Sex and Violence and George R. R. Martin

Those of you blessed with cable television (or cursed with it, depending on your point of view) are now having the opportunity to discover Martin’s “Game of Thrones” as a miniseries.  The work itself is hardly mini, as fantasy readers know.  But even if you’re not watching, chances are that you have come across some of the recent reviews, and the furious replies thereto.  I hardly need repeat them all here.  There are a couple of reasoned responses to the initial negative reviews that I enjoyed: on and a more personal response from author Matt Rotundo.

No, what I want to address is sex.  One of the early reviewers remarked with some distress on the amount and variety of sex in the program.  A few years ago, I attended the Vericon (Harvard Science Fiction Club convention) at which GRRM was the Guest of Honor.  He was on a panel called “All you Need is Love” which was billed as being about incorporating romantic subplots in fantasy.  However, George started the panel by thumping his fists on the table and announcing, “I want to talk about sex.”

Turns out, he had a very interesting gripe about the reactions to the sex in his novels–a gripe which all of the panelists–authors, artists and graphic novelist–had experienced as well:  people got much more upset about sex in the books than they ever did about violence.

In fantasy novels, heroes get castrated, hobbits get tortured, half-orcs are victims of genocide, thousands die brutally on battlefields, sailors get bound across cannons which are then fired. . .not all fantasy novels are like this, but many feature a hefty amount of violence, often depicted on the page, often in some detail.  And nobody blinks.  But if two characters get together sexually, the author will hear about it.  Was it necessary?  Did it move the plot? Why didn’t she get together with him?  Why between siblings?  Isn’t this relationship adulterous?  She’s too young!  He’s too unpleasant!  Don’t you know *children* might be reading this?

The author is left thinking, “I just slaughtered an entire city, and you’re concerned because two characters of the same gender shared an embrace?”

I would love to hear from readers and writers in other countries, because I think this particular slant–the outrage about sex while violence is considered unremarkable–is more American.  My perception is that in Europe, response tends to skew the other way:  a more relaxed attitude toward sexual relations and a higher concern about depictions of violence.

But I do think I know why people get so darn upset, especially when the author is highly skilled.  Sex is personal.  While most of us will never directly experience significant violence, almost all of us will experience sex.  We will have a variety of experiences, good, bad–sometimes terrible or painful or merely inappropriate.

When we read about sex, whether it is the suggestion of a relationship that is off-stage, or a scene that is explicitly described, our identification level with that experience is much higher.  Especially if a skilled author is invested in the point of view of a character having that experience.  Our emotional reaction to the experience is likely to be much more visceral, much closer to home–it will call upon our own sexual experiences, mores, hopes and fears.  If it doesn’t feel right, whether because the described experience is *too* intimate, not pleasant, or against the way we were raised, our discomfort will be that much greater.

Even brilliantly written scenes of violence are unlikely to tap a nerve the way that implications of sexuality will, by triggering all of our emotional baggage, forcing us to consider our own reactions, the role of sexuality in literature thereby bringing into question the role of sexuality in our own lives.  And, like Bluebeard’s warning to his bride, many people would prefer to keep that door shut.

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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3 Responses to Sex and Violence and George R. R. Martin

  1. A.M. Stickel says:

    I felt cheated by speculative fiction that does not explore the sexuality aspect, so I wrote a short fantasy novel that does. I am currently writing the sequel. Because of your observations, I now understand why there is not only abundant censorship, but also antipathy (versus the acceptance and even craving for violent content). As for “Game of Thrones,” I find it refreshing and innovative. What is wrong about feeling emotions enough to unpack our emotional baggage? Give me ‘personal’ sexual content over ‘impersonal’ violent content any day, especially if done with irony and humor (the way I like to write it).

  2. ecambrose says:

    Thank you, and well said.
    The best art causes us to re-examine our own perspectives on important issues, but I don’t think many people expect that from fantasy.

  3. Pingback: Getting in Trouble | E. C. Ambrose

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