The Flattening of Westeros

The Flattening of Westeros

Some more thoughts on simplified moral calculus of HBO’s Game of Thrones.

In Wrather’s thought provoking post on Game of Thrones the other day, he points out that Daenerys Targaryen’s wedding is morally simplified in the televised version.  I’d had the same thought, and although I don’t want to put words into Wrather’s mouth, I think this aspect could do with some elaboration.

Daenerys’ arranged marriage to Khal Drogo (basically Genghis Khan with the serial number filed off), is a pretty traumatic event, both for her and for the spectator. There are several reasons why.

1) She’s thirteen years old at the time, at least in the book.  (They age her up a little in the series because they want to be able to show her naked.)

2) She’s never met her husband before their wedding day, and they don’t even speak the same language — her brother, an exiled prince, needs an army to retake his throne, and he’s basically sold Dany off to the highest bidder.

3) It’s not at all clear during the sex scene how much her consent is going to be an issue.

For Martin’s imagined setting, all of these make a certain amount of logical sense.  Plenty of medieval nobility would have been married by the time they turned thirteen — Shakespeare says as much of Juliet, and I once read a frankly erotic description of a woman in that age range by the 14th-century French poet Guillaume de Machaut. Standards of decency change.  The fact that she hasn’t met her husband before the big day isn’t surprising either:  marriages of political expedience were more the rule than the exception, and although I don’t have a specific example in mind, I can almost guarantee that if you trace the current European monarchy back far enough you would come up with an example where the couple didn’t even share a language in common.  And as for the consent thing, marital rape was not a crime anywhere in the world before the 1920s, and in North Carolina not until 1993. So again, these aspects of Martin’s fictional world make sense.  That said, he had the option of creating a fictional world where none of this happened, or one where it only happened off camera.  Why have this scene?

One major purpose of the wedding sequence is to show how alien this culture is to our own.  Not just the culture of the savage Dothraki horse lords (about whom Edward Said would have, I think, a thing or two or three to say), but also the “European” culture of Dany’s Westeros.  It drives home how crappy women’s position was in feudal society:  even if you’re a princess, your main value is as a brood mare and a bargaining chip.  The age thing, the marrying-a-stranger thing, the lack-of-consent thing — they’re all just there to throw it into sharper relief.  To make the horrible more horrible, like.

But in the book, and only in the book, there’s something else that the scene is about too.  Because Dany accepts that this is her lot in life, and although she does get cold feet a couple of times, and even once begs Viserys to call off the wedding, she does not find the whole situation nearly as unnatural as we do.  She understands that this is part of being a noblewoman — it’s not what she would choose, but she goes through with it out of a sense of duty, not under duress.  And the reader is made to accept it too, on some level, because Martin throws another wrench into the gears:  all her life, Dany has been expecting that she will marry her brother when she gets old enough, this being a tradition of the Targaryen house (as it was for certain Egyptian dynasties).  And since incest is the ultimate in abject sexuality, and Viserys is already one of the most unmitigatedly loathsome characters in the entire series, suddenly an underaged marriage of convenience to a noble savage type begins to look like the lesser of two evils.  Finally, although there are several points near the beginning of the sex scene where Dany wants to stop and Drogo ignores her, it ends with this exchange:

He stopped then, and drew her down onto his lap.  Dany was flushed and breathless, her heart fluttering in her chest.  He cupped her face in his huge hands and looked into her eyes.  “No?” he said, and she knew it was a question.


That’s right:  eventually, he does ask.  (Which is a more nuanced version of Khal Drogo than we see on the show, but we’ll talk about the show’s orientalism another day.) And eventually, she does give consent.  And we’re given to understand that the sex is not terrible.

This is extremely weird and uncomfortable territory for the viewer/spectator!  Our modern legal code is designed to treat this sex as rape anyway:  there’s implicit coercion involved, she said no several times before she said yes, and she’s underage, which means that she’s not legally capable of giving consent in the first place.  There are very good reasons for these laws.  But because and only because we are placed right smack inside Danaerys’s head while this is going on, we know that when she says yes she really means it.  She’s not thinking “I’ll just say yes because otherwise he might hurt me,” she’s not thinking “I’ve said no a hundred times and he’s worn me down so much that I just don’t care anymore,” she’s not even thinking “I’ll say yes because that’s what wives are supposed to do.”  She says yes because she’s been seduced — and part of that comes from the fact that Drogo does allow her the choice, which is more than Viserys ever did.  She’s still part of a system under which women are largely chattel, but her current position is better than her previous position, and that matters to her.

Leave aside for a moment the question of whether this bodice-ripping, consent-eliding, women-want-bad-boys-who-literally-don’t-know-the-meaning-of-the-word-no model of sexual desire is a harmful social script that shouldn’t be repeated in our fiction.  Leave aside for a moment the question of whether George R.R. Martin, by projecting consent and lust into a 13-year old’s head, hath made of himself a Humbert Humbert in his heart.  Leave these questions, and turn instead to another interaction that is flattened in the film version of the book, again involving a woman.  In the book, when Robert Baratheon offers Ned the position of King’s Hand, his wife Catelyn is the one who tells him that he has to accept it.  She’s an uncompromising realist, is Catelyn.  It’s not that she wants Ned to go, it’s just that she understands that you can’t turn down this kind of offer without insulting the king… and she’s not blind to the opportunities this would create for her husband, herself, and their family.  She’s no glory hound, but she’s an aristocrat.  Part of her job, part of being Lady Stark, is increasing the status of house Stark whenever possible.  The film version jettisons this interesting element of her character, in favor of a woman that just wants her man to stay at home with her (although I do love that line they gave her where she’s like “I’ll say, ‘Listen, fat man, you can’t take my husband'”). Then when they learn that John Arryn’s death was not an accident, Cat suddenly becomes terrified and desperate for Ned to stay — oh no wait, that’s the version from the series.  In the book, she’s even more insistent that he go to King’s Landing, not because they need to stay on the King’s good side, not because of the increased opportunity (which under these circumstances she couldn’t care less about), but because an old and dear friend has been murdered under circumstances that point to a treasonous conspiracy. She wants justice for her own sake, and as the Lady Stark, she wants to defend the realm!  And while there are certainly more self-actualized ways for a woman to handle these problems than to stay home and watch the kids while she sends her husband off to actually handle the problem, this is still a more progressive, and a far more interesting characterization than the one in the series, where she’s again all like “Oh no, Ned, don’t enter public life!  Stay home with me and take care of our baaaabiiieeees!” The book version of Catelyn does consider begging Ned not to go, once, after Bran has fallen from the tower.  But she immediately squashes that thought as unworthy and weak:  none of the reasons that Ned has to go have changed, and she knows that, so she keeps a stiff upper lip.  Not like in the series, where she breaks down sobbing, begs him to stay, and when he says he has no choice bitterly tells him “You do have a choice! And you MADE it!”  The actress delivers it splendidly, but it’s a terrible damn line.  And in the book, remember, she is the first one to realize that he has no choice.

The damsel in distress has been a stock character in melodrama for as long as melodrama has been around.  So has the long-suffering wife who pines for her husband while he’s off grimly doing what needs to be done in the public sphere.  There are elements of these stock characters in Daenerys Targaryen and Catelyn Stark.  (Dany even took a couple of levels in the “white woman sexually menaced by a swarthy ethnic type” prestige class.)  But in the books, this is not all there is to them, not even the main part of what there is to them, and in the series, at least in the pilot episode, it’s all that they are.  Why this flattening?  Well, both of these stock characters are women who have been damaged by a patriarchal system.  This is an aspect of Cat and Dany’s stories, so that’s fine.  But in the book, they are also a part of the same system that is grinding them down.  They’ve got a role to play in that system, and each of them accepts, excels at, and even to a degree relishes that role.  And this is too much complexity for a TV show to stomach, even an aitch-bee-oh TV show.  It’s like the writers are afraid that if Daenerys enjoys the sex, the audience will forget that politically expedient quasi-consensual child marriages are a BAD thing.  Or perhaps they’re afraid that the audience will think the writers have forgotten it.  Whatever the motivation, the televised version of these characters is sadly diminished.

On the bright side, though, I feel like they pretty much nailed Tyrion Lannister.  (Peter Dinklage should go ahead and buy a stand for that Emmy he’s got coming.)  And Cersei, who is one of Martin’s least well-realized characters, has actually grown in the adaptation.  And my guess is that the TV versions of Cat and Dany will get more complex over time — TV characters, after all, never spring forth full formed from the brow of the pilot.  Rather, they are created over the course of many episodes, and many seasons, shaped by many different writers and directors, and by the actor’s slowly evolving performance.  Even in the second episode, we see both characters take steps in the right direction.  The televised version of Game of Thrones is not yet the true steel, but all the necessary iron and carbon is there.  We just have to hope that the ongoing TV development process, always a pressure cooker, turns out in this case to be a blast furnace.

[Postscript: After I finished writing this, Wrather pointed me to Isaac Butler’s excellent post, which makes several of the same points, and goes further by pointing out that the show’s fumbling of Dany’s wedding night is going to make her large scale character arc that much weaker. It’s well worth a read]

16 Comments on “The Flattening of Westeros”

  1. Rainicorn #

    Interesting post, Stokes. I’ve read only the first book, and I wrestled quite a lot with Daenerys’ story. I think in the book Daenerys is a woman dealt a very bad hand in life who does what she needs to do to cope psychologically, but I’m not yet sure if the show is presenting her the same way. And I have many, many problems with the race aspect. I wrote about it at length in Drinking Game of Thrones – short version: “Wow, this is incredibly racist.”


  2. Tim #

    It seems that despite the publishing date, this was written only after the airing of the 2nd episode. I think that the 3rd and 4th episode have taken strides to answer your criticisms. Catelyn really takes control of the final scene of the 4th episode as she orders Tyrion’s arrest. Dany is also growing into her position and realizing that she’s the one with the power, not her brother. And above all of them is Araya who rejects the boundaries placed on women in their society.

    Is this done in as complex a fashion as in the books? No, and I don’t think it really could have been. We can’t see inside the character’s heads, everything has to be said out loud and there’s all ready a mountain of exposition.


  3. Isaac Butler #

    Thanks for the shout out, Stokes! And for mentioning the Cat Tully arc, which I had forgotten. This reminds me, BTW, of a conversation we had on my blog during The Walking Dead where basically part of what happens to these genre works when they get adapted for television is that they get more sexist. I wonder why that is. Is there a wider range of possibility for female characters (and people of color) allowed even in mainstream genre literature like Walking Dead and GOT than on TV? That’s a depressing thought.


    • Maddy #

      Whaaaattt? Everything I hear/read about Walking Dead says that the TV show is LESS sexist than the books. Got some links that say otherwise? Because I hate actually engaging with media directly. I’d rather read what critics say about it. Kidding, kidding.
      It’s really just that I want more proof that I’m not going to despise Walking Dead before I invest money/time in it. I have seen one of the episodes, but there were practically no women in the ep I saw, so I can’t really say for sure what the show’s gender politics are, besides “there aren’t very many women on our show.” Which seems kinda shitty on its face, but that may have just been the one episode. Oh, and also, the one episode that I saw bored me (and I love zombie stories, so that’s saying something).


  4. Jeff Edsell #

    “Or perhaps they’re afraid that the audience will think the writers have forgotten [that politically expedient quasi-consensual child marriages are a BAD thing].”

    I think you nailed it there. Movie and television creators in particular run the risk of seeming that they approve of everything that appears on screen. I think this is largely because, in a movie, we see everything from the outside – the medium simply can’t put you inside the head of a character in the same way that a book can. (This is not a value judgement on either medium; it’s simply the way things are.) Terrence Malick once said that it’s impossible to make a war film without glorifying war. I’d wager that the topics of sexuality and gender politics are even more dangerous waters, because there are so many folks ready to see the message they expect – if you’re predisposed to believe that the medium is too sexual, you’ll get confirmation in this scene; if you’re particularly sensitive to the idea that Hollywood objectifies women, it’s easy to read it that way too.

    So I don’t think it’s so simple as the writers “playing it safe,” or at least I hope not. I think they tried to take into account how much they could convey using their medium.


    • AnneBonney #

      Oddly enough, after reading the article, I was going to comment on the same quote– by saying I was unconvinced that the writers ARE committed to saying Daenerys’ situation is bad. The main reason is the aging-up to provide HBO-caliber T&A: if you’re expecting your audience to derive titillation from the depiction of non-consensual sexual situations, and especially if you are catering to that, then the discussion of whether or not this non-consent is being inappropriately sexualized and portrayed positively is a non-starter. Of course it is, and that takes us away from identifying with Dany and the difficulty of her situation.

      That said, I guess I was heartened (not really though, at all) consent was dealt with at all in the show’s dealings with that first Dany-Drago scene, namely because of the limitations of the medium that were discussed. I’ve not read the books, and though I’m disappointed by the flattening because I find it less interesting as a consumer/viewer, I’m not necessarily unhappy with the direction the TV writers went. Without the nuance of a first-person view the book offers, I don’t think the audience would be able to see the complex-version (since age of consent and coercion aren’t areas of rape that aren’t very well accepted as rape in the larger culture, anyhow) as actually a problem. If it’s important for Dany’s story that her first sexual experiences with her husband are fucked up (and that seems to be the case), then I guess I’m okay with depicting it as they did. It would probably go over many, many heads if it was less straight-forward.

      That said, I’d rather prurient rape scenes weren’t the norm in the first place, which isn’t a criticism of film as a medium, but rather filmmakers’ choices that show consensual and non-consensual sex in very similar ways– with a focus on audience stimulation. But then again, like a large section of the population, both male and female, I am predisposed to be sensitive to such things. I don’t expect that of everyone, which is why the flattening, I suppose.


  5. Adrian #

    “…part of what happens to these genre works when they get adapted for television is that they get more sexist. I wonder why that is.”

    I think it’s because the creators for television know they have a larger viewership than the niche audience of a genre work, and dumb the material down accordingly. It’s not so much about being sexist (that is, not on PURPOSE) as fitting the characters and events into archetypes (that is, stereotypes) that the TV audience (that is, the lowest common denominator) are going to be familiar with. Which are sexist.


  6. Brian #

    I was gonna say even a voiceover giving every nuanced thought is moot because a 13 year old’s thoughts are not valid, but really I think it only applies to girls thoughts on sex and that’s where the feminism angle is.

    Example: The double standard in teacher molestation cases, South Park episode “Miss Teacher Bangs a Boy” did a classic presentation of it. We give validity to a 13 year old boys sexual thoughts, but not a girls, you can’t say a 13 year old girl is even capable of thinking of sex without the slippery slope argument turning you into a rationalizer of child rape, but you can say a 13 year old boy is interested in nothing but sex and you just sound like your “telling it as it is.” I don’t think they would have changed the character’s age if it was a boy.

    But all the Daenerys accepting her lot in life and making the best of it and the complexity of the sex and Dogarth vs. Viserys, all that’s supposedly only in the book, I totally got that nuance from the show, though I haven’t read the books so I’m not juggling and comparing how it’s not doing it as well as it should be. But I don’t think the flattening of Daenery is as bad you think, at least to a GoT non-reader, and on character beat sheet way it seems to be on track. I guess the 13 year old trait being changed makes it feel like a bigger cop out than it is.


  7. Zach #

    I’m glad you’re writing about this, because it’s definitely the place where the TV series fails the most in my opinion. The Dany/Drogo relationship was incredibly complex in the book, and they’ve left out a ton in the series, and it’s poorer for it. They pay lip service to her being happy about her Silver, but that’s about the extent. They never really show her beginning to be attracted to him, and they do a poor job of showing Drogo’s nobility (especially when contrasted against Viserys). So in the series, when she suddenly wants to please him, it just comes out of left field and makes no sense. Drogo is much more interesting and sympathetic in the book.

    Tyrion was my favorite character in the books, and continues to be so in the series. I agree they’ve adapted him perfectly.


  8. paperclip #

    To be fair regarding Catelyn: even in the books, with us being able to follow her thoughts, she’s not a particularly sympathetic character – at least one of her later actions led directly to very bad things happening to House Stark, and she’s not very nice to Jon. While it’s fine that she’s not a very pleasant person, Martin clearly did not intend her that way. So I think that while the flip in Ned and Cat’s positions regarding accepting the job of the King’s Hand in the show was regrettable, it was arguably necessary to make her at least a bit relatable.

    Regarding Dany, I’m inclined to give the damsel-in-distress thing a pass, as a lot of what’s awesome about ASOIAF is how Martin takes conventional tropes and archetypes and subverts them and/or takes them in a completely unexpected direction. In the specific case of Dany, for instance, her story is one of gradual shedding of the ‘in-distress’ part of the ‘damsel-in-distress’.

    The Dothraki scenes bother me more because of the crude orientalism than anything else.


  9. Alex #

    Having seen seven episodes now, I disagree with the argument that the change in Dany’s wedding night was a bad thing. Even with the view from inside Dany’s thoughts in the novel, that scene strained my suspension of disbelief to the limit, and I don’t think it would have worked at all on screen. Also, after the surprising tenderness of the wedding night, Drogo reverts to using his wife in the rough Dothraki style every night for the next few weeks, until she begins to assert some control over their sex life with the help of her slave/tutor Doreah, just as we saw in the second episode of the series.

    On the other hand, I completely agree that the change in Catelyn’s characterization was gratuitous and rather demeaning to the character. As another commmenter mentioned, Catelyn is not the most likable of the POV characters (particularly because of her totally unjustifiable cruelty toward the very likable Jon Snow — he never asked to be born, after all), but she’s a very strong one, tougher and cannier in some ways than her husband (although, like Ned, she ultimately comes to grief by underestimating her ostensible allies’ capacity for perfidy). Catelyn in the books is a Mama Grizzly Direwolf who could eat Sarah Palin whole for breakfast; the show has turned her into a far more conventional Hollywood female character, and is the poorer for it.


  10. Will #

    This is the most sophisticated telling I’ve seen of the objection to HBO’s depiction of the wedding night. The author must be congratulated, being able to voice the objection without trivialising Dany’s plight and credulously accepting the romantic gloss as so many other have done. This account at least acknowledges the moral complexities of the arrangement and her age before deciding that the show has flattened Dany’s character.

    However, I still think it’s rather telling that account can only proceed by setting aside all the substantive weaknesses in Martin’s approach to fudging Dany’s consent. That is, Martin holds out Dany’s ‘yes’ like a lift raft for the reader to overcome all the problematic issues with Dany’s age, the fact that the marriage and her incentives to make it work are entirely dictated by Viserys’ intimidation and coercion, the fact that she has no real option to reject Drogo’s attentions, and the various express protests she makes about it. Even though Dany’s moment of ‘consent’ is lent some authoritative weight from the viewpoint perspective, I think a sophisticated reading still has to see Dany’s inexperienced biological arousal at this situation as rather dubious evidence of substantive consent. The OP makes an interesting point about the authenticity gap between how popular culture accepts the sexuality of under-aged boys versus under-aged girls, but ultimately that’s a point that is only going to do much work when all things are equal. By itself it can hardly overcome the aforementioned host of problematic issues with her consent.

    I think the show was, therefore, wise to take the approach it did – which allowed it to incorporate the fraught nature of the early weeks of Dany’s sexual relationship, which included a lot of arguable spousal rape where she cries every night, into the wedding night itself. I think that was a pragmatic and mature decision that is much better than either trying to yo-yo between a simplified bodice ripping wedding night closer to the book and subsequent spousal rape, or more odiously, trying to pretend Drogo never insisted on his sexual rights regardless of Dany’s desires or wellbeing.


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