Obviously she is my favourite

Is Game of Thrones “screaming for the teenage male”?

That’s what John Doyle, TV critic at the Globe and Mail, thinks. Before the start of season two, Doyle wrote that Game of Thrones is basically about men on horses, magic, and women. Silly stuff for silly boys. I thought his characterization of the show was a little unfair.

Game of Thrones season one was strong. It had interesting characters, intricate plot lines (a good mix of intrigue and blood/gore), and good acting. I really loved it. It was one of my favourite new shows last year.

But I’m starting to see Doyle’s point, at least when it comes to the female characters. I’ll let Doyle say why, because he said it first:

“And the depiction of relationships is only one step away from pornography – slight, bosomy women overpowered by huge, growling guys. Women seem to spend an undue amount of time on their hands and knees. I’d speculate that women viewers feel differently about Game of Thrones.”

After watching the first two episodes of season two, he’s right, I do feel differently. The women on Game of Thrones have a bad deal.

Crazy stuff is going down in season two: Joffrey is king, the Starks are in disarray, the Nights Watch guys are definitely going to find out what’s beyond the wall, and we’re meeting a bunch of new characters with plots for the throne. Right now, five different men claim to be king.

All of these good plots involve mostly men. And the women? Well, we see more sex workers than anyone else.

Catelyn Stark and Sansa Stark have mostly disappeared. Arya Stark and Daenerys get a few minutes here or there. Cersei Lannister is probably the most well-represented woman on the show at this point. But we see plenty of sex workers getting nailed from behind (sorry, but it’s true) and giving blow jobs. And none of it is relevant to the plot.

On Game of Thrones, it seems as if women are used as a device to amuse and gross us out. Every episode we are treated to degrading, overly sexual and weird treatment of women, often a sex worker. We’ve seen incest, abuse and maltreatment. Not once, that I can think of, have we seen sex used in a positive, romantic or interesting way. Women are used to titillate us through pornographic scenes at the brothel, or to horrify us through depictions of abuse. They’re also exploring the oh-so-original-genre of “woman as evil temptress” through this new ginger-haired witch who seduces Stannis in the most recent episode.

The only women who seem to escape the worst abuse and ickiness are the Starks. This is, of course, because they are the women of Ned Stark, the ultimate martyr of the show. And since sluts can’t be good people, it would never do to have them degraded. Obviously!

Women are also used to define the power of men around them. If a character is seen treating a woman in a brothel like garbage, we are supposed to know that he is Rich and Important. And given the way these women pop up around the powerful men as much as the swords and horses, they almost feel like another accessory. One can collect women.

I don’t have a problem with sex workers. I have a problem that the women are being used to titillate and aren’t actually fully realized characters for the amount of screen time that they get.

The real kicker to all this sex is that none of it is necessary. It mostly doesn’t advance the plot. And more importantly, Game of Thrones is fake. It might pull on some aspects of medieval history, but it is a fantasy show. This is not how “it was.” There is no factual, legitimate reason why all the women of working age have to be dumb sex objects. They’re there to titillate us when we get bored with all the dialogue.

You could argue that Game of Thrones is trying to send a message about women. Maybe there’s a point to constantly depicting women being abused at the hands of weak, pathetic men. And not all of the men are bad. After all, we’ve seen Jon Snow and his Nights Watch friend wrestle with whether or not to rescue some of the women forced to have children with their father. We have also seen Tyrion Lannister treat his one preferred companion with a fair amount of respect.

But I don’t know. It doesn’t detract from the fact that there are naked, abused women everywhere for no reason at all. I’m over it. I know we’re supposed to like Theon Greyjoy, but the guy has a storied history of pushing around idiotic whores (I hate that term, but it’s how they are depicted). I find his character, among many others, to be a total waste of space. I don’t think he was the “star of the episode.”

Game of Thrones needs to pull back on the violence against women and the naked women. It needs to work with some of its established strong female characters and move us forward, without all of the sex.

Related Reading:

Girl Power — Washington Post: For a different perspective, this TV writer posits that the most recent episode was all about strong women. I think she misses the important point that these women are almost exclusively defined as powerful in terms of sex, as defined by men. So, no dice.

Tagged with: Game of Thronespop cultureprostitutionsexsex worktelevisionwomen
  • Colin Brandt

    Great Post, Allison. You definitely have a point about GoT being extremely whore-heavy, but I think it’s part of a larger point the books were certainly trying to make, which basically boils down to “Everyone is super-fucked if they aren’t a Lord”.

    One of the best parts of Martin’s books is the depiction of the society that forms up around medieval cultures. Compared to a lot of the fantasy novels I’ve read, Martin’s focus on the lives of the individuals that aren’t at the top rung of the class structure – men and women both – does a far better job of criticizing the romantic swords-and-horseys bullshit that makes up the majority of the work in this genre.

    The dragons and wights notwithstanding, a lot of GoT is based on the cynical calculus of serfdom. Even the morally moral Starks have a bastard son, Jon – and because Jon can never be a Lord, his ass is on The Wall. Tyrion may love a sex worker, but his father makes sure that he is to understand that these women – devoid of rank – basically mean nothing, and that to get attached is the equivalent of getting attached to a favourite goat. The first rule of the GoT world is “you had better fucking be in charge.”

    While this is a fantasy story and Martin could have conceivably created more powerful women characters with active roles to play like Catelyn and Cersei, I think that part of the problem is you are watching a show based on a book series that is on average 700 pages long. One of my problems with the series (as is the case with pretty much every adaptation to screen) is that while they have cut the context around which a lot of the action is happening. There’s no question that there is a lot of objectification going on, but it seemed less pervasive in the book in the sense that everyone was basically getting boned by everyone on top.

    Of course, I’m probably reading too much into it and everyone just wants to see boobs.

    • allisonmcneely

      I think you definitely have a point that the show is trying to illustrate that everyone who is not a Lord is screwed. I mean, the rounding up and killing of King Robert’s bastards is a perfect example of that (and unnecessary violence against defenseless men, which is really interesting on TV).

      My frustration comes specifically from the depiction of all of the sex. To be honest, I find it difficult to watch. It’s not that I’m a prude and have objections to sex, it’s just so aggressive and violent. And the women are all so dumb.

      I clearly need to read the books. I’ve been told a few times now that they are better than the show.

      But I still love the show. I’m not ready to give up on it yet, I just think that they need to tone down their approach to sex and women a little bit. Of course, GoT is not the first show to be guilty of this. Any show about Romans is filled with weird sex because “that’s the way it was.”

      Anyway, thanks for your comments. Let’s talk about GoT more this weekend!

      • Colin Brandt

        Ask Brian about Spartacus. He always talks about the graphic violence, but it’s the man-on-man boner jamz that he secretly loves. I CAN SEE IT IN HIS EYES.

  • Mattias

    Hi. First time reader, first time commenter :)

    After reading your text. I now ponder these questions:

    Would you still be bothered if the sex was depicted as much less violent and aggressive, while still not advancing the plot?

    “It might pull on some aspects of medieval history” might be the understatement of the year. And how is “that’s the way it was” not applicable simply due to the fact that it’s fantasy? I have yet to see a single thing (except for the magic and dragons and whatnot) that does NOT fit in a western medieval society. So to assume that women were by and large treated and viewed in the same manner as they were in the real world; that’s not that big of a mental leap to make.

    Has Tyrion ever been disrespectful to any woman? Anyone at all that we’ve seen?

    And I’m really curious to know how you reach the conclusion “The women are all so dumb”. I can’t think of a single female character (with more then one line) who can be accurately described as dumb. And to say that they’re ALL dumb is just…well, wrong.

    And why are you bothered by gratuitous sex, but seem indifferent to gratuitous violence? Just seems strange that you view the mistreating of women (in a show that’s already established that this story takes place in a time where that type of thing was common) with far more disdain then you seem to feel when watching the, much more brutal and graphic, violence. I mean, showing us a defenseless kid who gets stabbed in the throat by a grown man should make a person cringe far more than the constant sexscenes does, no matter how politically incorrect and rough they are.

    Would really appreciate a little clarity :)

    • allisonmcneely

      I wouldn’t be as bothered by the non-plot advancing sex if it was less disrespectful towards women. I find that the women get used as objects, and mistreated, and it’s bad news.

      I never said that all of the women on the series are dumb. I’m saying that generally, the sex worker characters are portrayed as pretty dumb. The perfect example is how Greyjoy treats the woman on the ship. He’s such a jerk to her and it doesn’t seem to occur to her to expect better. It’s unfortunate.

      I’m indifferent to gratuitous violence, that’s a totally different topic.

      Thanks for your comment!

      • http://www.facebook.com/Balhatain Brian Sherwin

        The women on the ship was the captains daughter… she was not a sex worker. She makes it clear that her father would frown on her behavior. Scenes like that reveal Greyjoy’s character… he has some good qualities — and some really, really bad qualities.

  • Jonas

    The thing you must understand, is that the show is trying to faithfully follow the novels, and for the most part it has succeeded. Almost all of these scenes you list out, or the uses of these characters, are exactly true to their depictions in the books by George R. R. Martin. It seems unfair thus to criticize a tv show as such, as if it was changed in a manner such as this, it would garner criticism for no longer staying true to the books. If you wish to criticize the books, read through them again and look for the major themes in the story, and know that it is still far from over, and that many of these women, such as Caitlyn, Sansa, the Red priestess, and even the wildling woman who seems to have sex with every one in Stark castle. have larger roles to play still. Also, I’m not sure if you’ve read the novels or not, but if you haven’t, have faith, for there are other women introduced later, with less sex based roles, and all the positive and also negative repercussions that this brings. The sword maid of Tarth is such an example of a woman in a non-sexual role, though she is also somewhat mocked throughout the novels for her looks. Either way, I must say she is one of my favourite characters in the series for what morals and themes she helps bring into the story, honour, trust, loyalty, etc. Hopefully I have helped give some other views on the show and novels, and though the sex is currently a large part of the story, and always will somewhat be, I feel that it was not the intent of the author to shed a negative light on women, and as such the show following his story should not be punished for it.

    • allisonmcneely

      Thanks for your comment, Jonas.

      I haven’t read the books yet, and this is something that I know I need to remedy. But I’ve actually been holding off because I am enjoying the show, and I’d like to see how it all pans out.

      That being said, even if it was never the intention of the author to depict women in a purely sexual fashion, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t so. The women on this show currently aren’t getting much of a break.

      However, since this post has written, I definitely feel that many of the male characters have been cut down to size, furthering the idea that basically everyone is screwed unless they’re a lord (an idea put forward by friend, Colin, in a comment below).

      Game of Thrones is still one of my favourite shows on TV. I’d just like to see some women I can really root for, and a little less exploitation. I’ve seen enough breasts on this show to last me for awhile.

  • Guest

    I agree the show is kind of weak on the female characterization and the constant parade of breasts onscreen is getting ridiculous. I mean, it even inspired a hilarious SNL skit. And if any woman objects to this, men immediately respond with, “It’s being realistic! That’s the way it was!” Really? ALL sex was violent, loveless, degrading, or involved incest or prostitutes? Men often kept their clothes on during sex lest any male body parts be seen while the women were totally naked? (And occasionally laying on top of giant strategy maps.) When one woman pointed out on IMDB that it was unrealistic that the wildling woman had no body hair during her nude scene, an avalanche of men responded frantically trying to justify it.

    Then there’s the explanation that sex scenes reveal character. So, in order to reveal Littlefinger’s character they had two women engaged in borderline pornographic lesbian sex when the result was that I could not hear what Littlefinger was saying over the moaning noises. Also, given the many events of the story, all the sex is stealing time from things I would have liked to see – for instance, in the last episode of Season One a pointless scene with a prostitute was slotted in while the dramatic capture of the Kingslayer was reduced to hm being dumped on the ground already tied up.

    How about we call a spade a spade and admit this is a tv show that is influenced by medieval Europe but that takes place in a fictional world and is intended for entertainment, and the writers need to tone down the incredible amount of gratuitous nudity and change their approach to the female characters and the sex somewhat for the sake of the story.

    • allisonmcneely

      Thanks for your comment! I agree with many of your assessments of the show. Listening to people try to justify some of the more gratuitous sex in terms of plot development is kind of lame. I personally have no problem with sex scenes, I just need them to do something other than shock and horrify me. Fortunately, it seems as though they have stepped away from some of the worst of it that occurred earlier this season. We’re seeing Arya, Catelyn, Khaleesi and Sansa do a lot more than they did before. It’s slowly getting better.

  • Johndoe

    Some points you are missing.

    1) This isn’t the modern era, women don’t have equality… They are things to be bought and sold, so that the men may gain power.

    2) During the mid-evil time of our own history, when an female who wasn’t royalty, stepped out of line, they often were beaten back into line.

    3) Women who controlled sex during this time, either found that their husbands turned to prostitutes or raped their wives. (many religions of the time saw it as the woman’s job to give herself to her husband)

    4) Most of these men are a inch from death in every episode. Fact is that people when faced with such facts as death, will turn to distractions. I don’t think Tyrian has access to the US library of congress, so to read and distract himself.

    5) Most women of the time, and even some until today. Will try to escape a bad life, by selling themselves to men through sex. They either have no skill, or feel that they have no other redeeming value. (sad I know, but reality is that kind of bitch)

    Bottom line, you can not take today’s morality and views of women, and apply it to a show set in the past where women are currency or traded for currency.

    • allisonmcneely

      Hi John,

      Thanks for your comment. You make a lot of valid points, but I want to reiterate my point about the show being fictitious.

      By definition, it is not set in the past because it is a fantasy show. Yes, the show borrows elements of Medieval history, but Westeros isn’t a real place and I’m quite confident dragons never walked the earth, so we’re working with an alternate universe where the rules can be invented by the creator.

      I have never suggested that everything should be hunky dory for women all the time. Certainly the men have a rough go of it too.

      I was frustrated at the time I wrote this post (which is important because I feel that the show has improved since then) with the way they were handling their female characters. Throw in a couple of sex workers to remind us that women are a commodity, fine, but the maltreatment of women was getting way too much screen time, failed to advance the plot in any meaningful way, and created a situation in which there was less screen time for the more interesting characters.

      This is not the first show produced by HBO in which women have been used more as props than characters. I think it’s unfortunate.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Balhatain Brian Sherwin

    “This is not how “it was.” There is no factual, legitimate reason why all the women of working age have to be dumb sex objects”….. You really need to pick up some history books. Prostitution is, as they say, ‘the oldest profession’. Not every scene involving prostitutes is a scene filled with ‘happy whores’ as some critics have suggested. In fact, the reader / viewer is often spurred to question the behavior of the men regarding how they treat women. Furthermore, women — both in the books and in the show — regularly degrade men. There is a lot of degrading going on… men degrading men, women degrading women… it is a gritty fantasy world — and not too far from the mark of how people tend to treat each other in the ‘real world’.

    • allisonmcneely

      If it’s a fantasy world, as you say, then history is irrelevant. I am generally bored with defending abuse of women in popular culture as a plot device. Be more clever. There are plenty of other ways that the show depicts the weak character of the more evil people (for example, when Theon Greyjoy brutally decapitates his former tutor). The abuse of women on this show is excessive and basically glorified, legitimized smut pornography.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Balhatain Brian Sherwin

    Also, how some of the men in the story treat women is supposed to make us think about — and question — their character. I don’t think anyone (aside from people who need professional help) was rooting for the brat king when he commanded the prostitute to physically harm the other prostitute… the scene was meant to show just how twisted and cruel he is. To be frank, those are not ‘tap it bro!’ moments… they tend to show other sides of key characters — making us think twice about characters, OR further confirm what we already know about their personality.

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