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.