Sexism in Game of Thrones

October 4, 2013

Let me start: yes, I’m a huge fan of both the books and the show.  I’m not sure there’s anything that would make me stop watching (obviously killing everyone doesn’t stop me!), and consuming the story in both forms has been super awesome in general thus far.  But I wish to make this clear: you can be a fan of something and still want to criticize its problems.

I titled this post with “Game of Thrones” because I’ll be addressing the show specifically, and not really A Song of Ice and Fire.  George R. R. Martin has done a pretty awesome job at including real, diverse women in his books.  They get to narrate their own chapters.  They are not stereotypes.  They get to fight their battles different ways, both stabby and sneaky.  They get to have feelings.  Martin was once asked why he writes women so well, and replied, “you know, I’ve always considered women to be people.”  This man pretty much gets it as much as you can.  Yes, he’s writing in a sexist world, but he doesn’t act like it’s okay, at all.  The only thing I can fault him for is sometimes making his female characters SUPER aware of their own body parts, particularly breasts, but…eh.  He’s a dude.  Maybe he doesn’t know, and I really can’t be like “ahhh how dare you” over something so minor, especially when it’s kind of funny to notice those moments.  Any real injuries women suffer in his books are the result of the world they are in, and not because he’s a sexist jerk.

David Benioff and Ben Weiss, the show’s co-creators probably are.  Or if they’re not, they’re playing sexist jerks quite well with their show’s decision making.

Let’s do this.  Spoiler alert for everything that’s been in the show thus far: if you’ve watched through Season 3 you are safe.

1. Sexposition
Just…seriously.  They made up a word due to the gratuitous nudity in this show.  To summarize: much of the first season had significant plot points discussed while characters (nearly always women, frequently unnamed) were naked and/or simulating sex acts in the background.  The creators of the show have defended the practice, stating that there is plenty of sex in the books, but this is a weak defense that barely gets to the heart of the problem.  [I’ll be using the word “whores” here because it’s what’s used in the show, but I am fully aware that it’s not the preferred term for anyone who does sex work!]  The background whores are rarely given a name, and the one character who is, Ros, is killed horribly in season three simply to show the viewers, again, that Joffrey is awful.  (Also she shares some traits with two other brothel workers who happen to be women of color, but a racism analysis would need a whole post…not today).  Nearly all of these scenes are not, in fact, in the books: sex scenes in the books are between named characters.

This concept not only insults the women characters within the story, but the audience as well.  There is very little sexualized male nudity, contributing to the idea that only straight men watch this show.  It insults the female viewers, and also insults anyone who is trying to pay attention: David Benioff has said he pays less attention to plot when there’s background nudity , so why put it in?  You don’t get a pass for throwing in tons of naked whores by shouting “but there’s sex IN THE BOOKS!”  Women are not decoration in these novels, but the show has allowed them to be.

2. “Yara” Greyjoy
Tiny point, but still: someone on the executive ladder made the decision that Asha Greyjoy, the daughter of Balon Greyjoy and all-around pirate-y killer, needed to be known as “Yara” in the show, because there was already a female character named Osha.  Again, insulting the audience, and again, sexist as hell: we don’t care about the different women enough to remember they have different names.  We can have Robb Stark and Robert Baratheon, Tywin and Tyrion Lannister, Jory (Ned’s man) and Jorah Mormont, but they’re men and therefore important, so we’ll remember them.

3. Talisa Maegyr
(Seriously spoilers here, don’t read if you haven’t watched all of Season 3)
Robb’s wife in the show is different enough a character from his wife in the books that they needed to rename her.  Jeyne Westerling is her name in the books, and she’s barely seen; young girl, very minor noble family, nice enough.  The show decided since everyone LOVES Robb, he deserves a legit love story…?  Anyway, Talisa is a compilation of every terrible “I’m not like other girls!” trope there is.  She’s a nurse, and scolds Robb the first time they meet for causing pain and suffering, because she’s…sassy?  (For those of you paying attention, Robb is a king who could easily have her killed.)  She talks about coming from Volantis, a slave-holding nation, and magically managed to arrive in Westeros to treat battlefield victims, despite giving no clear way to have traveled on her own.  Traveling on your own as a woman is deadly in this world, and acting like Talisa’s so awesome she got here safely is some super bullshit.  Also if there are slaves in your home country clearly there’s some stuff you can fix there.   She becomes pregnant with Robb’s child, and then is one of the first killed in the Red Wedding by being stabbed in the stomach, right after she says the baby is gonna be “little Ned Stark.”  (Robb’s book wife gets to live through the Red Wedding because book Robb is smart enough to leave her at home when going to meet with the family with which he broke a pretty crucial alliance.  TV Robb is like #yolo.)

The show basically set up this awful stereotype as a support to a male character, got her pregnant, and then killed her terribly in a way that is really sad only because there was almost a baby Ned Stark.  You don’t get to subvert all the carefully crafted world-building and stereotype avoiding Martin did the whole time simply because you decide that a well-liked male character (who isn’t even a POV character in the books) deserves a better love story.

4. Hating on the ladies who don’t fight
This particularly applies to Sansa and Cersei, who are contrasted to their “cooler” siblings Arya and Jaime all. the. time.  Arya’s the best, clearly, and the writers decided to make that obvious by giving her the line “most girls are idiots” in the second season.  She’s clearly much cooler than her sister because she does male things like stabbing people.  Sansa is apparently SUPER LAAAAME in contrast because she tries to not get killed by people who hate her by being super polite and careful and hiding her fear.  She’s 13 years old and was sheltered and groomed to be a nobleman’s wife, but because she’s not stabbing people in the neck like her cooler little sister, she sucks.  This one’s partially on the show’s fandom, but it’s interesting that the book fans don’t show this opinion nearly as much.

Cersei and Jaime, on the other hand (heh-heh, hand, sorry Jaimes), are contrasted in that “ugh I hate Cersei she’s evil and ewww she had kids with her brother” while Jaime is **sooo cOmpLIcATeD** or something.  Remember those incest kids?  Jaime helped.  Also Jaime pushed Bran out a window, remember?  But Jaime gets his (honestly totally amazing) detailed speech to Brienne on how he killed the Mad King and arguably saved King’s Landing, while Cersei gets snarky one-liners to Margaery about strangling her and like a thousand scenes of her drinking wine. (Tyrion’s supposed to be the drunk one in this family.) They are equally difficult and complicated characters and the show has portrayed them as “oh poor Jaime” and “let’s all call Cersei a c***.” Just because a Game of Thrones lady doesn’t hold a sharp edge doesn’t mean she’s not worthwhile.

5. Catelyn
Which leads me to Catelyn, of course.  Of all the women in the books thus far, the show has done the most damage to Catelyn.  She’s a POV character, and the show takes that and gives it to Robb.  She had 40-something lines in Season 3, most of which were a ridiculous speech about “if I had only loved Jon Snow all of this would not have happened.” (Robb, a non-POV book character, gets 92 lines.)  The show gives Robb a line about putting her in a “cell” after she releases Jaime in an attempt to save her daughters.  The entirety of the third season is basically Robb being like “Mooom just let me do what I WANT JEEZ” and Catelyn either not talking or brushed to the side as meddling and irrelevant.  Throughout the whole series, she’s basically right all the time: Ned going to King’s Landing is bad, Robb betraying the Freys is bad, a Lannister tried to have Bran killed, chopping off Rickard Karstark’s head is probs a bad call, etc. etc.  She’s powerful without swinging a sword, and once again, the show steals all of that power because she’s annoying their precious and all-mighty Robb.  Her chapters leading up to the Red Wedding are legit like “ROBB GET GUEST RIGHT DO IT” because she knows he screwed up big time.  She is a smart lady who gets how the game is played (much better than her husband did, for the record), and they take that away from her by losing all her narration and motivation and making her this overbearing mother.  Instead of observing her thoughts as we get to in the book, we get to watch her make judgey faces at Talisa and weave a prayer wheel(?) 

I realize a show can’t be a book series, and I will love these books forever, I really hope next season allows women to break out of the three categories of “nameless whore,” “annoying girl,” and “cool chick with sword.”  Martin has made sure none of his women are stereotypes, but the show, at this point, seems dedicated to keeping them running.

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