Friday, April 15, 2011

Response to the NY Times review of "Game of Thrones"

And I thought we were doing so well.

On Thursday morning, I saw Susan C. Young's article "Geek girls help power viewership for sci-fi/fantasy TV" at MSNBC. The article highlighted HBO's new "Game of Thrones" series, based on the A Song of Ice and Fire books by George R. R. Martin. As a passionate female fan of fantasy and sci-fi TV, it's always nice to see some recognition that women can love these geeky genres as well as men. But then on Thursday evening, I saw Ginia Bellafante's New York Time's review of "Game of Thrones". Her message was quite the opposite, perpetuating the falsehood that women don't like fantasy.

Ms. Bellafante didn't so much review the show as she did take the opportunity to show her disdain for the fantasy genre and assert that it is not suitable for feminine sensibilities. I got the impression that she thinks HBO is crazy to have spent so much money on a loony land of make-believe.
With the amount of money apparently spent on “Game of Thrones,” the fantasy epic set in a quasi-medieval somewhereland beginning Sunday on HBO, a show like “Mad Men” might have the financing to continue into the second term of a Malia Obama presidency.
A five-minute Google search and back-of-the-envelope calculation proves this to be a ridiculously misleading estimation: Malia, you'd better be ready for the 2016 primary.* This must be a case of "not intended to be a factual statement."

Ms. Bellafante goes on to complain about the plot complexity and spends a whole paragraph expressing her confusion over the fact that a fantasy world might not have a climate exactly like the present Earth. Plot complexity may be a legitimate concern, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. It may turn off the casual viewer, but it rewards the loyal viewer. Thinking is good. "Lost," for instance, thrived on its complex plot and large cast of characters. And while complex TV shows can sometimes get tangled in trying to tie together their story lines, with "Game of Thrones" we already know that George R. R. Martin has done a masterful job at crafting the plot. Second, fantasy worlds can have whatever climate they darn well please. It's fantasy. This discussion does not belong in a review.

Still, the most ridiculous part of the review (other than the fact that it offers very little information about the show's content) is when Ms. Bellafante points to the sex in the show as the only possible draw for a female audience, because "Game of Thrones" is, simply put, "boy fiction." (What does that even mean? Sure, it is fiction written by a "boy"...does that make Harry Potter "girl fiction"?)
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. 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.
I plan to watch "Game of Thrones" in spite of the sex. Call me a prude, but I'm a little uncomfortable whenever a sex scene comes up on "True Blood." One of my straight male friends, on the other hand, told me he started watching "True Blood" for the sex, but got hooked on it because of the story. If that is one way that "Game of Thrones" will gain viewers, that's fine--I want the show to be a success. But I don't think the sex scenes in the show are the producers' desperate attempt to attract a female audience. One could just as justifiably assert that the sex scenes are an example of the producers pandering to the teenage male demographic.

More importantly, though, "Game of Thrones" doesn't need sex scenes to attract female viewers. Ms. Bellafante guesses, correctly, that there do exist women who read books like Mr. Martin's, but a quick Google search could have provided proof that there are lots of women who read books exactly like Mr. Martin's. A Song of Ice and Fire has an impressive female fan base. Women didn't show up at HBO's "Game of Thrones" food trucks just because they heard there would be lemon cakes. It's one thing to review a new, original TV show and guess at the audience it will attract, but when a show is based on an established franchise, one can do research and find out what audience already exists.

So why might women like "Game of Thrones"? I can't speak for every woman, but I love fantasy worlds. I love swords and warhorses and lavish gowns and crowns and magic and mythical monsters. I love fantasy especially when it features strong female characters to whom I can relate. Game of Thrones is woven around an impressive cast of interesting, unique, complicated characters, many of whom are women. Game of Thrones has plenty of female characters for a girl like me to love, admire, and respect.

Seeing as the only book club I have ever belonged to was a fantasy book club in high school, I assure you that I, along with all the other young women in the club (we made up over 50% of the members my junior and senior years), would indeed have stood up in indignation and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore. No offense meant to Lorrie Moore (I had to Wikipedia her but she seems like a nice lady). I am sure there are women in this world who read books like Ms. Moore's, but in my book club, we preferred The Hobbit. Now, I realize Ms. Bellafante has probably never met any of us from that club (she clearly doesn't associate with any geek girls), but I don't imagine that a random public high school in a Boston suburb is the only haven for women who like fantasy literature. Geek girls not only do exist, but we are everywhere.

In short, there are tons of women who will love watching "Game of Thrones" for many reasons beyond the sex scenes. If you like rich worlds with complex characters--both male and female--and smart, challenging plot lines, then give "Game of Thrones" a try. If you don't like the fantasy genre as a whole and are only mildly interested in the series because of the sex, then you'd be better off with reruns of "Sex and the City."

* Edit: Altered from my original interpretation of the sentence to a more charitable and likely one.
And my conservative back of the envelope calculation, in case you're curious:
Mad Men budget = $2.3 million per episode (NYT magazine) x 13 episodes per season =
$29.9 million per season
Cost of Game of Thrones = no more than $100 million (Entertainment Weekly, April 8, 2011, pg. 38). To be conservative, take $100 million.
GoT cost/ MM seasonal cost = 3.34
2011+3.34 = 2014.34, round up to the nearest primary to be charitable = 2016.
The point is that even if HBO is drastically under-reporting its figures, and say actually spent $150 million, that would give Mad Men 5 more years and still put Malia up for a 2016 primary.


Hezabelle said...

The idea that women don't read fantasy books is ridiculous. The idea that any genre belongs specifically to one gender is even more ridiculous. Nevermind that a great deal of fantasy authors are female themselves...

I haven't read Game of Thrones, but I have read other fantasy novels, and been obsessed with them along with many other FEMALE friends.

Ms.PhD said...

Great post! Now I have to go read the original article. I can't wait to see the show. And where is the last book??? Still waiting.

Eleni said...

Hez - I know, there are so many women who love fantasy! Maybe GoT came across to the reviewer as more boy-friendly, she's entitled to her opinion, but she provided no reasons why she thought it was "boy fiction." I could argue that the movie 300 was a "boy movie" (though I still enjoyed it) because almost all the important characters were men, being very macho, strong, tough warriors, and the one major female character's most defiant moment was in defending Spartan women by saying that they give birth to Spartan men. There, that wasn't so difficult. So what are Bellafante's reasons for thinking GoT is boy fiction? Did she find the female characters weak? (Unlikely.) Did the men seem impossibly macho? (Possibly.) Was there too much sex? (Oh wait, that was supposed to be what appealed to women.) It's just a horrible review in that it doesn't give any justifications to her conclusions. One has to wonder what world the columnist is living in that she really hasn't met any women who love fantasy.

Ms. PhD - Thanks! It's a short read, and impressive in its uselessness. The book has been promised for this summer...

Anonymous said...

Grrm rights female that are booth 3d and strong and weak. I love Robert Jorden but if they were making eye of the world there would be a large male pop. On the other hand I have met more girls that have read all of grrm I guess do to the drama in the books ( I'm male and I love the books for the female charters it gets old reading females with 2d personalties even if there the hero)

Eleni said...

I love Robert Jordan, too. I don't know if it's the drama that draws girls to ASOIAF--we're probably drawn to it for many of the same reasons that guys like it, too. Good female characters are definitely an important draw to a book.

Sebastian Anthony said...

Weird to see such a stupid review in a well-respected paper. She's entitled to an opinion, as you say, but...

She must have a very low opinion of girls! I guess she just doesn't appreciate how much sex there generally is in sci-fi/fantasy. I haven't read the books, but from what I hear, the TV series doesn't exaggerate...?

Now, a better topic of conversation might be WHY sci-fi/fantasy contains so much damn sex (and weird/kinky sex at that!)

I'm finishing Hyperion/Fall of Hyperion atm -- and it's great. But wedged right in the middle is a sex scene which involves one of the main characters ejaculating, and narrowing having the end of his penis cut off by a part-machine-part-humanoid thing.


Loving Game of Thrones!

Eleni said...

Right, this was the New York Times! Hopefully the publicity generated by the controversy helped to offset any audience loss due to the negative review. Especially now that I've seen it for myself, I really want this show to succeed.

Wait, so he did the end of his penis get cut off?! Or did it narrowly miss him? Eek.

I never really thought of fantasy as having a lot of sex. Maybe I'm reading the wrong fantasy books! There was definitely sex happening in the book of GoT, but it's not like it was described in romance-novel detail (disclaimer: I haven't read a romance novel, so I don't actually know what kind of detail that would be). But it was always part of the story or helped to establish a character. I don't think it was ever gratuitous.

She may have made an interesting observation about our culture at the moment in pointing out that the only current shows with kinky sex are fantasies or period pieces. I don't know if this is true, but if it is, it might merit an analysis. Just not within a TV show review.

Can't wait for the next episode! One more reason to look forward to the weekend.

Sebastian Anthony said...

I think he keeps his penis -- but a whole paragraph or two is dedicated to scalpel-like blades, his ejaculate, and the end of his penis. It's made all the worse by the fact that he was screwing a beautiful woman, but she _turns_ into this beast, just as he's finishing... ...

I'm sure there's tons of sci-fi/fantasy without weird sex! I guess, out of every genre, you would most expect to find weird sex in a sci-fi setting. Real-world sex can only be SO weird, after all :)

I think the only reason we have weird sex on TV at all is because of sci-fi/fantasy. You simply wouldn't be allowed to have a 'normal' sex scene that featured one of the participants breaking the neck of the other, a la True Blood.

Likewise, I doubt you'd be allowed to have a brother and sister having sex in a 'normal' soap/drama setting.

It's a bit like the whole 'fantasy violence' versus 'normal violence', at least here in Europe. It's just about OK to have the bad guy decapitate an orc (LOTR) -- but you can't decapitate another human.

In other words, fantasy/sci-fi is an easy and safe way for us to get our jollies. It's always been like that in books... and now it's on TV, too! Awesome.

Eleni said...

"Fantasy sex" does already have certain connotations.

At least the sex in GoT is between humans (so far). Sex between siblings is a major taboo, though. When I saw The Other Boleyn Girl in the theater, the mere suggestion of incest made the audience groan far more than they did for the rape or beheading. But maybe some people enjoy seeing the taboo on screen.