novels. Every moment in the show is a choice about how to interpret the text — whether to follow it faithfully, to present the essence of a scene, or to change something entirely to “improve” it for TV. And, most importantly, we have ready access to that text, allowing us to consider and criticize their decisions.
TV shows and movies make misogynistic choices every day, but usually those choices are isolated, making them more difficult to criticize. Sure, that female character expressed a misogynistic sentiment, but some women do feel that way. It’s just the character, not the opinion of the writers. Sure, rape was just used as a plot device, but rape happens in the real world every day. It’s realistic to explore it. Sure, that female character died unnecessarily, but maybe it’s for plot reasons we’ll see soon enough. Maybe the actress wanted to leave. Maybe, maybe, maybe. All together, these moments create a bleak picture, but the individual details can be hard to pin down. After that, that’s just how that story is. It’s just how that story needed to be told.
Not so in Game of Thrones. With the books in hand, we can see the misogyny underlining each decision far more clearly. They haven’t simply chosen to create a character who hates women despite being one, or who becomes a rapist. They’ve chosen to change the existing character, to alter the text and potentially the entire plot in order to make the character more stereotypical and misogynistic than they originally were. When a pregnant woman is stabbed in the stomach, we can see that she wasn’t even supposed to be killed in that scene, or be pregnant, and so know that the change was just for shock value. When a female character’s motivations are taken away, making her actions look utterly irrational, we know that the writers are diminishing her into something that she’s not. Of course, we can’t know why changes were made — perhaps it translates better on TV! perhaps they didn’t have the screentime to develop it! perhaps, perhaps, perhaps — but the comparison creates an excellent (if sickening and terrifying) basis for tackling and criticizing the sexism of not just the show but of the fantasy genre and of TV in general.
After all, why would they make these changes if they didn’t believe they were improvements? Or if they didn’t believe that this was what viewers would want to see?
Cries of “this isn’t how it happened in the books!” are not just a case of book purists run amok. They’re a way to engage with the TV show’s misogynistic attitude and underline just how extreme and problematic it is.
So I can’t hope that I’ll have much good to say about the show, well, ever. I’m pretty beyond disillusioned at this point. But I will keep writing about it. Unfortunately, the fact that it’s a terrible adaptation means that it’s also one of the best and most accessible examples of misogynistic tropes and expectations in storytelling. There’s a lot to analyze, there’s a lot to say, and considering what a pop culture juggernaut it is, closing our eyes and ignoring it certainly isn’t going to make the many problems it perpetuates go away. Writing about it might not actually achieve anything, but it’s sure as hell better than doing nothing at all.
The latest IGN review of Game of Thrones has got me feeling… mildly disgruntled. It’s just one sentence, but it’s a sentiment that I’ve seen repeated, in various forms, all over the web since The Lion and the Rose aired.
It’s worth noting too that the series has landed down firmly on the “Brienne secretly loves Jaime” side of the fence, which weakens her character if you ask me.
Repeat after me, folks: romantic plotlines don’t ruin female characters.
A female character isn’t weak because she has normal human emotions. She isn’t anti-feminist because she has vulnerabilities. There’s a difference between a female character existing entirely to be in love with the male character and a female character who happens to have a romantic subplot as part of her story.
It isn’t feminist to insist that female characters have to be “badass” unfeeling robots, detached from absolutely anything considered “feminine,” including, apparently, emotions. Sure, we don’t want female characters to be damsels in distress, but swinging in the other direction, to cardboard-cutout-badass-making-quips, isn’t much better. Good female characters appear human. And sorry, romance-haters, but love is a part of that.
Of course, I’m a little biased in this case, because I’m also in the “Brienne loves Jaime” camp (and in less of a neutral and more of an “omg otp!!” kind of way). But love is already a major part of Brienne’s character. She loved Renly. Her having soft and girly feelings isn’t exactly a new development. Brienne is a badass with a sword, and she eschews a lot of gender expectations, but her personality is far closer to Sansa’s than Arya’s. She’s quite naive, a romantic in the Arthurian sense of the word, captivated by stories of honor and often motivated by love. That’s what’s so great about her character! She shows that a female character doesn’t have to reject all softness or vulnerability or stereotypical feminine characteristics to be the warrior maiden type. In fact, these “feminine” attributes put her far closer to the traditional knightly ideal than anyone else.
Yet the show has made an effort to “toughen up” Brienne and make her more into the expected stereotypical badass, and these reviews buy into the idea that that is the way a good female character should be. She’s “not like other girls,” and anything that seems too girly only diminishes her.
And it’s nonsense. It’s sexist, offensive nonsense, paraded as some kind of powerful feminist statement. And it really needs to stop.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post wondering about Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. Fifty pages in, and a female character had yet to speak. Or possibly appear at all. Everything else about the book — the writing, the world building, the characters — seemed really good. Far more fun than the first 50 pages of most epic fantasy books I’ve read. But still, committing myself to 500-plus pages of a world where female characters didn’t matter? I wasn’t keen.
Thankfully, a whole bunch of people chimed in to tell me that I simply must keep reading. And they were absolutely right. I loved this book. Loved, loved, loved. I haven’t been so gripped by a fantasy series since I discovered A Song of Ice and Fire. The combination of super fun characters and schemes with really shocking (slash emotionally traumatizing) plot twists had me completely addicted.
And now I have some female character related thoughts. (Warning: this is NOT a spoiler-less review. If you want to read the book without knowing its plot twists — and I recommend that! — please look away now).
Over the last few years, young adult fiction has been dominated by dystopia. The trend is dying out now, although it lives on in movie adaptations, but for a few years, you couldn’t pick up a popular or hyped book without it featuring an oppressive society, a futuristic world, and government-forbidden love. From the gritty military/criminal mashup of Legend to the pretty dresses and dating game-esque The Selection, societies were crumbling and oppressing everywhere you looked.
I love a good dystopian novel, but the avalanche of dystopian romances surprised me. It’s such a weirdly specific genre to become so popular. Why are we as readers fascinated by horrific, controlling societies? The answer, I believe, is that these books function as a kind of wish fulfilment; not as the life we wish we could live, but as the power and influence we wish we could have.
Because yes, these worlds suck. But in YA dystopia, they can also be changed. And teenage girls are the ones to change them.
These dystopian worlds serve as rather extreme metaphors of the teenage experience. These are worlds full of rules, where all choices are taken away. Individuality ranges from “frowned upon” to “punishable by death.” Love is seen as a terrifying disease. These societies dictate everything about the protagonists’ lives, from what they eat and wear to who they marry, how many kids they have, and what careers they pursue. It might seem extreme to say that this reflects life as a teenage girl, but combine the confusions of adolescence with the extreme pressures that our current society places on girls, and I think the connection is clear. Teenagers in general lack the power to entirely make their own decisions, and this powerlessness can range from insignificant things to the selection of colleges or career paths, depending on the people around them. And teenage girls particularly spend their lives being dictated to by society: they have to dress a certain way (and if they don’t, they deserve whatever bad things happen to them). They must hide their true faces with makeup, but not let any see that they’re actually wearing makeup. They must be smart, but not be a nerd, and certainly not be smarter than the boys. They must be thin. Food is an indulgence. But they mustn’t be too superficial and obsessed with dieting. Romance is a girlish frippery, but they need a boyfriend to have worth.
The constant contradictions are incredibly stressful and repressive. Girls are told it’s their responsibility not to misstep, but almost everything is a misstep. The world is constraining and stacked against them. Is it any wonder, then, that dystopian novels became some popular? Just as girls are not allowed to break all of these contradictory rules, they’re also not allowed to criticize the rules. Conformity is everything. The extreme metaphors of dystopian fiction therefore create a space where female characters can rebel against the repressive rules of society, without directly criticizing or breaking the rules of our society. They can fight for their individuality, and for the right to love whoever they please.
And they can win. Over the course of their trilogies, these female protagonists go from completely trapped by society to being instrumental to tearing them down. They successfully fight to create new worlds, where individual choices matter. Where teenage girls have power. Where freedom is possible. We rarely see these worlds, because the books end on this note of optimism for the future rather than delving into the reality of social change, but they’re full of possibility. There’s even the possibility that they’ll be better than the societies we live in now, that these girls will truly carve a place for themselves and be free of all the restrictions that have held them back thus far.
Paradoxically, dystopian YA fiction ultimately represents hope. A dark hope, the kind that exists in desperate situations, but hope none-the-less. It’s hope that we will overcome the restrictions placed on us, tear down those who judge us or mistreat us, and find space to who we’re actually meant to be. And that, I think, is a very powerful and valuable thing.
Stolen Songbird is SUCH an enjoyable novel. Interesting characters, compelling romance, a surprisingly complex moral landscape, curses, rebellions, tyrants and trolls… it all comes together for a book that starts off a little slow but quickly gathers speed for an addictive and emotional read.
Nobody knows what’s hidden in the tunnels of the Forsaken Mountain… or at least, those who know cannot speak of it. Under the mountain’s heavy stone, under constant risk of collapse, the lost city of Trollus thrives, full of magical creatures desperate to escape their cursed existence and see the sun again. When a prophecy declares that the union between a troll prince and a human girl will break the curse that traps them in the mountain, they arrange for the kidnap of Cecile, a young singer who is dragged into the city she never knew existed and forced to marry the aloof and apparently resentful Prince Tristan.
Yet the wedding does not break the curse, leaving Cecile trapped in a city of creatures who at best think her inferior, and at worse want her dead. Cecile is obsessed with escaping the mountain, but leaving isn’t easy when deadly creatures prowl the tunnels beyond the city limits, and one tiny misstep inside the city could lead to her murder.
The kidnap/arranged marriage/escape plotline is compelling, but even more interesting, to me, were the problems within Trollus itself. The city is plagued with class issues, racism and an obsession with blood purity. Slavery and brutality are accepted. In her fight to escape, Cecile becomes tangled up in the city’s brewing potential rebellion, and this is where the best character moments, the strongest emotional plotlines, and the most challenging and interesting questions come into play. Cecile wants to escape, but she also wants to help. These creatures are trapped in slavery unless the curse is broken, but the trolls’ powers and bigotry mean that humanity may be at risk if they do manage to leave the mountain. Different priorities and loyalties pull at Cecile, who after all has been forced into this situation by kidnap, and the answers to the many moral quandaries are never easy.
All in all, Stolen Songbird manages to combine the fun, the romantic, the challenging and the dark into one fantastic and highly enjoyable debut. Highly recommended!
Well, it’s back.
I’m worried about Shae.
This post contains major spoilers for A Storm of Swords/S4 of Game of Thrones
I stopped watching How I Met Your Mother several months ago. The show had devolved from a fun, witty and emotionally compelling sitcom to something that managed to be offensive on almost a weekly basis. Worse, it had committed the cardinal sin of long-running TV shows — it had become boring. I stopped watching and never looked back.
Until this week, when the series finale finally aired. I stuck with the show for so long because I wanted to see how it ended (with Barney and Robin together, I hoped), and that impulse hadn’t gone away. Yet I’m glad that I quit when I did. It ever-so-slightly softened the blow (although I still shouted “WHAT?!?!” when I first read about the conclusion).
Because, unsurprisingly, the show’s finale stayed true to what the series had become: nonsensical, stuck-in-the-past and frankly sexist and offensive, despite its “true love” exterior.