The third season of Game of Thrones scheduled to start at the end of March. Medievalists are thrilled to have our fantasy worlds revitalized and distilled into a cast of strong characters. Fantastic and magical creatures belong in the worlds of JR Tolkein, not George RR Martin. (Well, that is, except for the dragons, zombies, and psychic wolves.)
Although the series is loosely modeld after a medievalizing fantasy of England’s fifteenth-century Wars of the Roses with some elements of actual human experience, no student of the period could accept this as a representation medieval history. This is a TV drama with all the exciting, violent, and passionate parts emphasized and even exaggerated to entertain you and me. That means it seems likely that we’ll see more naked bodies, bloodied bodies, and mutilated bodies.
One writer at Salon has analyzed the sources in the series finding parallels between characters, geographies, and politics. This survey puts Martin’s series into a larger literary context with romantic historical novelists such as Alison Weir and Philippa Gregory. Miller writes:
You may have noticed that most of these books are about women, despite the fact that, with very few exceptions, the women of the Middle Ages had little power. Much of today’s popular historical fiction about the rulers of the Middle Ages is read by women who are primarily interested in the lives and problems of women. Since the historical record contains next to no information on this topic, fiction has stepped in to fill the breach.
If women are a big part of the audience for this TV series, Martin’s novels, and the related romantic historical novels, what does it mean that we women are willing to ingest stories about the complicated, problematic, and lowly status of women in the middle ages? There is a difference between strong TV characters who are central to the plot and strong individuals who possess powers and skills. These women are strong characters who try to attain the agency to take control of their lives. The last thing I’d ever want to do is to reinforce medieval gender hierarchies. Not that I think that is what is going on here. Rather, these women are much more like us than not. They, too, are navigating tricky gender politics. Maybe the problem with the show is that none of these women are empowered. Maybe its because most of the central female characters have to be shown bare chested and as subjugated sexual partners or objects.
Why do we women even watch this show? And what does it mean that even some of my strong feminist friends like it? Given our culture’s reluctance to maturely take responsibility for standing up against rape and violence against women (Seth McFarlane’s song at the Oscars, the Violence Against Women Act in the US which was finally passed, the tragic culture of rape in India, to name a few recent stories), the show creeps dangerously close to crossing the line and advocating rape culture.
One commentator hopes for something different in season three—a change that gives women more power—and dismisses the first two seasons as “violence against women being passed off as entertainment.” I’ve read all the books and am sorry to say, she will be disappointed.