Laurie Penny recently wrote an article about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot of stuff in the article that I could comment on – and I will very briefly, but I want to concentrate on one particular bit later in the article, aside from the political and social commentary which I broadly agree with.
Briefly I’ll just reassert my belief that a fictive content that involves issues of racism, sexism etc need not, itself, be racist or considered ‘problematic’. We admit that these things happen, have happened etc and to talk about them or include them in fiction does not entail approval or endorsement. Good stories often come from conflict and from difficult situations or concepts. Entertainment should cover these things and should not pull back from examining or portraying them.
The main thing I want to talk about is encapsulated in this part:
“Game of Thrones is based on the Medieval World, and the Medieval World Was Sexist and Racist.” Well, yes, 14th century Europe wasn’t a lot of fun if you were a woman, but nor did it have, for example, dragons, or magical shape-changing witchy-woo assassins. Westeros does, because Westeros is a fantasy world. If the creator of a fantasy series can dream up an army of self-resurrecting zombie immortals he can damn well dream up equal marriage rights, and if he chooses not to do so then that choice is meaningful, as is our assumption that the default setting for any generically legendary epic must involve really rather a lot of rape.
There’s a couple of things to address here but the main one for me is that someone the existence of magic, dragons etc means that you can – or indeed should – let anything and everything go or change the world around these elements in order to appease modern sensibilities.
To my mind the more fantastical elements you bring in the more you desperately need something to ground the story. You need to contrast and contextualise he fantastical within a graspable, understandable, relatable arena. Just because there’s a dragon in your story doesn’t mean you should ignore the social structures and mores of medieval society if that’s the basis for your change. Shifting those becomes another fantastical element and too many of those and you can lose your readers.
Mieville’s New Crobuzon stories are overflowing with fantastical and surreal elements but they’re grounded in societal struggles, class war and interpersonal relationships that are much more conventional an understandable archetypes.
Lewis’ Narnia books take place entirely within a fantastical world but are grounded by the origin, mores and familiarity of the wartime Pevensie children and how they relate to it.
Tolkien’s Middle Earth commences its adventures from within the Shire, a comfortable little piece of Southern England that just happens to be peopled by Hobbits who, compared even to the humans within his stories, are much more understandable to the modern audience.
It seems paradoxical but the stranger and more fantastic the world the more important the hooks that people find intelligible.
When it comes to rape and murder and the arrogance of ‘divinely’ appointed kings we don’t have to look any further back into history than yesterday to see how violence, gender roles, mass rape etc have been used and continue to be used in war, civil war and other struggles. These nasty aspects of life would be implausible to ignore in these settings and form a part of this very grounding as well as being interesting and useful story elements in their own right.
I don’t think we have to say these things are problematic to enjoy them. They’re not really problematic. Better for us all to remind ourselves that fiction isn’t reality, even though it can be useful for looking at reality.