Game of Thrones Season 6 has some bizarre notions about medieval gender relations

(This post contains spoilers for Game of Thrones, Season 6.)

In anticipation of a new Game of Thrones season coming out soon, I started watching season six for the second time. I started off enjoying it, but an insight came to me that has taken over my whole view of the show. At first I thought I was imagining things. But the evidence is overwhelming.

The show is about the emasculation of men by women. Hear me out.

First, let us take stock of some of the more far-fetched depictions of the female gender in the show as a whole. As with many nerd-type fantasies, there are plenty of female warriors. We suspend our disbelief that Brienne is one of the most fearsome warriors in Westeros because she is large and learned to fight. Seems kind of reasonable, at least for entertainments’ sake. Arya, Yara, Meera, the Sand Snakes, okay. Fine. It is a little annoying that we’re expected to take the medieval bona fides of the show seriously – lords are beyond the reach of justice, the poor live in abject misery while the wealthy live in luxury, religion has serious cultural power for the lower classes, etc – yet female warriors not only abound but publicly defeat male warriors on a world-historical level. But alright. Though it is certainly based on medieval Europe and George R.R. Martin has emphasized that one of the reasons he created The Song of Ice and Fire was because of all the BS medieval stuff in the fantasy genre, it obviously isn’t exactly the same as the stories feature dragons and some magic. So some slack can be cut.

But the show progressing is a progress of the capable and strong men dying off or becoming crippled. For those major male characters still alive at the beginning of season six the only one who isn’t literally missing his dick or crippled is Jon Snow, and he’d be dead if it wasn’t for the Red Woman who raised him from the dead and his sister Sansa who shows up to save his life in the Battle of the Bastards with the Knights of the Vale.

So now that we’ve gotten Jon Snow, the only possible rebuke to my thesis out of the way, let us take quick stock of the other main male characters and their story threads. Jaime is missing his hand and depends on Brienne earlier in the show and now Cersei to do his fighting for him. Bran can’t use his legs and relies on Meera to cart him around and fight for him unless he can take over Hodor who is mentally disabled. Bran can even go back in time and talk to people, but instead of going back in time to talk himself out of climbing the Winterfell walls and avoiding becoming a cripple in first place, he goes back in time to make sure Hodor also becomes a cripple and is fated to live his entire life so that he can “hold the door” for his crippled Lord.

Another word about Willis (his name before he becomes Hodor). In an earlier flashback, the young Stark boys are sword training with Willis. Willis’ mother then comes out and drags him away by the ear, mentioning that he’ll never learn to fight because “he’s a stabeboy and always will be.” Ah those harsh medieval class distinctions!

Oh wait except for Myranda, the lover and fellow warrior-in-arms of Ramsay. She’s a woman so she can be a frightening badass even though she was not even the kennelmaster but the kennelmaster’s daughter. Willis needs to learn his station though.

The dickless trio of Theon, Varys and Greyworm serve Daenerys. Tyrion also now serves Daenery’s and while I would certainly wouldn’t normally use the word ‘crippled’ to describe a dwarf he brings it up in pretty much every scene so I’m going with it.

Jorah Mormont has the stone man’s disease. Even the Onion Knight is missing fingers.

Now the female characters, none of whom are crippled and all of whom possess absolutely amazing qualities. We always knew Daenery’s would be a major feature of the show, but does every one of her servants and fighters have to be dickless, crippled or dying? Even her virile lover Daarhio Naharis is the exception that proves the rule: she banishes him (“I felt nothing” she says) and admits it frankly that it is because he is suitable to be her lover!

Daenerys’ newest ally is Yara of the Iron Islands, with her dickless, cowed brother Theon in tow. On the way there Yara even stops the fleet for a bit of shore leave seemingly so that she can display to her brother that she can have sex with women even while he can’t. When Yara offers her services to Dany in return for Dany helping her “kill some uncles who don’t believe a woman is fit to rule”, Yara declares her openness to marrying Dany and Dany is visibly flattered.

(Another interesting point: none of these female characters have heterosexual relations under the usual conditions. Yara is apparently now a lesbian. Dany banishes Daarhio and earlier banishes the healthy Jorah and doesn’t even sleep with her brief husband in Meereen, and though she sleeps with Khal Drogo he of course must die early on. Cersei only wishes to sleep with her brother. Sansa has never had a real lover. Brienne has never been with a man. Neither has Meera or Arya.)

Cersei fully takes up the mantle of the warrior-of-the-couple now that Jaime is crippled. In this season Jaime does absolutely nothing except fail in his mission to protect his daughter and takes over the Blackfish’s castle only by threatening to kill his captive Edmure’s infant son. Cersei, meanwhile, hatches an ingenious plot to blow up all of her enemies at once and then improbably becomes the sole reigning monarch of the seven kingdoms after her weak son the king kills himself. She accomplishes this feat – miraculously- with her two sexless male allies: the zombie Mountain, and the elderly Qyburn with his gang of street children.

The Sand Snakes – a bunch of thin, psychotic waifs who collectively weigh 100 pounds and cannot be defeated in battle – kill their Prince and all his guards without so much as a scratch and take over Dorne. At least the Prince put up a good fight. Oh wait just kidding he was also – you guessed it – completely crippled. His whole life. Totally crippled.

The end of the season has the Sand Snakes in a parlay with the elderly Lady Olenna of House Tyrell who is now the only remaining Tyrell which is really revolutionary that a woman is now ruling one of the major houses of Westeros except – oh yeah – the Lannisters, Targaryens, Mormonts, Dornish, Reeds, and essentially the Starks. They’re discussing how to best get revenge on the Lannisters. The Sand Snake who was Oberyn’s lover then rings a bell. Yes, a little golden bell. And who should come out of the darkness just when he is called but the dickless Varys.

Meera carts Bran all over and saves his life numerous times. During the climax of their story line he is literally passed out dreaming on a wooden pallet that this poor teenager has to drag through the snow while the undead are chasing them. She is the head of House Reed now that her brother – who she also had to protect – has died. Again, except for the Starks and the Arryn’s, every major house in Westeros is now ruled over by a sole woman who has no need for or interest in men.

The trials and tribulations of Sansa have made her wise and competent. The same cannot be said for her dumb dumb brother Jon, who never seems to learn any kind of lesson throughout the whole show and naively throws his life away because he is a good swordsman (the “best in the North” according to Ramsay, except obviously for Brienne, Meera and probably Arya) and a naive but well-meaning idealist who can only get through his trials with the help of Sansa or the Red Woman or Ygritte. Sansa even warns him literally hours before the battle that Ramsay is going to trap him and Jon is a big dummy and falls into the most obvious trap that would only work for a dummy like him (if you’ve forgotten, the trap is: Ramsay kills Rickon on the battle field which causes Jon Snow to charge the Bolton front lines by himself for some reason. And remember Rickon has no one to protect him now that his female bodyguard is dead).

Jon has lived in poverty with the Night’s Watch, been rejected as a bastard, been a Ranger north of the wall in sub-zero temperatures, been wounded countless times, was stabbed to death by his subordinates, and lost many people dear to him along the way. However, unlike Sansa who has become a military tactician and elder statesmen because she was raped by Ramsay on their wedding night, he never changes. After he is released from his Night’s Watch vows because he was murdered then brought by to life by the Red Woman, he finds out that Ramsay Bolton raped his sister Sansa on their wedding night and now has their little brother in his dungeon and has claimed Winterfell for himself. Yet he still needs forceful persuading from Sansa to lift a finger in the matter.

And he wouldn’t be able to defeat Ramsay without the new head of House Mormont, a fierce, indepedent, strong young woman. Well more like a girl. She’s 11. But that doesn’t stop her from being the only house that keeps faith with the Starks and then berates the virile heads of the other houses for being pussies. They hang their heads in shame (“Lady Mormont speaks harshly…but truly!” says Lord Manderly).

Podrick Payne, a Lannister warrior who fought bravely during the Battle of Blackwater Bay and other skirmishes, nevertheless has chosen his adulthood (“You’re still a squire? At your age?” Bronn asks him, in one of the few minutes Bronn is onscreen) to be squire to Brienne. Their verbal exchanges, like Sam and Gilly, feature Brienne openly mocking the now 30 year old Payne: “It’s a siege, my Lady!” says Pod, “You have a keen military mind, Pod,” is her sarcastic reply.

The Hound kind of comes back to us as a character briefly, reminding us during his appearance once again that he was defeated by a woman (the Septon he is confessing this to simply laughs and walks away).

Littlefinger has a total of five minutes screen time in this season, basically only to remind us that the Vale is ruled by a prince who is easily manipulated and who the GOT wiki describes as “developmentally disabled”.

Arya is strong and determined, her battle skills tested by – yep – another female waif who is some kind of ninja for the many-faced god.

Samwell Tarly is humiliated and belittled in every scene he is featured in, while Gilly is street-smart and brave. On the ship she is looking out a below-deck window during a terrible storm with a look of delight on her face; Sam is barfing into a barrel. In the carriage on the way to the Tarly estate, she makes fun of Sam twice for being nervous. She pauses in her haranging of him only in Sam’s ancestral home because his father wants a turn busting his balls. When his father berates him at the table, Sam hangs his head while Gilly defends him fearlessly.

And here is an important point. It isn’t just that these are parts of the plot. The whole tone of the show takes delight in this reversal of gender roles. When the 11 year old Lady Mormont gives one of her rousing battle speeches, the camera lingers on the face of the men in the room to show their stunned surprise and finally rests on the visage of a satisfied Sansa taking delight in a peer. In literally every episode there is at least one “you don’t have a dick anymore” joke at the expense of Theon, Greyworm or Varys. I was shocked at how many jokes about the dickless there were. You’d think if a man had his dick cut off while being tortured that at least his sister might avoid the subject, but no, the only time Yara takes a break from ridiculing Theon for not having a dick is when she is making a political speech at the Kingsmoot but she didn’t really have to because Euron brought it up in his speech. Tyrion brings up his “I’m a dwarf and I owe all my success to cynicism, wine and reading” schtick in nearly every scene of importance. Varys is horrified by the new Red Priestess in Meereen, who scares him because – yep – she knows the story of him getting his dick cut off in detail. Daenerys’ storyline climax in this season is her encounter with the fearless Dothraki khals who can’t lay a finger on her during her encounter with them because she tipped over some lamps and the fire spread too quickly I guess? She emerges from the fiery carnage unharmed and nude, her sexuality not only fully intact but glimmering with mythological power like Venus rising from the sea.

The list really goes on and on. Honestly halfway through the season I thought “okay surely there will be some scene coming up that doesn’t emasculate a man in some way” and it really never happened.

So what does it all mean? Is this some kind of feminist ruse? I think not. I was talking to a female friend about this and she made the obvious point that it is okay for there to be a show where women dominate in battle and politics, seeing as how the whole of human history has basically been the opposite. I couldn’t agree more, but that is exactly the point: men ruling on the battlefield and (mostly) in politics is a historical reality. GOT is supposed to tap into the historical reality of the medieval world, but it really doesn’t. It is a fantasy, even more of a fantasy than other works in the genre.

But what kind of fantasy? It is a modern fantasy. Like so many shows on television that are in some way supposed to be about the past, the show depicts our fantasies, not historical reality. And that fantasy is: solid society, private pleasure. (Mad Men is even a better example of this than GOT). The real heroes of GOT are not Daenery’s or The Sand Snakes or whatever implausible female ruler. The real hero for the modern viewer is Oberyn Martell, The Red Viper. He is a flagrant and promiscuous hedonist, but also a great fighter. He makes rousing speeches in favor of bisexuality and freedom, but is still a Prince so people respect his position. He has children without needing to raise them.

There is a certain male fantasy, rooted still in virility, which dreams of female domination (but not female sexual domination). This fantasy says: with women in charge, we can more fully advance our base desires and act out our urges. Perhaps this is the fantasy we are seeing. But whatever kind of show Game of Thrones is, a historically-based medieval setting it is not.

Click on things less

seriously I've had about enough
seriously I’ve had about enough

Look I get it, we’re all busy (busy scrolling through twitter and facebook but still busy). But is it too much to ask to at least have people pick between being someone who actually cares about ideas and someone who accepts substitutes and then can focus on other things?

Here is a tip. If it looks like you’re going to argue with someone about some controversial topic, start with a book. If someone challenges you with something pertaining to, say, feminism, why not say, “Oh that reminds me of The Bell Jar/Mrs. Dalloway/The Second Sex. What are your views on those?” If they’ve actually investigated the thing they’re getting so worked-up about and read something like those books, suddenly I think you’ll find that the conversation is on more stable ground. Not because those authors, or any author, is infallibly correct, but they have at least done some real work on the topic. That is one of the benefits of a common culture (or what is left of it, anyway); we are supposed to be able to reference the work of others so we don’t have to start at the beginning.

Now please remember that I am ranting about this in response to the endless stream of supposed intellectual content featured on social media, oftentimes in the form of “articles”. Clearly many of those articles are quite good, and the intelligent always use those good articles as either the first-fruits of further investigation or an interesting addition to an already substantial body of knowledge.

And I feel like I shouldn’t have to say this but will anyway: context is vitally important here. You don’t have to be well-read in a given topic to weigh-in. You still have a brain so when someone says “the patriarchy is responsible for all the world’s ills” you don’t have to feel inadequate to the task of disputing such a claim merely because you haven’t read on the topic (though whether you’d want to engage someone who made such a statement is another matter). This is especially true of a sincere intellectual. Wide-reading in other topics can oftentimes make you more qualified to deal with nearly any topic, provided you do so honestly admitting your own gaps in knowledge.

But for those of you tempted to click on an article with a picture of Hillary Clinton asking “Is modern feminism out of touch?” or one suggesting corporations be nicer or something, might I advise you to consider your other options if you are interested in such things? For instance, here is the beginning to the feminism article by Christine Emba in the Washington Post:

Hillary Clinton’s post-election party took place in a room with a glass ceiling, the Javits Convention Center in New York. At a certain point in the expected celebrations, confetti mimicking glass shards was meant to fall from the sky, a symbol of the candidate reaching feminism’s peak — breaking the glass ceiling that held women back from achieving the highest position in the country.

Of course, things didn’t turn out exactly as planned. But even if they had, it’s up for debate whether Hillary Clinton and those like her adequately represent the needs and nuance of the feminist movement today.

There are a lot of people who are going to read something like that and think they’ve actually learned something. Certainly the insinuating prose gives the indication of belonging to a savvy in-group, one who is keeping up with the times. But now consider the opening few paragraphs of The Bell Jar[note]The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath. Published by Harper Collins.[/note]:

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers — goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me at every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.

I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.

New York was bad enough. By nine in the morning the fake, country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream. Mirage-gray at the bottom of their granite canyons, the hot streets wavered in the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered, and the dry, cindery dust blew into my eyes and down my throat.”

Look, I get that you don’t necessarily have to pick between the two, but is it too much to ask that at least you pick one first, and the other second?

It should be obvious that there will never be scientific evidence for the existence of God

There are so many good arguments for the nonexistence of God that I find it baffling to keep encountering the “I’ll believe in God when I find evidence for His existence” argument. I can’t think of why intelligent people continue to reference it in their unbelief other than a reliance on the supposed moral superiority that emanates from everyone who is on the side of “science”.

Of course, it is correct to say that there is no evidence for God’s existence if by “evidence” you mean scientific evidence. But the claims of scientific evidence are not exhaustive of all truth. Scientific evidence is a discrete thing and its veracity and usefulness is surrounded on all sides by some very important formalities. The evidence uncovered in science must be physically observable and people under similar circumstances must be able to re-create the same results to verify your claims.

But surely things can be evident without being reproducible in the scientific sense. Whether or not you believe it, you at least act as though you do. You act, for instance, as though it is a truth that your mother loves you[note] showing that love has a biological component – obviously – is not proof that what we mean by “love” is encapsulated entirely in chemicals in your brain [/note]. You act as though the past exists. It is sufficient for us to say that the evidence for these things doesn’t pass beyond the subject – the actual person(s) involved – and be completely satisfied that we’re speaking the truth.

However, my objections not withstanding, the most infuriating part of it all is that the skeptics here don’t even seem to know what scientific evidence means. When someone says to you: “I’ll believe in God when you show me the evidence” all you have to say is “Okay, like what for example? What would you need to see to believe?”

Think about it: what would scientific evidence for God even look like? Most people would offer that if God came before them in person and changed water into wine and shone with celestial light, well, that would be enough to convince them. But why? If you’re a person who prizes scientific knowledge above all other kinds, who regards it as the gold standard of all proof and evidence, then this hypothetical event shouldn’t convince you. You’d more reasonably assume that anything other than God Himself appearing before you was the cause of your experience. Perhaps someone slipped a potent hallucinogenic drug into your drink. Perhaps there is a powerful alien spaceship in orbit and they can cause you to have convincing experiences. Or maybe you’ve just gone insane. Any of these would be more rational to conclude than that you’ve been visited by the Almighty.

All of this is right and good, and just as it should be within the context of the fallen world. God treasures our freedom above all else and imposing Himself on us by saying “Look here I am! Worship me!” and appearing in the sky with all His angels would be a vulgar negation of human and divine dignity. Besides no one likes a lover who comes on too strong.

Of course none of this is to say that there isn’t evidence – in the most literal sense of the word, “to make evident”- of God’s existence. Far from it. It is just a certain kind of evidence, a certain kind of truth about our predicament, and the way we receive that message is co-mingled with the content of the message so as to be inseparable. In that way our knowledge of God is set apart from other kinds of knowledge.

 

 

Stop using history to justify dumbing down the arts

back when audiences had a more ‘participatory’ role, or so we’re told

There is a dumb debate in the classical music world involving the proper role of audience applause. As you may know, the modern custom is to clap only after an entire piece is over. So, if a piece has multiple movements, as many do, then there is a brief period of silence between each movement.

According to those-who-think-we-should-change this – a crowd involving several prominent music critics – we should change the custom so that people can applaud between every movement, not just every piece. According to them, newcomers want to do this. Without examining it in detail, I would just like to note a paradox here: I thought our goal was to get people to like classical music, so that more people would attend concerts. But this argument seems to suggest that people who don’t go to classical music concerts actually really love classical music, in fact they love it so much that they need to clap between every movement and they’re staying away from the concert hall because you won’t let them.

There are a lot of other stupid arguments supporting to notion: arcane customs are intimidating, showing enthusiasm is always an unqualified good, the concert hall is already too stuffy and exclusive, and so on. But there is one argument that irks me more than all the rest: the argument that history supports a less stuffy atmosphere surrounding the fine arts.

The argument here is that the “stuffy” atmosphere of the fine arts is a modern invention. Back in the day, audiences clapped and booed and talked whenever they wanted. There are even composers who write about wanting there to be some applause between movements. And it is certainly true that the modern prohibition on applause between movements was basically invented by Mahler and other sympathetic minds in the early 1900’s who thought that the arts were becoming vulgarized and infiltrated by kitsch and the market and so forth.

All of this has been prominently in the arts news the last couple of weeks because of the Oregon Shakespeare Festivals’ announcement that they are going to translate Shakespeare…into English. I’ll leave aside the problems with this approach (and in fairness, you should read the defense of it). I mostly add my voice to the chorus of despair who think that this is a coarsening compromise with vulgarity at the worst and a boring distraction at best. What I would like to draw attention to is that once again, history is being used to defend the dumbing-down (of course with plenty of self-congratulations for involving women and “people of color”).

Again, the part of history that is invoked to defend molesting Shakespeare’s plays is the part where audiences treated Shakespeare with less reverence than today. But this is only one small part of history, and is actually pretty irrelevant to the whole picture. We need to take into account every part of the historical context, not just the one that, taken in isolation, seems to indicate that there has always been broad mandate to mess with the masterpieces that have defined Western art for centuries.

The other parts of history to consider are these: what was the role of the arts in the broader culture as a whole? What did they rely on art to do for them? What was cultural life like in general back in Shakespeare’s day? What were the cultural and political institutions of the day saying and doing about art?

Obviously, these are big questions. And this is a blog and I’m not going to quote sources about it at this point, but I’ll make this assertion: maybe every cultural institution in the past was dedicated to refinement, elegance and beauty in art. Every institution: the Church, the State, and the artists themselves. There are notable exceptions, yes. But the status quo was there to protect elevation in the arts. I think this is pretty obvious from reading anything about the western arts from centuries past.

Contrast this with this situation today. Again, I’ll make an assertion: over the course of approximately the last century or so, our cultural institutions have slowly at first and then quickly come to embrace the exact opposite of the artistic values of Shakespeare’s day. It is by no means alone in this transformation. It follows the whole of culture and society in the west for the last several decades at least (again, the exceptions here prove the rule).

So-called “elitism” and stuffiness are not the enemy of the arts. In fact, we could use a whole lot more of them right now. It is a sad state of affairs, but we need to protect the arts from an increasingly vulgar and meaningless culture, even if it means invoking a temple-like atmosphere. We should be more conservative and traditionalist than our forebearers precisely because that is exactly what is required for art to remain untouched by the meaninglessness of both market and cheap politics. It is what history tells us to do.

Howard Nemerov on Twitter and Facebook

Essential for the intellectual is the softening of the mind’s edge that the poet provides. Even the subtle thinker of deep and wide learning feels the confusingness of the World, especially the more he seeks out controversy. God help you when you search out controversy on the internet all day. To help He sends the poet. Consider Howard Nemerov[note]from “Figures of Thought: speculations on the meaning of poetry and other essays”, p. 7. D.R. Godine, 1978.[/note]:

You might sum up this part of the thesis by saying that poets are eccentric oddities who on a closer inspection turn out to be eccentric oddities like everyone else. Otherwise put, the poet is the weak criminal whose confession implicates the others.

It is no exaggeration to say that I’ve thought about that quote every week of my life since I first read it in college, and if you read it closely now, you should too. I’ve thought about it frequently because it is sweet to be implicated. It is the opposite of “to accuse”.