Friday, 2 September 2011

Refuting George R R Martin's "creepiness"

This blog isn't about literature and cultural critique, as regular readers will know. However, I'm currently reading George R R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, and I came across this attack by Sady at Tiger Beatdown which I thought it worth responding to. Normal service will resume shortly.

The whole thing turns on the notion that "George R.R. Martin is creepy," and that those of us who enjoy his books (I've just started the latest episode, A Dance With Dragons) actively excuse and encourage "sexist shit." Not to mention a healthy dollop of white supremacy and paedophilia. More than that, as a reader (sorry, "nerd") I am bound to be angry at this and as a result go on a hate-filled trolling spree. I really wish I was making this shit up, or over-exaggerating.

The central point of Sady's critique - more like a temper tantrum, which adds irony to her pre-emptive accusations against "the Rage of the Nerds" - is that readers are displaying "the impulse to revisit an airbrushed, dragon-infested Medieval Europe." We apparently have "a yearning for a time when (white) men brandished swords for their King, (white) women stayed in the castle and made babies, marriage was a beautiful sacrament between a consenting adult and whichever fourteen-year-old girl he could manage to buy off her Dad, and poor people and people of color were mostly invisible." Which is to be expected since "racism and sexism have been built into the genre ever since Tolkien."

Now, I'm not going to disagree with the last point. At least not entirely - I gave up reading Lord of the Rings when I bumped into Tom Bombadil, so I can't speak for Tolkien. I did, however, make the mistake of re-reading The Chronicles of Narnia as an adult and thus destroying all the magic they held from my memory of reading it as a child. If you want women in their place, overt Christian propaganda, and the blatant racism of a kingdom of white people besieged by brown savages to the south who worship the wrong god, then C S Lewis is your man.

Indeed, it was male fantasy author Michael Moorcock who said of both Tolkien and Lewis;
While there is an argument for the reactionary nature of the books, they are certainly deeply conservative and strongly anti-urban, which is what leads some to associate them with a kind of Wagnerish hitlerism. I don't think these books are 'fascist', but they certainly don't exactly argue with the 18th century enlightened Toryism with which the English comfort themselves so frequently in these upsetting times. They don't ask any questions of white men in grey clothing who somehow have a handle on what's best for us.
But does this point apply to Martin? I would argue no, and for a number of reasons. But perhaps the most obvious is the fact that the Westerosi civilisation he brings us to is anything but "airbrushed." In A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin explicitly pulls away the veil of chivalry, honour, and the great and the good. What is exposed underneath is a brutal and pitiless world, where honourable men such as Ned Stark (a POV character in the first book and the TV series) ends up with his head on a pike and where the very notions Sady attacks Martin's fans for apparently buying into sees his daughter Sansa trapped and tormented when her prince turns out to be a vile little shit.

For Sady, however, this is not a dissection of the "days of yore" mythos but its worst incarnation. Martin is creepy "because of his TWENTY THOUSAND MILLION GRATUITOUS RAPE AND/OR MOLESTATION AND/OR DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SCENES," despite these shattering the "airbrushing."

Now, I can understand why such scenes are discomfiting. Certainly, they should come with trigger warnings. But, by the same token, do we really want to blank this out? Should we pretend that a patriarchal society doesn't equate to women being reduced to mere objects whose will is irrelevant? That the death and chaos of war doesn't adverse effects on the psyches of those caught up in it, resulting in untold savagery? Or that relationships based on, indeed forged for, power are bound to be abusive?

This is the world that Martin immerses us in, and he pulls no punches. However, Sady has no truck with the "realism" argument and responds thus;
Reader, here are the things that George R. R. Martin changed about Ye Olde Medieval Europe, when he set out to write A Song of Ice and Fire: Religion. Geography. History. Politics. Zombies. Werewolves. Dragons. At one point, when asked why his characters were taller, healthier, and longer-lived than actual Medieval people, George R. R. Martin explained that human genetics and biology do not work the same way in Westeros as they do in the real world. So George R. R. Martin considered that he could change all of that while maintaining “authenticity.”
This is facile. Fantasy fiction is about world-building - authors create a world within which to tell a tale that goes beyond the realms of the possible, to create a new mythology. But a story only works on the basis of willing suspension of disbelief. Thus, Martin can change all those things because he does so whilst keeping his world internally consistent. But it is a lot easier to believe in dragons than it is to believe that a world still governed by feudalism and patriarchy, ravaged by war and horror, would at the same time be some paradise of gender equality.

This doesn't mean that the idea has no place in Westeros. We might look at Dorne, where the line of succession doesn't skip females, and at the strong female characters we see in the Sand Snakes and Arianne Martell. But Sady, who doesn't seem to have grasped the plot she is so quick to mock, dismisses her as "filler content" and writes her off because she "fucks up and gets everyone on her side killed." Asha Greyjoy is a strong, wilful and highly intelligent female captain from the Iron Islands - despite that culture being almost entirely opposite to the Dornish in its attitude to women, from a culture of rape and taking "salt wives" in conquest to the declaration that "no woman may rule the Iron born."

Then there is Daenerys Targaryen, whom Sady "really want[s] to like." But she can't because of the "BLATANT MOTHERFUCKING RACISM" in Martin's depiction of the Dothraki. Now, there may be a case to be made that Martin is weaker or more stereotypical in his development of the "eastern" cultures of his world. Though Sady's examples aren't convincing, such as the fact that people of distant and unconnected cultures have quite different names. This is true, but it's true of the real world as well, and Martin has clearly put a lot of effort into developing and distinguishing the variety of cultures which appear within the series, those relatively close together as much as those entirely separate from one another.

This is not to mention that Sady's attitude to Dany building her army and her power by destroying ancient slave cities and freeing the slaves. It veers from a fairly honest point about the "enlightened white saviour" stereotype to a bizarre conflation of racist paternalism with moral universalism - of precisely the kind I've covered before in my critique of liberal/state multiculturalism.

There is much more I could go into, and indeed others have. Alyssa Rosenberg has responded to the key presumptions by Sady that she disagrees with, Paul Crider offers a balanced dissembling of Sady alongside more reasoned feminist critique of Martin's work, and E D Kain follows up his initial response with one on men discussing sexism and on why fantasy fiction doesn't mean creating utopia. However, as a last point it is worth noting that much of Sady's critique derives from a dislike of the fantasy genre and in many instances a misreading of the books that seems almost deliberate.

Ultimately, I'd argue that the best way to decide the message of A Song of Ice and Fire is to read the books for yourself. I'm completely taken by them, and rank them alongside Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion series. There may not be a right answer to this but, to my mind, if you want a story which both captures the imagination in a thrilling tale and holds up a mirror to the innumerable injustices of human civilisation, then you could do worse than reading George R R Martin.

Update: This post by GeekMom is also well worth reading as a response to Sady's piece.