Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Alyssa Rosenberg’

Sexual Coercion and Political Order in A Song of Ice and Fire

5117TYjqrqLBy Taylor Marvin

[Mild setting spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire follow]

I recently read Alyssa Rosenberg’s excellent essay “Men and Monsters: Rape, Myth-Making, and the Rise and Fall of Nations in A Song of Ice and Fire,” which examines the portrayal of sexual violence in George RR Martin’s epic fantasy series. Sexual violence and harassment in A Song of Ice and Fire is a topic I’ve written on before, and I agree with Rosenberg’s thesis that sexual violence is the series’ ultimate marker of social transgressors.

Expanding on Rosenberg’s argument, I see the series’ prominent depiction of celibate organizations as another aspect of its attempt to illustrate the linkage between authoritarian politics and sexual coercion. Celibate orders are common in Martin’s Westeros: the elite Kingsguard, scholarly Maesters, and military Night’s Watch are all organizations that formally require their members to be celibate. Of course, these vows are often broken, but nominal celibacy is a prominent feature of all these institutions’ character.

These celibacy requirements are often coercive. Most obviously, the vast majority of the Night’s Watch — whose members vow to “take no wife” and “father no children” — are forced into its ranks. While the Night’s Watch’s celibacy requirement is not explicitly a punitive feature of the Westerosi justice system that sends criminals to the Wall, it certainly has a major effect on the lives of individual Black Brothers. Similarly, while Westeros’ Maesters — an order of scholars, postmen, and scientists who, like the members of the Night’s Watch, are required to be celibate — are not openly coerced into the order, it is likely that many of the inheritance-less second sons who become Maesters would not choose to do so if they had other options. While not as explicitly as those of the Night’s Watch, Maesters’ celibacy vows are to some extent coercive. Finally, as in our world, many of Westeros’ religious officials are also required to remain celibate.

These organizations are all intended to remain apolitical, and require celibacy as a means of removing their members from Westeros’ political order. The Kingsguard is dedicated to protecting the king, a singular role that permits no other personal loyalties. Members of the Night’s Watch are tasked with defending the entire realm, and are famously required to take no side in Westeros’ political conflicts. Maesters serve as trusted advisors to feudal government figures, a role they could not credibly commit to unless they again have no personal stake in politics. Finally, Septons and Septas are intended to serve Westeros’ people, not any temporal political goals.

In a world where social status and political power is explicitly inherited, marriage and reproduction is inherently political. The only way to remove an individual actor from politics is to remove him or her from reproduction and inheritance, as well. This makes celibacy a fundamental requirement of any organization intended to be a neutral actor in Westeros political structure. Of course, these organizations have little power to actually enforce their formal celibacy requirements — A Song of Ice and Fire is full of Night’s Watch and Kingsguard members who break their vow to refrain from sex. But importantly, Westeros’ practical lack of birth control allows even often-broken celibacy requirements fulfill their political purpose (the series’ “Moon Tea” is a form of birth control, but it is implied to often be unavailable or unreliable, and nevertheless children born out of wedlock are extremely common). Societies without birth control are likely to draw a clear distinction between children born in wedlock — and who can thus inherit political power — and those who are not. This distinction is much less clear in societies with routine access to birth control, like our own. Whether or not Maesters and Night’s Watchmen father children or not, their vows of celibacy prevent these illegitimate offspring from inheriting, and thus keep them and their fathers safely excluded from Westeros’ political order.

While this often coerced celibacy is nowhere near as traumatic, or pervasive, as Westeros’ other forms of sexual violence, it is another aspect of the series’ thematic critique of sexual coercion. Just as Westeros’ endemic misogyny make rape common, its hereditary politics makes sexual coercion a fundamentally political, and thus routine, precondition of social order. Of course, the injustice of all forms of sexual coercion is simply another aspect of A Song of Ice and Fire’s condemnation of the illiberal political structure so many other fantasies celebrate.

New Girl and Trivializing Female Homosexuality

By Taylor Marvin

Alyssa Rosenberg has a fascinating essay on the complex relationship between female pleasure and perceptions of manhood, and how this relationship is expressed in media. Rosenberg touches on Twin Peaks, Skyfall, and OutKast’s “I’ll Call Before I Come” — read the entire piece — but, more topically, also references a scene from last night’s episode of New Girl. On the show, the male character Schmidt  hides his deep insecurity, sparked both by his pervious obesity and working in a female-dominated workplace, in exaggerated expressions of masculinity and consumerism. Of course, an integral part of the modern American notion of masculine superiority is sexual prowess. When this perceived prowess is challenged, Schmidt’s perception of his own masculinity and internally-defined self-value is threatened. Rosenberg summarizes the scene:

“And Schmidt’s reaction was telling. ‘World shattered,’ he declared. And even when she suggested ‘We’ll try again. It’ll be better,’ Schmidt still insisted ‘The world I once lived in: shattered.’ The problem wasn’t that she didn’t feel good—it was that her not feeling good destroyed Schmidt’s sense of his own prowess.”

As Rosenberg goes on to note, New Girl doesn’t go anywhere particularly interesting with this challenge. Schmidt schedules an appointment with a pregnant, lesbian gynecologist for sex advice, who then becomes visibly aroused at his humorously-euphemistic and overly-detailed description of his method of getting women off. “It’s the baby hormones”, she explains. “They’re not as gay as me.”

This exchange is depressing. While American society has historically been more accepting of lesbian relationships than gay men, homosexuality among women is still perceived by huge portions of society as not real or a valid sexual orientation. While conventional wisdom suggests that female sexuality is more fluid than males’, popular culture denies female homosexuality by depicting it as less valid than heterosexuality  or male homosexual orientation. In this trope female homosexuality is a phase or an expression of frustration with men, rather than a valid sexual orientation; lesbians are just waiting on a man to please them for their homosexuality to vanish. This trivialization isn’t just moralization against female homosexuality, but a denial that it even exists.

Of course, this line is a throwaway joke — the episode in question shows the gynecologist in question in a stable, homosexual relationship, and clearly does not seek to diminish the perceived validity of her sexual orientation. But it’s depressing that New Girl’s writers chose to utilize this demeaning trope, even briefly. This is especially true because New Girl has a strong track record: the pilot’s depiction of a sexually-confident male Asian-American douche was refreshing, and the show’s humorously inverted misogynistic tropes. Attacks of the validity of female homosexuality are out of character for the show, but that doesn’t make it less problematic. Throwaway lines matter, because the still bolster harmful narratives.


Torturing Enemies, Not People

By Taylor Marvin

Yes, this is another one of those posts.

Alyssa Rosenberg discusses the depiction of torture in last Sunday’s episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones:

“Joffrey and Harrenhal’s interrogators are torturing people not out of fits of temper, and not because they think there’s information for them to get out of the people they’re targeting. Joffrey doesn’t have questions that he wants to ask Ros and Daisy. The Harrenhal interrogators ask the same set of questions to every person they talk to, no matter where that person comes from or their likelihood of knowing any relevant information. These people are torturing their victims because they enjoy doing so. These scenes are all about giving us information about the torturers, to draw a line between the characters who behave like human beings and those who exist and act beyond the laws that govern the rest of us.”

I’m not sure if I agree with this characterization. In the book A Clash of Kings, the source material for Game of Thrones season two, the Tickler — the torturer nicknamed by nine year old narrator Arya Stark for how he ‘tickles’ his victims — is depicted as a sociopath who enjoys his work. As I perceived it, Sunday’s show went a different direction with the scene. Here the Tickler’s only half interested in his victims; as Rosenberg notes, he asks all captives the same questions even if it’s obvious they don’t know the answers, and he’s just as focused on eating his pear as their screams. Torturing is just a job, and’s as routine as any job can be. The Tickler and the other Lannister soldiers don’t have enough of an emotional investment in their victims to really be said to “enjoy” torturing them, because they don’t see Gendry and the other smallfolk they murder as people at all.

16th century depiction of torture. Via Wikimedia.

16th century depiction of torture. Via Wikimedia.

The binary mindset of us vs. them is a necessity of medieval warfare. By the late pre-gunpowder period fortification technology had advanced to their point that capturing a defended castle required a long siege often more expensive to mount than it was worth. With frequent sieges prohibitively costly, wide scale devastation of the undefended countryside was an effective tool to coerce a fortified opponent into battle or, preferably, capitulation. Contrary to romanticized perception of medieval warfare as knightly combat, atrocities against the peasant populations were widespread, and when garrisons that declined to surrender were captured they were slaughtered to disincentivize future costly resistance. This type of normalized brutality requires viewing the target population as less than human. Game of Thrones doesn’t draw the line between characters who behave like human beings and sociopaths — casual brutality is unquestioned by nearly everyone, and that what makes it so harrowing.

Link to video via Sullivan.