I love the world of Game of Thrones, whether in the books or television I’m instantly entranced the moment I sink into it. It’s a remarkably built world that’s rich in character, settings, and dialogue. It’s also been able to sustain itself throughout the series as something that’s enjoyable to come back to each year. Sure there are moments where I’m mildly irritated due to either plot changes that seem unnecessary or moments while reading where I’ve thrown my book at the wall (Red Wedding), but for the most part Game of Thrones is doing something so epic in scale that it’s hard not to be sucked in.
And this is a big but…
If I have to watch one more scene that uses the brutalization or sexualization of female characters for no other reason than “we’re on HBO and we can” I will:
The Thrones universe is full to the brim of amazing female characters who are strong, conniving, terrified, psychotic, lethal, beautiful, noble, and brave. The female characters are easily the most interesting characters on the show as well as in the books, because their character growth is often the most significant. The male characters often start at positions of power or strength and end up being thrown through the gutter and coming out the other end a little worse for wear. Both Ned and Robb Stark let their supposed “honor” get in the way of them playing the game successfully. Tyrion has allowed his families digressions to see himself as little more than the monster his family views him as. Jamie has lost his place in the Kingsguard and his hand due to fool hearted arrogance.
Compare this to how the female characters have fared. Sansa Stark has taken her constant fear and Kings Landing and turned it into a weapon she can use against people who see her as weak. Arya has taken on her lone wolf status, seeking revenge against anyone who has done wrong by her. Daenerys walked away from years of abuse from her brother as someone who would never let anyone lay a finger on her again, refusing to be defied by men living half a world away from her. Melisandre plays men like Stannis with ease, Brienne brushes off typical gender roles, Cersei (albeit mildly unhinged) is abrasive about how if she were born a man she wouldn’t face the same condescending nature and Margaery listens and learns and plays the leader with grace.
Simply put, they’re amazing and women characters who deserve celebration particularly in a fantasy setting where in popular culture they’re often given the shaft for their male counterparts.
So why, why, why are women on the show so often reduced to prop pieces or sexually assaulted for the sake of “storytelling”????
Sexism is both the long and short answer to it all. Over the seasons there have been many examples of sexual violence or sexualization (or both) being used to attract a certain type of viewer. There was the sexualization in scenes such as when Littlefinger’s brothel would be used as a time and place for a term lovingly dubbed “sexposition” where naked girls would walk around and he’d explain his plans which also undermines his supposed intelligence. There’s the character Ross from her start to her graphically violent end. Think about season two before the battle of Blackwater where Bronn sits and drinks with half-naked girls in his lap; they were being used as glorified set pieces.
Then there are moments where Daenerys wedding night with Khal Drogo (which was already dubious in the book) is turned into a moment for a female character to be assaulted. There’s Sansa almost being assaulted by men in Kings Landing only for the Hound to save her. Jamie assaults Cersei in easily the most controversial scene of season four, completely taking away his character development in season three.
None of this does any service to the characters, the storyline or the world they’re inhabiting. Fans like to make excuses by saying that it wouldn’t be that unrealistic during that time period which completely erases the idea that these characters are living in a world where dragons exist, zombie like creatures are attacking the Wall and giants are real.
This isn’t a series based on the “real world” it’s a series that takes real world elements and politics and implements them. And sure, sexual assault and women being treated inferior to men was an issue during those times, they’re also an issue today. The problem is that every time sexual assault has been written into the plot it’s been done with little to no consequence. Cersei forgives Jamie, Dany grows to love Khal Drogo. If you’re a writer of a massively popular television show-one that has a huge female following-earn their respect, treat your female characters right and if you must tackle rape, do so in a way that allows for a commentary to develop or for there to be more substance to the moment other than “it’s HBO and Game of Thrones and we’re allowed “.
[insert raspberry noise here]
I genuinely enjoy this show for all of the reasons mentioned above and many more but as a feminist and as someone who unabashedly loves the fantasy genre, Thrones always clicked because the female characters were tremendous. Shock value for the sake of it is never a winning theme and even less so when it’s done in ways that sexualize and brutalize women for the hell of it. I love this show, I’d like to keep loving this show, but it’s made difficult when you’re always fearful of what a female character is going to have to endure next.
And, just for those of whom who think that the gender scale is balanced on the show, please think back to how much female nudity we’ve seen opposed to how much male nudity we’ve seen.
The fifth season of Game of Thrones premieres April 12th on HBO.