Every girl wants some ...

Every girl wants some …

While I was in Greece working for two weeks I had no internet access, something of a catastrophe for my millions of fans but a strange chance to chill out for me[1]. Fortunately I had downloaded a couple of books to my kindle before I left[2] so I had plenty to occupy me, and first on my list was the Richard Morgan series The Steel Remains and The Cold Commands. In this post I will give a brief review of the two books, but what I’m really interested in with these books is the subtext, and the underlying implications of the world structure of the sub-genre they are derived from.

I have previously read and reviewed Richard Morgan’s cyberpunk/space opera cross-over novels, Altered Carbon and Woken Furies, both of which I really enjoyed for dubious reasons. Richard Morgan’s two new novels are fantasies rather than science fiction, and are also a departure from his previous style in that they are clearly intended to be “grimdark,” that new style of fantasy realism that embraces violence, rape and brutality but, most especially, rape. In his sci fi, Morgan kept the sexual violence repressed and simmering on the edge of the story: sure, there were snuff movie makers and some nasty criminal undergrounds, but they were just that – some kind of tiny minority who traded cruelty to a tiny minority. In The Steel Remains series, Morgan has moved the sexual violence to the centre of the story, along with a heavy dose of brutality, and embraced all the lowest aspects of grimdark. I have previously commented critically on his justification for doing this, and also on the general trend towards misogyny and violence in stories like A Game of Thrones, so I entered these two novels with very mixed views on what to expect.

First of all, I enjoyed these books for all the same reasons I enjoyed his previous works. In their broad outline they haven’t really deviated much from the basic themes of Altered Carbon. The story features on some elite soldiers who are veterans of a great war to save civilization. The war was brutal and they are scarred from it; but even more by the the cruelties they were forced to commit when they were deployed to put down civil revolts near the end of the war. They have emerged as scarred survivors with a very short fuse and a strong drive to hurt bullies and criminals, largely to try and rectify their own past complicity in horrible crimes. This means we get to see a healthy dose of bully-smashing, which I always find thoroughly enjoyable: child rapists, murderers, slavers, torturers and bastards get all manner of cruel and just desserts in this story, and it’s really hard to feel any pity for them. The world they’re in shows no shortage of such people, and in fact if our heroes were to set out on a mission to do in every bully and cruel bastard on the planet, they would end up very lonely. The world is divided into two main countries, a northern and southern empire that are basically equivalent to Europe and Asia Minor: the southern continent is clearly meant to be Muslim. One of our heroes is a gay son of a very privileged family, in a world where homosexuality is a deep sin; another is an outlander from horse tribes generally seen as barbarians. The main character (the gay man) is a picture in repressed rage, basically a shirt-lifting version of Kovacs from Altered Carbon. There’s a lot to like in watching these two men dispense with anyone who offends their sense of rightness which is, in general, the same as the reader’s. I think this means they are relatively (for fantasy) deep and complex characters, and generally in the right in a degraded and mediaeval kind of way. Unfortunately the story is not as tight as in his previous works: there are parts that don’t make sense and at times it feels like I missed a book, though I’m pretty sure I didn’t. Some sections, particularly those set in the faerie world, just don’t make any sense to me. There’s also a strong deus ex machina running through the whole latter part of the story, with one of the characters basically getting out of any situation through his role as vessel for some ancient darkness, the role of which is not explained. That aspect of the novels is pretty shit, actually, and I was disappointed with those elements of the story. So, although the novels retain some aspects of Richard Morgan’s best works, they represent both a structural and moral degeneration from his previous highs.

Which brings us to the issue of the grimdark. If the moral universe in which our heroes operate were to be characterized in two easy themes, it would be: every man rapes, and the strong can kill with impunity. This is grimdark, you see. At the time the story is set, the northern kingdom has instituted a new system of debt slavery, in which basically anyone who cannot pay a debt can be sold, along with their family, into permanent and brutal slavery. That is, if your neighbour goes underwater on their mortgage, you can buy them, and then rape them with impunity – and even pay for them to be sent to a special training school which will somehow (probably, the implication is, through rape and violence) turn them into willing sex slaves.

Furthermore, as far as I could tell in this world, free women seem to be divided into only two types of person: noblewomen and sex workers (who of course are routinely referred to as “whores,” a noun which in this story basically replaces “woman” in the narrative flow). The men could fill more roles, but no matter what they did, unless they were very very high in society, our heroes could murder them in the street without paying any penalty. It appears that in this world of grimdark, slaughtering people who spill your beer is pretty standard practice. I guess beer is expensive.

The implications of these setting elements are obvious and abhorrent. What kind of world can pass a law to enslave ordinary people’s neighbours? How is that going to work? Sure, one of our heroes is employed to rescue a girl from his extended family who is sold into this situation, but we’re somehow meant to believe that they are the first and only family to decide to take independent action against slavery, and that the rest of the world is just going along with it. This seems hardly credible. There is not, in general, any particular group targeted for exclusion and enslavement, and no sense that “it won’t happen to me.” Just ordinary families getting swept up in slavery because they went into debt. This scenario is just impossible to credit, even in a mediaeval dictatorship. Who would tolerate this? How long would it last before people started rebelling? Especially in a world where heroes can kill ordinary men with impunity, it seems pretty likely that a village would scrape up the money to pay a few mercenaries to go and liberate their enslaved members. It seems far less likely that they would buy those enslaved members and then subject them to the full cruelties of lifelong slavery. “Hi Bob, yes, I always enjoyed chatting with you at the pub, but from now on I own your family because you didn’t pay the beer tab, so I’m going to rape your wife and daughter every day.” Doesn’t figure, does it? But the society of these novels seems to just go along with it, as if they had a missing moral bone … which they certainly seem to lack when it comes to prostitution and murder.

There are prostitutes – sorry, “whores” – everywhere in this story. In one notable scene, our hero is stalking through some random street and hears a prostitute – sorry, a “whore” – busily sucking off a sailor in an alley, then notices a whole queue of sailors waiting for her services. This is … phenomenally weird. Everywhere we turn there are “whores,” but these men have to queue up; or is it the case that demand outstrips supply? In which case how can these sailors afford a blow job, and why are there “whores” everywhere we look? In this story “whores” serve as a kind of scenery or background the way trees, birds and carriages might be in a more standard story. Whereas in the Belgariad our heroes would be leaning against a wall and an ale cart or a bird seller might walk by, in this world it’s always a perfumed “whore,” who trails behind her (in a particularly odious moment of poor writing) “the smell of used woman.” Scanning the world Morgan lays out for us, there seem to be no female shop-keepers, apiarists, porters or grocers: just noblewoman and “whores.” And there are an awful lot of them, too. Also, just as in A Game of Thrones, these “whores” appear to be completely expendable, so if you have ever wondered what it’s like to kill a girl, you just hire one of those expendable “whore” things that are on every street corner, and no one will care if you do her in horribly. How does such a world come about, especially when there is a huge stock of slaves available to be used however one sees fit? The only way I can see this working is if there is a massive gender imbalance, but the female majority hasn’t yet figured out it can gang up and take over just from sheer weight of numbers. It’s just economically and politically weird. It seems, for example, that men care about their daughters – so how are they tolerating a world where every second daughter grows up to become an expendable “whore”? The observable nature of the world seems to run repeatedly up against the moral framework, in a way that ultimately cannot be reconciled.

The same applies with the weird phenomenon of people being able to murder each other with impunity, and also the cold-blooded way that men routinely dispose of all injured opponents by killing them. No world that works this way would stay civilized, and typically these kinds of extra-legal killings have only been possible in special places or at special times. The degree of casual murder on display in this story would be out of place in Japanese-occupied Manchuria or modern Afghanistan (as, for that matter, would the degree of misogynist violence). Those places were devastated war-zones under occupation; we’re meant to believe that this world is a functioning and stable society, bar a little bit of war recovery.

There is no place and time in history that has managed to stay civilized and maintain this degree of sexual and non-sexual violence. The setting is impossible, unless we are to imagine that the obviously basically human societies being portrayed are fundamentally amoral and alien, which they’re clearly not meant to be. It’s as if Morgan wanted to portray the moral exigencies of men trapped in total war (which is certainly the implication of his self-exculpatory musings linked to above) but couldn’t be bothered stepping outside the standard fantasy setting – as if it was too much effort to create the physical backdrop for the moral story. And who would want to write this moral story anyway?

I think this is a problem with “grimdark” generally: they want to write a world where men have unparalleled rights over and access to women, but they want to imagine a world where women can still walk the streets freely; they want men to be able to kill bullies without punishment, but they want a world where men still drink together with strangers in pubs. The reality is that these worlds don’t coincide, and the failure of the grimdark authors to realize this makes me think that they’re actually just using a cheap, knock-off fantasy setting to work through their unresolved adolescent issues: they want to get back at all the women who rejected them and all the men who bullied them, but they haven’t the imagination to construct a setting where this is possible; so they just dial our assumptions about the barbarity of mediaeval worlds up to 11, and get to work on the non-consensual sex. To me, this is lazy and weak world creation, and yet another example of how over the past 30 years the fantasy genre has consistently failed to live up to its transformative and speculative potential[3]. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that, as the nerds of the 80s grow into the peak of their spending power, and also start to experience their mid-life crises, their fiction will begin to be dominated by stories that appeal to their unresolved adolescent angst. But if it’s going to do that, I would prefer that it would at least do so in a slightly more mature and creative way than “grimdark” has so far managed to present me with. I guess I was hoping for too much …

fn1: That’s a lie actually, I was very angry about it.
fn2: Kindles are worth their weight in gold when you are travelling

fn3: Actually the soft-porn bdsm series Gor from the 70s(?) did this. In that story the author constructed a moral framework in which women fundamentally want to be used by men, and are turned on by male power. Although superficially based on capture and forced enslavement, willing were actually consenting to their own slavery, thus didn’t rebel and could be turned into willing sex slaves. Whether or not you think this is horrible (I don’t; I think it’s just porn) it is, at least, an attempt to make the moral underpinnings of the story match the actions of the protagonists. It’s an attempt to explore what the world would be like (from a pornographic perspective) if humans were morally different to how we actually are. Grimdark doesn’t bother with this speculation: it just rapes people[4].

fn4: that sentence sounds clumsy if it ends with the word “women,” but let’s be clear about this: by and large, grimdark doesn’t rape men (or if it does, they are generally deserving of it). It rapes women. Over and over again.

… and she never, ever looked back …

I discovered today that vibrators were originally invented for medical use. An excellent article in the Guardian describes the history of the invention of the vibrator, in the context of an interesting new movie called Hysteria, which gives a fictional account of the life of its inventor.

The vibrator, it turns out, was invented before both the electric kettle and the vacuum cleaner, but was originally intended for use by doctors, who found the task of administering “pelvic massage” to treat women’s pervalent hysterical states far too tedious. The article reports:

The pelvic massage was a highly lucrative staple of many medical practices in 19th-century London, with repeat business all but guaranteed. There is no evidence of any doctor taking pleasure from its provision; on the contrary, according to medical journals, most complained that it was tedious, time-consuming and physically tiring. This being the Victorian age of invention, the solution was obvious: devise a labour-saving device that would get the job done quicker.

This labour-saving device was very quickly miniaturized, and soon was being sold direct to the patient, saving doctors the tiresome but financially rewarding task of bringing their patients to orgasm. It also appears that the readers and writers of women’s magazines at the time were aware of more than just the medical benefits of these devices:

For the next 20 or so years, the vibrator – or “massager”, as it was known – enjoyed highly respectable popularity, advertised alongside other innocuous domestic appliances in the genteel pages of magazines such as Woman’s Home Companion, beneath slogans describing them as “Such delightful companions”, and promising, “All the pleasure of youth… will throb within you”. In 1909, Good Housekeeping published a “tried and tested” review of different models, while an advert in a 1906 issue of Woman’s Own assured readers, “It can be applied more rapidly, uniformly and deeply than by hand and for as long a period as may be desired.”

So, in the 19th century Doctors had a lucrative side business as, essentially, a type of sex worker, and in the early 20th century it was acceptable for women to order a vibrator from any magazine, and to use it for its curative properties. I guess they discussed them at their tea parties … as Maggie Gyllenhall, actor in the upcoming movie, notes, it’s a little weird that

 100 years ago women didn’t have the vote, yet they were going to a doctor’s office to get masturbated

Strange indeed. Imagine what Rush Limbaugh would say if Obamacare mandated that service to Catholic healthcare providers …

There is, of course, a serious side to this topic. The movie is based on a book and some publications by an academic, whose career appears to have been threatened because she showed an interest in the history of the vibrator, and it appears that there is some resistance in academia to understanding this aspect of the history of psychiatry. It might seem trite on the surface, but the development of psychology and psychiatry is intimately connected to the efforts of doctors to define women as mad and inferior, and hysteria played a central role in the development of a lot of modern theory. Examining the history of the vibrator also means getting a better understanding of just how deeply held the beliefs of doctors at the time were. This notion of “hysteria” wasn’t just some fictitious silliness from one of Freud’s texts, but clearly influenced widespread medical practice, and a whole industry thrived on the treatment of this non-existent condition. It’s worth noting that this labour-saving device was invented and popularized before several important household appliances, so it wasn’t just a trivial sideline in the industrial revolution. Yet there is almost no scholarly research on either the device itself, its relationship to medical practice, or what the existence of this industry says about the pervasiveness of the pernicious notion of hysteria in the 19th century. The article finishes by noting this point:

If the story of the vibrator tells us anything … it is that men have been determined for millennia to deny the most obvious truth about women’s sexual requirements. Explanations for this collective denial have ranged from profound fear of female sexuality to sheer laziness. Either way, Maines says, “The constant from Hippocrates to Freud – despite breathtaking changes in nearly every other area of medical thought – is that women who do not reach orgasm by penetration alone are sick or defective.” Western society has steadfastly preferred to pathologise around 75% of the female population as frigid, hysterical or, as the Victorians liked to say, “out of sorts”, than acknowledge the inconvenient truth that coitus might not be entirely satisfying to women.

The thing I find astounding about this aspect of the history of sexuality is what it says about men’s attitude towards sex, and particularly their lack of interest in the female body. Sure, playing with vibrators is fun, but all that sticky stuff down there is an enjoyable and essential part of a full sex life, and I would have thought that most men who have a genuine interest in and desire for the female body would naturally gravitate to the sort of playfulness that renders vibrators (largely) obsolete, and certainly one would think that through just simply playing around in a natural way, men would have worked out what women like, and would see it as a natural thing. But no, somehow for centuries they all managed to labour under the false notion of the vaginal orgasm, with all the confusion and blandness such an ideal introduces to sexual intercourse. Did they not notice? Were they not concerned? What were they doing? How could they have been satisfied? Reading about the advertisements in women’s magazines of the time, I can’t help thinking that despite their inferior position and straitened circumstances, women had worked out what was going on long before men, and for all their freedom of expression and exploration, it is men who have been the repressed ones for most of history. Which just goes to show that the people with the most social power are not always the ones best equipped to use it …

Rebels don't endorse standard public health messages

This is an excellent interpretation of Stieg Larsson’s page-turner of the same name. For my sins, I read the novel and enjoyed it despite its sometimes crappy writing, because the story is compelling and the characters are fun. Both the main male character, Michael Blomquist, and the eponymous female lead Lisbeth Salander are excellent depictions of their particular archetypes[1]: crusading journalist and lunatic hacker, respectively. The movie brings them to life well, perhaps even improving on them through good acting (’cause lord knows they were held back in the original through bad writing!) It also brings out the setting, both the historical part and the modern Swedish setting, so that they were just exactly how I’d imagined them when I read the book. It also makes the investigation interesting, and you can understand how the combined talents of Blomquist and Salander are capable of solving a mystery that no one else managed to. It also managed to cut out some parts that would have made the movie too slow, and to interweave the three stories (Salander, Blomquist, and the historical part) nicely without being confusing or chaotic. This is surely good movie-making …

The acting was also great. The woman who played Lisbeth Salander, Rooney Mara, was superb in the role and did a brilliant job of holding together the tension, intelligence, viciousness and strangeness of that character without over-doing any of it, or pushing Salander into a stereotype of a hacker. Salander is a complex personality and a complex emotional story – simultaneously vulnerable and fragile and extremely tough, uncaring about convention but very aware of how other people think and feel – and Mara did a superb job of getting her right. In his own way, Blomquist, though superficially simpler, is also hard to get right, though perhaps more from a direction point of view: Blomquist is a man who respects women but doesn’t put them on a pedestal, who has deep passions but doesn’t lose control of them, and who probably isn’t a particularly expressive guy. Daniel Craig does a very good job of getting it right. The cast were also chosen so that everyone felt real, and many scenes that one might expect a movie remake to change, gloss over or misogynize were very well crafted.

This is an important and unavoidable problem in bringing this book to cinema: handling the gender relations. This is a book about getting vengeance on rapists and murderers of women, but it’s also a story about a young woman who falls in love with an older man (cliche 101!) and a couple of Scandinavians who have an open relationship. The temptation here for your average movie director is to make the rape scenes sexy or shallow, to make the young woman a victim of the man’s charm or the age-gap completely normal and believable, and to make the women in the open relationship young sexy babes, or just crazy fucked-up people. None of this happens: the rape scene is horrible and the vengeance enormously satisfying, while also repulsive; the young woman is not a victim of the older man’s charms, and the nature of their relations with other people are such that you understand the situation is not normal for him or for her – it’s the first such old man/young woman affair I’ve seen in a movie that feels believable. And the older women in the open relationship – 40 something career women – look their age, like attractive 40-something career women in control of their own lives and sexualities. It’s through Blomquist that we mainly encounter these people, and his approach to the women in his life is straightforward, respectful and understanding. A perfect counter-point to the men that he and Salander are engaged in foiling, who are sleazy liars who only know how to use people, and especially women, for their own gratification.

This movie also has one sex scene in it that really does describe the difference between a movie that depicts the real relations between modern men and women, and most of the rest of the American movie industry. The scene is nothing special, but its execution made me happy for its frankness and realism. We see the young woman and the older man having sex, but she is on top grinding away to her own orgasm, largely oblivious of him, and he is just kind of going along with it. In the end she comes and he doesn’t, and I think it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a sex scene where the woman gets something and the man gets nothing. Usually either the man comes or they both do, simultaneously, without any effort on his part except the glorious power of his amazing dick. The reality of course is that sex is not often like that, unless the girl is faking it, and everyone who has more than the barest experience of sex has experienced the woman who takes her own orgasm astride the man, often quite aggressively. It’s like the guy who made this movie actually wanted to show sex as it happens between real people who love each other, rather than as it is imagined in the minds of people who insist on reproducing the imaginary gender relations of the American culture industry. For that reason alone, the scene made me happy.

The flipside of these scenes, though, is that there is a lot of nasty stuff to wade through in this story. The rape scenes, graphic evidence from the murder scenes they are investigating, the final tense showdown, animal cruelty … if seedy under-belly-of-society type movies don’t appeal to you or you just can’t watch films that involve rape or the cruel mistreatment of women, then I suggest avoiding this one. You’re not going to get much satisfaction. If you can bear this sort of thing in order to see a good story and fine acting, and you can get pleasure from fairly nasty revenge scenes (I certainly can), then I recommend taking this one in on the big screen. In addition to a tense story, fine settings and excellent acting, it also has some very cool cinematography and a great soundtrack, so its well worth the effort if you can endure that sort of cruelty on screen. But you need to go in ready for some nastiness, and if you don’t think you are, then you probably should give it a miss …

fn1: Archetype is the word you use instead of “stereotype” when you enjoyed the book.

I have just finished the immensely enjoyable Game of Thrones TV series, which is a thoroughly excellent and engrossing viewing experience and a fine addition to the genre. I don’t really have any substantive criticisms to level against it, except that it was too short. Oh, and that it was awesomely misogynist, and this misogyny was clearly intended as part of the fabric of the setting. Maybe I’m just getting old, or maybe it’s my terrible bleeding-heart leftism, but I am finding it increasingly difficult to ignore this kind of thing in TV and movies. Not in the “I refuse to give those bastards my money” kind of way, but just in the “I can’t help noticing it, and I’m a bit sick of it,” kind of way. I’ve noticed this in a few TV shows recently and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say two things: a) it didn’t used to happen and b) it’s a particular problem in modern interpretations of imagined (i.e. fantasy or historical) settings. There might also be a bit of c) modern writers think this is essential to establishing “authenticity” in non-contemporary settings, but whether or not I touch on this we’ll decide as the rant continues.

Before I discuss this in more detail, though, a few points about A Game of Thrones. I don’t know how true the TV show is to the books, how much swearing and foul language there was in the books and how much Martin’s work was intended to be “gritty,” “dark” or “realistic.” I get the impression it was meant to be all these things, but I don’t know because I haven’t read the books. I’m guessing there must be something in the books to spur this kind of interpretation in the TV show, but then again – when the Sci-Fi channel made A Wizard of Earthsea they swapped the skin tones of the main characters, and Studio Ghibli completely fucked up the underlying philosophy of the same book, so … anything can happen in TV. So in discussing the TV show I’m going to talk about it largely on its own merits.

So, let’s have a look at the misogyny in A Game of Thrones and the way it establishes the setting, and its essential unreality; we’ll look at some other modern creations (Deadwood, The Walking Dead and True Blood) for comparison, and then we’ll take some old ideas from Susan Faludi to examine whether what we’re looking at is a generational phenomenon in the TV/movie industry. Or is it just HBO? And maybe we’ll call on Rosanne Barr for support.

The Misogyny in A Game of Thrones

This TV Show (henceforth referred to as ‘Thrones) is rich with misogyny, primarily expressed through the language used by the main characters, though supported by the nature of the depictions of sex and the prevalence of certain industries (sex work and slavery) and their depiction in the show. There is a further element to the language used, though, which elevates the misogyny beyond mere deprecating language to create an atmosphere in which the female characters are constantly viewed in terms of their sexual vulnerability, and reduced to little more than sexual organs. This is the essence of misogyny – it’s not just bad language, or sexualized language, but an atmosphere of simultaneous sexualization and victimization of the female characters. In ‘Thrones this is very useful for setting the context of, for example, the Khaleesi‘s behaviour (or that of Stark’s youngest daughter, Arya), so that their resistance to suppression and attempts to rise above their status as women are all the more valiant for the fraught context. It also, however, creates a very unpleasant and exhausting environment for the viewer – something which on the one hand is quite good, as it makes the setting richer and more alien, but on the other hand is quite horrible since it leaves you thinking all the male characters are worthless scum, and makes it harder to sympathize with them.

It is this atmosphere of sexualization that I’m primarily interested in here, though the use of words like cunt, bitch, slut and whore continuously throughout the series is a type of misogyny in itself. A couple of examples of the use of language to create a pervasive and detailed atmosphere of misogyny are:

  • Sex as a conquest metaphor: when approaching the Aerie, a castle on a promontory, someone in the approaching group says “This is the aerie, it’s said to be impregnable.” Of course, impregnable has multiple meanings, but someone else in the group has to make the sense of sex-as-conquest explicit by redefining the particular meaning of impregnable in this case: “Give me 10 men with grappling ropes and I’d get the bitch pregnant.” A perfectly natural choice of phrase at this point would be “I’d capture it” or “I’d take it” (or even her), which leaves the sexualized nature of pregnability implicit, or even chooses not to use it. There’s nothing inconceivable about these alternative choices of phrase. But the chosen phrase changes the meaning of the original statement, and sets an atmosphere of sexual menace over the simple task of visiting a castle (this isn’t helped when we witness the breast-feeding activities going on in the castle, but that’s a separate story…)
  • Degradation of the conception process: “Boy, you were nothing until I squirted you into your mother,” one lord tells one of his sons, in a meeting with Stark’s wife. This choice of words is both brutal and very pithily expresses the relative roles of lord, lady and younger son. It also brings to the fore the role of woman as penetrable or as a vessel – something that commonly happens in the dialogue in this show. They don’t just talk about “having sex” or “conceiving” or “fucking,” but about going inside, being inside, penetrating. They revel in explicit discussion of the nature of the cunt. But it also denigrates that place and its role, using crude or everyday language to reduce the sexual and conception process into mere plumbing, crassly expressed. What is a woman, but a bucket you squirt into?
  • Explaining the cunt: at one point, a guy who has been signed up to the Nightwatch tells another member “I’ll never be inside a woman again.” Again we see the man describing the sexual process explicitly in terms of the nature of the cunt. He isn’t just talking about not getting to have sex; he is talking about the details of the process. And he isn’t talking about women as a desirable thing in and of themselves (“I’ll never touch a woman again,” “I’ll never enjoy a woman in my bed,” etc). He’s talking about the one part of a woman that has any value in this show.

Simultaneously with this language, ‘Thrones also sets out a world where women are extremely vulnerable and sexual predation is the norm. We see this in many ways throughout the story, and some of them fall into classic misogynist tropes:

  • The threat of child rape: the most shocking example of this is Arya, a girl of about 10, being told she will be raped if she doesn’t make herself look like a boy. But it is also implicit in the treatment of her older sister at court, who from the moment of her promise to Joffrey begins increasingly to seem like a girl at risk of being used, rather than treasured
  • The omnipresence of rape: The Khaleesi‘s story starts as rape, though it changes later; criminals on the Wall are often referred to as rapists, perhaps more often than is strictly necessary given the relative proportion of these crimes in society; basically every time the dol’thraci go to war they commit mass rape, and it is accepted and ignored by all involved (and spoken of as if it were merely scratching an itch). This is a vision of a mediaeval society where rape is a standard accoutrement of masculinity
  • The rock-star vision of sex work: sex workers (or “whores” as they are universally referred to) are a continuous presence in ‘Thrones, and they are treated in much the same way as they are imagined in the world of rock stars. In this vision, sex workers are all very beautiful, very sexually excited, very engaging, they love their work and everything they do is done just like a lover, only with more energy. No one ever gets any diseases from them, and they are all young and pretty. They also all love having sex with each other. This is pretty far from the reality of sex work, and there is way too much sex work in this show to start with – it’s as if the writers think that the entire world consists of housewives or sex workers, and there’s so many that every nobleman can find 6 to play with at the drop of a hat – and they’ll all be pretty and willing. It’s a rock-star’s vision of an industry that, I have no doubt, most of the producers have never experienced first hand. This madonna/whore stereotype is a classic sexist trope, which serves to establish “good” women in their place, who men in any case don’t like having sex with and “squirt” themselves into for the sake of heredity; and “bad” women, who men actually enjoy spending time with but sneer at for their fallen status. It’s an unrealistic and misogynist vision of women.
  • Death as sex: In one telling conversation, the King and his mates are swapping remiscences about their “first,” which turns out to be the first man they killed. The conversation is set up so it seems they’re talking about sex until they elaborate a little, and it’s clearly intended to equate death and sex. Have the producers been reading Andrea Dworkin? Or did they just feel like giving her (hugely controversial) theories a massive leg-up?
  • Unmatched sexual depictions: the only time we see a cock in 10 episodes is on a spy being dragged to death on a horse, and on a very old man who is clearly being depicted as a bit silly. Yet we constantly see tits and arse. This is a common representational inequality used when the viewer is assumed to be male, and serves to preserve the power of men as characters separate from their sexuality, while constantly reminding us that women are only sexualized.

So this is the atmosphere of ‘Thrones: a combination of classic sexist and misogynist imagery and story components, combined with intensely misogynist language intended to define women as sexual objects and to render them continually sexualized whenever they are onscreen. This is the world that our producers have imagined for us. But in many ways it is a highly unrealistic representation of the way men talk and think about women. Not only is the sex work as depicted here completely divorced from reality, but the language the men use is not language that ordinary men use in conversation with each other. When was the last time my male reader(s) said to another man “I like being inside a woman,” or talked in anyway about women in terms of inside and outside, or even described any aspect of their cunts? How many of my readers would take the word “impregnable” as an opportunity for a rape reference? Has anyone here ever met the kind of man who would talk about “squirting” into a woman? Now, it might be argued that this is the language of the times, that men were different back then – if so, how come Eddard Stark never once uses language like this, and eschews “whores” due to a single historical mistake? Stark is clearly the character we the viewers are most meant to sympathize with, and he has clearly modern values. The other character we most sympathize with is the Khaleesi. She has values that are out of step with her own culture’s (witness her brother’s behaviour, or that of the men at court) but also of her adopted culture’s (she protects women from rape while the women around her ignore it as a necessity of war). This makes me think that the producers know that their viewers will be uncomfortable with the values they are presenting for their world. So why do they go to such lengths to create this environment?

Misogyny in Other Creations

I originally thought of titling this post “A Game of Thrones and the Misogyny of HBO” but I checked their past programming and they have a wide and diverse range of shows, some of which are very non-misogynist. Some of their other shows are, though, and I think the one that springs to mind quickest is Deadwood. Outside the HBO fold some good examples of very sexist (if not misogynist, for those who wish to make the distinction) shows are Mad Men and The Walking Dead. In the case of Deadwood, the producer has defended his use of words like cocksucker and fuck even though historical evidence suggests that the word cocksucker is a post-WW2 invention, and in the era of Deadwood men did not use sexual terms in non-sexual contexts. i.e. this whole image of fucking and sucking cocks as a derogatory concept is much more modern than these shows would have us believe. In The Walking Dead we see modern folk cast into a very pre-modern world, living as hunter-gatherers in a zombie apocalypse. They largely retain modern values about language and its use, but revert to very traditional gender roles.

I think what we’re seeing here is a belief that “authenticity” requires misogyny and sexism, and a subsequent exaggeration of the nature of this misogyny, or even an imposition of modern understanding of what misogyny is onto a very different world and setting. This is most obvious in Deadwood, where we know that historically most swearing was blasphemy-oriented, but in the show the blasphemy has largely been dropped in favour of sexualized insults. It’s gangster-rap as a template for historical sexism. We’re not seeing a historically authentic brand of sexism, but the producer’s image of how men behave when they’re given complete power over women. I think this says more about the writers and producers than it does about the historical setting they are imagining. As further evidence, consider True Blood, which imagines a perfectly modern setting steeped with magic and violence. Here we occasionally witness misogyny and hear this type of language, but largely we see a world where women prey on men and women, men prey on men and women, and all’s fair in the war of the sexes. Obviously one could say this is because vampirism equalizes gender differences, but the decision to adapt these books to TV was a choice made: and I note that when people choose to make fantasy stories in the modern era (such as Buffy, or the soon-to-be-released American Gods) they choose novels that make it easy for them to tell stories that don’t require misogyny or sexual violence. I have a suspicion that the writers of these shows choose very carefully so that the imagined worlds they create are misogynist, but the fantasy stories of modernity are not.

Why do they do this? I think that they do this because this generation of writers is more misogynist than their viewers. We have a lot of evidence we can call on to examine this possibility, because we can compare modern stories with older stories, and ask ourselves what has changed.

Trends in writing, and the Backlash

Susan Faludi’s Backlash describes the trend in 80s and 90s cultural products (particularly film) towards sexist and/or misogynist stories that are much worse than the material produced in the 70s, and she characterizes this as the result of a backlash against the feminist gains of the 60s and 70s. This backlash occurred across society, but is most easily seen in the movies and TV shows of the era. I think this backlash is still ongoing, but as men of a new generation have become increasingly used to women’s workplace rights, perhaps it becomes increasingly evident in the one area where laws can’t affect our relations with each other – cultural representations of sexuality. As women become more equal in bed, some TV shows increasingly try to react against this through a specifically misogynist, sexualized backlash.

Susan Faludi described the particularly vehement response to the TV comedy Rosanne, which I recall as being a quite funny and very realistic look into the ordinary lives of ordinary Americans. This show was noteworthy for being very popular, but also being an extremely realistic insight into real life. It had fat characters, it treated inter-racial friendship as normal, and the family was a working class family completely disconnected from the fantasy of shows like Beverly Hills 90210. Faludi’s description of the backlash against this show is interesting, because it shows a range of highly gendered language used to attack Rosanne Barr, and also a great deal of discomfort about the idea of TV shows reflecting real life. Rosanne Barr herself describes the writing process of the early 90s as extremely sexist and openly degrading to women, and it’s no surprise that this persists into the modern era.

This may seem counter-intuitive, since we’re supposed to have come far since the 60s, but consider a few simple comparisons. Which is more sexist – Lord of the Rings or A Game of Thrones? It could be argued that this is a fault of the genre – LoTR is high fantasy, while ‘Thrones is meant to be all dark and gritty and realistic. I don’t think this defence works, because Robin Of Sherwood was envisaged as a gritty and dark take on the Robin Hood stories, and it managed to completely eschew any sense of misogyny while carefully constructing an extremely authentic representation of a sexist mediaeval world. I also think it can be argued quite reasonably that women are better represented in the original Dawn of the Dead than they are in The Walking Dead. I’m willing to bet (though I haven’t seen it) that The Wire is much more misogynist than Cagney and Lacey. Choices are being made about which stories to show and how to show them, and somehow between the 70s and now, the concept of authenticity in post-apocalyptic or fantastic worlds has come to be equated with misogyny. I think this is a generational change, and its origin in the 80s and 90s is well described by Susan Faludi.

The implications

The really frustrating aspect of this is that we don’t have any control over the political messages that are put into the work we watch, and in general, because we’re rational adults, we tend not to boycott shows that are misogynist or politically very unpleasant if they’re also very well made (which most of the shows I’ve referenced are). We enjoy them despite their political flaws, especially if they’re in a genre (like fantasy) that has historically been mostly crappy. I think the writers know this, and they know that they can present whatever political vision they like if they’re doing a good job on the show itself. So we continue to sit through the unnecessarily vile language, the misogyny and the unnecessary rape- and sex-work stories (and, in fact, the unnecessary sex scenes and gore) because we’re watching the show for non-superficial reasons.

The best example I can think of for this is internet porn. Internet porn is free. We watch it because we like porn. But (for Western porn, anyway) the majority of the free downloadable porn is full of vile misogynist language and some stuff that, I think, most men don’t care to see and wouldn’t ask for if they could commission their own movie – dp, face fucking, etc. But we watch it anyway, because we want to look past that stuff to see what we’re fundamentally interested in: pretty girls fucking. The people who make this stuff know this, so they present us with their politicized vision of sex, and we sift out the politics so we can enjoy the sex. Because it’s free, and in any case the market is saturated with these images, we have to tolerate all this stuff we don’t want in order to see a good fuck. The same is true of a good fantasy story or post-apocalyptic world. But it doesn’t have to be that way – it’s just that we have no way to send the message to the producers except to not watch what is, otherwise, excellent stuff.

I imagine a lot of people will mistake this for a PC rant about sexism in art, and assume I’m calling for some kind of boycott or censorship or something (this is the internet, after all). It’s not, and I’m not. It’s not that I don’t or can’t watch this stuff, it’s just that I’m sick of watching shows where all the female characters are hysterical or weak; I’m sick of being told that women exist only to be fucked, or that any world where women don’t have the same rights as men has to be necessarily imagined as a sexually torrid and rape-centric barbarian’s paradise. I’m sick of people mistaking swearing for toughness (just as I’m sick of rock videos where people mistake tattoos for rebellion). This shit doesn’t represent the real world, or real relations between men and women, and I don’t think it’s particularly representative of the historical reality of how people lived their lives before women could vote or control their bodies. I hate being told by defenders of this kind of stuff (like the producer of Deadwood) that it’s authentic, and therefore must be unsettling or confronting, when even superficial investigation reveals it’s not authentic, and it’s actually an ahistorical impression of the writer’s imagination of how a sexist world works. I don’t need to be reminded that women have cunts. I’ve had sex with lots of women, I like cunts very much thank you, and when I see a pretty girl I am certainly capable of wanting to fuck her; but that doesn’t mean I see women as cunts, or think of them only in terms of their cunts and of being inside them, or that I want to watch stories about a world where women are constantly vulnerable to being fucked. I can imagine a perfectly good sexist world without being reminded about the pervasive (but very low) risk of rape for those women.  Rape is nasty, and I don’t need to be reminded of it every time I want an hour’s escapism in a fantasy world. This doesn’t make me squeamish, and I don’t need some idiot from Hollywood who can’t have sex without paying for it telling me that I don’t have the cajones to think about reality. Because none of this is meant to be reality, and I don’t watch TV stories about dragon-summoning Khaleesi so that I can be reminded of the worst aspects of reality, especially when those worst aspects are probably largely in the imagination of some woman-hating dweeb.

Also, I like to be able to watch TV with my partner, and sometimes she gets a bit sick of being subjected to show after show in which she is told that, as a woman, she is weak or hysterical or vulnerable or good only for sex. Maybe one day she’ll stop watching fantasy, historical drama, and sci-fi shows if they keep being like this, and then I’ll have to watch them by myself, which is not as much fun.

So, if you’re reading this, TV writers and producers: can you try and do a bit better? I know it’s really hard for you to understand real women, and it’s easier to make a world superficially authentic with a bit of swearing and blatant misogyny, but it’s a mark of your skill as a writer if you can do better than this. So why don’t you give it a go, you might surprise yourself. You might even find that people respect you a little more.

Guess who's cumming to dinner?

Despite the many controversies that beset it, 300 is a very impressive queer cultural critique. I was sitting in a bar last night watching the ending, and mulling over how brave the director was to attempt a mainstream blockbuster movie focussed so strongly on the cultural politics of homosexual relationships. To the best of my knowledge it’s the only mainstream blockbuster movie ever made that lookd directly at the confused politics of sexual relations in the queer world. While on the surface, on a trivial reading, it’s a piece of visually stunning warporn, the director very cleverly used this warporn both to lure in mainstream heterosexual audiences, and to model the socio-sexual relations of the gay bathhouse. Basically here we have a movie that uses battle scenes to recreate the visceral chaos of a gay sauna, and to investigate the complex relations of dominance, submission and manipulation that exist between “tops” and “bottoms” in this world, or at least in this world as its cultural stereotype is understood by most queer critics.

The battle scene-as-sauna is a powerful and unique contribution to cinema. The gangs of faceless men in the background, struggling and sweating, the chaos and the intense physicality of battle, when eroticized in the unique style of the movie, are a brilliant analogy for the sexual milieu of the bathhouse. Others have struggled with ways of representing homosexual activity that don’t offend the mainstream, but the battle scene conveys all the essential elements of sex in a culturally acceptable way, without any transgressions. We have sex as death, an age old image that everyone understands; we have a “battle” conducted entirely with piercing weapons; and we have the slaying of another, so often characterized as the pinnacle of masculine responsibility, as a metaphor for sexual conquest, also so clearly construed as a masculine role. The moment of death as orgasm, the petit mort of everyone’s experience, the exhaustion of the fighters after a hard “battle,” and the image of war as expression of self… what is this but warporn as porn?

Nowhere is this war imagery more usefully exploited than in the climactic scene, where we see also the heart of the movie’s queer cultural critique. The key to the movie is to understand it as a metaphor for the deployment – and ultimately the frustration – of power by a “bottom,” represented in the form of the Persian emperor, to undermine the will and strength of a “top” (Leonidas) and of “tops” as independent men (the Spartans). For those unfamiliar with this politics, let us put it simply. In many popular imaginings of gay sex, both straight and queer, the world of gay men is divided into two types: “bottoms,” who are fucked; and “tops,” who fuck them. Fundamentally this is based on a misogynist construction of women as fucked and man as fucker; in the classic misogynist imagery, women have “power” that they can deploy in the form of seduction, to undermine the will of the man and to set him on a path – they are the power behind the throne, Lady Macbeth, using their feminine wiles in a way that the misogynist construes as infinitely more powerful than we mere men possess (control of the state, the family and the means of production) – all these things fall to the wayside at the sight of a perfect arse, in the misogynist construction of woman-as-betrayer. As old as Genesis[1], this misogynist trope also infects the imagery of the gay “top” and “bottom,” with the “bottom” seen as “having the real power” through their ability to seduce, deceive and manipulate.

In 300 the director deconstructs this vision of the “bottom” as deceiver, and a clear judgment is made on the true state of power relations between the fucked and the fucker. The Persian Emperor – the ultimate (or nadirical?) “bottom”, manipulates hordes of men in the bathhouse (battlefield). They fuck (kill) each other in vain attempts at conquest, all to try and protect their claim to him, or to stake a claim thereon. The Spartans here are construed as tops, while the faceless Persians are merely other bottoms, deployed by the ultimate bottom as objects to be fucked (killed) in his attempts to bring the “tops” to accept his power. Ultimately the Spartan’s efforts are futile – no matter how many they fuck (kill), they must ultimately exhaust their strength. But at this moment, instead of seeing them bow to the superior manipulative power of the “bottom,” we see his power rejected ultimately – it is shown to be false and shallow, based as it is on the weakness of others rather than the strength of self. The two “tops,” finally exhausted by their orgy (battle), look to each other in exhaustion, and declare their undying love for each other. Then one of them – Leonidas – draws himself to his feet for one last effort. Bringing forth his cock (spear), he hurls himself at the hated “bottom”, and shows his true feelings for the manipulator. The tip of his weapon rips off the Emperor’s decorative chain and slashes his cheek, splattering blood across his face. In 300 we understand, immediately, that blood symbolizes cum, and so we see at the end of the movie the cumshot in which all modern porn must end. The “tops” have shown their undying love for each other and at the last one of them expresses his contempt for the “bottom” in the traditional way – with a cumshot. And so the Emperor’s victory is shown to be hollow, to have been achieved only through the public display of his own sexual humiliation. At the last, the “top” chose independence and another independent man, and showed the bottom to be nothing but an object of scorn and sexual degradation.

Is this not a powerful critique of a style of sexual relations? And all conveyed within a visually powerful, strongly homoerotic movie that is at times stirring, exciting and poetic. Though many will disagree with the interpretation of sexual relations shown in the movie, I think we can all accept that as cultural critique, it is unparalleled in its intensity, ingenuity and power. A  masterpiece of subtle social critique deployed through completely unsubtle images, and presented in such a way as to achieve mainstream success. I can only hope that it will inspire other queer cinema to emerge from its “indie” lacuna and into the limelight!

fn1: though probably not as old as Phil Collins

The issue of gender inclusivity in gaming has been around the traps for as long as gaming, and is something I’ve discussed on this blog before. One of the main reasons for this in both the computer and table-top gaming world is the images that are used, which signify gaming as a man’s world where women are not wanted; but another problem in the physical world has been the reception that women get, physically, when they enter a stuffy room full of fat, beardy men who haven’t had sex since they broke their blow-up doll a year ago. They tend to get stared at like freaks, and suffer a lot of unwanted attention related to their gender. One would think, though, that in a world where the player’s real gender isn’t visible, this wouldn’t be a problem, and that in fact online gaming would offer a way out of this problem.

Now, gay men and women in the military in the US are advised (in fact, forced) to get around this by means of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, which enables everyone to keep pretending that there are no gay men in a largely male organization, and thus avoids requiring the majority of the group to avoid changing their behaviour (in this case, largely “worrying,” one imagines) to fit the minority’s presence. It’s good for morale, apparently, but has come under attack from Lady Gaga, who is apparently more powerful than Nancy Pelosi, presumably because she has nicer breasts.

But perhaps Lady Gaga should be turning her enormous temporal power to a much greater injustice – the exclusion of women from World of Warcraft. The Border House blog has a report on advice to a female gamer who has joined a guild with a don’t ask, don’t tell policy – about gender. That’s right, she’s meant to keep her gender secret from the other players. Apparently she’s lucky – according to commenters on the post, a lot of top flight raiding guilds are male-only. The presumed reason is that the male players start “thinking with their sack” (to quote a commenter) when they hear a woman’s voice. Which sounds a lot like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to me (and like all the previous eras’ unfounded concerns about women in the military, to boot). So this woman has to decide if she can hide her gender (which must be a little difficult, when you have to talk over a microphone – I’m not sure how that works), or tone down her raiding / move to a different guild – or be blamed for all the petty morale problems and fuck ups that affect the guild she’s in.

I’ve observed before that World of Warcraft seems to reproduce all the pettiest and most unpleasant parts of our normal world, and that its fantastic and escapist elements don’t seem to transfer to either the political, class or economic relations within the game. Gender, of course, can never hope to escape the constrictions of the real world in such an environment. Is this because of the conservatism of high fantasy, is it inevitable when a large number of ordinary men do a hobby, or is the attitude in the gaming world actually a notch more exclusionary than in the real world, because men are fragile about women intruding on their club – just as they were in the workplace 30 years ago? And can we as pen-and-paper gamers do better than this?

In reading this report I also discovered that there is a a semi-official “out” server for gay, lesbian and transgender players, “Proudmoore.”