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Game-of-Thrones-Tie-in-Cover-a-song-of-ice-and-fire-20154638-794-1213The New York Times has a really bizarre story up about The Game of Thrones television series, For ‘Game of Thrones,’ Rising Unease Over Rape’s Recurring Role. Here’s a flavor:

But, she added, “At a certain point, you get the feeling that you can’t walk through a chapter without expecting something horrible — almost always to a female character — just to prove that this is indeed a very scary and dark piece of literature.”

Mr. Martin said that his philosophy as a writer is to show and not tell, and doing so requires “vivid sensory detail.”

“When the scene in question is a sex scene, some readers find that intensely uncomfortable,” he said, “and that’s 10 times as true for scenes of sexual violence. But that is as it should be. Certain scenes are meant to be uncomfortable, disturbing, hard to read.”

This was a problem for many with the books when they first came out. Some readers did not appreciate the darkness which made the world that George R. R. Martin created much more gray in a metaphorical sense than traditional high fantasy, which J. R. R. Tolkien established the template for in The Lord of the Rings. But the coarse character of the narrative wasn’t by chance, Martin has explained in detail that he wanted to create a world with more ethical ambiguity, spare of magic, and a verisimilitude which belies the idea that fantasies can become pure escapism. Who would want to escape to the Dark Ages? Even the high and mighty have blood on their hands in Westeros, as they do in this world of ours.

The son of Achilles throws Hector's child from the walls of Troy

The son of Achilles throws Hector’s child from the walls of Troy

But let us observe that in many ways Martin’s brand of morally complex fantasy which we may find “problematic” probably has much deeper cultural roots that Tolkien’s antiseptic world of immortal elves and unremittingly evil orcs. If you read the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Iliad there are many passages and events which modern sensibilities might find objectionable. For one, the ancients took slavery to be an uncontroversial institution. Their ethical universes were different. In many ways they were more brutal. Even the Germanic mythos which Tolkien drew upon to create Middle Earth was more harsh than the glow he gave to the Men of the West.

For those who wish a more elevated and clean high fantasy where the halls of the good are bright and shiny, and darkness is absolute in its opacity, there’s always Brandon Sanderson. He’s certainly a great writer who can deliver on plot which comes to life, and world-building which is exceedingly rich. But his characters also reflect more classical archetypes of good, and the sexuality is relatively absent, perhaps reflecting his Mormon religious orientation (his protagonists tend not to do the “dirty” unless their relationship has been solemnized somehow). Perhaps it says something about mainstream American culture today that they’d rather HBO produce programs that could pass muster in a Mormon seminary? Fantasy which glorifies the cultural values of someone like Amanda Marcotte or Michele Bachmann probably wouldn’t be too popular, but perhaps like salads on the menu at Wendy’s people just want it to be there to make them feel better about themselves when they indulge.*

P.S. I wonder how the shrinking violets who write for The New York Times would feel about Lord Foul’s Bane?

* I bring up Bachmann because conservative evangelicals have produced their own popular culture, which glorifies their particular values, explicitly to challenge the mainstream. To not put too fine a point on it most of it is crappy schlock, which even many evangelicals are embarrassed by. This isn’t to say that art has to be nihilistic, but there’s a fine line between imparting values in the context of a vivid artistic texture, and putting the moral of the fable before the fable itself.

 
• Category: History • Tags: Fantasy, George R. R. Martin 
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  1. Bruce says:

    I started reading Martin with his first short story collections, A Song for Lya, say. The hero tended to sit around Being Sensitive about his ex-girlfriend, who left him for some guy with testosterone. None of the characters were creeps, and it was well-written. . . Then he wrote the best rock and roll novel ever, The Armageddon Rag, and a vampire novel almost as good as Saberhagen, Fevre Dream. Tuf Voyaging was a good fix-up of some pretty good space opera stories, and Portraits of His Children was one of the best short story collections in SF. But when he got lazy, he just described a nice character and did something nasty to them and called it a story. I got fifty pages into one Game of Thrones and every single character was a creep, and they were all suffering nasty events. Well, I’ve got real life for that.

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  2. Razib -

    I had the same eye-roll when I read the NYT piece. But then to read the NYT is to have at least 2 or 3 eye-rolls per week in regard to the delicate sensibilities of people who agonize over which peppercorn has been raised in a more ‘holistic’ fashion.

    Why in the blazes is anyone watching GoT if they have issues with rape, pillage and plunder? But the thing that struck me is that they’re totally fine with men hacking other men to bits or chopping off their heads and sewing the head of the victim’s pet on in its place. Or, female characters happily sacrificing male victims to their bloodthirsty gods….. but two or three incidences of sexual violence against women becomes “rape’s reoccurring roll…”

    If delicate female sensibilities are offended by such depictions of barbarism and war, then perhaps we should not allow them to watch such things. Maybe their male relatives should supervise their television viewing. And since rape, pillage and plunder has been known to happen in the real world too, perhaps the best protection for women is to cloister them away at home and forbid them to roam the streets freely.

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  3. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that rape scenes are giving modern feminists the vapors. I’m sure they must fan themselves mightily and be escorted to the study, or perhaps to take to the bed. But as commenter Alan noted above, brutal violence done to men seems A OK.

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  4. Same thing with video games. Lots of killing, even of civilians like in GTA. No rape though.

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  5. Hepp says:

    Isn’t it a little strange that sexual violence is so much more controversial than other forms of violence? I mean, people can have their heads chopped off, etc., but rape is supposed to be so much worse. But we make jokes about men being raped in prison, of course.

    Sort of like how Donald Sterling gets fired for his comments, but Jay Z can own the Nets despite his lyrics.

    This state of affairs seems so natural to people, but we should realize how weird it is.

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  6. A few thoughts:

    1. Part of the issue, as I understand it, is that at least two of the rape scenes-including the most recent one-in the TV show are reworkings of consensual sex scenes in the book. So people are asking: whats up? If the rape scenes were really about Martin’s desire to “create a world with more ethical ambiguity” then why were they not included in the books? The simplest answer is to that Martin and co. are not including them for any philosophical reason, but simply for a shock factor.

    (One imagines the conversation going something like this: “Incestuous sex next to a dead body after a funeral in a church? We need to make that more edgy. Hmmm…. I know, lets make it incestuous rape next to a dead body after a funeral in a church!)

    2. With that said, that description applies to pretty much everything Martin has written for the series. I am unconvinced that the extreme levels of violence, torture, sex, or the constant betrayals and ‘plot twist’ deaths have any other motive than astonishment and emotional shock. This is what makes the show engrossing-you get the emotional package of voyeurism, the worst gorno flicks, and unexpected personal betrayal all wrapped up in one neat, upper-class approved package!

    In this sense there really is nothing different about the rape scenes and every other depravity depicted on the show. What is worse about filming a rape of a main character after a funeral for shock value than filming the decapitation of the main character during a wedding (and the massacre of all of his guests, and the subsequent sowing of his head onto an animal) for the same? Depraved all the same.

    3. Depravity is not new to the human condition, of course. But the comparing these scenes to passages from the Iliad or verses from Numbers misses something important about the Game of Thrones books and television series. What makes these shows (especially the TV show) different from those ancient works is the intensity of experience they portray. Game of Thrones is gratuitous in a way Homer never could be. It is gratuitous in a way accounts of real world horrors are not.*

    In this sense the comparison with Tolkien is instructive. Tolkien did experience barbarity and inhumanity (or whatever else you want to call the horror of the first world war) personally. He saw humanity at its worst and most wretched quite close up. He wrote Lord of the Rings in the midst of a more ruthless conflict. His generation knew what words like ‘cruelty’ meant in a way that George R.R. Martin-or his audience-does not.

    “Who would want to escape to the Dark Ages?” you ask. Well, the 6.6 million people who watch the show, I suppose. A more interesting question: in 21st America, why are the dark ages such a popular escape?

    *I’m thinking of books like Vadney Ratner’s (amazing) In the Shadow of the Banyan, Hang Ngor’s Cambodian Odyssey , etc.

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  7. I can’t wait until they discover the History Channel’s “Vikings.”

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  8. I’m quite a fan of Fu Hao (婦好) myself – there’s something about a female military leader presiding over human sacrifices that really appeals to my sense of fairness. The Shang were equal opportunity employers, obviously.

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  9. jtgw says:

    I wouldn’t say Tolkien’s world is antiseptic, if by that you mean that the “good” guys are absolutely good and the “bad” guys absolutely evil. To be honest, I wonder whether those who repeat such claims have ever actually read the book, or at least read it carefully enough to make such judgments. I can list several characters who commit both good and bad deeds: Gollum (basically evil but does some good), and Boromir, Frodo and Bilbo (basically good but they commit some evil).

    I would agree, however, that his universe does hold up good and evil themselves as absolutes, and there are characters who do seem to be completely good (Aragorn, Gandalf) or evil (Sauron, Saruman). It seems the kind of person who thinks Middle-Earth is antiseptic objects to the very existence of moral absolutes and the possibility of being completely good or evil. I would venture that Tolkien actually offers the more sophisticated view; rather than completely denying the existence of absolute good and evil and the possibility of anyone ever being able fall into one or the other category, Tolkien offers a vision of all three categories: the good, the bad and the “ugly” (morally ambiguous).

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  10. I wouldn’t say Tolkien’s world is antiseptic, if by that you mean that the “good” guys are absolutely good and the “bad” guys absolutely evil. To be honest, I wonder whether those who repeat such claims have ever actually read the book, or at least read it carefully enough to make such judgments. I can list several characters who commit both good and bad deeds: Gollum (basically evil but does some good), and Boromir, Frodo and Bilbo (basically good but they commit some evil).

    this is a fair point.

    perhaps to flesh out what i’m getting at, characters like the ones you listed above have basic fundamental natures. their good or bad deeds are deviations from that nature. that’s clear and obvious. in martin’s world this is not always so clear, who is good, who is bad, who is misunderstood. this seems more and more true as go progress in the books.

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  11. T. Greer – “If the rape scenes were really about Martin’s desire to “create a world with more ethical ambiguity” then why were they not included in the books? The simplest answer is to that Martin and co. are not including them for any philosophical reason, but simply for a shock factor.”

    FYI, Martin isn’t the one running the show. That’d be Weiss and Benioff who made the decision to change consensual acts to non-consensual ones. I don’t think it’s correct to read much into Martin’s intent based on decisions that were not.

    “With that said, that description applies to pretty much everything Martin has written for the series. I am unconvinced that the extreme levels of violence, torture, sex, or the constant betrayals and ‘plot twist’ deaths have any other motive than astonishment and emotional shock.”

    Changes made during adaptation aside, do you really feel that the levels of depravity depicted are any worse than those occurring in war-torn areas and failed states today? What I think is dishonest and troubling is the portrayals of war and conflict that gloss over these horrors for the sake of romanticizing things that really do not deserve to be romanticized.

    Martin’s world is a pretty crappy place to live, but that’s because the real world is a pretty crappy place for a lot of people too. It can be especially crappy for women, a fact that those young 223 girls in Nigeria can attest.

    “In this sense the comparison with Tolkien is instructive. Tolkien did experience barbarity and inhumanity (or whatever else you want to call the horror of the first world war) personally. ”

    I think it’s instructive too, but not in the same way as you. Martin was a conscientious objector during Vietnam. If you watch his interview, he certainly accepts that there can be necessary wars (he says he would certainly have been willing to serve in World War 2), but he does not accept that there are good wars. Martin’s books are written from a standpoint that is, if not explicitly anti-war, certainly very close to it. The reverse is true of Tolkien.

    “A more interesting question: in 21st America, why are the dark ages such a popular escape?”

    Martin’s work aren’t escapism. You can admire characters like Jon Snow, Arya Stark or Daenerys Targaryen, but no one in their right mind wants to be them. I think the appeal of Martin’s work isn’t in any sort of escape to another world, but rather because his world feels so much like the real one. Good guys don’t always win. Crappy people sometimes do good things, and good people sometimes do crappy things. What Martin offers is his own critical and unflinching views of human nature and the world we live in. I find that far more stimulating than what Tolkien offers.

    That’s not to say Tolkien is bad in any way. I love Tolkien’s works. They’re just something entirely different.

    “It seems the kind of person who thinks Middle-Earth is antiseptic objects to the very existence of moral absolutes and the possibility of being completely good or evil. I would venture that Tolkien actually offers the more sophisticated view; rather than completely denying the existence of absolute good and evil and the possibility of anyone ever being able fall into one or the other category, Tolkien offers a vision of all three categories: the good, the bad and the “ugly” (morally ambiguous).”

    That’s the thing though. No one in the real world is entirely good or entirely bad.

    What Tolkien offers is even more simple than that – he offers a world where your morality is almost entirely pre-determined at birth, with entire races of people being either wholly bad or almost wholly good (though subject to temptation).

    Tolkien’s works are fantastic and I absolutely love them, but what they offer is something entirely different from Martin’s works. Tolkien’s world just isn’t very real, and it isn’t supposed to be either. You can pretty much guess from the first chapter of the Lord of the Rings that Frodo will succeed and survive to the end. Ned Stark doesn’t make it even three quarters of the way through the first book. These are entirely kinds of fiction wrote for entirely different reasons.

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  12. “he offers a world where your morality is almost entirely pre-determined at birth” – that’s probably true.

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  13. “Changes made during adaptation aside, do you really feel that the levels of depravity depicted are any worse than those occurring in war-torn areas and failed states today?”

    I once met an elderly gentleman from Liberia. He was living in a poor hovel with four children and 10~ grandchildren. His most treasured possession was a braille bible. It was the only book he had. He needed it because a decade or two before he had refused to join with the local warlord’s march on Monrovia. In retaliation, the warlord had sen thugs into his house one night. They ripped him from his wife’s arms, threw him into the street where he could be seen by the other people in his town, and then poured acid into his eyes. He was blinded for life.

    I spent the better part of two years working an living with Cambodian refugees from the Khmer Rouge. I am friends with a person who founded an organization to collect and tell their stories. Since then I have made a point to read every memoir those years of horror produced.

    It is not hard to find examples of depravity much, much worse than we find in Game of Thrones in our world today.

    But the tone and content of these works – the memoirs of refugees, soldiers, exiles, and victims – are nothing like GoT. They make no attempt to be entertaining, for one. But it is their emotional timbre that really sets them apart. They are tragic. They are full of sadness or of hate. Their is a realness to these kind of books that GoT cannot hold a candle to–and when you have met the people who write these kind fo books you realize how insulting the comparison is.

    ” I think the appeal of Martin’s work isn’t in any sort of escape to another world, but rather because his world feels so much like the real one”

    Martin’s world feels just like the real one? Just how many people do you know who were raped by their brother next to a corpse in a cathedral?

    The lives of those who watch and read GoT bare no resemblance to the fictional lives of its characters. Indeed, it is most popular with the demographic whose lives are the least like the show. It does not correspond to any ‘reality’ they know about-except at a very abstract, intellectual level.

    Thus my question: why this thirst for a ‘reality’ that is utterly alien to the values, experiences, and world of the audience? Why do people want to lose themselves in barbarity?

    “Martin’s work aren’t escapism….”

    You are right, escapism is not the right word. “Voyeurism” is a better one.

    GoT’s profligate sexuality is one of its hooks, of course, but that is only part of the voyeuristic impulse that drives the show. The allure of GoT is the allure of seeing the worst of humanity, viscerally depicted, without leaving the comfort of your living room. Much like the Saw films, GoT allows the viewer to revel in depravity from afar. GoT is not as gratuitous as Saw and the other Gorno flicks, but its perversion cuts deeper because the viewer has a stronger emotional connection with Martin’s characters. This is Martin’s central literary strategy: get the audience emotionally invested in the characters, then abuse them as graphically as possible.*

    We live in strange days. Violence is at global lows, prosperity at global highs. Yet modern upper-class Americans, living at the height of the richest, most productive civilization in history, have succumb to the idea that “real” can only be found in the gruesome, the lewd, and the heinous.

    Stimulating indeed.

    *A slight reworking of what Peter Lee said here.

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  14. Another respect in which Martin’s novels are atypical of the genre (only Kate Elliot, e.g. in her Jaran series, really comes close) is that a large number of important characters remain relevant to the plot while simultaneously being parents whose struggles as parents are explored in the story, rather than just serving as window dressing.

    It is fitting that speculative fiction for adults has characters who actually are more than young adults themselves in it.

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  15. “Martin’s world feels just like the real one? Just how many people do you know who were raped by their brother next to a corpse in a cathedral?”

    Again, you’re getting Game of Thrones the show confused with a Song of Ice and Fire the books. The TV show is not Martin’s work, It’s Weiss and Benioff’s work, based on Martin’s novels. Many of the things you’re complaining about weren’t present in the books, or at least were presented differently.

    “We live in strange days. Violence is at global lows, prosperity at global highs. Yet modern upper-class Americans, living at the height of the richest, most productive civilization in history, have succumb to the idea that “real” can only be found in the gruesome, the lewd, and the heinous.”

    Yet peel back this veneer of civility, and what do we become? Though I can’t really comment on the mindset of Americans as I am not one myself.

    I appreciate and respect your wealth of personal experience with the unfortunate consequences of humanity’s dark nature. I really can’t say I’ve had anything but a comfortable pleasant life. Respectfully though, I’d suggest we’re kidding ourselves if we think that whatever dark corner of human nature that would lead someone to pour acid into an innocent man’s eyes is somehow absent from comfortable Western societies. It may manifest differently and less frequently, but I seriously doubt it’s not there.

    “Much like the Saw films, GoT allows the viewer to revel in depravity from afar.”

    As a fan of the show and the books (though with some caveats), and as someone with a lot of friends who enjoy both too, I can assure you that has nothing to do with the appeal for the vast majority. I think you’re seriously misreading why people watch it. In fact, I think the appeal of Saw is the exact opposite of the appeal of GoT. In GoT, it’s the story, the characters, and the varied emotions they invoke that grab people’s attention. Saw has no story and no characters, and I don’t really get what emotion it invokes for people. Perhaps the thrill of breaking a taboo? I found the first one boring and took a pass on the rest personally. Not my cup of tea.

    Particularly in the books, but to an extent in the show, a lot of the horror isn’t there to thrill, but rather to disgust. You’re supposed to feel disturbed and uncomfortable. It’s like watching parts of Django Unchained. You’re supposed to be uncomfortable watching the portrayals of the horrors of slavery.

    Martin makes you really root for a lot of these characters, as imperfect as they may be. They don’t all die horribly, but the fact that some could means you really feel concerned and in suspense, as you really don’t know what will happen on the next page. It’s unpredictable. I don’t think there are many other fictional series out there that can claim that.

    “Stimulating indeed.”

    There are a lot deeper themes than the nature of violence in the series. They’re there to explore for people who are interested. I’m assuming you haven’t read the books? Give them a shot. They might pleasantly surprise you.

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  16. great exchanges. thinking on them. but one thing: yes, let’s not confuse the show with the books. i haven’t watched the shows, but have read the books. martin has been quite clear he has no specific control on how things are being depicted on the show, so imputing some of the gratuity of the show to him seems unfair. the books themselves have a lot of stuff people recoil from, but it sounds like the quota of graphic elements is higher on the show on a per capita basis.

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  17. It’s HBO. Their popular shows are mobster shows, or some variation with bleak settings and brooding, violent middle aged men.

    Since GoT at first would not appear to be geared for the target audience, they put some accents on the violent/bleak features of the book to pull that demographic in.

    It’s still a really good show. Nowhere near the perversion of the books you would read on some fansites. In some cases it’s actually more economical with the storytelling and less prone to GRRM’s obnoxious meandering on the later books. Reading the Red Wedding and watching it on the TV series is a particular example where the TV medium shines because the casting on the show is superb and the actors bring layers of emotional resonance that I feel the book cannot match. You miss some detail from the book, but in exchange you get more visceral moments.

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  18. Disclosure: A few years ago I read the first two books in the SoI&F series. I stopped reading midway through the third one when I googled Marin, found out how old he was and how long it took him to write the most recent book in the series (at that point book 5?) and decided it was not worth it to invest anything more time o mental energy I figured would never be finished.

    At the time I was uncomfortable with a great deal of the book’s contents; since then I have grown much less tolerant of graphic descriptions of sex and violence and have felt no desire to return to the series.

    (Also, my reference to the experiences I’ve had helping folks who have experienced the trauma of barbarity in the real world reads a little bit more stuck up than I meant it. I don’t believe in using personal experiences as argument-ending trump cards; I include them here simply to provide context for my comments.)

    Continuing on:

    “Again, you’re getting Game of Thrones the show confused with a Song of Ice and Fire the books.”

    OK, fair enough. We can amend it to, “how many people do you know who have had consensual incestuous sex in a cathedral after a funeral?” or “how many people do you know who have been decapitated at their wedding and had an animal’s head sown onto it?” or any of the other gruesome or taboo-breaking episodes in the books.

    I think you understand my point. The world of GoT is very *unlike* the world most of its readers/viewers come from. The Western world has not had anything close to Westeros for centuries. In truth, there are very few places anywhere that might be described as ‘like’ Westeros. It presents something very alien to its modern viewers.

    (As an aside: if someone did make a HBO series on one of those parts of the world with a Westeroan feel, would anybody watch it? Would Game of Thrones: Liberian Warlords be a best seller?)

    And this is why I find the claim-implicit in this post’s title, stated by CupOfNoodles earlier in the thread, and repeated often when I bring up my distaste for the show to friends-that GoT/SoI&F is so real to be quite interesting. This is an issue that extends far past GoT. We’ve reached a point where a story will not be hailed as authentic, deep, and “real” if it is not also dark, gritty, and violent. But what is it about grittiness, darkness, and violence-something few of the viewers of the average HBO show have ever experienced in a real sense-that makes something “real?” Why is a show that has incestuous rapes in cathedrals more realistic than a show that does not?

    Or to put it another way, CupONoodles said earlier: ” In GoT, it’s the story, the characters, and the varied emotions they invoke that grab people’s attention.” If this is true, why is all gruesomeness (or, for that matter, all the nudity) necessary? Why is a world of grisly barbarity the only setting for morality plays modern audiences find acceptable?*

    As I suggested earlier, this question is much broader than GoT. It applies with equal force to almost everything HBO and the other drama channels produces Breaking Bad is the perfect example. Even more than any of the GoT leads, Walter White is a character HBO (and AMC) audiences can relate to. Like them, he is smart, white, and comes from a pretty tame life. But then he is thrust down into a world of violence and perversity that is utterly unlike anything they have experienced or ever want to. The desire to see that world up close, to experience its intrigues and evils without having to bear any of its consequences back in real life, is part of the show’s appeal.

    I don’t think this is all that different from what motivates people to watch the Saw movies. The difference is not of kind, but degree. Speaking of GoT, CupOfNoodles suggets, “Particularly in the books, but to an extent in the show, a lot of the horror isn’t there to thrill, but rather to disgust.” I submit that is exactly what Saw, Hostel and the rest of those films are about to. Saw is all about seeing the most disturbing set of images a film maker can imagine without real world repercussions. The viewer is supposed to feel disturbed, betrayed, and disgusted.

    A very similar suite of feelings comes with GoT’s more graphic episodes. They are not as physically disturbing or graphic as Gorno flicks, but they don’t need to be, since the viewer has established an emotional connection with the characters being tortured. The fates of the characters are emotionally disturbing.

    This provides suspense. But perhaps these feelings are an end to themselves. They allow the viewer to witness cruelty or barbarity without any of the emotional baggage that comes from participating in, suffering from, or simply witnessing these things in real life.

    *OK, this might be a slight exaggeration. Downton Abbey exists. But I cannot think of many other similar shows…

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  19. J.E. says:

    I actually agree with much of what T. Greer says regarding the nature of the appeal of GoT and other modern entertainments. I just don’t really see what the problem is, or why hand-wringing over violent TV shows is necessary, other than providing another subject to fill some opinionator’s article-quota for the month. Cliche, I know, but ultimately if you don’t like it, don’t watch it.

    “why this thirst for a ‘reality’ that is utterly alien to the values, experiences, and world of the audience? Why do people want to lose themselves in barbarity?”

    I think you answer your own question here:

    “The world of GoT is very *unlike* the world most of its readers/viewers come from. The Western world has not had anything close to Westeros for centuries. In truth, there are very few places anywhere that might be described as ‘like’ Westeros. It presents something very alien to its modern viewers….They allow the viewer to witness cruelty or barbarity without any of the emotional baggage that comes from participating in, suffering from, or simply witnessing these things in real life.”

    Perhaps some find this thirst for vicarious barbarity personally distasteful. That’s fine. But I don’t see how it’s not natural, or has had any ill effects, or really worth the worry. I find Faces of Death videos on the internet personally distasteful too. But I can’t say my friends who have watched “1 lunatic 1 icepick” are changed for the worse in any way afterwards. So I can’t bring myself get myself too reflective over GoT or other “barbaric” entertainment I happen to enjoy. It really just doesn’t matter. There are more meaningful things to worry about in life.

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  20. Helen Castor had a really good piece on the Guardian on March 31 first on the historical parallels for much of the brutality shown in the show. (I’d post the link but I’m unsure of the correct tags to do so here.)

    Frankly, I think it’s more disturbing that people prefer to hear the latest gossip on Jennifer Aniston’s love life and to ignore anything that breaks their pleasant reveries.

    In terms of how many people I know who had their heads cut off and a wolf sewn on… that scene was based in part on the Glencoe Massacre, which was perpetrated by members of my family, so… yah. Never trust a Campbell. Sewing the heads back on to people who were decapitated for treason was definitely a thing though. Ask Charles the First. There was a report of a girl in Iraq having a dog’s head sewn on to her decapitated corpse during the insurgency there too, though I’m not sure if that was ever more than a rumour.

    The most brutal act on the show and books came from a character being brutally castrated, and unfortunately that has plenty of historical basis too. Bishop Wimund for example.

    If Game of Thrones isn’t your cup of tea that’s fine, but I don’t think you need to lose sleep over the state of society because of its popularity. Shows like Judge Judy and the Big Bang Theory still consistently beat it in the ratings, and frankly that worries me more.

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  21. One reason for sexual violence to receive more attention from George R. R. Martin than from J. R. R. Tolkien, and more still in the television adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s books than in the books themselves, is that understanding sexual violence in the context of our larger understanding of sexuality in general, may be more salient to modern audiences than to earlier ones.

    J. R. R. Tolkien wrote the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings before the sexual revolution at the tale end of a long period of relative stability in understandings of human sexuality, and ensconced at Oxford was well removed from the cultural transformation in these understandings that were in an embryonic state in flapper speakeasies in America and “Rosie the Riveter” filled war time factories during WWII.

    George R. R. Martin was writing after the sexual revolution at a historical moment when all assumptions about human sexuality (and about the true historical role of women in historical processes) were being radically reconsidered, so an examination of these extreme cases of sexual violence can provide a laboratory to explore the intersection of consent, force and sexuality to address questions about what is really important about human sexuality that weren’t even being asked or considered in Tolkien’s time.

    Since Martin’s books have been published, our society has worked through much of the re-examination of human sexuality and gender roles that the sexual revolution and feminism have given rise to since the 1960s. But, while our norms about the kinds of jobs that can be performed by women which were in radical flux in the 1960s and 1970s have now stabilized, our society’s efforts to make sense of human sexuality and in particular sexual violence in a post-sexual revolution world continues to evolve. Chastity as a uniformly shared publicly claimed norm gave way to free love which gave way to a feminist conception of rape that expanded the traditional definitions of what constituted this crime (e.g. including not just force but non-consent, and being possible between married couples) and has since dumped us at the present in an unstable middle ground that routinely confounds tradition oriented GOP politicians and provides a fluid moving target for acceptable conduct among people seeking sexual relationships right now.

    Scenes depicting sexual violence become salient ways to explore our larger norms about human sexuality at times when the way that we conceptualize sexual violence is actively in flux among target audience members. And, HBO has learned from a variety of its more successful series that audiences are attracted to more sexually edgy content that their free broadcast network competitors are allowed to offer to the public. This competitive edge demonstrates that the salience of these kinds of scenes to audiences is real.

    I personally believe that the real driver of most compelling and good fiction is the set of moral challenges that audiences work through vicariously while viewing them. As issues related to consent and sexual violence loom larger in many TV viewers’ lives as rape is redefined in a post-feminist age, it is hardly surprising that people are more interested in exploring these issues. People don’t have to be depraved perverts who are busy carrying us to hell in a hand basket as our society becomes ever more decadent and prone to collapse to have an interest in these scenes in the context of our currently evolving shared understandings of this very issue.

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  22. The Lord of the Rings is set during a general war, when a lot of issues have simplified down to “Whose side are you fighting on?” We see the elves at their best and the orcs at their worst. It’s like WW2, where the times demanded we treat Stalin as a friend and Finland as an enemy.

    The Hobbit is a lot more morally ambiguous, with Thranduil’s mean-spirited imprisonment of the dwarves and Thorin’s refusal to return any of the hoard. Even the orcs aren’t as irredemptibly evil: when they capture the dwarves Thorin’s first reaction isn’t “Well, may as well die fighting,” it’s “Well, may as well try talking them into asking for a ransom or something.” It’s only when the orcs notice Thorin is carrying a famous orc-killing sword that the mood turns ugly.

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  23. “(One imagines the conversation going something like this: “Incestuous sex next to a dead body after a funeral in a church? We need to make that more edgy. Hmmm…. I know, lets make it incestuous rape next to a dead body after a funeral in a church!)”

    I was rethinking this comment over the weekend, after having recapped the series a bit for my wife as she sets out to read the book since she’s working fewer hours than usual this week and can’t engage her usual running habit because of a mother’s day snowstorm.

    Honestly, consensual incestuous sex is probably edgier and more assumption challenging than incestuous rape. Our intuition is that rapists are generally evil perverts who do awful things that their victims don’t welcome and an incestuous rape scene doesn’t challenge that preconceived worldview. Siblings who have grown up together and know that they are siblings yet welcome incestuous sex without either consider themselves to be victims is more worldview challenging.

    Turning that scene into a rape scene may have made it more palatable and cliche to television audiences, rather than less palatable and boundary pushing for television audiences.

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  24. […] I don’t really feel like blogging anything which takes any effort at the moment. So despite having enough material from The Psychology of Personnel Selection, which I finished a few days ago, and Impact of Sleep and Sleep Disturbances on Obesity and Cancer, which I’ve yet to finish, for at least a couple of posts, I’ll cover a novel instead. I read two novels this weekend, Harper Lee’s To kill a Mockingbird and Jasper Fforde’s The Well of Lost Plots – I’ll blog the book I liked best. I found Lee sort of boring in a way, although I don’t exactly think the book is awful (it’s probably overrated, but that’s different) – there was way too little George R.R. Martin in that book and way too much Tolkien. […]

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