Some people hate fantasy for some reason

I know, this Ginia Bellafonte Game of Thrones review was back in April, but I’m slow to get to these things and I worked on this when none of my short story ideas were going anywhere.

The gist: it’s less a review of the actual program, and more of a complaint about how fantasy is stupid and also boy fiction.

She starts out by describing it as a "fantasy epic set in a quasi-medieval somewhereland" and seems to be complaining that it’s a waste of money because with its budget "a show like Mad Men might have the financing to continue into the second term of a Malia Obama presidency." Then she complains about the intellectual demands of keeping track of the large cast: "If you can’t count cards, please return to reruns of Sex and the City."

But the target of her mockery here is unclear — the wording suggests scorn for both Game of Thrones with its excessive number of cast members and scorn for those whose poor little minds are too overtaxed to handle such a thing.

"Embedded in the narrative is a vague global-warming horror story. Rival dynasties vie for control over the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros — a territory where summers are measured in years, not months, and where winters can extend for decades."

Um. Global warming horror story? Global warming? Because everyone uses the culturally coded "winter is coming" to describe what sounds like an approaching ice age? There might be a teensy little connection to be made regarding the way societies deal or fail to deal with climate change. But in Game of Thrones (which I have read, although I am not up to date with the series) there is no suggestion that the ice age is anthropogenic or that there is anything that could be done to ameliorate it. If it was ever intended as a global warming metaphor, it wasn’t a very good one.

"How did this come to pass? We are in the universe of dwarfs, armor, wenches, braids, loincloth. The strange temperatures clearly are not the fault of a reliance on inefficient HVAC systems. Given the bizarre climate of the landmass at the center of the bloody disputes — and the series rejects no opportunity to showcase a beheading or to offer a slashed throat close-up — you have to wonder what all the fuss is about. We are not talking about Palm Beach."

I quoted this paragraph in full because it’s so incoherent. I had to read it three times before I figured out what she means to be saying: following on her mysterious conviction that the impending ice age is a global warming metaphor, she demonstrates that it’s not a terribly effective one, then wonders why people are bothering to fight for control of such a wretched place anyway. She seems to be implying that this makes the story implausible — as if human history isn’t a long series of people fighting desperately for control of places that often look, from our perspective, fairly wretched and inhospitable. Russia, for example. Or the Middle East. And since it takes place in a "quasi-medieval" setting, with vaguely medieval levels of technology, anyway, it’s not as if the inhabitants are all that free to go elsewhere.

It’s obvious that she thinks Game of Thrones is silly — so silly that it’s not worth the attention it would have taken for her to suss out the characters or the setting correctly. She mentions a few obvious trappings and seems to think the reader is on her side. Oh, well, dwarfs. Obviously. How could a story with dwarfs be any good at all?

Except, of course, the dwarf character in the book is not from a race of dwarfs. It’s a birth defect, just exactly like dwarfs in our world, and it causes him problems with his family and that sort of thing. But it’s fairly obvious that she wasn’t paying enough attention to the story to notice the difference, and that she doesn’t care anyway.

"The bigger question, though, is: What is "Game of Thrones" doing on HBO?"

What? Why is that the bigger question? Isn’t adapting a best-selling book into a short series exactly the sort of thing HBO is well set up to do?

"The series claims as one of its executive producers … David Benioff, whose excellent script for Spike Lee’s post-9/11 meditation, "25th Hour," did not suggest a writer with Middle Earth proclivities."


Um again.

She’s acting like she feels betrayed, somehow, that Mr. Benioff had these hidden "Middle Earth proclivities." His script for this other, more serious thing was excellent, what’s wrong with him that he also likes this quasi-medieval epic fantasy crap?

I realize this may come as an utter shock to Ms. Bellafonte, but people often like more than one kind of thing.

Now she talks a bit about the sometimes perverse and weird sexual content of the show, leading into the biggest WTF paragraph in the whole essay:

"The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to "The Hobbit" first. "Game of Thrones" is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half."

Hold on. I just want to sit here gaping in the glare of the the WTF-edness for a moment.

Okay, let’s break it down.

"all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies"

Because women are widely supposed to like kinky sexual content?

"out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise."

Because women don’t like quasi-medieval epic fantasy to such an extent that they would literally not watch if there were no sex? Really, I have never previously noticed evidence that producers of movies or television worry terribly much about whether their products have anything about them for women to enjoy. Oh no! The latest James Bond thriller is testing poorly with women, better throw in more shirtless Daniel Craig!

"While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s"

Okay, she’s allowing for the fact that there might be some women out there who like that sort of thing — except the books are bestsellers, and how often do books become serious bestsellers without being read by women? If anything, publishers have the despairing notion that it’s men who don’t want to read novels. Also, in the world of geekdom, all the "serious" hard SF boys seem to think quasi-medieval epic fantasy is for girls. Which probably is neither here nor there, but it strikes me as funny.

"I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to "The Hobbit" first."

Um. Is that a thing? Standing up in indignation at book clubs? I had no idea. I’m pretty sure I’ve never met a woman who has done such a thing either, and if she did, it was probably in protest of sexism or racism or something more substantial like that. But generalizing from personal experience is not terribly persuasive as a data point. Maybe all of her female friends love Lorrie Moore and would never deign to touch The Hobbit. All my female friends read The Hobbit as children and have never heard of Lorrie Moore. Because, you know, The Hobbit is a beloved children’s book. This is also delivered as if she expects Lorrie Moore to be a household name on par with The Hobbit, and I’m fairly certain she is not. But I also don’t get the sex typing. Do men routinely do that sort of thing? Stand up in indignation at book clubs? It just doesn’t seem very likely.

At least it tells me where she gets the idea that women just don’t like that sort of thing: because she doesn’t personally know any who do. Or at least, she doesn’t know she knows any women who like that sort of thing. Maybe they already know her sniffy feelings about epic fantasy and never mention it to her.

""Game of Thrones" is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half."

All right, to buy this statement you have to buy several things. First, you have to buy that there is such a thing as boy fiction. And I guess there sort of is, but usually we just call it "fiction."


Certainly, Game of Thrones was no more oppressively from the male point of view than The Catcher in the Rye, which as a teenager I hated for its otherizing of the female characters. As an adult I can see through that a little better and find the book funny — he’s a dumb kid and his views on women are part of him being a dumb kid. But I’ve read a lot of fantasy, which I’m willing to bet Ms. Bellafante has not, and there is nothing consistently in the genre that makes it earn the label "boy fiction." Really, I’m far more inclined to apply that label to mid century lit fic about men having mid-life crises, you know the kind I mean, where the male viewpoint character gets to be a person but all the women he encounters are symbols of something or other? And the wife is shrewish and he has an affair with a highly sexualized and much younger woman? Or maybe he goes to Africa? You know, that kind of book.

So, you have to believe there is this thing boy fiction (maybe), you have to believe Game of Thrones is an example of it (doubtful), you have to believe that illicit sex was added (as opposed to being in the source material), you have to believe that illicit sex is regarded by the producers as the sort of thing that will make women more likely to tune in (huh?), you have to believe the producers cared about whether women watched (really doubtful), and you have to believe that this was done in a patronizing manner. You know, a little something (cue Paul and Storm voice) for the ladies.

As a woman I’ve felt patronized a lot by movies and TV — romantic comedies usually — and I can tell you that I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that made me feel more patronized than Sex in the City, with its fantasy world of expensive shoes and designer outfits and glamorous parties and glamorous careers and improbably large New York apartments.

"[with] "The Sopranos" … HBO has distinguished itself as a corporate auteur"

So, let’s get this straight — a fantasy with several female protagonists is boy fiction, while a mob drama isn’t? By what measure? I have liked the occasional mob drama, sure, but I’ve never seen one that wasn’t heavily from the male point of view, and almost exclusively concerned with the doings of dudes. Women hang around the margins as prizes, liabilities, betrayers, and other such functions. Now, it’s possible that Game of Thrones the television series feels like boy fiction in a way the book did not — it’s possible that the male protagonists feel more like the "real" point of view characters and the females are otherized — but the review doesn’t say that. The review seems content to assert that Game of Thrones is "boy fiction" by type and leave it at that.

And while I’m sure HBO is happy to be seen as an "auteur" — wait, what?

The auteur theory holds that the director of a film is like the author of a book, with a unique creative vision that comes through in spite of the fundamentally collective nature of filmmaking. So… she’s claiming that HBO has a unique and consistent creative vision such that HBO can be regarded as the author of the dramas it produces? Doesn’t that seem a bit ridiculous?

"[HBO is at] its most intelligent and dazzling [when] examining the way that institutions are made and how they are upheld or fall apart: the Mafia, municipal government ("The Wire"), the Roman empire ("Rome"), the American West ("Deadwood"), religious fundamentalism ("Big Love")."

Okay, really now. I haven’t seen Rome, but I’m fairly certain that it has just a fair bit of chopping people up with swords, braided hair, armor and loincloths. I don’t know if there is a dwarf character, but there could be one because, you know, Rome had the occasional dwarf. And I don’t understand how Game of Thrones isn’t about how institutions are made and how they are upheld or fall apart. I haven’t seen the show, so maybe the series fails to get this across, but it seemed to me that was exactly what the book was about.

If her point is meant to be that Rome does this sort of thing well and Game of Thrones does it poorly, that might well be a valid point to make. But she never gets that specific about the alleged flaws of Game of Thrones. Everything is snark and innuendo.

"When the network ventures away from its instincts for real-world sociology, as it has with the vampire saga "True Blood," things start to feel cheap, and we feel as though we have been placed in the hands of cheaters."

This is almost as WTF as the boy fiction paragraph, although without the strange sex role overtones. First of all, I don’t care that Rome, fundamentalist Mormons, the Mafia or the American West all technically exist — none of those series is "real-world sociology." The fact that they are done in a classy and serious manner might make them feel like something other than the pulpy concepts that they are, but make no mistake, they are all pulpy concepts — the historical epic, the sexually provocative semi-exploitation melodrama, the mob thriller, the western.

Now, True Blood is certainly a cheesy southern Gothic stew of vigorous pulpy ridiculousness, no question. It’s addictive like Frito pie. Does that make it like Game of Thrones? Not based on anything I’ve seen. The only reason to compare Game of Thrones to True Blood, as opposed to comparing it to Rome, is that both have overt fantastical elements. Which seems a very shallow and lazy way to look at it, frankly.

Does True Blood feel cheap? Well, maybe, if you want to see the cheesiness that way. Does Game of Thrones feel cheap? I doubt it — her first paragraph seems to be all about how expensive it is and she alludes to it looking lush and having a cast of thousands. So what does she actually mean by cheap?

Does it have something to do with her baffling statement about feeling "as though we have been placed in the hands of cheaters." Cheaters? Cheaters at what, exactly? When I describe fiction as "cheating" it’s usually because I think it’s pushing buttons it hasn’t earned the right to push — trying to make me feel something by putting the kitten in danger, for example — but it’s hard to imagine what she could possibly mean in this context. Does she mean it’s "cheating" to use fantastical elements in a story?

She might well think that — the essay simply oozes scorn for all things fantastical — but this is written as though she expects the reader to know what she’s talking about and I just don’t.

""Game of Thrones" serves up a lot of confusion"

Finally, something approaching an actual review. Game of Thrones is confusing. Okay. Maybe. But since, by this point, she has demonstrated that she wasn’t really paying that much attention (because it was so far beneath her it wasn’t worth paying that much attention) it’s hard to know if anyone else would find it confusing.

"in the name of no larger or really relevant idea beyond sketchily fleshed-out notions that war is ugly, families are insidious and power is hot."

First, the notion that any drama needs to be in service to a "larger" and "really relevant" idea sounds suspiciously like broccoli to me. And second, all three notions sound as if they might well be the kind of things you would find addressed in that "real-world sociology" Ms. Bellafante is apparently so fond of. Power is hot — the Sopranos? Families are insidious — Big Love and Sopranos? War is ugly — Rome? Maybe Sopranos again? Are these supposed to be stupid things for a story to be about? Or are they stupid only when being explored in the context of a quasi-medieval somewhereland?

"If you are not averse to the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic, the series might be worth the effort."

Well, what a relief! If you are not averse to the look and feel of it you might like Game of Thrones! Really, is it common for people to be averse simply to the look and feel of quasi-medieval fantasy epics? Was I imagining the part where the Lord of the Rings movies were monster hits?

"If you are nearly anyone else,"

Yes, and this is the problem throughout. Ms. Bellafante obviously dislikes fantasy very broadly as a class — True Blood and Game of Thrones are all the same to her. She apparently thinks a fantasy series is so low that it’s not worth an actual review and so has spent most of the essay on tangents like speculation about what goes on at book clubs and rumination on all the other, better things that HBO has done in the past. That is problematic enough. But the strangest thing is that she clearly thinks her viewpoint is the majority, default viewpoint — at least for women, who I guess are either too classy or too easily confused to enjoy something as stupid and complicated as epic fantasy? Really, I’m not sure. I’m still kind of stunned about how she manages to be sexist against both men and women at the same time.

She is entitled to her opinion of course — taste is taste. Personally, I don’t tend to like boxing stories or action movies about robots. But I simply don’t know what cause she has to feel so confident that her viewpoint is the overwhelming default. You’d think no fantasy book had ever been a bestseller, no fantasy movie had ever been a hit.

"you will hunger for HBO to get back to the business of languages for which we already have a dictionary."

Well. There you have it. If you are a normal person, especially a normal woman, this series will make you want HBO to get back to the business of showing you something that is much more like stuff you have seen before. You know, something that doesn’t tax your imagination or powers of concentration. Languages for which we already have a dictionary.

How dreary that sounds.


  1. Author

    Yeah, that was the thing that put me off the most about it — not just the dripping scorn, but the assumption that, well, naturally everyone who read the essay was already on her side.

    1. Because of course, all fans of Fantasy are loner weirdos living in their parents’ basements… It’s a tired old steroetype that needs to be put to rest.

    1. Author

      I hadn’t until this review. According to the Wikipedia entry she is “known mainly for her humorous and poignant short stories” and her novels include “the story of a woman vacationing with her husband who recalls an intense friendship from her adolescence” and “a twenty-year-old Midwestern woman’s coming of age”.

      Yeah sounds like lit fic.

  2. What about action movies with robots putting kittens in danger?

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