Tag: game of thrones (Page 1 of 2)

Will the Dominos Fall in Westeros: When Secession Spreads (or Not)

Folks have been picking on the last Game of Thrones episode for a variety of unrealistic or unearned developments. Here’s my take on the secessionist element. Folks have been picking on the last Game of Thrones episode for a variety of unrealistic or unearned developments.  Here’s my take on the secessionist element.

From https://www.quora.com/Why-is-it-called-the-7-kingdoms-when-there-are-9-of-them
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Game of Thrones and Alliance Politics

I saw this tweet and could not help but respond:

Given that I have written about both Game of Thrones and alliance politics, I have to enter this discussion.  Spoilers dwell below as we get into this:

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Nation’s international relations reference librarians despondent as Game of Thrones returns

The Canard

“All the fake news that’s fit to print”

The long awaited return of tumblr_mabxezBZhb1r0jcrzo1_500HBO’s wildly popular fantasy series, the Game of Thrones, has not generated enthusiasm on the part of at least one group. The nation’s international relations reference librarians, those who help students and members of the public  research the complicated dynamics of world politics, are sighing collectively as they anticipate the coming months of boredom. During the airing of the show, they have noticed a marked decline in visits to the reference desk, as the nation’s public draws inferences about the intricacies of international relations from these fictional characters on television, rather than through the classic vehicle – books.

“No one bothers to read Machiavelli in the original Italian anymore,” said Myrtle, a reference librarian who refused to give her last name. “They just listen to Littlefinger and think that they know everything they need to know about Realpolitik. It is really sad.” She asked plaintively, “What I am here for? Who will I scold?”

The nation’s international relations reference librarians have been hard hit in recent years with the growing popularity of online search engines. A librarian known simply as Priscilla complained that “at least with Harry Potter my readers checked out the books when that Nexon guy told them they could learn international relations from it. Lazy sods.” She worries about the future. “If Drezner writes a zombie IR sequel, we are finished.”

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Pastiche Fantasy in Song of Ice and Fire

There’s much to like about what George R.R. Martin does in his juggernaut of a fantasy franchise: his juggling of a ginormous cast of compelling characters, his willingness to kill and maim those characters in horrible ways, and his relentless critique of the way that high fantasy handles class and gender.

I appreciate that there’s something barking mad about demanding ‘realism’ in fricking high fantasy, but medieval Europe was not populated by well-fed and endearing freeholders, chivalrous knights, and free-thinking warrior-maidens. And let’s not even get started on whether the political economy of feudal society is compatible with low-cost extra-dimensional energy sources.

Given all of the ways in which Martin breaks with tropes found in the bulk of high fantasy, it can be easy to forget the degree to which his underlaying fantasy architecture is dungeons-and-dragons level pastiche — complete with Dire Wolves, cliché “barbarian” steppe nomads, pseudo-vikings, and other flotsam and jetsam from Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

The series even refers to the undead as “wights.” We’re in pure Monster Manual territory here. Our good friend Colin Wight’s last name does not mean “sinister undead dude.” The etymology of “wight” as “undead creature” derives, as I understand it, from a misreading of Tolkien. 
In the early part of the Fellowship of the Ring (in a section that gets cut in the major audio and film adaptations) the Halflings face an undead creature called a “barrow-wight.” This simply translates as “barrow man” or “barrow creature.” So what we have is kind of metonym that developed within the fantasy genre and diffused down to Martin.
There’s nothing wrong with this.* Much of the “breakout” high-fantasy series of the last few decades, such as Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and Eddings’ Belgariad, were arguably even more pastiche — and not even remotely subversive. 
I suppose we could make a case that its pedestrian fantastical elements enhance the critical dimensions of A Song of Ice and Fire. Perhaps it might turn out that Martin’s subversive instincts extend not only to issues of class, gender, and power, but also to the so-far ambiguous status of the distant history of Westeros. But still… the underlying world-building is glaringly bereft of imagination given the other strengths of the books. 
… And, of course, after I finished writing I searched for “song of ice and fire pastiche” and found this ground well-trodden. Here’s an example: a thoughtful discussion in the context of computer role-playing games
*Heck, I wish I could find people to play tabletop fantasy rpgs with!

Friday Nerd Blogging Actual

They are here… Westeros re-election campaign posters for your procrastinating pleasure. For some excellent commentary from the campaign trail, I am linking back to Robert Farley and Matthew Duss’ analysis of recent events.

Also, weigh in on Scott Eric Kaufman’s GoT syllabuilding effort here, in which he unconscionably proposes to force hapless undergraduates to read only the Westerosi chapters of the novel, skipping all the Dothraki-based chapters, inaccurately described as the Danaerys chapters. (What?) 

Also, via LGM, this extremely entertaining post on visual rhetoric in Act One Scene One.

Combined with the relatively high-key lighting, which should allow us to see everything in the scene, the deep focus creates the conflicting impression that we can see everything in the scene, but that there’s something in it that we’re still not seeing. But if it’s there why can’t we see it?

I think SEK has just summed up not only what works about the Prologue scene of ASOIAF, but also the general cynicism about politics in the US circa 2012.


Head of State

As if controversies over graphic sex, gratuitous nudity and rat torture weren’t enough, now this. Yep, that’s George W. Bush’s head on a spike, in the Game of Thrones Season 1 scene where Joffrey torments his fiance Sansa by forcing her to view various decapitated heads.

Fans didn’t actually catch this, until producers pointed it out on the DVD commentary. The news was popularized on a Reddit thread, picked up by  IO9 and quickly caused a stir. According to the producers, this “wasn’t a political statement… we just had to use whatever head we had lying around…”

At Lawyers, Guns and Money, Scott Eric Kaufman isn’t buying it:

The scenes in King’s Landing were filmed in Malta, so I find it difficult to believe they happened to have a plastic replica of W.’s head just lying around. Unless there’s a booming Maltese trade in eerily life-like effigies of which I’m unaware, that Easter egg was planted there purposely.

I must agree: while it’s conceivable that such a prop could have been used capriciously, bragging about it on the commentary was obviously intentional and it is hard to imagine why they were surprised that it came off in such bad taste. It leads me to wonder about the desensitizing effect on artists of being immersed in the imaginary worlds they create, and how this reconstitutes their perceptions of the real-world social mores in which they are embedded. HBO has quite rightly issued an apology for the incident. 

Meanwhile, in a grand show of respect for democracy and freedom of expression, President Obama has made no indication that Benioff or Weiss are in danger of losing their tongues. Instead, some citizens are reconstituting this sick joke into an opportunity to honor our 43rd President: Game of Thrones-related Bushisms are now proliferating on the Internets. 

“A Lannister always remembers what they owe somebody, and then they pay them back.”

“It is known, unless it is unknown. It is known unknowns, and sometimes it is unknown knowns.”

“There’s a old saying in kings landing… I think it’s in kings landing… but it goes ‘when you play the game of thrones… you win or… um… you play again.”

I urge readers of this blog to join this transformative rhetorical effort by adding your own GoT Bushisms in comments. 


*SEX*! *VIOLENCE!* and *NUDITY!* in Game of Thrones

I was shocked, shocked to learn that Bloggingheads.tv advertised my discussion with Rob Farley over gender and race in Foreign Policy / Game of Thrones by promoting only the clip where I discussed “nudity”:

Since that clip was not much more than a throwaway comment in a wide-ranging discussion, yet in fact touched on one of the most, er, much-trumpeted aspects of the show so far, I thought I’d take the time to expound a little bit since after all, many commentators disagree with me and find the nudity and sex scenes in the both gratuitous and somewhat exploitative. For example, Emily Nussbaum this week writes in the New Yorker:

From the start, the show has featured copious helpings of pay-cable nudity, much of it in scenes that don’t strictly require a woman to display her impressive butt dimples as the backdrop for a monologue about kings. (The most common fan idiom for these sequences is “sexposition,” but I’ve also seen them referred to as “data humps.”) These scenes are at once a turn-on and a turn-off. At times, I found myself marvelling at the way that HBO has solved the riddle of its own economic existence, merging “Hookers at the Point” with quasi-Shakespearean narrative. In the most egregious instance so far, Littlefinger tutored two prostitutes in how to moan in fake lesbianism for their customers, even as they moaned in fake lesbianism for us—a real Uroboros of titillation.

Although Nussbaum goes on to acknowledge that to some extent “Viewed in another light, however, these sex scenes aren’t always so gratuitous… “Game of Thrones” is elementally concerned with the way that meaningful consent dissolves when female bodies are treated as currency,” she concludes by pointing out that this message can be lost when it includes “the creamy nudity we’ve come to expect as visual dessert.” Here’s what troubles me about this whole discussion: the equation of nudity with sexuality (especially women’s sexuality) and more importantly with “nakedness,” that element of vulnerability and expoitativeness that we associate with gendered images of women (but not of men) on television. And the reason I’d like to see more nudity on Game of Thrones rather than less is precisely because the show is already using it to unravel some of these puritanical assumptions.

 [Warning: mild book spoilers follow below the fold.]

To be sure, the sex scenes on GoT are sometimes over the top and they don’t always move the story forward. But they do something else: depicting sex so matter-of-factly is part of George R. R. Martin’s rather successful effort to unravel the gendered script of conventional fantasy. Adam Serwer writes:

While the genre of fantasy often veers between extremes of puritan chastity and clumsily written pseudo-pornography, Martin’s novels are blunt and unsentimental about sex and contain harrowing examples of rape and incest, particularly the widespread indifference to the former as a weapon of war.

More importantly, at least some of the nudity on the show is not actually sexual and definitely not about the subjection of women: quite the opposite. Consider Danaerys Stormborn in the denouement to Season One, rising nude from the ashes of her husband’s funeral pyre with dragon hatchlings crawling and groping her. While we might associate women’s naked bodies with the very absence of political power (and forced nakedness can be and is used later in the books at time to produce precisely this effect), in this context Dany’s nudity has the opposite effect of cementing her claim to command: standing before her followers with nothing but her will-power, superhuman fire resistance and game-changing technology, her nude female body is rendered irrelevant.

So when I say nudity per se doesn’t strike me as entirely problematic on the show, this is what I mean. Variations in portrayals of nude and/or naked bodies are not gratuitous but instead encourage a consideration of the relationship between bodies and power which is central to the show. Yet as I and pointed out, HBO could be doing even more of this and better, in at least three ways:

1) Delink nudity from sex. The books do this better than the series. In the first chapter, we see Catelyn walking nude across the bedroom in front of Master Luwin to burn her sister’s letter, reminding him that he’d delivered her babies and there was no need to avert his eyes. Similarly, there are various images in the books of random male and female nudity – like Ser Dontos running around drunk naked or Hodor forgetting to dress. If we must see graphic nudity on the show, let more of it be about random states of undress and less about sex.

2) Be as open about sexual violence as about ‘sex’ and ‘violence.’ It’s notable that in Season One particularly, the sex scenes were graphic but the rape scenes were sugar-coated. Feminists would argue this is problematic for two reasons. One, the contrast allows insufficient attention to how much of the ‘consensual sex’ is actually on the continuum to exploitation or violence. So while the “Joffrey’s birthday present” scene was disturbing, it was meant to be. And it was a useful counter-point to the happier depictions of of whoredom since it reminded the viewer of the ever-present threat of violence implicit in the sex industry.  But second, to the extent that blunt depictions of violence are integral to the show, sexual violence shouldn’t be any different.  Any show that can justifiably portray people burned alive or eaten by rats can surely provide a non-sugar-coated, non-pornographic depiction of sexual violence or its aftermath. This can be very progressive: a big step forward in the acknowledgement of sexual violence in international law was the shift in international judges’ willingness to hear war rape victims actually describe what happened to them, rather than soft-pedal it because it’s “too disturbing.” The trick is to manage these portrayals in a way that is horrific rather than lurid. But that’s true of all the violence in the show. And if Game of Thrones is to succeed at keeping its critical edge about sex and power, it needs to do more of this not less.

3) A little gender balance, please. It’s a fair critique that the wildest sex scenes involve women (and very pretty women at that) so the accusations of “soft porn” are to be pardoned. If we’re going to see constant and regular full frontal nudity of young, attractive women let’s see the same for older women and for men of all ages/body types. Let’s see male gay sex scenes as well as female-only scenes. Not only will this balance out the representations, but it would address Nussbaum’s argument about the political economy of the entertainment industry:

It’s unsettling to recall that these are not merely pretty women; they are unknown actresses who must strip, front and back, then mimic graphic sex and sexual torture, a skill increasingly key to attaining employment on cable dramas. Of course, not everyone strips: there are no truly explicit scenes of gay male sex, fewer lingering shots of male bodies, and the leading actresses stay mostly buttoned up.

She has a point.


A Dothraki Complaint

Drogo as angry brown man.
Source: dothraki.org

Graddakh! We the brown people of Vaes Dothrak collectively curse the producers of HBO and the slanderous “creator” of our world, which you call the Game of Thrones.

We know that your people have a long standing tradition of questionable and objectionable racial imaginings in your “fantasy fiction” genre.  So we are not surprised by your ifaki ignorance of our civilization.  Anyway, we have also come to understand that much of your television programming broadcasts an unreflective and unapologetic world of whiteness, so maybe you can’t help but reduce us to barbaric caricatures. Some of your smarter viewers (and there are really so few) and scholars have been drawn to the Machiavellian elements of the series, but like Saladin AhmedPablo K, and Alyssa Rosenberg, we cannot help but linger on the way our “horde” has been depicted in the series.

We the Dothraki are portrayed as undifferentiated mass of colored people at the periphery of an otherwise lily white medieval world.  (It is not that the white characters are all portrayed in a glowing light, all the characters are obviously flawed, but the Dothraki stand in for an undifferentiated mass representing the entire non-white world.)  We are portrayed as a fierce Mongol-like people, except that these are not the historic Mongols of your world.  You know, the people who introduced your hopelessly barbaric and quarrelsome Europeans ancestors to firearms technology and whose massive naval armada twice attempted to cross the seas and conquer Japan. Rather we Dothraki are portrayed as a technologically backward collection of clod-hopping barbarians who embody a range of degrading caricatures based on your own trite knowledge of Native American, Sub-Saharan African, and Arab societies.

In particular, we Dothraki seem to be driven purely by the thymotic aspects of our soul. We seem barely able to reason and need to be guided by a foreigner who goes “native.” We are shown enjoying acts such as publicly fornicating while dancing at weddings and murdering one another on the slightest provocation.  According to the depiction on television, no Dothraki wedding is complete without at least three murders. You are even told blatant lies. Who says we “have no word for ‘thank you'” or ‘throne’?   Me nem nesa, we have those words!  And we have plenty more for idiot, choyo nerds like George R.R. Martin and the producers of the show. I would rant more, but that would only play into your lame and dismissive stereotypes about belligerent brown people.

Look if you’re going to be racist, perhaps you could show a bit more creativity? Repeating the classic mid-twentieth century American variety of racism is just boring.  Might we suggest that you overlay the racist tropes with a highly gendered discourse in the manner of the British imperialists?  Which is not to say that you’re not sexists with your whore/matriarch/whore-matriarch triads, but you don’t really combine the two discourses very well. Even the British got bored with just using a martial races trope. Or perhaps you could try hipster racism?


Religion in Westeros

Given that George R. R. Martin has clearly thought enough about religion in his series to both deal explicitly with these themes in the books and to create an extra feature about it for the TV show, I am supremely puzzled as to why some of the most interesting religious aspects of the book series are being left out on screen.

Consider the “baptism” scene in last week’s episode, in which the Priest of the Drowned God splashes seawater over a man to inculcate him into the tribe of the Iron-born to the words “what is dead may never die.” If you haven’t read the books, you would entirely miss the meaning of those words: Iron-born baptisms actually involve drowning people, then resuscitating them. I can’t imagine why Benioff and Martin didn’t think this would translate well onto screen: it would have been riveting to watch, especially if (as in the books) the audience doesn’t know until later that what they’re watching is a baptism not an execution. Now it’s true that in the books this particular individual doesn’t go through the drowning but experienced the more ‘tame’ form of baptism but a) that isn’t actually very consistent with the context of the story [spoiler below fold] and b) why not fudge that detail in favor of giving us some insight into the Ironborn, considering all the other details that were fudged quite rightly in the same episode, all in the service of on-screen story-telling?

Melisandre’s religion of light is getting more play in these early episodes, with some dialogues between Davos and his son used to essentially set up the relations between the characters and the ideas driving them. However the HBO series is downplaying important details so far (like ritual sacrifice) and rubbing things in our face (like sex magic between Stannis and Melisandre) that were only hinted at in the books and that frankly aren’t very consistent with the fundamentalism of R’Hllor.

It may be that this dampening / obfuscating is part of Martin’s effort to keep religion de-linked from politics and gamesmanship in the series on screen, as he did in the books. As Rachel Mauro writes:

When the story opens there doesn’t seem to be much conflict between the two faiths [the old gods and the Seven]. The main protagonists of the story, the Stark family, are even interfaith! Lady Catelyn Tully Stark, the matriarch of the northern Stark family, was born in the middle of Westeros. Sometimes uncomfortable near the sacred Weirwood tree where her husband, Lord Eddard Stark, takes time to reflect on life, she still worships her own gods. Her children go back and forth between the two sets of worship depending on their personal tastes. Religion, in essence, is secondary in this world. It’s not what defines ethics, morality, or even pride in one’s heritage. On the opposite side of the coin, it is also not used as a reason to go to war. And ASOIAF is defined by warfare. Religion (or family feuds or most anything else) can be used as the vehicle. But what drives it home are inherent, human fallacies.

Still, the religious aspects of Westeros and surrounding lands (for what they’re worth) are some of the most interesting pieces of the story. It would be nice if the series were used as a vehicle for clarifying / making sensible these disparate threads rather than robbing them of what coherence and originality they contain already.

[Additional commentary on the Ironborn below. Season 2 Episode 3 spoiler alert.]

*If you’ve already read the books or watched the last few episodes, you know that the Ironborn arc is about Theon being placed in an awful zero-sum relationship between his family of origin and adopted family and being forced to choose. Surrendered by his father Balon Greyjoy to the Starks as part of the peace deal after an earlier rebellion, Theon has grown up as a ward of the north and loves the Starks. However he has always been an outsider, and as a hostage he grew up knowing that he could be killed at any time should his father renege on the agreement. Robb stupidly sends him as an envoy to the Pike seeking ships with which to take King’s Landing, not seeming to realize that this might put Theon in a compromised position emotionally. And it does: though he expects to be welcomed home, instead his father and sister express loathing and mistrust of him, reject Robb’s terms and hatch a plan to take the north in vengeance while Robb is otherwise occupied. Desperate to win their approval, Theon decides not to warn Robb. He accepts a humiliating, auxiliary role in his father’s armada in order to demonstrate fealty to his family of origin. And he is rebaptized into the Ironborn.

Although there is a weaker form of baptism in the books, I have never understood why Theon undergoes that instead of the full drowning given the context. He is under pressure to demonstrate a) that he has changed from the boy he was and is now a man and b) that he is willing to undergo whatever it takes to be accepted among his father’s kind. Moreover, I can’t think of any reason why Balon Greyjoy would want to spare him this, particularly if he doubted his loyalty (which he does). The worse the hazing, the more solidarity with an in-group is cemented. This made no sense in the book and it makes sense on screen only because many viewers are missing out entirely on the cult of the Drowned God.

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