Something that I’ve been looking forward to literally for years is about to make its debut on Sunday evening. That’s when HBO’s 10-part adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones begins to air. It’s the first book in a masterful fantasy series that I and many of my friends, both male and female, have enjoyed, and we’re all eagerly awaiting how the screen edition will turn out.
According to one writer at the New York Times, however, that latter half of my Martin-loving friends apparently doesn’t exist. I wouldn’t bother looking at that “review” for very long, lest the raw condescension and ignorance contained therein sear your eyes, but basically the (female) writer is saying that fantasy is inescapably a boys’ pursuit (not men’s, mind you) and that women couldn’t possibly be interested in this fantasy series, unless there were plenty of steamy sex scenes, which is why the producers decided to throw those in.
So… clearly the writer had not bothered to crack open the books that the TV adaptation is based on. That’s the first, minor point. A Game of Thrones has as much bawdy content to it as it does violent content. It takes place in a pretty visceral world, in all senses of the word. Nothing would need to be “added in” for the TV version. But the second, far more serious– and perplexing!– issue is this contention that women would only enjoy a fantasy work if there were erotic elements to it.
I just didn’t get where this even came from, at first. If we’re trading in stereotypes, aren’t men supposed to be the pervy ones? But then I considered that maybe this writer’s only idea of women engaging with fantasy came from urban fantasy/paranormal romance authors like Laurell K. Hamilton. Yes, there are plenty of women who enjoy that slice of the genre; it’s possible that they would be the only female fantasy audience immediately evident to someone who couldn’t be bothered to do any more research beyond glancing at the bestseller list in her own newspaper.
Let’s put the condescension and the gender-dumbing aside for a moment and ask a simple question: Who would be the kind of audience to enjoy a well-told, complex, entertaining story? The answer, I would hope, would have nothing to do with gender. It would, in fact, be self-answering: the kind of person who enjoys a great story. Reasonably intelligent men and women. Period. George R.R. Martin’s books are as complex, entertaining, and sociologically probing as a top-of-the-line TV drama like The Wire, which was enjoyed by a lot of people from all different walks of life (here’s a piece on the similar themes of the two, actually, by Alyssa Rosenberg).
But because we’re talking about fantasy, we have to trot out the tiresome old notions about not just what counts as real-live serious adult storytelling and what doesn’t, but also what boys should be reading and what girls should be reading. (Science fiction has to deal with the same stuff.) Listen, folks: we are a pretty decent way into a grand new century by now, and people are going to read what they want. Those who don’t understand the affinities of geek girls have to overcome two mental hurdles: 1), that great stories are just as possible in fantasy and sci-fi as they are in any normie genre, and 2) that women can derive just as much enjoyment from a keen-bladed duel or galactic intrigue as men can.
The kingdom is open to anyone who wishes to enjoy it. Certainly the many women I know who enjoy speculative fiction don’t need to be told that. It’s only from the outside, from people who have read little in the genre, that we see this curious tendency to judge and to label, as they adjudicate both the worth of and the proper audience for this type of storytelling. I guess it will be progress when the outside critics hurl their usual insults at female fantasy fans– insinuating that they all live in their parents’ basements, that they are pimply Cheetos eaters every one, that they couldn’t get a date unless money changed hands– rather than simply pretending that these women don’t exist.