Sexism on Game of Thrones

Yeah, there’s problems. The biggest one of course is how one or more women in each episode take off their tops to manipulate men. Obviously, this cable show is trying to show as much female nudity as it can manage, but really? The problem, aside from just making this a peep show for heterosexual men, is that it inaccurately portrays and degrades women. Fully clothed powerful men defend themselves with swords, women defend themselves by showing their breasts or seducing the men. Yes, both use their wits. But there a major disconnect in who has the power. Even when women say they have the power, like Cersei or Jon Snow’s “girlfriend” beyond the wall, the women do little to change the system. The one birth we’ve seen was unnatural, the dark wispy thing that killed Stannis’s brother, and everything surrounding it were treated as pure evil. The powerful gods are male, the powerful kings are male, it’s all lopsided.

Arya Stark and Brienne (Lady Stake’s knight) are examples of women who operate in a man’s world, both by hiding their gender and embracing an androgynous life, becoming men in order to beat them. Lady Margaery Tyrell,  Red Priestess Melisandre and Shae, all fully feminine, know what kinds of power they want in life and go get it…however, they do so through sex, seduction, and relationships, once again suggesting that showing lots of body parts is the only path to power. Catelyn is quite strong. But she acts to follow her husband’s and son’s wishes, or gives in to emotion and makes politically poor decisions to avenge Bran or retrieve her girls. She’s not a good example of female power. Her sister, locking the doors of the Eyrie in a burst of feminine irrationalism and refusing to participate as she coddles her son (who seems to be growing spoiled and bloodthirsty as Joffrey) is even worse.

Queen Cersei Lannister in season one knows her family is too powerful for the king to offend, as her sousins fill the castle and her father holds the purse strings. She murders to protect her villainous secret, adopts Sansa as someone she can mold, beats Ned Stark, and takes over the kingdom on her husband’s death.

However, in season two, she’s revealed as the queen who can only get drunk and sulk in her bower. Tyrion out-manipulates her every time, Joffrey ignores her as her father likely will, she has no capable spies that match everyone else on the council. And by this point, everyone knows all her dirty little secrets. She’s been beaten. Finally, her mothering of Joffrey, whom she truly loves, has made him vile and dishonorable – she’s failed as a mother, wife, sister, and daughter as well as queen.

Daenerys Targaryen is of course the empowerment girl. I’m disturbed that she starts the series getting raped in a marriage she loathes and fears and then grows to love her husband as she obediently does his bidding, with a touch of her own manipulation. Once again, we have those seduction lessons and bare skin as her path to power. She’s misled by a treacherous witch woman and sacrifices her own child and husband for nothing. However, surrounded by death, she vanishes into the fire and is reborn stronger than ever. She also redefines the title Khaleesi (which basically suggests a useless concubine in the book) to mean queen over the men who have never served a woman, only warriors. She protects her people and fights her enemies, not with a sword, but with the dragonfire of her children…her own path to power. And, having decided she wants the Iron Throne, she’s going to get it, not by marrying a king or sleeping with a lord (as many other heroines on this series would do) but by forging alliances and taking revenge on those who betray her. She’s cruel but just, and she tries to protect the innocent, as Sansa does.

Sansa is the character I’m having trouble understanding. Season one, she was charmed by the handsome prince choosing her above all others, sweet-talking her, and making her the dazzling queen. But, even as she deluded herself, the final episode left her betrayed as Joffrey valued cruelty over sparing her father.

In season two, she hates Joffrey. She (probably) loathes Cersei and has seen that Cersei isn’t really the power behind the throne. Logically, she might be trying to be a powerful queen someday and doing whatever she must to achieve it…but she’s shown no sign that that’s what she wants. And Cersei’s example shows that she won’t really be a power in the kingdom, even as Joffrey’s wife. Marrying the king and poisoning him a day later would be logical. But we haven’t seen her setting that up. The series has established that most characters are “playing the Game of Thrones” and seeking power. Is Sansa? She’s not manipulating people to achieve her own goals, only acting to save others and convince everyone she’s sweet and helpless.

She might be making the best of a bad situation. But that only makes sense if she has no other choice. Offered several opportunities to let strong, somewhat honorable men escort her back to her family, she refuses. Why? Every character has said she’s in danger. She doesn’t appear to being spying as Arya has been – she’s never in important council meetings only the public throne room. If she’s loyal to the Starks, she should try to sneak back to them, but we haven’t even seen her send a covert letter (which admittedly, could condemn her to death). Imagine how Catelyn will feel upon hearing that Sansa keeps refusing to leave, even with offers of safe passage.

The final possibility is that she’s too scared or traumatized to act, even by running away, and possibly make things worse. She’d rather stand around, no longer queen-elect, and let Joffrey abuse her, rather than acting and possibly being executed as her father was. This is psychologically valid, especially with all she’s been through, from losing her family one by one to her humiliations and injuries at Joffrey’s hands. She’s been taught that nice girls do embroidery, lead the women of the castle in hymns, nod and smile at the men, choose their words carefully, bear humiliation proudly. But this pattern of thought will only lead to a worse and worse life as she gives up her own happiness to be mistreated for the delight of others. If she’s going to be anything other than an anti-feminist punching bag that the Lannisters degrade in every episode for her family’s crimes and for being a “nice girl,” she’s gonna have to get mad. Or at least grow up.

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9 Comments

Filed under Game of Thrones, Heroine's Journey, Pop Culture

9 responses to “Sexism on Game of Thrones

  1. I’m the only one of my friends who hasn’t inhaled Game of Thrones on paper or television yet, mostly because by all reports it will make my inner feminist Melusine rear its head and start preaching and ranting to anyone who will listen about patriarchy, The Media, and the sorry state of “strong female characters” in popular fiction. That said, I love good stories and snazzy outfits. Is it worth watching?

    • Your reports are probably right–it will likely provoke all three. There are a few female characters who kick butt. Most don’t and are rather stereotyped. And naked (so much for feminism and outfits both). You could always try a few episodes and decide. But you’ll likely be happier reading The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay or Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s Obsidian Trilogy if you want it really epic and really balanced. I’m watching the show while putting up with this quite major fundamental problem.

  2. julestestard

    I think this article misses the point of games of thrones. The world of games of thrones is utterly sexist, but the story in itself isn’t. It is world where men have the advantage, and women have to struggle for it.

    Women get naked and men don’t: If you think this is such a problem we could ask HBO to add more penises to the series during the sex scenes for the purpose of “equality”, but I don’t see how that would change much to improve the story line.

    Women are portrayed as sex objects : the world in which games of thrones is set is highly patriarchal and sexist, and female degradation is a frequent occurence (prositution, sex for power…) . Not showing in equates to purposefully censure part of the reality of this world and this is something Martin tries explicitly not to do. Westeros is not meant to be a model of a society in which we should live, rather one in which we shouldn’t. This does not mean the series itself it sexist. There are many women who openly defy the system or at least try to pave their way through it. In my eyes, a sexist series would be a show in which women only have minor roles and all they are good for is congratulating men the way cheerleaders do, and where men would get all of the glory and the importance. This is not the case of games of thrones.

    Women do nothing to defy the system : Daenerys and Arya, do find ways survive and defy the order in place in this strongly hostile world. It is said that women do nothing to change the system, but what about these two characters? It is true that no characters but given the context of the world we are in, I don’t see how women could do better than those two to change the order in place.

  3. julestestard

    I think this article misses the point of games of thrones. The world of games of thrones is utterly sexist, but the story in itself isn’t. It is a world where men have the advantage, and women have to struggle for it.

    Women get naked and men don’t: If you think this is such a problem we could ask HBO to add more penises to the series during the sex scenes for the purpose of “equality”, but I don’t see how that would do much to improve the story line.

    Women are portrayed as sex objects : the world in which games of thrones is set is highly patriarchal and sexist, and female degradation is a frequent occurrence (prostitution, sex for power…) . Not showing it equates to purposefully censure part of the reality of this world and this is something Martin tries explicitly not to do. Westeros is not meant to be a model of a society in which we should live, rather one in which we shouldn’t. This does not mean the series itself it sexist. There are many women who openly defy the system or at least try to pave their way through it. In my eyes, a sexist series would be a show in which women only have minor roles and all they are good for is congratulating men the way cheerleaders do, and where men would get all of the glory and the importance. This is not the case of games of thrones.

    Women do nothing to defy the system : Daenerys and Arya, do find ways survive and defy the order in place in this strongly hostile world. It is true that no characters attempt to raise a civil rights movement but given the context of the world we are in, I don’t see how women could do better than those two to change the order in place.

    — this is an edit from the previous comment —

    • I welcome debate. Specifically how these women could do better to change the system (in my opinion of course): Arya may be kicking butt and thus leading by example but she only wants to ditch the whole system–a reasonable choice for her character but not something that will lead to her changing people’s attitudes–she spends book and show hiding away as much as Sansa does. Brienne is in front of everyone, taking hits and changing minds through her very existence. However, Brienne, Yara, Meera, and Arya completely reject their femininity – Arya even dismissively comments that “most girls are stupid” (2.7). Women who spend every moment trying to be men in every way possible–thus declaring that that’s the only path to power–are strong but problematic feminist icons.

      Besides Lady Olenna (who only has two scenes in the five existing books but fares better on the show), Daenerys seems the only strong, independent female enjoying being female, independent, and strong. However, she begins the show as the exploited rape victim who disturbingly grows to love her rapist, is forcibly taken in scenes that are titillating rather than traumatic, and requests sex lessons so she can properly please him. (This is not something “she” can change but something the producers shouldn’t have put in–this one concept makes her far more problematic than she was in the books). What Dany should change: “Here I am – are you afraid of a little girl?” Daenerys shouts in the House of the Undying (2.10). Her favorite phrase in the later books is “I am only a young girl and know nothing of war, but…” Granted, in medieval times, women often pacified and disarmed the patriarchy with such comments, but the khaleesi is establishing herself as a conqueror with an army. Jon Snow, roughly the same age, would never shout, “I’m just a little boy, come and get me!”

      Certainly as my friends insist, “not all shows have to be feminist” (hmm, which suggests it’s all right to portray half the characters as less-than-equal, so I should reconsider that) but the little-seen Lady Olenna (okay, who rocks) and Dany, the amazing female conqueror with some problematic scenes, are the only characters who are strong AND feminine AND dressed AND don’t spend every moment devoted to improving a man’s life or story arc like Ygritte, Sansa, or Catelyn.

      I’m not desperate for more gender diversity in the stripping scenes (though it’s been pointed out that we never see, say, Lancel being stripped like an object for Cersei, only Shae doing it for Tyrion) but the women in power still spend too much time ruling with their emotions and bodies (no, that’s not the only historical path medieval women took) and catering to men.

      • Arya says “most girls are stupid” because she dislikes the way how girls are expected to behave in that world. I don’t see how that is sexist

  4. Pingback: Sexism and racism in Game of Thrones | Around the World in 80 Elephants

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