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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

why I am done with fantasy that abuses women in the name of “realism”

Game of Thrones

[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
• dragons
• magical power in royal blood
• out-of-body spirit murders
• human minds projected into animals
• giants
• direwolves
• 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.

posted in:
maryann rants | tv buzz
  • MC

    I want to discuss something from the books which was massively changed in the most recent season and likely not appear as a storyline in future seasons of the show, and I would like your permission to do so MaryAnn.

    It is something that makes how this season played out even more galling.

  • I assume this relates to what I’ve written. If so, just put a huge spoiler warning at the top of your comment.

    If it’s not related to my post, then this is not the place for it.

  • MC

    As I started writing about this particular plotline, one which is vastly different on the show, it occurred to me how it could potentially be brought up next season as someone’s plan that did not come to fruition, and in the exceedingly fleeting chance that is the case, I am not going to discuss it.

    However, it was relevant because it was a major thread from the books that dealt with the idea of women having power over men that was omitted from the show.

  • Interesting that that’s a thing that gets omitted…

  • crowTrobot

    Cersei’s Walk of Atonement is one of the more overt critiques of Westeros’ harsh patriarchy, and religion in general, that Martin has come up with. She’s being punished for having sex. Not incest or murder but sex. Something her previous husband, Robert Baratheon, did with impunity.

  • Kat105

    Thank you for this post. Yes, I really do wish that there were more fantasy/sci-fi worlds in which gender/sex didn’t matter, where men and women swung swords or fired blasters at each other and were equally educated and where there were multiple women in positions of power
    and nobody cared. Where men and women could be allies or enemies and it wouldn’t even be worth noting that so-and-so was a woman.

    As for the role-reversal scenario you brought up, you don’t need to imagine it. It’s not fantastical at all. Because that actually happened with Catherine the Great. She had many lovers throughout her reign and they received monetary benefits in return for pleasing her: estates, serfs, riches, political positions, etc. Some of her lovers were much younger than her and some of them were recommended to her by their predecessors.

    The whole argument about how showing the suffering and brutalization of women over and over and OVER again is somehow supposed to be a critique of it…sorry, that doesn’t wash with me. It reminds me of those bad comedies where this one character is constantly made to be the
    butt of jokes and the audience is supposed to laugh at them, but then, in the very last scene, suddenly the movie tries to have its cake and eat it too by saying that this character is a person who has feelings and we should feel sorry for them. It just comes off as exploitation to me.

    But I think that the worst part of all of this is that maybe the reason why some people think that the misogyny is realistic is because they think that it’s an intrinsic and unchanging part of human nature. Of course men do horrible things to women. They did so in the Middle Ages and they still do so now, so obviously it’s just part of being human and what could be more realistic than that? Obviously, if a man treats a woman like a human being, that’s just the result of modern P.C. thinking. If a man is left to his own devices, with nothing to stop him, he’ll naturally start abusing the next woman he sees. Which, if that’s the case…yikes, people. Good to know that you have such a stellar view of men.

  • I get how the concept works. And yet it didn’t have to be shot in a way that takes quite so much glee in her chastisement.

    As I have said many times before in relation to lots of movies lately, if your (supposed) critique of misogyny is virtually indistinguishable from misogyny itself, you’re doing something wrong.

  • Because that actually happened with Catherine the Great.

    Yeah, and there are a few other women we could say this about. But they are anomalies. They lived their lives in direct opposition to the misogyny and patriarchy around them. And it’s impossible to believe that they didn’t get any pushback because of it. They are exceptions that prove the rule. They aren’t an example of a culture that unquestionably saw women as the equals of men.

    maybe the reason why some people think that the misogyny is realistic is because they think that it’s an intrinsic and unchanging part of human nature

    And fiction only reinforces this. When it doesn’t need to.

  • RogerBW

    Yeah. There’s a thin line between “this is a horrible thing” and “look more closely at this thing – oh, it’s horrible isn’t it – look some more”, and it’s not in the same place for everyone, but it is there even so.

  • althea

    Catherine the Great was treated with respect because she was lucky. She managed to get away with keeping the crown, and she was filthy rich. Filthy rich can get you all manner of respect. Elizabeth I is a similar example because she was the undisputed heir to the throne (at least, was successful in getting and keeping the crown on her head.) Hatshepsut is a better example because she seized her crown more or less off Thutmose III’s baby head.

  • althea

    And for those who don’t care about looking more closely, it’s still there to reinforce the misogyny. Nothing is there to contrast it. I’m no psychologist, but it may be that such a thing as this is subliminally meant for the audience to absorb its normality. Nobody on that long walk sympathized with Cersei or was put off by the harsh punishment. Were we instead supposed to be among the townspeople dumping on her, knowing what a bad person she is and how we were looking forward to her comeuppance?

  • Allen W

    I recommend to those who have the doom and gloom view of the Middle Ages dePizan’s City of Ladies and Treasure of the City of Ladies — an early 15th century discussion of the role of women in that society by a female author. If you look hard, you’ll find “anomalies” in most western European societies at various social levels — Jewish women doctors, particularly eye surgeons, female merchants, powerful abbesses, and so on. There are models out there, but it requires a bit of research.

  • Tahir Noel

    Your points are ridiculous in a way, your forgetting that in this same episode, SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    in this same episode there is a female who gets her revenge brutally on a man I the brothel. Also no one in the crowd sympathized with her because the people did not like her family so to watch the queen suffer was a great thing. They also intensified her ways just to make her vengeance in the next season even more intensifying. Also this is medieval times, and based on a book, things were never like this then, the resources for a woman to extract her will upon others were not available and a woman is using her mystical power as a power advantage. Sersei the whole season was showing off her power. I think your being very centerminded with your examples and though I agree the show can show more woman in higher positions, you have to be realistic. Woman during that time, only had their sex appeal and rarely the means of skills to rise to power. But there is a woman knight, a female assassin in training, a family of woman warriors that were not explored and will be next season, a dragon owning queen enforcing her will, and Woman witches all around the kingdom guiding their people.

  • It’s true, we’ve done a very good job of erasing women from the history books.

  • in this same episode there is a female who gets her revenge brutally on a man I the brothel.

    Yes. And isn’t it interesting that even though Arya’s desire for revenge on that man had absolutely nothing to do with the business of a brothel, a male writer chose to invent a scene that involved the violent abuse of little girls.

    you have to be realistic.

    I am being realistic. You are the one who fails to understand that these are fictional scenarios invented to a purpose. These scenarios did not have to be as they are.

  • bronxbee

    this is *not* medieval times as they were here on this earth in northern europe… it is a fantasy series… we don’t have a giant wall, or death walkers or dragons. therefore “realism” is not required to the extent that women must be shamed or tortured to prove a point or satisfy a mob.

  • Shiraz

    Yeah, late to the party here, but like everyone else said, GoT isn’t historical fiction, it’s fantasy.
    I peeked at some forums (which one should never do if they want to avoid misogyny) and learned that some viewers watched that scene with Sersei, pumped their fists and screamed “Yeaaaaaah!”
    Um, gross. Theon, the exception to the rule that only women must be sadistically tortured, was a absolute bastard in every way. But when Ramsey Snow was torturing him and eventually castrated him, I did not enjoy watching the violence. Actually, it was horrible. I’m not patting myself on the back here, but why would I enjoy that shit? Is revenge satisfying? Sure. But Ramsey wasn’t avenging the Starks, he was just showing us, the audience, how fucked up he is.
    Other forum posters went on to say, hey, women got raped all the time during the middle ages (once again reinforcing that many viewers don’t understand the GoT isn’t historical drama but fantasy). So they defend the rapes and sexual humiliations as “real” or “realistic.” Except the show is fantasy. The writers weren’t making narrative decisions based on history, but on a rather visceral concept of EDGEY. As in, “Hey, can we make people wince? Should we try? Yes!”
    And while some my not be phased by that kind of shit, others have a trauma threshold when it comes to sexual abuse and victimization. GoT has enough intrigue going on. They can cool it with rapey shit and the slut-shaming crap already.
    Why does Sansa have to be a professional victim? Why does Theon get a redemption arc at her expense? His former self was a prick. Unless he turns into a snowboard that Sansa can ride on the way down to safety (remember, they jumped the wall together), who cares if he’s redeemed?
    Stannis’s death was ungodly kind and dignified — and he freaking burned his little daughter at the stake.
    That little psycho-shit Joffrey should thank the old gods and they new that he was only poisoned.

  • Tahir Noel makes the point I was complaining about: that “realism” is never an issue when it comes to dragons or magic, only when women must be abused.

  • Why does Theon get a redemption arc at her expense?

    Exactly. His reaction to and coping with his abuse has been dealt with much more sensitively and sympathetically than that of any of the women.

  • Allen W

    Interesting contrast of Cersei and Stannis. However, the most likely reason that his death wasn’t shown is that he’s not dead. Has GoT EVER shied away from showing us the death of a major character? (We did see the sword hit Ned’s neck, though it was quick.)

  • So then that would mean we couldn’t trust Brienne to follow through on her promise to kill Stannis? Or she was incompetent with her sword? The witch has abandoned Stannis — she’s not gonna be resurrecting him?

    Or is there some other way Stannis could not be dead that I’m missing?

  • Allen W

    One possibility is that she’s prevented from doing so at the last moment by a third party (an enemy, Pod yelling about the candle, etc.). This seems unlikely considering how far along in her swing she was, but the show doesn’t care much about physics.
    However, I actually expect that his “last words”, “Do your duty,” reminded Brienne that rescuing Sansa was her overriding duty, and live-Stannis might yet be helpful in accomplishing it.
    Plus, as you say, at this point death isn’t really a punishment for Stannis, and Brienne could realize that.

  • Patlandness

    The more I encounter “prestige television” and all its wallowing in the worst aspects of humanity, all I want to watch on TV anymore is “Star Trek” (TOS/TNG) or “M*A*S*H”.

  • Bluejay

    Yes. This. I just finished the season finale and don’t have time to write more at the moment, but you’re absolutely spot on. What a horrible story for women this season has turned out to be.

  • David

    I actually think this has more to do with setting up her inevitable revenge on the people who did this to her. The whole time I’m watching this I’m just thinking, “man, she is going to FUCK. THEM. UP!”

  • That’s probably true. But there are other ways she could have been humiliated that weren’t so gendered.

  • Someone132

    “Can no one imagine a world in which men are subordinate to women?”

    “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.”

    Believe it or not, I’ve read a book like that three years ago.It was called Daughter of the Blood, and was part of the Black Jewels trilogy, written by Anne Bishop. In it, women control practically all power and it’s socially fashionable to keep men as expendable sex slaves. There are some powerful men and female prostitutes too, but that’s exception to the rule, the rule that involves men getting castrated for the pleasure of baying female crowds.

    On the whole, I thought it was pretty terrible, with the loosest world building I ever saw in a fantasy novel, poor pacing and truly overpowered protagonists, male and female (and that’s ignoring all the potentially squicky stuff to do with sex, + outright pedophilia indulged in by the villains, etc.) Nevertheless, someone certainly can imagine this kind of a world.

  • Shiraz

    I just remembered that all the nude scenes involving women don’t involve any armpit or pubic hair. That’s not realistic or has any basis in history. But, oh yeah, this is fantasy that borrows from reality when it suits the needs of a certain demo.

  • Women getting raped = gritty, harsh reality we need to confront.

    Women with body hair = gross!

  • RogerBW

    There’s a crossover with infantilisation that I find rather creepy.

  • LaSargenta

    It is spreading to men. The hair-removal by men has spread from the body builder guys to the (relatively) mainstream. I do wonder if it is a trying to look younger thing.

  • Shiraz

    I just assumed it was because of fads in porn. Porn aesthetics are mainstream now.
    I heard a younger cousin of mine chatting with his friends one day about all the porn sites they go to, and he admitted that seeing pubic hair on a woman in real life would wig him out. He’s 16.
    Though it’s funny that back in the ’70s a centerfold didn’t have to have a Brazilian or big fake breasts.
    The male gaze, ahhh, so fickle. My little cousin would be appalled.
    Of course, capitalism plays its part too. How can you make a lot of money off of people if they’re content looking natural?

  • LaSargenta

    Funnily enough, just today I read an article in New York Magazine that is a Sex Diary entry (why they have this, I’ve no clue…probably some editor’s idea of ‘edgy’) where this guy is writing about how much he likes a hairy bush.

    No clue if he’d like hair other places on a woman…maybe he’d feel like he got the jackpot if she didn’t depiliate under the arms or elsewhere.

    Anyhow, fortunately, in the real world, there are people of both sexes who like hair. Or, at least a natural state.

    And, yeah, they always have to be selling something.

  • Shiraz

    That IS funny!

  • This anti-male world you conceived of sounds like the synopsis to the Star Trek TNG episode “Angel One”… written by a man, no less.

  • In the Pittsburgh area, there’s a place called “The Natural Look Electrolysis.” Gaak.

  • I bet there are some men who actually don’t realize that women are not naturally hairless. Or perhaps merely don’t want to accept that.

  • Chris

    Have you read Melanie Rawn’s Exile series? It features a matriarchal society in a fantasy universe.

  • I have not. But a quick Google tells me readers have been waiting 15 years for the final installment in what is meant to be a trilogy, so maybe I’ll wait till the third book is published. I hate to be left hanging!

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