Game of Thrones Fatigue

So Season 2 is drawing to a close. What have we learned? Peter Dinklage is awesome (not that we needed to be reminded), this season is much less anchored without Sean Bean, and boobies solve everything.

Sean Bean Death Statistics
When will the madness end?

Awhile ago I wrote a post about prostitution in the first few books basically trying to come up with a possible explanation for the sheer volume of violent sex scenes, however, try as I might, I couldn’t come up with an explanation for the addition of even more violent sex scenes (almost exclusively against women) in the TV show other than more boobs = higher ratings = more money to roll around in. Sex may sell but the lack of male nudity is particularly vexing, at least balance it out HBO!

At the time I was planning to write a post reviewing each episode of season 2, I even mentioned it in the comments, because I was still caught up in the excitement of the New Big Thing. Way back in the distant past of last summer I was all for Game of Thrones (or GoT as all the cool cats are calling it). It was exam season so in an attempt not to study I turned to TV for a distraction. Actual real life TV, not internet TV (desperate measures for desperate times).

I watched all of season 1 as it aired and immediately bought the first four books off amazon. I read them all over the summer, the per cent read on my kindle crept up ever so slowly. I took breaks to read other books. Had one tantrum after a certain event and stopped reading for a while, got bored on several occasions and took holidays from Westeros. Then my cousin kindly lent me Dance with Dragons. I couldn’t hack it though, reading it in bed was a dangerous past time, one slip and I could have broken my nose. So I got the kindle edition instead. Some day soon murders will be committed with the hardback edition and bloodied copies will be held up in plastic evidence bags in courtrooms (just how George would have wanted it).

Overall the whole process of discovering TV show, getting really excited, reading all the books and getting sick of the whole thing took about 5 months(ish).

Now that push has come to shove as it were, I can’t bring myself to review each season 2 episode individually. I’ve tried watching and can’t. A few minutes into the second episode I found myself looking wistfully at the ironing and started tackling that instead. This is the only way they can keep me interested, if I watch them while doing something marginally less interesting; the flat has never been cleaner! I think I’m suffering from overexposure. After a summer long binge on slowly declining prose I’m sick of it (quite literally, in bed with a throat infection today, maybe I’m allergic).

The problems I have with GoT are x-fold (x because I can’t be bothered to count and I reserve the right to add more reasons as more books and episodes are released).

  1. It should have been a trilogy The first two books (in my opinion) are the strongest and the most action packed. Then they get gradually more dragged out as they fall into a wormhole and time is warped so that nothing happens for hundreds of pages. In Dance with Dragons sweet FA happens until the end, and even then, shocking deaths and gritty plot twists are no longer that shocking or gritty the 20th time they happen.
  2. Too much repetition this is really a sub-complaint from number 1 as I believe this is a consequence of the series being stretched over 7 books rather than a nice neat trilogy.  In every book one character is travelling across a continent. Seen one seen ’em all. I don’t mind reading about the few interesting things that happen on these journeys but there’s only so many campfires and tired voyagers I can take before it all gets a bit samey. A lot of stuff repeats itself in the series but I’ll stick with this example because (MINOR SPOILER INCOMING) by the time Brienne sets out on her journey to find Sansa (one of her many treks across the continent) the trope gets completely absurd. We know even before she begins that the whole thing is futile because, by virtue of Sansa’s POV we know Brienne is heading in the complete wrong direction! The whole way along we know that these chapters are pretty much pointless. Now semi-interesting stuff happens at the end of Brienne’s plotline but the entire thing drags out for ages beforehand telling us virtually nothing. Her whole plotline could have been compressed without loosing anything (/SPOILER)
  3. Gritty gets dull without substance The many deaths are no longer shocking. They get fairly predictable and they don’t stick. We know it’s coming so we’ve gotten over it before it happens and quite often once a character is killed they’ll be back later. A quick guide to GoT deaths: if you don’t actually see a character die – as in there is no way they can physically recover and the viewpoint character sees them actually take their last breath – then they’re probably not dead. And if they definitely are dead I’m going to bet by book 7 there’ll be a 50% chance they all come back as white walkers. It’s hard to mourn characters once you recognise this pattern. The last time a death surprised me was (one of the many) at the red wedding. Gritty ‘realism’ can only take you far. If your prose and characters can’t carry it then it becomes a gimmick like everything else and I believe Martin’s characters are less and less capable of picking up the slack. Also, having read a lot more of the books than I had when I wrote that last post, I no longer stand by my vehement defense of Martin’s use of sex as realistic, plot relevant and useful to explore characters. 

    A concise summary of books 1-5
  4. Too much is kept behind the scenes In a series where incresingly little happens – or as a former GM of mine said ‘events happen, but the general plot just trundles along at a snails pace‘ – Martin can’t afford to be coy and maddeningly obscure about absolutely everything. I’ll never complain that nothing happens in Westeros, I just get angry at reading more and more details of feast preparations, when these feasts largely serve as exposition to try and get me to memorise thousands and thousands of minor characters, while at the same time so much is actually happening just never described. Events at the tower of joy are only ever hinted at but in away that make them seem pivotal. Too much exposition (and sexposition) spaces out the interesting stuff until he finally adds insult to injury in Dance with Dragons when fascinating, exciting and plot essential events finally happen during a feast in Winterfell (when *spoiler* eats *spoiler*) and it’s barely referred to! The meal is described in the usual boring detail and it was only afterwards on the Westeros forums I learned all the details. Now one or two events like this are fine. This subtlety encourages speculation and keeps his fan base loyal and adds some much-needed depth. I don’t give a fiddler’s what they eat or wear but I want more than occassional hints at the bigger picture.
  5. We’ve Stagnated I’ve already gone on for longer than I intended but by the end of book 5 most characters haven’t moved very far and don’t look like they’re going to move any time soon. The next few books will either be incredibly exciting as he plays catch up to get all the characters in roughly the same place and to fullfill all the many themes he’s been setting up and plot events he foreshadowed then ignored. Or else they will continue in the way they have been going: with very little happening on-screen/page and a hasty wrap-up crammed into the last hundred pages.

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.