There’s been a lot of web buzz about this most recent season of Game of Thrones, particularly on the topic of sexual assault in the series and the A Song of Ice and Fire novels. There is much, much more rape in the books than the tv show–arguably more than be accounted for by the show’s condensed format. And just today, George R.R. Martin himself weighed in on the issue, saying: “I want to portray struggle.”
I gave up on Game of Thrones pretty much after season 2–in part because I stopped getting HBO, but honestly I haven’t missed it. I’ve read the books up to the most recently released fifth installment. I’m on the fence about whether I want to keep reading. To be very blunt, I haven’t particularly enjoyed the books since A Storm of Swords (no. 3). I’d say intellectually I get the appeal, but it’s honestly something I wonder about. Why do so many people love Game of Thrones? And by extension, why do we love high fantasy?
To just about everyone who knows me, I’ve been “the girl who loves zombies” for many years now (more than a decade) because my love of horror is one of my defining features. But not many people know that before my devotion to the grim, grotesque, and macabre, I read a lot of fantasy. Big, fat epic, high fantasy novels. From ages 11-14, that was pretty much all I read. (That and Animorphs. I adore Animorphs.) Then I discovered Stephen King and Mary Shelley and George A. Romero’s Dead movies and there wasn’t much looking back. (I regret nothing.)
So there’s probably a part of me that feels a little nostalgic about fantasy or even maybe unfairly associates the genre with early adolescence. But given its prevalence in popular culture today, I think fantasy has rounded a corner from the late nineties when you were still a huge nerd for having a dragon on your t-shirt. Martin is obviously a major, major part of this, as were The Lord of the Rings movies in the early 2000s. We could debate the dynamics of how that happened. However, I’m more interested in the cultural function of those texts.
Specifically, I’m curious about Martin’s desire to recreate a particular time period accurately (with a touch of magic added)–and our subsequent attraction to the brutality of that era. Put another way: why did we want to read/watch a story with such extraordinary violence in the first place? As many have pointed out, rape is hardly a new plot point to Game of Thrones–why did we want to see it?
I’ve had a couple of conversations lately trying to distill the speculative genres down to their most essential elements. Science fiction at its most basic looks to the future.Horror is, you could easily claim, the genre of the present moment–a genre driven most by emotion, particularly dread. Arguably, most fantasy (especially high fantasy) looks to the past.
The question becomes, then, what do we get out of these glances backwards? Martin insists that it would be dishonest to create a utopia where there was none, but what is the benefit to returning to an “accurate” reimagining of a specific subsection of history? Is it simple relief that we’ve progressed beyond such brutality? A recognition of the ways in which we haven’t? Is it merely escapism–a chance to disappear into a complex world, to experience the battle and intrigue and extraordinary loss between the pages?
To put it another way: if the frequency of sexual assault is somehow necessary to the efficacy of A Song of Ice and Fire as a creative work, what is the end result of that work? What is its aim? What do we get in exchange? Why is it worth it?
I don’t think it’s accidental that many, many high fantasy novels are war novels. The Lord of the Rings is one of the great fantastic war stories. A Song of Ice and Fire is certainly a series about war, as Martin has made clear. As a society, we find war mesmerizing–so much so that we read about fictional wars in worlds that never existed. But one of the great–I believe–successes of The Lord of Rings that it doesn’t deal in violence gratuitously. It tracks the marks war leaves on people in subtler, quieter ways. That may make it less “gritty” and “realistic” than Game of Thrones but…well, what of it?
Because at the end of the day, when we talk about fantasy–whatever history or pseudo-history on which the world is based–we’re talking about pure invention. We’re talking about completely fabricated universes. Fantasy worlds can be absolutely anything. They are no more bound by “historical accuracy” than they are the laws of physics. And every aspect of a fantastic world is therefore a choice made by the author. To say anything else is to deal in some serious bullshit. As much as it is to say that people of color are absent or oppressed in fantastic works because of similar historical restrictions. No, the author chose to leave them out, whether consciously or unconsciously. They may have done it out of a love for medieval Anglo-Saxon society, but if they’re not actively writing a historical novel, there’s nothing stopping them but their own limitations.
The reality is we choose to delve into the brutality of Westeros and Essos. On some level, we find it entertaining–we should be honest about that. And rape as a plot point is nothing more than an easy (one might say lazy) expression of that brutality. It is no more demanded by the setting than any other aspect of the story. The reality is that we demand it–we expect it. It has become part of our cultural language for women. It’s a shorthand for “female character development.”
But we’re not required to use it. As with all storytelling, it’s a choice.