Confession: I just started watching Game of Thrones at the end of June.
Yes, yes, I know. I’m letting down the whole generation of Millennials who have been trying to make Lannister references at me for years. (And I do mean at me, since even after I announced that I’d been streaming other shows instead, the Lannister references continued to flow in. Maybe they thought they owed it to me – I’m told they always pay their debts.) Nonetheless, I caved this summer, largely because searching for full-time employment leaves a whole lot of free time on either end of perfecting cover letters and resumes.
I’m only on season 3, episode 2, so there will be no spoilers here. Okay, just one: Dumbledore dies. But having spent so much time recently listening to the epic intro music (possibly more epic when played by a New Orleans jazz trio) has given me some time to think. I was told I would love Thrones for its “strong, well-written, complex female characters.”
Now, I’ll admit, the prospect was attractive. Growing, up, I was that kid. I devoured the Lord of the Rings trilogy and for a period could rattle off extended dialogue sequences from the films. I plunged headfirst into series like Terry Brooks’ Shannara series and Christopher Paolini’s Inheritence cycle. In my “younger reader” days I was into Percy Jackson and the Olympians, the His Dark Materials trilogy, and the full sequence of The Dark is Rising. Hey, I never said I wasn’t a dork. But I’m aware of how fantasy novels can (and frequently do) dismiss women into minor roles, plot devices, or non-speaking parts. You’ll never catch me throwing Tolkien under the bus – the man defined my childhood - but let’s take a moment to count up the number of female characters with important speaking roles. I’m at three. And I’m done.
Thrones, on the other hand, smashes through the Bechdel Test on the regular. Catelyn Stark, at least as far in as I am, is running around kicking ass and taking names. Arya is adorable and spunky (in a way that, to any fantasy-reading child of the 1990s who was into Tamora Pierce at the right age, will sound bells of familiarity at every turn). Daenerys has killed a lot of people, albeit with her breasts quite frequently seeming to do a whole lot of the work. These are characters with internal lives, motivations, and specific traits all their own. You could not sub Arya in for Sansa and expect the story to unfold in the same way. Cirsei and Shae’s dialogue can’t be switched.
Would I call Game of Thrones a feminist show? Maybe? Meh?
Would I call Game of Thrones a show directed entirely by men, based on a book series written by a man, with a female-to-male nudity ratio of about one metric fuckton to a naked butt here and there? Absolutely.
(Note: “metric fuckton” not to be used in situations requiring accurate units of measurement.)
While I absolutely appreciate George R.R. Martin’s ability to write women in speaking roles and major parts – which is awesome and let’s never lose sight of the fact that this is also an anomaly - there are also many, many things we should keep in mind before touting Thrones as the pinnacle of feminist television. Among these:
The excessive use of brothels as a plot device.
Let’s think about how so many of the most sympathetic characters use “whoring around” as the most manly and dashing of pastimes. Let’s think about why Tyrian’s entrance to the show waking up in a whorehouse is supposed to be endearing and entertaining, not troubling.
The frequency of rape scenes or almost-rape scenes
Let’s think about how these are tossed in and tossed aside again without really even being discussed. And let’s remember the feelings I’ve already expressed about rape as a plot device - for the link-averse, they’re wildly negative.
The representation of people of color
This is actually the first thing that skeeved me out watching the show. Keep in mind the way the Dothraki are represented, as an interpretation of the “shamanistic, earth-goddess, noble savage” trope linked troublingly to Native Americans. Let’s look at Daxos, the sole black man (at least up to the end of season 2), and the way he’s presented as a liar, a cheat, a womanizer, and manipulative master of fraud. Then let’s look at the way every single major character is white.
Guys, this is the great thing about fantasy. It’s fantasy. You can make your world look like whatever you want it to. You’ve got warlocks reproducing themselves in a magical tower with no doors. You’ve got zombies rising out of the snow and ravens with three eyes carrying messages on scrolls. Surely your imagination can stretch far enough to POC in leading roles.
Strategic presentation of prestige dialects
I’m not claiming to be an expert on this – I’m an English major with an amateur’s interest in sociocultural linguistics. Take my assertions with that very specific grain of salt, but still, let’s talk about linguistic discrimination. The Lannisters are from the southwest. The Starks are from the north. The Baratheons are presumably from King’s Landing in the south. The Targaryens are from Valyria, wherever the deuce that is, but is presumably nowhere close to anything. Despite this geographic disparity, Tyrian, Ned Stark, Joffrey, and Daenerys all speak in the same “standard English” dialect using the same prestige RP accent used so often in high drama even when it doesn’t make sense.
(Side note – I’m not necessarily proud of it, but I watched all three seasons of Showtime’s The Borgias in a month. It’s a historical drama about murder and intrigue in renaissance Italy, and everyone speaks in standard British RP. Why is this a thing?)
On the other hand, anyone not a prominent member of these families almost universally speaks in dialect. Prestige accent gains its prestige from socioeconomic and sociocultural factors – this is why RP is considered “posher” than, say, a northern accent, since political and economic power centers in London. What is this saying about people who don’t speak “proper” or “standard” English? It sounds like reading too much into it, until you remember the history of dialect discrimination that is unfortunately not really history.
Oh yeah, that nudity thing
There’s a reason no one watches Game of Thrones with their parents or relatives without squirming. It’s not the violence or the language. It’s those completely gratuitous scenes of female nudity in order to appeal to HBO’s target demographic. It keeps nicely in step with fantasy, sci-fi, and nerd culture generally’s long-standing tradition of presenting fully-clothed armed men wielding swords alongside women in push-up bras and underwear. I mean, I’m not here to bash Wonder Woman’s status as feminist icon, but let’s look at a side-by-side of her with Batman and Superman. That’s all.
It’s true: the male gaze is a thing. And, to clarify a point and to stop the thundering onrush of #notallmen I sense cresting the horizon, let’s talk about that for a second. A large percentage of people in the world are sexually attracted to one or more genders. (Naturally, not all, as asexuality is a thing that exists.) Which is fantastic. And some people are very pretty to look at, which can be enjoyable. Guys, I have watched nearly the entire filmography of Tom Hiddleston partly because he’s a splendid actor, partly because I have eyes and am a straight woman who finds him beautiful. I’m not saying that we should all close our eyes and lock ourselves in chastity closets. (What is a chastity closet? Don’t ask me.) What I am saying is that when a show chooses to represent its characters in a way meant to appeal to its viewers’ sexuality, and it does so in a way that disregards the sexuality of approximately 50% of the population by only representing women in sexually charged and vulnerable positions, something is off.
Am I saying that Game of Thrones would be a more feminist endeavor if there were more dick shots? I might be. I won’t deny it might help.
As with most media analysis, the important thing here isn’t to decide once and for all whether Game of Thrones should be used in Women’s Studies 101 classes as a classic example of feminist media. We need to appreciate the time spent developing the personalities of female characters – and, for the sake of the old gods and the new, giving them speaking roles for a charming change - while at the same time looking critically at our favorite media outlets and insisting that they do better. Without media analysis and critical lenses, we’ll be relying on blind trust that people will do the right thing. Which as Ned Stark used to be able to attest to, never works well.
Sorry. I said no spoilers. Well, that’s the internet for you, then.