So You Want to Live in Westeros (Not If You’re A Girl)
The second season of Game of Thrones is over and it was wonderful and I was riveted, and a year is too long to have it off my TV, etc, etc, but there’s one thing about it that’s kind of weird. And the weird thing is that, even though the show has a lot of interesting, awesome, strong female characters, I find myself unprepared to give it full marks for feminism or to hold it up as an example of how to do right by women. And I feel a little bit confused when other people do that. Here are some reasons why.
ONE: The women never talk to each other.
For all of the female characters on screen, Game of Thrones passes the Bechdel Test so rarely that it’s jarring when it does. For example, there’s a scene in “The Ghost of Herranhal” where Brienne (above) talks to Catelyn Stark about how she wants to serve Catelyn Stark as a knight. It’s a really good scene because it shows us a lot about who both of these characters are, but I did a double-take when I saw it because it reminded me of how seldom any of the women speak to each other except to say hi. There’s another conversation between Cersei Lannister, Sansa Stark and mysterious hooker handmaiden Shae in the penultimate episode of season two, but otherwise it’s very difficult to find a conversation between two or more women that isn’t about a man. And it’s not at all difficult to find conversations between men that aren’t about women. For the most part, women don’t even interact with each other, because they’re marooned in separate story lines with men. Those story lines are interesting, and the women have good conversations with the men they’re marooned with, but I’m finding it strange that this happens.
Examples of conversations that don’t count (because I’m being a real hardass about this Bechdel stuff):
- Any of the times Sansa talked to someone about how she was going to marry Joffrey, because Joffrey is a dude, and Sansa was only important because of how she related to a dude.
- Any of the times Daenerys talked to someone about Kahl Drogo, their prophesied son, or Drogo’s persistent vegetative state, for the same reason. People like to cite her conversation with the witch who effectively killed Drogo a the end of season one as an example of a pass, but the only thing they’re really talking about is how they feel about Drogo and whether or not what happened to him was right.
- When Cersei and Catelyn or Catelyn and her sister talk about their husbands and/or Tyrion Lannister.
Examples of conversations that do count:
- Daenerys talking to other women about dragons and Dothraki culture.
- Sansa talking to Shae about what an awful handmaiden Shae is.
- Cersei talking to Shae and Sansa about Shae’s origin story and what it means to be a ruler.
- Cersei talking to Sansa about her period (seriously).
- Brienne talking to Catelyn about how she wants to be a knight.
For the sake of contrast, here are some examples of conversations that male characters have had with each other, that are not about women:
- Ned Stark talking to his sons about honour and justice.
- Tyrion Lannister talking to Jon Snow about identity, being a bastard, being a dwarf and how to respond to the way people treat you.
- Jon Snow talking to the other guys on the wall about brotherhood and duty.
- Robert Baratheon, Ned Stark, Jaime Lannister and other random dudes trading war stories and talking about how things have changed for them since they killed the mad king.
- Petyr Bailish and Varys talking about being a eunuch, social politics and their personal back stories.
- Varys talking to Tyrion Lannister about politics and strategy.
- Tyrion Lannister talking to Joffrey about what a shitty king Joffrey is.
- Stannis Baratheon talking to the guy with no fingers about how that guy lost his fingers.
- Robb Stark and Theon Greyjoy talking about Theon’s loyalty to the Stark family and how he is their honorary brother.
- Jaime Lannister and Ned Stark talking about how Jaime became the Kingslayer, and whether his actions were moral.
- Tyrion Lannister and Bronn talking about how Bronn is a sellsword who will sell his sword to Tyrion and/or how they are best friends.
- Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark talking about how Robert wants Ned to be the King’s Hand and look after his affairs in King’s Landing.
- Theon Greyjoy and his father talking about how Theon’s father rejected him and sent him to live with the Starks.
- A MILLION MILLION OTHER EXAMPLES LIKE THIS.
The women hardly talk to each other at all, partly because they have less opportunity to, and, when they do talk, it’s hard to find a conversation that isn’t mostly about what’s going on with a dude. Can you still tell a good story that way? Yes. But I’m just saying, isn’t it weird that this pattern still exists in a show with so many female characters?
TWO: An imbalance in frontal nudity.
I have seen Tonks naked. In fact, I have seen a great many women on this show naked, because frontal nudity seems to be a shortcut for SRS GRITTY TV SHOW. What bothers me is that, although the men completely outnumber the women on this show, I can’t think of any of them who took off all their clothes in front of the camera except for Hodor (who is mentally challenged and forgot to get dressed when he climbed out of the river) and maybe, arguably Maester Pycelle who is very old and wore kind of a see-through nightgown. Neither of those instances was supposed to be sexy. On the other hand, there are goddamn boobs on my screen all the time, and it’s almost always in a sexual context. I’m somewhat forced to conclude that the imbalance is because someone is thinking that a straight male audience will like to see lots of naked girls but that it would be weird and gay to show a bunch of naked guys (er… there was this one weird gay scene where the two gay characters shaved each other, but I don’t think it involved frontal nudity). In other words: objectification of women.
THREE: Women use seduction as their go-to strategy.
This is another SRS GRITTY TV SHOW thing where we’re supposed to find it empowering that women are using their sexuality to get ahead, but it’s just kind of lame. The worst example of this is when Osha (played by Tonks, see item 2) seduces Theon Greyjoy – who is gross and horrible and tried to molest her in season one – for absolutely no reason. I have no idea how or if that’s portrayed in the books, but in the TV show, she just takes off all her clothes and has sex with him and we don’t see that that actually gets her anything she wouldn’t have had otherwise. It’s just like, “Osha’s doin’ somethin’ sneaky, so sex must be part of the plan somehow!” There are other SRS GRITTY moments like when Cersei Lannister gets drunk and tells Sansa that a woman’s best weapon is between her legs and she (Cersei) wants to seduce Stannis Baratheon so he won’t kill her when he sacks the city. Speaking of which, there’s another scene that I know was not in the books – because everyone went nuts when it happened on TV – where Melisandre, the red witch, does basically the exact same thing as Osha and takes off all her clothes and has sex with Stannis all of a sudden.
There’s a nice conversation in season two where Daenerys Targaryen says that it’s insulting for people in the city of Quarth to assume that she would sleep with them in order to get what she wants, but in season one, her main strategy to deal with her awful rapist husband is to learn how to fuck him better by practicing on a girl. Just like item #2, I have a hard time not believing that this is a case of female characters doing what a male audience (supposedly) wants them to do. There’s no critical commentary about this in the show – like, oh, look what a horrible society this is where women have been made to feel somehow that their bodies are the only thing of value about them – it just is.
FOUR: Hookers and Sexposition.
“Sexposition,” as the internet calls it, is a strategy Game of Thrones uses to make it less boring when we have to hear long conversations full of exposition. There are other – sometimes brilliant – strategies the show uses to make these scenes more interesting including a scene were Tywin Lannister cleans a deer carcass in the foreground the whole time (a scene I had to watch with my hand in front of my eyes), and a scene were we’re worried the whole time that Petyr Baelish is going to notice Arya Stark and blow her cover. There are other strategies, but one of the most common is to stick a hooker in the room and have her item 2 or 3.
I mentioned this way back when I watched the first episode and it continues to be a motif. It bothers me because, again, I think it is being used as a shortcut to show that this is a SRS GRITTY TV SHOW, and not because the writers have anything interesting or insightful to say about it. Daenerys was raped by some creepy horse lord in the first season after she was sold into marriage and we’re supposed to believe that theirs was a love so beautiful and transcendent that she can never love again. Tyrion’s first girlfriend was (we are told) a hooker who had been hired to pretend to be a rape victim, and then she was actually raped to prove that she was a hooker and all anyone has to say about that is “Oh.” In season two, a bunch of randoms try to rape Sansa and then later Cersei is like, “I’ve arranged for us to kill ourselves before they storm the castle and rape us” and in the first season, we see the Dothraki soldiers raping, like, every woman they meet because that is part of their culture… and it’s not like the show is saying that this is right but it’s not saying much of anything else about it, either. Like I said after the first episode, I don’t want us to get to a point where we’re desensitized to rape because it’s just randomly on TV all the time being depicted like “Oh well, that’s just something that happens.”
It also comes off like the only insight anyone has about women is “Well, they must worry about getting raped all the time!” which is, I guess, an attempt to be sensitive? It’s not really working, if that’s what it is.
SIX: Women’s power is almost always mitigated or contained.
So, Daenerys is the rightful queen by blood, and she’s the only woman directly vying for the iron throne. She’s part dragon, and she has magic powers. She spends all of season one and two off in the desert by herself where she has no army and no money and no ships to carry her back to the action. She struggles to get anyone to follow her and when they do they all get killed. She never interacts with any of the other major characters – she’s in a completely separate story by herself where she can be as awesome as she likes because (so far) it doesn’t effect anything.
Arya Stark is skilled with a sword and bow, she’s smart, she’s crafty, she’s brave, she has a way of landing on her feet… and she’s, like, twelve and small for her age. A large possum could carry her away.
Melisandre is a witch with seemingly amazing powers and she has randomly decided to align herself with Stannis because she sees in her crystal ball or whatever that he’s going to be king. So she just follows him around and does what he tells her and lets him choke her out at one point because… I don’t even know.
Cersei Lannister is cunning. She comes from the wealthiest, most powerful family in the kingdoms and she has a way of getting what she wants. What she wants is apparently for her stupid, sadistic son to be king and as soon as he is she gets sidelined and blamed for all of his bad decisions. To add insult to injury, her brother, Tyrion, can still act with complete impunity because, for some reason, King Sadist never makes a move against him.
Osha and Ygritte are two really fierce, awesome Wildling women who are totally independent and know how to defend themselves. They spend most of their time on screen as prisoners or slaves.
There are other examples, and also counterexamples of minor female characters who seem to be doing okay, but my point is that there’s a pattern where, if women are good at stuff and have the skills valued within the universe this story takes place in, they have to be neutralized somehow. It’s almost like someone is saying, “Hey, you don’t have to worry. These women are totally under control. They can’t do anything to you without cooperation from men, so chill out.”
I realize that there’s such a thing as having balance in a story and making sure that your characters don’t become omnipotent caricatures who stand outside the story like Neo from The Matrix Trilogy (or… ah… Tyrion, a little bit) but I can think of lots of well-written, balanced shows (like Buffy and the new Battlestar Galactica, for example), where female characters were allowed to be good at things without also being neutralized. On top of that, on this show, there are all kinds of male characters who are allowed to be good at things – to be, as students of literary criticism like to say, potent – as a general rule, even if they sometimes run into obstacles that slow them down. That really leads me to my final point, which is…
SEVEN: You would much rather imagine yourself into this story as a man
I believe that when people engage with stories like this, a certain part of our engagement comes from instinctively imagining where we could fit into the worlds being portrayed – that’s why people who like Harry Potter want to know which house they would be in, and people who like Lord of the Rings have opinions about whether they would rather be an elf or a wizard or whatever. If you imagine yourself into Game of Thrones as a man, your choices are a lot more awesome.
As an example, let’s look at Brienne of Tarth (super cool lady knight, above). Brienne is super earnestly invested in honour and vows and serving nobility. She’s also really skilled with a sword, and she’s huge! And it’s a plot point that she’s ugly, and no man wants her and everyone laughs at her, and no one – except for a couple of other characters who are Good and Kind, because of this – will give her a chance. Her most obvious counterpart is Jaime Lannister, who is equally skilled, though not as honourable, and it’s a plot point that he’s very handsome and charming and he has lots of money and even his enemies respect him, in a certain way, for being so capable. So, he gets to be a master swordsman AND handsome AND respected AND rich, and she gets to be a master swordsman and ugly and shunned and ridiculed. I know which one I would rather be!
At this point, if you watch the show, you’re saying, “Katherine, times are tough all over Westeros. Jaime spent season two tied to a post! There’s no one in this story you would want to be!” and you would be right. There’s no one in this story you would really want to be, and times are tough all over, and most of the characters seem destined for a violent end. But, if we correct for that, I still think you get to fantasize yourself into more awesome lives if you’re a dude.
And, at this point, if you’re anything like the nine million people who steadfastly defend this show on the internet, you say “But this is supposed to be like the middle ages, and in the middle ages it just sucked ass to be a woman, so if the women weren’t getting punched in the face and raped and sidelined all the time it wouldn’t be realistic.” Because it is also realistic to fight ice zombies and hatch dragons. I don’t think this is an historical documentary, guys.
The sexism and misogyny inherent in the society depicted in Game of Thrones, and the fact that women are routinely treated badly there, is presented as something that just is. Just as winter leads to cold (and zombies), so too does being a woman lead to having a shitty life – unfortunate but true. Rather than exploring that dynamic, or criticizing it, I feel like the show is congratulating itself for unflinchingly presenting us with a Harsh Reality that it then exploits for the enjoyment of its imagined (non-female) audience, and that feels kind of cheap. Like on Oz, back when HBO was first discovering how crazy it could be, and the first few seasons were a brutal and unflinching but also thoughtful portrayal of life in a maximum security penitentiary, designed to criticize the US prison system and the last few seasons were The Super Gross-Out Everyone Rapes and Stabs Everyone Hour. Game of Thrones needs to be more like early Oz and less like late Oz. It needs for its SRS GRITTY elements – especially as they pertain to women’s bodies – to have a point beyond proving how hard core it is. And if they’re going to portray my people as being systematically disempowered, they need to be critical enough to acknowledge that that’s not because it’s an immutable law that women are always on the B-team.
Believe it or not, Game of Thrones is my favourite current show. I think it’s amazing. It’s very well-made. So far, it’s one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, and I’m super excited to watch it whenever it’s on. But, like most shows on TV, it’s still hampered by semi-unconscious sexism, and the semi-unconscious sexism doesn’t just go away because everything else is awesome. I’m willing to grade on a curve and call this a good show anyway – if I didn’t grade on a curve, there wouldn’t be a lot I could watch – but let’s not pretend that this is an example of amazingly feminist story-telling just because we like the female characters.