Point/Counter-Point: Game of Thrones Is Not Sexist
“He knelt to kiss her there, lightly on her mound at first, but Ygritte moved her legs apart a little, and he saw the pink inside and kissed that as well, and tasted her.”
Get it, girl! “A Song Of Ice And Fire,” the books that inspired hit TV series “Game of Thrones,” might have hints of humiliating erotica written for their sad virgin fanbase, but their female characters are surprisingly strong and nuanced for the genre of fantasy fiction. Now that the HBO show has reached a wide audience, these sassy ladies can capture the hearts and minds of viewers across the globe.
GoT takes fantasy franchises like “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” and deflates their conventions bit by bit. Women are second-class citizens in a fantasy world called Westeros with enough swords, prophecies, and animal companions to fill a video game or handpainted toy collection. However, familiar through lines soon take brutal and unexpected turns, leaving the world charred and fragmented. Readers of the books know that the series only becomes more cynical and grim as it progresses: main characters die, there’s no moral high ground, and fights with dragons and zombies give way to a cutthroat political arena in which nobody is safe.
Much of the show revolves around the main characters’ royal privileges and rituals, which come apart along with our expectations. Obvious sexism helps set the tone of moral greyness: most female characters are rich, white, and subservient to a rigorous patriarchal structure. Alongside the wartime drama, the complexes of shifting gender roles are teased out in pulpy but compelling ways—it’s not outright sexism.
For example, female character Sansa Stark’s whole storyline in the first and future seasons revolves around burgeoning sexuality in pretty much the worst environment possible: being bred for marriage with a sociopath. Cersei, a one-note feminine villain in the books, becomes an understandably cold and manipulative victim of a terrible royal marriage (acting in admirably power-mad self interest, by the way). Daenerys is raised with a sexually abusive brother and gets married off to a rapist, but by the end of the first season she’s a terrifying queen ready to wage war with her dragons. The de-facto lead’s boring wife Catelyn has to pick up the slack and lead her kingdom when her family is torn apart. The fact that these characters are often submissive and don’t have progressive feminist motives makes dramatic sense given their backgrounds, and it doesn’t negate their obvious power and agency. Not to doubt Gabi’s knowledge of warped male psyches, but personally speaking the GoT ladies didn’t titillate any of my chauvinist fantasies.
The next bone of contention: prostitutes. So much of the series’ allure derives from the unseen motives of supporting characters in the royal periphery: prostitutes, servants, advisors, assassins. There are no main prostitute characters, so why would they be acting unhappy when we see them with their clients? HBO’s brand loves titties, but their best shows make that useful: we learn a lot about our morally-compromised male leads from their interactions with wenches. Just because there aren’t monologues righteously condemning whoring and other rude behaviors doesn’t mean that the show is passively reinforcing them.
If I had to choose the most feminist-friendly TV show on the air, GoT wouldn’t be it, but it’s no “Californication” either. The pervasiveness of hot naked women sans corresponding men definitely reveals something about GoT’s target audience, but it seems like nitpicking in the grand scheme of things. Compared to other cable epics like “Spartacus” and HBO’s own “Rome,” GoT is a Judith Butler essay. Giving its women realistically un-PC motives doesn’t make them weak or less relatable, and doesn’t hurt its broad, soapy drama about the nature of history and the fall of empire.