Sep 8, 2011
Do girls who kick ass outweigh fake lesbianism and whoring? 5 thoughts on “Game of Thrones”
Last month we got HBO, which meant I could finally watch Game of Thrones, a show that I’ve been dying to see ever since I saw the first promos for it. The first season wrapped up back in June in the U.S., so I’m a few months behind, but I loved watching the episodes in big batches all at once. I haven’t read the novels, though I admit I did go and read the Wikipedia entries on several of the characters so that I’d know what happens to them later on in the book series. That said, my commentary here is based solely on the HBO television series; I don’t know how the series differs from the books, and I’m not commenting on the books themselves.
Here are my thoughts (many many spoilers for the TV series!):
From the first episode, whores and whoring and brothels were tossed around so easily and thoughtlessly that yes, I was pretty uncomfortable about it. For one thing, I was uncomfortable with the vast amount of female nudity because even though men are sometimes naked or nearly naked on the series, the majority of nudity is female nudity presented as something to bought and paid for.1 The women who are most often depicted naked are whores or teenage girls being married off for a man’s profit (specifically, Daenerys). The few times a man is shown naked (I think I counted twice, and both times I cringed), he is depicted in the act of sex with a woman, and he is depicted as physically dominant.
This, combined with the fact that the people of Westeros constantly denigrate women2, did not make me happy. I was on the verge of dismissing Game of Thrones as another sexist throwback to traditional male-dominated fantasy when the last couple of episodes changed my mind. Specifically, one scene between Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) and his paid companion, Shae (Sibel Kekilli), did a lot to show me that the producers of Game of Thrones are aware of this issue.
In that scene, Tyrion explains how his first sexual experience was with a woman he rescued from being raped. He says he learned later that he was set up by his brother, and the woman was actually a hired prostitute. But Shae tells him pertly that he was naive to think that any woman would want to fall into bed with a man right after she was raped. I loved that moment. It finally showed that prostitutes are not always only victims, but can also be manipulating the men who hire them.
2. Fake Lesbianism
There was one more scene with prostitutes, this time Ros (Esme Bianco) and another woman, that I think was also included to demonstrate that whores are putting on a show for gullible men. However, the fact that the scene involved brothel owner Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) explaining to Ros and the other whore how to have fake lesbian sex was an eye-rolling misstep.
Basically: This has been done before, folks. I’m really tired of fake lesbianism. I’m tired of it even when whores are practicing it for their boss, who clearly knows they’re being fake and is telling them how to fake out their clients. I didn’t like it when Daenerys’s handmaiden “practiced” sexual techniques on Daenerys to teach her how to please her husband, either. That is such a tired trick, and all it does is prove to me that the show is still clearly written with an eye toward titillating the straight male viewer.3
There are gay male relationships in the series, between Renly Baratheon (King Robert’s younger brother) and Loras Tyrell. It’s a secret, but it’s a relationship between two people, neither of whom is paid to perform. Limiting lesbian relationships to false, paid ones is a cheap way to include sexy thrills without giving female characters full ownership of their sexuality. If gay men exist in the world of Game of Thrones, gay women exist, too. I for one would like to see it.
3. Girls Who Kick Ass
Undoubtedly, my favorite characters on the show are Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and Arya Stark (Maisie Williams). Both are teen girls at the start of the series, and I think that’s symbolic of the fact that the world of Game of Thrones is on the verge of change, and those who will make that change happen are young.
I do think some aspects of Daenerys’s story line were handled poorly. I don’t think it’s realistic for a girl who is raped by her husband to suddenly decide that she must seduce him and love him (after that fake lesbian scene with her maid, of course). It’s my understanding that the portrayal of her husband, Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), is somewhat different in the book, and perhaps he is gentler and does not actually rape her on their wedding night? However, in the TV series, she is weeping — weeping — the first time they have sex, and that is the image that stayed with me even when she started calling him “my sun and stars.” I just did not find their relationship to be realistic.
However, I’ll get over it because of those dragon eggs Daenerys helped to hatch, and the fact that now she is powerful (albeit still often naked). Hopefully she won’t be raped ever again in the series.
As for Arya, I just love her. I want more of her in all episodes! Her forthrightness and disdain for taking on the traditional female role her parents see for her are all marks in her favor. I hope she survives and joins up with Daenerys and kicks a lot of ass. (Obviously, as you can tell, I haven’t read the books!)
4. People of Color
One thing I think Game of Thrones really dropped the ball on is the representation of people of color. Khal Drogo and his Dothraki nomads are so, so stereotypically barbaric. It is so disappointing. Ugh. The fact that Drogo was mostly naked the whole time didn’t help, because his nakedness was clearly meant to illustrate how barbarian he was. Tattoos! Eyeliner! Grunting language! I’m just going to avert my eyes from this aspect of the series because I don’t have the energy to deal with it, and I hope the producers improve in the future.
5. Why watch a series with so many problems?
This is the question, isn’t it.4 I really enjoyed the first season despite these issues, and partly I enjoyed the series because it invited me (strongly!) to think about these issues. I am hopeful that the producers are aware of these critiques (I know that many critics/bloggers have voiced them across the internet), though I’m not sure that they’ll change what they do in subsequent seasons. Television thrives on titillation, especially on pay cable channels like HBO, where sex, nudity and violence have a fine, long tradition of winning Emmys and getting buzz.5
I think I also watched because, frankly, there wasn’t a lot of good TV on in the summer. And the storytelling in Game of Thrones is pretty darn gripping — more gripping than most television I’ve watched in recent memory. As I noted, I do find kernels of hope for future seasons — in that scene with Shae, and in Daenerys and Arya. (I don’t know if there’s much hope for the Dothraki.) And I do like several other characters very much: Jon Snow (hero!), Tyrion Lannister (antihero!), even Cersei (played by the inimitable Lena Headey), who despite her incestuous creepiness is one powerful and driven lady.
So, I guess I’m on board for season 2. The show has its share of problems, but I want to see what happens when winter finally freaking comes. (It better come in season 2!)
Edited 9/9/11 to add: Some of the comments below deal with rape, and specifically what constitutes rape. I know that I inadvertently invited this by discussing rape in this post and questioning whether the book’s depictions of sex are the same as the ones in the TV show. (What can I say but I’ve never blogged about this subject before and I should have known better. I will in the future.) While I think this subject is relevant in critiquing the TV series, it is a subject that is fraught with many, many tensions, and I do not want this post to devolve into a discussion of what constitutes rape. If you’d like to critique what is represented in the TV show, please go ahead, but I will no longer permit an expansion of that discussion into (1) what happens in the books; (2) rape in real life. I realize this is a fine line to draw, but I think it’s a necessary one to maintain. If you don’t get what I mean, please just err on the side of caution. Many women have experienced sexual abuse and I don’t want them to feel attacked or forced to defend themselves in this discussion, which I’ve found very interesting, and I don’t want to shut it down. Thank you for your comments!
Edited 9/12/11 to add: I’ve closed comments as I’ll be offline all day and people seem to be misunderstanding me repeatedly. I’ll blog about the misunderstanding later.
- I am not uncomfortable with female nudity as a general state of being, just as a sales tactic. [↩]
- I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word “whore” used so often [↩]
- That New York Times review from last spring, stating that the sex was clearly included to entice female viewers? Bullshit. None of the sex was sexy — it was all rape and prostitution and incest. What woman is going to yearn to watch that?! [↩]
- And if you want a more in-depth and nuanced discussion of this problem, read Alyssa Rosenberg’s post at Think Progress: “Feminist Media Criticism, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and That Sady Doyle Piece.” [↩]
- See True Blood, Rome, Spartacus, The Tudors, etc. We appear to be in a golden age of pay cable historical/fantasy epics. [↩]