On Gender Issues, Nostalgia and Fiction


If you've been following the blog-o-sphere, you might be aware of an internet spat over the depictions of women in The Game of Thrones. I've been following it with interest, though I've only seen the HBO series and haven't read the books.

While I don't feel comfortable taking a stand on TGOT, (please do read Sady Doyle's original post and Alyssa Rosenberg's response), I am very interested in the broader issues raised. I recognize that you may not all agree, and I only ask that you please be respectful in the comments.

Alyssa Rosenberg framed the following questions on her Google Plus page, which I aim to answer here:

1. Do you believe that consuming period or periodized literature implies a nostalgia for that time period?


I do believe that writers who choose these settings can be nostalgic for those settings, i.e., "I long for a time when detective stories didn't require many pages of my hero performing a Google search."

But then again, I believe you can treat certain settings almost as mini-genres. A medieval setting carries certain story-telling expectations, as does a space colony setting, as does an Emerald Isle setting. The same is true for stories set in 19th century Bath, England.

As readers, I believe our consumption of periodicized literature is guided by our preferences for particular mini-genres. But I think for a reader to make the choice to read AGOT or Lord of the Rings instead of, say, Ivanhoe, means that the reader has explicitly chosen works that reflect the contemporary period rather than the historical one.

It's also a very lazy, superficial criticism: "You only like Mad Men because you long for the days when men were men and could sleep around and drink all day."

That said, I think readers can be nostalgic for certain aspects of a period, if not the totality. Regency-era fiction is making a mint off of young girls who wish they lived in a time when social relations with men were more regimented, more polite, and less dependent on scary things like sex. But that doesn't mean they want to live in a time when they can't inherit property or vote.

2. Should fantasy stories take place in ideal worlds or worlds that are designed to provide useful thought experiments?


I'm inclined to say neither. While there successful examples of both (Star Trek: Next Generation, Atlas Shrugged) you run a powerful risk of boring the crap out of the reader. You can start your story in an ideal world, but it can't stay that way, for then it would lack tension, aka that thing that makes stories interesting.

But what is an ideal world? There is no ideal world that's ideal for everybody. The far future in H.G. Wells' The Time Machine is wonderful for the Eloi, but they're not even aware of what's happening under their feet. In Brave New World it's all happy sexy times for everyone, except for the people for whom the drugs don't work.

As for "useful thought experiments?" That just sounds horrible and didactic. Fiction can and should engage with serious themes, it should be provocative, but those ideas should never be privileged over narrative. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, "It's the imagination, stupid."

3. What is the point at which depictions of domestic or sexual violence become gratuitous? Why do depictions of sexual or domestic violence have to meet a different standard than aestheticized action violence?


The first is a question that even the Supreme Court cannot answer, and I'm not sure we can either. Basically, you are asking at what point does a work stop generating artistic interest and only generate prurient interest?

In lit, if it doesn't drive a character or the story forward, then it's gratuitous. Period. If it's described in unnecessarily loving detail, it's gratuitous. How do you judge whether it meets those conditions? It differs from person to person.

As for the second question, I was not raised in a household where this was true. My parents would infinitely prefer I watched Law and Order: SVU even over the anodyne action violence in The Matrix.

That said, I think this has something to do with the real world. You will never run into aestheticized action violence in the real world, but you are very likely to encounter, be a victim of, or know someone who is a victim of sexual/domestic violence. Because being raped is a real fear, people are more disturbed by it than if their city was blown up, which is not a real fear for most in the Western world in spite of outlier attacks.

4. Is it necessarily sexist to depict female incompetence?


Definitely not. It certainly can be, especially if all the female characters are incompetent, or there's only one female character and she's incompetent (i.e. Willie Scott in the photo above), but it's ridiculous to say that this is necessarily the case. The problem is when otherwise competent women are portrayed as making silly decisions without any background as to why.

Why, as feminists, are we meant to stand up for all women? Am I expected to defend Margaret Thatcher, Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann? Absolutely not. Then why must we pretend women like this don't exist in fiction? Lot's of women don't like each other for many reasons, most of them quite valid. To pretend this is not true renders any work toothless. Unless of course it's a "useful thought experiment" demonstrating a world where all women are competent.

Let's look at The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood. No one's gonna argue its feminist bona fides, but the most flat-out evil character in the novel is the woman in power, the Commander's wife. Is that somehow sexist? Certainly not. It expresses a truth: there are some women, like there are some men, who would do anything to hold onto their power. Likewise, there are other women who fight against those people in power.


So what do you guys think about these questions? Any examples or counter-examples you'd like to bring to the table?

Weigh in in the comments, folks!

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10 Responses to “ On Gender Issues, Nostalgia and Fiction ”

  1. The pictures accompanying this great post are just wonderful! Bravo for the cleverness and humor!

  2. That was superb, particularly your #1, though that's only part of Regency appeal. And congratulations on drawing a genuine parallel between Trek and Atlas Shrugged; I'd not have thought such a thing possible.

    I do have a political quibble: whatever one's politics, it's unjust to compare Thatcher to either Palin or Bachmann. Though I'd recommend the entire interview, I all but insist you watch this two minute clip of Thatcher biographer Claire Berlinski explain to an incredulous Peter Robinson why Palin is no Iron Lady.


    Robinson: To what extent is Sarah Palin a Margaret Thatcher in embryo?

    Berlinski: She's a woman. She's conservative. She's from a small town. I don't think there's any farther to go.

  3. Thanks Tom!

    I just watched that clip you shared, and I am going to watch the whole interview, but I feel she's splitting hairs a bit.

    Thatcher is intelligent and principled and set Britain back decades, vs. Sarah Palin who is unintelligent and unprincipled and would set America back decades if she wins the Presidency (which is not a realistic possibility at this point).

    But what about Bachmann (who is a candidate for the Presidency)? Based on the conditions laid out by the interviewee, she is Thatcher-like (again, perhaps without the basic intelligence). She has had a long history of public service, and her positions have been clearly stated from the start and haven't changed when expedient.

  4. I found your subject captivating, your points justified. Your point, "There is no ideal world that's ideal for everybody," sums it up.

  5. Why, as feminists, are we meant to stand up for all women? Am I expected to defend Margaret Thatcher, Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann? Absolutely not.

    Well, it depends WHAT you're defending. When Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann make racist, homophobic, sexist comments, of course I'm not doing to defend them. But if a person calls Sarah Palin a cunt, or criticizes Michelle Bachmann for the amount of money she spends on clothes and makeup, I'm sure as hell going to defend them even though they wouldn't do the same for me...because gendered insults are still gendered insults, and the hair/makeup criticism holds all women to an unfair double standard.

    I agree with your main point, though.

  6. @Lady T that's a fair point, and I would also defend them on those grounds. I think my point was more that I shouldn't be expected to like them just because they're women.

  7. I agree with this. I think women should stand up for women when they're victims of misogyny, but you don't have to defend their policies or who they are. 

  8. I know this post isn't about TGOT, but I'm on the third book of the series, and what I find really interesting is that their culture has this idea that women are weak and stupid, but none of the women in the book are -- all the women, even the kids, are strong and have agency, and they're all way more interesting and capable than the men, even though they have a very patriarchal culture. It's a really interesting contrast and you have to think George RR Martin is doing it on purpose. 

    Anyway, I know you aren't reading the books, but I just wanted to ramble about that lol.


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