Thursday, March 29, 2012

A brief history of the New York Times' hatred of Game of Thrones

Daenerys' dragons might have something to say to the New York Times.

After Ginia Bellafante's incredibly sexist (not to mention poorly written) original review of Game of Thrones sparked backlash and controversy from the many women who resented being told that they were supposed to like Sex and the City and dislike Tolkien, you would think that maybe the New York Times would have taken a moment to rethink its editorial stance on the show. At the very least, you might think that the Old Gray Lady would allow a critic who doesn't have such an obvious dislike of fantasy to review the show.

You would, sadly, be wrong.

Bellafante, who wrote the paper's official review of HBO's fantasy epic (and who has replaced The New Yorker's Nancy Franklin at the top of my list of most-hated TV critics), somewhat infamously said that Game of Thrones was "boy fiction," and implied that, weirdly enough, instances of incestuous sex and violent rape had been added to the series to appeal to women, because apparently we as a gender are into that sort of thing. More than that, however, Bellafante refers to the show's setting as "the universe of dwarfs, armor, wenches, braids, loincloth," a remark that is just plain wrong (There are not "dwarfs" in the sense of Tolkien's separate race, since Tyrion Lannister is a dwarf in the scientific sense of the words, and I wasn't aware that braids were reserved for unreal worlds) and that demonstrates a deep-rooted dismissal of and disdain for fantasy as a lesser genre.

Several days later, the Times ran an essay by Heather Havrilevsky that complained that Game of Thrones was too dark, depressing and nihilistic to be great television. The author then goes on to express her displeasure with, first, the sub-genre of "medieval fantasy," and then all of fantasy and science-fiction, including mentions of C.S. Lewis and George Lucas, for writing and filming "the same predictably doomed battles between factions," which she calls "this endlessly repeated unhappy ending."

Besides the fact that Lucas' Star Wars trilogy is about as far as you can get from a "predictably doomed" battle between factions, Havrilevsky's criticisms make it clear that it isn't just Game of Thrones that she objects too, but the entire genre of fantasy. She also throws in science fiction while she's at it. I'm not complaining about her dislike of the series in and of itself, because she's allowed to like or dislike anything she wants to. But by casting a net that captures two entire genres and lumps them into a homogenous whole to be criticized, and by ignoring the fact that the very features she deplores in Game of Thrones show up in every genre of fiction, she's exposing her dislike as based not in the merits of an individual show, but in a stereotype of an entire genre.

I suspect that Havrilevsky isn't bitching about the "dourness" of Mad Men, although that series is much more confined by its claustrophobic humorlessness than Game of Thrones. And I bet she never complained about Tony Soprano "blindly fornicating and fighting" himself to death. Mad Men and The Sopranos are exempt because they aren't fantasy, because their realism allows for darkness and dirt and nihilism.

Which brings us to the present, and the paper's brand-new review of Game of Thrones' second season. The critic, Neil Genzlinger (at least the Times was smart enough to keep this assignment away from Bellafante), didn't like the first four episodes (which, I assume, were all that was included on the critics' screener). As I said, that in and of itself is hardly a problem. A critic's job is to like or dislike something and tell his readers why.

The real problem comes, as it did with Bellafante and Havrilevsky, in the way that Genzlinger frames his argument by drawing on the most reductive of fantasy cliches. He complains about the excessive number of characters in words that will be familiar to those accustomed to defending Tolkien, saying that the "seemingly endless number of would-be rulers" causes the season's wars to seem "almost random, as if enemies and allies were assigned by throwing darts at a wall chart." He says that the show  "presents vileness for voyeurism's sake." And, most damningly of all, Genzlinger characterizes Game of Thrones' fan base as the "Dungeons & Dragons type."

Bringing up D&D in a review of any fantasy property is, at this point, so cliched that it's easy to forget just how infuriating the comparison is. Criticizing a show for having only fans of the "Dungeons & Dragons type" implies that the only people who could possibly be interested in Game of Thrones are guys who live in their mothers' basements, dress up in costumes and play fantasy role-playing games because they're too socially inept or asthmatic to go outside. Which is not only unfair to the majority of D&D enthusiasts, but also works on the assumption that you have to be a huge nerd in order to keep track of a large cast of characters or appreciate a storyline about how power corrupts.

At least, you have to be a nerd to like these things when they happen in Westeros. When they happen in, say, inner-city Baltimore, they're high art. Game of Thrones is, in many ways, basically The Wire: Westeros Edition, but you don't hear complaints about the sprawling cast or the brutal violence of that show, because it isn't fantasy. It's realistic. It's important. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, is reduced to merely a geeky obsession, best appreciated by those who don't know enough about society or aesthetics to appreciate The Wire.

I, on the other hand, think that Game of Thrones is utterly fantastic, compelling television. It is as good as just about any of the other great HBO dramas. It is complex and challenging in the best possible way. I think this not as a huge fantasy geek (although I have my moments), but as a TV critic and enthusiast. And I refuse to let my appreciation for this show stereotype me, or any other viewer.

Winter is coming. And I can't wait to see what happens when it hits.

1 comment:

  1. Я тебя очень люблю!!! Я рада что ты писала так. Мне тоже очень нравится это сериал! Удача!

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