I’ve just watched the first two episodes of Game of Thrones, the wildly successful HBO series set in faux Medieval times in what is now the UK and “across the Narrow Sea” in what we call Europe. I was enthralled. I can’t wait for this evening when our household gathers to watch the next episode and in the words of Laurie Penny in the New Statesmen “enjoy the shit out of it,” despite its unexamined ‘racist rape-culture” ambience, and its appalling representation of women.
Life in Medieval times was not good for women, you might argue, and you would be right. There is no way of cushioning this reality, nor should anyone attempt such falsification. Women were for breeding and fucking. Relationships of all kinds evolved, because that’s what happens between humans regardless of class and circumstance. However, male allegiance is primarily to the King, or he who would be King. Women may not interfere with this requirement. No man would consider staying home from the slaughter because his woman asked it of him.
The wars fought between these opposing Medieval forces demand sacrifices from the top down, unlike our modern wars in which politicians dispatch the sons and daughters of others to do their killing while themselves remaining comfortably removed from trauma and death. This is only one of the differences between wars then and now, but that’s another story.
Reading Penny’s piece I found myself making comparisons between Game of Thrones and that other HBO success story, The Sopranos, in terms of their representation of women. The Sopranos is set in a very different world, that of organised crime in the US state of New Jersey in the present day. They have in common a ruthless hierarchical structure that demands total obedience from its male members to the King or the Captain. Mob women who do not comply with this requirement don’t last long, either in the family or in some instances, in this world. There is a divide between business and family that women may not cross.
That is not to say women in both series are entirely powerless, because they clearly are not. However, there are limits to the expressions of their power, and they exceed those limits at their peril. Overstepping the mark frequently results in physical retribution, sometimes death.
As in Game of Thrones, there are the women men marry and breed with, and the women men fuck. Occasionally there is confusion, and a “bastard” child results.
Sex is usually represented in both narratives as primarily for male gratification, urgent, hydraulic, and frequently performed from the rear, though in The Sopranos women are allowed to be on top a lot more. Women men fuck are generally less clothed in Medieval times and the present day, while wives and legitimate girlfriends get to wear expensive stuff.
In spite of this blatant and offensive sexism, and the highly aggravating madonna/whore complex that we just can’t seem to escape in our narratives, I was and remain enthralled by The Sopranos. In this and in Game of Thrones I’m willing to suspend my hard-won feminist critical faculties, and instead of righteously loathing the unreconstructed males who populate both worlds, I can’t stop myself enjoying the shit out of the shows. In particular, Tony Soprano remains a character of Shakespearian magnitude to me, his at times terrifying complexities holding my attention like a helpless deer caught in his headlights. This series is littered with powerful characterisations, and I have not yet seen enough of Game of Thrones to judge if it achieves a similar standard.
At first blush, I suspect not. As Penny argues, Thrones is not subtle. After two episodes I feel I’ve got a decent handle on the characters and how they’re likely to behave. Be that as it may, I’m still enthralled.
There’s a critique of Penny’s critique here, written by Sarah Ditum.
What does intrigue me is my willingness, a willingness shared by millions of other women apparently, to suspend my outrage at the portrayal of women in both HBO masterpieces, and enter deeply into these created worlds, emerging at the end of each episode with a sense of having been transported to another reality and for better and for worse, being somehow embiggened by the experience.
I tentatively put this down to the difference between creativity and ideology. Ideology tells me things should be this or that way, and must be made to be. Creativity tells me anything is possible, and while I might not like it, it exists and must be understood.
As Laurie Penny says: a piece of art doesn’t have to be perfectly politically correct to be fun, or important. We’re allowed to enjoy problematic things, as long as we’re honest about their problems.
Well, I’m honest about the woman problem in Game of Thrones and The Sopranos. The way we’re portrayed in both sucks, and is likely an accurate representation of life for women in both those cultures. Will that stop me watching, enthralled? No way.