The Worst Review I Have Ever Read

I like Laurie Penny’s writing, but its not subtle. Laurie’s recent review of a Game of Thrones was so poor that it has driven me to write a review of her review. Necessarily, here be Spoliers, beware. Superficially Game of Thrones appears like a normal, goodies versus baddies fantasy adventure. Were it my job to write about it though, I might bother to gain more than a superficial understanding of the stories plots and themes. This is over a thousand words of take down, which is relevant to hardly anyone, so I’m putting the rest below the fold.

In the review it seems there are always goodies and baddies. Laurie and her friends are the goodies, able to spot racism and sexism and deal them deadly blows with their wit and scruples. The baddies are always unsubtle, simple creatures, whether a guilty pleasure or a true enemy the baddies are unaware of their own prejudices and are thus easily vanquished by said goodies. Needless to say, this formulation is insulting and simplistic, ring any bells Laurie?

Laurie assumes that because she doesn’t understand the series it must be simple and that no further effort in understanding its nuances are required before writing 1000 words on the subject. This leads hear to argue that the show is sexist, racist, about “Good versus Evil,” she also identifies are a key theme “The Search For The Good Ruler”. With respect to sexism and racism the series is significantly more nuanced than Laurie presents. Her treatment of sexism and racism is misleading and I am going to provide examples undermining her arguments.

With respect to fights between “good and evil” and the “search for the good leader” Laurie has the it completely backwards. Game of Thrones repeatedly undermines the virtue of initially good characters and adds virtues and nuance to superficially bad characters. Cersei Lannister turns out to be intensely is loyal to her children, Stannis is unfaithful to his wife, the Hound protects Sansa better than any knight, Dany burns someone alive. The list goes on.

The series is also explicitly and without prejudice George R R Martin makes it clear that there is no such thing as a “Good Ruler.” This isn’t a stylistic point Laurie has ignored, she has ignored several exchanges of dialogue on this precise topic. Again and again it is made clear that “The Game of Thrones” is played at the expense of the common people who “…pray for rain, health and a summer that never ends. They don’t care what games the high lords play” in the words of Jorah Mormont.

The series is not about goodies versus baddies. It reveals shades of grey in all characters. In doing so it reveals the other theme of the series which Laurie has ignored. The series is an advert against the fundamental attribution error. The actions of characters in Martin’s world are severely constrained by the structures of power  and by their prior choices.

Laurie Penny may think that dour Eddard Stark is the good guy in the series, but that is only because her understanding of the series is superficial. Eddard Stark is not a good man, he is an honourable man. By sticking to his honour when he should have locked Cersei and her children in a cage directly caused the kingdom to fall into chaos and war. Million of deaths are on his hands. Because the institutions of the state are weak and difficult to separate from the Royal household he pays for this mercy and so does everyone else.

On the other hand, Tyrion Lanister who is part of the “Evil” Lannisters does everything he can to minimise the people’s suffering. On ascending to the royal council he takes as much power from the hands of his psycho sister and demonic nephew and starts taking an interest in the running of the Kingdom rather than playing games. A similar nuance can be seen in Jaime’s character. As he is transported across the riverlands with Brienne of Tarth (who we will discuss later) he begins to see the point of honour and humility and the knightly virtues which he has so ignored.

The main theme in Game of Thrones for me is that structures guide people. The rules of the game and the institutions people find themselves in shape their behaviour far more than personal virtue does. This is the opposite to what Laurie sees in the series but I can’t work out how. Look at Theon Greyjoy. He begins loyal to the Starks because he has been their hostage for a decade after his father’s failed rebellion. After the outbreak of war, he is sent home with terms for an alliance but is forced to join his father’s rebellion instead. In the course of reluctantly fighting his father’s war he is forced to kill old friends and to make alliances with true monsters like Ramsey Snow and Reek. In the end his body becomes ruined and he is tortured to the point of intense Stockholm Syndrome loyalty to his torturer.

Accusations of sexism also strike me as a little odd. Lots of the characters are sexist and as Laurie identifies that some justify this because Medieval Europe was sexist. She says that is inadequate, Martin chose to make these characters sexist, in fantasy you have total leeway. But contrary to the impression Laurie gives, several female characters have full and important roles. Most revealing I would say is Brienne of Tarth, a giant of a woman warrior who embodies all the knightly virtues of chivalry. The important thing about Brienne is that she is the only character in the whole series that actually does. The most knightly knight is a woman!

Rape and sexual violence is ever present in the series, but the same is true today, women are not safe in the here and now and in any conceivable fantasy world they would be vastly more vulnerable. George R R Martin at least tries to grapple with this in his fantasy books where many authors either ignore what would have been a persistent theme or revel in making only the bad guys rapists.

As to racism, I do wonder how Laurie copes with the cognitive dissonance. Westeros is an awful, sexist, violent place wracked by war according to Laurie, but George R R . Martin makes them look like good white people. Eh? The Dothraki are portrayed like murderous, barbarous rapists but so are the Iron Islanders, white people from Westeros. So while some dark people and some white people are murderous and vile, the Nine Free cities of Essos are based on Medieval Italian city states and are always presented as more peaceful and prosperous than Westeros.

Although slavery persists in the east it is true, serfdom persists in Westeros. When Laurie talks about Dany trying to rescue the East from slavery and being all aryan and superior she neglects to mention that the whole thing is a shambles and Dany ends up causing a huge amount of suffering and pain. Although Dany tries to take up the white man’s burden she does so out of the arrogance of birth, not race. She is a Targaryen and therefore born to rule pretty much everyone.

There are also Whereas Laurie Penny thinks that the the stories revolve around the top 1%ers of the Game of Thrones Universe, that too shows a lack of understanding. The one character who seems to actually care about the Seven Kingdoms and their people is Varys, a Eunach from another continent who rose through grit an determination to serve the Royal court: it is hard to be more marginal.

Pretty much everything in Lauries review is the opposite of the truth. The show may be sexist or racist, but not in the ways she suggests. She is just plain wrong in the core themes she identifies in the series, which is rather embarrassing because it seems her whole article is based on that misunderstanding. Laurie’s review did a huge disservice to anyone considering watching the show by badly misinforming them.

I sound harsh but I am not without heart; I am a happy to work, free of charge, as a consultant for Laurie were she ever to want to write on Game of Thrones again, although I’m not sure she’d like my editing.

11 thoughts on “The Worst Review I Have Ever Read

  1. Magnificent takedown, indeed. I have not seen the television series, but I’ve read all of the Song of Ice and Fire books. Yes, there is sexism, racism, etc, all of which I suppose Martin could have chosen not to include. But the inclusion of these problems, ever-present as they are, makes fictional worlds more realistic, more conflicted, and ultimately more vivid to the reader. Utopian sci-fi can focus on universes where the Other goes unoppressed and the vulnerable, poor, or powerless go unexploited—but how would Martin’s giving the women of Westeros equal marriage rights enhance or enrich the story he’s trying to tell?

    It wouldn’t. And ultimately Penny’s review falls down on exactly this point: Martin isn’t telling the story Laurie Penny would have him tell; she criticises his actual narrative choices because they aren’t what hers would be if she were the author. Ho-hum; go and write your own story.

  2. “no further effort in understanding its nuances is required before writing 1000 words on the subject”

    Words pundits live by

  3. Good stuff. You might be interested in this analysis of GoT here:
    It raises a lot of the same points you do.

    I think that the books are also much more sophisticated than the tv show in how characters are developed, so the good/evil dichotomy is something you could only really get from watching the show. I can’t see how anyone who has read the books could make such a statement.

  4. I am inclined to the view that the books are in some respects worse than the TV show – female characters in the books (who incidentally are generally 3 or more years younger than they are depicted in the show) are if they are not being raped living in more or less perpetual fear of rape or worse forms of sexual torture and humiliation.

    While in the first three books this is kept under some control, as Martin’s global success have freed him from the limits imposed on lesser writers (like having an editor who actually edits or being expected to actually deliver books he’s been contracted and paid advances for) in the last two this has gone way beyond ‘realism’ into genuinely creepy and pornographic territory.

    If Penny had actually read the books or even googled up some of the serious critiques and counter-critiques by feminists who have, she might have actually been able to attack the series on far stronger grounds – although having said this the show runners for all their love of sexposition and random nudity seem to have a stronger sense of what is acceptable to a general audience than the author now has.

    As for the racism the show has actually incurred the ire of Martin’s fanboys and girls by casting black actors in roles which are supposed to be ‘white’ (there is an Africa-analogue in Martin’s world but in the whole 5,000+ page series so far only two very minor characters have come from there).

    But it is clear that Laurie just doesn’t get fantasy at all and rather than make any actual effort to understand what it is and why people write and read and watch it she falls back on the lazy syllogism: Tolkein wrote fantasy – Tolkien was a reactionary – all fantasy must therefore be reactionary.

    1. This is more like it! Thanks for commenting.

      The age of the characters doesn’t bother me too much. I am not sure whether Martin intends us to be horrified by their age or not, I know he initially planned to have a five year gap in the story to bring them all up to a more normal age, but decided against this. Boy Kings going to war doesn’t trouble my imagination too much, similar things happened in Mughal India, Ottoman Asia and Medieval Europe. The child bride activity does bother me, but again, it is entirely in keeping with fantasy’s medieval roots.

      I’ve read Alyssa over at Think Progress and some Sady Doyle and now Laurie and one or two other feminist critiques of GOT and I’m always left annoyed by their empirical weakness. Doyle seems annoyed that even seriously referenced feminist or race critiques are dismissed, but I haven’t seen any. I would be grateful to have them pointed out to me.

      Dothraki are taken to be open and shut evidence of orientalist racism, but that is only possible if you ignore the iron islanders as nasty, brutal, white analogues. The Horse Lord and the Pirate are both traditional enemies of sedentary peoples and they are both “white” and “othered”.

      Similarly, I entirely appreciate that Martin’s writing needs to come with trigger warnings, but I don’t see how this could be written without doing so. The fourth and fifth book take place in anarchic army camps, pirate ships and pirate ports, they are inevitably going to be places of intense sexual violence.

      Martin’s treatment of some minor characters strikes me as excessively dismissive, in a Dance of Dragons Victorian gives 73 captured slaves girls to his men, executed 20 slave boys, and burns alive seven girls. The only description is of how the seven executed girls look, in perverse detail. So yes, it is incredibly sexist, but that is what a pirate captain would do! Martin didn’t have to have them find the slave ship, but then again just because he did it doesn’t mean the book is sexist.

      One “knock out” blow I saw a feminist try to delivery on Game of Thrones was that Catelyn Tully’s character was meant to be a “strong woman” and yet she made loads of mistakes. Boom: sexism. But that is a total nonsense, all the characters make lots of mistakes, that a lead female character did such and such tells us nothing about the series sexism unless we cannot find counter examples in male characters or similar faliings in other female characters.

      With respect to race I think people have a stronger critique in general. Martin is an old, white, fantasy dude writing a book roughly based on Medieval Europe. It is extra work for him to develop non-white characters and he doesn’t do so to a degree which is equal with the effort he puts into white character development. But at the same time, I don’t think his treatment of non-Westerori is racist in any coherent sense. Lots of people are made to look very bad, I don’t see a tendency in Martin’s writing for those people to tend to be “darkies.”

      I appreciate I am in way over my head. My area of expertise is, well nothing, but I know a damn sight more about economics than gender and race studies (although I know a lot more than most), so feel free to critique anything I write relentlessly, but remember to do so with solid examples or I won’t listen.

      1. I guess if we’ve delved insufficiently into feminist theory here, I’ll take up some of the mantle.

        Martin’s work is problematic from the perspective of feminist critique because all of his major female characters—with the exception of Arya—derive their conflicts from the fact of being female.

        Cersei is unable to realise her ambitions because, as a woman, she has spent her life as a man’s property or has wielded limited power vicariously through her male children. Catelyn Stark likewise.

        Sansa is a pawn whose blossoming maturity and uncertain status are used to manipulate the men of her family or to benefit men who act as her dubious protectors.

        Lysa Arryn is a “fallen woman” disrespected by her male relatives, sold into marriage, and ultimately contemptuously betrayed by her lover—whilst also being an appalling mother.

        Asha Greyjoy is also used by her male relatives, sidelined despite her abilities and the virtues of the men willing to follow her leadership.

        Brienne of Tarth is, as you point out, the most knightly knight in the story, but a woman, who is treated as a woman despite sharing every other characteristic of male knights than a penis.

        Daenerys Targaryen is put on a pedestal due to accident of brith, sold into marriage, and manipulated by her male advisors, at least one of whom wants to bone her. Her relationship with the dragons would be exempt from this critique, were it not for the fact of her breastfeeding them when they are born.

        None of these characters would be possible if they were male, nor are there anything like male analogues to them. Although male characters in the novels regularly mistreat one another, the over-riding perspective is one of male gaze, where the default standard human in all respects is male, and females are regarded as impotent, incomplete males whose importance derives from what the men in their lives do in reaction to what happens to them. They are fundamentally passive and poorly drawn, and the only time Martin escapes this tendency is when he is able, in the case of Arya and occasionally Brienne, to involve them in arcs where the fact that they are female is irrelevant. (Honestly—if Arya were Arthur, would you notice a difference?)

        And that is to say nothing of the minor female characters. We, the reader, see more firsthand of Shai than we ever do of Gregor Clegane, and yet Clegane’s character is much more finely drawn and meaningful to the story. Even after he kills Shai, Tyrion Lannister still meebles on about a woman twenty years in his past that the readers never meet than he does about the woman he slept with for a year and who left him to rot while rogering his dad. It’s not because Shai is a prostitute; it’s because she exists to provide Tyrion’s character with a timely parallel to what his dad did to humiliate him in his past. Take her out of the story, and you lose nothing.

        This stuff is really why Game of Thrones is sexist, not the fact that there’s some rape-in-war and prostitutes and boobs.

        1. The standard response would be that the the society is a quasi-western medieval one in which sexism would be systemic – thus it is no more sexist for Cersei or whoever to ‘derive their conflicts from the fact of being female’ than it is for any heroine of a Georgian or Victorian novel.

          And up to a point that stands – what is problematic to me to the degree that I am actually quite pleased that there is no way George RR Martin will ever complete the series in book form is the sheer creepy old man perviness of the sexual relationships in the two latter books where all the barriers have come down – as well as the increasing obsession with bodily functions (although as I am also approaching the age when one can no longer take these for granted I am willing to forgive him the many rhapsodic descriptions of pissing and of the joys of eating without thought for the digestive consequences).

          Carefully totting up whether the endless depictions of rape and sexual assault are from the perspective of perpetrator or victim (as Alyssa Rosenberg has just done in her blog) and finding that almost all are from the victims POV does not make this any less problematic as this feels to me like the compromise he has to make in order to be allowed to describe the sexual torture of a barely pubescent girl.

          And that he is also turning his hand to accounts of male-on-male rape is even less reassuring.

          As with the embarrassing late works of Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert and Fritz Leiber one just wants to shout ‘enough of the sex already’….

      2. I would say the implied accusation of laziness is accurate – Martin does have non-western medieval societies in his world but even though a major characters plotline takes her through several of them at an agonisingly slow pace he is simply not that interested in fleshing them out – the Dothraki are just steppe nomad barbarians, Qarth and the cities of the Slave Coast are just decadent eastern cities that owe far too much to the Carthage of Flaubert’s Salammbo.

        In the earlier books which do develop both plot and character at a reasonable speed these broad brush strokes are understandable – but in the last two which he spent over a decade writing and in which nothing very much happens at all and which his fans claim are all about ‘world building’ it is unforgivable.

        It is also rather ironic that one of the many diversions that has delayed his progressing the saga is editing a tribute volume for Jack Vance – a writer who could take his characters through not one but several entertainingly bizarre and exotic societies in fewer pages than it takes Martin to describe a single feast or a torture session or the contents of the Lord Commander of the Night Watch’s store-room.

        Compare for instance the event-filled journey of Cugel across the Dying Earth in the Eyes of the Overworld with the interminable voyage of Tyrion towards Mereen in ADWD, where seemingly every meal, every evacuation of bowel and bladder, every inconsequential conversation every game of cevasse is described in Proustian detail,

  5. This is over a thousand words of take down, which is relevant to hardly anyone,

    Count me as one of the few. A very interesting read and I agree with virtually everything you said. It appeared to me as if Laurie simply didn’t like Medieval Fantasy at all as she complained about all the elements that make up the genre; her vision of what GOT could have been sounds frankly, boring.

    As for the racism, I just didn’t understand her point. The Dothraki are a fairly faithful representation of Huns/Mongols so I cannot understand how this is racist. That’s like saying that any book or TV depiction of the Romans is racist, as it is inevitably stereotypical. Contrary to the opinions of invariably liberal white middle class Britons, the peoples of Central Asia are quite proud of their history and cultural heritage and I’d be surprised if any took offence, on the contrary, they probably loved the Dothraki in the series.

    I can understand her confusion though, we live in a nation in which cultural differences have become blurred and ill defined, I doubt that she can comprehend the fact that there are cultures that are so starkly different to her own. It appears that in her view, all cultures and sexes must be uniform and match her own warped preconceptions. Totally missing the point about ‘different’ cultures.

    I’m with her on the feminism angle however. If there isn’t a kung fu, man beating misandrist female antagonist demonstrating that men are inferior and redundant at every turn, then frankly it isn’t worth reading and deserves to be shot down in flames by the feminists. It is thanks to this lot that women are lapping up dross such as Twilight and the Hunger Games.

    On a side note, I am of a similar opinion to Mr McCarthy; the series became more and more lacklustre as it progressed. I found a Feast for Crows boring (I haven’t bothered to read ADWD), and I started to question why I liked the books, or even whether it was the same author. I am also in some doubt as to whether he will finish the series; he seems to have lost his way and time is certainly not on his side.

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