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Yilan, Taiwan
I'm a Social Studies teacher and single mom from Colorado and have lived here for 9 years. Taiwan is an excellent base for us explore Asia, while living in relative (gun free) safety, while benefiting from a cheap and efficient national health care system. The people are amazing too. I have friendships that are 14 years old and I'm always making new ones.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Game of Boners and the Season of the Woman

"Men are not aware of the misery they cause and the vicious weakness they cherish, by only inciting women to render themselves pleasing." - Mary Wollstonecraft (1792)

I love Game of Thrones, it gets better and better and the latest headline has heralded season 5 as the "Year of the Woman"Truly? Its about time! Arya Stark and Daenerys Targaryen are the series' current strong women. If season 5 is anything like its previous seasons, than the notion of "strong women" will be defined from the point of view of the average male viewer. How would women retell the story of Game of Thrones had they the chance? Elle magazine had the female characters ranked according to their looks, which is appalling but hardly surprising. Sounds like not much of an opposing angle from average female viewers either. 

My main question as a female viewer is, where is the mother daughter relationships, and why are they missing and ultimately devalued? There's plenty of father-daughter, mother-son, but not much air time devoted to this special relationship, which to me is more evident of the blatant patriarchal entertainment industry's fear of strong mother-daughter bonds, than the excessive screen time of GoT's over the top sexualized nudity. Frankly the lack of dynamic mother-daughter relationships in the show ultimately reflects in a weak and uninspired character development of its heroines. Don't get me wrong, I adore Brienne, Daenerys and Arya, but I take it with a grain of salt. I can guess that the phallocentric show, like western culture is totally shit scared of a close Mother-Daughter relationship which attacks it as unhealthy, pathological or in this case totally missing.

I am not the first one to critique the show's use of sex as a plot device, ok maybe I was, but I didn't write about it first. I was surprised to read that the show is supposedly an improvement from the books in terms of less rape, and HBO created totally new female characters with some kind personality ("9 Ways Game of Thrones Is Actually Feminist").  I love the response to this in Megan Murphy's critique of how people are forcing feminism in places it doesn't exit ("Just Because You Like it Doesn't Make it Feminist".) I do like it but I'm also very aware that the show is hardly the beacon of gender equality people claim.

The show is soft porn for dudes and the first few seasons straight female viewers like myself had to endure T and A here and there and everywhere as all the female characters were literally either Queens or prostitutes. "But that's how life was like back then!" Say the typical male viewer. "Back when?" Middle Ages? Renaissance? History should be called Hisfantasy. What was true then is true now - rape is still very much alive and well (read, Will It Really Take a Man's Word...). What is going on is this, "the patriarchal castration of the female personality principally offers women but two alternatives: an impossibly idealised motherhood or an emphasis on the kind of sexual attraction that turns women into objects" ( Phillips, "Beyond the Myths"). Popular story telling hasn't moved past the Virgin Mary/Mary Magdelene polarity, despite reality being so much more interesting. Phillips goes on to write, "Patriarchy devalues femininity. It creates a dichotomy between feminine sexuality and motherhood." In GoT femininity and sexuality are one in the same. When will this dichotomy of femaleness not be the world view in which we tell stories and watch great entertainment or frame "strong women"? Motherhood is hardly portrayed at all, except as a vehicle for men's security of kingdoms or the dragon fantasy of Daenerys.

What of normal women, mothers, married to the local miller, tanner, cobbler, farmer, weren't there any legitimate women, somewhere between Queen and whore back in western history? Is it responsible to re-represent Western history that way, basically making the lives and stories of ordinary women disappear as if they never existed? I suppose that is much of history anyways. In early Medieval writings, there was total gender separation, with men having little contact with women who lived in a world of their own (Phillips 1991). What the majority of women did was not recorded. In later medieval writings there are records of women working alongside fathers and husbands in shoe-making, candle-making, the silk industry, they were members of guilds. Normal women did exist. 

So what is it about this show that everyone is gushing about? For Canadian, feminist author Margaret Atwood, who wrote a recent column in the Observer, the popularity of the show is not from its influence from English history but literature. GoT "Draws its inspiration from so many fictional sources it’s hard to keep track. The Iliad, the Odyssey,Beowulf, ancient Egypt, H Rider HaggardThe Sword in the Stone, the Ring Cycle, Tolkien, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Mabinogion, Harry Potter, The Jungle Book, Ursula K Le Guin, Hans Christian Andersen, Idylls of the KingConan the Barbarian – himself the stolen-away downmarket twin of Walt Whitman – and The Wind In the Willows." If only there was some Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf, or Christine de Pizan thrown in for good measure.

Think about the series' strong heroines, they are hardly the wholly feminine superpower they seem. Classical strong heroines in Western history are always linked to their strong relationship with their mother or mother figures-ie the only fitting spouse to the God of the Underworld was the daughter of Demeter.   There isn't much of that in Game of Thrones and in fact it follows Hollywood's stereotypical mistrust of mother-daughter relationships. I think Margaery Tyrell is an example of a strong woman who has been schooled by her grandmother Olenna Redwyne on the ways of the world, but that hardly got any air time.

Daenerys has no connection to her mother, no females who mothered her, she has been ruled by men, her brother, her late husband, and all her counselors are older men and even her current beau gives her policy advice! She hardly has her own voice, tho that's forgivable because she is sexually attractive, young and never mothered. The only female who gave her advice at all, was a courtesan of her husband, who taught her a few bedroom tricks as he only knew one, the Dothraki favorite (think horse). She isn't even a queen, "Khalisi" is only the title referring only to the wife of the khal. I am hoping the writers will connect her with more of her feminine wisdom as she has to learn to mother her uncontrollable, adolescent dragons. How will they mythesize motherhood though her story?

As for Arya Stark, she did have a  relationship with her "strong" mother Catherine who was tragically murdered in the already classic wedding murder scene.  But did they have a strong relationship? One can only assume. Since her mom's death, she has also been groomed and counseled by men, the swordsman Syrio and now the Faceless Man who serve the many faced god of death. That daughters without mothers like Arya and Daenerys are obliged to develop self assertiveness and independence without disturbing patriarchal values on femininity and containing "strong women" is nothing new. Jane Austen did it first in her female characters.

Whats more comical than claiming these characters are "strong women" is after 5 seasons of sexualizing the female characters, the actor playing Jon Snow, Kit Harrington was huffing and puffing about becoming a sex symbol! ("Being Called a Hunk is Demeaning"). Before you call me a hypocrite or a sexist (because I am all about hunkifying Drago), its not the same thing.

The Guardian columnist Barbara Ellen put it this way, "However, male sexual objectification is relatively rare – generally reserved for well-known males, fictional or otherwise...By contrast, female sexual objectification is an ongoing socioeconomic-cum-psychosexual epidemic, affecting the vast majority of women at some stages of their lives. Even when they are no longer objectified (losing looks or fertility; ageing), it’s used against them in a routine way. Without meaning to be crude, from a female perspective, you’re screwed when you’re being sexually objectified, then you’re screwed when you’re not. This is the truth of female objectification – it’s less about personal sexiness and more about impersonal power structures. Where sexual objectification is concerned, fame is a game-changer for men, while merely amplifying normality for women. To suggest otherwise seems misguided at least. Maybe it’s time for men to speak up about things that genuinely affect them instead of putting a spurious man-spin on typically female experiences."Men Know Nothing At All About Being Sex Objects")

Is there any other female GoT character that deserves to be called a "strong woman"?  Melisandre, she is the high priestess of the male God of Light and hardly the epitome of feminine power, although she uses her sexuality when she can as a weapon, more soft porn scenes. So nope. However she unlike most of the female characters is not expected to bear children or marry for a position or security.

Brienne of Tarth would never even be a possibility historically speaking. If women dressed as men to escape female bondage, or to act like them, they were put to death. Arya would never make it. Just read the 13th century French romance "Huon of Bordeaux". Of course in Celtic and Teutonic pre-Christian groups women did fight alongside men, but they also believed in female goddesses and had a completely different way power was shared and femininity viewed than the medievalist GoT.

So whats a woman with a brain to do who likes watching GoT? I'm not going to feel guilty, if Margaret Atwood is a fan I'm in good company. I'm waiting for the leak of episode 5 along with the sheep, fingers still crossed that Drogo might return and hoping the writers might grow up from the way they trivialized Cersei.

Beyond the Myths: Mother Daughter Relationships (1991) by Dr. Shelly Phillips
The Abused Wives of Westeros
Today's Twisted TV Moms

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