Prostitution in Game of Thrones

There has been much criticism of Game of Thrones, especially of the TV series. It’s been accused of being sexist, racist, sexist, too violent, sexist and sexist again. Now most of this critisim has been levelled at the HBO adaptation so I’ve studiously ignored it but I was at a friend’s house the other day and she said she’d just finished reading the first book. While she thought it was good, it was far too sexist for her tastes. I challenged her on this and her response ran somehitng like ‘Oh the prostitution! it’s everywhere! so many prostitutes, is nobody safe?!’ only less hysterical.

So i decided it’s time to weigh in. I’m half-way through a storm of Swords part 2 so this will only really about the books up until there, not the TV show as that’s covered in more detail elsewhere.

SPOILERS AHOY!

The show added a lot of prostitution that wasn’t really in the original but I found the original quite feminist. Look at characters like Arya Stark, Daenerys Targareyn or Brienne Whatshername, especially in the later books, and it’s clear that there a numerous incidents of strong powerful women being progressive and assertive and all that good stuff in a world that doesn’t necessairly cater for this.

The negative first: Yes there is quite a lot of sex in the books. So? sex on it’s own is not a problem and I never felt that it was used gratuitously. Sexuality is used usually for plot points (i.e. when Sansa gets her period she’ll be forced to marry and sleep with Joffrey), to create a specific atmosphere (How creeped out were you when Robert Arryn was still breastfeeding at age 9?), or for character development (see the numerous scenes between Danerys and Drogo). So where does the negative come into it? Yeah, all the prostitutes are women, the men were too busy dying in various wars to branch out into prostitution. There are scenes of sexual domination over women and men often brag about it to other men because that’s what they do in testorone fueled war filled society. But at no point did I feel the narrator was condoning any of this behaviour, the only time sexual objectification of women felt normalised (for me at least) was when a particular character was normalising it. In this way we learned more about that character and his (or her) world view. Yes there are scenes of violent sex but for them not to take place at all would be implausible. Even in modern warfare and modern civilisation sex is a weapon and a tool and rapes occur all the time. In a society that is arguably more violent than ours it just wouldn’t be believable if it didn’t take place. G. R. R. Martin never claims that this is a desirable state of being.

The positive : As I mentioned there’s strong women (I might cover that in more detail some other time), the sex isn’t always a bad thing, and the prostitutes aren’t crawling out of the walls. It’s more the references to them that are everywhere. Frequently men are bragging about sexual exploits that probably never happened. Again we are learning about the characters themselves, this kind of dialogue doesn’t necessarily denigrate the women in and of itself. In fact there are occasions where it makes more of a show of the man who said it. But what about the poor prostitutes? I hear you ask.  Don’t they get a voice at all? Isn’t pushing them into the background as merely a conversation starter for men just as bad as sexually objectifying them? Well it would be if that was what was happening but it isn’t. In a world dominated by swords chivalry and patriarchy many women use their sexuality as an extremely effective weapon. Look at Cersei Lannister, her incestuous relationship with Jaime was born from love but also allows her to ensure the succession of the throne is entirely in Lannister hands. She was wed to a man she did not love and rather than weep and become a broken woman she took control of her sex life, refused to have his children and proceeds to gain more and more control over King Robert, then King Joffrey as the series progresses. She is effectively Queen of the land. Look at Daenerys Targareyn, how she grows as a character through her self affirming marriage with Drogo. One of the first positive acts in her journey to become Queen is loosing her virginity. Both sold as brides, virtually prostituted to gain power for their male relatives, yet they turn the situation around and claim the power for themselves. The Game of Thrones has room for Queens as well as Kings, and these Queens are just as well equipped using their sexuality in nefarious manipulative and even joyous life affirming ways. Even when it boils down to the prostitutes themselves Daenarys is virtually sold to Khal Drogo, Chataya is a pretty smooth business lady, Alayaya is shown as intelligent and kind, teaching herself to read, even Shae becomes a very important character despite some uncertainty over her motives in being with Tyrion (He pays her wages after all). The fact that Tyrion’s first wife was a prostitute turns out to be hugely important to his character development but again, I did not feel that the girl was necessarily portrayed as beaten down and exploited. She got paid for what she did and paid well, she chose to enter into it and Martin even tells s the story through his voice so that the violent sexual domination that followed is more of a psychological of profile of Tyrion’s inferiority complex than anything else. The girl is removed from the violence itself in this detached account, the narrative did not revel in it.

The setting : Once Upon A Time Tolkien became the god of all that is fantasy literature. And it was then decreed that all fantasy can only take place in a homogenous middle ages European society with magic thrown in. I think it was Ben Yahtzee Crowshaw who blamed Tolkien for the fact that the phrase ‘Standard Fantasy Setting’ can now be uttered without the slightest hint of irony. I mentioned the setting once or twice earlier in the post and I’d like to analyze it here. Despite all the ideology of fantasy as  genre where anything can happen it still has to be believable. That’s why, when author’s throw in tropes like magic, they tend to set their stories in a recognisable place where humans also believed in magic. hence the domination of the medieval from where people legitimately believed this stuff could happen. Along with that belief comes the limited opportunities for women etc.

I want to look at how this specifically functions in Game of Thrones though. Martin’s book is, above all else, political. it’s a character driven struggle for power and dominance over the rest of the land. To fit in all the violence and intrigue and to tie in with what most fantasy fans believe it makes sense that they’re fighting for is a Kingship. Now in a land like this the army and formation fighting is necessary. History has shown that facing this kind of weaponry armour, arms, stamina etc. are required, it takes a hardy bunch of lads. Women genetically speaking are not predisposed to develop the kind of muscle necessary and in societies like this they were not often given the chance to, more on that in a minute. (However Martin includes several female warriors and leaders: Danaerys, Brienne, The free folk beyond the wall, the leader of one of Tyrion’s wild hordes is a woman – So Martin does accept that women are just as good as men on the battle field before anyone gets angry about that). The men dominate in the ranks however, and frankly that’s because most of them are going to get killed. When all the men die the population needs to replenish itself so that’s one major reason why women are largely absent from the frontline in this series, logically speaking you need more women than men to reproduce quickly. Also in a society that has so many wars and conflicts that at this point I’m beginning to lose track, it’s natural that the vast majority of that societies’ wealth will be spent on wars. therefore, no universities. The careers for the common people are limites to trades. Butcher, baker, candlestick maker, that sort of thing. A lot of these trades involve quite heavy physical labour that quite frankly is difficult and dangerous after about the sixth month of pregnancy, why are you pregnant? Oh yeah, because everybody died. However some women do not become attached or tied down, and even the ones that do often have careers in this world. How many landladies, female innkeepers, blacksmith, cooks  etc. are scattered throughout the books? Some of the women who are prostitutes are clearly doing it because they want to, look at Chataya’s in the later books.

Yes there is a lot of prostitution and un-consensual sex but in a series based around a throne, therefore an aristocracy, women are valued for breeding, preserving lines, purity etc. With purely logical reasoning it’s no surprise that the story Martin set out to write requires women’s sexuality has paramount importance to the plot. It simply wouldn’t be believable that a land with this kind of psyche wouldn’t have prostitutes. I think Martin handles his female characters admirably and for me, even the prostitutes have become some of the most memorable characters of the series.

Postscript: Let us remember that there are no equal opportunities for men in Westeros either. I have yet to hear someone saying that it’s sexist that all the men are conscripted into armies, sent off to war and killed before most of them get through puberty.

Bloomsday 2011

"Ulysses" Book Cover

I confess I never finished Ulysses. I got as far as the Wandering Rocks episode (about halfways through) and then college hit and it wasn’t compulsory so I dropped it. Don’t get me wrong, It’s a brilliant book, it deserves the fame. But it also deserves it’s reputation as a difficult book. I read the Odyssey years ago so I thought it would give me a leg up but I still read Ulysses and a guide to Ulysses simultaneously because there was no other way I could figure out Stephen Dedalus’ theories by which he mathematically proves that Hamlet is Shkespeare’s grandfather (or something similarly ridiculous). I intend to finish it this summer because I did enjoy it.

Despite it’s difficulty it’s structure lends it to easy exploitation by the Irish tourist board which probably accounts for at least some of it’s fame.

This was my first Bloomsday, I had no real plan, no idea of what to do and definitely no costume (have you seen how expensive those things are?). I met a friend and we rambled around the city for a few hours, similar in style to Bloom and Dedalus’ ramblings but we definitely didn’t follow the same course for much of it. We showed up at Stephen’s Green just as the public readings were over and went to coffee shops rather than pubs. I did take a trip around the Irish writers centre, I saw number 7 Eccles street, say Davey Byrne’s and one or two plaques and statues and I saw masses of people in period dresses and more straw boaters than is strictly necessary.

But it rained. It lashed and lashed. then it stopped for about five minutes then lashed again. (I know I didn’t read the full thing but I saw the film and I’m pretty certain it didn’t rain). I hope people’s costumes weren’t ruined.

Next year I’ll be better prepared. First of all I’ll finish the damn thing. Then I’ll get there early, no student lie-ins for me. Then I’ll actually plan the day out properly. Get a decent crowd going up too (Being one of the few of my friends who is unemployed there were only two of us free who were interested). And I’ll make sure I check times of all events on the Irish Writers centre and the Joyce centre website, go to everything I can and start random conversations with anyone wearing a boater. I might even wear a costume.

Ugh… Vampires

Says it all really, doesn’t it?

But why does it say it all? Why do so many of us cringe at the word Vampire these days? Hmm… I wonder…

Oh yeah, this heap of shite:

Or “Twi-Shite” as it’s fondly known amongst my friends.

I know this is probably like flogging a dead horse to most of you out there at this point but after spending copious amounts of time in the presence of teen girls at recent family events I feel it can’t be reiterrated enough. Twilight is a scourge on the face of prose and it is extremely frustrating seeing stuff like this get published for vast sums of money. There is clearly little or no quality control in some publishing houses and unfortunately many good writers are being overlooked in the face of this ‘make-a-quick-buck’ utter brain fluff type fiction (I wonder if Easons would consider replacing their ‘paranormal romance’ section with the ‘make-a-quick-buck’ section?)

Rather than go on about the series many flaws (though I’m not ruling it out as a future blog post) I thought I’d introduce a particular Vampire favourite of my own, This:

Vampire: The Requiem

It is a LARP (Live action Role-playing game for all you muggles) where you create a character who’s more often than not a vampire and you attend ‘court’ or vampire meetings. It’s similar to drama improv and it is immensely cooler than I’m making it sound here. For example on a typical evening we’d meet somewhere on Maynooth campus because they have plenty of rooms we can use for free. We show up in character, some people even dress up. There’s a Prince or head vampire that runs the meeting and there is endless amounts of scheming, backstabbing, violence and crazy events. Most recently my character made a deal with a much older, higher up vampire to put my powers at her service in exchange for information on my missing sire (the vampire who turned me into a vampire), however, my character is far too young to actually have these powers and now that other vampire staged a coup and became Prince she will be calling in her debts pretty soon…

Awesome right? I used to play games like this with my cousin when we were kids only much less detailed and much more PG, We’d pretend we were dragon riders or the crew of a space station and inevitably run around his back garden with various props yelling at each other. So I’m still a big kid really.

 Everything is interconnected, political manoueverings in Dublin games affect us in Maynooth and the best part is I’ve been playing for about nine months and I still haven’t had to read the rulebook! (take that Warhammer 40k and your ridiculously complicated game) People are more than willing to help noobs ann as my character is a vampire who’s only just come out of hiding after 80 years it makes sense that she wouldn’t understand anything. For more info check out Camarilla Ireland

The reason I went on about this in such length is that the games are excellent resources for writers. Not just for people writing about vampires, they have games involving all manner of mythical creatures and horror scenarios, their Changeling: The Lost  rulebook helped me with my current WIP. The fluff surrounding the games is often well written but the real reason they’re useful is characterisation.

I initially had trouble with this, all my characters seemed the same or else they were crude, sitcom style cut-outs. It is difficult to underestimate the effort some people put into their characters for Vampire. It’s more than just amazing acting (Disclaimer: I do not count myself among the good actors), there is huge detail to their back stories and motivations. If anyone wants to know how to write really in-depth characters with complicated relations to each other but not use an information dump then go to a Cam game. I specifically made my character shy and distrustful so I could sit and observe, as she (and I) gradually learned about the people around me so the plot gets managebly more detailed and compelling. The characters seem realistic because it is real people considering their actions and motivations based on their character sheets, It’s a great example of character driven fiction as we have no foreknowledge of the plot.

A schedule of games can be found on their website and they are played monthly in Dublin, Maynooth and Cork.

Go forth and characterise!

My top 10

So here is the current version of my ever changing top ten favourite books. Number one has been pretty consistent for the past few years but the others are ever changing and in no particular order (click on the links to buy them on amazon)

1. Use of Weapons – Iain M. Banks

– his best Culture novel I think, very original, plenty of twists and the aesthetics had me hooked from the first page. The conclusion left me reeling and I could read it again and again ad nauseum

2. The God of Small things – Arundhati Roy

– brilliant, challenging a lot of things about identity and sexuality, very well told and since I’ve read it I’ve tried some other Indian literature such as Salman Rushdie, beacause I know almost nothing about India it’s almost like reading fantasy again  – set in another land but in a curiously relevant way

3. Let the right one in – John Ajvide Lindqvist

– The scarriest horror book I’ve read in a long time – though he gets pretty graphic and disturbing the scarriest bits are his characterisation. He’s so astute it makes the whole thing much more real (as well as the main character’s morbid fascination with murders even though he’s only twleve years old…)

4. Life of Pi – Yann Martel

– amazing. The narrator claimed it was a story to make you believe in God. It didn’t quite do that but it certainly challenged my devout atheism (which was in fashion seen as I was attending a convent school at the time). It doesn’t try to convert you, the main character is just particularly religious. It’s just a great yarn which the blurb explains better than I can

5. Good Omens – Terry Pratchett

– A brilliant reimagining of the apocolypse/book of revelations. Hillarious, witty and a very unique take on the character of Damien

6. The Wasteland – T.S. Eliot

– the poem is amazing. If you don’t understand it don’t worry, apparently that’s part of the point. Sparknotes have great explanations on it and there’s some amazing lines that will haunt you (“I will show you fear in a handful of dust“…)

7. Maus – Art Spiegelman

– Brilliant graphic novel, part of a reimagining of how to tell stories on the holocaust (see my previous post)

8. Paradise Lost – John Milton

– I know i sound a bit up myself/highbrow putting this on, and I swear I’m not showing off, it is and amazing book and to be honest part of the reason I loved it so much was Dr. Conrad Brunstrom’s lectures on it. Very insightful and entertaining, the book is an epic in the true sense of the word

9. On Writing – Stephen King

– I read a lot of books on how to write, how to improve your writing, how not to do it and even how to develope your creativity – basically lots of rubbish like that. This is the only one that I can still remember any advice from that I actually found useful, it was fun to read the biographical section in it but it’s filled with lots of practical advice on writing too

10. Wolf of the Plains – Conn Igulden

– I moved from fantasy to historical fiction after reading about seven consecutive books that were basically Lord of the Rings again. This is much better than his series on Caesar as it’s much more historically accurate and Genghis Khan (whom this series is about) is my favourite historical figure so it’s a win-win situation

Bonus no. 11. Anything by Douglas Adams – especially Last Chance to See

– Every word from that man’s MAC was pure gold but this one I think stands above the rest.

This was harder than I thought, there’s probably plenty I left out and more that will replace these by next week but for now that’s how it stands

Holocaust Narratives

"Beatrice and Virgil" Book Cover So without consciously intending to, I’ve read  several books about the holocaust recently. I read Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel, The Book Thief  by Markus Zusak and MAUS by Art Spiegelmann. All turned out to be great books and all turned out to be about the holocaust but they told their stories in very different ways.

Beatrice and Virgil is a new departure from Martels previous, bestselling work Life of Pi. I read Life of Pi years ago and loved it so I was looking forward to more of the same, a fantastical story with well developed characters involving animals. Instead Martel bludgens us over the head from the get go with his overrriding message that traditional narratives are unable to capture an experience as horrific as this with any degree of accuracy. Which is fair enough in itself and despite a few episodes apparently added to pad out the book (like the essay on taxidermy) I really enjoyed it. He found thoroughly original ways of describing horror and I enjoyed his theories about how writing needed to change to reflect this (I will not go into his methods here to avoid spoilers but they were truly original). However, I still have a few issues with the book:

1. the extremely abrupt ending, it did not seem to fit in with the rest of the book and for days I was unsure if i liked it or not, if I could make it fit with the rest of the characters or not.

2. there were a few episodes in the book that seemed to add nothing to either the plot, the characterisation or his overrriding message. (such as the essay on taxidermy, the scene near the end with his cat and dog or the protracted description of flip books at the start)

The thing is I’m not sure if these issues are even issues. He could easily have added them on purpose to show how perplexing these events are, how random some events can seem, how monotony can reign at the heart of violence or any number of things like that.

Though the book did have issues I ultimately liked it because it made me uncertain.

 

Holocaust NarrativesThen I read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I think it’s a young adult book but it again deals with some dark and complex things. I like that it doesn’t talk down to it’s demographic like so many others I read recently. It’s about a girl living in Germany during world war two and it’s narrated by Death.

The authors’ concept of death is strikingly original, even moving at points. the story is full of intergections from him that add variety to the self-conscious narrative. Though the book was never going to end happily Zusak fills it with all degrees of emotion, giving yet another unique perspective on one of the most devastating events of recent history.

Next I read MAUS. And again I found a startlingly original way of telling the same story. The Nazis are depicted as cats, the Jews as mice and panel after panel, picture after picture, Art Interviews his Father on his life in GErmany during the Holocaust and we get a deeply moveing multilayered story not only of the Holocaust itself but of survivors guilt and how people like Art and indeed myself, who never went through anything like this, had extremely easy lives in the aftermath of such trauma, try to understand it.

I feel I’ve gone on too long, but this is a topic I will return to again, narratives of trauma and how art constantly finds new ways to tell the same story. How, fifty years later, this story is still relevant and still evolving with each telling.