Thoughts on Thrones 2: #GameofThrones Controversy edition!

Welcome back Night’s Watchmen! This post was supposed to come up yesterday, but as I was stuck at the doctor’s clinic for two hours, it kind of slipped my mind!

I’m back with the second edition of Thoughts on Thrones, this week has been a relatively slow week, so I think I’m going to go back and look at some controversial stories, from the lannister’s keeping it in the family all the way to the Chilean Tragedy of 2013!  Let’s have a look.
1. As we step into our way-way back machine, we hear the gasps from the right-wing media. Our destination is Season One, Episode Ten: beheaded presidents on the wall of the Red Keep! Clearly the accidental inclusion of a rubber head shaped into the visage of former US president George W. Bush was a conspiracy by the leftist Hollywood elite to send a message of solidarity to their communist liberal audience. Perhaps it was even a munchkin land-type announcement, proclaiming the glory and wonder of the new administration, ‘Ding Dong the Bush is dead?’

Personally, I saw it as a wonderful little Easter egg, and when I pointed it out to Kris the first time we watched through the first season together, she thought it was a neat anecdote, shrugged, and went back to hating Joffrey. Honestly, this whole story was much ado about nothing; the fx company used to provide the heads to be placed on spikes often reuses old heads when they are hired for a new job. The fact that President Bush’s head was included was a strange accident, and the fact that it was present on screen was just a fascinating coincidence. The set dressers aren’t American, and they might not have recognized the disembodied face (provided with setting-appropriate hair, as the scene has the former president sporting a shoulder-length do) as anyone of note and just placed heads on spikes as their job dictated. This was one of the most enjoyable Easter eggs for those looking closely to the first season, and my disc five Blu-Ray has gotten a bit more wear than the rest simply because I enjoy watching the obvious “shit that should not be” appear in front of my eyes.

2. Keeping with the first season let’s discuss perhaps the most inherently controversial aspect of the setting and plot: Incest! Ordinarily one does not expect to see exclamatory punctuation following that word, but I feel as though its shock value alone deserves a little extra punch. In the first season alone we have both the hint of an incestuous destiny between a brother and his younger sister as well as on-screen actual fornication between fraternal twins in the very first episode! Those who had previously read the books had no reaction to either of these scenes (dialogue between Viserys and Danaerys hinting that they could easily have been married had their father’s reign not been ended by a violent rebellion some fifteen years earlier, as well as Jaime humping Cersei doggy-style in his private chambers at Winterfell)… we knew this was going to happen, and if we were particularly obsessive fans, we knew that this was not particularly rare in this setting: Cersei herself defends her relationship with her brother by referencing a common Targaryen tradition of marrying brothers and sisters in order to keep the royal bloodline pure.

As it turns out, not everyone who watched the first season of this fantasy epic had read the books multiple times ahead of time. It took a pretty large portion of the audience by surprise when they see these characters whom they thought were supposed to be brother and sister naked and in the act of lust in front of their eyes on a Spring Sunday night. The internet kind of came apart at the seams on the night of the premiere; the many varied right-wing family-values organizations with social media presences (read: all of them) began shouting down this show as filth, satanic, and unwatchable garbage… exactly the kind of response we might expect from groups who thought that the death of dozens of children at a school shooting was God’s vengeance for homosexuality. It wasn’t just the ‘religious right’ who freaked out, however; average unsuspecting unsullied all over the place were taken aback by seeing this strict taboo occurring before them. As the series has progressed, the audience seems to have come to grips with the fact that in this setting incest is something that occurs: it still isn’t accepted and those who are found guilty of the action are punished greatly, but kings and queens have ways of keeping their secrets safe.

Even so, the series has kept pushing the envelope in this way; the wildling Craster marries his daughters and murders his sons in order to ensure that his house is full of literal sister-wives, while the heir to house Greyjoy, Theon, is tricked by his sister into touching her in very sexual ways simply because he does not recognize her after eight years away at Winterfell. It seems as though every season has some new form of sexual taboo to make us look awkwardly at our significant others while they ask themselves what it is, exactly, that we love so much about this show. Personally I take these scenes as being for the benefit of the story; when Yara tricks Theon into touching her, she is proving a point to herself about her brother’s sexual proclivity. Alternately, Craster finds himself secluded in the north above the wall, living away from civilization and well within the lands of the wildlings he calls his brethren forces him to find some way to provide for his offspring, and the best way he can think of is to ensure that there are always enough hands to perform the tasks around the house. Clearly he is a twisted and mentally disturbed man, he commits regular infaticide after all, but in the world he lives in this strikes him as the best way for himself and his family to survive.

3. Emmanuel save us! Nathalie Emmanuel, the British actress who plays Missandei on Game of Thrones has spoken out about the controversy surrounding the graphic sex that is so ubiquitous in our favourite tv show.

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and if [the nudity is] too much for you then that’s fine. But in the books it’s very raw and real and that’s why a lot of people love the show. It’s not afraid to push the boundaries and make you feel shocked or angry”

It is interesting to note here that Emmanuel is playing a character who has appeared in no nude scenes in the show, and in the books is a ten year old girl who, rightfully, does not appear in any sexual situations through the end of book five. It is interesting to speculate how the show-runners might write her character differently from the books considering the very particular casting choice they made in selecting the young woman. Having selected a very beautiful, voluptuous young woman for a role designed for a prepubescent child is very intentional, and it is reasonable to assume that this will result in a certain “Ros-ing” of her character in the future.

The fact is that Emmanuel’s statement was in reference to some viewer outrage about the often very graphic sex scenes that many feel are gratuitous in nature and merely included in order to attract desperate geeky boys to watch the show. This isn’t me speaking, but rather a number of tweets and Facebook shares that made the rounds this summer. I feel as though the show runners have made a lot of choices in order to feature sex and nudity in as many scenes as possible: the creation and casting of the Ros character, the portrayal of many scenes within the brothels of King’s Landing, as well as the advanced ages of the characters as written – relative to the ages of the characters in the books. All that said, I feel as though the graphic sex is, or should be, less controversial than the graphic violence that pervades virtually every scene. That is probably just my personal belief system, but I feel as though it is less damaging to the psyche to see nudity and sexuality than seeing beheadings, dismemberment and throat-cutting.

Personally, I wouldn’t suggest that either be removed from the show, they are both fairly important to the storylines of the characters involved, and if the TV Show is meant to be true to the art it represents, then it is fundamental that the sex and violence must go on. Bring on the blood and boobs!

4. Speaking of throat-cutting. There is something to be said about throwing a wedding; some might say that hospitality is a lost art form, but don’t you dare say that around a Frey… You might just lose your head! David Bradley, the actor who plays Walder Frey, has spoken out about the controversial scene in episode nine of the third season: “I enjoyed every moment of it.” It strikes me that they casted very well, in order to play one of the most villainous characters in the Game of Thrones universe, they found an actor who relishes the notoriety that comes along with his evil. One can only wonder if perhaps after the Red Wedding he was shunned from Westeros and he found himself forced to work as the caretaker at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry under the assumed name of Argus Filch.

In my circle of friends, I had a person proclaiming to Facebook that it was wrong and traitorous of the show to kill off the main characters simply for shock value. Yes, this was an unsullied, and no, he doesn’t get it. I helped myself to the troll-food and asked him what it was that made him think that the recently departed Stark characters were the principals in a storyline crossing continents and dozens of intertwining storylines… He told me that it was obvious since they were the characters who got the most air time, and if they were just going to kill them off then why did they get so much time at the start of the series?

This was the perspective of a lot of unsullied when they found themselves as unwitting spectators at the Red Wedding, shock, horror, disgust. That said, in many ways I feel as though it was tame; they toned down the wedding from the book; and I believe that this was done specifically so that they wouldn’t completely alienate the viewers of the show who didn’t see the scene coming. I feel as though when time comes for the Purple Wedding they won’t be so kind to the viewers; I expect all of the gory details providing all of us with the very psychologically fulfilling schadenfreude many of us are already looking forward to. They’ve been building to that scene in such a heavy-handed manner that I can only hope that the payoff will be worth it.

5. So, what happens when an actor isn’t dark-skinned enough for the masses? You get yourself a good ole’ Red Viper controversy! Pablo Pascal is an issue I’ve touched on multiple times during the life-cycle of this blog; I was lucky enough to have begun reporting on casting just before that news broke and I was able to follow that controversy to the end. And I’m not going to beat a dead horse here, but it was a pretty big controversy (eerily similar to the casting controversy in the Hunger Games), so I felt that for completeness’ sake I should at least touch on the Chilean Tragedy.

“Hi George,
I was wondering what you thought about the most recent casting decision for the Martells…as a reader and a person of color who really appreciated the diversity in your novels, I was wondering if this means that the Martells will be white on the show. If so, that’s disappointing to me because given how they were described in the novels, with their darker features and unique culture (particularly the way Andal Westerosi saw them) it definitely like they would match up to people of color in our world (eg. call out to Moors or different Middle Eastern cultures.) Is there anything fans can do to help encourage the showrunners to cast the Martells diversely?”

Quote attributed to jedifreac.livejournal.com posted on GRRM’s livejournal.

This was the response:

“I wasn’t present for Pedro Pascal’s audition, but I understand that he really killed it with his reading. And since his casting was announced, the producer of another TV show on which he appeared recently has written me to say how terrific Pascal is, and to congratulate us on the casting. So I suspect that he will turn out to be a wonderful Red Viper.

I do know that David and Dan and HBO do favor having a racially and ethnically diverse cast on the series. It is true that we’ve lost several black characters who appear in the novels (Chataya and Alayaya, Jalabhar Xho, Strong Belwas), but to balance that, characters like Salladhor Saan and Xaro Xhoan Daxos, both white in the books, have been played by black actors. Missandei as well, though in the books the Naathi are golden-skinned, not white.

As for the Dornishmen, well, though by and large I reject one to one analogies, I’ve always pictured the “salty Dornish” as being more Mediterranean than African in appearance; Greek, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, etc. Dark hair and eyes, olive skin. Pedro Pascal is Chilean. (Check out Amok’s version of the Red Viper, that’s how I saw him. Or Magali Villenueve’s beautiful and sexy portrait of Princess Arianne).

When and if the show introduces Prince Oberyn’s daughters, the Sand Snakes, I expect we will see the same diversity as in the books, ranging from Tyene (blond and blue-eyed) to Sarella (light brown skin, as her mother was a Summer Islander). And I expect that the crew of the CINNAMON WIND will all be cast with black actors… assuming, of course, that Sam’s voyage remains in the story.”

The above quote is attributed to George RR Martin from his livejournal blog post from July of this year. Principally this controversy is about the ethnicity of Pascal, bloggers and fans have come to arms about how ‘white’ the latin actor is opposed to expectations. I guess the vocal minority amongst fans expected the Dornish to be more ethnically middle eastern, which on the podcast that came out yesterday Clay corroborated… I couldn’t understand where this came from, in the books the Dornishmen were all described as olive skinned which painted an image of a Mediterranean people in my mind.

I certainly understand that traditionally speaking there has been a dearth of diversity in medieval fantasy prose, but there is a geographical distinction between Westeros and Essos. Westeros is medieval Europe, while Essos is geographical Asia. That is why all of the white people are on Westeros and all of the “black and brown” people are on Essos. There is some diversity in European demographics at that time, and there is some diversity amongst Westerosi, but principally if this is the dark ages, then the principal geographic areas on the continent that experience cultural diversity are the Mediterranean regions (modern Grece, Italty, Spain) and those areas are going to be explored more fully in the fifth season of the show. We already have the casting of Indira Varma as Ellaria Sand, a British actress of Indian descent, which should give hope to those viewers of colour that more diversity is coming as the story progresses. Perhaps Oberyn is simply manifesting a lighter pigmentation amongst the Martells, and Arianne and Doran will both be cast darker than their brother; even within a family there can be phenotype differences amongst siblings.

6. Going back to the principal theme of Game of Thrones: Sex! More specifically, this controversy came up during the early episodes of the first season: Was Khal Drogo raping Daenerys at the onset of their relationship, and was this show glorifying rape by portraying their relationship in this way?

The detractors are suggesting that by incorporating sexual assault into their storyline and then writing the relationship evolving beyond that point into one that is both mutually supportive and stable, the writers are suggesting that rape is neither the emotionally nor physically violent act that it obviously is. But I am of the opinion that the show is not glorifying rape, it is in fact demonstrating that in this time period in geoculturally similar locales marital rape was not a concept that occurred to society. It was culturally normal that men took their wives sexually when the desire took them, and the wives accepted this as their role in the marriage.

Keep in mind that this was also a time when women were expected to be subservient to their husbands in every way, preparing their food, doing their cleaning, and satisfying them sexually. This is not to defend the time, but one cannot judge the norm of the past with post-modern-coloured glasses. If Game of Thrones were set in 1996, then Khal Drogo would have been likely put in jail (both for the rape of his wife, but also for the crime of human trafficking when he purchased Daenerys from Viserys)… Game of Thrones is set in along time ago, people; the character are going to do things that you don’t agree with, they are going to say things that you find offensive, and they might take violent actions that trigger emotional responses from viewers. That is a part of the joy in watching the show, never knowing just where they will draw the line when writing the show. When the Dothraki take their prisoners in a later episode of the first season, they are shown threatening to rape the female prisoners: however, in the books they are shown as raping them violently as was their right under Dothraki cultural norms.

I’m not defending the actions of these characters, but I try to suspend my disbelief in order to enjoy the show as a story about a time and place that no longer exist. I think that while there are some things that appear on the show that are simply indefensible in today’s society, eight hundred years ago these things would be seen as simply a part of daily life. That might not be right, but it is honest.

7. In our last topic this week, I wanted to touch on a piece that was written in April of 2011 on the online edition of the New York Times. Apparently the author, GINIA BELLAFANTE is incapable of counting past four, as she bemoans the number of characters as it expands beyond the four main characters in her favourite show: Sex and the City. She continues by arguing that David Benihoff is better than this: he was writer of the Spike Lee post-9/11 film, and so clearly has no place amongst dragons and zombies. Nobody who has done anything should ever do anything differently… that is the message of her piece, even as it extends to HBO as a network: she feels as though the network that produced The Wire, Rome, and Big Love has no place exploring fantasy worlds such as those found in Game of Thrones and True Blood.

It is her very clear opinion that these types of shows have no business being on TV, they are merely the realm of hyper-sexual Dungeons and Dragons nerds and should be hidden in the back room of the local nerd establishment; thus leaving room on her television for more historical fiction. I’m not sure what she thinks she is trying to say; the fact that these episodes managed to establish viewership records amongst HBO viewers for consecutive years and have established themselves even further as the most pirated program in television history puts paid to her feelings that these types of programs have no place on tv. Clearly she is not comfortable exploring worlds outside of her small insulated New York metaphor.

In all honesty, I do understand that Game of Thrones can be difficult to swallow for a larger. mainstream female audience. There are a few strong female leads, but the majority of female characters are placeholders and obviously cast in order to be eye-candy. The show is clearly oversexed, but it is truth in art. The books are just as, if not even more sexual than the show on the whole (despite the fact that Benihoff and Weiss introduced scenes and characters simply for the express purpose of showing additional nudity), and if the show was going to be an effective translation of the books then there was no way to avoid that giant boob-shaped elephant in the room.

But the question remains: is fantasy a boys-only club? I feel as though no. My evidence is principally anecdotal, but so is everyone else’s: I have a lot of friends of either gender who have gotten into Game of Thrones over the past three years. If anything, the show has brought the genre and the subject matter into the mainstream in a way that the books and the comic books and video games never really managed. Yes, it is violent and overtly sexual and sometimes it makes you wonder what could make people act and speak the way they do; but it is honest, and visually pleasing in a way that very few shows have accomplished… ever. They say that women like watching beautiful things, they like things that make them feel good, and they enjoy a romantic love story more than anything else (*stereotypes not mine, but they are expressed regularly around me*). If this is the case, then perhaps Game of Thrones is the most female-friendly show of all time, the epic landscapes and gorgeous actors combine with a tightly written plot that advances multiple tragic and star-crossed love stories in a short ten-episode season that always ends with a dramatic finale that can give you pause for consideration over the many months in between seasons.

I hope that this has opened up this line of conversation once more; there are arguments to be made on either side, but I feel that as long as they keep making this show, millions of people will gather each Sunday night to watch it.

Those are the extent of my thoughts on thrones this week.  I didn’t cover a lot of topics, but I feel as though I covered the ones I did with a fair bit of depth.  Hopefully next week will bring with it a bit more news, maybe there will be a surprise late casting to help spice things up!

Until next time, keep your stick on the ice!

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