I’ve written a great deal lately about the way that nerds can be less than progressive, whether by failing to establish anti-harassment policies and ethos at conventions or by relying on continuity and fidelity to text as a way to disguise an antipathy to diversity. But if we want the nerdosphere to be a more progressive place, I think it’s important to mount critiques that will actually be effective, rather than ones that can make the critics feel self-righteous, which is why I’m so dismayed by Sady Doyle’s condescending and willfully misleading critique of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and the people who read it.
First, there’s the explicit statement that Sady thinks nerds are inherently inflexible morons incapable of accepting criticism or thinking deeply about the material they love with an eye towards its political flaws:
Because here’s how it goes, when you criticize beloved nerd entertainments: You can try to be nuanced. You can try to be thoughtful. You can lay out your arguments in careful, extravagant, obsessive detail. And at the end of the day, here is what the people in the “fandom” are going to take away: You don’t like my toys? I hate you! So, get it out of your system now, because, guess what, George R.R. Martin fans? I don’t like your toys. Deal with that. Meditate for a while. Envision a blazing bonfire in a temple, and breathe in its warmth and serenity. Then, imagine me dumping all your comic books and action figures and first-edition hardback Song of Ice and Fire novels INTO the bonfire, and cackling wildly.
Shockingly enough, saying things like this doesn’t actually make you cool. It makes you another iteration of the kind of person who insists that feminists like, say, me or Sady Doyle are shrewish harpies incapable of nuance or conversation. Now, sexism is more entrenched and more broadly impactful than disdain for nerds. But that doesn’t actually mean that these kinds of statements are useful or clever when they’re deployed by feminists against nerds in a way that they’re not when they’re deployed by misogynists against feminists.
It is much, much easier to dismiss an entire genre or way of engaging with culture than to sort through it, to learn about the way people read it and take meaning from it, to identify, for example, the reasons that fantasy literature can be both profoundly meaningful to women and a fulfillment of male fantasies. But declaring something unsalvageable just means that you’re lazy, not that you’re correct. It forecloses any possibility of change within a community, or as Paul Crider put it in response to Doyle deleting a bunch of comments on the site by men, “If a male is intrinsically incapable of contributing valid criticism of a feminist critique, then what is the point of a male trying to understand the critique at all? ” And such broad-based attacks on nerds ignore the work of people who identify as members of that community and are working to make it a better, safer place, be it the women of the Mary Sue or the women of the Con Anti-Harassment Project.
But beyond that, there are a couple of assumptions in Sady’s criticism of the novels that as a feminist critic (though not one who does exclusively feminist-focused work), I find problematic.
1. That reading literature set in an actual historical period or a fictional one represents either an embrace of the values of that period or a nostalgia for them. Or as Sady puts it: “I could talk about how the impulse to revisit an airbrushed, dragon-infested Medieval Europe strikes me as fundamentally conservative — a yearning for a time when (white) men brandished swords for their King, (white) women stayed in the castle and made babies, marriage was a beautiful sacrament between a consenting adult and whichever fourteen-year-old girl he could manage to buy off her Dad, and poor people and people of color were mostly invisible.”
This strikes me as a profoundly odd assumption to apply to art in general, if, in fact, that’s what Sady believes. Do we think that people watch Mad Men because they would prefer to live in a time where men dominated business? That we love endless remakes of Pride and Prejudice because we think there’s something romantic about having to marry to avoid poverty? Certainly, we watch period shows of all kinds because of the juxtaposition between those times and our own, but to assume that the result is automatically a yearning to turn back the clock seems quite strange. Mad Men and The Hour remind me how closely the past nips at my heels as a woman in a profession that remains dominated by men. Jane Austen is popular because she’s produced characters that feel freakishly ahead of their times, and scenarios that, if you take out the particular economics of the moment, translate seamlessly to the present era.
And it seems particularly bizarre to assume that people read A Song of Ice and Fire because they want to live in the world depicted in it. The medieval era is a useful setting, because the conflicts are smaller enough than our contemporary ones that it’s possible to imagine that a single character can have an impact on the outcome, but big enough to feel that said impact is meaningful. Sady may find medieval warfare boring, which is her prerogative, but that does not mean that medieval warfare is inherently boring (the constant treatment of preferences as facts is one of the things I find most offputting about this mode of criticism), and the scale of it means that critics like Spencer Ackerman have been able to extract applicable lessons and metaphors about strategic thinking from it that are accessible to everyday readers. I tend to find the banking subplots both interesting and usefully, grimly analogous to our present situation. I read these novels with a profound thankfulness that I don’t live in this time period, but with a feeling of being energized by the characters’ triumphs. If I had an actual office, I’d have a replica of Needle over my desk, not because I want to live through Arya Stark’s privations, but because her strength in them reminds me of the smallness of my own obstacles, the tiny magnitude of risk I face in confronting them, and that spurs me on. People want to be part of the Brotherhood Without Banners not because they are really psyched to be peasants trying to survive in a country where the nobility is actively hostile to their flourishing, but because groups based on affinity for fiction can be really rewarding!
2. That it would be more productive to use fantasy to imagine a land where the threats to women that existed in a commensurate era were eliminated. As Sady says: “Reader, here are the things that George R. R. Martin changed about Ye Olde Medieval Europe, when he set out to write A Song of Ice and Fire: Religion. Geography. History. Politics. Zombies. Werewolves. Dragons…Here’s what he left in, however: Institutionalized pedophilia.”
In this case, all of the things that George R.R. Martin changes about Europe and Asia are meant to make that world harder to live in. The religious clashes are more charged because magic is actually operative in the world. The larger distances make travel more challenging, and also make the prospect of organizing a substantive challenge to the ruling dynasty, be it by competing nobles or peasants, vastly more difficult. Zombies, werewolves, and dragons supercharge the dangers of nature. The weather cycle, which let us not leave that out, dramatically increases the stakes of winter. The reason that endemic sexual violence is a part of his world is because it’s part of Martin’s efforts to tell us that Westeros and Pentos are really terrible places to live in.
Beyond that, though, I have some questions about the idea that fantasy’s purpose should be to present idealized worlds. I happen to like fantasy because it provides alternative worlds where I can play with ideas about everything from military strategy to gender roles. It’s fiction that requires active consumption and debate. And I vastly prefer that kind of culture to narcotizing dreams of societies where all of our problems have solved. First, those kinds of stories are inherently difficult to build narratives around. Second, the idea that we can build a perfect society without a cost is delusional and dangerous, and some of the most valuable work science fiction and fantasy does is explore and weigh those costs — it’s the reason I’m so excited for In Time. Third, fiction that has some tie to, amplifies, or inverts our current problems is actively useful. I’d be fascinated to read about a society where women are economically, politically, and sexually dominant, and what sexual and domestic violence looks like in that world because of how it would stimulate my thinking about the things men do and have done to women in the world I live in.
3. If you’re going to depict sexual or domestic violence, you need to justify that depiction according to a higher standard—but the criteria for doing that are totally unclear. Per Sady, who says Martin “is creepy, primarily, because of his TWENTY THOUSAND MILLION GRATUITOUS RAPE AND/OR MOLESTATION AND/OR DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SCENES.”
No one, of course, should be forced to consume material that they’re uncomfortable with. And I appreciate the work of feminists who have created trigger-free safe spaces for those who need them. But I’m troubled by the fact that Sady and a lot of other feminist critics don’t seem to have a good explanation or brightline for when a scene of sexual or domestic violence is acceptable in art—not that I would necessarily agree with where they drew the line—because without one, they’re in danger of setting a standard where no depiction of sexual assault is ever permissible. I’d be curious to know what Sady thinks of the gender dynamics in The Mists of Avalon, a much more explicitly feminist work about the decline of a matriarchal society that also has depictions of rape that are much more graphic than those in A Song of Ice and Fire: there is, for example, an explicit description of what it feels like to be violently penetrated by a man with a very large phallus, which is awful to read, and very, very powerful. Is the rape of Doctor Melfi in The Sopranos acceptable by Sady’s terms? The attack in Irreversible? The scene in Waitress where Jeremy Sisto is driving and hitting a pregnant Keri Russell?
A standard where it’s only acceptable to depict sexual assault in a way that no one could possibly be aroused by it would be impossible to enforce and besides the point. Sady’s set up a paradigm where only her sense that the scenes of sexual assault in George R.R. Martin’s novels are inappropriately arousing counts. No one else’s experiences reading the books are valid, because no one could possibly respond to the news that Robert Baratheon raped Cersei Lannister by thinking it reinforces his patheticness and gives some nuance to her subsequent sexual affairs; that, as Erik Kain has pointed out, Tywin Lannister forcing his son to have sex with his wife after she’s been gang-raped is as much an assault of Tyrion as it is of Tysha; or that Jon Snow’s love affair with Ygritte is a powerful and beautiful illustration of the appeal of sexual freedom and mutually rewarding sex in contrast to the rape and coercion that Westeroi society have made the norm. Wishing that sexual assault didn’t happen, or that people didn’t eroticize fantasies of assault or compromised consent*, won’t make it happen.
My dear friend and sometime writing partner Lux Alptraum outlined another problem with this sort of standard-setting an exchange we had a while back:
What’s really interesting to me here isn’t that some people might find that scene in “Game of Thrones” to be sexy or arousing–no, what I’m fascinated by is the fact that we view sexual violence as a completely different class of behavior than (for want of a better phrase) nonsexual violence. Because, let’s face it: movies and TV are full of tons of scenes of people getting murdered, maimed, and killed…and while it’s sometimes brutally realistic and painful to watch, more often its highly stylized, very pretty, and–dare I say it?–even sexy. Yet outside of a few occasional grumblings, we never seem worried about what enjoy these candy colored scenes of brutal mayhem might say about us, or if it means we’re harboring some secret desire to be a serial killer. No, we seem perfectly aware that one can enjoy the fantasy of horrifically violent actions without actually being a violent person–in a way that we don’t seem to be able to accept with sexual violence in pop culture.
4. That to depict female incompetence is sexist.
It strikes me as oddly myopic to read a novel where literally every character makes grave strategic miscalculations as arguing that women’s bad decisions are caused by their lady bits. What’s interesting about A Song of Ice and Fire is that it depicts a world where norms and rules of engagement are shifting, rendering outcomes unpredictable for men and women alike. There is no man who seems like a more gifted rule or powerful strategic thinker than any given woman in Westeros or Essos, except perhaps Doran Martell and Varys, neither of whose plans have come to fruition yet, so it’s a bit too soon to tell. But it is telling that Sady entirely omits from her analysis Ygritte, Jon Snow’s lover, who keeps him alive when he’s failing to integrate with the wildlings; Melisandre, who is the most powerful religious figure in the novels and the only advisor who manages to keep her ruler on a trajectory that’s both strategic and moral; the Sand Snakes, powerful, aggressive Dornish women who are setting out to set various parts of Doran’s plan in action; Asha Greyjoy, by far the most strategically intelligent person in the Iron Islands; and Meera Reed, who manages to keep Bran, Hodor, and her brother alive on their quest to find the three-eyed crow; that she ignores that Brienne of Tarth is the highest living exemplar of chivalric ideals.
A world where women are perfectly safe, perfectly competent, and society is perfectly engineered to produce those conditions strikes me as one where we can’t tell any very interesting stories about women’s struggles and women’s liberation. If we tell ourselves stories in order to live, it doesn’t strike me that we do ourselves any favors as active feminists by leaching depictions of sexual violence, women making bad decisions, and institutionalized sexism from our fiction, or by dismissing entire swaths of consumers or modes of consuming fiction.
*I would be uncomfortable with a feminist standard where sexual fantasies or sex play that involves gender and power dynamics that would not be acceptable in say, the workplace, or between people who do not have prior agreements about limits, are off-limits.