After the HBO series »Game of Thrones« aired for the first time, different debates emerged, especially on how the characters were represented in the screen adaptation of the book. Mainstream criticism focused mainly on cast choices and modifications of the story, pointing out sometimes towards the representation of gender roles, albeit in a rather descriptive way. One of the most debated issues has been the representation of women and the ways in which both book and series concede a greater amount of agency to the female characters, even though violence and abuse against women is also highlighted as a main and problematic part of the series appeal.
The book »Women of Ice and Fire«, edited by Anne Gjelsvik and Rikke Schubart, addresses precisely these issues from an academic perspective along the 11 chapters that conform the volume, filling out the gaps in the more descriptive mainstream debates, contesting some of the assumptions, bringing to the fore problematic areas and dealing in depth with the representation of the female characters and the modifications they undergo in the different processes of intermedia adaptation.
Two central elements discussed by many authors in the book are the representation of women and the process of adaptation. This process is addressed attending to two aspects: on the one hand which elements of the narrative are chosen to be adapted and, on the other hand, the modifications they undergo in order to fit a certain media form. For instance, Mariah Larsson in chapter 1 »Adapting sex: cultural conceptions of sexuality in words and images« analyses the adaptation of the sex scenes described in the books, paying attention to the different sexual positions selected for each one and analysing how the different ways of having sex matter in the depiction of the power relationship between the participants. Furthermore, Larsson shows how the representation of the sexual practices is inscribed in the parameters of contemporary sexuality, adding thus connotations to sexual acts, as it is the case of Daenery’s wedding night, when Kahl Drogo takes her from behind ›doggy style‹. Even though in the books this is explained as a ritualistic way of having sex for the Dothraki tribe, it is inevitably impregnated with pornographic connotations for the viewers.
In chapter 2 »Adapting desire: wives, prostitutes and smallfolk«, Shannon Wells-Lassagne explores how Martin’s emphasis on the smallfolk – neglected normally in this kind of fantasy tales as mere collateral damage – is adapted to the screen through the addition of secondary characters with a name and an own side story. One example of this is Ros, a prostitute created for the TV adaptation to represent and focalize the experiences of all the prostitutes that appear in the books.
Chapter 3 »Unspeakable acts of (sexual) terror as/in quality television«, written by Anne Gjelsvik, addresses which passages of sexual violence were adapted from the page to the screen, how they are staged and their implications. The author explains how these scenes change the gender and power relations of the narrative and result in the sexual victimization of otherwise powerful female characters, as is the case of Meera Reed, whose strength and independency were undermined through a scene in which she is threatened with violent rape, which at the same time serves as a moment to reinforce the power of Jon Snow. Furthermore, the author relates the choices in the adaptation process with the concept of fidelity, which in the case of »Game of Thrones« has a strong emphasis on sex and violence, two elements vindicated as almost the heart and soul of Martin’s work, and also to the concept of new quality TV as envisioned by broadcasting companies such as HBO, which are known to blatantly use sex as a bait to attract more adult viewers.
The adaptation of the book into different kinds of video games is explored by Felix Schröter in chapter 4 »Sworn Swords and Noble Ladies: Female characters in Game of Thrones video games«. The author presents briefly how the book is adapted into an action role-playing game, a real-time strategy game and a Facebook game, and compares how in the adaptation process the representation of gender roles is modified into an arguably more appealing one for the gender of the intended target group of the game following market assumptions. Thus, the action role-playing game and the strategy game, two genres supposed to be more appealing to male players, present far more sexist gender roles, whereas the Facebook game (supposedly more appealing for female players) shows more progressive gender representations, allowing both female and male characters to carry out the same actions.
Rikke Schubart in chapter 5 »Woman with dragons: Daenerys, pride, and Postfeminist possibilities«, highlights the feeling of pride that the ascension to power of Daenerys Targaryen triggers. Schubart relates Daenerys to the figure of the universal hero of the Fantasy genre as described by Joseph Campbell, but with different trials. The set of trials that Daenerys must withstand come from the tradition of the fairy tale. Thus, Daenerys functions among the tensions created by the intersections of these genres and develops her own characteristics, giving rise to an all new female archetype.
Among the other various topics that are also addressed in the book, the ways in which »A Song of Ice and Fire« deviates from traditional High Fantasy tropes. For instance, chapter 6, »Power play and family ties: hybrid fantasy, network narrative, and female characters«, by Helle Kannik Haastrup, offers a thorough explanation of the elements that conform the genre of High Fantasy to then point out the differences between Martin’s work and that of other writers like Tolkien. The author then explores the different narratives that conform the storytelling of »Game of Thrones«, which mixes elements from the soap opera, horror and mystery, allowing the series to tell the stories of different characters at the same time, presenting them also as protagonists.
Marta Eidsvåg in chapter 7 »›Maiden, Mother, and Crone‹: Motherhood in the world of Ice and Fire«, explores how the different motherhoods of Catelyn Stark and Cercei Lannister are adapted to the screen, changing the three of them into loving mothers, willing to break all moral and ethical codes to protect their offspring. This is especially noticeable in the case of Cercei Lannister, who in the books shows clear despise towards any possible child conceived with Robert Baratheon (her husband), but not in the series. Catelyn Stark’s mothering style also suffers modifications in the screen, where she is more emotionally attached to their children and even asks Jon Snow (the bastard son of her husband) for forgiveness, because she has been cold to him. Thus, she is not able to take difficult choices necessary for the family, as she does in the books, losing strength.
Chapter 8 »Women warriors from chivalry to vengeance«, by Yvonne Tasker and Lindsay Steenberg, analyses Brienne of Tarth and Arya Stark, and explores how both characters represent at a first sight traditional archetypes of high fantasy but surprisingly evolve into more realistic portraits of how things would have worked in that time for two women who break gender norms.
Elizabeth Beaton in chapter 9, »Female Machiavellians in Westeros«, explores the positive elements of the representation of female characters focusing on the empowerment of the female characters through the Machiavellian moments allowed to them. The issues pertaining changes in adaptation are expanded by also analysing the reactions of fans to the modifications made to the story or character of the characters, or even the comments made by the very same G.R.R. Martin in an interview made by herself.
Chapter 10 »The expert female fan recap on YouTube«, written by Susana Tosca and Lisbeth Kalstrup, engages with the self-representation of YouTubers who create ›recap‹ videos of Game of Thrones, i.e., video reviews in which they comment what happened in the TV series. Through the analysis of the work of three female vloggers, the authors provide an insightful description of the evolution of YouTube, from the differences in the use of the social network by women and men, to desirable content and aesthetic values, and then focus in the self-representation of the YouTubers in question and the audience response to their videos.
Stephanie Genz in chapter 11 »›I’m not going to fight them, I’m going to fuck them‹: sexist liberalism and gender (a)politics in Game of Thrones« engages on a critic of the sexual politics and sexism of the TV series. The author highlights the neoliberal and post-recessionary values underlying the fantasy world, where the survival of the fittest is a governing principle. Thus, in this world, fantasies of meritocratic ascension for marginal characters are staged, such in the case of Tyrion Lannister and Arya Stark, who challenge normative bodies the former and traditional gender roles the latter. Genz then reflects on the many ways sexism mutates nowadays on screen (from commodity feminism to raunch culture) in order to survive in a new media environment more critical towards traditional blatant sexism to then focus on how these mutations inform the representation of sex and sexuality in the series. She also manifests herself critical towards postfeminist celebrations of the empowering of women through sex.
Thus, the book shows how the different media adaptations are constrained by the different expectations of the different media consumers as producers, creators and developers see it, informed by an ambivalent ideology regarding sex/gender. As many authors point out, not only issues pertaining the change of medium but also the ideology of the creators/developers (plus the ideology of those who put the money, who are normally conservative), and the financial dimension of these kind of audiovisual products affect the way characters are depicted.
This is not just another academic book exploring a popular culture phenomenon and the representation of women inside this phenomenon, it is the contemporary reference work to the representation of female characters in the »A Song of Ice and Fire« books, the TV series (»Game of Thrones«) and other transmedia adaptations. Sometimes volumes that include different contributions about a topic from different perspectives end up being too vague, because too many issues are addressed thus not allowing enough depth. This book manages to reach an equilibrium in topics and points of view and depth of the analysis. Although the whole book addresses mainly the representation of the female characters, this is done from many perspectives, ranging from a straightforward textual analysis of the characters, to a comparison of the characters in the books to those in the TV series or those in the adaptations to videogames, adopting thus an intermedia adaptation approach. Furthermore, the book expands the phenomenon of adaptation not only through the variated contributions dealing with the adaptation to different media, but also foregrounding the way people relate to the new media, not as a passive audience anymore, but as creators of content and as commentators.
Anne Gjelsvik and Rikke Schubart (eds.)
»Women of Ice and Fire. Gender, Game of Thrones and Multiple Media Engagements«
New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic 2016
Cristina Alonso-Villa, M.A. is currently in her last year of her PhD dissertation and works as a Lecturer at the University of Regensburg. [ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-1736-3292]