Friday, July 19, 2024

Game of Thrones, Fair Game, & the “real” critiques

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Co-written by Kylie and Julia

Game of Thrones (GoT) is a unique show when it comes to media criticism. We’ve talked previously on this site and in our podcast many times about how there simply doesn’t seem to be a basic level of scrutiny applied to the show, especially from a plot and character perspective. Because seriously, take any episode from the past two seasons and ask the questions “do character motivations randomly change on the dime?” or “does the plot require teleportation/telepathy to work?” and you’re not likely to come away with answers that suggest the show is worthy of an Emmy any time soon.

Though it’s not to say the show doesn’t receive criticism at all. It does, and across-the-board even, with one specific issue: scenes that involve clear and unambiguous portrayals of rape.

This depiction was challenged right from the get-go, starting with GoT’s pilot episode. However, criticism kicked into higher gear in Season 4, when showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D), with the help of director Alex Graves, gave us a scene of Jaime raping Cersei without even realizing it, somehow. This was not made any better by the fact that the following episode involved Night’s Watch mutineers casually raping Craster’s wives as background flavor for a character’s monologue. And we hopefully don’t need to remind you of the uproar that followed Sansa’s rape last year in “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” which drew such sharp criticism that some sites even opted to no longer cover the show.

We’re certainly not the types of people to bemoan the fact that this criticism exists. Rape is disturbingly common today, and that we live in a rape culture is not a fact which escapes most women’s attention. But it is notable that when it comes to the show, the only thing that ever receives scrutiny in this department, at least on a large-scale, is *the scene* itself; nothing about this “realistic setting” D&D are fond of pointing to when asked about their sexual violence, and almost certainly nothing about the logical flow of the plot that led to these scenes.

Perhaps for this reason, when there are other instances that clearly portray an issue of consent, yet there is no *attack*, there seems to be absolutely no critical eye whatsoever. Yara casually raping a sex slave in the most recent episode comes to mind, where not only did every single critic seem to miss that slaves can’t, in fact, give consent to the person who buys their services, but the entire scene was framed as a good thing, both by the narrative and by reviewers.

Welcome to hell everyone!

Wait, no…sorry. This is hell:

“Suddenly, that oh-so-familiar Game of Thrones scene — the bacchanal where alcohol is consumed, naked women offer their bodies to inebriated, lecherous men, and feminist GOT viewers roll their eyes so hard they no longer need rearview mirrors — felt like it was returning in full force. But it turned out, this scene was different.
While there were a couple of fleeting images of men taking advantage of all the toplessness, with the consent of the topless, the aggressor at the center of it all was Yara Greyjoy, who eagerly traded kisses and gropes with another woman. ‘Doesn’t interest you anymore?’ she snarkily asked Theon, her castrated brother, referring to the bountiful sexual opportunities that surrounded them and of which he could take no advantage. Then, after apologizing for her insensitive remark and cementing her bond with Theon, she announced: ‘Now, since it’s my last night ashore for a long while, I’m gonna go f-ck the tits off this one.'” —Jen Chaney

Honestly, this takes two seconds of thought. “Hey aren’t those ‘topless women’ slaves? Is ‘consent’ the word I’m looking for?” No. No it’s not.

And of course it isn’t just the issue of rape where GoT endorses a shockingly sexist narrative. The two of us spent a painstaking amount of time discussing the ways in which D&D’s scripting of women is infantilizing at best, and at worst, some kind of bizarre parody of feminism parading as empowerment:

“Not to belabour the point, but the largest change was that Daenerys Targaryen’s characterization was entirely absent. The willingness to compromise, the pragmatism, the utilitarianism, the high amounts of compassion…just totally absent. This was only made far worse by the fact that the situation was so simplistic. Deadpan did not have to consider murdering child-hostages to whom she had grown close. She didn’t have to contend with the Astapori refugee crisis, or the bloody flux showing up at her doorstep. She didn’t have to deal with the temptation of the Dornish alliance. There was no army marching to squash Meereen, and the enemies within her walls were, frankly, clear-cut.
Yet how she navigated through this dumbed-down plotline was mystifying. She looked like an erratic idiot, literally going from one extreme stance to the opposite within a single episode. And this happened more than once. Deadpan also was a completely ineffective leader; the Strawmen hated her no matter what, and slavery still clearly existed 20 feet from her city thanks to a minimum wage loophole. For the character who is the face of “female empowerment” in television, we really can’t believe how people miss that her scripting is ridiculously infantilizing. Frankly, it’s rather offensive that anyone considers this character “feminist.”
Like, how is she” badass”? Because she kills people and says everything in a tone of absolute, pig-headed certainty? Unless there’s a man there to talk her out of it. Or is it because she makes the empowering realization that she, the empowered ruler, will let the Strawmen kill her, empowerdly?” —Kylie and Julia

However, the only articles you see regarding the sexism of the show are about how it’s been apparently “fixed,” because Daenerys now murders men and destroys cultures instead of getting raped herself. Should someone tell D&D that there’s many miles in between? Or that violence isn’t particularly empowering?

Which brings us to another issue of the show: racism. Also whorephobia, homophobia, ageism, ableism, anti-religionism, and even mild classism. Seriously, you can make a strong case for there being a pattern of all of these, and yet where in Seven Hells are the articles about this? Where are the people pointing out that sex workers are not just “waiting for the right man” to offer free services to (because what even is abuse in that industry), or how bisexuality being conflated with hypersexuality is an offensive stereotype, or how the audience is shown that screaming at an abuse victim can be an effective way to “get through” to them, or how it was supposed to be horribly *shocking* for us to watch a geriatric woman take a nap because her young, hot boobs were an illusion? Seriously, what did that amount to?

Sure, there was the piece here and there about Daenerys’s white savior issue after her crowd-surfing scene, but apparently we’re supposed to accept the fact that GoT is somehow “addressing” this issue now:

“The scene leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth, because it’s supposed to; Tyrion is proposing extending unimaginable, violent oppression for the slaves of Astapor and Yunkai for seven more years, and in the meantime, showering the brutal slavers with earthly delights. It is appalling, and the onlookers are appalled. Grey Worm and Missandei, in particular, as former slaves themselves who pledged their loyalty to a now-absent liberating queen, are shaken. It is easy enough, in a boardroom, to decide on seven years as a compromise. It is much harder to endure seven years of slavery. Tyrion tries to assure Missandei that he knows “the horrors of that institution.” She levels a dispassionate, unimpressed gaze at him. ‘How many days were you a slave?'” —Sonia Saraiya, Salon

Sorry, Ms. Saraiya, but if you think anything Tyrion does is supposed to be viewed as a bad thing, you truly haven’t been paying attention. Also conspicuously missing from her conclusion is the fact the scene she cites is then followed by Missandei and Grey Worm both going to bat for Tyrion to an audience of former slaves, though yes, we see Grey Worm upset by this afterwards. Maybe it’s meant to be uncomfortable, but there is one voice that is leveraged in Meereen, and it ain’t Missandei’s.

So really, while GoT may receive negative press for its treatment of rape (except articles that frame the ‘controversy’ as a fun selling point), we would argue that there is actually a dearth of comprehensive critique when it comes to social issues and the show’s offensive [even if unintentional] take-aways.

Enter Fair Game, the film by independent documentarian Miodrag Zarković that sought to explore the critical (or lack thereof) conversations surrounding GoT.

Mr. Zarković begins the film by discussing the history of television as a storytelling medium, especially the rise of more serious, serialized dramas in the past twenty or so years (starting with The Sopranos). Where previously television was treated as a lesser medium, it’s finally gaining respectability as a place where complex, character driven stories can be told over many episodes, and even years. The “boob-tube” is becoming a place that makes us think, at last.

The filmmaker objects to the notion that you can put Game of Thrones in the same category as The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, because it is ultimately not character driven or complex; it’s a sensationalist, illogical mess far more concerned with distracting the audience with slick production value and “what they expect to see” than with telling a coherent story.

Several of the examples he used to illustrate this point amused us greatly, including a funny montage of pseudo-philosophical monologues, and that bizarre moment where Daario Naharis’s understanding of fear allows him to find a man hiding in a wall. (We’re still confused by that too…) He addresses the fact that the show seems to dazzle people just long enough for them to post a glowing episode review, but then completely falls apart under any kind of scrutiny.

But then Mr. Zarković starts talking about the “Sansa Marriage Strike” and the criticism that exploded in the media over that issue and… things go a little off.

It does begin well enough, with a hilarious sequence where Mr. Zarković explains to a professional critic why none of Sansa’s actions leading up to the scene made any sense, and the horrible realization that he’s right comes over the man’s face.

But then he gets to a point where he seems to be implying that we should stop criticizing the show’s use of rape because it “distracts” from the “real” problems with it; that we should only view GoT as an “artform” (he even, from what we can tell, chops off the full points made by his interview subjects to support this mindset), and that this is the sensationalism that is ruining what could be a productive discourse.

This was frustrating to us, because Mr. Zarković is not wrong about the fact that there is a sensationalist element to the critiques. Like we said, “controversy” is a selling point for the show. He wasn’t the only one who got a little annoyed that it seemed to take something as horrible as a young girl being raped in a completely illogical context for so many people to start saying anything negative at all about the show. But we also, rather strongly, feel that it’s disingenuous to suggest that criticisms which incorporate social issues and implications are somehow invalid, or that these criticisms are in essence “blocking the way” for for the “intellectual” arguments about internal logic, characterizations, or the show as an artform.

Dorne is rather case and point of this. The Dornish plotline in the show has been almost universally torn to pieces. The Sand Snakes were mocked as caricatures, the dialogue was criticized as being cringe-worthy, and the overall plot was so terrible and unengaging that the most ardent show-defenders had to convince themselves that it was D&D’s attempt at a comedy:

“Far to the south, developments in Dorne are equally dramatic, and just as far afield from Martin’s text. Rather than stand cowed by Prince Doran Martell as he attempts to maneuver the unpredictable currents of geopolitics, Ellaria Sand and her lethal daughters take matters into their own hands, slaying the ruler, his bodyguard Areo Hotah and his heir Prince Trystane in shockingly summary fashion. In a weird way, the relative two-dimensionality of the Dornish material to this point suits the sequence: Having the fall of the House of Martell take place not as a grand tragedy over the course of a season but as a black-comedy splatsick [sic] farce over within five minutes works well for the Cliffs Notes version of this kingdom the show has delivered.” —Sean T. Collins

Again, we’re not sure why it takes such an extreme example to draw a critical eye where things like Sansa marrying her enemies for revenge, or Margaery’s perjury trap, go without comment, but it is clear that critics are willing to speak negatively of the show separately from any sort of social issues raised.

And yet we would argue that the racial implications of the Dornish plotline are the most important element to discuss and criticize. Season 5 should be held up as the prime example of what Edward Said described as a “narrative of incident,” or to quote Julia’s piece on the entire trainwreck, “a purposely exoticized place, perfect for our white male heroes to have an adventure in. A place that exists only to the ‘othered.” As viewers we were expected to consume a story about hypersexualized hysterical brown women running around on a murderous romp and pettily slapping each other while the men calmly talked politics, as entertainment. It’s just…nakedly sexist and racist. And yet, even in the Season 6 opener where Ellaria and the Sand Snakes went on a myopic, fratricidal rampage, critics worked overtime to paint this as a positive—some even calling it a ‘win’ for women.

This is a parody of feminism.

The lack of scrutiny Dorne received regarding social issues actually served to heavily undercut the charges levied against the plotline. In our view, one of the major reasons that it failed was because D&D’s scripting of Dorne was so sensationalist and reliant on horrific stereotypes. And like…stereotypes hurt real people, you know? It matters that GoT played it straight.

So the claim that it’s the focus on social issues that is hurting the dialogue surrounding the show seems, to us at least, entirely backwards.

Bringing it back to Sansa’s Season 5 plotline, we certainly agree that there was a lack of critical focus on the illogical circumstances that led to her marriage with Ramsay. Mr. Zarković does a very good job explaining why the Sansa Marriage Strike makes no sense, and how no one with a brain would ever act this way. However, from what we can tell, he seems to want to shut down all criticism of the “logical” culmination of it—the rape. In fact, we’re treated to a few solid minutes of footage of him discussing the nature of Ramsay’s character, in case anyone was laboring under the delusion that Sansa might have had a pleasant wedding night with him.

And again, he’s not entirely wrong here. It is in character for Ramsay Bolton to rape anyone he has the opportunity to, and it is true that “shying away” from that reality would be penning him inconsistently. But the issue we have with Mr. Zarković’s argument is that he seems to be constructing this strawman that paints all the people who criticized this particular scene as only ever doing so because they have a knee-jerk aversion to all depictions of rape. Perhaps that was the perspective of some professional critics, but it was hardly the most substantive argument that we who criticize GoT from a “social issues” perspective make, and Mr. Zarković, as an active member of the online aSoIaF community, surely knew that.

For many of us, Sansa’s rape by Ramsay Bolton was simply straw the broke the camel’s back. It was just the most egregious example in a long standing pattern of D&D telling their (barely coherent) story on the backs of marginalized people, and prioritizing shocks over characterization, as well as logic. That was why The Mary Sue, at least, stopped promoting the show, and it was a wake up call to a good many people.

The problem is that the sensationalism surrounding “social issues,” or the show’s willingness to “go there,” is quite possibly the motivation for so much of the illogical and stupid story telling. The showrunners were apparently so hell-bent on depicting this rape that they contorted the narrative and prioritized it over everything. Nothing from the entire Northern Theatre in A Dance with Dragons was adapted in Season 5 with the exception of Ramsay getting a wife to rape. Sansa Stark, a series protagonist, had her entire characterization and plotline thrown out the Moon Door and was reduced to the role of a tertiary character. In the source material, it’s Ramsay Bolton who is a tertiary character. It was practically the definition of “gratuitous,” and as we continue on in Season 6 and come to understand Sansa’s role, this is only solidified; there is no reason why the same plotline could not have been accomplished had Sansa stayed in the Vale during Season 5. None.

As to D&D’s apparent commitment to the “realism” of that scene, we would like to ask Mr. Zarković why it is that it was so important for Ramsay Bolton remain in character, but not Sansa, and Petyr Baelish, and Roose Bolton, and every Lord north of the Neck. He seems to be aware that they were all acting against their own interests, but this scene somehow gets a pass because Ramsay’s behaviour was “logical”? And why is it invalid to ask that “why” question?

It’s a problem that this is what GoT feeds to us as “dramatically satisfying” television. This is the most popular show ever, right? It’s not produced in a cultural vacuum, and it’s certainly not consumed in one. We are being told that Sansa’s rape, which was ridiculously unmotivated and illogical, was entertainment.

That’s why the argument that we should “focus on real issues because there are real people being raped”, a point of view that this documentary seems to endorse, is so asinine.

If we may be so bold as to quote one of the interviewees in Fair Game:

“It’s a very valid to deal with those issues in this form, because this is the…as I’ve said before, it’s the form that everybody is consuming and everyone is talking about, and so that’s the place where these big debates about sex and consent, or violence, or… any kind of moral question (identity or whatever), is being played out. It’s the form that is a common reference for most people. And so it gives them something that they can share, that they can argue about, and it kind of brings that debate into focus. So don’t just think that it’s okay that television to do that, I think it should be obligatory for television to sometimes, at least, deal with these issues because that’s the forum where the popular attention is.” —Laura Miller of

Sadly, this point goes unaddressed by the documentary, and is basically buried; the section about the Winterfell plotline ends on Mr. Zarković’s statement that “Ramsay’s actions aren’t the problem; Sansa’s are.”

You know…they can both be the problem. But more to the point it was the creative decisions of David Benioff and Dan Weiss that were the problem. Ramsay and Sansa, you know, do what they’re written to do. Sansa isn’t stupid, because Sansa doesn’t exist.

Perhaps that’s what was most concerning to us, that given how much time was devoted to this point, it felt in a way as though Fair Game sought to tone-police the criticisms against GoT—to “fix” the dialogue—more than bringing any new critique or intellectually honest dialogue to the table. The limited number of interviewees and incredibly specific nature of the questions raised only further adds to our discomfort.

We’re sorry, but it is simply ignorant not to recognize how the media we consume impacts conversations surrounding social issues at least as much as our media is shaped by the conversation we have. Maybe if rape wasn’t presented to us on television as a shocking twist—if we weren’t constantly made to act as voyeurs to the brutalization of women—there might be a different tone surrounding those “real issues.”

And to be perfectly frank, we can’t imagine anyone who is intimately involved with the challenges that rape survivors face taking the attitude that depictions of rape in media don’t matter in “real life” or aren’t relevant to the “real problems.” It’s a privilege to be able to ignore the social implications of our entertainment. Of course it doesn’t “matter” to you unless you’re living it.

Look. We’re not saying that this documentary doesn’t have merit, or that arguments about Game of Thrones as an poor artform (and certainly as an incoherent narrative) aren’t sorely lacking from media critics. But what we are saying is that those critiques do not sit in contention with, nor are they mutually exclusive to, pieces that tackle the social implications of this show. And the issue of the “sensationalism” surrounding such pieces is actually a result of too little attention being paid to these issues across the board.

Mr. Zarković states the following in his write-up of Fair Game:

“That is the topic of our interest: Why is the voice of dissent left behind? Why would any legitimate opinion, and especially one that is shared by huge number of people, be ignored and marginalized? What makes Game of Thrones so special, that the critique of it gets silenced?”

To which we say that the answer, ser, is not those pesky articles about rape silencing everything else. The answer is that those articles do not go far enough in discussing the full implications, perhaps because doing so makes people uncomfortable. So no matter how inconvenient it is for you to consider them, it’s truly the only intellectually honest thing to do.

There are points to be made about the illogic, and there are points to be made about the offensive nature of the narrative. Those two approaches can complement each other; they don’t have to be in competition. So as “The Internet Remembers” continues, we can only hope you remember how intertwined these points are.

Images courtesy of HBO and Internet Remembers Project

[starbox id=”Julia,Kylie”]

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