Game of Thrones AKA The Widow’s Revenge

I quite enjoy HBO’s Game of Thrones and after accounting for all the sex and violence have often wondered why I find it so entertaining; I’m not inclined toward the fantasy genre under normal circumstances and do not think I had read any of its productions before Game of Thrones. (That has changed; I have now read the first novel of George Martin‘s epic series).

Daniel Mendelsohn provides an answer of sorts, beginning with:

This has a great deal to do with the complex satisfactions of Martin’s novels, whose plots, characterization, and overall tone the series reproduces with remarkable fidelity—and whose mission is, if anything, to question and reformulate certain clichés of the fantasy/adventure genre about gender and power.

And concluding:

Whatever climax it may be leading to, however successfully it realizes its literary ambitions, George R.R. Martin’s magnum opus is a remarkable feminist epic.

Quite correctly, Mendelsohn’s central reason for regarding Game of Thrones as a ‘feminist epic’ is the position it accords to Daenerys Targaryen (and to a lesser extent to Arya Stark). Her struggle for power, wherein she will challenge men for the throne of the Seven Kingdoms is an often dominant plot line. She might be assisted by men, she might take advice from them, but she remains her own boss (and as Ser Jorah Mormont often finds out, she is not shy about letting him know this fact); all too often, she commands and rules them.  She is not shackled and dependent on male sexuality: 

The pubescent Dany…is no innocent: deprived of the attentions of her dead husband, she now and then accepts the ministrations of a teenaged handmaiden.

Mention of her dead husband, the Dothraki chieftain Khal Drogo, serves as a reminder that a crucial component in realizing Martin’s feminist vision in Game of Thrones is Daenerys’ status as a widow.

The widow, of course, is the archetypal weakened and destitute woman: she lacks a male guardian, protector, provider, and lover. She is incomplete in many ways. For instance, she lacks that which will realize her motherhood–her sole raison d’etre–a father for her children. From now on, she can only be a dependent, cast out to the not-so-tender mercies of other men, or the sympathies of her own family. The loss of her husband has marked her out as a singular unfortunate; the more superstitious might regard her as the bearer of misfortune for her husband, and seek to consign her to the margins of our world where she may infect us no more. Those women who know the standing of widows in a society like the Dothraki–and many of ours have approximated theirs in the past and sometimes even in the present–may find any inner resolve crumble when confronted with a fate as terrible as that which befell Khal Drogo. But not Daenerys Targaryen. Her mighty man–it is no coincidence that Martin made him the epitome of rugged, virile strength–is brought to his knees by a witch’s sorcery, but this loss, while tragic, does not detract her from her quest.

It is the refusal to embrace the Dothraki widow’s fate that makes Daenerys the strong woman that she is, and that allows Martin to give his epic a feminist hue.

Beauvoir, Morrison and Gordimer on Sex

Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote that a conceptual inversion of the sexual act was possible: perhaps woman was not merely ‘penetrated’ or ‘entered into’ by man, perhaps she ‘enveloped’ or ‘engulfed’ him instead. Sex was not an ‘invasion’ of the woman, it was an active seeking out instead. The change in perspective engendered by considering what could be a woman’s understanding of the act was radical indeed, and experienced as such by many of those who read The Second Sex. I understood this shift at one intellectual level and did not at yet another.

Till I read Toni Morrison‘s Sula (Knopf, New York, 1973). In it, when Sula has sex with Ajax, she “stood wide-legged against the wall and pulled from his track-lean hips all the pleasure her thighs could hold.” (pp. 125)  Now, I understood a little better. Here again, was woman active, possessing sexual agency, not the passive receiver of sexual attention but the active dispenser of it. She did not have something ‘put inside her’, she ‘pulled’ it to herself, the limits of that exchange only demarcated by her own desire and ability. It’s been some twenty-two years since I first read that line, and I have never forgotten it, so suddenly did it come on me as I read Sula, and so distinctive was the reconfiguration of sexual politics that it forced upon me.

Here is another literary take on the conceptual revision that Beauvoir suggested. In The Late Bourgeois World (Penguin, New York, 1966), Nadine Gordimer‘s narrator Liz Van Den Sandt ruminates over an interesting dimension of her sexual relationship with Graham:

Yet when he’s inside me–last night–there’s the strangest thing. He’s much better than someone my own age, he comes to me with a solid and majestic erection that will last as long as we choose. Sometimes he will be in me for an hour and I can put my hand on my belly and feel the blunt head, like a standard upheld, through my flesh. But while he fills me, while you’d think the last gap in me was closed for ever, while we lie there silent I get the feeling that I am the one who has drawn him up into my flesh, I am the one who holds him there, that I am the one who has him helpless. If I flex the muscles inside me, it’s as if I were throttling someone. He doesn’t speak; the suffering of pleasure shuts his eyes, the lids are tender without his glasses. And even when he brings about the climax for us–afterwards I am still holding him as if strangled; warm, thick, dead, inside. [pp. 37-38]

I suspect there are men who would find this description disconcerting–the more ‘sensitive’ among them might even be offended–and indeed, it was probably meant to be so. But hopefully, equally many men and women will find in this little passage echoes of the same species of altered perspective that Beauvoir urged us to adopt, and that Morrison so expertly captured and described.