Game of Thrones & the New York Times: Game Over.

The blogosphere, twitter, and various fantasy fan sites are abuzz with comments regarding today’s New York Times review of HBO’s latest epic series, based on George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones.  And with good reason.  Not only does the reviewer, Ginia Bellafante, seem to have a bit of a problem with fantasy genre in general, she manages to insult her own sex in the process.

First of all, it’s clear she hasn’t actually read the book, as she writes, “embedded in the narrative is a vague global-warming horror story. Rival dynasties vie for control over the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros — a territory where summers are measured in years, not months, and where winters can extend for decades.” Uh, no. Winter happens. It’s just that the winter that is threatening is a perma-winter…one wrought by magic, not by some sort of climate change.  Nor is she clear on who these characters are, what their motivation is, or even why, it seems, anyone would be interested.  This is further evinced by the next point she makes, asking why anyone would care about ruling these lands, since “the bizarre climate of the landmass” isn’t worth fighting over, because, apparently, it ain’t Palm Beach.  Guess what? A lot of fantasy takes place in different climates, in worlds that are not our own. And the readers of fantasy, male AND female, like it that way.  According to her, only those “not averse to the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic” will like this series. Oh wait, what are those sitting on my table? Are those my funky steampunk gaming dice?! I do believe they are!  But guess what? I only started gaming a couple of months ago…I read the first book years ago.  So much for that theory.

Then she goes on to ask what she considers a very important question:  “What is “Game of Thrones” doing on HBO?”  Well, I don’t know, Ginia.  Perhaps HBO is aware, which you seem not to be, that fantasy (and its subgenres) are big, big business.  Think Steig Larsson sells a lot of books (don’t get me wrong, Lisbet Salander kicks ass and takes names)?  Or that only ‘serious’ literature sells?  Then why is it that people of all ages were up at midnight to buy Harry Potter books?  Why is it that Patrick Rothfuss found himself on top of the sales charts for his latest, or why, when the release date for the next book in the Game of Thrones series (actually called A Song of Fire and Ice, but that’s not the point) was announced, it was the number 2 book on Amazon that day?  Is this because no one reads fantasy? No.  HBO knows how popular this series is, and thought, gosh, we could make some money on that.  That’s why it’s on HBO.  Rome was on HBO, The Tudors was on Showtime, Starz did the blood and guts and sex fest known as Spartacus: Blood and Sand, and then Showtime decided to get on the completely messed up historical figures bus again with The Borgias.  But Ginia doesn’t seem to understand that. Nor does she think women would watch it, save for the bodice-ripping.

But before we delve into the inherent sexism of this review, I have to get through two other egregiously ridiculous points she makes.  First, she states that A Game of Thrones “has been elaborately made to the point that producers turned to a professional at something called the Language Creation Society to design a vocabulary for the savage Dothraki nomads.”  Hello, Avatar anyone? James Cameron went so far as to publish a book on the language of the Na’vi, and the thing damned near won Best Picture (don’t get me started on how it was just a re-warmed Dances with Smurfs in Fern Gully…).  I applaud the creators for going this extra step.

Now, I suppose we should talk about the violence and sex she mentions in her review. Yep, HBO is known for going a bit over the top with the sex and violence in its mini-series. Rome was one big orgy, and I’m not so sure about the historical accuracy of some of the bedroom scenes in The Tudors.  But Martin’s series itself doesn’t shy away from the sex, or the gore. Like his fellow traveler Joe Abercrombie’s kingdoms of Styria and the Union, Martin’s Westeros isn’t (as noted before) Palm Beach. There are swords, poisons, and all manner of ways to kill, and I’m good with that. Give me gritty any day over ‘surgical strikes’ with drones.  The relationship between Cercei and Jamie Lannister which the reviewer alludes to is meant to tell the reader something: for all their shining beauty and seeming perfection, these Lannisters are downright twisted buggers. And guess what? I’m also okay with that (we’ll get to why that is in a moment).

And this is where we come to the part that makes every single geek girl I know seethe. I am quoting the entire paragraph here, so my readers can see just how inane this argument (which it isn’t…ask my students) really is:

The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.

Putting aside the fact that the reviewer doesn’t understand proper citation (The Hobbit and Game of Thrones require italics, but whatever), the sex in Martin’s books isn’t “a little something for the ladies” who wouldn’t otherwise watch.  How incredibly arrogant to say such a thing.  First of all, I didn’t read all three books for the sex, I read ’em for the story. Which is pretty damned good, and tough (as any writer can tell you) to maintain over a series. Second, she blatantly shows her ignorance by saying that somewhere, there must be women in the world who read such books. Guess what, Ginia? I bet you know some. I know more than some…I know a lot of them. In fact, most of the women I know read fantasy (and no, I don’t mean that tripe known as romance novels).  I know people who are writing their dissertations on fantasy literature.  And again, I ask you, how could Martin’s pre-sale orders push him to #2 if there weren’t female readers? How incredibly insulting.  For the record, I had to go look up who Lorrie Moore was.  I have never heard of her, nor do any of her titles look familiar.  If the plot of A Gate at the Stairs is any indiction, I wouldn’t want to be in that book club (seriously…it makes some of Oprah’s Book Club selections look happy).  Oh, and just one final thing…my last book club did read The Hobbit.

But what really bothers me here, besides the poorly constructed argument, is the inherent sexism Ginia displays towards her own sex. Am I supposed to only read stories about girls who want to be nannies? Am I supposed to feel vindicated that she called out the sex and violence, as if that’s something that having breasts inherently cannot comprehend or accept? Is there some sort of vagina-detection device in the sci-fi/fantasy section of Barnes and Noble that is supposed to steer me to ‘acceptable for girls’ section?  When did literature, of whatever sort, become sex-segregated?  Pat Mills, this is Ginia. Ginia, this is Pat Mills.  Now, both of you apologize.  At least Pat Mills has an excuse…he isn’t a woman.  But for a woman to paint all women with such a very broad brush (word for the day: essentialism) is really, in my book, inexcusable. The NY Times should be ashamed of itself for allowing this review to be published.  This review is insulting to fantasy as a genre, the authors who write it (many of whom are…surprise! women), and the readers, but to the quality of the New York Times.

Published in: on April 15, 2011 at 10:32 am  Comments (20)  

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20 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great rant 🙂

    This is my fav
    Is there some sort of vagina-detection device in the sci-fi/fantasy section of Barnes and Noble that is supposed to steer me to ‘acceptable for girls’ section?

    Hihi, burn!

  2. This is only one of the very many reasons why I love you and feel honored to call you a friend. You have succinctly and completely put my feeling into words. 🙂

  3. Excellent post! I was thinking about writing something on this, but I knew you’d do a better job. 😉 Retweeting it as we speak! 🙂

  4. Rock it, M.

  5. Great post. Continue to keep more appealing publications. Been following blog for Three days now and I should say I am beginning to much like your post. I need to know how can I subscribe to your blog?

  6. […] for the NY Times posted a clueless, sexist review of the upcoming Game of Thonres episode. I liked this response, even though she calls romance novels tripe. I’m going to pretend she means romance novels […]

  7. NYT should fire VaGinia and hire you instead

    • Exactly!

  8. Bravo. Excellent reply.

  9. Tudors is on Showtime.

  10. s, you’re absolutely right. you can tell how flustered this review got me! I’ve fixed it.

  11. What was meant to be a small comment
    about this ended up being a full-blown blog. I hope it is alright that I leave a
    link to it
    . Thank you

  12. Great rant.

    I would suggest, however, that the tv series should be able to stand on its own, without needing to depend on its audience’s familiarity with the novels. So Bellafante’s confusion about the length and importance of summer and winter may suggest that the tv series doesn’t make that plot-point clear. My point being, it’s not fair to ding her for not having read the books when she’s reviewing a tv series. In theory, the tv series must attract a much larger audience than fantasy fans and Martin readers if it’s going to be a hit – so it is crucial that the series be comprehensible no matter what any individual audience member’s level of engagement with fantasy/Martin. If Bellafante doesn’t get something, without having read the source material or being familiar with fantasy tropes or whatever, that may suggest a failure on the part of the show’s writers. It may not! She may just be really dumb! But fantasy fans simply can’t insist that every viewer of Game of Thrones already have read the novel, and the show can’t assume it. It must stand or fall on its own.

    But that in no way excuses Bellafante’s ignorance and sexism with regard to fantasy as a genre and its audience, male and female. I’m not trying to suggest that it does. The article is appalling and you’re wholly and absolutely right to call her out. And I’d like to thank you for doing so in such an intelligent and thought-provoking post.

    • Anne, perhaps you’re right regarding the series not being clear re the book itself, but at the same time, why pick someone who is so completely unfamiliar with the genre in which it’s set to review it? The bit about ‘why would anyone want to fight for this’, and that throwaway line about it not being Palm Beach really struck me as indicative of her complete lack of knowledge regarding sword & sorcery fantasy. Does she think no one would fight for Gondor because it’s ‘too hilly’?
      Yes, she’s reviewing a TV show, but at the same time, I really do think, on that staff of theirs, they could have found someone who HAS read the books, or who at least has a passing understanding of the fantasy genre, and thus could have judged it based not only on its own merits, but as a translation of the genre to screen. I really do think by allowing someone without any basis to go by, they’ve done the genre (and women!) a disservice.

      • If she meant that the plot was poorly explained she probably could have said that. What she said was “the plot is junk.”

    • Considering that Bellefante also assumed that Tyrion Lannister was proof that there were races of “Elves and Dwarfs” when it’s clear just from watching the previews that Peter Dinklage’s character refers to a person of average height as his brother, I think it’s safe to assume that she’s either extremely dumb or didn’t even watch what she was supposed to be reviewing.

      Frankly, her blatant and ignorant prejudice insulted little people as well as women, men, and anyone who likes fantasy.

  13. I read your review and nodded right along with you till you had to go and refer to “that tripe known as romance novels”. My main beef with the NYTimes review was the author’s failure to actually review the show itself and rather turn her article into a high-brow intellectual’s lofty put down of the fantasy genre. Now, while I agree with your points about the review, you got MY hackles up because not all romance novels are “tripe” and as an avid reader who enjoys good literature in general (including fantasy and dare I say romance) I’m a little more than put out by YOUR generalization. If you want to cite the money making powers of the fantasy genre, I think the romance dollars might add up to a substantial chunk of the pie too. Many women read romance and many of us are not mouth-breathing idiots who can only comprehend “tripe”.

    • Pamelia, sorry that you were offended. And of course, you’re right…not all romance is the same thing. I am referring specifically to a certain subset, churned out monthly and often exactly the same as the previous month save the names, places, and season, as ‘tripe’.
      And in many bookstores, they are their own separate category. While they may be classified as fantasy by some, I would beg to differ. While they allow some to fantasize (although I’ve never been one of those women waiting for some manly man to come sweep me off my feet), I would argue they are not part of the spectrum of fantasy literature (something that isn’t part of our world).

      • Thanks, and I agree that there is a subset of category romances that are not generally that good (although there are several that have been quite good and many of the more successful romance writers got their start with category books). I wasn’t proposing to conflate romance into the fantasy sub-genre by my comment; just that I read both genres. There are some fantasy based romance novels out there and vice-versa. The genre doesn’t determine whether I read a book or not and although many fans of romance gripe if a book published under the romance header strays too far into fantasy/urban fantasy just as fantasy readers gripe if there is too much romance in their fantasy I don’t mind either as long as they are well-written, well-plotted engrossing reads.

  14. Thank you and the other women and men out there raising a bit of hell over a really badly, uninformed review. The reviewer fails on so many levels over such a broad spectrum of areas that it did indeed require rants such as yours and a few others have posted that I have read. My better half and I found ourselves gawking at some of the things Ginia wrote, just so painful.

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