why I am done with fantasy that abuses women in the name of “realism”
[some spoilers for the season five finale of Game of Thrones]
There’s a lot to gasp and gossip over after last night’s season five finale of Game of Thrones: the now-traditional end-of-season body count is higher than ever, and it’s pretty shocking, some of the characters who have been dispatched. There is already speculation revolving around whether some of the characters who appear to have died might not be back, because this is fantasy and magic is real, so that’s entirely possible.
In fact, the following are all things that Game of Thrones has no trouble imagining in the name of fantasy:
• all kinds of resurrections from the dead
• magical power in royal blood
• out-of-body spirit murders
• human minds projected into animals
• two different kinds of zombielike creatures (White Walkers and Greyscale victims)
• people who can change their faces to disguise themselves
• swords and daggers with special powers
• visions projected in flames
• prophetic dreams
• alchemical Wildfire
• (pretty sure there’s more that I’m forgetting at the moment).
And yet there is one big thing that Game of Thrones cannot imagine:
• a world in which women are not subordinate to men, not physically and sexually abused, not ritually humiliated, and not murdered to serve the purposes of men.
To be fair, GoT is far from the only story that involves imaginative speculation about how the world could be very, very different than it actual is that is yet somehow unable to see past the patriarchal system we live under. It’s pretty standard, in fact, for fantasy and science fiction to wear these blinders. I’ll be generous and say that it’s not even surprising, given that patriarchy is the sea we all swim in, and fish do not notice the water without particular effort to do so.
But it’s pretty galling nevertheless in genres that pride themselves on imagination. Can no one imagine a world in which the genders work on an even footing with one another? Can no one imagine a world in which men are subordinate to women?
I can see why that last one especially might be just too damn scary for many people… such as the men who run Hollywood.
Imagine a world in which men are valued primarily for their bodies, for their physical labor and as sexual playthings for women. Imagine a world in which men have to placate and sooth powerful women in exchange for protection from other powerful women, or just to have a comfortable life… or one in which smart men, seething at how their talents are downplayed and ignored, scheme and connive and trick powerful women in order to achieve some status and power of their own.
This is no more impossible than dragons. It’s much more likely than resurrecting the dead. It would be a brilliant way to comment on and critique gender relations in our real world. So why don’t we ever see it?
Because men cannot conceive of it. I mean, literally, even if the idea were to occur to them, they could not develop such a world. It is beyond their imagination. And even if they could conceive of it, it would mean that the fantasy world they were creating would no longer be a particular fantasy for them. Why should they write stories in which their avatars are powerless and abused? Where’s the fun in that?
(It’s worth noting that of the 50 episodes that have aired so far, only two women are credited among the writers — Vanessa Taylor and Jane Espenson — and only on four episodes in all, and none in the past two years. The vast majority of episodes have been written by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, under the guidance of novelist George R.R. Martin. So as the show has gotten more outrageous in its treatment of women, there have been no women around to potentially say, Hey, this might be problematic. And there has been only one female director, Michelle MacLaren, and she directed only four episodes, none this season.)
That is why I’m done with Game of Thrones. Because it’s hard to find the fun in it.
Oh, I’m sure the creators of this show believe they are being critical of the extreme patriarchy of Westeros and its associated realms, but in just this final episode, these two scenarios play out:
• A man who, in the last episode, murdered his own daughter because he believed it would offer magical furtherance of his political goals? The death here of Stannis Baratheon is treated onscreen as if it is a mercy to him, and he is allowed dignity in death: his end is not depicted at all. We do not watch him die. We do watch him welcome death as a release from pain and grief. He welcomes death, and it is a relief to him. It is in no way the punishment the woman dealing it out, Brienne, intends it to be.
• But Cersei Lannister? She is paraded through the streets of King’s Landing, stark naked, head shorn, feet bleeding, while the citizens of the city hurl rotten fruit, bodily fluids, and the gods know what else at her. There is no dignity for Cesei — who is a nasty, evil person, but arguably no worse than Stannis — nor for the actor who portrays her. The scene goes on and on — we see every step of Cersei’s journey, witness every incremental assault on her nude body and on her spirit, watch her crumble from a queen to a wretch. It is the most epic slut-shaming ever. And while her tormentor, the High Sparrow, had previously seemed to be utterly apolitical, there was suddenly a hint in his grilling of her during her confession of political motivations behind his actions.
This was Cersei’s shame and atonement. Where was Stannis’s?
We get it. We women have gotten it since forever. The world is unkind to us. This world and Westeros. Where is the fantasy of kindness? Why is that so unfathomable when White Walkers and Faceless Men are not? Where is the fantasy of power for women simply because they are women — in the same way that men are granted it — and not power only for a rare few women (Cersei, Arya, Brienne) who are inevitably punished anyway for taking that power?
I might watch future episodes of Game of Thrones — to see if perhaps it improves — but I will no longer waste my time trying to interpret it and writing about it. Maybe I’ll use that time instead to write my own fantasy. The kind I want to read and see.