After five seasons, Game of Thrones has reached the point where it’s nearly impossible to talk about the show or books without mentioning the issue of its use of sexual assault. While rape has been present since its beginning, this season has finally driven away a lot of viewers— or at least pushed viewers to a level of anger in which they consider abandoning the show. George R.R. Martin has addressed and defended his and the show’s use of rape before, both in terms of individual events as well as the larger culture of rape the show has created. But now he’s issued a more in-depth statement on the topic, defending the excess of sexism and sexual assault. (Watch out for those heels, they’re really digging in deep.)
The books reflect a patriarchal society based on the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages were not a time of sexual egalitarianism. It was very classist, dividing people into three classes. And they had strong ideas about the roles of women… Now there are people who will say to that, ‘Well, he’s not writing history, he’s writing fantasy—he put in dragons, he should have made an egalitarian society.’ Just because you put in dragons doesn’t mean you can put in anything you want. If pigs could fly, then that’s your book. But that doesn’t mean you also want people walking on their hands instead of their feet. If you’re going to do [a fantasy element], it’s best to only do one of them, or a few. I wanted my books to be strongly grounded in history and to show what medieval society was like, and I was also reacting to a lot of fantasy fiction…Alright, so my instinctual native California feminist fantasy loving outrage had a few strong kneejerk reactions here. Can we just get those out of the way? Just a few, and feel free to adjust the Drunk Girl At a Party intonations as you see fit:
I have millions of women readers who love the books, who come up to me and tell me they love the female characters. Some love Arya, some love Dany, some love Sansa, some love Brienne, some love Cersei—there’s thousands of women who love Cersei despite her obvious flaws. It’s a complicated argument. To be non-sexist, does that mean you need to portray an egalitarian society? That’s not in our history; it’s something for science fiction.
And then there’s the whole issue of sexual violence, which I’ve been criticized for as well. I’m writing about war, which what almost all epic fantasy is about. But if you’re going to write about war, and you just want to include all the cool battles and heroes killing a lot of orcs and things like that and you don’t portray [sexual violence], then there’s something fundamentally dishonest about that. Rape, unfortunately, is still a part of war today. It’s not a strong testament to the human race, but I don’t think we should pretend it doesn’t exist.
I want to portray struggle. Drama comes out of conflict. If you portray a utopia, then you probably wrote a pretty boring book.
—“Oh, so you had to choose between dragons and orcs or sexual parity, George? That must have been a real Sophie (Turner)’s choice for you.”
—“So not using women’s rape as your go-to plot point for creating a general tone of terror and helplessness would mean your world would be BORING? You really don’t see any way around that binary?
—“Oh George, come the hell on. Of COURSE women like your show. I’m sure, even, that some of your best friends are women, right? That doesn’t give you carte blanche to do whatever the hell you want to your female characters.
Okay, now that a little steam has been let out of that outrage valve, we can talk more measuredly about this. Because the thing is, Martin has a point. A good, very disturbingly true point. Rape IS a too-common byproduct of war. It would not be an honest portrayal of a fantasy world based in any reality, let alone a Medieval one, without characters struggling against an exploitative patriarchy. But in order for this argument to work, you need a better context. Because the context that you (and Benioff and Weiss) have created is one in which men apparently have no genitals (I mean we’ve never seen them, HOW DO WE KNOW THEY’RE THERE?) and where the go-to device for creating drama or conflict in a female character’s story line is to have her raped or threatened to be raped. I wish I could say it any better than Nick Rheinwald-Jones on Previously.tv, but I really can’t.
So sure, good on you, George, for creating a realistically bleak fantasy world. Super bad on you for the lack of parity in its execution.