Saturday, April 16, 2011

Fantasy, Gender, and Game of Thrones

While I should not have been surprised about the new HBO series Game of Thrones turning into a referendum on fantasy, it has somehow turned into a huge discussion on gender in geek culture, which is somewhat more surprising.

The initial reason for this is that the highest-profile negative review, from the New York Times, specifically genders enjoyment of fantasy, calling it "boy fiction." This review's foolishness is well-documented (I took a few shots at it in my last post myself) and has led to a thriving mini-genre of female geek blog posts - see here.

However, as usual with gender, this is a multi-layered affair. Many of the writers who have treated Game of Thrones with the most disdain, and whose links are being passed around and mocked, and presumably have had their comments sections taken over by irate fans of the novels, have been female themselves. Myles McNutt, my co-AV Club writer, has documented and discussed this here, while my editor Todd Vanderwerff went into the subject a little bit deeper in the comments, citing both the male numerical dominance of online TV criticism, and even more interestingly, a masculine definition of what makes for a quality TV show.

This is without even getting into the text itself, where a gender analysis of the books, show, and the show compared to the books could all be fruitful. One consistent criticism of the show from people who haven't outright dismissed it for its genre has been an excessive amount of distracting boobage, which is also an issue I and others had with HBO's Boardwalk Empire. More subtly, I've heard suggestions that some of the impressive female characters from the novel are hard-done-by early on the show, since they don't have the internal, point-of-view monologue on-screen.

To sum up the different gender arguments, in case you're looking for a senior project, thesis, or dissertation topic:

  • Treatment of gender in the A Game of Thrones novel
  • Treatment of gender in the Game of Thrones series
  • Comparing and contrasting gender in the book and the series
  • Gender of reviewers responding to the show
  • Gender of TV reviewers overall
  • Gendered discussion of "quality television"
  • Stereotypes about gender of Game of Thrones fans
  • Stereotypes about gender of fantasy fans in general
  • And, finally, the one that I haven't seen mentioned often: the gendered discussion of fantasy literature as a whole
You see, I've long had the impression that fantasy was gendered female, especially compared to its fraternal twin, science fiction. Science fiction is largely written by men, and the subgenre of "hard" science fiction focuses on rational concerns, extrapoliting current science out into time and space (and note the gendered terminology, hard=rational=masculine, soft=imaginative=feminine). Fantasy, on the other hand, is written by women as or more often than men, and is reliant on magic, an irrational flight of imagination. I even had a creative writing textbook once which said that science fiction was a good genre because it could say something about the world we lived in today, whereas fantasy was pure escapism and totally unserious.

My personal experience bears this out as well. In the 90s, I spent a lot of time on CompuServe's Science Fiction & Fantasy forums, and found that yes, the fantasy forum seemed to have a much better balance of male and female contributors, whereas the science fiction forum skewed much more male. Interestingly, I also talked about Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series in another subforum, and recall that being a primarily male forum.

To be fair: it is possible that, despite my possibly-accurate impression of the fantasy genre and its fans skewing female, A Game of Thrones is actually a more masculine-oriented novel, much as I found The Wheel of Time to be male. Perhaps there is something in the structure of the neverending fantasy series preferred by Jordan and Martin which fits in with masculine concepts, in the same way that Todd described "quality television" (usually serialized, dense, and overly serious) as seeming to have a masculine orientation. It could also be that by keeping magic largely on the sidelines, as I mentioned in my post yesterday, A Game of Thrones possesses a more historical, rational, and masculine appeal. On the other hand, one of the fantasy authors I would describe as the most "feminine" (despite his apparent male gender), Guy Gavriel Kay, also tends to write "fantistoricals." Or I'm theorizing excessively and this is all total nonsense.

Regardless, if I have a point here, it's that much like yesterday, it's hardly fair to attach qualities of gender to the Game of Thrones series in such a generalized, conclusive fashion. There are layers upon layers here, and as ever, I say it's more complicated than it may seem at first glance.

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