For months now, I've been counting the days to April 17th, the release date of HBO's Game of Thrones. As a longtime fan of the books I have high hopes for the TV series as delicious entertainment, which is the chief characteristic of George R. R. Martin's books at their best. I don't expect it to offer social commentary like The Wire or philosophical depth like Six Feet Under (my favorite shows), because that is not what the books contain. What I hope is that like the books, the show will feature compelling characters, suspenseful plotting and colorful set pieces bringing Martin's vividly imagined world to life.
I was surprised to read Ginia Bellafante's piece in the New York Times, as it manages to do so many wrong things at once. The piece is rife with inaccuracies that could have been avoided by a cursory skimming of the book (or even back cover copy), is openly, even proudly contemptuous of the entire fantasy genre, and -- perhaps worst of all -- is patronizing to women readers.
It's clear that Bellafante was probably the wrong audience for this particular show, but she did not do her due diligence as a critic. If she had, she would have refrained from making remarks such as:
Given the bizarre climate of the landmass at the center of the bloody disputes -- and the series rejects no opportunity to showcase a beheading or to offer a slashed throat close-up -- you have to wonder what all the fuss is about. We are not talking about Palm Beach.
The series was inspired by the Wars of the Roses in medieval England, which is not a secret (and was mentioned in Laura Miller's recent profile of Martin in the New Yorker), so no, it isn't Palm Beach. People vied for the throne in England even though there was nasty weather. Go figure, but that's history.
The fictitious land of the Seven Kingdoms is not, as per Bellafante, "a universe of dwarfs." The one dwarf, Tyrion Lannister, is genetically disposed to be one -- he is not of a race of dwarfs. This really ought to have been clear, since -- as often happens in our world -- Tyrion's entire family is of average height.
But perhaps the oddest and most noteworthy inaccuracy is the following:
Game of Thrones is a costume-drama sexual hopscotch... The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise.
Where to begin. I will be surprised if HBO bothered to invent sex scenes for this show, because the books already have lots and lots of sex. If the showrunners have executed a faithful adaptation from page to screen, "illicitness" will run rampant.
But more remarkably, Bellafante is here positing that only men are interested in fantasy.
And she elaborates on this theme:
While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin's, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to The Hobbit first. Game of Thrones is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population's other half.
The characterization of fantasy as "boy fiction" is offensive to the genre and offensive to women. That we for the most part will only read what Oprah has picked, and especially if a woman wrote it, is a stereotype that is not only demeaning to women -- it is also untrue. Like Bellafante, I can offer personal anecdotes to back up my assertion, some of which involve stunning young women dressing up as Martin's characters at Worldcon. Sometimes in very tight spandex. But that would be beside the point.
When we categorize books as "boy fiction" and "girl fiction" it's just another way to promote gender stereotyping. It is predicated on the assumption that people will only read books that reflect their personal experiences, so therefore women will only deign to read about dating, shopping, and kitchen intrigues. This is patronizing to women and undermines one of the core purposes of literature, which is to take us on voyages beyond the scope of our personal experience so that we expand in our understanding and capacity for empathy. And I think most women get this; I think most women are willing to read novels with male protagonists in worlds apart from their own. To imply otherwise is an offense to the gender.
There is room for a discussion of Martin's books, and the genre as a whole, from a feminist perspective. But that is very different from dismissing the genre outright as "boy fiction" -- a dismissal that exhibits as much maturity as a children's clubhouse bearing the sign "No Girls Allowed." Now in 2011, can we grow beyond that, please?
A good fantasy novel is always about human beings. By and large, the people who love the works of George R. R. Martin do so because the characters are intriguing and the plots engrossing. A fantasy novel that falls short of these requirements does not succeed -- and that is true of every genre. And while Martin offers readers a rollicking good time above all else, other fantasy writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Guy Gavriel Kay and Ursula K. LeGuin use fantasy as a tool to explore themes, in books that are as profound as the most revered works of literary fiction. Both the purely entertaining and literary forms of fantasy have an appeal that is not specific to either gender.
I'll be watching the show with my husband when it comes out next week. We may enjoy it for different reasons, but ultimately there is one goal we will both share: to have fun.