Apr 17 2011 3:30pm

In Praise of the Fantastical: Game of Thrones’s Appeal to Both Genders

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. MartinEarly last week, MSNBC “discovered” that “geek girls” provide a growing audience for science fiction and fantasy, only to be countered a day later by Ginia Bellafante in the New York Times.

In her review of HBO’s new fantasy series Game of Thrones, based on  George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, Ms. Bellafante claimed that HBO had clearly added “illicitness” (in the form of sex scenes) because “no woman alive would watch otherwise.” She went on to state that although there are undoubtedly “women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s... ‘Game of Thrones is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.” In addition to a sharp parody of the review by Annalee Newitz, several writers—among them's Amy Ratcliffe, Orbit Books' Daniel Abraham, Salon's Matt Zoller Seitz, and Huffington Post's Ilana Teitelbaumprovided thoughtful responses to Ms. Bellafante's generalizations about the genre, the gender of its fans, and about Game of Thrones in particular.

Ms. Bellafante's review is unfortunately reflective of a deeply-rooted literary snobbery about genre fiction, which is not deemed worthy of being taken seriously.  Despite “genre” fiction by “literary” writers such as George Orwell and more recently, Margaret Atwood and Michael Chabon, generally fiction about imagined worlds is still considered second-class.  Meanwhile, its readers are seen as trapped in some perpetual nerdy (male) adolescence.

At its worst, to be sure, fantasy fiction can be pure escapism, although it’s not clear why escapism involving dragons or wizards is somehow less worthy than that involving Templar Knights or former CIA agents. Yet people can read Dan Brown or Tom Clancy without the social stigma of ”nerdiness“ or ”geekiness“ being attached to their tastes or persons.

At its best, though, fantasy fiction hearkens back to the mythologies that illuminate universal human experiences. One could argue that the first Western fantasy fiction was written by Homer; after all, his world is peopled by one-eyed giants, lotus eaters, witches who turn men into pigs, sirens who lure sailors to their deaths, and sea monsters, all enough to have him banished to the genre ghetto of lurid covers in any contemporary bookstore. And yet, three thousand years after Homer (who may or may not have actually existed), Hector’s love for his family and Priam’s grief for his dead son are emotions that still resonate with us.

In fantasy, the stakes are generally higher than they are in the type of fiction that wins literary awards. If Frodo’s mission fails, his world is destroyed, or as Martin’s Cersei Lannister says “you win or you die, there is no middle ground.” The larger canvas and brighter colors of an imagined world paradoxically allow the most talented authors of fantasy to illuminate mundane reality in surprising ways. Ursula LeGuin created the world of Earthsea, in which dragons and men were once the same, in which the dead can cross into the land of the living, and in which magic can exist in the smallest things. In language of deceptive simplicity and great beauty, she used this magical world to show the uses and abuses of power, the arrogance of imperfect knowledge and the necessity of reaching out to those we view as entirely ”other.“

Another classic of fantasy, is of course, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, whose prequel The Hobbit was scoffed at by Ginia Bellafante. Peter Jackson adapted these novels into three brilliant films; I saw the first, The Fellowship of the Ring, in the winter of 2001-2002, in New York City, which was still reeling from the events of September 11th. At one point in the film, Frodo says: “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened,” a feeling with which I was deeply familiar at that point. Gandalf’s response felt as though it were aimed at me, personally: “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

George R. R. Martin’s world is less immediately uplifting than Tolkien’s; this is a place where bad things happen to good people (bad things also happen to bad people and morally grey people), where doing the right thing can carry a horrifying price—in short, a world only superficially dissimilar to our own. Although the Starks and Lannisters and Targaryens and Baratheons and all their assorted hangers on, flunkies, minions and vassals are more beautiful, wicked, clever, brutal and honorable than anyone we’ll ever meet in real life, their emotions, loves and rivalries are instantly recognizable.

Martin's novels are set in imaginary Westeros where seasons can last for decades and princesses are dowered with purple eyes and dragon's eggs, but ultimately they reflect his view that “the battle between good and evil is waged every day within the individual human heart...”

That's a story that's real and true, that can appeal to any thoughtful reader with an open mind, male or female, nerd or not.


Regina Thorne is an avid reader of just about everything, an aspiring writer, a lover of old movies and current tv shows, and a hopeless romantic.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Rachel Hyland
1. RachelHyland
Hear hear! Bravo! And other such exclamations of approval and acclaim. Teriffic piece, Regina. You just made my geekly soul sing.
2. Indi
Awesome - you tell 'em, hon! :) Beautifully laid out.
3. Ide Cyan
Martin's version echoes, but doesn't really get, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's quote about how "the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being".
4. velvety2010
Well said Regina! I love Milan Kundera and Ursula LeGuin.
Leo Tolstoy and George R R Martin. I don't buy this notion that we have to choose one versus the other.
To quote another writer whose work we love and sometimes hate:
It's the characters, stupid
and it's the story, the richly imagined world(s) and the thoughful details...
5. endlessdeep
Very well said and you sound so smart compared to Ms. Bellafante. I still can't believe the NYT printed her NOT-review.
7. Kassandra
I have a blog now devoted to our books and show. I wrote so many versions of a commentary on that review, I stopped. I decided to simply had a few words at the end of my review last night. I said as you have, do not write a review of a genre of which you have pre-conceived notions, and insult women in the process. Read the books anf grab a clue before such a demeaning review of the intelligence of female fantasy lovers. I simply said if I wanted to read about sex I would read some crappy romance novel.

I look fwd to your review, I have to finish mine on the Borgia's tonight.
8. Keira Andrews
Well said!

One could argue that the first Western fantasy fiction was written by Homer

That's a great point. I was furious when I read Bellafante's "no woman alive" comment. Thanks for such an intelligent and thoughtful response to this issue.
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