Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"Game of Thrones" Controversy: Is Fantasy Just for Boys?

Mark Addy, Lena Headey and Jack Gleeson in HBO's Game of Thrones
Anyone who has watched television or been on the internet in the past few months has probably heard about HBO's luxurious and expensive adaptation of Game of Thrones, the first novel in George R.R. Martin's ongoing fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. Those who follow television news and gossip a little more carefully have probably heard about the controversy surrounding Ginia Bellafante's review of the series for the New York Times, specifically the way in which the author implies that fantasy series are "boy fiction," not for women, claiming that the many, many (many) sex scenes that appear in the first few episodes were placed there as "a little something for the ladies," and because "no woman alive would want to watch otherwise." Bellafante goes on to say that she has "never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to The Hobbit first," a statement which is not only completely irrelevant to the task at hand, which is reviewing a TV show and not pontificating on perceived gender differences, but which also demonstrates that she has an extremely limited group of female friends. I for one have never heard of Lorrie Moore, but I am a voracious lover of Tolkien who has, on several occasions, dressed up in a homemade elf costume just because I could.

Bellafante has also clearly never made the acquaintance of Ilana Teitelbaum, who wrote a brilliantly insightful article in the Huffington Post about the sexism inherent in Bellafante's article, namely the idea that women aren't bothered with watching fantasy, and would instead spend their time shoe shopping and watching Sex and the City. Indeed, in the opening paragraph of Bellafante's article (I'm going to stop calling it a review, because there is very little actual reviewing happening here), she says that the show's opening credits should come with a warning stating, "If you can't count cards, please return to reruns of Sex and the City." For the record, while I am a huge fantasy nerd, I also really enjoy stereotypical female activities like shoe shopping, spa days and lunches that include mimosas. The two are not mutually exclusive.

I'm not even going to go into all the sexism (aimed, oddly enough, at her own gender) contained in Bellafante's article, partly because Teitelbaum does the job much better than I ever could, and partly because I think it's fairly apparent in the aforementioned quotes. (Seriously though, just because someone happens not to like Game of Thrones doesn't automatically imply that they're a woman, and even if they are a woman, it doesn't automatically imply that they will be watching Sex and the City. They could be watching baseball, or Fringe, or Community.) Instead, I want to respond with my own opinions about Game of Thrones, the first episode of which I decided to watch before writing this post.

I should state that, because I am not a critic for any of your fancy newspapers, I did not get screener copies of the first six episodes of the season, so this review is based entirely on the pilot episode. Having noted that, I really liked the show. Scratch that: I LOVED it. Game of Thrones was well-written and well-acted, the production values were absolutely top-notch, and there was just enough sex and violence to provide a nice, gritty atmosphere without completely upstaging the plot, although the producers could have cut down a bit on the exposed breasts. Plus, there were zombies. Zombies! I particularly enjoyed the performances of Sean Bean as Lord Eddard Stark, a man torn between loyalty to his king and his family; Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf brother of Lena Headey's Queen Cersei who is witty, often drunk, fond of prostitutes, and much tougher than he looks; and the luminous, marvelous newcomer Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen, descendent of the deposed king who is now being used a bartering tool by her nasty brother to get his kingdom back. Clarke perfectly captures Daenerys' innocence and fear, and her performance in the scene of her wedding to savage warlord Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) is mesmerizing.

Speaking of Daenerys and her forced marriage to Khal Drogo, the scene later in the episode in which she unwillingly consummates her marriage is a refutation of Bellafante's assertion that the sex was put into the series for the purpose of pandering to women. Even if all the sex in the episode was not in the books, which is most certainly was, there a three major sex scenes in the episode, and none are the sort that strike me, a woman, as being particularly sexy. They are: a scene in which Tyrion pays four prostitutes to have sex with him at once; Daenerys' consummation of her marriage, which is, to put it bluntly, rape; and a scene in which Queen Cersei is glimpsed having rather vigorous sex with her twin brother (not the dwarf, her other brother). These scenes are not titillating so much as degrading, and the first two in particular serve as a commentary on the place of the women in the fictional kingdom of Westeros and, by extension, the very real setting of medieval Europe.

There are certain small problems that I had with the series. The number of characters and their shifting allegiances confused me, and I don't know if I would have been able to follow had it not been for the assistance of my boyfriend, who has read A Song of Ice and Fire. The episode was also extremely expository, and while the exposition was well done, there's only so many times you can hear a character refer to another character as "my brother" or "my husband" without completely giving up on the verisimilitude of the thing. However, these were small quibbles, and I suspect that the second in particular will be resolved in a few episodes, after the audience has become better acquainted with the intrigue. I, for one, will definitely be watching the second episode come Sunday, and I can't wait to see where the series takes me. I might be a little late though; I have to get in some shoe shopping first.


  1. Did you feel that citing watching The Vampire Diaries as an alternative to Sex and The City would weaken your arguement? I know you were thinking it.

  2. @Ben: I mean, yes. I was trying to think of less stereotypically girly things that could be an alternative, and also show that not all girls watch Sex and the City. Although, oddly enough, I am the only girl I know who watches The Vampire Diaries, so there's that.

  3. I thought the show was good too and of course agree that bellafonte article is ludicrous... My bigger problem is that I've read all the books in this series which are out and the story is no where near complete. Martin takes like 5 years to write each one and there are supposedly several more to come before the story ends.

    With the series appearing to go at a relatively fast pace, if it is successful, what will happen when they run out of books? It makes it hard to want to watch the show even when I love the books and thought the first episode was well done, because I imagine the series will have to end prematurely.

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