I became involved with the Game of Thrones TV series and books against all odds. After all, I don’t think of myself as a “geek” or a “nerd”, even if I am a video game journalist.
My interest is in unnatural universes and the potential in interactive fictional worlds, but the traditional wheelhouses of SF and high fantasy—and as terrified as I am of the people who won’t like to hear this, I’ll come out and say it—feel like something I grew out of. When I was adolescent, I ate up entire novel series about thrones and dragons and mages. In my work—where I look at the cultural context of the things we play, and the reasons we’re attracted to playing them—I click, tap and button-mash through countless products that owe everything to Tolkien.
Wandering though these exalted realms, I’m way tired of serving wenches and noble knights; weary of sack-clothed peasants and their thatched-roof cottages; sick to death of bikini armor, sigils, scale helms and sacks of holding. Enough, already.
So I thought it’d be more than safe to overlook Game of Thrones, a niche-bound, overcomplicated slice of knights-and-dragons that, for whatever reason, was becoming an ornately-armored TV show.
People will eat up all kinds of garbage; ‘media criticism’ often means gritting your teeth, convinced of your rightness, through the latest pop culture feeding frenzy until the blood has dissipated into the sea. This is what I was going to do about Game of Thrones, even though all of my friends—all of my people!—were stoked about it.
But then I heard about the boobs.
If you know nothing else about Game of Thrones, you know that there are boobs in every episode, that according to the TV show the world of Westeros (and the lands beyond the narrow sea!) seems preoccupied with relations after the canine manner. Even if you do not watch Game of Thrones and you never intend to, you’ve heard someone say that there are a lot of naked women, there are a lot of woman-subjugating sex scenes, and there'ss generally a lot of fleshy eye-candy in this show.
There are entire articles, from high-end magazines to lunatic blogs, which analyze, deride or scrutinize this particular element. And like any new media feminist, I got suckered into the debate before I’d read a stitch of text or seen a minute of the show. Voraciously eating up all of the discussion, the dread premonition settled in: I would end up reading all of George R.R. Martin’s books. I would tune in, with the fervor of religion, to the television series.
This happened to me before—and I take no pride in it—with the Twilight series. When something attracts so much online discussion (wondering why adult women would be attracted to an absurd tale of supernatural creatures warring over a clumsy, ordinary girl) I consumed it as thoroughly as any superfan. Twilight's disturbingly anti-feminist fantasy is compelling escapism, a deferral of obligations in the face of complicated things, a fear-response to overwhelming female empowerment rhetoric.
In an age where we’re whisking shame away from sex like so much stale old smoke, what woman wouldn’t daydream about being treasured by many even if she never puts out—even if she’s a powerless loser? In an era where it’s nearly a sisterly obligation for each woman to stand wholly on her own, who wouldn’t find some guilty pleasure in the admission of fear of male anger (facing the werewolf, Jacob) or of male sexuality (the chilly, chaste restraint of Edward)?
I kinda loved it. So in kind, I wanted to know: Why Game of Thrones, why HBO, why now?
I ate up the first book over the course of a work trip late last summer, and the first season of the show, always making sure to keep ahead in my reading. That way, a new episode carried with it the distinctly geeky pleasure of instant recognition: I already knew the television characters for who they were.
First, there's the brilliant casting. Every character reveal is a subtle delight, which alone seems a reason to keep watching: a fascinating translation from the text to the imagination and to sight. It shares this quality with the Harry Potter movies—fiction that captures the imagination creates a compulsive urge for imagery that’s more tactile, more relatable. Most of those who roleplay Harry Potter on the internet uses the series’ film actors for their avatar pictures, not the books’ official art nor any of the impressive fanart that exists.
There’s something about Game of Thrones that makes it more interesting than anything I’ve ever seen step over the crossmedia threshold. Martin’s writing style is frustratingly unsentimental—he’s like a lover who spends the night with his back to you. He describes incredibly complicated relationships in elaborate political climates; yet he creates empathy for these would-be rulers without giving us much insight into their inner worlds.
Events and behaviors are drawn as they are, and his skill is in letting his readers know plainly who the “good guys” are without writing anyone as particularly good. Much of the appeal of his novels lies in the pleasure of emotional inference; behavior hints at subtext, and you root quietly for your favorites, knowing that most of them will never gratify you, and may be yanked away at any moment for an inglorious death.
Well-cast and talented actors given such roles are light blades of clean light shone through a prism—suddenly everything bursts into color. Certainly, the show has taken liberties. As faultlessly loyal to the books as it often is, it feels somehow different; the actors add nuances to the book's characters without making meaningful change to their story arcs or to their dialogue.
How human written creatures are once we can look into their eyes! Game of Thrones is a fascinating essay in how television and literature are alike yet different; what does one medium excel at versus another, when telling the same story?
Back to the boobs, though, since that’s why most people know about Game of Thrones. If the fiction is as political as The Sopranos, and as socially complex as Mad Men, why does it need to rely on “sexposition,” the much-bandied term that refers to using erotic scenes as backdrops to illustrative revelations about plotlines or characters?
The fabric of Martin's universe, with multiple families, motives and allegiances, is pretty taxing. Perhaps HBO needs a way to keep people with short attention spans tuned in. Okay.
But through all of the banners and battlefields, through the trenchers of bacon and the heels of black bread—more on the books’ truly elaborate food fixation later, maybe—it’s a narrative about marginalized people triumphing in ironbound, ancient and ugly structures.
It’s a world that allows magic to creep in at its fringes, a variable that just might create future fortune for those who most need it. Whether they’re little-person “half-men” (as in the series’ best character, Tyrion Lannister, as portrayed by Emmy-winning Peter Dinklage), unwanted bastard sons, or frustrated women powerless in a patriarchal structure, Game of Thrones is about the heroism of fighting fate and the social order.
In The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum recently pointed out that Game of Thrones is just one of many high-concept television dramas fascinated with the nuances of old-fashioned “patriarchal subculture”. Meanwhile, our pop television breathlessly fans itself with White Girl Problems, 2 Broke Girls, Sh*t Girls Say, The New Girl, and—oh, wait, what’s that one?—oh yeah, Lena Dunham’s Girls.
Boobs on TV aren’t just boobs on TV at a time like this. Power structures are changing, so it’s not so surprising people would be drawn to a fantasy series about how power structures limit and exploit women—structures suddenly fragile in a fantasy world at war, ideologically and literally.
It’s the kind of thing that I feel rewarded by exploring instead of just talking about. You can be one of those people who calls "misogyny!" at the first sight of a naked woman on TV. Just as you can be one of those people—as I almost was—who sees Game of Thrones as just another sugary slice of fanservice.
Either way, you’d be missing out on something that’s not just a fascinating exercise in crossmedia storytelling, but probably has an under-addressed role in expressing our own culture's quiet revolutions.
A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1) is available from Amazon and bookstores.